Don Sharp, a veteran film director who had never watched a horror movie until Hammer Films enlisted him in the mid-1960s to help revivify its presentation of Gothic terror, died last week. He was 89.
To aficionados like Martin Scorsese, Hammer’s vampires, monsters, werewolves, and exposed bosoms were the perfect escape, particularly in Technicolor. The joke that Hammer started with a title and a lavish poster and then figured out the story was pretty much true.
But the acting mattered, particularly that of Christopher Lee, known for his Dracula and his Frankenstein’s monster, and Peter Cushing, whose roles included Baron Frankenstein. And so did the directing, especially that of Terence Fisher, who is credited with creating the Hammer style of dramatic terror, awash in physicality, sexuality, and color, in the 1950s.
But by 1962, the year Fisher’s “Phantom of the Opera’’ appeared, Hammer was losing affection for its premier director. “Phantom’’ got terrible reviews and did poorly at the box office. (It would later be regarded as a Hammer cult classic.) Mr. Sharp, a former actor, was brought in to rescue Hammer, and not so incidentally his own career. Put to work on a film called “Kiss of the Vampire,’’ he immediately pleased his bosses by hiring inexpensive television actors.
The result was an immediate success that continues to resonate with people who relish this sort of thing. “Kiss’’ told the story of a honeymooning couple who become caught up in a Bavarian vampire cult. Its opening scene depicts a graveside service in which a drunken professor throws a spade into the coffin. A scream erupts, and blood spurts from the casket. Another scene, a lavish ball sequence, is believed to have inspired a similar set piece in Roman Polanski’s “Fearless Vampire Killers’’ (1967).
Mr. Sharp was praised for meticulous direction that emphasized grand theatricality and did not condescend to trashy scripts. Howard Thompson of The New York Times called the movie “a quietly stylish, ice-cold treat.’’
Mr. Sharp went on to make two more features for Hammer, “The Devil-Ship Pirates’’ (1964) and “Rasputin: The Mad Monk’’ (1966), with Lee playing the bearded, wild-eyed Russian. Mr. Sharp applied the Hammer technique to other movies. In 1964, he directed Lon Chaney Jr. in “Witchcraft.’’ He made two movies about the Asian archvillain created by the novelist Sax Rohmer: “The Face of Fu Manchu’’ (1965) and “The Brides of Fu Manchu’’ (1966), both starring Lee. He continued to do pictures that flirted with the very strange, including “The Curse of the Fly’’ (1965), which involved recessive fly genes, teleportation, and romance.
Donald Herman Sharp was born in Tasmania, Australia, and enlisted in the Australian Air Force in 1941. He began acting on stage and radio. Immigrating to England in 1949, he wrote, acted, and began directing children’s shows. Moving up to teenagers in 1958, he made “The Golden Disc,’’ a movie about the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll.
Later in his career, Mr. Sharp made higher-budget pictures with better-known actors. His 1978 remake of “The Thirty-Nine Steps’’ was praised for its attempt to adhere to the John Buchan espionage novel it was based on, though most reviewers said it failed to rise to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version. Mr. Sharp directed more than three-dozen movies.
Information about his survivors was not available.
Not a few Hammer fans contend that “Kiss of the Vampire’’ is one of the greatest Gothic horror movies ever made - with one qualification. They cringe at the special-effects finale, when a flock of bats is dispatched against the vampires. The bats appear to be suspended on strings and are plainly made of rubber.