We have a large and talented staff here at The Blood Sprayer, but every once in a while a talented writer who is not yet a member of the staff mentions an idea to me, or through conversation I realize they would be perfect to write a guest piece for us. Case in point, this latest piece on Freddie Francis, presented to you by The Mike, curator of the epic film blog, From Midnight With Love . Enjoy it and make sure to check out his other work, and eagerly await the day he writes for The Blood Sprayer on the regular!
I always get a little sad when I read about filmmakers like Freddie Francis. Francis bookended his directorial career with Oscar wins as a cinematographer (1960 – Sons and Lovers; 1989 – Glory), and, in the meantime (1962-1987) helmed more than twenty horror films. Despite his continued flow of work in the genre, Francis would go on record saying that “horror films have liked me more than I have liked horror movies”. To me, it’s a shame to hear that, because his visions of terror have long been an inspiration to me as a genre fan.
Before we look at Francis’ work in horror, it’s fascinating to see where the English filmmaker’s career began. As a camera operator in the 1950s, he worked with filmmakers such as Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger and John Huston while filming the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck in Beat the Devil and Moby Dick, respectively. He broke out as a cinematographer after Moby Dick, leading up to his Oscar win for Sons and Lovers and the acclaimed drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. But it was his next feature as a cinematographer that would bring his work to the eyes of the horror scene.
That film was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents – and it may have been the last perfect black-and-white horror film. Though the film was blessed in many ways, from Deborah Kerr’s manic lead performance to the scriptwork by Truman Capote, I’ve always felt that the dreary vision of the countryside setting and the shadow-filled manor in which the characters reside was the film’s greatest strength. Francis’ work showed a keen eye for keeping terrors unseen, and when he did show us something to be afraid of, he often kept it in a relatively small portion of the frame. The film builds perfectly to a frantic, spinning finale, and the fact that the film doesn’t completely lose us as the strange happenings seem to go off the rails must be attributed to Francis’ control of the camera’s eye. Francis himself would have told you that he considered it to be his finest work at this point of his career, and I think he might still be right.
The success of these films made a transition to the director role the logical next step in Francis’ career, and in 1962 he made his first horror film (The Brain, a black-and-white remake of Curt Siodmak’s Donavan’s Brain). This film was not much of a success with audiences, but did earn the attention of Hammer Films, who were busy saturating the genre scene after their success in reviving Universal’s Monsters at the tail end of the 1950s. Francis’ ability to work on the cheap while creating a visually engaging film meshed with the approach of Hammer, but the four films he made for the studio between 1963 and 1965 were of varied quality, ranging from the twisty thriller Paranoiac (quite good) to the franchise flick The Evil of Frankenstein (quite dull). Francis was never one to back down from a challenge, however, and returned to Hammer in 1968, taking over Dracula Has Risen From the Grave from an ill Terence Fisher.
Though the script for this Dracula film left something to be desired – the film’s subplot regarding an atheist young lover wooing a priest’s niece is a bit heavy-handed and Hammer’s screenwriters seemed to be in love with goofy taverns by this point in their work – Francis’ camerawork lifted the series to its highest point since they first brought us Dracula in 1958. A mid-film sequence in which Christopher Lee’s Dracula attacks Veronica Carlson’s Maria for the first time is one of the most visually interesting moments in Hammer’s history. The under two-minute scene cuts between the perspective of each character at least 10 times, building to a first-person view of Dracula making his mark on the young woman’s neck. It’s a perfect example of what would become one of Francis’ biggest contributions to horror: the trend to place the camera in the eyes of the monster. Francis’ willingness to put the viewer inside the head of the character treated audiences to a voyeuristic look at Lee’s Dracula, and that gift of perspective helped turn Dracula Has Risen From The Grave into Hammer’s most profitable film.
Between Hammer’s Hysteria in 1965 and that film in 1968, Francis made his first six films for the up-and-coming challenger to Hammer’s throne – Amicus Productions. The studio is now most known for their horror anthologies, so it’s no surprise that Francis started his Amicus tenure with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. This anthology was kind enough to bring together Lee, Peter Cushing, and THE Donald Sutherland, and most memorably gave us the chance to see Lee get terrorized by a severed hand. Amicus didn’t embrace the anthology formula immediately, and Francis would make four more horror and sci-fi films (in only two years) before directing the film that would turn Amicus in the right direction: Torture Garden, an anthology of terrors hosted by Burgess Meredith as Dr. Diabolo.
After a couple of odd turns at the onset of the ’70s – most notably the acclaimed psycho-comedy Girly and the legendary piece of Hollywood trash known as Trog – Francis would peak with one of my favorite British entries into horror’s golden decade: 1972’s Tales from the Crypt.
You no doubt know that name from the television series, and this predecessor to the cable hit brings together five effective tales of horror from the EC Comics vault. Francis again provides inspiration for future horror auteurs in the film’s second segment, offering up another shot of first-person POV terror. There’s a clear connection between this segment and the works of Dario Argento, John Carpenter, and anyone who made a slasher film in the 1980s, because Francis’ lost soul (in this case, character actor Ian Hendry) spends most of the brief story behind the camera with only gloved hands reaching out to remind us that the character himself is the “fourth wall”. The same technique, including Francis’ tendency to place us behind the character’s eyes as they approach a home’s doorway, would be echoed in films like Black Christmas and Halloween.
The rest of the film packs just as much power as that segment. It’s led by Joan Collins in the original version of Tales’ famed Christmas episode And All Through The House…, and the scene I discussed above is followed by a bit of Peter Cushing, a twist on The Monkey’s Paw, and a bunch of vengeful blind men who seek brutal revenge on an uncaring hospital administrator. Each segment has its own tone, but Francis’ camera is constantly active, moving through the film and giving us a unique perspective that matches each story. Though I’m still fighting my way through his entire filmography, Tales From the Crypt has long held a special place in my heart, and would most likely top any list I were making of films directed by Francis.
After a couple more memorable films – The Lee/Cushing vehicle The Creeping Flesh and another anthology, Tales That Witness Madness – Francis would stumble deeper into the cult horror world. Son of Dracula (starring, among others, Ringo Starr as Merlin the Magician) can claim to be ‘The First Rock-and-Roll Dracula Movie!”, but it also received poor reviews and has slipped out of the public’s eye entirely. A similar fate was waiting for Craze (starring Jack Palance as a crazed antiques dealer) and the two films he made for the short lived Tyburn Film Productions – The Ghoul and Legend of the Werewolf. Each of these films is remembered by a select few more than 35 years later, and Francis’ work in horror would decline after Tyburn faded away.
After spending most of the latter half of the ’70s out of film, Francis would return to the cinematographer’s chair in a big way by working with David Lynch on the iconic 1980 film The Elephant Man. This gig would give Francis his first award nominations since Sons and Lovers in 1960, and re-established Francis behind the scenes as a cameraman. He would work with Lynch twice more (Dune and The Straight Story, the latter of which was his final film), and also was given the chance to work with Martin Scorsese on the remake of Cape Fear. Like his directorial career his resurgence behind the camera was full of highs and lows, but when watching a 72 year-old Francis accept his second Oscar I didn’t see a man who regretted staying busy behind the camera. His final words when addressing the Academy while clutching the statue were to remind any filmmakers watching that he was “available from September”.
Francis may not have liked horror movies as much as they liked him, but horror fans like myself are still finding magic in his work years after his retirement from film and eventual death in 2007. For my money, Francis’ willingness to work constantly on so many diverse horrors and his keen eye for putting the viewer inside a script’s terrors haven’t been matched. Even his least interesting horror films – like 1985’s The Doctor and the Devils – are guaranteed to offer a unique perspective to the viewer, which is a testament to Francis’ ability to lift a film above its script’s fallacies. Whether he likes it or not, Freddie Francis will live on as a visionary in the horror scene for ages to come to those who are willing to seek out his work.
The Mike is a fan of all things cinematic who has always kept horror, genre, and cult films close to his heart. He blogs about this affliction often at From Midnight, With Love, and also contributes to Flickchart: The Blog. When he’s not wearing masks and pretending to battle Blobs, he obsesses over Green Bay Packers football, collecting DVDs, and attempting to save the world (from Blobs).