Wednesday, October 27, 2010

TERENCE FISHER'S MASTER CLASS IN HAMMER HORROR: FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED AND THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF




Director Terence Fisher began his 21-year run at Hammer Films in 1952 with a film noir entitled The Last Page, a.k.a. Man Bait. But in 1957 he kicked off a fruitful 17-year stretch by doing nothing less than fleshing out the template for the studio’s greatest financial and artistic successes, which would send them all on an impressive run of lurid yet stately horror films whose budgets were rarely betrayed by their production values. Hammer began life in the mid-30’s, the inspiration of two father-son pairs, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Anthony Hinds. They specialized in under-the-radar low-budget fare that touched on all tones and subject matter, but found their greatest success since the studio’s inception when they released 1955’s science fiction thriller The Quatermass X-periment (known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown). In the wake of a successful sequel, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space), Hammer wisely decided to focus more or less solely on horror and science fiction output. They embarked upon what would ultimately turn out to be a reinvention of the Universal horror film stable, and their first four efforts, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Mummy (1959) were directed by Fisher (and all four starred the venerable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee). Fisher would turn out to be the director whose style and career would become the most closely synonymous with Hammer horror.


Fisher’s somewhat more stately approach to the framing and pacing of his films indeed provided the template to which other directors for Hammer would both adhere and from which they would depart, with varying results from each approach. It’s entirely possible that horror fans of a younger generation than the one I come from might find a movie like Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf entirely too restrained. Seen from the vantage point of 1961’s keepers of morality, the heaving bosoms and generous splashes of blood ensured that this would not the case, of course, at the same time that it kept everyone else glued to the screen. What puts off impatient viewers who are accustomed to the more instant gratification-friendly filmmaking most prevalent in the last 20 years or so is Fisher’s complete sense of control and appreciation of the story’s rather epic perspective, his insistence upon takign the time necessary to tell the story properly. It is, after all, a movie whose ostensible main character, Leon Corledo (Oliver Reed), the recipient of the titular curse, doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour of running time has passed. Fisher’s sure directorial hand conveys more confidence through a single pinky than his contemporaries can muster with both fists, and this confidence serves the storytelling trajectory well. The film begins by recounting the misfortune of a beggar who makes the mistake of intruding on the wedding party of a particularly foul and arrogant marquis. The beggar is tossed into a dungeon, where his sanity slowly slips away after years of imprisonment. The only person who has shown the least sympathy or concern for the beggar’s predicament is the buxom deaf-mute daughter of the marquis’s jailer, but her humanity is soon subjected to the most undeserved of horrors. Assaulted by the marquis after a failed rape, he orders her thrown into the cell with the beggar, who has lost all control over his behavior and his appetites. She is soon raped and impregnated by the animalistic prisoner and, after escaping and murdering the marquis, flees to the forest where she spends the next few months foraging for food and hoping to survive her pregnancy in secrecy.

As suzidoll notes in her thoughtful essay on The Curse of the Werewolf, the movie’s sense of a sprawling, epic narrative is not facilitated some much by splashy budgetary indulgences, but by the depiction of class strata that is fairly typical of British productions. “Issues of class are often part of Hammer’s horror films, either directly in the storyline or subtly through the fates and misfortunes of the characters,” she writes. This is certainly is the case in Curse of the Werewolf, where the poor and unfortunate are made to bear the brunt of the extremities of an aristocracy’s sense of entitlement and sexual rage, thus unleashing forces of evil that end up ravaging the society at large as a result. Indeed, Hammer’s own Plague of the Zombies, which was released five years later, in 1966, nimbly navigates the subject of class-related exploitation in a way that connects it on a line of social horror films from Val Lewton (I Walked with a Zombie) to Wes Craven (The Serpent and the Rainbow).

But in Curse of the Werewolf those class scenarios are infused with the same kind of sexual awareness and symbology that enlivened Hammer’s take on the Dracula legend (also at the hands of Fisher). In just the first phase of this multi-generational tale, the director, working with screenwriter Anthony Hinds, who himself adapted a novel by Guy Endore, lends a ripe, sexualized foundation to this take on the legends of lycanthropy which resonate throughout the film. It is a subtext unfamiliar to the many tales of Larry Talbot’s woes, the ones spun by Universal Studios, of course, but even the most recent incarnation directed by Joe Johnston. Even in those films the werewolf’s anguish has always been entangled with suppressed desire, blood lust and impulses that are at the very least unacceptable, and often hostile to civilized society. But here that traditional subtext, often nearly buried out of sight, is openly discussed, perhaps for the first time in a major genre film. The themes are rather brilliantly woven into the very fabric of the sets (red being both he color of passion and, according to Fisher, the color of fear), the heightened, almost fairy-tale sense of dislocation—this werewolf tale takes place not on the moors, but in early 19th century Spain—and the stirrings of desire that get all tangled up with inexplicable dread. These impulses all find their expression in the impassioned restraint of Fisher’s directorial temper and Arthur Grant’s gorgeous cinematography, itself engorged on the lifeblood of the story and that which is, in the grand Hammer tradition, occasionally spilled or splashed on screen.

The young woman is rescued by a wealthy don of a much more empathetic temperament, but she soon dies in childbirth. However her son, the boy who will grow up to be Oliver Reed, survives and is soon experiencing inexplicable physical compulsions—mysterious patches of hair, an accidental taste of blood which moves from repulsion to sweet attraction and soon to a ravenous thirst— a lycanthrope’s pubescent confusion. He also dreams of running at night and killing like a wolf, and one morning the don discovers the boy in bed, bloodied, soaked with sweat and wounded by the steel ball of a hunter’s rifle. A kindly priest, the kind who often appears in stories like these with a wisdom of the unnatural that always comes in very handy, suggests to the don that the impulses that torment a man who may also be a wolf may be held at bay by the knowledge of being loved, but that the reverse—love’s trampling under the hooves of savage, bestial desire—is also possible. The don rears the boy successfully in a life of familial care until he becomes the grown Leon, who soon finds himself at the mercy of lustful cravings that he doesn’t understand, cravings that have dire consequences for him and the citizens of his village.


Reed is wonderful in the movie—his red-trimmed eyes, in full werewolf mode, spilling tears of anger, frustration and hunger—are seen in terrifying close-up over the movie’s opening credits, an accurate indication of the painful depths which his performance will plumb. And he is well served by Fisher’s fascination with those painful depths. Reed is given room here to create a characterization that collaborates both with the audience’s sympathies and with our desire to luxuriate in the rich palette of horror concocted by Fisher and the Hammer artisans, all in service to their gory vision of a familiar tale. (The movies violence, as I was pleased to discover upon a recent viewing, still has the power to shock.) The Curse of the Werewolf is by no means ashamed of its familiarity, yet the glory of the movie is in its willingness to push not only the boundaries of the violence, but the very tactile sense of the world it depicts into ever more heightened realms that never disengage from its essential emotional undercurrent. The movie never parlays style or shock as simple ends in themselves. In a recent conversation with the Horror Dads on the Movie Morlocks site, I attempted to express why horror moves us, or at least me. “It is essentially a conservative genre-- the order, once disturbed, must be restored--” I said, “that can easily accommodate the most radical, satirical, political and comic of perspectives.” I went on to say that one of the elements best expressed by a great horror film is “the moan of a creature who is slave to his/her baser instincts reaching out for a human connection and destroying, with intent or not, the thing he/she most wants to love.” Though I wasn’t thinking of any movie specifically when I offered these thoughts, The Curse of the Werewolf seems perfectly emblematic of these familiar horror themes executed to near perfection.

By the time he made Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967, Terence Fisher had revisited the well of the vampire twice (1960’s highly-regarded The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling David Peel’s incarnation of the blood-sucker, and 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness which brought Lee’s sophistication back to Bram Stoker’s vampire, this time sans Cushing) and seemed ready to do something different with the Frankenstein formula. He and screenwriter Anthony Hinds delivered a brilliant genre-twisting and gender-bending idea: Frankenstein, still up to his usual existentially inspired hi-jinks, has a body—that of a beautiful young woman—whose skull ends up housing the brain of a wrongly executed man. But the brain is loath to cede its identity, and soon the woman begins a campaign of vengeful murder on those who caused the young man’s fate. There’s some rather neat (for its time) consideration of crossed-gender behavior thrown in the mix as well, and the absence of an actual monster provided exactly the right downbeat note to keep the level of inspiration in Hammer’s now four-film-old series running high.

(The previous entry, The Evil of Frankenstein, was director Freddie Francis' first contribution to the Hammer monster cycle-- he had previously directed Paranoiac (1963) starring Oliver Reed and Nightmare (1964) for the studio. Unfortunately, Evil was largely content to rehash the motif of the monster lumbering through the countryside which, aided not at all by the series’ worst make-up effects, assured that Evil would be generally considered to occupy a spot near the bottom of Hammer’s Frankenstein well. There are those who hold the movie in higher regard than I do, and I must admit that it’s been 20-25 years since I last saw it, a viewing which, if I’m not mistaken, was courtesy of a local Oregon TV station on a Sunday afternoon. So yes, it may be time to take another look at The Evil of Frankenstein, perhaps on a double bill with yet another of Hammer’s lesser achievements, Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, both of which have been languished in a stack of DVDs in my office for some time now.)


Fisher returned for the fourth time to the continuing saga of Dr. Frankenstein in 1969. But something about staging the battle of the sexes within a body at war with itself seemed to have rather unhinged the good doctor. In fact, whereas in previous episodes it was fairly well understood that Cushing’s Frankenstein, as misguided as his methods were, as blind as his God complex may have made him, had intentions that were almost always good, regardless of how much death and destruction were their result. In Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969), Fisher and scenarists Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys waste absolutely no time putting whatever remains of Frankenstein’s altruistic tendencies to their final rest. If it was to be understood that Colin Clive’s obsessions to bring Karloff’s monster to life were put into perspective by the monster’s inability to control the impulses his damaged brain was sending to his stitched-together body, then Clive’s characterization of Frankenstein, even through the first two sequels, at least retains some measure of sympathy due in large part to his own empathy for his creation.

This was true of Cushing’s Frankenstein too, despite the more graphic stylization of the violence perpetuated by the monster, reflected in the violence with which Cushing's Frankenstein had pieced together his creation’s visage. But Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed opens with a memorable sequence that makes audience identification with the titular surgeon unlikely right from the start—Frankenstein, wearing a frightening rubber mask that looks like a Captain Company version of Dustin Hoffman’s old-man makeup in Little Big Man, stalks and decapitates a colleague with a spray of the brightest Technicolor red, then threatens to do the same to a wino who stumbles upon his storefront laboratory. Luckily, the wino ends up only with the victim’s head in his lap—he gets to keep his own—and it’s not long before Dr. Frankenstein has to dump his current project and find other, more shadowy digs.

Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.

Frankenstein eventually checks in and lays low, under an assumed name, at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Hammer stock siren Veronica Carlson), where he berates other medical professionals for their dismissive attitude toward his own experiments conducted in concert with another like-minded surgical maverick, a Dr. George Brandt. He soon discovers that Anna’s boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) is a doctor at the mental asylum where Brandt, gone crazy before he could reveal to Frankenstein the secret of successful brain transplantation, is being caged. Karl is also involved in procuring illegal drugs for Anna’s ailing mother, and Frankenstein uses that information to blackmail the couple into facilitating, and taking part in, the continuation of his shrouded surgical experimentation. It’s soon clear that Frankenstein’s motives go far beyond simple advances of science for the benefit of mankind. This mad doctor truly is drunk on the idea of pursuing success for his own name’s sake, but also in exercising that power in rougher, more salacious and sinister ways. Already acknowledging that murder is but a messy fly on his moral windshield, he also takes time out to assert his dominance over Anna (and Karl) by humiliating her as often as possible and finally, for no reason other than that he can, raping her. (This sequence, now restored to the recent DVD release, was cut from the theatrical prints released in the U.S.) And he eventually forces Karl to help kidnap the dying Dr. Brandt from his cell and transplant Brandt’s brain into yet another body, that of one of the asylum’s directors (Freddie Jones).


Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was, of course, notable for the increased level of violence of its tale, an appeasement to clamoring Hammer fans made possible by the concurrent loosening of content standards both in the U.K. and in the U.S. at the time. (The MPAA had only recently adopted its rating system, which tagged FMBD with an “M”-- suggested for mature audiences—and later re-rated it the perplexing yet somehow equivalent “GP,” while it garnered an “18” certificate in Britain, limiting attendance to those over 18 years of age, the equivalent of an “X” in America.) It was, I’m sure, the first time I’d ever seen a decapitation (implied) on screen before, followed soon after by a generous display of the bloody head. (Most horror fans my age probably witnessed their first full-on separation of head from body courtesy of The Omen in 1976.) Upon seeing it again as an adult, what it seems most notable for now is as another piece of evidence in the case for Terence Fisher as perhaps the genre’s most underrated and under-regarded director. Fisher’s style was lurid as the subject matter demanded—he took advantage of every rich color splashed onto the sets by Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and knew exactly how to maximize the erotic appeal of heaving bosoms traversed by a trickle of blood. But his hand as a director had a measure of stateliness, which is assuredly not a backhanded way of suggesting his camera was static or unresponsive.

He knew, as the well-trained and observant directors of his time all knew, where to place the camera to emphasize the story and the effect that the actor was going after. His films are quickly, expertly paced without being over-edited or stuffed full of tricks meant to distract from the director’s lack of confidence. And Fisher, given that somewhat classic style, was never one to condescend to his material, even when, on occasion, it deserved derision. (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was considered an inauspicious way for such an elegant director to end his career, but you’d never know it from the way he visually signed the film.) Fisher was unafraid of seeming callous and brutal due of the behavior of his characters. Yet he more often carried with on the violation of a cranium by hand drill or surgical saw just under the frame, without plunging the camera headlong into open cavities and gushing wounds, thus freeing the imagination to do its worst while the camera kept its sturdy gaze on the determination of the demented Frankenstein, or on the revulsion of his reluctant assistants. He combined and balanced directorial economy and lightning reflexes with the grand, velvety, bloody flourishes that were the bread and butter of the Hammer film in a way that other directors at the studio could occasionally approach but never truly match.


Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed carries on with the downbeat, nihilistic horrors that were amplified and expanded in Woman, itself yet another instance, like its predecessor, of a Hammer Frankenstein film absent the iconographic lumbering monster so often misidentified by its creator’s name. Freddie Jones, not typically an actor associated with subtlety, is allowed to paint a portrait of exceptional pain as “the creature,” whose brain (that of Dr. Brandt) cannot process or accept the reflection of another man’s body, shaved bald and sporting a ragged stitch to hold his skull cap tight, in his mirror. And neither can Brandt’s wife, to whom he returns one night, unable to reveal himself for fear of her inability to understand what he is telling her about who he is. (He hides behind a silk changing curtain as he speaks to her, and his pessimistic presumption turns out to be agonizingly accurate.) Jones draws us in deep, through his eyes welling with tears, into the tormented state of this doctor, once Frankenstein’s colleague, now a victim of the same arrogance he once perpetuated. This portrait, seething with confusion, rage and newfound empathy for those in his own past whom he subjected to callous experimentation in the name of a greater good, is among the finest in the entirety of the Hammer Films catalogue, a catalogue already not unfamiliar with good actors who choose to rise to the occasion instead of bend down to pat it on the head. It is Brandt’s helpless anger, illuminated by Jones’ heartfelt and committed portrayal, and Fisher’s sensitivity toward the character’s plight, that finally lifts Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, despite its rather clipped finish, above the usual fare and into the realm of the finest treatments and variations of the Frankenstein legend ever filmed.

Other recommended Terence Fisher/Hammer films:

Four-Sided Triangle (1953)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
The Mummy (1959)
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
The Gorgon (1964)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Island of Terror (1966)
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
The Devil Rides Out (1968)

For those whose interest in Hammer goes beyond the films of Terence Fisher, you would do well to keep an eye on TCM’s Movie Morlocks this month, as they are probably not yet finished with a far-ranging overview of Hammer Films to go along with the celebration on TCM. The Morlocks have already featured great pieces by Kimberly Lindbergs on The Devil’s Own (1966), R. Emmet Sweeney on The Damned (1963), Richard Harland Smith on The Brides of Dracula (1960), morlockjeff on The Nanny (1965), keelsetter on Five Million Years to Earth (1967), a.k.a. Quatermass and the Pit and, of course, suzidoll’s superb piece on the aforementioned Curse of the Werewolf (1961). (The Movie Morlocks also have all kinds of terrific pieces on non-Hammer horror available to read during this orange-and-black season as well.)


And it bears yet another reminder that Hammer Films returned to the production of feature films for the big screen this past October with the release of Matt Reeves’ powerful Let Me In, a remake of the beloved Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In that bucked considerable odds to become a honorable, creative and highly effective film in its own right (both were based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel). That it was rejected by American audiences who have been conditioned to respond to more visceral jolts (and might even say nihilistic violence and slasher clich├ęs) than Reeves’ pensive, deliberate, haunted film was willing to deliver says a lot about the direction modern horror probably won’t go as it cycles out of torture porn, as much as the success of Paranormal Activity (1 and 2) says about where it might be headed next. But Let Me In is also, for all of its technical assurance and liberal bloodletting, a movie that, in its sensitivity toward faces and landscapes and deep-seated respect for the genre’s roots as well as its ability to accommodate a multitude of wrinkles and gyrations amid its familiar tropes, seems comfortably located in the grand Hammer tradition. The best of Hammer’s output proved that lurid color, sexualized subtext and an eye toward character development that was allowed its own time in which to emerge were not elements that were contradictory to the possibility of quality, of richness, of purposeful style. Seen in this context, Let Me In proves a honorable addition to the Hammer canon, right alongside great horror films like Curse of the Werewolf and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, evidence that, if box office tallies are not allowed to be the final word, we will be subject to many more brilliant chills to come, a possible renaissance of Hammer style. If that turns out to be where horror is headed (again), we will all have reason to be grateful.

For furthering consideration of the Hammer production company, I happily refer to Watching Hammer.

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Frankenstein Must be Destroyed and The Curse of the Werewolf screen together tonight in beautiful new 35mm prints at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.

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A portion of this piece originally appeared on the blog on October 17, 2007.

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1 comment:

David Edelstein said...

The Cushing-Fisher team is for me up there with... dare I say? Better not. OK. Wayne and Ford. I had forgotten how gorgeous and terrifying Revenge of Frankenstein was until I saw it again recently in HD widescreen. Those Frankensteins were all so downbeat, even Frankenstein Created Women, inspired (I believe) by My Fair Lady the year before. (The chill Frankenstein does what Higgins does, only with a "soul transplant"--there's even a Col. Pickering character.) You're dead on, Dennis, about Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, one of my favorite movies. But I recall an animated conversation with fellow Hammer freak Joe Dante, who found Cushing's total villainy as wrong as swashbuckling heroism in Francis's Evil of Frankenstein. I do miss Cushing's warmer notes, and the addition of the rape scene (cut from American prints until recently) turns him into even more of a predator. But it's not an unprecedented turn. He's a randy murderer in Curse and makes no bones in Revenge about lopping off healthy limbs. I still think FMBD is amazing, with one sequence--the water pipe explosion--positively Hitchcockian. And you are totally right about Freddie Jones. He's brilliantly sympathetic, with parts of the performance evoking Karloff (as well as Christopher Lee's extremely underrated monster in Curse). (By the way, Jones is excellent opposite Cushing in the not-terrible Satanic Rites of Dracula.) Now that you've re-whet my appetite, I'd love to see all five Cushing-Fisher Frankensteins on a big screen back to back. I've never seen Monster from Hell in a theater (the others, yes) and think it's also vastly underrated--like Quills only a lot more interesting thematically. After the new Skull remastering, all I'm waiting for on the Cushing front is a new DVD of Twins of Evil--a very good movie with an amazing performance by Cushing as a not-unsympathetic Puritan witch-hunter. It's his best performance post-Helen (his wife, from whose death he never recovered--and he outlived her by more than 20 years).