The Uniqueness of the Hammer Camera:
Jack Asher and Arthur Grant
Jane Nightshade goes behind the camera to take a closer look at the cinematographers who helped give Hammer its 'bright, bold and scary' visual appeal...
For fans accustomed to the gloomy, shadowy look of most Gothic horror films, diving into the Hammer catalogue for the first time may be something of a shock. The brilliant hues and jewel-tone lighting from the studio’s heyday in the late 1950s-late 1960s provide a memorably stark contrast to the revered Universal horror films of the 1930s and 40s (for example).
Who said horror films had to look dark, misty, and gloomy? Terence Fisher, Hammer’s great director of the mordant and macabre, didn’t seem to think so. He and his frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Jack Asher, BSC, teamed up many times to prove that horror could be bright, bold, and scary at the same time.
While Hammer’s films were considered B-movies at the time of release, history has applied a different lens to their place in cinematic history. Cinephiles of today now revere the rainbow hues and sumptuous look of these low-budget films. And a lot of credit for that is due to the artistry of Jack Asher’s camera, assisted by the production design of long-time Hammer designer, Bernard Robinson.
Fisher and Asher’s first horror collaboration was The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957), starring Peter Cushing as crazed grave-robbing scientist Victor Frankenstein, in a reboot of the oft-told classic novel by Mary Shelley. It was also Hammer’s first big monster film and the first-ever colour version of the Frankenstein saga.
Asher’s style was colourful and surreal; he gloried in shooting The Curse of Frankenstein and many of his other Hammer films in vivid Eastmancolour, a proprietary colour processing system that was the main competition for Technicolor. The Curse of Frankenstein is awash in vibrant hues, especially in the lavish costumes worn by Hazel Court in the role of Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth. In The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959), Asher, Fisher, and Robinson went hog-wild with the story’s long prologue set in ancient Egypt, depicting an eye-watering profusion of gold, green, mustard yellow, and turquoise.
Asher was not internationally renowned and never worked on a big-name, A-list film, but that doesn’t mean his unique style wasn’t groundbreaking.
Born in London in 1916, he started out at the now-defunct Gainsborough Pictures as a ‘clapper boy’ (the person who loads the film, operates the clapper slate, and keeps track of scenes and cuts). Gainsborough, along with its sister company, British-Gaumont, produced many classic mainstream British films of the 1930s-40s.
After stints as clapper boy and camera operator, Asher made his debut for Gainsborough as director of photography with 1946’s The Magic Bow (Bernard Knowles), a biopic of the violinist Arthur Paganini. While at Gainsborough, Asher met Terence Fisher, and the two worked together on several films for the studio.
After Gainsborough closed shop in 1951, Asher eventually landed at Hammer Studios, where he was one of two top lensmen (along with Arthur Grant, below, who also worked with Fisher). Perhaps overlooked because he shot genre films, Asher’s talent and artistic vision are undeniable. At Hammer, he was reunited with Fisher, and the duo created some of the most stylish, enduring, and influential horror films in cinema history.
According to Fisher, ‘Jack Asher had a very distinctive style of lighting, which was quite different from Arthur Grant’s…(Who) had a more realistic approach to the situation. Jack Asher’s was almost theatrical lighting with little tricks, like colour slides placed over the lights and so on.’ (British Society of Cinematographers, bscine.com).
The Curse of Frankenstein, featuring liberal splashings of lurid Eastmancolour-hued blood, was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It was quickly followed by Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958) – known as Horror of Dracula in the U.S.) – which is probably Hammer’s most famous and enduring production. Again, the Fisher/Asher team produced a smash hit horror film, one that would make Sir Christopher Lee the second-most-famous Dracula in cinematic history. Asher would then shoot more Hammer classics with Fisher, which, aside from The Mummy, included The Hound of the Baskervilles (Terence Fisher, 1959), The Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1959), the sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein, and The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960). Although mostly overlooked in the awards race (probably because he was a genre shooter), Asher did receive a BAFTA nomination for The Crimson Blade (an English Civil War drama) in 1963.
Of Asher’s style, the British film historian Peter Hutchings wrote in The A to Z of Horror Cinema (Scarecrow Press, 2009), that ‘the garish red blood of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula shocked critics and fascinated audiences, but Asher was capable of more atmospheric effects. His lighting helped to make the films look subtler and more expensive than they actually were.’
Asher worked for Hammer on and off until 1965, when he was replaced by Arthur Grant as the top cinematographer and apparently retired from filmmaking. His last credit for Hammer was The Secret of Blood Island (Quentin Lawrence), a 1965 prequel to the studio’s The Camp on Blood Island (Val Guest, 1958), a lurid film about a Japanese war prison, which Asher also shot. Also in the early-to-mid-60s, he made several comedies with his brother Robert Asher, best known for directing television episodes of The Avengers and The Prisoner. He passed away in London in 1991 at the age of 74.
Born in Surrey in 1915, Arthur Grant, BSC, replaced Asher as main Hammer cinematographer in the mid-60s. He worked with all of Hammer’s great horror directors: Val Guest, Terence Fisher, Roy Ward Baker, Peter Sasdy, and Freddie Francis. He also shot films for two legendary American horrormeisters: The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) for Roger Corman and The Old Dark House (1963) reboot for William Castle. Known for his professionalism and efficiency, Grant has a prolific ninety-nine film credits to his name as a DP and forty-three as a camera operator/assistant.
Grant started out working on classic British films and laboured for Shepperton Studios, Monarch Films, and others throughout the 30s-early 50s, first as a camera operator and later as director of photography. His debut credit as DP was in 1932 for a black-and-white ‘quota quickie’ called Self-Made Lady (George King). These were low-budget, fast-made films designed to satisfy laws meant to protect the British film industry from Hollywood domination.
His first film for Hammer was The Abominable Snowman (1957), shot in black and white from a script written by the great Nigel Kneale from his play The Creature, and co-starring Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker. It was directed by Val Guest (The Quartermass Xperiment (1955); The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)), with whom Grant had worked previously, including a comedy called The Ship is Loaded (1957).
Of Grant’s cinematography on The Abominable Snowman, the film site Reel Brew notes: ‘Where The Curse of Frankenstein painted exquisite brushstrokes over Frankenstein’s (James Whale, 1931) black and white canvas that brought to life the European countryside, The Abominable Snowman evokes the harsh and chilling blacks and whites of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951). Outside of a few breathtaking panoramic shots of the French Pyrenees captured in Regalscope (later coined ‘Hammerscope due to its rampant use), most of the film’s mountain settings are set-pieces, which allow the film’s isolation to roll in like a blizzard.’
Grant continued to shoot mainly black-and-white films for Hammer such as The Stranglers of Bombay (Terence Fisher, 1959) until the mid-60s, when he took over from Jack Asher as the studio’s main cameraman. Hammer execs had begun to feel that Asher’s shooting style was too slow and expensive, and saw Grant as being able to maintain much the same quality on a cheaper budget.
In the latter half of the 60s, Grant shot numerous colour films, including Hammer’s enduring classic The Devil Rides Out (Roy Ward Baker, 1968). He proved that he could do colour very well, if not matching the delirious hues and lighting favoured by Asher. An example is Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (Freddie Francis, 1968), in which Dracula (Christopher Lee), is drenched in rainbow hues during the obligatory Dracula-at-the-maiden’s-window scene. Another quite colourful film from Grant’s late-60s period is Baker’s Quartermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967), a big-screen version of Nigel Kneale’s original BBC television series of the 50s.
Still, Grant’s work was generally noted for its more naturalistic rendering, in contrast to Asher’s notably surreal, saturated colour style — especially when it came to night scenes. According to Baker in his book, The Director’s Cut (2000): ‘He was so good-natured, unpretentious and good at his job. He was an ace at photographing dramatic night sequences: his motto was: ‘Never mind how dark it’s supposed to be — the audience has still got to see what’s going on!’ And yet it still looked like night.’
Grant continued to shoot for Hammer until his untimely death in 1972 at the age of 57. That year, Grant had been contracted to lense the famous horror anthology Asylum for Baker, but he became ill before shooting began and withdrew from the film. His last film was Hammer’s Demons of the Mind (1972), directed by Peter Sykes.