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Terence Fisher documentary Gothic Creatures in the works

I was just browsing around the Upcoming Horror Movies website, and I found this press release (dated October 12) posted on the message board:

New York based Entertainment Industry veteran, GREAT MOVIES, LTD. is currently in full-scale production on GOTHIC CREATURES, a documentary based on the career of legendary Gothic Director Terence ‘Terry’ Fisher, and is due for release in fall of 2005.

GOTHIC CREATURES is being developed by Great Movies as a “Ken Burns style documentary film,” relying chiefly on archival photographs, narration and interviews. It is written, directed and edited by Andre Singer, award-winning documentary filmmaker and film historian, and produced by Tony Lassiter, president of film production at Great Movies.

This is very good news; a documentary about the late Terence Fisher, who directed numerous classic horror films like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA is well deserved and long overdue.

Unfortunately, the url in the press release, which is supposed to lead to the film’s official website, is a dead link. (A message from the web host explains that the web server for user pages has been “stopped” because of “heavy abuse of our service.”)

Although Andre Singer has several legitimate credits as a producer, including MY BEST FIEND (director Werner Herzog’s documentary about his working relationship with actor Klaus Kinski), there is no listing for the film at the Internet Movie Database. So at the moment, I don’t know whether this project is really happening or not. I’m sending an e-mail inquiry to find out. (NOTE: See Update Below.)

You younger horror fans reading this may be wondering why you should care about a dead guy who directed horror movies decades ago. The answer is that Terence Fisher is the Missing Link between the atmospheric Universal horror films of the 1930s and the more explicit contemporary horror films that we enjoy today. Fisher directed dozens of movies for Hammer Films in England, an output that truly changed the face of horror as we know it.

Before Hammer, horror films emphasized spooky atmosphere, usually filmed in black-and-white. Hammer shot their horror films in color, and Terence Fisher didn’t shy away from showing occasional flashes of gore.

The results shocked audiences like nothing before when Fisher’s first Hammer horror film CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN reached screens in 1957. Critics were outraged, and to this day there are some purists who insist that the film is totally lacking in atmosphere and good taste. Of course, contemporary audiences will find CURSE to be rather tame by today’s standards, with only one or two explictly bloody moments (for example, when the monster gets shot in the face and clasps his hand over his eye, bright Technicolor blood runs between his fingers).

But gore was not the whole story, despite what some critics said. What made Fisher’s films work better than those of any other director at Hammer was that they were bold and often breath-taking. For the most part, Fisher took the “spook” out of horror movies and filmed them more like action adventures. In his version of THE MUMMY (1959), Kharis (played by Christopher Lee) was not the slowly creeping bandaged cripple of the Universal films but a striding, unstoppalbe jauggernaut; and the final confrontation between Dracula (Lee again) and Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA plays like an Errol Flynn fight scene.

Another key element was emotion. In a revealing interview in Cinefantastique magazine (#4:3), Fisher did not cite some director like James Whale or Alfred Hitchock as his major stylistic influence. No, Fisher expressed a fondness for Frank Borzage, a director of sentimental melodramas in the 1930s and 1940s. The influence was clear in Fisher’s best films. As he himself said in the interview:

“You see, it’s easy to put characters into a situation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s black magic or cops and robbers; it doesn’t matter a damn. You can put them into so many situations. But unless those characters have emotion in their interrelation with the situation they are put into, no audience in the world is going to be interested. The important thing is the emotional reltionship they have, apart from the situation itself. And the worse situation you can get them into, the more excited the audience will become, because they understand their feelings, apart from what they’re faced with.”
If you’re a horror fan who is unfamliar with Fisher’s work, you should check out his films by renting a few DVDs this Halloween. Besides CURSE and HORROR, some of his classic titles include THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and THE MUMMY (both 1959) and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), which was the first starring role for Oliver Reed (who passed away several years ago while filming his role in GLADIATOR).

Fisher was not an auteur but a working director who collaborated with producers, writers and actors, all of whom deserve their fair share of credit for the films that resulted. But Fisher’s work shows a consistently high level of quality that set him above his contemoraries. I hope the documentary GOTHIC CREATURES becomes a reality, shedding light on the man and (hopefully) helping to introduce his work to a new generation of horror fans.

UPDATE: I received a rapid-fire response to my e-mail inquiry about the status of this documentary. Proudcer Tony Lassiter and director Andre Singer, who sound very enthusiastic about their project. They’re in the process of gathering research and archive materials. Hopefully, they will be able to pull off something special.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.