Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I've posted previously about how much the deaths last year of Yvonne DeCarlo and Bobby Pickett bummed me out, but one of the most notable passings in 2007 for fans of genre films (hell, fans of all films) was the death of Freddie Francis. (Previous entries on Mr. Francis are found here and here.) As the director or director of photography of some of the 20th century's most visually arresting films, he left behind an impressive body of work.

Ted Newsom, the filmmaker behind the notable horror film documentaries 100 YEARS OF HORROR and FLESH AND BLOOD, and the man responsible for the spoof/schlock classic THE NAKED MONSTER, wrote a retrospective article on Mr. Francis for the May 2007 issue of the magazine VIDEO WATCHDOG. It is rightly nominated for a Rondo Award, and I am recommending it for your vote. As Jeremy Richey of the excellent film blog Moon in The Gutter says of the article, "Ted Newsom does a great job here in respecting Francis' directorial career and still being honest about it. It's a solid tribute to a very important figure."

I was lucky enough to get permission from Ted and the editors of VW (Tim and Donna Lucas) to reprint the article here. (Wow! Brings some class to this site and raises the average reading level of the blog, too.) You can buy the award-winning VIDEO WATCHDOG at Borders, as I do, or in other outlets. (Check out the VW website, and Tim Lucas' VIDEO WATCHBLOG, both of which are in my links section.) Ya gotta spend that coming rebate check on something to help the economy, and a subscription to film and horror magazines is a great way to do it.

Now, before I ramble any further, here is Ted Newsom's appreciation of the work and the person of Freddie Francis.

In Remembrance of Freddie Francis

By Ted Newsom

Freddie Francis died on March 17, 2007, at age 89, from complications following a stroke. His was a life in the cinema, famously as a cinematographer, remaining in demand long past the point most people retire or have been forgotten. In 1999, David Lynch tapped Francis, then 82, to shoot THE STRAIGHT STORY; Francis had previously lensed THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980, his first work as a DP since 1964) and DUNE (1984) for the director. Francis twice won an Oscar for his camerawork (SONS AND LOVERS in 1960, GLORY in 1990) and had multiple BAFTA nominations (Martin Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN).

An obituary written by a Sheila Whitaker in London’s GUARDIAN said, “Francis returned to cinematography with THE ELEPHANT MAN after several attempts at direction.” Such arch snobbery implies repeated failed attempts. In truth, Francis worked continuously as a director from 1962 through 1980, although in films that apparently were beneath Ms. Whitaker’s radar. His features ranged from stylish and eerie (notably THE SKULL and THE CREEPING FLESH) to visually arresting (DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE) to the “Well, we did the best we could” (TROG, destined for release on DVD summer 2007 as part of Warner’s new “Camp Classics” imprint).

His name is familiar to a couple generations’ worth of horror fans, a reputation which he understood and affably resented. He admitted no affinity for the genre, yet was immutably typecast as a specialist of that sort of film. His last directorial credit was a 1996 episode of HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT (a series at least partly inspired by his own 1972 filming of the EC horror comics) made when he was 78 years old.

I’m the wrong guy to write an article about Freddie Francis and his horror movies. I liked the movies he directed, but I never loved them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen one that didn’t feel to me like a Chinese dinner: you’re left wanting more an hour later. Or a chocolate bunny: empty on the inside, but tasty and pretty and fun while you’re scarfing it up. Which, I guess, makes me exactly the right guy to write this article. Because he didn’t much love them either.

That’s not to dismiss them— and nor did he, while he was doing them. THE SKULL (1965) for Amicus is one of the most imaginatively photographed horror films of the 1960s, and has the benefit of a solid Robert Bloch story underlining it, plus a terrific cast. EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), although unconnected with previous Hammer Frankensteins, is rousing fun and a favorite of the series in many people’s eyes, as is the phantasmagoric DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968). Portmanteau films like TORTURE GARDEN (1967) show a neat variety of approaches appropriate to the individual stories: the haunted piano episode is different from the “eternal movie star” story, the Poe collector segment looks and feels different from the carnival linking scenes—yet the film is overall cohesive and suspenseful.

Francis was a brilliant, imaginative, and capable filmmaker who loved making movies. As a camera operator under Freddie Young, Oswald Morris, and Christopher Challis, some of his career high points are THE SMALL BACK ROOM (1949), GONE TO EARTH (1950), and THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951) for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BEAT THE DEVIL (1953), and MOBY DICK (1956) for director John Huston, among dozens of others. Francis’ own DP credits were no less formidable: Joseph Losey’s TIME WITHOUT PITY (1957), ROOM AT THE TOP (1959, which founded his working relationship with director Jack Clayton), SONS AND LOVERS (1960, directed by TALES OF HOFFMAN DP Jack Cardiff), Karel Reisz’s SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1960), and THE INNOCENTS (1961). When he forsook a dead-ended directorial career and returned to camera work, his film credits were equally prestigious: THE ELEPHANT MAN, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN (1981, another collaboration with Karel Reisz), GLORY (1989), and CAPE FEAR (1991).

But between 1962 and 1980, Francis worked as a director. The projects he was offered were almost exclusively genre films, one way or the other. He brought them in on schedule and with visual flair, but after the first few suspense and horror movies, he felt typed—and he was. Whether he was capable of directing a “great” mainstream film like the ones he shot, who knows? The only project in his later years which came close to such an opportunity was THE DOCTORS AND THE DEVILS (1985), a long-aborning film version of Dylan Thomas’ 1953 play about Dr. Knox and his meat-packing pals Burke and Hare (under different names). ELEPHANT MAN producer Mel Brooks produced the film; as a long-time horror buff (and film fan in general), he felt Francis was the right man for the job—because he had directed horror movies. Likewise, Martin Scorsese chose Francis to shoot CAPE FEAR not on the basis of his obvious experience in lights, lenses, and filters, but because he knew, from Francis’ work as a suspense and horror director, that he could supply the right visuals.

I only had the pleasure of Mr. Francis’ company once—in June 1993, while shooting an interview for my documentary FLESH AND BLOOD, THE HAMMER HERITAGE OF HORROR. Francis was in California, working as a DP on a TV film of David Mamet’s A LIFE IN THE THEATER. He struck me as a focused, affable, working-class guy, knowledgeable but unpretentious. We spoke for about a half-hour on various things, but primarily about his movies— which meant primarily about monster movies.

From his work on films like ROOM AT THE TOP, he got a reputation for establishing a “look” for British New Wave, “kitchen sink” dramas: black-and-white, available light, dingy, gritty. It was simply appropriate for the subject matter, not a personal preference. One of his most notable changes from this style occurred in Jack Clayton’s excellent version of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” called THE INNOCENTS.

“We shot the exteriors in Sheffield Park,” he recalled, “what exteriors there were, anyway. Mostly we were on a very intricate stage. One thing that was forced on us was the use of CinemaScope, because we did the picture for Fox, and they’d said all their films had to use CinemaScope. The problem was the restriction of the lenses, which were not very fast, and of course the frame, which neither of us thought was right for what really was a small little personal story, about these children and their governess.” To make up for some of the lenses’ lack of definition, Francis instructed the art department to paint highlights and shadows on trees and bushes to make them “pop” more visually, without increasing the overall light level. “I liked that,” he said, “because doing things like that reminded me of the crazy things I used to do back in my 16mm days. I still do crazy things.”

To get around the other major problem—a widescreen presentation of an intimate story— Francis developed a set of amber-colored neutral density filters which slightly obscured and darkened the sides of the frame, concentrating the viewer’s attention on the personal drama rather than the width of the sets. The story, both the James novel and the film, remains ambiguous about whether the two “ghosts” are real or imaginary. When asked what he thought, Francis grinned, “Well. That actor who was in it. Peter Wyngard? He was a bit ghostly.”

This was a transitional time for Francis. The first directing job he got— sans screen credit— was a patch-up job on Steve Sekeley’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS in 1962. He had crossed paths with Hammer Films’ Anthony Hinds two years earlier, shooting a moody drama about sexual predation and small-town hypocrisy, with Cyril Frankel directing. Based on a play called THE PONY CART, it was released under the more obvious title NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER (with the word “Candy” substituted for “Sweets” in the US; presumably Yanks didn’t know what “Sweets” were). The serious, subtle, and well-done drama was excoriated by critics, who castigated Hammer for capitalizing on pedophilia. “That’s right, that was the only film I photographed for them, which I thought was a very good film. I think that’s the trouble; if you have a sort of trademark like Hammer, you have to keep producing the same films.

“Tony [Hinds], who became a very dear friend, was a very shy man, and didn’t get involved in films on the floor; he was a real behind the scenes guy. We became quite friendly, which was most unusual; he never became friendly with anybody involved. We became quite friendly. Just after doing NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER, I got an Academy Award for SONS AND LOVERS, and people started asking me to direct, which I did. My first film [TWO AND TWO MAKE SIX, 1962] was an abject disaster, and I thought I’d better do another film in a hurry. Tony Hinds offered me... What was it? PARANOIAC, that’s it. And I enjoyed working at Bray so much, they asked me to do another film and another film and another film. Next thing I knew, I was something I didn’t want to be—a horror film director! For somebody who loved making films as I do, it was great. But in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t done it. It got me pigeonholed. Once you’re a success in a specific sort of movie, nobody wants you to go outside it.”

As for Hammer: “It was set up on business lines, not artistic lines. If any of us could get artistic points in, we could. But the whole overall operation was a sort of business/financial situation. You had six weeks to make the movies. I don’t think I had any reservation about the schedule. You know the budget, you know the schedule, so the Ready Reckoner—if you’ve got a Ready Reckoner in your mind—that sticks over and you know exactly which line to take. So, no, I wasn’t concerned about the time or the schedule. If I had been concerned, then I probably I wouldn’t have done it. And we never went over budget or over schedule.”

Francis directed two Hammer thrillers scripted by Jimmy Sangster: PARANOIAC (1963) and NIGHTMARE (1964), both of which came in the wake of Sangster’s genuinely creepy variation on Clouzot’s DIABOLIQUE, TASTE OF FEAR (called SCREAM OF FEAR in the US). “Jimmy’s scripts were great,” Francis said, “I used to love them. If an audience thinks about Jimmy’s scripts, you’re dead. But Jimmy used to get the audience rattling along at such a pace that the audience didn’t have time to think about them! My wife and I were spending Christmas with Jimmy in the south of France, and we were fooling around, and my wife suddenly said to him, ‘Jimmy, you’re always writing these scripts about somebody people trying to send people mad. Why don’t you write a script about somebody trying to send himself mad?’ And Jimmy really started thinking about this!”

Though both Francis “mini-Hitchcocks” (as well as the Robert Bloch-scripted THE PSYCHOPATH for Amicus Productions) were bastard offspring of the horrific French mystery, Francis said, “I don’t think it was any sort of influence on me, not as a director. DIABOLIQUE was a very good film, but I really don’t think any other director’s style influences me. I just like making movies.”

Between 1962 and 1980, he worked exclusively as a director, and his assignments were almost all horror and suspense subjects. The one exception was shooting another film for Karel Reisz, NIGHT MUST FALL (1964)—about a mad young man (Albert Finney) who keeps a head in a hatbox.

Francis was selected to direct the third outing of Peter Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, in 1964. The first and second film in the series had been directed by Terence Fisher. “I suspect that Terry was unwell at that time,” Francis surmised. “He got unwell and got progressively worse. I saw the Chris Lee make-up [from 1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN], and I hated it, just hated it. And by this time, Hammer had cleared with Universal, so they could use the original makeup. I’d seen the original FRANKENSTEIN with Boris Karloff, which nobody will ever top. I don’t know that they asked Christopher to play the monster. I suspect—I don’t know this, but I suspect that, by this time, Christopher was looking for a little better conditions.” As for who made the choice of New Zealand wrestler Kiwi Kingston as the Monster: “Rightly or wrongly, I did. I thought we needed somebody more physical than dear old Chris, and our man was physical. But if I had to do it again,” he smiled, “I’d choose someone who could act a little better.”

A long flashback sequence showing the “original” creation of the Monster was written by Hinds totally without dialogue, which seemed to suit Francis’ sensibilities. “One always tries to think of a right way to do it, and the most effective way, and obviously I usually think of the most effective way visually. Because, having been a DP and still am, I always think visually first.” Francis and Hinds had a standing joke about the difference between Hammer’s modern psycho-thrillers and the Gothic horrors: “You can always tell if it’s a Gothic horror. The plot moves twice as slow.” Nevertheless, Francis’ period horror films move along at a good clip.

It wasn’t a big leap from Hammer to Amicus, the American team of writer Milton Subotsky and financier Max Rosenberg who made films in the UK. Francis directed a slough of films for them, including DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), TORTURE GARDEN (1967), THE PSYCHOPATH (1966), THE DEADLY BEES (1967), THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE (1967), and THE SKULL (1965). “The problem with Amicus was, they’d have an idea to do a picture and budget it out to be X, then find they could only raise minus-X for the budget and try to do the picture for less money. The Hammer and Amicus films get kind of confused in my head. On the Amicus films, we used to almost write the script on the floor. One of the two producers fancied himself a writer. I always got along with Milton, but he used to write these scripts that were about 50 pages long, which was about 30 or 40 pages short! But that turned out sometimes not to be a bad thing at all, because I’d have that much more room to do things visually.”

Hammer planned yet another Dracula sequel, and again Francis stepped into the shoes of Terence Fisher, who had directed the company’s first three vampire movies. “I know that on that one, Terry was definitely not fit, so there was never any question of asking Terry to do it. And I suspect that had he been fit, they would’ve asked Terry to do it. Maybe I was the Flavor of the Month, or maybe they just liked what I’d done.”

As with EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, Hammer’s Tony Hinds penned the script under his “John Elder” pseudonym. Asked how he would judge “John Elder” as a writer, Francis said, “He knew exactly the words to put on the paper, and he was fine. I wouldn’t say he was a great writer, but he was absolutely perfect within that framework. Tony would never complain if one altered a little bit here and there. As opposed to when we were doing the Pinter scripts. If the director wanted to change a comma, he’d have to ring up Pinter’s agent and ask, ‘Can we change a comma?’ And he’d call back in an hour and Pinter would say, ‘Yes,’ or ‘No, you can’t change a comma.’ The same is true with Mamet. But their things are about the words and dialogue, it’s important to them.”

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was produced by Aida Young, a diminutive fireball whose eye was always on the clock. “I always got on with Aida,” said Francis. “Slave-driver. I don’t know about slave-driver. When we were doing these little horror films—which we all knew were little horror films—we treated them seriously. While we were doing them, we were dedicated to them. I don’t think she had the feel for films that we all had. I don’t think Aida was as dedicated as we were—rightly so, in a way. Her idea was just to get the film through.”

The film is a visual feast, even if it does not have the creepy fairy tale ambiance of the Fisher films. One thing that sets it apart is its near-psychedelic use of color and canted angles. Shots of the two priests trudging through fog-covered woods and mountains look like moving photos of period woodcuts; shots of the castle and the village rooftops have a gaudy, comic-book flamboyance. The influence of Dracula—even when he is offscreen—is visually represented by an unhealthy amber color on left and right sides of the frame. “Dear old Arthur Grant was a great fan of mine when I was a cameraman. I let him use my filters from THE INNOCENTS for that, with a sort of graduating colors coming in from the side.”

Interestingly, one sequence with Christopher Lee approaching Veronica Carlson is shot without these filters, and the expressions of both actors are correspondingly softer. “I wanted to accentuate the romantic interest between the boy [Barry Andrews] and the girl [Carlson], which I did do in the shooting. But as I say, once I finished shooting, the film is put in the mincing machine. I went away for a weeks’ holiday, and when I came back, they’d finished editing it! It was probably due out in another two weeks at any rate. You couldn’t complain. Well, I suppose I could’ve complained, but they wouldn’t have taken any notice of it.”

Freddie’s son Kevin Francis served as a general gofer on the film. Seven years later, in 1975, he would attempt to revive the company’s style under his own production banner, Tyburn Films, with THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WERE­WOLF. Despite a long-standing antipathy between the often-abrasive son and laid-back father, the younger Francis hired Freddie to direct both films. “Kevin is the greatest Hammer fan in the world,” said his father patiently. “I’m sure if he made a film on the life of Christ, it would be based on Hammer Films!”

During the production of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, Hammer received the Queen’s Award for Export, a prestigious award for which James Carreras had lobbied for quite some time, though not undeservedly. “Well, I’ve been to more elaborate award ceremonies,” Francis chuckled, reminiscing. “They had the Sheriff of whatever county it was where Elstree was, come down and do this little presentation. But one felt glad that a film company had been acknowledged in this way.” The low-key ceremony provided two anecdotes that point out the low esteem with which Hammer was held in the real world, and Carreras’ awareness of it. The decision-makers as well as the presenter of the award apparently knew nothing of Hammer’s output, and Jimmy Carreras assured them that his company made films in the style of Hitchcock, and not, Heaven forbid, those grisly “horror” movies everyone loathes so much. At the official presentation on the DRACULA set, the local sheriff parroted this claim back—after which he stayed around to watch a scene being filmed: Christopher Lee as Dracula, impaled in the back by a huge golden cross, covered in gore, eyes bloodshot, waving his arms spastically and screaming at the top of his lungs. The presenter, with severe understatement, was heard to whisper to his wife, “I say! I believe that man belongs to my club.”

After being hired by David Lynch to photograph THE ELEPHANT MAN, Francis re-embraced his destiny and stayed mostly behind the camera rather than beside it. The films were high-budget and prestige productions in the main, something that always eluded him as a director. One of the closest to outright horror was Martin Scorsese’s brutal remake of CAPE FEAR. With no sense of irony, Francis said, “It’s a terrible thing to say, but I’m against onscreen violence. I can honestly say I was not aware of the onscreen violence while we were shooting. I don’t watch many horror films... but don’t tell anyone.”

Freddie Francis’ work as a cameraman was rightly praised as exemplary during his lifetime and after his death. His work as a director, despite supercilious dismissals from non-fans, was enjoyable and successful. He brought serious craft and professionalism to the movies he made.

Originally published in Video Watchdog #130, May 2007.

(Many thanks to Ted Newsom, Tim Lucas and Donna Lucas for allowing me to reprint the article.)

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