August 20, 2011

Thank You, Jimmy Sangster

Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster passed away on Friday, August 29. He was 83.

I’ve told the story before, about a fateful summer day in ’61 or ’62 when I fell in love with movies at a neighborhood theatre running a triple bill of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959). A few weeks later, they played The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and I was dazzled again. All these films were made by Hammer Films of England, with the same casts and crews. They all starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, all shared the distinctive production design of Bernard Robinson and the magical photography of Jack Asher. They were all directed with uncommon intelligence by Terence Fisher, and they were all written by Jimmy Sangster. No question, these films were driven by the extraordinary collaboration of all these men, but it was Sangster who provided the raw material, the basic scripts that gave Fisher and company something to chew on.

Sangster was, I think, underappreciated. Sangster’s contributions to the horror genre were monumental, yet he was often tagged as a hack, just batting out his scripts, and he didn’t help the impression with his flippantly titled bio, Do You Want It Good, or Tuesday? It reads like a rough draft and Sangster frustratingly glosses over the Hammer years, dwelling on his later work for American television. Yet, he had done so much more. Over time, having seen waves of horror films, I came to appreciate how profoundly original and perfectly subversive films like, say, The Revenge of Frankenstein or Brides of Dracula (1960) had been.

I often thought of Jimmy Sangster throughout my career. I began as a cartoonist and illustrator, writing comics for myself and others. I remembered and tried to replicate how Sangster had told straightforward stories with something original and new at their core. In the mid-90’s, when the illustration field crashed, I became a mostly full-time writer, contributing countless sketches to TV and fixing movie scripts, and I found myself referencing Sangster again.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an address for Jimmy Sangster and I sent in the only fan letter I ever wrote. I don’t know if it ever got to him, it was neither acknowledged nor replied to. I’ve come to think of it as a message in a bottle, but I’m glad I wrote it. I did not gush, did not embarrass. I simply said thanks. Jimmy Sangster had taught me that you could take a classic story and tweak it into something new. You could take well-worn characters and make them fresh again. I simply thanked him for entertaining and challenging me with his stories. I said thank you for being a model and lighting my way. Simple as that.

Thank You, Jimmy Sangster.

Tim Lucas has written a wonderful piece about Jimmy Sangster. Read Pass the Marmalade!
A fascinating interview with Jimmy Sangster on Cinema Retro.


wich2 said...

Great post, Pierre. Thanks for sharing it.


Rick said...

Yes, a lovely post. I don't think I realized how much Jimmy Sangster meant to me till he died. And isn't that too often the way of it? Even before reading your post, Pierre, I was wishing I'd taken the time to write a fan letter to Jimmy Sangster. And for that matter, years ago, to Peter Cushing (actually I did, but never mailed it), to Terence Fisher, to Lon Chaney Jr., to Boris Karloff...and etc. Thanks for the heartfelt post. Jimmy Sangster was a name I'd known almost all my life, and I'm missing him right now.
I think I will now write to Christopher Lee.

Martin Powell said...

Jimmy Sangster was an amazing writer, and his movies inspired me tremendously.

When I saw THE HORROR OF DRACULA for the first time at the age of eleven it was a life changing experience for me.

I wouldn't be the writer I am today without the influence of this remarkable man, who could take classic material and transform it into something fresh, new, and exciting. There would certainly be no Scarlet in Gaslight without the inspiration of Jimmy Sangster.

Rest in peace, sir.

Batcat31 said...

Thank you for writing this.