Raising The Dead
Terence Fisher -
Master Of Gothic Cinema
The Authorised Biography
by Tony Dalton
Just a very short review now to highlight to you a fairly recent book, Terence Fisher - Master Of Gothic Cinema, written by film historian Tony Dalton. I managed to acquire a signed copy recently from Fab Press and of the few studies of the man out there in the wilderness (if you can find any others still in print), this is the one I trust the most.
Mainly because Dalton was a good friend to Fisher and his wife Morag over the last 8 years of the director’s life and is still, from what I can make out, good friends with their daughter Mickey. So, if anybody is going to know what Terry thought of his own films and his colleagues, then this guy is the one who has heard it all direct from the horses mouth, so to speak. Not that I personally agree with everything he says about some of Fisher’s films, it has to be said. Here are three quick things we disagree on, for the record.
One is I love Four Sided Triangle (which I reviewed here). Two is that I really do find Brides Of Dracula a hard thing to sit through... I just don’t think it’s a great movie. And, yes, even though Terry and the rest of the cast hated it as much (if not more, probably, from the sound of the production history as detailed here) as Dalton himself does... I rather liked Sherlock Holmes And The Deadly Necklace (review written and coming to this blog... at some point in the future).
The book has an unusual structure with regards to the more famous of Fisher’s works but it starts off as one would expect, with Dalton detailing Fisher’s early life. He was born on 23rd February 1904 in Maida Vale, went to study for a Naval career on the HMS Conway school ship, served his time and then did various things, ending up as a prominent window display artist for the Peter Jones department store in London (which perhaps explains why I’ve noticed that a lot of his film compositions tend to gravitate towards the centre of the screen?). He then decided to change career and seriously pursued his intention to work in the film industry, ending up as a clapperboy and editor for Gaumont, then editor for Warner Brothers and doing things for various studios on and off until 1947.
After this he went on a director training programme started up by Rank and, in 1951, directed his first film for Hammer Studios. The rest, of course, is history... starting in 1957 when he directed the hugely successful The Curse Of Frankenstein, followed soon after by Dracula (aka Horror Of Dracula as it is known in the US - reviewed here) and really put Hammer on the map as the British quality name for horror film productions, directing many other movies for them including a lot of their revered terror films.
The writer takes us on a fairly linear route through Fisher’s CV until we get to this huge success and then, unlike what other biographers might do... and I’m not sure I totally appreciate this approach but, it is an interesting way of doing it... the writer starts talking about his remaining Hammer films in themed groups, disregarding the chronology and instead doing chapters on, say, his TV shows, his three Dracula films and the many Frankenstein sequels he did. As he goes along the text is peppered with quotes from Terry pulled from various interviews (including, of course, Dalton’s own) and each film is given a short precis and then a critical evaluation by the writer, including standout moments or scenes he thinks worth highlighting. Then the critics of the time are also given their voice in quotes from reviews, mostly contemporary to the release of each movie... these are often quite negative, it has to be said but, also oddly out of touch, I think, with the fact that many of these films were obviously well liked by the paying public and their popularity at the time meant there were many more made.
The book is certainly an entertaining and, dare I say it, insightful read into both the man behind some of the most famous Hammer Horrors and also, hand in hand, an insight into the general working process and how things were conducted at Hammer at the time. This includes little nuggets of information such as The Gorgon film he directed having the Gorgon named after one of the Furies and not one of the Gorgon sisters at all, for some unknown reason.
It concludes with a brief look at some unrealised projects which Fisher was either considered for or which he turned down at some point (Terence Fisher’s Dune anyone?) including two unrealised Dracula productions... and finishes off with a very touching epilogue dealing with the man’s final days and the various messages of sympathy sent to honour the man and say good bye to him (particularly touching are words by both Peter Cushing and Thorley Walters).
All in all, Terence Fisher - Master Of Gothic Cinema is a very entertaining and informative book which certainly captures a mood or sketch of the man and which I think admirers of both his work and the milieu in which he did it will find extremely interesting. I’m especially glad I read this one because, although I’ve been watching Fisher’s films all my life, he’s not a director I’ve really been aware of as an ‘auteur’ as such... and Dalton makes a very convincing case that he certainly was. Give this one a whirl if you are at all interested in this stuff, would be my advice.