Horror Icon Mini-Marathon: FREDDIE FRANCIS

Given that the horror genre is one that is driven primarily by the image and the experience rather than the dialogue or plotting, it comes as no surprise that many cinematographers have made their way to directing by working on low-budget horror films. It is rare, however, that a cinematographer is as well known for his entries in the horror genre as he is for his cinematography in classic mainstream films. Karl Freund was one of the first, and Freddie Francis is a close second.

Francis began his filmmaking career as an assistant camera operator and photographer in British film in the late 1930’s, working his way up eventually to second unit director of photography on John Huston’s big-budget adaptation of “Moby Dick.” That began his very successful career as a cinematographer, working in a variety of very impressive films such as “The Elephant Man,” “The Innocents,” “Return to Oz,” and “Cape Fear.” His fruitful collaboration with David Lynch lasted for many years, and the final film he ever worked on was as Lynch’s cinematographer on the beautifully shot drama “The Straight Story” (which was also the tragic last film for actor Richard Farnsworth, who committed suicide before seeing his performance), a film which saw many film awards nominations for Francis.

Most film fans, however, would know Francis best for his directing work with the most well-known horror studio in British history, Hammer. His first film with Hammer Studios, “Paranoiac,” was released in 1963. He would work with the studio four more times, even doing installments on Hammer’s most well-known franchises with “The Evil of Frankenstein” and “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.” In the midst of his busy schedule, he also found time to direct some of the classic horror anthology films from rival British horror studio Amicus with entries like “Torture Garden” and “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.”

Though known as a director primarily for his horror and supernaturally-themed work, Francis was a versatile and skilled visual craftsman, working regularly with immense talents on both sides of the ocean.

Tales From the Crypt


The first adaptation of the celebrated (and sometimes maligned) comic book series from EC, “Tales From the Crypt” was another entry in the Amicus run of anthology horror films that were as influential as Hammer on the future of horror films. Fitting into the Amicus model perfectly, the film had short horror installments each starring known actors (in this case, Joan Collins and Peter Cushing were the celebrities who met Ralph Richardon’s Cryptkeeper), and the installment about the murderous wife whose Christmas is interrupted by an ax-wielding Santa Claus has become a genre staple.

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Girly


Alternately known as “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly” (which was changed to make it a little less British sounding on its international release), “Girly” is a surprisingly fun and bizarre entry in the “crazy family” sub-genre of horror that built upon the foundation laid by “The Old Dark House” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, and which seems to have been influential on the crazed cannibal family only a few years off in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Based on a play by Maisie Mosco called “Happy Family,” the film boasted a cast of then-unknowns, some of whom (including Howard Trevor, who played Sonny) never ended up working in film again.

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The Doctor and the Devils


A classic Francis period film based on the grave-robbing escapades of Burke and Hare, “The Doctor and the Devils” was a mid-1980’s entry into horror that felt out of its time and place, feeling far more appropriate to Francis’ work at Amicus and Hammer a decade earlier. Based on the script by Dylan Thomas, and produced by “Spaceballs” director Mel Brooks, the film boasts and amazing cast of British actors, including one James Bond (Timothy Dalton), one commander of the Enterprise (Patrick Stewart), and perennial class acts Julian Sands, Stephen Rea, and Jonathan Pryce. The film, lost a bit in the over-the-top films of the mid-1980’s, is a great piece of atmospheric spookiness, and one of the last great films from a truly visionary director.

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