The religious themes in the B-movie horror films directed by Terence Fisher for Hammer Films could fill a book.
In fact, there is such a book.
Leggett’s interest in Fisher and in religious themes in horror films is more than merely professional. He’s a lifelong fan of Fisher, going back to a screening of The Hound of the Baskervilles at the age of 13, and displays a breadth of knowledge about horror and fantasy before and after Fisher and Fisher’s inspirations in classical and ancient mythology as well as biblical and Christian tradition. When I called Leggett recently to discuss his book and Fisher’s films, and mentioned that I had written a brief essay offering a Christian appraisal of horror, he expressed interest, and laughed appreciatively when I mentioned the reservations some pious viewers have with this genre. "You don’t say," he chuckled ironically.
By any measure, Fisher is a pivotal figure in the development of the horror genre. Following on the classic Hollywood Universal horror films of the 1930s and 40s, Fisher pioneered the modern horror film for England’s Hammer Films with remakes of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), and went on to direct a number of Hammer staples including Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Devil Rides Out, often working with such Hammer regulars as Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings), Peter Cushing, and Barbara Shelley.
What differentiated Fisher’s films from the earlier Universal oeuvre, besides overt religiosity and more frightening and provocative imagery, was their bracing sense of realism. Earlier horror films and even fantasy films, from silent classics like The Thief of Bagdad and Nosferatu to the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein to The Wizard of Oz, presented fantasy scenarios in a way that was highly stylized. Fisher’s films were more immediate, less gothic, with a strong sense of internal logic.
But Fisher is most interested in another quality that differentiates Fisher’s films both from the Universal horrors and the later gruesome slasher genre. Leggett argues that the Universal films were basically areligious, oriented toward science or mythology rather than religion. Fisher, however, was a high-church Anglican, and famously called his films "basically morality plays" that reflect his personal belief in "the ultimate victory of good over evil." Echoing this, Dracula star Lee cites the ultimate destruction of evil in Fisher’s films as the reason "the Church doesn’t object to these films, and why they are so popular in Ireland, Spain and Italy."
Leggett’s book goes further, documenting at length that Fisher’s films depict not just the triumph of good over evil, but specifically the triumph of the cross over the powers of hell. Beginning with his groundbreaking take on Dracula (better known in the US as Horror of Dracula), and above all in his 1968 film The Devil Rides Out (The Devil’s Bride), Fisher’s films establish the cross as the ultimate spiritual force, a power before which the Devil himself is helpless and powerless, and that can save any who have recourse to it.
Not that Fisher was the first filmmaker to depict crosses having power over vampires and other agents of evil. Religious themes were indeed nearly absent from the silent Nosferatu, but Universal’s 1933 Dracula did include a scene in which Bela Lugosi’s Dracula cringes from an inadvertently displayed crucifix hanging from the neck of a potential victim.
Fisher’s use of religious imagery, though, went far beyond anything in the Universal films. In Fisher’s Hammer horrors, the cross is more than an incidental deterrent — it’s a weapon capable of destroying evil. In Dracula, when Peter Cushing’s van Helsing thrusts a large cross into the face of one of Dracula’s minions, the undead flesh bursts into flame at the point of contact, scarred as if by a branding iron. In The Devil Rides Out, characters repeatedly throw crosses and holy water at satanic manifestations, instantly short-circuiting them.
Fisher’s films, in fact, invest the cross with a quasi-sacramental character. For Leggett, it’s significant that the object need not be a "formal" cross; Fisher sees the same power in a pair of candlesticks held at right angles (perhaps as St. Francis and his followers used to reverence any likeness of the cross they saw in the world around them). The power of the cross pervades creation, attesting the universal significance of Christ’s atonement.
Nowhere is this theme more clearly expounded than in The Devil Rides Out, which stars Lee as a Christian occult expert, the Duc de Richleau, battling a satanic cult. Crosses, holy water, the scriptures, fictionalized ritual and sacred symbology, and prayers in Latin are all part of de Richleau’s arsenal against the forces of darkness.
At times Fisher’s imagination runs counter to literal Christian belief and even morality, as when de Richleau engages in a sanitized form of what is effectively necromancy or spiritism, summoning the spirit of a recently departed character and causing it to be channeled through the body of another character. Within the fictional context of Fisher’s fantasy world, though, de Richleau is simply making prudent use of imaginary spiritual laws, and significantly takes the trouble to establish that the spirit he has contacted comes from heaven, not hell, asking her to verify that she acknowledges the Lord Jesus Christ. Leggett argues persuasively that The Devil Rides Out is the most overtly Christian horror film ever made.
At the same time, one of the strengths of Leggett’s book is that the author doesn’t shy away from critiquing his subject, even when discussing the films he praises the highest. All too often, writers setting out to document overlooked virtue in what they deem underrated sources go to the opposite extreme of overlooking flaws. Leggett, by contrast, is candid about the limitations of Fisher’s means and method as well as of the end result.
Leggett isn’t interested only in Fisher’s use of religious iconography. His book discusses such themes as the attractiveness and seductiveness of evil, the inexorability of original sin, the destructiveness of lust, and the dividedness of the self. His book is a valuable and enlightening commentary on an intriguing body of work.
Stop-motion animation — which, unlike computer animation and traditional hand-drawn cel animation, utilizes real objects shot frame by frame, with tiny adjustments made between shots — is a defiantly old-fashioned, niche medium, often used to creepy effect: Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline; Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie; Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
Horror represents a field many Christians approach with trepidation, and rightly so. The horror shelves of bookstores and video stores are very largely a wasteland of mindless, tasteless trash; indeed, there may be no other genre as disproportionately overrun with junk. Yet the grotesque, the macabre, and the frightful have an abiding place in human imagination and culture — a place that Christian sensibility has historically not seen fit to reject or condemn, at least entirely.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.