There and back again
Freddie Francis’ cinematographic brilliance is undisputed, but his sojourns into directing produced some British horror favourites among fans. Jane Nightshade selects 10 of his best…
Freddie Francis (1917-2007) was one of the most brilliant cinematographers of the 20th Century. His camerawork on such films as The Innocents (1961) and The Elephant Man (1980) is legendary. He was especially known for his complex black-and-white work in Cinemascope, 20th Century Fox’s proprietary widescreen film process.
He gained his first Oscar for Jack Cardiff’s ‘kitchen-sink drama’, Sons and Lovers, (1960). However, instead of continuing his red-hot career behind the camera, Francis chucked it all a few years later to direct B-movies for British horror studios Hammer and Amicus. In all, he has 37 director’s credits to his name, most of which are in the horror, thriller, or sci-fi genre. In the 80s, when Hammer and Amicus had both closed up shop, Francis returned to cinematography. He shot films for A-list directors such as Martin Scorcese, Robert Mulligan, David Lynch, and Karel Reisz. Francis won his second Oscar for the Edward Zwick American Civil War epic, Glory (1989).
Cinematography’s temporary loss was horror’s gain, as many of Francis’s Hammer/Amicus films are now considered classics. Unfortunately, he also made several dogs, including the execrable sci-fi Trog (1970), which frequently turns up on lists of the worst movies ever made. Its main claim to fame was as the last big-screen acting credit for Joan Crawford, the great leading lady of the screen during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Freddie Francis preferred to be remembered for his outstanding camerawork rather than his directing career, but he managed to leave his inimitable imprint on British horror nonetheless. In no particular order, here are ten of his best:
Tales From the Crypt (1972)
The most famous of the legendary Milton Subotsky/Amicus anthology films, Tales From the Crypt is probably the best film overall that was directed by Francis. Every one of the five-story segments is a winner, but the stand-outs are the heartbreaking ‘Poetic Justice‘ with Peter Cushing; the comically ironic and darkly festive, ‘And All Through the Night‘ with Joan Collins; and the gruesome ‘Blind Alleys‘ with Patrick Magee. The wrap-around story, about a group of tourists lost in an ancient crypt, features Sir Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper. The premise is based on the EC Comics comic books of the 1950s, as was the 90s HBO series of the same title. Twenty-four years later, in 1996, Francis directed an episode of the series.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, (1965)
Don’t be put off by the cheesy title — there are some great stories in this film, the first chronologically of the Milton Subotsky/Amicus anthologies. Contrary to the title, the wraparound story takes place on a train, not in a house. ‘Dr. Terror‘ is Dr. Schreck, a sinister fortune-teller, played very well by Cushing. He draws tarot cards for five men in his train compartment, and each card-reading session leads to a story. Christopher Lee is unmissable as a snobby art critic in the segment ‘Disembodied Hand‘ and a young Donald Sutherland is equally memorable in ‘Vampire‘.
Torture Garden, (1967)
Yet another Amicus/Subotsky anthology, Torture Garden is the weakest of the three directed by Francis though still well-made and entertaining. Dr. Diablo (Meredith, in one of his patented creepy old man roles) runs a ‘Torture Garden’ at a carnival — a mini-wax museum that displays scenes of torture and executions. For an additional sum, the good “doctor” takes a select group of visitors into his inner sanctum, where they meet the very creepy wax figure of Atropos, the Goddess of Destiny, and listen to tales of their own futures — which become the four segments of the anthology. Each story is ended by Atropos cutting her threads of fate with a giant pair of scissors. The best segments are the first and fourth. The first, ‘Enoch,’ features Michael Bryant as a greedy nephew scheming for his elderly uncle’s fortune. The fourth and best segment, ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’, is an outstanding Gothic tale that stars Cushing and Jack as a pair of fanatical collectors fighting over Edgar Allen Poe memorabilia. The screenplay was written by horror great Robert Bloch.
In this underrated black-and-white Hammer film, Janet (Linden) is a teen-age heiress with a lot of problems. As a child, she witnessed her crazy mother slash her father to death, and now she’s seeing stabby ghosts in the creepy mansion she inherited from her parents. Are the ghosts real or imagined? Is Janet insane or is she being set up by a fortune-hunter? This film is known for its dramatic, high chiaroscuro cinematography and weird camera angles, creating a deeply affecting Modern Gothic atmosphere. The cinematography is credited to John Wilcox, but it’s obvious that Francis, the master of the black-and-white camera, had a lot to do with how this film looks. The excellent screenplay was penned by Jimmy Sangster, who wrote so many classic horror scripts for movies and television.
The wealthy Ashby couple were killed in a plane crash years before the story opens. Their eldest son, Tony, then committed suicide out of grief. Survivors include younger brother Simon (Reed), sister Eleanor (Scott), and Aunt Harriet (Burrell), who occupy the Ashby family manor in the English countryside. One day a man (Davion) shows up claiming to be Tony, setting off a spree of threats, deception, and murder. The first two-thirds of the story moves slowly, but things build to a pretty good pay-off in the last third. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous; as with Nightmare, Francis clearly had a lot of input into the way this film was lit and shot. The script was again written by the great Jimmy Sangster.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, (1968)
Awash in pulsating colour, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is, visually speaking, the polar opposite of the moody black-and-white imagery that Francis cut his teeth on. As the story opens, Dracula has supposedly been dead for a year, but the body of a vampire’s victim has shown up in a church belfry. The local priest calls in a monsignor (a higher level priest) to perform an exorcism, which enrages the revived Dracula. He vows revenge against the monsignor (Davies) and his family, especially his pretty blonde niece (Carlson). In addition to the riot of colour, this film features a fantastic chase sequence, partially shot from under a carriage through the legs of galloping horses.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly, (1969)
Francis returns to the theme of a dysfunctional wealthy family for his favourite film as a director. This film is a surreal allegorical tale about a bizarre family who lives in a crumbling mansion (actually Oakley Court, which served as Hammer’s first headquarters and also did double-duty as a shooting location for many of its films.) The family consists of a mother, nanny, a teenage son, and a teenage daughter. We never learn their real names, only their nicknames (Mumsy, Nanny, etc.) The son and daughter play childish games all day long, and sometimes kidnap down-on-their-luck strangers to join in the fun. If the unwilling recruits don’t play the games right, the family kills them, which they call being “sent to the angels.” Until one day, they kidnap a man who schemes successfully to turn the family members against each other. While this film isn’t the masterpiece Francis wanted it to be, it does have a cult following and is worth watching for Vanessa Howard’s performance as the murderous, childish Girly. It’s also notable for the inspired lunacy of some of the set pieces and murders.
The Evil of Frankenstein, (1966)
In this solid, if unspectacular Hammer production, Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is back and has resumed his old grave-robbing habits in a new village. He’s unmasked as the notorious Dr. Frankenstein and flees back to his ancestral home with a young scientific colleague (Eles) in tow. There, he finds his castle pillaged by the local burgomeister. When the doctor is identified again, he and his friend take refuge in a deep cave, where they find The Creature entombed in a glacier. Frankenstein revives him but finds his brain isn’t functioning. He calls in a hypnotist to help wake up The Creature’s brain, but the hypnotist (Woodthorpe) has sinister plans of his own. This film has a great atmosphere and displays a wonderful array of steampunk laboratory equipment. Not a bad way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon.
The Creeping Flesh, (1973)
Cushing plays a weaker version of Victor Frankenstein in this uneven but entertaining film. As Dr. Hildern, he’s discovered the skeleton of a monster in Indonesia and has had it transported back to England for study. In the course of study, he finds that the skeleton can grow living flesh if water is dropped on it. He makes a serum from the blood of a fleshy finger he doused in water and cut from the skeleton, which he hopes will inoculate people from evil behaviour. Unfortunately, he decides to test the serum on his daughter (Heilbron), to a disastrous effect. The action drags towards the end but is redeemed by a ‘twist’ finale that’s pretty good. Much of the plot is absurd, but the surefooted direction almost fools the audience into believing the storyline is better than it actually plays out.
The Doctor and the Devils (1985)
Francis occasionally directed after returning to his first love — cinematography — in 1980. This little-known film of his is a cinematic oddity: it’s the first non-comedy film ever produced by American funnyman Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein (1974)). It’s also based on a script written by legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The all-British cast is excellent, with the future Bond heartthrob Timothy Dalton in the lead, playing an early Victorian anatomy professor who needs fresh cadavers to dissect and isn’t picky about how he gets them. Yes, this is yet another retelling of the old Burke and Hare murder scandal, the most famous of which is probably the Val Lewton/Robert Wise film The Body Snatcher (1945). The Doctor and the Devils is grim and very dark in its depiction of the desperate Victorian slums where the amoral graverobbers Fitton (Pryce) and Broom (Rea) operate. Hammer-style horror was passe in 1985, but Francis stubbornly plants the Hammer flag (in a genteel way) in the way he directs the film. It’s a bit slow but worth watching for the kick-ass cast, especially the performances of Pryce and Rea.