Book Review:

The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond, by Wheeler Winston Dixon

Reviewed by John Gaffney

Review of Wheeler Winston Dixon’s The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond, Auteur Publishing (Devil's Advocates), 2017.

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond endeavors to establish the film director’s reputation as “…the greatest Gothic filmmaker of the second half of the 20th Century” (179). Even with this volume’s thorough research and passionate arguments, supporting such a position is challenging, because the filmmaker Dixon wants Fisher to be is not the one who comes across in his book. An earlier exploration by Dixon, The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher (1991), hoped to redress the lack of critical attention accorded to Fisher and the films he directed, which established Hammer Studio as the leading producers of Gothic horror from 1956 to 1979. In this new volume, Dixon’s decision to give a film-by-film discussion of the many forgettable second-feature programmers he directed (none of them horror), which take up a full half of the book, heightens the reader’s awareness of the crushing deadlines, poor production values and constant front office interference that plagued Fisher over his entire career. He was, first and foremost, a journeyman director who directed over 50 films, as well as working in television. This part of the book has the perhaps unintended consequence of highlighting Fisher’s survivor skills over his authorial prowess.

Nevertheless, there were seven impactful years (1957-1964) of productivity during which Fisher created and shaped the Hammer movie audience and extended the parameters of the Gothic genre he helped bring back into prominence. It is here, in the second half of his book, that Dixon legitimates Fisher as a subject for study. Culturally and economically, Hammer’s influence on Gothic horror was overwhelming. The Universal Studio monster movies that provided significant source material were provided new luster by filming them for the first time in color. Fisher then significantly raised the level of sexuality and violence that had previously been presented sparingly on-screen by horror filmmakers of the ‘30s and ‘40s. With the enormous success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), he became as he was described in his obituary, “the creator of the Hammer Horror film” (quoted in Terence Fisher 371).

Fisher made films of every important Gothic character or monster—Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Werewolf, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera and Sherlock Holmes—but did not, as a general rule, do sequels, with the exception of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) with Christopher Lee, a lesser effort. However, Fisher did embark upon a series (n.b. – not sequels) of five more Frankenstein films, with Peter Cushing reprising the role of the scientist in each. Fisher felt artistically closest to this character and setting, but in Dixon’s book, the novel and Mary Shelley are frequently mentioned but go undiscussed, missing an opportunity to draw the difficult text closer to the filmmaking. Yet a subtle moment of intersection transpires in The Curse of Frankenstein. The creature, escaping the laboratory, makes its way through the woods, coming upon an old blind man with his grandson, who leaves his grandfather to play by the river. Making his slow way towards the figure in a daze, conveying a range of emotions behind a mask of incomprehension, Fisher’s creature is Shelley’s creature, standing outside the home of the “beloved cottagers” who teach it what it is to be human, making the creature’s estrangement from humankind authentic, the only cinematic interpretation which attains that comparable level of empathy.

Dixon sidesteps the misogyny that is a hallmark of Hammer films, Fisher’s included. Restrictions are placed on discussions of sexuality in Horror of Dracula. The first vampire to appear in a Hammer film is a woman, listed in Fisher’s screen credits simply as Vampire Woman. The picture of her biting a man’s neck adorns the cover of Dixon’s book. Vampirism is introduced in a dynamic scene of confrontation among three characters, Dracula, Vampire Woman, and Harker, the newly arrived librarian. Harker has been bitten by the woman when Dracula charges into the scene, savagely dominant. He begins to throttle Harker, his face lighting up when he spots the bloody marks on Harker’s neck. The Vampire Woman hisses at Dracula, who drops a limp Harker on the floor and charges over to her. As Harker comes to, he sees Dracula with the Vampire Woman in his arms exit the room, and passes out. Sighs, hisses and growls are used in place of dialogue. Set in the Victorian era, when the idea that procreation was the sole aim of sex, the montage is subversive with its mixture of evil and pleasure in a godless scene devoid of morality, leaving little but aggression and desire to bind the characters together. Fisher’s mise en scène effectively translates Dracula’s power and insatiability as sexual potency. Suggestive as the choreography may be, it’s clear that Dracula does not differentiate between genders in terms of sexual preference. Dixon gives a close reading to this scene within his meticulous analysis of the film’s first 20 minutes, but chooses to fix his discussion within the confines of a strictly heterosexual context, circumventing any serious discussions of LGBT or Queer issues.

Dixon navigates the reader through some of the theoretical critiques of Fisher’s films with regards to such topics as the male spectatorial desire, sexual revenge and moral agency, presenting a thought-provoking discussion on how desire and obsession inform the paranoid Gothic film. Throughout this part of his book, the reader feels assured Dixon is approaching his subject with a sense of how film provides “that crucial dimension which we are not ready to confront in our reality” (Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema: Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Film, https://beanhu.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/the-perverts-guide-to-cinema/).

Dixon’s book labors to secure Fisher’s position in the pantheon of filmmakers. Where he is most successful is in making Fisher’s work interesting again. Fisher had a point of view that he pursued in his best films — among them The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Gorgon, The Brides of Dracula and The Stranglers of Bombay -- which have a way of indelibly imprinting on the memory a flash of invention, an audacity of conceptualization, an inspired moment of recognition. In spite of the fannish aspect of his book, Dixon provides valid reasons for approaching Terence Fisher’s Hammer Horror legacy with intelligence and care.

-26 December 2018