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Posts Tagged ‘Terence Fisher’

Essay on Fisher’s To The Public Danger (1948) by David Cairns

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Here’s another Terence Fisher film worthy of a second look – if you know it at all.

Well, having just discussed the restoration of The Devil Rides Out, up pops another Fisher rarity. In my book length study of Terence Fisher, The Charm of Evil, I devote considerable space to this deeply undervalued film, which was Fisher’s second directorial effort after his debut “curtain raiser,” Colonel Bogey. When I wrote that book, I had to travel to the British Film Institute to see a 35mm print of the film; now, here it is on YouTube, in a very good version, too.

It was posted there by David Cairns, who also wrote an essay on the film for Mubi, which notes in part that “1948 was one of the great years of British film, with Powell & Pressburger, David Lean and others on top form. Terence Fisher, later to make his name at Hammer (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, etc.) was only just beginning his career, but he began it well: soon he would co-direct the gripping Hitchcockian yarn So Long at the Fair (1950), but before that came 40-minute short subject To the Public Danger, a thriller revolving around drunk driving.

As four characters meet in an English roadhouse and begin the kind of inebriate evening people fresh from WWII seemed to take in their strides, recklessness and arrogance leads towards inevitable doom, with the boozing accompanied by bullying, seduction, class prejudice, cowardice, paranoia and a slew of other unattractive qualities. The result is not so much mounting tension as an oppressive, agonizing sense of suffocating anxiety and unpleasantness.

This is the world of writer Patrick Hamilton, specialist in psychological torment (Gaslight), nerve-shredding anxiety (Rope) and alcoholic madness (Hangover Square). Few other writers can abuse their protagonists, and their public, with such merciless cruelty, while displaying at the same time a pained compassion for life’s victims.

To the Public Danger is adapted from a BBC radio play by Hamilton, and abounds in sharply-drawn detail, mostly delivered as dialogue: it must have made a gripping listen, and if the film has a flaw, it’s that nearly every effect is achieved by sound and voice. Still, Fisher serves up some nice nocturnal joyriding, all via rear projection of course, but with some intense low angles from under the steering wheel.

The premise may make the film sound like a Public Information film about highway safety, and it does have a socially redeeming function, but derives its power from the vicious interplay of its quartet of dysfunctional character.

Dermot Walsh is the loathsome Captain Cole, ex-army snob, manic boozer and bully; Susan Shaw is the beautiful blonde with a heart of brass; Barry Letts her milquetoast mark who must locate his backbone amidst the drunken maelstrom; and Roy Plomley the utterly sloshed Reggie, whose main contribution is adding to the general confusion. The script very sharply delineates their varied reactions to an apparent hit-and-run accident during which Shaw was holding the wheel while Walsh, in the driving seat, was lighting a cigarette . . .

Fisher’s style tended to be straightforward, blunt, at times crude, suiting him to Hammer’s penny dreadful approach. While British cinema was supposed to favor restraint and discretion, Fisher dealt with things head-on, however unpleasant. The impressionistic flurries of montage with which he suggests car accidents here, all screaming and flash-cuts and onrushing trees, suggests the savagery that would eventually birth Christopher Lee’s mush-faced Frankenstein creature, looking, as one reviewer wrote, ‘like a road accident.’”

This is another remarkable film that deserves more attention; see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1968) Out Restored at Last!

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

I must admit I missed the initial release of this restoration, but I’m glad I found it now.

The Devil Rides Out, known as The Devil’s Bride in the US, is perhaps Terence Fisher’s last unalloyed masterpiece, and a film whose reputation has grown exponentially over the years since its 1968 release. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, and as Wikipedia notes, “set in London and the south of England in 1929, the story finds Nicholas, Duc de Richleau [Christopher Lee], investigating the strange actions of the son of a friend, Simon Aron [Patrick Mower], who has a house complete with strange markings and a pentagram.

He quickly deduces that Simon is involved with the Occult. Nicholas de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn [Leon Greene, dubbed throughout the film by Patrick Allen] manage to rescue Simon and another young initiate, Tanith [Niké Arrighi], from a devil-worshipping cult. During the rescue they disrupt a ceremony on Salisbury Plain in which the Devil (Baphomet) himself appears.

They escape to the home of Richard and Marie Eaton [Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson], friends of Richleau and Van Ryn, and are followed by the group’s leader, Mocata [Charles Gray, in a career-defining performance], who has a psychic connection to the two initiates. After visiting the house to discuss the matter and an unsuccessful attempt to influence the initiates to return, Mocata forces Richleau and the other occupants to defend themselves through a night of black magic attacks, ending with the conjuring of the angel of death.

Richleau is able to repel the angel, but it kills Tanith instead (as once summoned, it must take a life). His attacks defeated, Mocata kidnaps the Eatons’ daughter Peggy [Rosalyn Landor]. The Duc has Tanith’s spirit possess Peggy’s mother in order to find Mocata, but they are only able to get a single clue, from which Rex realizes that the cultists are at a house he visited earlier.

Simon tries to rescue Peggy on his own, but is recaptured by the cult. The Duc, Richard, and Peggy’s family, also try to rescue her, but they are defeated by Mocata. Suddenly, a powerful force (or Tanith herself) begins ruling Mrs. Eaton and puts a stop to Peggy’s trance.

She then leads Peggy in the recitation of a spell, which kills all of the cultists and transforms their coven room into a church. When the Duc and his companions awaken, then they discover that the spell Peggy was led into casting has reversed time and changed the future in their favor.

Simon and Tanith have survived, while Mocata’s spell to conjure the angel of death has been reflected back on him. Now, he pays the price of loss of life and eternal damnation of his soul for having wrongly summoned the angel of death. Nicholas de Richleau comments that it is God that they must be thankful for.”

I’ve admired this film for a long time, both as one of Hammer’s best works, and one of the most intelligent, but despite the customary brilliance of Fisher’s direction and Arthur Grant’s superb cinematography, by this time, Hammer was struggling with pressing financial concerns, and the quality of the studio’s films was declining precipitously as a result.

There are shots in the film involving special effects that were left unfinished; uneven matte lines in some the miniature sequences; and the film’s climactic sequence, involving the appearance of the Angel of Death, has always been problematic from a strictly visual point of view – indeed, during a close-up of the the Angel’s head, the background behind the shot in simply a blue screen, without any image at all – a clear compromise in the face of time and budgetary constrictions.

Thus I was both pleased and surprised that Hammer would undertake nothing less than the rescue of this film, performing more than 1.5 million — that’s right, million — repairs to the original 35mm negative, by scanning to 4K digital, and then creating a 2K DVD and Blu-ray master of the result. Since the performances throughout the film are absolutely impeccable, it’s only right that the last minute haste of then-contemporary post-production should be corrected.

As one of Fisher’s most deeply felt and personal films – and a profoundly Christian film in every sense of the word, concerned with the continual battle between good and evil in the world, The Devil Rides Out stands as one of the key works of the British cinema in the late 1960s, and still speaks to audiences today. Indeed, just this semester one of my students did a research paper on Terence Fisher, and of all of the director’s works, singled this film out as her favorite. If you haven’t seen it, you should really take a look.

You can see a featurette on the restoration of The Devil Rides Out by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Article – “Turn It Off!” – Sound and Silence in 1960s British Gothic Cinema

Friday, October 31st, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International, on the use of silence in 1960s British horror films.

As I write, “it’s Halloween once again, and as one might suspect, American cable networks are offering a cornucopia of horror films, past and present, though the Universal films of the 1930s and 40s which started the entire horror cycle in America are now missing from most playlists. Val Lewton’s superb RKO gothics got better treatment from Turner Classic Movies, which ran a whole stack of them this year, and the British films produced by Hammer and Amicus in the 1960s were also well represented on the channel, albeit run at two and three in the morning, not exactly peak viewing hours.

The Hammer films, once ‘X’-rated in Britain upon their initial release, now seem like quaint fairy tales, which is what Hammer director Terence Fisher always claimed they were – ‘fairy tales for adults.’ These are films I know well, have seen many times, and have written about on numerous occasions. I no longer watch them all the way through; instead, I dip into them, keying in on certain scenes that I admire, and then switching to another film with much the same purpose in mind.

But as I sampled one Hammer and/or Amicus film in this fashion in the past few days, something hit me more forcefully than it ever has before in this particular subset of films – the use of silence, and a lack of dialogue, is a trait that nearly all of these films share. The most effective of these films operate through the power of the image alone, in concert with the movements of the actors, and the music of Elisabeth Lutyens and James Bernard, the two most accomplished composers who worked on the Hammer and Amicus films.”

You can read the entire essay here – Happy Halloween!

The Black Glove aka Face The Music (1954)

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

The Black Glove is a 1954 British film noir directed by Terence Fisher.

For no particular reason, my mind turns this morning towards this underappreciated, but happily available on DVD thriller, set in London, as a Hammer Films /Robert Lippert UK/US co-production. A jazz trumpeter is involved in a murder mystery, and has to clear himself; the film is distinguished by its tough guy dialogue, excellent location shooting in the heart of London’s Soho district, and superb black and white cinematography by the gifted James Harvey. The lead is Alex Nicol, above right, a nice guy who never achieved super stardom, but whom I had the great pleasure of interviewing, and who told truly fabulous stories about old Hollywood; the woman is Eleanor Summerfield, who also never broke through to “A” level status, but who was a reliable leading lady in hardboiled melodramas in the 1940s and 50s.

The Black Glove, titled Face The Music in the UK, is one a of a group of noirs produced by Hammer Films in England during the 1950s, many of which – like this film – were directed by Terence Fisher, who would go on later in his career to become the foremost Gothic filmmaker of the second half of the 20th century with such films as Horror of Dracula (known simply as Dracula in the UK; 1958), the first Dracula film in Technicolor, with a career-defining performance by Christopher Lee as the title character. The Black Glove is certainly less ambitious than Fisher’s later work for Hammer, but it effectively captures the world-weariness of Post War Europe with such dialogue as “this didn’t look like a safe place to take your mother. In fact, it looked like a place you leave horizontally or not at all.”

All in all, worth a look; another film that seems to have been forgotten in film history.

The Astonished Heart

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for some clips from The Astonished Heart.

Many years ago, I ran off a 16mm print of Terence Fisher’s film of The Astonished Heart, written by and starring Noël Coward, for some friends in my office, and we were all struck by seriousness and intensity of the film, which has, to this day, a rather indifferent reputation. I just saw it again, and although it belongs to a different century, and a different society altogether — so much has changed — the essential veracity of the piece remains intact. I was surprised to discover that the Film Society of Lincoln Center apparently agreed, for they screened the film this past May 11th, 2012 in 35mm format; I’m sorry I missed it.

Here are their program notes, in part: “another adaptation (like Brief Encounter) from the Tonight at 8:30 cycle [of Coward's plays], The Astonished Heart also marked the last time Coward played a leading role on film. Originally, Michael Redgrave was cast as psychiatrist Christian Faber and actually began filming in June, 1949. Coward saw the rushes and wasn’t happy. He decided he should play the part himself and was relieved when he discussed it with Redgrave, who agreed [. . .] Faber is married to Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter) but becomes infatuated with her friend (Margaret Leighton) [The film] is an opportunity to see Coward and his “family”—longtime companion Graham Payn and muse Joyce Carey—playing together one last time. Towards the end of his life, Coward would refer to “poor old Astonished Heart. I should love to see it again, just to see if it really is as bad as they said it was.” And of course, it wasn’t—it just happened to come at a time when, in England, Coward could do nothing right as far as the critics were concerned. On the Continent, it became a cult film . . .” And eventually the film was rediscovered in England, as well, and re-evaluated as being something more than a misfire.

Coward’s leading role in the film, it turns out, was necessitated by the need to pay some back taxes Coward suddenly discovered that he owed; his salary for the leading role of The Astonished Heart would just pay off the amount due. Reports to the contrary, Coward had no artistic quarrel with Redgrave; he just needed the money, right away.  When Redgrave was dismissed, he was paid his salary in full, thus pushing the film over-budget in both time and money. Thus, when shooting recommenced, it was done at a very rapid clip indeed, to keep the film from spiraling financially out of control altogether.

Coward also composed the music for the film, in addition to doing the screenplay, while Terence Fisher, later a star for Hammer Films, supposedly co-directed the film with Anthony (aka Antony) Darnborough, though those who knew Darnborough, who produced the film, said later that this co-direction credit was more “honorary” than anything else. I heartily agree; one can see Fisher’s guiding hand in every frame.

What ultimately distinguishes The Astonished Heart is that it’s a resolutely personal enterprise; even if Coward took over the lead for purely mercenary reasons, his portrayal of the anguished psychiatrist is both unsettling and altogether believable. The music is his, the screenplay is his, the source material is his, and he’s the lead — introduced, incidentally, only about 15 minutes into the brief 85 minute film, which is more than 95% told in flashback. Viewing it again, I can’t seen anyone else playing the role, not even the immensely talented Michael Redgrave; this was Coward’s part alone, one that he created, and understood, and the results are quite extraordinary.

The Astonished Heart is out on Region 2 DVD in an acceptable transfer; you should see it for yourself; it’s quite an impressive piece of work.

Hammer Studios Restores Its Classic Films

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Bray Studios, for many years the home of Hammer Films.

Click on the image above to go to Hammer’s official website.

Hammer Films, arguably the most important studio in the history of Gothic horror films, and home to directors Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, Val Guest and many others, has begun an ambitious plan to bring their many of the classic films in their archive into the Blu-ray era, working in conjunction with Studiocanal and others. As Nancy Tartaglione-Moore reports, “legendary horror studio Hammer has announced a global restoration project for its library of films. In partnership with Studiocanal, Pinewood and other international players, more than 30 films will be revamped in HD for Blu-ray and other new media supports. Hammer’s original U.S. production partners, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros and Paramount, are also participating in the project. The first title to be released is Dracula Prince Of Darkness, which will go out in March in the UK. The studio was founded in 1934 and went on to make such titles as The Plague Of The Zombies, Frankenstein Created Woman, The Witches and The Mummy. Since 2008, it’s been a division of the Exclusive Media Group. After ceasing production in the 1980s, Hammer returned to features in 2010 with Matt Reeves’ adaptation of Swedish hit Let Me In. This year, it will release Daniel Radcliffe-starrer The Woman In Black.”

Excellent news! You can read the entire story by clicking right here.

Don Sharp, Last of the Classic British Gothic Filmmakers

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Don Sharp, director of a series of lavish and tastefully brutal horror films for Hammer Productions in the 1960s, has died at the age of 89. No cause for grief here; Sharp had a long and varied career. He worked with such actors as Deborah Kerr, Vanessa Redgrave, Donald Sutherland and Lee Remick on numerous projects, and was really a jack of all trades in the film business.

Still, as Dave Rattigan points out in the Gather website, “fans of Sharp’s era in British filmmaking, especially Hammer horror afficianados, will rue his passing as one more of the old school sadly dying off, leaving few stalwarts behind. Don Sharp belongs up there with names such as Terence Fisher (Dracula, Prince of Darkness), Freddie Francis (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) and Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass and the Pit) as one of the legends of the British Gothic horror genre.” Fisher, Francis — a dear friend of mine — and Baker are all gone now; if you click on the links above, you’ll see clips from some of their Hammer films.

The poster above is from Kiss of the Vampire, one of Sharp’s most accomplished films; click here, or on the image above  to see a clip from the film itself, which was heavily censored upon its initial release, and still plays in cut form — in some cases — on television to this day.

Terence Fisher

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Christopher Lee as Dracula in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958)

“Do I believe in the supernatural? Oh yes, certainly. I can’t believe, I can’t accept that you die and that’s the end. Physically maybe it is a fact. But there’s something about the mind that’s more than that.”

Terence Fisher is the director who brought the modern horror film to life, with his Hammer Films classics Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), which were simultaneously more faithful to their source material, and also, as the image above aptly demonstrates, far more brutal in their execution.

I am admire Fisher deeply, and consider him, in a way, the John Ford of England, working within the mythos of the British Gothic tradition, in the same way that Ford embraced the American Western. I wrote a book about Fisher a long time back, which remains the only full-length study of his work as a director, now unfortunately out of print: “The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher,” which makes this case in detail.

Fisher took his work as a horror director absolutely seriously; his films depict a deeply Christian struggle between good and evil, in which good inevitably wins, but only after a prolonged and difficult struggle, which is articulated perhaps most fully in his late film The Devil’s Bride (1968).

Here’s more on Fisher, and if you have the time and inclination, you should seek out his major films and view them. He is, without any doubt, the person who brought the horror film back to life after Universal had abandoned the classic monsters in the late 1940s, in an entirely new form.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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