Freddie Francis (1917-2007) b. Islington, London, England.
Although not in at the beginning of the British horror wave, this London-born ex-cameraman made as many distinctive contributions to it as anyone else in the field. Given half-way decent material – which he very rarely was – Francis proved that he could make some very stylish and compelling chillers. After studying engineering, the 19-year-old Francis was apprenticed to a stills cameraman, then found his way into the film industry as a clapper boy at Elstree Studios, graduating later to camera assistant at Gaumont-British studios. War service with the Army Film Unit interrupted his career, on demobolisation he became a camera operator at Denham on films such as Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949) and Gone to Earth (1950). It was 1956 before he got his first solo credit as director of photography, on A Hill in Korea (1956). In 1960, Francis took an Oscar for his black-and-white camerawork on Sons and Lovers and two years later turned to direction, after filming additional scenes for Day of the Triffids (1962). His early films as director are distinguished by their skilful use of black-and-white to heighten suspense and an air of the mysterious. Later, inevitably, Francis worked for Hammer, although his best films were all made away from that studio: parts of the multi-story Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Skull (1965), The Psychopath (1966) and Torture Garden (1967). Easily his best work was Tigon Pictures The Creeping Flesh (1973). A great deal of mumbo-jumbo in this film part-scientific about evil blood cells overcoming good ones, and part-legend about a rain god weeping – is handled with sufficient flair to keep the audience from dissecting its latent absurdities. But the film’s secret lies in Francis’s style, never flashy, but knitting together the complicated plot with considerable skill. It also benefits from his photographer’s eye: the keyed colour blends oaty browns with blacks and off-whites, and fills the night with hidden horror, so enveloping us in its scheme of things that the flash of a mad woman’s red dress stands out like a beacon. The feel of the woodland scenes is more Scandinavian than English, evoking a shiver from angle and shadow, as the great hooded figure of evil moves slowly and relentlessly through the mists in the background. The Creeping Flesh is a most reticent film to find in the midst of a horror boom that leans heavily on gore and sex, but it was the last thing of any note to be made by Francis to date. Three of his last seven films, indeed, did not even have a proper release. Since beginning to direct, he has returned to cinematography occasionally – on Night Must Fall (1964) and The Elephant Man (1980), both in his favourite black-and-white. But he won a second Oscar, for his (colour) cinematography on Glory in 1989. Later he lensed Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear (1991), and for David Lynch again, for Francis’s swansong The Straight Story (1999).