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.
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.
He also made an excellent Sherlock Holmes in Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, again cast opposite. 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.
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.