Hammer Films is a crucial part of horror canon, establishing classic genre tropes that would stand the test of time. Founded in 1934 by William Hinds and James Carreras, the British studio began cranking out horror movies in the 1950s by firmly embracing a celebration of life (and, more importantly, death) that went heavy on the makeup and schlock, and low on the necklines and budgets.
Crucial to the Hammer story is director Terence Fisher, widely regarded as one of the first major gothic horror directors. Fisher made movies that were bold in color but black and white in Christian morality — often, they’d feature a seductively logical villain able to rationalize away their crimes but ultimately taken down by faith and reason.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death is as clear a look into Fisher’s worldview as the horror director could make. It's also the one movie you need to watch on Hulu before it disappears from the streaming service after October 31.
Fisher would eventually direct 50 movies, from The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) to The Brides of Dracula (1960). The Man Who Could Cheat Death is number 33, a smaller picture after his 1959 movie The Mummy (not to be confused with the Universal classic from decades earlier).
Like so many Hammer movies, The Man Who Could Cheat Death features house regulars. Most notably, the great Christopher Lee, who had just made his first appearance as Dracula.
Lee plays against type here, an ethical doctor who is drawn into the scheme of Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring). The villainous doctor is obsessed with, you guessed it, cheating death, and years ago created a formula that allowed him to do just that. It was very successful, and he’s lived to over 100 while still looking relatively young. He just needs a transplant surgery every ten years, and his original partner has been helping him for the last 70.
The original partner, Prof. Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marlé), is getting old. Too old to perform surgery. Bonnet is left in a bind that means he must resort to finding someone else.
Marlé is the stand-out of the movie, which is surprisingly stagelike for a Hammer film. It mostly takes place in Bonnet’s stuffy apartment, filled with topless statues he’s made of beautiful women. Much of the movie is conversations between the two men, long-time partners who now find themselves separated by the immovable barrier of age. One has come to regret their experiment, while the other feels compelled to continue.
The film's women, Hazel Court and Delphi Lawrence, are mainly there to fawn over Bonnet, wear fancy dresses, and scream in horror. Court was given particular attention—she was paid $5,000 for a topless scene where Bonnet uses her as a model for a sculpture (you see her full back!), which comes out to around $50,000 in modern-day money. Scandalous for 1959, the scene was only shown in Europe.
At times, The Man Who Could Cheat Death feels like an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, filled with clueless party guests who wonder why people keep disappearing. But by the end of the film (spoiler alert!), Fisher’s trademark morality is in full view: Bonnet has been reduced to a monstrous goblin surrounded by flames.
This isn't Fisher’s best work, but it's a fascinating look at a specific place and time in horror movie history — with a sci-fi twist. It also clocks in at just 83 minutes, making it a low stakes Halloween watch if there ever was one.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death is streaming now on Hulu through October 31.