Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Passings: Freddie Francis, Cinematographer and Director

Freddie Francis, one of the twentieth century's finest lensmen and director of some of the most enjoyable efforts of the British horror film boom of the 1960's and '70's, passed away on St. Patrick's Day at age 89.

The man's incredible (and for this movie nerd, indispensible) body of work has merited volumes of scholarly study and more than a few tributes. Rather than wax too verbose myself, do yourself an enormous favor and check out this brief but excellent reflection by Tim Lucas. I can only point at Lucas's fine work and say, um, "What he said."

Directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch hired him to shoot their films, but if you'd like to see what all the hubbub is all about for yourself, here's an on-the-fly list of Freddie Francis's most essential efforts--both behind the camera lens and in the Director's Chair--from this cramped quadrant. That many of these films have already merited mention in this here Blog over the years is no accident.

The Innocents (1961): This got some major Petri Dish lip service back in October. Suffice it to say that Francis's contributions as cinematographer forged this movie's spooky magnificence more surely than Jack Clayton's solid direction or any of the fine performers in front of the camera.

The Skull (1965): Peter Cushing plays the latest owner of the ghoulish title trinket in this wild adaptation of Robert Bloch's short story, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade". The special effects will likely induce titters in modern audiences (said skull gets some, um, levitation help from some rather obtrusive wires), but remove the jaded 21st century goggles and this stands as one of the most jarringly creepy British horror movies of its day. The disorienting skull POV shots and fluid tracking work are pure Francis (despite the fact that he directed and left the DP duties to John Wilcox). Sadly, it's not yet on DVD here in the states.

Glory (1989): I've yet to see Wives and Lovers, Freddie Francis's first Oscar-winning cinematography gig, but his painterly touch on this great Civil War epic netted him his second Academy Award. Glory also represents earnest-but-erratic director Ed Zwick's most successful attempt to wed social conscience with real honest-to-God cinema artistry to date.

The Elephant Man (1980): Anyone who doubts David Lynch's smarts as a director need only view his first major-studio feature, shot with expressionistic beauty by Francis. Lynch would hire Francis twice more as cinematographer (for Dune and The Straight Story), but this remains their shining collaboration.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965): Again, I'll point backwards on this to an earlier Petri Dish entry. One of the finest omnibus horror films ever, with Francis's directorial knack for inciting suspense and his eye for vivid color combining famously. Amazingly enough, this one's not yet on stateside DVD, either.

Tales from the Crypt (1972): Another Francis-helmed omnibus chiller, based on the EC Comics of the '50's. All of the stories are terrific, but the highlights here are "All Through the House," in which Joan Collins is menaced by a Santa-suited psycho, and "Poetic Justice," which features one of the late Peter Cushing's most poignant service of a tale of gruesome zombie retribution. George Romero's and Stephen King's Creepshow owes its very existance to Francis's work here. Another great effort of the era yet to see the light of digital day in the US.

Trog (1970): Probably Freddie Francis's most ludicrous movie by conventional standards, this Herman Cohen-produced-unfrozen-caveman epic still entertains (and, yeah, this ain't the first time this Francis-directed saga merited mention in this Blog, either). Ironically, while many of Francis's best chillers remain MIA on the domestic DVD front, Warner Home Video will be releasing Trog domestically in June.


Ivan G. said...

Amen about The Skull. I saw it as a mere sprat and that goddam thing gave me nightmares for weeks on end.

Rita said...

Shame on you for not having seen Glory yet. Its not a perfect film but its worth seeing. I smell a new addition to our netflix list....