Hazel Court: Forties film heroine who later became a cult favourite as a horror movie 'Queen of Scream'

Pert and pretty, Hazel Court was a versatile actress who for several years was the epitome of the deceptively demure, often spunky, but very English heroine in British films of the Forties. Her engaging performances in such films as Dear Murderer and Holiday Camp have become largely forgotten, however, due to Court's emergence in the Fifties as the star of early Hammer horrors and the stylish Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by Roger Corman with such horror icons as Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, which made her a cult favourite with fans of the genre and earned her the label "the Queen of Scream".

The daughter of a professional cricketer, G.W. Court, she was born in Birmingham in 1926 and set her sights on an acting career at an early age. Although her family moved to Sutton Coldfield when she was six months old, she gained her first stage experience with the Birmingham repertory company. When her enterprising sister sent Court's photograph to the director Anthony Asquith, he referred her to Ealing Studios for an interview, and she was given a small role in Champagne Charlie (1944), a salute to Edwardian musical halls starring Tommy Trinder and Stanley Holloway.

Court had one line – "I've never had champagne before" – but she had a better role as leading lady to the comedians Flanagan and Allen in Dreaming (1944), followed by another period musical, Gaiety George (1946). Her popularity grew when she played Sally Gray's crippled sister in Carnival (1946) and Phyllis Calvert's sister in The Root of All Evil (1947), and she had a telling part as a feisty secretary whose fiancé (Maxwell Reed) temporarily ditches her when he falls for the charms of a vamp (Greta Gynt) with a lethally jealous husband (Eric Portman) in Arthur Crabtree's serviceable adaptation of the hit play Dear Murderer.

She was given her first starring role teamed with the American actor William Eythe in Meet Me at Dawn (1947), Thornton Freeland's limp comedy about the escapades of a professional duellist, but she followed it with one of her most memorable performances when loaned to Gainsborough Films to play a leading role in Ken Annakin's Holiday Camp (1947). Annakin's first feature film after six years of making documentaries, the film captured the mood of its time with its economical and imaginative script and its effective use of location footage of a real holiday camp.

"Among a group of young actresses lent to us by Rank," wrote Annakin in his autobiography, "the most outstanding and beautiful was Hazel Court, who incidentally became a friend for life. She played the daughter of Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison [in their first appearance as the Huggetts] and represented the millions of girls who had lost their men in the war, but were hanging in there."

Holiday Camp was a great success – "The Huggetts absolutely caught the spirit and feeling that existed after the war," said Annakin – and it stands up well today, but Court's subsequent starring roles were in weak movies – a portmanteau film about items being prepared for a wedding, Bond Street (1948), a laboured comedy despite a script by Terence Rattigan and Rodney Ackland, and My Sister and I (1948), an artificial murder mystery that did little for Court or Sally Ann Howes, who played her sister. Also in the cast was Dermot Walsh, who became Court's husband in 1949.

One of Court's better films was George King's Forbidden (1949), in which she gave a spirited portrayal of a fairground ice-cream vendor who falls in love with a married man (Douglas Montgomery) while fending off the advances of a shady spiv, Kenneth Griffith.

She starred with Walsh in two lively "B" thrillers, Ghost Ship (1952) and Counterspy (1953), then in 1954 she played in the first of her "cult" movies, the low-budget sci-fi tale Devil Girl from Mars, in which a leather-clad Martian (Patricia Laffan) comes to Earth to take men back to her female-dominated domain. Lack of funds for special effects resulted in moments like that in which a transformation shot of Laffan is achieved by a simple photographic effect of a rippling image, prompting one onlooker to comment, "Ooh, look, she's gone all wobbly." "That film haunts me!," said Court in a 1990 interview: "Everywhere I go people say, 'Oh, I saw you in Devil Girl from Mars!' I think it only took about two weeks to shoot and it was made on a shoestring. We got paid next to nothing."

After several more "B" movies and a television series, Dick and the Duchess (1957), in which she starred with Patrick O'Neal, Court's red hair and green eyes were seen in colour for the first time when she was cast in the role which would redefine her persona, Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which not only changed the course of her career, but launched the Hammer horror cycle, stretched existing boundaries of gore, and teamed Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for the first time. "I always thought Peter was living in the wrong century," said Court. "He should have been born in the 1880s. It seemed odd to think of him in the modern day because he gave the impression that he belonged in a costume."

Court's next Hammer movie was Fisher's The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959). "I think a reason those films were so successful," said Court, "was that we all took them very seriously, and managed to convince the audience of our sincerity. There was no tongue-in-cheek attitude until we made The Raven, which was meant to be funny!"

Court was nurse to a mad doctor (Kieron Moore) in her next Hammer movie, Dr Blood's Coffin (1960), then in 1962 she made the first of three films in which she was directed by Roger Corman, The Premature Burial (1962), at the climax of which Ray Milland shovels dirt on her as she lies in a grave. "I was really in there doing my own stunt. The scene required me to hold my breath for a full minute, but they did use cork instead of actual dirt."

Court described Corman's The Raven (1963) as her favourite film "because everybody laughed and joked and it was fun to work with three such talented giants of horror films, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. Karloff was a great charmer, and Peter had great sex appeal. When Peter talked to you, it was as if you were the only person in the world." In 1963 Court divorced Walsh, having established a home in the United States, where she worked frequently on television between movies, and in 1964 she married the actor-director Don Taylor, who had directed her in an episode of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (As an actor, Taylor is best remembered as the young man who marries Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride.)

Nineteen sixty-four was also the year of Court's last major film role, and the most admired of her Corman films, the gaudily exotic Masque of the Red Death, with Vincent Price. "Vincent would always have a twinkle in his eye on the set, laughing and joking, but when we would be shooting, he'd flip right back into character," she said. "We became very good friends. In fact it was Vincent who encouraged me with my painting, which eventually led to sculpting. He loved my work and even bought a number of them."

After retiring to bring up her family, she further developed her interest in sculpture, travelling to Italy every year to carve, and her work was exhibited in public galleries. After Taylor's death in 1998 she enjoyed attending movie conventions and corresponding with fans. She had recently completed her autobiography, due for publication next week, its title reflecting the genre for which she accepted that she was best known, Hazel Court: Horror Queen.

Tom Vallance

Hazel Court, actress: born Birmingham 10 February 1926; married 1949 Dermot Walsh (died 2002; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1963), 1964 Don Taylor (died 1998; one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 15 April 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?