Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Zeus of Modern Horror

Terence Fisher
(1904 - 1980)
     For many, the name Terence Fisher will hardly register, but for fans of classic horror and especially the English Gothic horror and fantasy films of the '50s, '60s and '70s he was one of the all-time greats. No less a major British director than Alfred Hitchcock or Carol Reed, Fisher's films breathed new life into the already derivative world of monsters and madmen capitalized upon after the first wave of Universal horror films from the '30s and '40s.

Fisher was the first to do them extensively and exclusively in breathtaking color, and to add a dimension of feminine sensuality and sexiness to the heavily male-dominated proceedings. His films were no exploitation fare, although they were regarded as such by some critics at the time. They were true literary adaptations first and foremost with the utmost respect for character and origin, even if the plot-lines were often completely overhauled. Often wrongly described as a great technician rather than simply a great filmmaker, Fisher's films forever changed the way in which horror was perceived as well as produced.

above: Peter Cushing in Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957); Hammer's first Gothic fantasy film

Synonymous with the name Hammer, the studio that produced most of his greatest works, the last twenty or so films he directed can rightly be described as classics, minor or otherwise. Films like: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Mummy (1959) and The Gorgon (1964), all of them for Hammer and featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, are each perfect examples of how he refreshed and revolutionized an entire genre.

Fisher directing Peter Cushing and
Veronica Carlson in Hammer's
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
Since passing away in 1980, it's hard to believe there was a time when Fisher was not viewed as an important filmmaker, even as the films he once made were being elevated to such lofty heights. Those films didn't just direct themselves. Whether it was a sci-fi or film noir, a film for Gainsborough or Hammer, it didn't matter. Fisher always found a way to seduce his audience into the spell he was casting. My favorite of all his iconic works will always be The Devil Rides Out (1968), an adaptation of the Dennis Wheatley novel, and perhaps the greatest fantasy film about magick and the occult ever devised. 

Fisher directing Christopher Lee
in The Devil Rides Out (1968)
He viewed the horror or Gothic fantasy film as a fairy tale world for adults, where good must always triumph over evil in the end, even if the same evil that gets vanquished somehow returns again in the next sequel. What's truly amazing is the speed and efficiency for which he was known to work, often wrapping up one film in a matter of weeks and then moving on directly to the next; same sets redressed with the same actors and crew. Yet, surprisingly none of his films feel stale or imitative.

It's a testament to the work of a true genius. Today he would have celebrated his 110th birthday. Like the immortal literary and mythological characters he so often returned to, his legacy still lives on. Happy birthday, Mr. Fisher.

 above: Christopher Lee in Fisher's Dracula (1958) aka Horror of Dracula in the US

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