He was to fantasy what Hitchcock was to suspense.

The passing of Alfred Hitchcock last April occasioned world-wide tributes to his cinematographic artistry, but the loss of Terence Fisher at about the same time went virtually ignored, which is a pity, because Fisher was to fantasy—particularly fantasy of the classic, Gothic style—what Hitchcock was to suspense. And ignorance of Fisher’s work is also unfortunate because an examination of the major theme of his films shows him to have been a strong ally of orthodox theology.

Fisher was a British creative artist in much the same tradition as C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers, but his name is not as familiar as those of his literary counterparts. This is principly because Fisher was an artist of the cinema, not the written word. For many who are interested in the cinematic genre of fantasy and the supernatural, however, Fisher’s name stands supreme.

Fisher’s great contribution was his reinterpretation of such classic British romantic fantasy as Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Evangelicals, even in Britain, generally have not given him his due and this is unfortunate since Fisher is on the side of Christian truth. Consider some of the main themes of his films, produced mostly in the ten-year period from 1957 to 1967. He was an uncompromising believer in the supernatural, an ardent skeptic regarding secular science and modernity, a believer in the inherent evil of human beings, and confident in the ultimate triumph of love and God over the forces of the demonic.

The basic scenario of a Fisher film runs as follows. A young person, usually in the late nineteenth century, is drawn unwittingly into a trap of sordid evil. But evil usually takes the form of another equally attractive young person whose concerns sound eminently reasonable. The two young people form an alliance, either of love or friendship. It soon becomes obvious that the innocent party is being taken over by the evil companion. His or her behavior changes drastically, often accompanied by some physical change. Concerned family and friends call in a figure of science, often a doctor, to remedy the situation. Invariably someone suggests that a supernatural agency is at work, and this provokes the intolerance of the man of science who usually retorts with a line such as, “Good heavens! This is the nineteenth century. Such things belong to the Middle Ages.” Not surprisingly, the best intentions of everyone are of no avail as the character becomes more and more absorbed into the world of a beautiful but deadly evil companion (or lover).

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It is usually at this stage that a priest or philosopher with definite Christian convictions is called in. The problem is diagnosed as spiritual rather than psychological or medical, and in due course, the true nature of the companion is diagnosed and he/she is revealed to have been in traffic with the demonic in some form. The forces of Satan are overcome and true happiness restored.

Fisher’s cinematic world was molded on a precise moral standard. The one chief exception to the above model—which in no way contradicted it—was his series of Frankenstein movies. This series comprised some five pictures made between 1957 and 1973 and was a landmark effort. Fisher’s films dealt with Dr. Frankenstein, not the Monster, who perished unequivocably in the first installment. The Frankenstein series was a study in the use of science for the pursuit of power. Frankenstein was a modern Prometheus whose arrogant brilliance seeks to shape the world to his conceptions of good and evil. Viewed from the hindsight of the 1980s, Fisher’s Frankenstein series is a decidedly prophetic view of scientific technology and the inhuman world created through its engineering.

Outside of his work in the Frankenstein and Dracula myths, Fisher distinguished himself in a variety of significant films: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), with its image of aristocratic decadence in which the members of the cursed family inherit not only the curse but the corruption which spawns it; The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), in which Mr. Hyde is younger, handsomer, and more charming than his alter ego; Curse of the Werewolf (1961), with a classic redemption-through-love theme; and The Devil Rides Out (1967), the first major film of the sixties to deal with contemporary Satanism. These films were criticized for being overly violent and for portraying evil as seductively attractive. Time has changed the force of this. (Fisher’s first Gothic fantasy, Curse of Frankenstein, was considered repugnant in 1957 but is like the average TV show today.)

Critics of the time also missed the prophetic impact of Fisher’s films and the fact that his films were the truest in spirit (if not always in letter) to their literary and mythic sources, more so than other films of this genre. Fisher’s work and his particularly graphic narrative style made possible—and even commercially viable—such later works as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Yet these films and the myriads of others they inspired have little to do with the moral universe Fisher inhabited. One can see this immediately by comparing Fisher with other British “horror film” directors of his period. Films such as Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), or even Freddie Francis’s one essay into the Frankenstein series, The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), do far more to exploit and even celebrate evil than to portray the metaphysical confrontation between good and evil that underlined Fisher’s work.

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Indeed, these films and later counterparts by such directors as Roman Polanski (Rose-mary’s Baby. The Tenant) and Brian De-Palma (The Sisters, Carrie, The Fury), for all their technical ingenuity, reflect a world view in which evil is the dominant force in life and violence is as ubiquitous as it is purposeless. It is not surprising that Fisher found The Exorcist repugnant.

Fisher is quite evidently the author of the films he directed. He worked with a variety of script writers, each of whom left his mark on this neo-Gothic revival. Nonetheless, the continuity of vision in Fisher transcends the different screenwriters with whom he collaborated.

In the opening scene of Dracula, a tall shadowy figure descends the stair to meet an unaware visitor. We are primed for fright. Instead, Dracula emerges as a charming, gracious figure, not in the least ominous. For Fisher the problem with the demonic is that it is not scary. Rather it is charming and beautiful, and therefore more deadly. In another sequence from the same film, the heroes stay up all night outside a home where Dracula has been attacking one of the women inhabitants. Daybreak comes and Dracula has not appeared. Relieved, the men come indoors in the grey dawn. To their horror, they realize the woman has once again been attacked, yet they are sure Dracula never entered from the outside. They soon learn that the victim herself has been harboring Dracula in the basement of the house. Rather than being terrified of him, she enjoys his attacks. Dracula then, as an outside threat, is only part of the problem. It is the personal embracing of evil, the fiend within, that is the real issue for Fisher. In stating the matter this way, Fisher not only forces us to think. He also comes very close to the biblical insight about the problem of evil.

PAUL LEGGETTMr. Leggett is engaged in doctoral study at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

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