Date of Birth:
23 February 1904, London, England, UK
Date of Death:
18 June 1980, Twickenham, London, England, UK (heart attack)
Terence Fisher was born in Maida Vale, England, in 1904. Raised by his grandmother in a strict Christian Scientist environment, Fisher 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 a succession of jobs ashore. It was during this time that he discovered the cinema, entering the film industry as "the oldest clapper boy in the business." One day, almost as a lark, he applied to J. Arthur Rank Studios to become a film editor. To his astonishment, he was accepted. In 1947, at the age of 43, he made his directorial debut with a supernatural comedy called Colonel Bogey (1948)--a foreshadowing of things to come.
For the next few years he switched between "A"-film assignments (Noël Coward's _The Astonished Heart (1948)_, So Long at the Fair (1950) with Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde and Lost Daughter (1949) with Herbert Lom) and a succession of "B" films, which enabled him to support his wife and daughter. Typical of these programmers are Three Stops to Murder (1953) and Spaceways (1953), efficient but uninspired films that show little in the way of personality.
His break came in 1956 when, at the age of 52, he was asked to helm Hammer Studios' remake of Frankenstein (1931). The result, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), broke box-office records and enraged critics worldwide who were unaccustomed to its plethora of hearty bloodletting. The Eastmancolor shocker set a new standard for horror films and helped to make Fisher, Hammer and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into bankable commodities. With its emphasis on realistic character interplay over melodramatic conventions, the film established Fisher's personal approach to horror, which stood in direct defiance to the old Universal films--in fact, Fisher flatly refused to watch James Whale's 1931 version for fear that it might influence his vision.
More remakes followed. Fisher actively sought to remake Dracula (1931), and the results proved to be both aesthetically and commercially superior to "Curse of Frankenstein". Horror of Dracula (1958) proved to be universally popular and is commonly held as Fisher's--and Hammer's--finest work. It may or may not be, but it does remain the freshest and most vibrant big-screen reworking of the story; even Francis Ford Coppola in his remake failed to recapture its vigor and sense of urgency.
Fisher's subsequent films tended to place less emphasis on shock effects and more on complex emotional interplay. For example, the titular characters of The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and The Phantom of the Opera (1962) are more sympathetic than the so-called "normal" characters, while Fisher's fascinating Freudian take on the Dr. Jekyll story--The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)--offers a homely old Dr. Jekyll who transforms into a virile man about town named Edward Hyde. Similarly, The Gorgon (1964) disappointed schlock fans by offering a haunting story of doomed love in place of the conventional Hammer-style shocker. Following the commercial failure of "Phantom"--Hammer's most expensive film to that point--Fisher was booted out for a brief period. During this time lesser talents like Freddie Francis were entrusted with the franchises that Fisher had helped to establish. Invariably the results were inferior. Despite his hatred for sci-fi, which stood in contrast to his confessed love for horror, Fisher made good work of The Devil Rides Out (1968) precursor The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) (with Dennis Price), while Island of the Burning Damned (1967) (again with Lee and Cushing) benefited from his ability to suggest pent-up passion and paranoia.
Back at Hammer after this brief hiatus, Fisher resurrected Christopher Lee's count in the under-rated, poetic Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) before detailing the further adventures of Baron Frankenstein in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and his last film, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). All three films offer subtle variations on the character of the Baron, played by the impeccable Cushing, thus emphasizing Fisher's unique ability to lend complex, credible characterization to seemingly formula-bound material. "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed", an unusually bitter film which mirrors the nihilism of the late 1960s, remains Fisher's finest, most multi-layered work, despite its lack of popularity. At the center of Fisher's work is a fascinating moral dilemma: the seductive appeal of evil vs. the overzealous, frequently close-minded representatives of good. The consistency of theme in Fisher's work, coupled with a distinctive style achieved through precise framing and a dynamic editing style, refutes the idea that he was merely a hack for hire, while lending his films a recognizable signature.
Best films: "So Long at the Fair", Lost Daughter (1949), "Dracula", The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), The Stranglers of Bombay (1959), "Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll", The Brides of Dracula (1960), "Curse of the Werewolf", The Phantom of the Opera (1962), "The Gorgon", "The Earth Dies Screaming", "Dracula--Prince of Darkness" and "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed".
Terence Fisher died in 1980 at the age of 76.