I had planned on finishing up the Lucio Fulci tribute I started last week but I was deeply saddened to learn that the great British filmmaker & cinematographer Freddie Francis had passed away on March 17th due to complications following a stroke. In light of this, I decided to spend some time writing about Francis instead since he’s long been one of my favorite filmmakers.
Freddie Francis began his career in cinema as a camera operator working with directors like Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger on The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and John Huston on Moulin Rouge (1952), Beat the Devil (1953) and Moby Dick (1956).
In the late 50s, he started focusing on cinematography and quickly became a master of his craft. He helped form what would later be called the British New Wave and was responsible for the impressive look of some of the best “angry young men” films of the period such Karel Reisz’ Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960). He also worked with Joseph Losey on Time Without Pity (1957) and Jack Cardiff on the Oscar-winning Sons and Lovers (1960). His early work helped breathe new life into British cinema and his black & white cinematography for director Jack Clayton was especially groundbreaking. The thoughtful drama Room at the Top (1959) and the haunting thriller The Innocents (1961) are both wonderful examples of what Freddie Francis was able to do with his camera.
Francis later turned to directing and was inspired by filmmakers such as Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and Tod Browning, as well as his mentors which included John Huston and Michael Powell.
Some of his best work can be seen in the early films he made for Hammer Studios. Paranoiac is an under-appreciated gem made by Francis in 1963, which is beautifully directed and shot in stunning black & white. The director also managed to get Oliver Reed to deliver one of his greatest performances in Paranoiac playing a tormented alcoholic with a sadistic streak. Another impressive early effort from Francis was the disturbing thriller Nightmare made in 1964. In Nightmare Jennie Linden plays a young girl who’s plagued by nightmarish visions and Francis does a stellar job of bringing the dark dream world she inhabits to life.
His color films were often just as interesting as his early black & white efforts, and some of his best movies included the seven horror films he made with the great Peter Cushing. Their first Hammer film together was the impressive Evil of Frankenstein (1964). Many fans of the Hammer Frankenstein films shun The Evil of Frankenstein because it takes a much different approach to the character of the Doctor compared to how he’s usually portrayed in Hammer films. Instead of making Doctor Frankenstein a crazy & nasty man who’s out to do harm by making a monster, Freddie Francis turned him into a sympathetic character who’s horrified by his creation. It may not be the best Frankenstein film produced by Hammer but is a welcome homage to the classic Universal Frankenstein movies of the 1930s & 40s, and the “birth of the monster” is especially well executed.
Following The Evil of Frankenstein, Freddie Francis began working with Amicus and helmed my favorite British horror anthology, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors isn’t as popular or well known as some other horror anthologies but t has some particularly effective moments and is creatively shot with some exceptional and moody photography. It also has a terrific cast that includes Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland and Peter Cushing as the mysterious fortune teller Dr. Sandor Schreck. Francis had the ability to weave shorter films into a wonderful whole. They didn’t always work, but more often than not they did and in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors he was once again able to coax his cast of actors into giving some memorable performances as the tormented victims of Dr. Sandor Schreck’s horrific prophecies.
Freddie Francis would later on go to direct many other great horror anthologies including Torture Garden (1967) and Tales of the Crypt (1972). Tales of the Crypt is based on the EC Comic series of the same name and it was the first film Peter Cushing made after the death of his wife Helen. I’ve always been touched by the way Freddie Francis and Peter Cushing worked together on Tales of the Crypt. Both men decided to come up with a way to pay their respects to the woman Peter had deeply loved and lost, so they changed the name of Cushing’s deceased wife in the film to Helen and brought actual pictures of her onto the set. Many people assume that Cushing was distraught at the time, but Francis has always said that it was a choice that he and Peter made together to honor her memory. I’m sure that working on the film probably helped Cushing work through his grief because he delivered a terrific and sympathetic performance in Tales of the Crypt as the eccentric Mr. Grimsdyke.
Other memorable films that Francis and Cushing made together include the excellent occult thriller The Skull, which is another favorite of mine along with Legend of the Werewolf (1975), Ghoul (1975) and The Creeping Flesh (1973) which brought Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together again in one of their best pairings.
Oddly enough, one film that Francis and Cushing did not work on together was Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). The film was Francis’ feature entry into Hammer’s Dracula series, but like The Evil of Frankenstein, Francis didn’t necessarily follow Hammer formula in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is nowhere to be found. What his Dracula film does include is some breathtaking studio photography and lovely use of color, which makes it’s one of the most visually striking of all the Hammer Dracula movies. It also has some surprisingly gory moments and the character of Dracula is smartly presented as a seductive, yet scary creature with animal instincts and a nasty temper.
As the 1970s approached Freddie Francis was becoming increasingly tired of the British horror genre he helped create. He had never intended on making a name for himself as a purveyor of horror cinema but the dramas and comedies he wanted to direct never materialized. Horror fans greatly admired his skills as a director and cinematographer so studios like Hammer, Tigon and Amicus continued to offer him projects which he reluctantly accepted. I’m thankful that he did because I think some of his best and most successful work can be found in the atmospheric films he made during the 1960s.
Even his failures were interesting such as The Vampire Happening (1971) which plays like a stylish and utterly silly gothic episode of Benny Hill and the ill-conceived musical horror comedy Son of Dracula (1974) which features an impressive cast of musicians including Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Peter Frampton, Keith Moon and John Bonham.
In the 80s Francis worked as a cinematographer on many critically acclaimed films as The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981, Karel Reisz), Dune (1984, David Lynch), Cape Fear (1991, Martin Scorsese) and Glory (1989, Edward Zwick) which won him his second Oscar.
Thankfully he returned to directing for a brief time to make the terrific chiller The Doctor and the Devils (1985). The Doctor and the Devils was a film that Freddie Francis had wanted to make for 10 years and he got the opportunity to direct it when Mel Brooks (who he had met while working on The Elephant Man) agreed to help produce it. The film is based on a script by Dylan Thomas about the infamous Burke & Hare murders, and it features some terrific performances by a great cast that includes Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Julian Sands, Patrick Stewart and model/pop singer turned actress Twiggy. Unfortunately, Francis was upset with the cuts that 20th Century Fox decided to make to the film. His disappointment and frustration with making The Doctor and the Devils lead him to end his career as a director and focus exclusively on cinematography.
There are few cinematographers that can compare to Freddie Francis and he will be greatly missed, but I also think his wonderful career as a filmmaker has few rivals. It’s a shame that he didn’t make more films but he left us with an amazing filmography of work to enjoy. Even though he often regretted the years he spent in the British horror industry I think his disappoint was largely due to the way critics berated and disregarded the genre. Despite this, he achieved his greatest success there and we are lucky that his talent was used to advance horror cinema in creative and intelligent new directions.