In honor of the late, great Christopher Lee, who made so many wonderful films for Hammer Films in the early years of his stardom, I thought this week I’d talk about my seven favorite films by Hammer’s undisputed go-to director, who made 18 films for the studio in a span of only about 15 years and who would be responsible for the early look and style of their impressive and iconic horror output. That director is Terence Fisher, a name you might not know but whose work you certainly do. He, Roy Ward Baker, and Freddie Francis directed more films for Hammer than anyone and deserve to be remembered far more than they are in the horror conversation.
Fisher directed a lot of Hammer’s prestige films, the ones with recognizable titles or characters, and as such it’s hard to narrow down my favorites, but true to form, with only one exception, they all contain either Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, or both.
7) Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Lee’s second outing as the titular vampire prince, he found the script, and his part specifically, so bland and uninteresting that he requested his lines be removed. As a result, Lee’s Dracula is entirely silent and played only though bloodshot eyes and overall menace. It’s amazing how scary and seductive Lee can be without any dialogue at all. (In later films, Lee would have a lot more to say, befitting his stately grandeur.) The reason I like this movie is it’s one of the first for Fisher to really be able to explore locations and time period. This movie takes place very definitely in a Victorian Winter and the castles and wooded expanses are certainly cold-looking. It also has, in lieu of Dr. Van Helsing, another total badass of a vampire hunter in the form of the gun-toting monk, Father Sandor, played by Scottish actor Andrew Keir.
6) The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
This is the one that started it all; the very first technicolor, Gothic film Hammer produced, and it became their calling card. It’s amazing just how established everything is already in terms of sets and costumes, all of which look amazing. Differing hugely from the Universal Frankenstein films, the protagonist of this version isn’t the creature at all but Dr. Victor Frankenstein himself, played with icy wickedness by Cushing, who is a sadistic villain prepared to let everyone die in order to achieve his dream of creating life. Lee’s first Hammer role is as the silent, heavily-madeup creature, who gets killed early on but then gets brought back a second time. While that version of the Creature is certain intimidating and grotesque, he’s much more pitiable than other onscreen creatures had been. Cushing would go on to play Frankenstein in five more Hammer films, all but one of which were directed by Fisher.
5) Horror of Dracula (1958)
To follow up the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer adapted another beloved horror classic (that they could get the rights to do), in the form of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released in North America as Horror of Dracula. Cushing again appears, this time as the heroic vampire killer Dr. Van Helsing, and Lee returns as well, this time without much face makeup, looking decidedly more dashing, and with lines, as the titular Count Dracula. Both actors give amazing performances, and Fisher’s direction of their final confrontation is amazingly cinematic and done almost entirely without dialogue. While this is perhaps the most iconic of Hammer films, the reason it’s not higher on my list is due to a rather severe truncating of Stoker’s novel, and omitting many important elements and characters, most notably Renfield. It only runs about 78 minutes, which is just too short for how great the movie is otherwise. Still, you can’t argue with a classic.
4) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Of all the adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes story, this one might be my favorite. It brings out the horrific elements of the mystery concerning a cursed family’s last heir and the ghostly dog that haunts him. Cushing gives another utterly brilliant performance, this time as Holmes, and he’s perhaps the first cinematic depiction to be as prickly and arrogant as the Doyle stories suggest. He’s joined by Andre Morrel as Watson, who is a brilliant counterpoint without being a dummy (something that happened all too frequently). Lee portrays Sir Henry Baskerville, the shady and terrified next-in-line for the curse that’s all but destroyed his family. Lee is terrific and this role showed just how versatile an actor he was, and how much of a leading man he could be. Fisher directs it like a straight horror film, but with the wit and charm that Holmes and Watson deserve.
3) The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Hammer made over 20 movies about vampires, a dozen or so about monsters of all shapes and sizes, seven Frankenstein movies, a few mummy flicks, and even a couple about zombies, but they only ever made one werewolf movie. That seems like a strange thing for such a genre factory as Hammer, but when your lone outing is as good as Curse of the Werewolf, why bother trying to do any others. This is the one that stars neither Lee nor Cushing, but it does feature a very young Oliver Reed as a young Spanish boy who was born to a raped gypsy mother and hence cursed with being a lycanthrope. He truly brings the proper angst and turmoil to such a character, and you really feel awful for him having live with such horror in his life. This film is notable for being the only Hammer film (that I can think of) set in Spain, and Fisher makes sure the sets and costumes look demonstrably different to the Olde English and Bavarian settings of the other films. This is also one of the better werewolf transformations of the pre-Rick Baker era, and while the design of the wolf makeup isn’t super groundbreaking, it at least looks more like a canine creature than Universal’s does.
2) The Devil Rides Out (1968)
One of Fisher’s later films (he stopped directing in 1974), this is the only film in which Christopher Lee plays the hero, and the first of their films to deal directly with Old Scratch himself, the Devil. This is one of the better written Hammer films, partly because it has great source material; Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name (the film was called The Devil’s Bride in some markets) was adapted for the screen by none other than I Am Legend author and Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson, who puts in his trademark ironic humor on top of all the weird goings-on. Fisher’s masterful direction here is finally given reign to do optical effects, as evidenced by scenes of Satan appearing in the middle of the frame, and giant tarantulas and ghost things trying to attack people inside a protective magic circle. Lee plays a master of the dark arts who uses his power for good, while Charles Gray (another future Bond villain) plays the film’s true villain. It’s a great movie, well worth your time.
1) The Brides of Dracula (1960)
And my very favorite Terence Fisher movie is the sequel to Horror of Dracula, that doesn’t feature Count Dracula at all. This time, we get a story about a young French girl who, on her way to a boarding school in Bavaria, happens upon a castle where the Baroness has her son locked up in a wing of the manor inaccessible by any door. The French girl ends up finding him and freeing him, little-knowing that he is a vampire and his mother has locked him up to save the neighboring village. Just when the film can’t go anywhere else, it’s hero shows up the form of Cushing’s Van Helsing, now a roaming vampire hunter who continues his destruction of the creatures of the night. This movie is so much better than the original and has almost nothing to do with Stoker’s book, aside from Van Helsing. Perhaps my favorite thing about it is how one of the main girl’s friends gets turned into a “bride” of the Baron, but, because of how the actress looks anyway, it pretty much telegraphs that she’s going to be turned into a vampire. It makes me laugh. But, that’s the only laughable piece of this movie and it offers much more pathos and dramatic tension than most of Hammer. And, did I mention how awesome Peter Cushing is?
These are my favorite Terence Fisher movies, but he also made quite a few more for Hammer, helming adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy, The Phantom of the Opera, Robin Hood, and even one of the rare pirate movies they did. He’s a great director and you should track down as many of his films as you can.