Peter Cushing: “The Gentle Man of Horror”

Actor. Gentleman. Scientist. Vampire Hunter. Time Lord. Detective. Imperial Badass.

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“The most professional actor I have ever worked with. He’s highly regarded all over the world as a brilliant actor, and deservedly so. If they knew what we got up to on the set in every film we’ve made… the imitations that I used to do, the dances that he used to do… ” – Christopher Lee.  

There is one reason why horror movies no longer appeal to me. They are certainly a barren and soulless place without the late great Peter Cushing (1913-1994). Best remembered for producing the definitive versions of Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing for Hammer horror films, he was an actor of exceptional range and skill.

Before he made his indelible mark on the horror genre, he had appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, and had leading roles in a string of TV adaptations including Pride and Prejudice, The Winslow Boy, and most notably in the live dramatisation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the latter production which inspired the producer Michael Carreras to invite him to to star in the film destined to change his life forever…

In 1957, he appeared in Curse of Frankenstein, playing the notorious scientist totally different to the pained and remorseful character envisaged by Mary Shelley. Cushing’s Baron Frank was a cruel and cunning piece of work, who is prepared to push a visiting professor to his death just to get a head. The monster was played by fellow horror maestro: Christopher Lee. It not only marked the establishment of a formidable partnership, but a lifelong friendship.

Its stupendous success led to another interpretation of an infamous gothic character the following year. Dracula (1958) certainly gave the opportunity for Lee to create a career-defining performance, but in Van Helsing, Cushing was calm and collected, sensitive yet determined, and ultimately presented an admirable adversary. It’s amazing to consider now how energetic both roles were: the gripping climax in which Van Helsing runs the length of a banqueting table, tears down the curtains and lunges at a sunstruck Dracula with two silver candlesticks pressed together to form a crucifix is said to have deen devised by Cushing himself!

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“When he did Sherlock Holmes, he went to a very famous teacher of the violin so that he knew how to hold it… When he was making The Mummy, he went to the hospital and and sat in with operations. He was very meticulous…” – Joyce Broughton (his secretary).

Peter Cushing could adapt to any role. In 1959, he played Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Directed by Terence Fisher, many Holmes afficianados consider Cushing’s detective as the definitive article.

In 1965, the success of BBC’s Doctor Who led perhaps inevitably to the big screen. In order to maximise transatlantic appeal, Cushing was cast in place of William Hartnell, playing the Time Lord as an endearing grandfatherly figure in Dr Who and the Daleks. Its phenomenal success led to a sequel: Daleks’ Invasion of Earth: 2150 AD. (1966).

Other distinctive roles included: The Mummy (1959), and H. Rider Haggard’s She (1965). In an attempt to emulate hammer’s success, Amicus Productions joined the horror bandwagon, involving Cushing’s invaluable services. Some of the most notable films included: Dr Terror’s House 0f Horrors (1964) in which he dealt tarot cards foretelling the fate of passengers on a train; and The Creeping Flesh (1972) whereby a horrific skeleton from the jungles of Borneo “will be resurrected when the gods shall weep.”

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“The boots they gave me [to wear as Grand Moff Tarkin] were far too small. I said to George: ‘…whenever possible, could you please shoot me from the waist up?’ He very kindly agreed… I was really wearing carpet slippers. That is why Moff Tarkin was so hostile… his feet were killing him” – Peter Cushing.

The passing of his beloved wife Helen in 1971 devastated him. In subsequent years, he made movies of a distinctly lesser quality; this was a concerted attempt to keep his mind occupied as he adjusted awkwardly to a crushing existence of loneliness.  

In one of his more entertaining roles, he appeared as a delightfully daffy professer in At The Earth’s Core (1976), alongside trusty fantasy stalwarts: Doug McClure (“a very dear chap”) and Caroline Munro (“so sweet”). Absolutely hilarious, he was gifted with such dialogue as: “A rhamphorynchus! In this day in age! How extraordinary!”

Maybe George Lucas was a Hammer fan? This would help explain Cushing’s appearance in the original Star Wars (1977) as Grand Moff Tarkin: a brief, yet deliciously malevolent turn. No other actor could lace the phrase: “You may fire when ready” with such bloodcurdling doom!

Nevertheless, in real life, Peter Cushing was a kind and gentle fellow, always approachable, and never said a harsh word about anyone. Although honoured with an OBE in 1989, Peter Cushing never won any movie accolades; yet surely he has topped most horrorfans’ and movie-goers’ polls and – as new generations discover the various gems of his amazing career – he will continue to do so.

Perhaps the last words should be left to the maestro himself:

“The tremendous affection that people shower upon me, and the interest they take in my work, touches me so deeply…

“To think that young people are still interested enough in me to write about me and see my pictures is pretty marvellous!”

 

 

Dracula Unwanted: NO Vlad For Brad!

Vampires are make-believe, just like elves and gremlins and eskimoes.

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“It is time for our culture to abandon Dracula and pass beyond him” – Robin Wood.

With Halloween just a week away, it seemed appropriate to select a topic on fear and dread and all things undead. What better subject than vampires to concentrate on? 

Hey, not so fast!

Unfortunately, any movie featuring fangs, long capes, dodgy Eastern European accents or Robert Pattinson has become strictly off-limits. It has come to the pathetic point that any mention of vampires invokes connotations of mediocrity and monotony, while the very mention of the name: Dracula is likely to send me into fits of boundless irritation.

So, here we go again: the release of Dracula Untold has – not surprisingly – been met with a critical mauling, and less-than-encouraging cinema attendances. At least it concentrates on the origin story of Vlad the Impaler. Let’s face it: this is the only direction with which Stoker’s tired and moribund story could still be tolerated by an equally tired and indifferent cinema-going public.

In the publicity material, Vlad’s suit of armour looks mightily impressive, but then – sign of the times – conceptual art tends to look more impressive than the completed movie these days. Nonetheless, the film still sucks (ha!). You could publish a book just collecting all the reviewers’ vitriol and sarcasm brimming over at rottentomatoes.com  

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“Our very first encounter began with me storming into [Peter Cushing’s] dressing room and announcing in petulant tones: ‘I haven’t got any lines!” …and he said drily: You’re lucky. I’ve read the script'” – Christopher Lee.

Had to rush home the other night to watch the 1958 Dracula on TV – it still proves to be a rare absolute joy; it deserves to be regarded as the greatest vampire movie ever – the pinnacle to which lesser bloodsucking bios strive but always seem to fail spectacularly.

Christopher Lee produced a fabulous (not to mention frenetic) performance to become the definitive Prince of Darkness. Yet it is Peter Cushing as his nemesis: Van Helsing who really enhanced the material, helping to turn it into a compelling drama. It could be argued that without these two icons – at the height of their powers – it seems unfeasible that Hammer Studios could have flourished for as long and successfully as it did. 

Doesn’t matter that Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968) warned that “you can’t keep a good man down,” poor conceptions of Transylvania’s most notorious individual failed to impress in later Hammer vehicles. Even Lee himself was becoming seriously dischuffed about having fewer consequential things to do as the sequels became more silly and superfluous… 

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“Dracula remains dead and well (or dead and loving it); other monsters merely endure. After Bram Stoker’s Dracula, their revival became obligatory” – Kim Newman.

It seems somewhat inevitable that this struggling post would twitch and stagger to the ubiquitous subject of vampires. For a brief period during the 80s we could enjoy an original and enjoyable revival of the fanged ones, with Fright Night (1985 – yay, Roddy!), cult classic Near Dark (1987) and the real “children of the night” The Lost Boys (1987).

Yet somehow, as Francis Ford Coppola’s bold and lavish “faithful” adaptation of the the novel: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) failed to attract my interest. For all its grandeur, it made for turgid viewing. The only true scare to be gleaned from this whole wasted effort was being subjected to Keanu (“severe drop in cinema attendances”) Reeves as Jonathon Harker. Oh, The horror, the horror!

Since then, what undead undoings have we been subjected to? Alas, more than a few unfortunate instances entailing the regrettable loss of 90-120 minutes have befallen me, and – guess what! – movies involving vampires were always to blame…  

By far the worst offender came in that feckless dire heap known as Van Helsing (2004), wherein Hugh Jackman showed that he just could not step into the substantial and hallowed shoes of the late, great Peter Cushing. When Kate Beckinsale co-stars in figure-hugging black, you realise how desperate the film-makers really are! Naturally, this led to more unbearable tosh in the wretched form of Underworld and its unwanted stream of vacuous sequelsand now the reboot has just been announced!…? 

And – ye gods! you lucky mortals! – you’ve been spared my rant against Twilight!

No matter how many silver crucifixes you stow away, or how much garlic you secrete about your person, there will always seem to be an unending supply of intolerable vampire movies ready to give horror movies a bad name.  

(Must sign off here before typing that dodgy remark about them being a pain in the neck…)