Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Belated Farewell to Jimmy Sangster

If director Terence Fisher was the eye of Hammer, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were the horror studio's faces, then Jimmy Sangster was its voice. The Welsh screenwriter composed the mass of Hammer's greatest films, taking fresh liberties with war horses such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, and conjuring first-rate original material such as Brides of Dracula, Scream of Fear, and The Nanny. His directorial efforts (The Horror of Frankenstein, Lust for a Vampire, Fear in the Night) were fewer and less successful, arriving after Hammer had passed from its golden age to a new era of sensationalistic sex and gore. Sangster remained active in film until 2000 when he co-wrote the German thriller Mörderische Ferien. At the same time, he was turning his writing to more personal matters, publishing his autobiography Do You Want It Good or Tuesday? in 1997 and Screenwriting Techniques for Success in 2003. Sangster died on August 19 at the age of 83.

Jimmy Sangster is also of the most well-represented writers in this site's on-going series "Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies." Here's what I had to say about some of his finest work:

36. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957- dir. Terence Fisher)

The Quatermass Xperiment was successful, but it wasn’t the film that made Hammer synonymous with horror. Almost two years of non-horror fare passed before that landmark film arrived. Like Quatermass, Hammer’s reimagining of Frankenstein put more bloody flesh on the screen than audiences were used to at the time, but it did so without masquerading as science fiction and in shocking full color. The Curse of Frankenstein is capital-H Horror. It also fully established the conventions fans would soon associate with Hammer: excessive blood, sleazy sex, and source material with roots in Universal horror. Terence Fisher’s remake arrived just a few months shy of the 25th anniversary of Whale’s original, but the new film could hardly be called a respectful homage. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster makes his film great by jettisoning much of what made Whale’s great. Frankenstein was a poetic, deeply humane portrait of a monstrous innocent driven to horrendous acts after being abandoned by his equally sympathetic creator. The Curse of Frankenstein is a portrait of cruelty. Focus shifts away from the Monster and onto the doctor, who is more villainous than any horror character since Mamoulian’s Hyde, and like Hyde, he is not without his charms because he is played with electrifying gusto. Peter Cushing is great in the title role, magnetic even as he murders a kindly house guest, launches into megalomaniacal rants, or torments the maid with whom he’s having an affair. Christopher Lee makes a lesser impact as the Monster because Fisher gives him a minimum of screen time and doesn’t bother imbuing him with any of the complexities Whale and Karloff gave theirs. Humanity and complexity are not on the agenda here. Its utter cynicism, undiluted by an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style disclaimer, can be felt in many horror films to follow. Typical of a Hammer Horror, critics loathed The Curse of Frankenstein but audiences loved it, and its international success confirmed the studio as the new generation’s Universal and Cushing and Lee as its Karloff and Lugosi.

38. Dracula (1958- dir. Terence Fisher)

The suits at Hammer must have taken all of three seconds to decide upon the follow up to 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Just as Universal knew Dracula was the natural follow up to their Frankenstein, Hammer recognized the reverse would work equally well. One can recognize Dracula as a Terence Fisher/Hammer production even before the opening credits are complete: we zoom into a crypt and focus on a casket dripped with vivid red-paint blood. As was the case with Curse, subtlety was not much concern in Dracula. Unlike that film, we are presented with a hero of the highest moral character. Deliciously, Van Helsing is played by the actor who brought such immoral menace to the earlier film. Peter Cushing proves he is just as affecting as the good guy as he was as the bad, bringing much zest and charm and heroic confidence to Van Helsing. Once again, Christopher Lee is somewhat underused as the monster, although his commanding presence and rich baritone are put to much better use as Count Dracula then they were as Frankenstein’s wobbly creature. His greatest scenes are reserved for the beginning of the film. About halfway though, he is reduced to the speechless, leering thing he’d reprise in countless Dracula sequels. Fisher’s film also differs from Stoker and Browning by jumbling character relationships, having Jonathan Harker turn into a vampire and get staked early in the picture, and—most egregious of all—losing Renfield. Yet, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, as it was titled in the U.S. so not to be mistaken for Tod Browning’s film) is the jewel in Hammer’s crown because of the sumptuous visuals Fisher lays out like a decadent, aristocratic banquet: the costumes, the colors, the castles, the wind-blown leaves, the creepy woods— what an invitingly Gothic landscape! Significantly, Hammer’s two big monster movies contributed to a burgeoning monster revival sweeping kid culture in the late ‘50s. The films coincided with the launch of the syndicated “Shock Theater” package that gave a new generation of TV viewers its first taste of Universal’s classic horror. Forrest J. Ackerman capitalized on the craze and fueled it further with his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Like The Mummy, the iconic monsters had laid dormant for a long spell, but a few conjuring words from Forry, horror hosts such as Zacherley and Vampira, and Hammer’s chief screenwriter Jimmy Sangster were enough to bring them back from the dead. Their young legion of followers, known affectionately as “Monster Kids,” guaranteed these creeps would never be out of the pop cultural floodlights again.

41. The Mummy (1959- dir. Terence Fisher)

Hammer stuck close to formula with its final horror of the ‘50s by remaking Universal’s successor to Dracula and Frankenstein. Cushing, Lee, Sangster, and Fisher all return for The Mummy, which actually has more in common with the mediocre sequel The Mummy’s Tomb than the 1932 Karloff vehicle. This is not one of Sangster’s cleverest scripts, but Lee gets to upstage costar Cushing for the first time. Spending much of the movie wrapped in dirty bandages, his face caked in Egyptian mud, Lee is still more sympathetic as lovelorn Kharis than he was in his earlier monster roles. He also gets some quality face time and dialogue during a lavish, 13-minute sequence reimagining the mummification scene from the original Mummy, though without reaching similar heights of claustrophobia-inducing terror. The greatest triumph of The Mummy is that of Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and their brilliant art department. The team’s use of colored lights, painted backdrops, spectacular costumes and props, and sets cluttered with detail make the whole picture look like a canvass thick with rich oils. The Mummy was Hammer’s first horror film to receive some positive critical notices, but its appeal was certainly most obvious to young monster enthusiasts. The horror genre, however, was about to grow up during a decade of near constant upheaval and violence.

44. The Brides of Dracula (1960- dir. Terence Fisher)

There was no way its sequel would fully recapture the power of Hammer’s Dracula, because Christopher Lee refused to revisit the count for fear of being typecast (his stance would crumble soon enough). Still there’s a lot of what made Dracula great in The Brides of Dracula. Not suffering any of his costar’s reservations, Peter Cushing happily returns as Van Helsing, and he gets more opportunities to display undeath-defying heroism than in the previous film. His showdown with a dashing non-Dracula vampire is likely Terence Fisher’s most thrilling sequence, climaxing with Cushing getting chomped and taking some rather extreme measures to ward off his own vampirism. Marita Hunt is nearly as arresting in the role of the eccentric Baroness Meinster, while Fisher’s trademark mastery of color and artificial environments provides further distraction from Lee’s absence. The screenwriting team, led by Hammer Stalwart Jimmy Sangster, also came up with an intriguing mystery (why is the Baroness Meinster keeping a young man prisoner in her sprawling castle?) that arguably makes the film more engaging than Hammer’s previous horrors to those already well familiar with how Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy pan out. But as is the case with most Hammer pictures, the main allure of The Brides of Dracula is that it provides yet another opportunity to gawk at marvelous sets and costumes rendered in glorious Technicolor and indelible images of vampire brides rising from the grave.
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