Welcome back pals. Let's waste not a second longer in cracking onwards with another lap of my marathon to view all 91 films featuring the late, great Peter Cushing!
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1954)
Definitely one of the harder Cushing outings to track down (the DVD is unavailable on these English shores), Nineteen Eighty-Four is Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of George Orwell’s ludicrously influential novel/ sermon and serves as a solid launchpad for Cushing’s megastardom alongside Donald “annihilation” Pleasance (I’ve yet to popularise this nickname but am working on it), Andre Morell and Yvonne Mitchell. As a work of fiction it’s astounding still, in spite of the foundation anachronism of a potential (possible, even) future so steeped in past technology it almost renders it rather silly.
Somewhat wiped out after its relentless grimmery, it was with open arms (and eyes and ears and brain) that I welcomed:
THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957)
Cushing opens the picture in a Himalayan village, making plans to embark on an expedition to find the fabled Yeti against the wishes of the village elder, his typically passive and subservient wife (named Helen after Cushing’s own and on his insistence) before a gaggle of big, smoking Americans show up and the jolly lot of them set off across some very convincingly shot snowy wastes. This is helped tremendously by Val Guest’s direction (in black and white), and no doubt by a handsome budget which facilitates the abundance of aerial shots and an absolutely gorgeous set for the village (later reused for Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu films).
Nigel Kneale returns to script the film and provides a typically thoughtful work in which the nature of monstrosity is questioned. Indeed, Kneale is clever not to paint the Yeti (who is not glimpsed in full and only appears significantly in the final five minutes of the film) as a monster: those deaths they are responsible for can be attributed to fear and insanity (not unrealistic reactions to humongous snowbeasts from hell, one should think). The film moves along at a brisk pace and the tensions between the Englishmen and the great big Americans (led by Forrest Tucker who receives top billing to placate Hammer’s US backers and wind the rest of us up, frankly) provide much of the entertainment, so much so in fact that when the beast’s disembodied hand first appears it damn near derails the picture, not unlike the first time Dave Prowse is glimpse in Hammer’s largely unloved Horror Of Frankenstein.
As I discovered later (again and again), for all the studio’s qualities they had a real weakness for underwhelming monster makeup. Anyway, there’s not much more to say about it other than that Michael Brill (whose name is self-descriptive) plays a character that seems very much like the male equivalent of those unfortunate ladies whose sultry charms fell victim to The Count’s incisors in the studio’s Dracula films, and that the whole thing is hardly memorable but a really effective way to pass an hour and a half. Recommended.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)
And now, the confession: BBC’s Sherlock has been to date my only experience with Mr. Holmes outside of this Hammer offering from 1959. Given how much I enjoyed both (and the opportunity to compare versions of a story so vastly different as those from each version) I imagine I’ll make up for it in the future. For now, though, it is only fit to wax verbal on that moor-bound mutt, his misdeeds, and Cushing’s debut as the deerstalker-bedecked ‘tec who was reportedly first done justice regarding his general jerkery in this adaptation of Conan Doyle’s famous (seriously, it’s like rilly rilly famous guys) novel.
What I love about Peter Cushing is the extent to which I’ll compare his performances when watching him, which is TO ZERO EXTENT. I can readily accept him as two generations of Van Helsing, Moff Tarkin and Sherlock Holmes without ever thinking of another of his often iconic roles. To see an established actor slip so easily into an already occupied role and both play it on his own terms and not let it define his career is a treat, a small joy. If I’ve not made it clear already, I LOVE Peter Cushing. When he says “I’ve hurt my leg, I’m cold and I’m hungry” after appearing perched atop a carriage near the end of this film I actually whooped. I made a sound not unlike that of a wild animal in appreciation of his gentle talent. He’s a winner at everything.
So, gush dealt, how fared the film? Well, for a story so famous (as we’ve covered) I was surprised to see how Hammerised it was. I mean, this film has one of the most brazenly Hammer openings possible: big brass music, an unconvincing backdrop and a roll call of the usual suspects (Asher, Keys, Hinds, Bernard, Lee, Morell and Sir Peter, of course). The first scene presents Sir Hugo Baskerville (or ‘of the Baskervilles’, as I always want to type) and he’s a real scumbag, a truly delicious screen villain courtesy of David Oxley. Indeed, he’s such a royal prick that I was sorry to see him go (but not before delivering one of the most dramatic stabbings in film history, unleashing his own pack of cute little Beaglehounds and responding to a twice-dubbed scream that nearly steals the film- it’s THAT good) though his death is fairly pivotal to the story so I can scarcely complain.
Still, for all its Hammer fluster it quickly becomes a rather fusty, talky picture where old, nice men devote a LOT of screen time to saying clever things, being civil and getting murdered. Cushing, who was reportedly fond of props (or ‘prop-fond’, as I’ll be saying from here on out) is well served in 221b Baker Street and just about every other new location he visits, fiddling with pictures and his oft’ present pipe. One wonders just what he was off fondling for the majority of the middle third of the film during which he is absent as Watson (Morell again, this time praising Cushing rather than subjecting him to torture) traipses about Dartmoor, and his Holmes is such a commanding screen jerk (an endearing jerk but a jerk unquestionably) that the film nearly stalls without him.
When he reappears though it only heightened my appreciation, and before long he’s embroiled in some action (I’m telling you, Cushing just loves wrecking about the place), shooting at the world’s biggest dog with the world’s tiniest gun (but such a gentlemanly weapon). The dog’s mask is a bit of a stumbling block, as is Lee’s performance which is oddly stiff, despite his all-commanding presence, and forgive the apparent blasphemy of that statement as I’m sure his decision to play Henry (Of The Baskervilles) was entirely justified.
Anywhat, if it’s a Cushing Ruckuss, an engaging lead role and a film which boasts the phrase “a two-pipe problem”, Baskerhounds is for you.
THE GORGON (1964)
Right, let’s be explosive: The Gorgon is AWESOME. Juvenile as that may sound, it truly is an awesome film, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Joining Mr. Cushing is the atypical Hammer Girl Barbara Shelley, arguably my favourite actress and a sure-fire presence to ground a film in a sense of decency.
As always, Sir Pete is introduced with little fanfare but sports the greatest facial hair of his career. He’s involved in local shenanigans and a good few Hammer Staples crop up – there’s a Paul AND a Bruno, as well as typically jerky locals and a pervading communal fear. The Gorgon herself lives in a matte painting of a castle and spends her nights turning the locals into stone in action lifted straight from Greek mythology, something that fits surprisingly well within Hammer’s Eurocentric literary canon.
Cushing gets involved in a love triangle and adds jealousy and loathing to his bow, but as soon as mustachioed Christopher Lee shows up it’s hard to take your eyes off him in one of his most scenery-wolfing performances. Terence Fisher directs with style, dropping his usual tricks throughout the picture as well as often subtly forecasting events for the benefit of the eagle-eyed. The Gorgon was released on DVD in 2010 and is available for next to nothing- you have no excuse. Own it.
THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)
What does it say about this movie that in describing it to friends I’ve called it all manner of things from Legend Of The Seven Jumping Vampires to Legend Of The Seven Dancing Vampires, bringing with it as it does such a state of confusion because, frankly, it. Is. Bonkers.
It messed with me so much that that opening sentence began as a question and ended as a paragraph. I can’t even write coherently about a movie in which common sense and a respect for the human mind are banished to sunny China so’s some terribly designed vampires (dancing, jumping, golden) can feast on them. That’s right, Cushettes (that’s your new nickname, readers – you’re the Cushettes) – the vampires in this brain-drain feed on CONCEPTS. This is one wacky film, a collaboration between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers in which Sir Pete, lecturing IN ENGLISH in China is recruited by one of seven brothers (though not the same seven brothers for whom the courting of seven wives was, oh, you see where I’m going with that...) to hunt down the aforementioned crap, high-kicking kung-fu fangbangers thanks to the promise that good old Count D is involved and he can give him a jolly good wooden stabbing, as he is so very happy to do picture after picture (and indeed, upon continent after continent).
“Dracula” in this film is played with zero credibility for a couple minutes by John-Forbes Robinson, whose take on the famous bloodsucker is so unbearably (but not out-of-place-ingly) hammy that it is no small relief when, for no reason, he infuses his spirit into that of the Asian vamps’ leader, though he does reappear in the last reel to get his just desserts and a smiting from our Van Helsing. Forbes-Robinson’s brevity of screentime is a blessing because his very presence feels out of place, even in this film starring a 61-year old monster hunter in turn of the century China.
Cushing cannot be faulted. I know I’m writing for a Peter Cushing fan site but such comments need never go unstated. Even here, his exposition is easy to swallow, and as ever he makes that extra effort to best serve the local pronunciation whenever he can. He’s fighting not just vampires but disbelief, as he often does, but metaphysical commentary aside and in spite of his age, the Cushing Ruckuss is present and accounted for, and he can be spotted duelling and dealing death when he’s not DIVING INTO FIRE amidst nigh-on endless scenes of gushing blood, scrapping swordsmen and some of the very best dubbing of screams I’ve ever heard. You’ll also get to see a vampire melt like at the end of 1958’s Dracula, but it’s nowhere as effective and as special effects go, laughably transparent.
Roy Ward Baker (of Quatermass And The Pit) handles his portion of the direction capably (though James Bernard’s use of his Dracula score during Forbes-Robinson’s scenes is wholly unforgivable), but to be honest this is not a film that deserves (or invites) such stoic criticism. It’s great fun, and in that, it deserves viewing....
I’m not sure what I’ll be watching for next Friday, but I’ll be limiting myself to three films as like any partwork magazine you only get twice as much for the first two instalments. I’ve no idea how that applies to this, but it seems a decent enough reason not to burn myself out on Cushing pics. If you missed last week's piece, you can find it HERE! 'Til next time , Cushettes.
REVIEWS: PAUL MCNAMEE
PAUL'S BLOG: CLICK HERE!
IMAGES: MARCUS BROOKS
REVIEWS: PAUL MCNAMEE
PAUL'S BLOG: CLICK HERE!
IMAGES: MARCUS BROOKS