When one lists off the major horror directors (Whale, Romero, Craven,
Cronenberg), it's easy to overlook Terence Fisher. After all, the
man wasn't very outspoken and his contributions to the genre are often
more recognized for the producing studio and the stars, rather than
the force behind the camera. Nevertheless, Terence Fisher almost single-handedly
reformed the British horror picture into a new entity of terror.
Born in London on 23 February 1904. Raised by his grandmother in a
strict Christian Scientist environment, Terence left school while
still in his teens to join the Merchant Marine. By his own account,
he soon discovered that a life at sea was not for him, so he left
the service and tried his hand at various jobs landside. It was during
this time that he discovered the cinema and entered the film industry
' the oldest clapper boy in the business'.
He shifted up the ranks of British cinema with some amount of speed,
going from that first menial job to third assistant director, then
assistant editor, and, inevitably, editor in full. He worked mainly
on Will Hay comedies (like Windbag the Sailor) and low-budget programmers.
The next logical step for the now 43-year-old man was helming his
own film. He took a course in directing at Highbury Studios, and put
his training to work in 1948's Colonel Bogey, a supernatural comedy.
He followed that with a number of different films in different genres.
Fisher has said that, of these early films, he is proudest of To the
Public Danger (a 1948 morality film about alcohol excess).
After Highbury, Fisher moved to Gainsborough where he directed (or
co-directed with Antony Darnborough) four feature films. When Gainsborough
closed in the early 1950s, Fisher became a prolific specialist in
the low-budget support feature that was becoming an increasingly important
aspect of British film production. None of these films, nineteen in
total, were strikingly original but some of them - notably the melodrama
Stolen Face (1952) and the SF drama Four-Sided Triangle (1953) - contained
flashes of talent and ambition. Eleven of these films were made for
Hammer, an up-and-coming independent production company with which
Fisher's future career would become inextricably linked. When Hammer
decided in the mid-1950s to remodel itself as a horror factory, Fisher
became its main director.
His first film in the newly conceived genre was ‘Curse of Frankenstein’
(1957) Hammer's first colour production. Fisher's attachment to it
was purely legal; Hammer contractually owed him another directing
job, and this was what the studio had planned next. What Fisher did
with the film was anything but business - it was brilliance. Although
credit is due to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster for shifting the story
from being creation-centric to a deeper look at the creator, it is
Fisher who did the movie a greater service in what he refused to do.
The Hammer honchos, particularly Sir James Carreras, were keen to
have a film that hewed as closely to James Whale's 1931 classic as
closely as legally possible, but Fisher declined the opportunity to
even watch the older flick. He saw an opportunity for creating something
radical and fresh, and he seized it. Thus was born the legendary Hammer
'The Curse of Frankenstein' was a smash hit, making stars of leading
actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and holding the record (at
that time, and for some time after) for Britain's highest grossing
domestic film. Hammer saw that they had lightning in a bottle, and
over the course of the next five years, Fisher turned out 8 adaptations/remakes,
including 'Dracula' (1958), 'Hound of the Baskervilles' (1959) and
'The Mummy' (1959) (all three with Cushing and Lee). He also filmed
a sequel to Curse (1958's Revenge of Frankenstein) and a follow-up
to Horror (1960's Brides of Dracula).
Given the low budgets involved and the breakneck production schedules,
the quality of these films was inevitably uneven, but some of them,
and especially Dracula, were remarkable achievements, albeit ones
that were not generally feted by critics at the time of their initial
appearance. Some of his later work, in the late 1960’s was excellent,
- 'Frankenstein created woman' (1967) and 'The Devil Rides out' (1968).
Fisher received very little critical attention throughout his career.
Ironically, as that career ended, the publication in 1973 of 'A Heritage
of Horror', David Pirie's book-length study of the British horror
film, led to a re-appraisal of his work. Since that time, Fisher has
come to be seen as a major British film director, especially so far
as his horror films are concerned, and as someone who embodies the
virtues of a popular British genre cinema. Terence Fisher died on
18 June 1980.