Presbyterian Pastor Sees Christian Worldview in Horror-Film Director’s Work
Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth and Religion
Reviewed by Denis C. Grasska
From the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, Terence Fisher directed a series of popular gothic-horror movies for Hammer Films, a British studio perhaps best remembered for introducing the world to actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
In his book, Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth and Religion, Presbyterian pastor Paul Leggett analyzes Fisher’s films from a Christian perspective, making a compelling argument that the British director should be seen as a 20th-century Christian apologist.
According to Leggett, “Fisher’s work can be truly appreciated only when his primary motion pictures are recognized as spiritual allegories.” In Fisher’s films, Leggett says, the spiritual world is as real as the material world, and the eventual triumph of good over evil is assured.
Leggett’s book examines how Fisher’s Christian faith shaped his filmography, which includes several installments in the “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” series, as well as films about the mummy, the werewolf, the Phantom of the Opera and other cinematic boogeymen. (Also analyzed are such non-horror films as “The Sword of Sherwood Forest” and “Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace.”)
Leggett observes numerous Christian elements in Fisher’s work.
One example is the director’s use of the cross, which he depicts as having an objective power that comes from Christ’s triumph over sin and death; even unbelievers can use it to ward off vampires or hold evil at bay, because its power is unaffected by their lack of faith.
Leggett points out that Fisher also presents the werewolf curse as something that can be resisted by upright living and through the love of others, and repeats Fisher’s own claim that Baron Frankenstein’s repeated failures are testimony to the power of God.
Leggett’s analysis of “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” is especially insightful.
The "Dracula" sequel features the resurrection of the vampire count (Christopher Lee), who in an earlier film had turned to dust in the light of the rising sun. Throughout the film, Dracula utters nothing more than a series of menacing hisses.
“In Fisher’s view,” he writes, “Dracula cannot completely undo the effects of his earlier defeat. He is present and active but, nonetheless ... he is a weakened figure.”
The book, which benefits from the inclusion of several production stills and international posters from many of Fisher’s films, is not without its shortcomings. For one thing, the author does little to reign in his obvious enthusiasm for Fisher’s films. Additionally, not all of his insights are equally convincing, and at least one seems downright contradictory.
For example, Leggett criticizes Universal Studios’ 1932 version of “The Mummy” as “essentially agnostic,” because the film “accepts the reality of the goddess Isis as a spiritual force for good.” He points to a scene in which the heroine prays to a statue of Isis for deliverance from the mummy, contrasting it unfavorably with Fisher’s presentation of non-Christian religions as “either demonic or illusory.” In Fisher’s version of “The Mummy,” he writes, “the religion of the ‘great god Karnak’ (essentially a pseudonym for Osiris) is little more than a bloodthirsty cult.”
But during his analysis of Fisher’s “The Devil Rides Out,” Leggett seems untroubled by the fact that the protagonist of that film invokes the Egyptian deity Osiris while battling the forces of evil. Rather than being branded “agnostic,” the film is presented as further evidence of Fisher’s Christian worldview. Readers might reasonably wonder how the film’s hero could ever acceptably invoke a pagan god, especially one whose cult Fisher has depicted elsewhere as “bloodthirsty.”
The book also might have benefited from additional proofreading and fact-checking. For instance, “Star Wars” fans will be scandalized to discover that Leggett refers to Peter Cushing’s villainous Grand Moff Tarkin as “General Tonk” and misspells the name of Princess Leia’s home planet, Alderaan. More curiously, he misidentifies the murder weapon in a pivotal scene from Fisher’s own “The Curse of the Werewolf.”
But despite its imperfections, the book is still a welcome work of scholarship. It challenges readers to consider the possibility that horror films can serve as vehicles for religious themes – a revolutionary concept in an age when so many horror films are dominated by exploitative gore and sexuality. (Interestingly, Leggett’s book also documents Fisher’s falling-out with Hammer Films over the studio’s growing interest in such objectionable content.)
“In a world of increasing chaos and disintegration,” Leggett writes in his book’s final sentence, “the cinematic vision of Terence Fisher is still very much needed.”
Also needed are more authors like Leggett, whose books can bring about a deeper exploration of Christianity’s intersection with popular culture – an intersection that, as this book suggests, is sometimes prowled by vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night.
This commentary first appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Southern Cross.