Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Late Great Jimmy Sangster, Hammer Films Screenwriter

Jimmy Sangster, who penned such classic Hammer films as Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and Brides of Dracula (1960), passed on 19 August 2011 at the age of 83.

Jimmy Sangster was born in North Wales on 2 December 1927. He began his career in film at the age of 16 as a clapper boy and worked his way up to projection assistant. In 1949 he received his first assistant director credit on the movie The Adventures of Jane, based on the famous British comic strip Jane. With Man in Black, released the same year, he began his long association with Hammer Films. Mr. Sangster served as an assistant director on several films, including What the Butler Saw (1950), Whispering Smith Hits London (1952), Spaceways (1953), 36 Hours (1953), and Murder by Proxy (1954).

Jimmy Sangster then served as production manager on several films, including The Stranger Came Home (1954) Third Party Risk (1954), The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), and X: the Unknown (1956).  Although now best known as a screenwriter, it was never Mr. Sangster's intention to go into writing. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds asked Mr. Sangster to write a script. Mr. Sangster protested that he was a production manager, not a writer. Mr. Hinds told Mr. Sangster that if he liked the script, he would pay him for it.  That script was the short film "Man on the Beach (1955).  Jimmy Sangster followed it up with X: The Unknown.

In the end Mr. Sangster would write some of Hammer's most legendary films, including the two that started the studio's run of great horror films: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula. From the late Fifties into the Sixties Mr. Sangster wrote such films as Horror of Frankenstein (1958), Blood of the Vampire (1958), Jack the Ripper (1959), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), The Brides of Dracula, The Mummy, Paranoiac (1963), The Nanny (1965), Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), Deadlier Than the Male (1967), The Anniversary (1968), and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). He also wrote for television, including Armchair Theatre, Motive for Murder, and The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre. He also directed The Horror of Frankenstein.

The early Seventies would see Jimmy Sangster in the director's chair on such films as Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Fear in the Night (1972), as well as American television series Cannon, Banacek, and Faraday and Company. He was still prolific as a screenwriter, writing such films as Fear in the Night, The Legacy (1978), and Phobia. He wrote a good deal for American television, on such shows as Ghost Story, The Magician, McCloud, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Ironside, and Wonder Woman. He was a story consultant on the TV shows Ghost Story and Movin' On.

From the Eighties into the Nineties Jimmy Sangster wrote the film The Devil and Max Devlin (1981), as well as episodes of Concrete Cowboys and Beyond Belief. Over the years Mr. Sangster also served as a producer on several films, including Scream of Fear, The Anniversary, The Horror of Frankenstein, and many others.

In their eulogy for Jimmy Sangster, Hammer Films admits that they owe him a huge debt, even calling him "...perhaps the most important screenwriter in the company's history..." I do not believe that anyone could offer a convincing argument otherwise. With two films, The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, Mr. Sangster, alongside director Terence Fisher, transformed Hammer Films into a studio of quality horror movies. Indeed, Hammer Films would come to rival Universal Pictures in fame when it came to the genre.

The reason Jimmy Sangster had such an impact on Hammer Films is that he was, quite simply, a great writer. Mr. Sangster had an innate knowledge of what made a great horror film. He also knew that for any horror film to be any good had to begin and end with its characters. Mr. Sangster's characters were never two dimensional. They always had some very deep motives for what they were doing, even when what they were doing might seem utterly insane to an outsider. When such characters were brought to life by such actors as Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee, one often had films that were nearly perfect. I rather suspect no other screenwriter had the impact on the history of horror movies that Jimmy Sangster had, taking a small studio into the greatest horror movie studio in the world.

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