Terence Fisher, 1953
Starring: Stephen Murray, Barbara Payton, James Hayter, John Van Eyssen
“I didn’t ask to be born so I have the right to die.”
In a small, English village, childhood friends Bill and Robin grow into determined scientists and develop an experimental device that can duplicate matter. The genius of the pair, Bill, is in love with another of their childhood friends, the beautiful Lena, but Lena prefers Robin. When Lena and Robin marry, after the pair announce their scientific success, the forlorn Bill becomes determined to alter the Reproducer machine so that it can replicate living beings. With Lena’s reluctant help, he makes a twin, who he names Helen, and hopes she will love him. But something about Helen is not quite right…
Hammer’s first sci-fi film might not quite belong in my British horror series, but Four Sided Triangle is a key early piece of the puzzle and marks their transition from a studio who produced primarily adventure and suspense films to one of the world’s biggest horror studios. Based on a novel by William F. Temple, there is also much to connect the film with Hammer’s first big hit, The Curse of Frankenstein, far more than just the presence of Hammer’s chief director, Terence Fisher. It also has a lot in common with Hammer’s most important sci-fi series, the Quatermass trilogy that would soon follow. For one thing, Four Sided Triangle has little in the way of special effects but much in the way of dialogue.
The style of Four Sided Triangle — basically a black and white radio drama captured on film — might seem unfamiliar to fans of Hammer’s Gothic horror, but it fits in perfectly with their other sci-fi films from the period like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X the Unknown (1956), and Quatermass 2 (1957). The laboratory sets are charming and it’s easy to see how Fisher — who unusually cowrote this film in addition to directing it — further developed much of Four Sided Triangle for his early Frankenstein films. But while the Quatermass films place an equal emphasis on science and horror, Four Sided Triangle is far more concerned with melodrama and human tragedy than it is with the legitimate workings of science.
I’m not exactly giving away any spoilers — the film is presented as somewhat of a tragedy from its opening frames, as there’s a preachy biblical quote about man’s perhaps doomed scientific dabbling, and the proceedings are narrated by the village doctor. He is clearly telling the story after the fact and speaks sympathetically about all of the characters, though particularly Bill. Though far more human than Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein, Bill is an early example of one of the studio’s beloved stock characters: the genius who does not begin as a villain, but is driven there by his obsessions.
This film has some of Hammer’s most interesting, if damaged characters. Bill’s abusive childhood is revealed and it offers something of an explanation for his tormented nature. His obsession for Lena is deeply connected with this, though it’s mind boggling that she goes along with his plans. She is also psychologically tormented — admitting to the doctor that she longs for suicide — and her desire to duplicate herself seems to stem from an inability to chose between Bill and Robin. It’s undeniably strange to see a science fiction film from this period with such well developed themes of love, sexual obsession, and personal torment, but it’s easy to see how this would go on to influence the more complex sci-fi of the ‘80s in films like David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Dead Ringers. And I wish The Four Sided Triangle had seen these themes through to their logically perverse ends, but it only goes so far as Helen’s suicide attempt — because she is also in love with Robin instead of Bill — and Bill’s ultimate plan to erase her memory to make her love him.
Though it won’t be for everyone, I really do have to recommend Four Sided Triangle. Pick it up on DVD if you like classic sci-fi or if you want to see the origins of some of the tropes that would emerge in Hammer’s later years, including their first instance of conclusion by fire. Though they would use this repeatedly over the years, the burning of Bill’s lab neatly — though frustratingly — concludes the film, as the kindly doctor and Robin (John Van Eyssen who would soon reappear in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula) realize that Helen has been killed, but Lena has survived. A little ambiguity wouldn’t have killed them. The film’s incessant moralizing is a little annoying, but it’s hard to find a ‘50s sci-fi film without at least a little of this included. And regardless, it sets up some early philosophical implications about doubles, clones, and twin-ship that would be explored later down the line in ‘70s and ‘80s sci-fi horror.