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19 December 2011

Don Sharp (1921 - 2011)

Don Sharp with Edward de Souza

Marcus Hearn pays tribute to the Hammer director, who died yesterday.

Don Sharp had never seen a horror film before producer Anthony Hinds screened a selection for him at Hammer House in 1962. Despite Sharp’s lack of experience in the genre, Hinds saw potential in the Australian director and his faith was rewarded in three Hammer productions over the next few years: The Kiss Of The Vampire, The Devil-Ship Pirates and Rasputin The Mad Monk.

Hinds’ script for The Kiss Of The Vampire (1962) played like the quintessential Hammer horror, but Sharp complemented the established style of the Gothic films with a heightened element of suspense. The shock moments that were Hammer’s signature now seem par for the course, in stark contrast to the mounting sense of dread and paranoia engineered by Sharp as Gerald Harcourt (Edward de Souza) realises his wife has been kidnapped.

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1963) was another film that hinged on a conspiracy, but this time Sharp was charged with providing a family-friendly follow-up to Hammer’s previous swashbuckler The Pirates Of Blood River (1961). At least this time the budget ran to constructing a ship, although when the prop galleon threatened to sink, Sharp made the best of a bad job and set light to it for the final act. Jimmy Sangster’s script employed a scenario familiar from Hammer’s The Camp On Blood Island (1957), and Sharp wrings considerable tension from a plot largely predicated on the avoidance of conflict. The film marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between the director and his star, Christopher Lee.

Sharp and Lee returned to Hammer’s Bray Studios for Rasputin The Mad Monk (1965), an embellished biopic that was compromised by a budget squeeze, the threat of a lawsuit from Rasputin’s real-life assassin and some unsympathetic editing from the producer, Anthony Nelson Keys. Despite these constraints, Sharp elicited a towering performance from Lee that ranks alongside the greatest of his career.

Hammer’s Michael Carreras offered Sharp the chance to direct Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (1971) and To The Devil A Daughter (1975), but Sharp was unable to accept the former and had no faith in the latter. His fourth and final assignment for the company was "Guardian Of The Abyss", one of the best remembered episodes of the 1980 television anthology Hammer House Of Horror.

Outside Hammer, Sharp directed Christopher Lee in The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965), the first and best of that decade’s films based on Sax Rohmer’s character, and its follow-up The Brides Of Fu Manchu (1966). The two were reunited in Dark Places (1972) and Bear Island (1978). The latter belongs to the most lavish period of Sharp’s film career, when he finally graduated to bigger budget features like Hennessy (1974) and The Thirty Nine Steps (1978). He was, however, at his best when directing modest yet idiosyncratic horror films such as Curse Of The Fly (1964) and the remarkable Psychomania (1971).

"The Kiss Of The Vampire and The Devil-Ship Pirates are among the happiest movies I ever worked on,” he told Christopher Koetting, reflecting on his time at Hammer. "At Bray, when you walked through the gate, everything was on your picture. There was a family feeling about it, and a feeling of pride as well; everybody knew their craft and inspired others."

Don Sharp, 19 April 1921 - 14 December 2011 (corrected dates)

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