We often focus so much attention on the true magicians of cinema that it is easy to let a couple of B-movie masters sneak by. While their films are by no means masterpieces, there are elements of creativity and sequences of originality that clearly served their influences on future directors.
British director Terence Fisher is responsible for the best of the Hammer films. Having risen from the ranks of longtime staff, Fisher knows exactly how to make the most out of their famously frugal budgets. Beginning with "The Curse of Frankenstein" in 1957 and "Horror of Dracula" in 1958, Fisher established the style of Hammer horror. His films always get off to a fast start and literally drop the characters in the middle of the action. So much success meant that Hammer had to continue to fashion stories out of their two biggest successes. One would think that writers could not continue to excise stories from the myth of Dr. (now Baron) Frankenstein.
1967's "Frankenstein Created Woman" works in miniature. With a handful of locations, Fisher extracts its drama from a storyline that grows all the more macabre as you watch. Even as it descends into predictability, Fisher finds ways to stage chases and more elaborate build-ups. Years later, Martin Scorsese would credit the film and even show it among his favorites. 1969's apocalyptic "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" opens with a beautiful set piece in a lab before seemingly going in all directions at once. In a remarkable turn for Fisher, he balances and unites the threads of the story, while Baron Frankenstein grows more malevolent and manipulative. Gory and grim, the places where this Hammer film goes wrong ironically point to their future direction and ultimate demise.
Canadian writer/director David Cronenberg is the pioneer of "body horror" films. Given a minuscule budget on his late Seventies films, Cronenberg found a way to inject them two facets not found in horror films, dark humor and even a bit of social commentary. His 1969 student film "Stereo," shows his potential for narrative storytelling. Disguised as file footage for a laboratory, "Stereo" artfully examines telepaths in passing relations. The largest victory of "Stereo" is how Cronenberg can make buildings and large rooms look so isolated and futuristic.
The future is a grim place for Cronenberg. 1979's "The Brood" is an evil beast commentary on custody battles and anger. While the gore is pushed to the maximum, the terror sequences are elegantly staged to first give you no indication of where it will go (and mock consumerism.) Later, the camera (much like in "Stereo" takes an objective angle to plant ideas in your head that resonate even if you turn away from the violence. 1981's "Scanners" is flawed but a showcase for his potential. Yes, there are some terrible actors and some real moments that are dated. However, Cronenberg should receive credit for updating the Seventies paranoid/technology fear ("The Parallax View") for a more Science Fiction audience. Also given the characters possessing an innate ability to control minds and more, it predates "Stranger Things" by decades. "Scanners" has its moments and ties everything together in the end. As this is the film that established Cronenberg in the States, let's hope he grants some young filmmaker the right to reboot his rich tapestry of mistrust, biological manipulation, and unimaginable power.
Watch these while you can, as Filmstruck will draw its curtains at the end of November.