Terence Fisher and Hammer Horror

Terence Fisher (23 February 1904 – 18 June 1980) was a British director and a prominent name in the English gothic cinema. He is most remembered for his work with Hammer films, where he presented gothic horror in full lurid colour. The sexual overtones and explicit horror in his films, whilst pretty tame compared to today’s explicit standards, were unprecedented in his day.

In The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Fisher introduced the subject that would become such a regular aspect in all his later films: the eternal struggle between good and evil. An incorrigible fanatic who is totally obsessed with creating life, Victor Frankenstein (played so brilliantly by Peter Cushing) constructs an artificial man in his laboratory from dead bodies. Initially, the baron’s creation (played by Christopher Lee), despite being heavily powered up by Frankenstein’s electrodes, remains still and lifeless. However, later on in the movie, the baron opens the door to his laboratory to find – in one of Fisher’s most terrifying shots – his apparently dormant creature now fully awake and on its feet. The full horror of Frankenstein’s creation is then shockingly revealed as the monster jerkily rips off its facial bandages to reveal a hideously disfigured face. A classic moment in the history of Hammer horror!

The monster seems to be a horrible reflection of its creator’s own warped character, murdering a blackmailing servant girl and attacking the baron’s fiancée near the climax of the movie. When Baron Frankenstein is sentenced to death for the monster’s crimes, the behavioural link between creator and creation becomes final. In the closing scenes of the movie, when the incarcerated Frankenstein pleads desperately to both a priest and to his erstwhile mentor and friend Paul to save him from the guillotine, we really feel the strength of emotion in that cell, sympathising with both the priest’s and Paul’s unbending resolve to turn a deaf ear to the ravings of both a mad scientist and a cold-blooded killer. Truly, one of the most emotionally intense endings of any Hammer film.

But that wasn’t the end of the baron, for Fisher went on to make four more Frankenstein films which – unlike the Universal movies – featured the mad scientist himself as the continuing character rather than the monster. The baron was at his most evil in the 1969 classic Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, where he blackmails a young couple into assisting him with his fiendish experiments, the cold-bloodedly murders the girl (played by Veronica Carlson) when they attempt to defy him.

Fisher’s next horror masterpiece came in 1958, when he adapted Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel Dracula for the big screen. As with The Curse of Frankenstein, Fisher did a brilliant job here, for the evil Count Dracula (played superbly by Christopher Lee) had never looked so terrifying and nightmarish, with his snarling face, blood-red eyes and razor-sharp fangs. Under Dracula’s hypnotic influence, prim and proper Victorian ladies in diaphanous gowns shed their inhibitions and, letting their usually pinned-up locks fall down freely over their shoulders, writhed in orgasmic paroxysms as they exposed themselves to Dracula’s deadly embrace. Dracula had never looked so awesomely erotic and horrific all at the same time.

Dracula’s arch enemy is a guardian of all things Christian and decent. Dr Van Helsing (played with a slight touch of humour by Peter Cushing) has, in his anti-vampire arsenal, a formidable assortment of weapons – namely wooden stakes and crucifixes, along with pious homilies and a good cognizance of vampire lore (which you feel he could recite in his sleep). In the thrilling climax, Van Helsing confronts Dracula in his castle and chased him up a flight of stairs. Catching up with the count, he wrestles with him desperately in the library. Then, after briefly feigning death as Dracula attempts to throttle him, the vampire hunter manages to pull back the curtain, exposing Dracula to the full force of the sunlight, culminating in the count crumbling into dust with agonized screams, helped along to his demise by Van Helsing holding up some nearby candelabra in the shape of a cross. A tremendously memorable ending to what, for me, was the greatest Dracula film of all time.

Terence Fisher’s other movies for Hammer are as equally enjoyable and memorable as his Frankenstein and Dracula epics: Christopher Lee emerging from the swamp in The Mummy; a demented disciple making cooing noises to a vampire pulling itself from the earth over her coffin in The Brides of Dracula; and the Angel of Death smashing its way through an oaken door in The Devil Rides Out. Such scenes are classic moments in horror movie history that will live forever in the memories of Hammer fans, thanks to the directing genius of one Terence Fisher, who was undoubtedly such a pivotal and consummate figure in the development of the gothic horror genre.