He achieved his greatest successes as a cinematographer, including winning two Academy Awards, for Sons and Lovers (1960) and Glory (1989). As a director, he was associated with the British production companies Amicus and Hammer in the 1960s and 1970s.
Born in Islington in London, England, Francis was originally intending to have a career in engineering. At school, a piece he wrote about films of the future won him a scholarship to the North West London Polytechnic in Kentish Town. He left school at age 16, becoming an apprentice to a stills photographer by the name of Louis Prothero. Francis stayed with him for six months. In this time they photographed stills for a Stanley Lupino picture made at Associated Talking Pictures (later Ealing Studios). This led to him successively becoming a clapper boy, camera loader and focus puller. He began his career at British International PicturesB.I.P, then to British and Dominions. His first film as a clapper boy was The Prisoner of Corbal (1936).
In 1939, Francis joined the Army, where he would spend the next seven years. Eventually he was assigned as a cameraman and director to the Army Kinematograph Service at Wembley Studios, where he worked on many training films. About this, Francis said, "Most of the time I was with various film units within the service, so I got quite a bit of experience in all sorts of jobs, including being a cameraman and editing and generally being a jack of all trades".
Following his return to civilian life, Francis spent the next 10 years working as a camera operator. Some of the films he worked on during this period include The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Beat the Devil (1953), and Moby Dick (1956); he was a frequent collaborator with cinematographers Christopher Challis (nine films) and Oswald Morris (five films). His first feature with Morris was Golden Salamander (1950).
He was on the second unit of Moby Dick. He then went on to become a main unit director of photography on A Hill in Korea (1956), which was shot in Portugal. He subsequently worked on such prestige pictures as Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Sons and Lovers (1960), and The Innocents (1961), which he regarded as one of the best films he shot.
Francis received many industry awards, including, in 1997, an international achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers, and, in 2004, BAFTA's special achievement award.
Following his Academy Award win for Sons and Lovers, Francis began his career as director of feature films. His first feature as director was Two and Two Make Six (1962). For the next 20-plus years, Francis worked continuously as a director of low-budget films, most of them in the genres of horror or psycho-thriller.
Beginning with Paranoiac (1963), Francis made numerous films for Hammer throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These films included thrillers like Nightmare (1964) and Hysteria (1965), as well as monster films such as The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). On his apparent typecasting as a director of these types of films, Francis said, "Horror films have liked me more than I have liked horror films".
Also in the mid 1960s, Francis began an association with Amicus Productions, another studio like Hammer which specialised in horror pictures. Most of the films Francis made for Amicus were anthologies such as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1968) and Tales from the Crypt (1972). He also did two films for the short lived company Tyburn films. These were The Ghoul (1975) and Legend of the Werewolf (1975). As a director, Francis was more than competent, and his horror films possessed an undeniable visual flair. But he regretted that he was seldom able to move beyond genre material as a director. Francis directed the little-seen Son of Dracula (1974), starring Harry Nilsson in the title role and Ringo Starr as Merlin the Magician. Of the films Francis directed, one of his favourites was Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970). Mumsy... was a black comedy about an isolated upper class family whose relationships and behaviors came equipped with deadly consequences. The film was not very well received by mainstream critics, but has gone on to become a minor cult favourite amongst fans. In 1985, Francis directed The Doctor and the Devils, which is based on the crimes of Burke and Hare.
Francis's last film as director was Dark Tower (1987) (no relation to the 2004 book of the same name by Stephen King). Francis thought it was a bad picture owing to poor special effects and had his name taken off it. His name was substituted with the name Ken Barnett. Francis is featured in the book Conversations with Cinematographers (2012) by David A Ellis and published by American publisher Scarecrow Press.
With The Elephant Man (1980), directed by David Lynch, Francis found himself gaining new-found industry and critical respect as a cinematographer. During the 1980s he worked on films like The Executioner's Song (1982), Dune (1984) and Glory (1989), which earned him his second Academy Award. Francis provided the cinematography for the critical favourite The Man in the Moon as well as Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear (both 1991). His final film as cinematographer was David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999), which was shot on location in Iowa in 23 days. One of his favourite camera operators was Gordon Hayman. He made several films with him including the Cape Fear remake and Glory, but Hayman was left off the credits for the later film by mistake.
Freddie Francis married Gladys Dorrell in 1940, with whom he had a son; in 1963 he married Pamela Mann Francis, with whom he had a daughter and a second son.
He died at age 89 as the result of the lingering effects of a stroke. His son Kevin Francis is a film producer.Mine Own Executioner (1947)
Room at the Top (1958)
Sons and Lovers (1960)
Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960)
The Innocents (1961)
The Elephant Man (1980)
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
Cape Fear (1991)
The Man in the Moon (1991)
School Ties (1992)
A Life in the Theatre (1993)
The Straight Story (1999)
The Evil of Frankenstein (Hammer, 1963)
Traitor's Gate (1964)
Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965)
The Skull (Amicus, 1965)
The Psychopath (Amicus, 1966)
The Deadly Bees (Amicus, 1967)
They Came From Beyond Space (Amicus, 1967)
Torture Garden (Amicus, 1968)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Hammer, 1968)
Trog (Herman Cohen Productions, 1970)
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (Brigitte, Fitzroy Films Ltd, Ronald J. Kahn Productions, 1970)
Tales From The Crypt (Amicus, 1972)
The Creeping Flesh (Tigon, 1973)
Tales That Witness Madness (World Film Services, 1973)
The Ghoul (Tyburn Film Productions, 1975)
Legend of the Werewolf (Tyburn Film Productions, 1975)
The Doctor and the Devils (Brooksfilms, 1985)