Friday, May 31, 2013

Psychobabble’s Peter Cushing Film Reader

Throughout Psychobabble’s half-decade history (this being my 700th post), I’ve posted a number of assessments of Peter Cushing’s films and work. I’ve compiled them all into the following handy reader, which I’ve also filled out with a couple of all-new pieces at the end.

British actor Peter Cushing played some timeless characters throughout his long and prolific career, including Dr. Van Helsing of Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and Grand Moff Tarkin of Star Wars, but he is probably best remembered for his record six performances as Dr. Frankenstein for the great Hammer Studios, starting with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Whereas Colin Clive brought a sweaty, manic delirium to the role in Universal’s Frankenstein, Cushing played the mad doctor with diabolical cool and keen intensity even after Hammer’s Frankenstein franchise had descended into burlesque. While not quite as high-profile as his often co-star Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing provided Hammer Horror with just as much backbone… and a great deal more cheekbone. (from Frankenstein A – Z)

1. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957- dir. Terence Fisher)

The Quatermass Xperiment was successful, but it wasn’t the film that made Hammer synonymous with horror. Almost two years of non-horror fare passed before that landmark film arrived. Like Quatermass, Hammer’s reimagining of Frankenstein put more bloody flesh on the screen than audiences were used to at the time, but it did so without masquerading as science fiction and in shocking full color. The Curse of Frankenstein is capital-H Horror. It also fully established the conventions fans would soon associate with Hammer: excessive blood, sleazy sex, and source material with roots in Universal horror. Terence Fisher’s remake arrived just a few months shy of the 25th anniversary of Whale’s original, but the new film could hardly be called a respectful homage. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster makes his film great by jettisoning much of what made Whale’s great. Frankenstein was a poetic, deeply humane portrait of a monstrous innocent driven to horrendous acts after being abandoned by his equally sympathetic creator. The Curse of Frankenstein is a portrait of cruelty. Focus shifts away from the Monster and onto the doctor, who is more villainous than any horror character since Mamoulian’s Hyde, and like Hyde, he is not without his charms because he is played with electrifying gusto. Peter Cushing is great in the title role, magnetic even as he murders a kindly house guest, launches into megalomaniacal rants, or torments the maid with whom he’s having an affair. Christopher Lee makes a lesser impact as the Monster because Fisher gives him a minimum of screen time and doesn’t bother imbuing him with any of the complexities Whale and Karloff gave theirs. Humanity and complexity are not on the agenda here. Its utter cynicism, undiluted by an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style disclaimer, can be felt in many horror films to follow. Typical of a Hammer Horror, critics loathed The Curse of Frankenstein but audiences loved it, and its international success confirmed the studio as the new generation’s Universal and Cushing and Lee as its Karloff and Lugosi. (from Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 4: The 1950s)

2. The Abominable Snowman (1957- dir. Val Guest)

Released just a few months after The Curse of Frankenstein, Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman was only the second genuine monster movie produced by Hammer Studios. As such, it is quite a different beast from the colorful Gothic horror pictures for which the studio was best known, yet its minimalism and the bleakness of its Himalayan setting make it no less creepy. There is also a subtlety and poetry to The Abominable Snowman that is lacking in some of Hammer’s more lavish productions. Studio mainstay Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker play scientists on a quest to find the fabled snow creature, who has been leaving his size-18 footprints all over the surrounding area. While the creature is not among Hammer’s more expertly executed creations, the film provides one of the studio’s most intriguingly sensitive denouements. (from Five Classic Monster Movies for a Snowy Day)

3. Dracula (1958- dir. Terence Fisher)

The suits at Hammer must have taken all of three seconds to decide upon the follow up to 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Just as Universal knew Frankenstein was the natural follow up to their Dracula, Hammer recognized the reverse would work equally well. One can recognize Dracula as a Terence Fisher/Hammer production even before the opening credits are complete: we zoom into a crypt and focus on a casket dripped with vivid red-paint blood. As was the case with Curse, subtlety was not much concern in Dracula. Unlike that film, we are presented with a hero of the highest moral character. Deliciously, Van Helsing is played by the actor who brought such immoral menace to the earlier film. Peter Cushing proves he is just as affecting as the good guy as he was as the bad, bringing much zest and charm and heroic confidence to Van Helsing. Once again, Christopher Lee is somewhat underused as the monster, although his commanding presence and rich baritone are put to much better use as Count Dracula then they were as Frankenstein’s wobbly creature. His greatest scenes are reserved for the beginning of the film. About halfway though, he is reduced to the speechless, leering thing he’d reprise in countless Dracula sequels. Fisher’s film also differs from Stoker and Browning by jumbling character relationships, having Jonathan Harker turn into a vampire and get staked early in the picture, and—most egregious of all—losing Renfield. Yet, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, as it was titled in the U.S. so not to be mistaken for Tod Browning’s film) is the jewel in Hammer’s crown because of the sumptuous visuals Fisher lays out like a decadent, aristocratic banquet: the costumes, the colors, the castles, the wind-blown leaves, the creepy woods— what an invitingly Gothic landscape! Significantly, Hammer’s two big monster movies contributed to a burgeoning monster revival sweeping kid culture in the late ‘50s. The films coincided with the launch of the syndicated “Shock Theater” package that gave a new generation of TV viewers its first taste of Universal’s classic horror. Forrest J. Ackerman capitalized on the craze and fueled it further with his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Like The Mummy, the iconic monsters had laid dormant for a long spell, but a few conjuring words from Forry, horror hosts such as Zacherley and Vampira, and Hammer’s chief screenwriter Jimmy Sangster were enough to bring them back from the dead. Their young legion of followers, now known affectionately as “Monster Kids,” guaranteed these creeps would never be out of the pop cultural floodlights again. (from Psychobabble’s150 Essential Horror Movies Part 4: The 1950s)

 Dr. Abraham Van Helsing : Peter Cushing

Christopher Lee was a perfectly fine count, but Hammer’s Dracula franchise rarely gave him much to do. In some of those films, Lee doesn’t even utter a word. That leaves Peter Cushing to carry those films as fearless vampire killer Abraham Van Helsing. Not only does Cushing do a fine job of picking up the slack, but he goes above and beyond by bringing heroic energy, fatherly sweetness, and doctorly caring to the character. Look at his eyes, he seems to always be thinking, always to be scheming how to thwart Dracula in their latest contest. Gasp as he leaps at those curtains like Indiana Jones, yanking them down to reveal the sunlight that fries Drac in Horror of Dracula. Cringe as he cauterizes his own bitten throat with a red-hot iron in Brides of Dracula, then marvel at his bravery and resolve. Cushing played a villain plenty of times in stuff like Hammers’ Frankenstein films and Star Wars, but he was always most convincing playing valiant Van Helsing—something he did more often than any other actor. (from Assembling theDracula Bad-Dream Team)

4. The Mummy (1959- dir. Terence Fisher)

Hammer stuck close to formula with its final horror of the ‘50s by remaking Universal’s successor to Dracula and Frankenstein. Cushing, Lee, Sangster, and Fisher all return for The Mummy, which actually has more in common with the mediocre sequel The Mummy’s Tomb than the 1932 Karloff vehicle. This is not one of Sangster’s cleverest scripts, but Lee gets to upstage costar Cushing for the first time. Spending much of the movie wrapped in dirty bandages, his face caked in Egyptian mud, Lee is still more sympathetic as lovelorn Kharis than he was in his earlier monster roles. He also gets some quality face time and dialogue during a lavish, 13-minute sequence reimagining the mummification scene from the original Mummy, though without reaching similar heights of claustrophobia-inducing terror. The greatest triumph of The Mummy is that of Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and their brilliant art department. The team’s use of colored lights, painted backdrops, spectacular costumes and props, and sets cluttered with detail make the whole picture look like a canvass thick with rich oils. The Mummy was Hammer’s first horror film to receive some positive critical notices, but its appeal was certainly most obvious to young monster enthusiasts. The horror genre, however, was about to grow up during a decade of near constant upheaval and violence. (from Psychobabble’s 150Essential Horror Movies Part 4: The 1950s)

5. The Brides of Dracula (1960- dir. Terence Fisher)

There was no way its sequel would fully recapture the power of Hammer’s Dracula, because Christopher Lee refused to revisit the count for fear of being typecast (his stance would crumble soon enough). Still there’s a lot of what made Dracula great in The Brides of Dracula. Not suffering any of his costar’s reservations, Peter Cushing happily returns as Van Helsing, and he gets more opportunities to display undeath-defying heroism than in the previous film. His showdown with a dashing non-Dracula vampire is likely Terence Fisher’s most thrilling sequence, climaxing with Cushing getting chomped and taking some rather extreme measures to ward off his own vampirism. Marita Hunt is nearly as arresting in the role of the eccentric Baroness Meinster, while Fisher’s trademark mastery of color and artificial environments provides further distraction from Lee’s absence. The screenwriting team, led by Hammer Stalwart Jimmy Sangster, also came up with an intriguing mystery (why is the Baroness Meinster keeping a young man prisoner in her sprawling castle?) that arguably makes the film more engaging than Hammer’s previous horrors to those already well familiar with how Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy pan out. As is the case with most Hammer pictures, the main allure of The Brides of Dracula is that it provides yet another opportunity to gawk at marvelous sets and costumes rendered in glorious Technicolor and gloriously Gothic images of vampire brides rising from the grave. (from Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror MoviesPart 5: The 1960s)

6. The Gorgon (1964- dir. Terence Fisher)

The Gorgon is one of the few Hammer films that didn't look to Universal's classic era to provide its monster, although the title creature does share some traits with the Wolf Man. Triggered by the full moon, Megaera goes gallivanting all over the German countryside turning folks into stone. Since this is a Hammer film, all the Germans naturally speak with thick British accents. The story is silly to be sure, but as with all the films helmed by Terence Fisher, the photography is sumptuous and the sets are fabulous. No one filmed nighttime scenes like Fisher— he always managed to make them simultaneously deeply dark and dazzlingly vivid. The team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee once again prove to be one of the greatest in horror, arguably rivaled only by the Karloff/Lugosi combo. (from Diary of theDead: Monster Movie Month 2008)

7. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965- dir. Freddie Francis)

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is the horror portmanteau that launched Amicus Productions’ legacy as the home of horror portmanteaus. On board the terror train are Hammer all-stars Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, and Peter Cushing as tarot-reading Dr. Terror. Donald Sutherland’s along for the ride, too. The five tales feature a werewolf that sleeps in a coffin like Dracula (dull but decent ending), a murderous plant (decent but dull ending), a voodoo god who takes vengeance on a thieving jazz musician (Great music! Great fun!), a killer disembodied hand with designs on Lee (not bad), and a sexy vampire who shacks up with Sutherland (Terrific twist!). (from The 10 Best Old Horror Movies That Were Newto Psychobabble in 2010)

8. Torture Garden (1967- dir. Freddie Francis)

This Amicus portmanteau has quite a horror pedigree. Psycho scribe Robert Bloch wrote it. Freddie Francis, who helmed Amicus’ best film, Tales from the Crypt, directed it. The cast includes Burgess Meredith (“The Twilight Zone”), Jack Palance (Dracula), and Hammer mainstays Peter Cushing and Michael Ripper. All that talent can’t elevate this lazily paced assortment of mostly lame stories. There’s an evil cat, some evil actors, and an evil piano. The neat final tale, in which Cushing and Palance play Edgar Allan Poe fanatics, is the only one worth watching. Meredith is also good as the master of ceremonies leading a tour through a carnival house of horrors. (from Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 3)

9. The Vampire Lovers (1970- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

Hammer screams “Fuck it… bring on the boobs!” from the mountaintops with its first full-on, unapologetic fusion of sexploitation and vampiresploitation. You know you’re in for a non-stop boob fest when the recently departed Ingrid Pitt gets top billing. Fortunately, Pitt transcends that limited image with her energetic presence and committed acting. She plays a lusty vampiress who goes around biting and bedding everyone in sight. Well, everyone but Peter Cushing. That would be gross. The depiction of a predatory lesbian vampire is homophobic, but Pitt plays her with such humanity that she earns our empathy much more so than her vacant-eyed victim, whom she genuinely seems to love. Hammer execs probably would have been happy if The Vampire Lovers was nothing more than a static shot of cleavage for 90 minutes, yet it still manages to house all the atmosphere, color, production values, and fangy fun that made the studio great in the first place. In fact, with its black and white inserts, imaginative use of shadows, and fine sound design, The Vampire Lovers is more aesthetically creative than most Hammers. Check it out; then check out the brilliant parody “Vampire Lesbian Lovers of Lust” from Steve Coogan’s series “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible”. (from The 10 Best Old Horror Movies That Were Newto Psychobabble in 2010)

10. Tales from the Crypt (1972- dir. Freddie Francis)

Throughout the ‘60s, Hammer Studios unquestionably ruled British horror and set the pace for other U.K. thrill-merchants in terms of stories, style, and stars. Amicus Productions trailed behind Hammer but still managed to hack out a specific niche for itself by becoming the number-one exporter of horror portmanteaus. The first of these pictures appeared in 1964. Directed by Freddie Francis— essentially Amicus’s Terence Fisher (he also worked as an ace cinematographer for the likes of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese)— Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was typical of the portmanteaus to follow: brief tales of varying quality bolted together by a frame story resolving in grotesque irony. Hammer refugees, such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, were often along for the ride. Amicus churned out ten of these movies, the best of which was certainly Francis’s 1972 adaptation of five gruesome episodes that originally appeared in E.C. horror comics. Tales from the Crypt is so consistently good because the source material is top-notch, lending itself to brief segments beautifully. Screenwriter Milton Subotsky selected some real classics. “…And All Through the House” puts a couple of brilliant spins on the axe-murderer scenario by casting the killer as a Santa Claus amok on Christmas Eve and the victim as a murderer in her own right. “Reflection of Death” is executed, like its illustrated forerunner, from a clever first-person perspective. “Wish You Were Here” is an update of “The Monkey’s Paw” with a truly disturbing twist. The other pieces aren’t quite up to those standards, although “Poetic Justice” features a nice turn by Peter Cushing and “Blind Alley” is the likeliest to get viewers squirming in their seats and gasping that old E.C. interjection: “Good lord! Choke!” (from Psychobabble’s 150Essential Horror Movies Part 6: The 1970s)

11. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a blast, an audacious blend of two totally distinct yet totally different genres. In the Hammer horror corner we have a black-caped Dracula, striking color, strident music, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. In the chopsocky corner we have a longhaired Kung Fu master, nonstop hand-to-hand combat, and some requisite bad dubbing (although, in this case, it is a perfectly sensible plot device). The interracial romances are unexpected in an early 70s B-movie such as this—and quite refreshing. I bet this movie gives Quentin Tarantino a boner. (from The 10Best Old Horror Movies That Were New to Psychobabble in 2010)

12. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974- dir. Terence Fisher)

 The final entry in Hammer’s Frankenfranchise is probably best known for the negligible performance of David “Darth Vader” Prowse as the monster, who looks like a stitched-up troglodyte with lockjaw. Three years before he’d costar with Prowse in Star Wars, Peter Cushing plays the creator for the last time. Hammer’s Frankenstein films were rarely as interesting as the studio’s multitudinous Dracula pictures. This one gets off to a great start, percolating with wacko campiness and sicko humor, but it soon settles into the lethargy that plagued most of Hammer’s Frankensteins. Manages some dopey pathos toward the end, but overall, a washout. (from Diary of theDead 2010: Week 4)

13. Madhouse (1974- dir. Jim Clark)

Vincent Price is Paul Toombes, a horror star institutionalized after a masked killer chopped off his girlfriend’s head with a letter opener. Everyone thinks the man who made his name playing B-movie villain “Dr. Death” is responsible. Madhouse is kind of like a sleazy Targets. Just as Peter Bogdanovich’s film was a knowing tribute to Boris Karloff, Jim Clark’s reflects on Price’s career, but with less insight and elegance. Madhouse is depressing at times, not because we’re witnessing a terrific actor lamenting the devolution of horror into graphic exploitation à la Karloff in Targets, but because we’re watching one actually participating in such a movie. Two if you count Peter Cushing. There’s an interesting push and pull between the quaint monster movies of yore (note former-“Van Helsing” Cushing in pancakey Dracula makeup during a costume party) and the graphic, misogynist slasher films that replaced them. Like so many self-aware horror movies, Madhouse wants to have its cake and eat it too, functioning as both exploitation-criticism and exploitation. This creates a self-loathing unease, and Price’s orneriness throughout the movie probably isn’t mere acting. Yet Madhouse rises above the mass of slasher flicks because of a good performance from Price, a great one from ghoulish Adrienne Corri, and an ending that approaches brilliance. Madhouse also retains some of the spookiness and splashy color of Price’s work with Roger Corman, which we actually see in old footage scattered throughout the movie. Vintage images of Karloff and Basil Rathbone (both deceased by ’74) in these clips contribute to the elegiac tone. (from A Vincent a Day series)

14. Star Wars (1977- dir. George Lucas)

For a lot of American kids of a certain generation, the first Peter Cushing film they see is Star Wars, which is an unusual starting point both because the actor was much better known for Gothic period pieces than space operas and because the big personality gives such a tightly restrained performance here. There is not a flash of the humanity that usually made Cushing such a complex villain in his turn as Grand Moff Tarkin. Perhaps that’s appropriate because, as I’ve said before on this site, Tarkin is basically a space Hitler, destroying an entire race of people—the Alderaanians—without a moment’s hesitation or the slightest intrusion of conscience. Tarkin is all the more chilling because while Darth Vader is unquestionably the film’s most memorable villain, it is the Grand Moff who calls the shots. Aside from Emperor Palpatine, he’s the only character in the Star Wars trilogy who ever exercised authority over the Sith lord. In a line I’m surprised George Lucas hasn’t since digitally erased from the movie, Princess Leia even tells Tarkin, “I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash,” which makes explicit Darth’s position as a henchman rather than a leader in this film. Nevertheless, Tarkin gets relatively little screen time in Star Wars, leaving the bulk of the work to a cast that is stronger than memory sometimes suggests. I always remember Mark Hamill as too whiney and unimposing, but that really is what Luke Skywalker requires in the days when he’s still a teenager and hasn’t harnessed his latent Jedi powers yet. At a mere 19-years old, diminutive Carrie Fisher gives a commanding performance as the princess and deserves a trophy for so adeptly wrapping her jaws around Lucas’s arrhythmic dialogue. Even trapped inside his movement-limited golden coffin, Anthony Daniels draws on his mime training to give a great comic performance as C-3P0. And of course, Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford are pros old and new.

TV bonus…

15. Hammer House of Horror: “The Silent Scream” (1980- dir. Alan Gibson)

Peter Cushing played a Nazi-esque character in Star Wars. In the seventh episode of the anthology series “Hammer House of Horror,” he played the real deal. The actor had embodied some bad dudes in the past, from Frankenstein to Tarkin, but even he had reservations about playing an ex-Nazi pet shop owner who snares a con (the excellent Brian Cox) as part of a demented experiment. While the actor exuded steely calm to make Tarkin’s villainy clear, his affability as Martin Blueck makes the character Cushing’s most insidious. The nihilistic denouement gives everyone involved comeuppances deserved and otherwise. Like any anthology series, “Hammer House of Horror” was hit or miss, but many viewers, including this one, agree that “The Silent Scream” is its most genuinely horrific installment. This stems as much from the script as it does from Cushing’s face, whether low-angle lighting presents it as a monster mask or the same kindly smile we saw directed at cute puppies in his pet shop is now burning through the terrified victim in his dungeon trap. In poor health and with just a handful of roles left to enter on his résumé, Peter Cushing was still performing at the top of his powers in “The Silent Scream.”

Part of the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon

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