Monday, 22 August 2011
Jimmy Sangster RIP
Screenwriter behind Hammer films such as Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein
Sunday 21 August 2011 15.33 BST
In 1957, Hammer Films revived gothic horror – in abeyance in a decade that offered nuclear or cosmic horrors which made the classic monsters seem tame – with The Curse of Frankenstein, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. To hear him tell it, Jimmy Sangster, who has died aged 83, wrote the script because no one else would, and simply typed it out and turned it in.
Yet Sangster came up with a new story – owing as little to Mary Shelley's novel as to James Whale's earlier film – and a radical depiction of Frankenstein as a determined, charming yet corrupt dandy who could still chill in an era of nuclear proliferation. Sexually amoral (he uses his monster to murder the maid he has impregnated), rigidly dividing his life (making a bloody hash in the laboratory; prissily refined at the breakfast table) and intent on his "higher calling", this Victor Frankenstein was as ruthless, fascinating and yet remote as the social climber of Room at the Top or the early James Bond.
The same team – Sangster included – then created the even more successful Dracula (1958). Sensing a formula which worked, or in a hurry, Sangster reused the template of The Curse of Frankenstein: Cushing's visionary character is repeatedly thwarted by the ineptitude and small-mindedness of everyone around him, although here Cushing is Dr Van Helsing, and his goal is not the creation of Lee but his destruction, with Lee cast as an unprecedentedly active, virile Dracula.
When Hammer wanted to remake The Curse of Frankenstein, Sangster agreed to write it if he were also allowed to direct. The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) isn't a terribly good black comedy, and Sangster was similarly deprecating about Lust for a Vampire (1971), a troubled production he helmed when his old colleague Fisher was sidelined by a road accident. The suspense movie Fear in the Night (1972) is his best work as director.
He was born James Henry Kinmel Sangster in Kinmel Bay, north Wales. His estate agent father was persuaded to put in the town's name because he was supposedly the first baby born there. He was educated at Ewell Castle school, in Surrey, and entered the British film industry at 16 as a production assistant. After service with the RAF, he worked as a third assistant director on Ealing Studios productions (The Captive Heart, Pink String and Sealing Wax). He joined Exclusive Studios, which would become Hammer Films, in 1949, and worked as assistant director and production manager on many of the B-pictures the studio turned out before gaining success and prominence in horror.
Private I, his first novel, was published in 1967, and adapted as an American TV movie (The Spy Killer) in 1969. This led to more work in American TV, as story editor or scriptwriter on shows such as Banacek and Wonder Woman. He contributed supernatural scripts to Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the anthology show Ghost Story. Though retired from the late 80s, a shelved Sangster script was filmed in Germany as Flashback in 2000. His memoirs (Do You Want It Good Or Tuesday? was the characteristic title) were published in 1997.
In recent years, he recorded DVD commentaries in which he affected total surprise that anyone would be interested in his work. The screenwriter Peter Atkins describes him as "a very self-effacing writer who was better than he thought he was and who gave all of us, I think, moments of genuine pleasure with his work".
He was married to Monica, a hairdresser on the early Hammer films, from 1950 to 1968; they had a son, James. He is survived by his second wife, the actor Mary Peach, and his son.
• James Henry Kinmel Sangster, screenwriter, producer, director and novelist, born 2 December 1927; died 19 August 2011