PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

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Although Peter Cushing passed this mortal coil in 1994, he made a recent, posthumous appearance—albeit a digital one—in what is probably his most famous non-Hammer role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue One. His debut film performance was, aptly enough, for Universal horror icon James Whale in Man in the Iron Mask(1939), but it wasn’t until Terence Fisher’s 1957’s Curse Of Frankenstein for Hammer Studios that Cushing secured his iconic niche. Unlike the Universal Frankenstein series, Fisher focused on the doctor himself, as opposed to the monster. With his frosty blue eyes, silver-tongued elocution, and gaunt frame, bringing a fervent athleticism to his early performances, Cushing was ideally cast.

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Echoing John Huston’s brilliant deduction that Humphrey Bogart’s villainous screen qualities could be transposed to that of a protagonist in The Maltese Falcon, Terence Fisher next cast Cushing as the quintessential Van Helsing in Horror Of Dracula (1958). These dual roles, Frankenstein and Van Helsing, cemented Cushing as a horror genre star. It was typecasting that kept his services in demand, and for which he was grateful.

PETER CUSHING CHRISTOPHER LEE ANDRE MORELL FRANCIS DE WOLFF MARLA LANDI 'THE HOUND OF THE BASKER VILLES' HAMMER FILMS 1958 Dir TERENCE FISHER PETERCUSHINGBLOG.BLOGSPOT.COM

He also made an excellent Sherlock Holmes in Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, again cast opposite Lee. It’s possibly the best screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel, and one of Hammer studio’s finest hours. Cushing brings an irreproachable, authentically physical fire-and-ice quality to the role. The film is relatively faithful to the novel, which will surprise those expecting Fisher to transform it into a horror opus—although it has his trademark red-blooded pacing and brooding atmosphere. Lee, as Sir Henry, may not be as exquisitely cast, but brings flair to the character. Someone must have forgotten to tell Fisher, Cushing, cinematographer Jack Asher, set designer Bernard Robinson, and composer James Bernard that this was an overly familiar story, because they approach it with a refreshing sense of discovery. Lee recalls his genuine affection for his late co-star in an interview included on the DVD. Unlike their Universal Horror predecessors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Cushing and Lee became best of friends. Co-starring opposite each other in twenty-four films, their chemistry was undeniable, and although they did substantial solo work, their names are practically synonymous.

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Cushing was cast as the infamous Dr. Knox for Britain’s Shepparton Studio in Flesh And The Fiends(1960, written and directed by John Gilling). Similar to his Victor Frankenstein, Cushing’s Knox is obsessed by his work. His is an icy, stern, brash, one-eyed doctor, but not without a degree of introspective sympathy, in sharp contrast to the deplorable Burke and Hare (as portrayed here by George Rose and Donald Pleasance). As with many “mad doctor” films, Knox is driven to immoral extremes by a medically regressive climate. The cast, which includes an early performance by Billie Whitelaw (best known as the literal nanny-from-hell in The Omen), is uniformly excellent. The production values surpass even the early Hammer entries; surprisingly, it’s also far more risqué. Gilling’s direction is assured,with an eye for detail, particularly (and admirably) gutter detail. Not so much horror as history, it’s a seriously underrated gem featuring a striking performance from Cushing.

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1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

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In 1968 George Romero released one of the most relentlessly frightening movies ever made in Night of the Living Dead, but it took a couple of years for the midnight movie crowd to make it into an epic cult phenomenon. Seen today, it holds up effectively, even with our sensibilities jaded from countless hack imitations. Its grainy black, white, and gray palette serves its otherworldliness well during a late night viewing on big screen, which I how I first encountered it. Even Romero could never quite match it, although he continued to try for forty years.

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The argument can be made that Romero’s best post-Night of the Living Dead films were outside the zombie genre (The Crazies, Martin, NightRiders, and Creepshow). Still, no one does zombies like Romero (as Tom Savini proved with his 1990 NotLD remake), and the movie closest to the impact of the original was its immediate sequel, Dawn of the Dead(1978), which was a shock satire on Western consumerism, brutalizing in its late 70s comic book colors and deliberate plays on banality. Some claim Dawn is Romero’s masterpiece, although it lacks the original’s reinventing-the-wheel, rough-edged freshness. In 2004, Dawn was remade by Zack Snyder who completely missed Romero’s acerbic wit. The underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was the third in Romero’s original zombie trilogy, but did not attain the cult status of its predecessors. Its financial disappointment seemed to render it a finale to Romero’s zombie oeuvre. However, Romero, who has always been a sporadic filmmaker, returned with The Land of the Dead in 2005, which was followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and what looks to be his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Each of Romero’s zombie sequels has its equal share of fans and critics, but at the very least, he has tried to say something new with each entry.

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None have attained the compact rawness of that 1968 yardstick, however. Duane Jones became a cult icon as the doomed protagonist Ben. Previously an English professor, Jones was the first African-American to have a starring role in a horror feature (the script does not specify Ben’s ethnicity). Judith O’Dea, as Barbara, is the eternal victim ( in Savini’s remake, the character is recast as a feminist femme fatale). Together, they hole up in a farmhouse and fight off the marching dead, but are inevitably at the mercy of hayseeds with guns. The shot-on-the-cheap crudeness and novice acting actually add to the mundane horror. It was riveting enough to create an entirely new genre, but predictably, its unique qualities have eluded pale imitations.

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Elsewhere in 1968, AIP’s Wild In The Streets (directed by Barry Shear) was both hippie exploitation and a political satire starring that fifteen minute idol, Christopher Jones, along with Shelley Winters, Hal Holbrook, and Richard Pryor. It became an instant cult hit and received predominantly good reviews. The Mini-Skirt Mob (directed by Maury Dexter), on the other hand, was a biker exploitation that was as bad as its title indicated. Not to be left out, Herschell Gordon Lewis contributed She-Devils on Wheels. It’s about (drum roll)… biker chicks. It’s pretty damned entertaining.

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Joseph Sarno began his famous series of arthouse erotica with Inga, starring Marie Liljedahl, who became a very short-lived sensation. Sarno followed this with two more Inga films (minus Liljedahl) before going into actual pornography.

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Back on the Gothic end of the spectrum, Boris Karloff barely made it through his last three films:  Fear Chamber, House Of Evil, and  Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar.  It was on the set of Curse that Karloff caught pneumonia and died shortly after. Sewell fared no better directing Peter Cushing in The Blood Beast Terror. John Carradine continued a downward slide with Ted V. Mikel’s The Astro-Zombies, which justifiably makes a lot of “worst movie” lists. Shockingly, it reaped quite a profit on the drive-in circuit, but one has to image it was merely an excuse for rubber-necking or a nap, because it’s a wretchedly dull endurance test.

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TERENCE FISHER’S THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) Terence Fisher.

Terence Fisher never considered himself a “horror” filmmaker, and he clearly disliked the term.  While a number of Fisher’s film could be apt examples to drive home his point that he was more than a mere scare merchant, The Curse of the Werewolf(1961) will suffice quite nicely. This is a quite literary film, far better than either of Universal Studio’s versions of The Wolfman (1941 & 2010).

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) poster

 

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TERENCE FISHER’S THE GORGON (1964)

The Gorgon (1964 dir. Terence Fisher)

The Gorgon (1964) has a hopelessly silly synopsis: it’s basically a werewolf story transplanted onto a minor Greek myth with an even more ridiculously executed monster (complete with rubber snakes in her hair). Yet, with a stylish script from John Gilling, sublime characterization, and poetic beauty, Terence Fisher enthusiastically managed to transform this irredeemable trash into an artistically rewarding experience. Impossible, but true.

The Gorgon is an oddity in the Hammer cannon. Its pacing is deliberate and forlorn. The “monster” is the mythological Gorgon Megaera, inhabiting amnesiac victim Barbara Shelley, who again gives a performance well above that of the standard Hammer glamour girl. Unfortunately, Shelley does not play Megaera herself, a poor decision which blunts the tragic impact of the production. Continue reading

TERENCE FISHER’S FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MOSTER FROM HELL (1974)

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Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was the last of the Hammer Frankenstein series, as well as Terence Fisher’s final film. It is generally regarded as a weak swansong.  At first glance, it seems a remake of The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), but with a noticeably reduced budget.

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Peter Cushing, in his final portrayal of Baron Frankenstein, inexplicably sports a curly blond wig which makes him look a bit like a deranged Shirley Temple, and he looks alarmingly emaciated. Off-screen, the actor’s wife had died, after a long illness, only the previous year, in 1971 (Monster from Hell was filmed in 1972 and remained on the shelf for two years).  Cushing was openly despondent and in intense mourning.  He later admitted to having had suicidal tendencies during this period.   Cushing never remarried, nor did he ever fully recover from the loss.  The toll of that recent personal tragedy is clearly visible on him in this film and, despite all of the atrocities committed by his character, that off-screen blow adds a layer of wearied pathos revealed in the actor’s eyes. Continue reading

TERENCE FISHER’S THE MUMMY (1959)

The Mummy (Hammer Studions, Terence Fisher dir) lobby card

The mummy, as a character, quickly became bland. In 1932, director Karl Freund, writer John L. Balderstein, and stars Boris Karloff and Zita Johnann made a poetic film for the Universal Horror cannon, re-working the story of Dracula in Egyptian guise.  The Mummy’s Hand (1940) starring cowboy actor (and later Captain Marvel) Tom Tyron, was the first and only real decent of the Universal mummy sequels.  Increasingly feeble films followed Hand, all starring a rotund mummy in the form of a disinterested Lon Chaney, Jr.  Dating back to the original, the plot rarely varied throughout the series.  An Egyptian princess reincarnates in the form of a twentieth century woman, only to have her ancient lover come back, a tad lethargic, gauze and all, to reclaim her.

THE MUMMY (1959) lobby card

Oddly, Francis Ford Coppola lazily utilized the mummy’s  reincarnated dead lover plot for his version of Dracula (1992), which, otherwise, was a (mostly) well done, imaginative version of that story.  In 1999 the mummy was revived again in a dumbed down, lame, testosterone-laden joke of a movie starring Brendan Frazier.  That film also spawned numerous sequels.  True to form,the succeeding mummy entries were even worse, which, in this case, isn’t saying anything. Continue reading

TERENCE FISHER’S FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967)

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Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) marked the return of Terence Fisher to the Hammer Frankenstein series.  Fisher had been temporarily ousted after the studio’s displeasure over the director’s character driven Phantom of the Opera (1961).  Freddie Francis had been assigned to the Evil of Frankenstein (1964) and the predictable, pedestrian result was a case of the studio quite obviously having shot itself in the foot.

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Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds showed that, even with a lurid, studio-assigned title, a visionary team can do imaginative, innovative  wonders, much in the same way that Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur had delivered a sublime film from I Walked with a Zombie (1943), studio be damned. Continue reading

TERENCE FISHER’S DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

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Terence Fisher is rarely counted among the great horror auteurs, yet he certainly defines our ideal of contemporary horror far more than the ethereal Tod Browning, the old world Brit James Whale or the sublime Val Lewton stalwart Jacques Tourneur.  For many years, Fishers’ Horror of Dracula (1958) was ranked by many critics and genre fans as the greatest horror film.

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (Dir. Terence Fisher) Poster

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) is the finale of Fishers’ vampire trilogy and is generally considered the weakest. While it lacks the imaginative touch of Brides of Dracula (1960), Prince is an underrated, worthy conclusion to the trilogy, vigorously characteristic of Fishers’ penchant for fervent religious drama.

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The film belongs primarily to Barbara Shelley, who was easily Hammer’s best actress and, consequently, was repeatedly used by the studio; a rarity for a studio who tended towards a new glamour girl for each film.

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TERENCE FISHER’S BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

BRIDES OF DRACULA (Terence Fisher) Peter Cushing, David Peel

There is a recurring scene, albeit with slight variations,  in Terence Fisher’s trilogy of vampire films—Horror of Dracula (1958), Brides of Dracula (1960), and Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—in which a wise and devout man releases a vampire from the pains of immortal existence. In the Horror of Dracula, Van Helsing releases Lucy, much to the relief of her brother Arthur.  Arthur smiles as he sees the beauty of innocence restored to his sister.   In Prince, Fr. Sandor releases Helen from the curse, as her brother-in-law, Charles, smiles upon witnessing the peace that finally envelops the troubled Helen.   In Brides of Dracula, Van Helsing, introduced as a doctor of philosophy and theology, releases vampire Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), at her own request.  After being staked, the Baroness shows a touch of a smile. Continue reading

TERENCE FISHER’S FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED poster

Director Terence Fisher had quickly grown bored with the Hammer Dracula series, along with the character of the Count.  For the two sequels, Fisher omitted the title character from the first (Brides of Dracula, 1960) and then made him secondary to Barbara Shelley’s character in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  However, Fisher clearly reveled in the Baron Frankenstein character and focused primarily on the creator, as opposed to the creation.

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In the fourth of the series, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), the Baron allegorically became God the Father in Fisher’s idiosyncratic take on the Trinity.  In that film, Peter Cushing’s Baron is empathetic and waxes poetic at the tragic conclusion.  In the fifth film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Fisher and Cushing create an alternative perspective on Frankenstein.  Here, the Doctor is at his most obsessed and least sympathetic. Continue reading