Wednesday, 18 December 2013


The tide would change in 1957, with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein.  Hammer’s producer, Anthony Hinds, sought to secure Cushing to star because of his reputation as Britain’s first bona fide TV star.  The producer realized that an actor of his popularity would help the picture and was also keen to get away from the policy – previously adhered to by Hammer and other low budget UK companies – of importing fading American name actors to secure US distribution.  Curse was to be a British horror film, through and through, and Cushing was key to this mission.  The actor accepted the role on the strength of remembering how impressed he had been with James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein.

Cushing certainly wasn’t overly impressed by the screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, as Lee would later recall.  The story goes that Lee was going on one day about not having any lines; Cushing would reply, “You’re fortunate.  I’ve read the script.”  Lee won the role of the creature – buried underneath Phil Leakey’s makeup and deprived of any dialogue – after Hinds elected to pass on the similarly tall and lanky Bernard Bresslaw.  It was Lee’s imposing height – up until that time, his greatest handicap – that enabled him to net the role that would put him on the road to international stardom; it was an irony not lost on the actor, who determined to lend as much pathos to the role as he could muster.

Cushing’s portrayal of the icy and amoral Baron Victor Frankenstein is a thing of beauty, of course, but it would be a mistake to underestimate what Lee brings to the role of the creature.  He plays the character like a nightmarish marionette figure whose strings have been cut.  His body refuses obey and his soulful eyes convey suffering when the script doesn’t require him to lash out with violence.  The two actors share very little screen time together, setting a pattern for future collaborations, but they would bond on the set.  It’s unknown if the two even discussed their mutual experiences working for Olivier and Huston, but they certainly found much to laugh about as they discussed their love for cartoons.  The film would become a surprise smash at the box office, and Hammer wasn’t about to not capitalize on their obvious chemistry and audience appeal.

If The Curse of Frankenstein was Cushing’s star vehicle, then Dracula (1958) would be Lee’s.  Jimmy Sangster’s pared-down adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel would give Lee the showcase he had been dreaming for, but stardom came with a price: the role would become his signature, much as it had been for Bela Lugosi, but he was determined not to allow it to control his career as it has Lugosi’s.  It was to be an uphill battle, but it can be argued that he did eventually outlive the character’s shelf life, finding popularity in various other characterizations, even if his tendency to bristle at even discussing the role in recent years has alienated some of his fans.  Truth be told, his irritation with the mantle of Dracula is understandable – after all, he has made hundreds of films and only a few of them involve the character, and truly, how many times can one be expected to answer the same questions over and over again?

Regardless, in 1958, the character was still new and fresh – and his take on it would help to make the film a box office triumph.  Lee has often spoken of the film’s US premiere, with various tipsy industry big wigs tittering with laughter at the opening titles with its melodramatic, booming James Bernard soundtrack.  Lee, sensitive to criticism at the best of times, was rightfully panic-stricken: this was his ticket to the big time, and they were laughing at it.  He turned to Cushing, telling him that they were dead in the water and that he was going to leave.  “We have to say this through,” Cushing assured him.  Then came the big moment: Dracula’s introduction, in silhouette, at the top of the stairs – an effect underlined by Bernard’s signature three-note “Dra-cu-la” theme.  The audience roared.  Lee sank into his seat, thoroughly defeated.  But then something happened… as Lee briskly descended the stairs and walked into close up, speaking his lines in a clipped British accent, and looking every inch the handsome European noble gentleman – the audience went silent...

While Sangster’s script had called for Dracula to be wearing a top hat and to have fangs jutting conspicuously over his bottom lip, Lee and director Terence Fisher sensibly decided to make the character as realistic as possible.  It was a judicious move, one which played off in spades for Lee.  From that moment, the audience was hooked.  The film won the preview audience over, and they went from jeering and cat calling to reacting in shock and surprise.  Cushing may have claimed over-the-title billing, but this was Lee’s shining moment – from that point on, he would be a name actor.

Hammer, for their part, continued to give Cushing the starring assignments, but they weren’t about to not use Lee, as well.  They would reteam later in 1958 for a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  This retelling of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classic cast Cushing in what would become one of his signature roles: Sherlock Holmes.  On the face of it, Lee would have been decent casting in the role as well – indeed he would go on to play the character in 1962, in a rather disappointing film directed in Germany by Terence Fisher called Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, before donning the deer stalker again in 1991 in two indifferent mini-series, Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls.  While Lee’s portrayal in the German film is hard to assess fairly (he would be dubbed into English by another actor), his turn in the mini-series would prove to be rather disappointing: listless and a bit stiff.


With this in mind, Cushing’s dynamic performance is to be savored all the more. He does overdo his mannerisms a little bit here and there, resulting in a few moments that can be viewed as hammy, but this also serves to underline the character’s somewhat theatrical disposition.Cushing’s take anticipates Jeremy Brett’s celebrated turn for Granada TV in the 1980s and 90s, but he stops short of becoming as over the top as that. Cushing invested himself in the role with enthusiasm and had hoped to play the character in further adventures, but the film’s disappointing box office put paid to that idea. If Lee felt the least bit slighted by not being cast as Doyle’s sleuth, he relished the chance of playing the film’s romantic leading man, Sir Henry Baskerville. Lee’s brash and imposing presence adds color to what could have been a dull character and he has a few moments which allow him to register stark fear and terror; his account of being terrified by a real tarantula during one scene may well be nonsense (if you look at how the scene was shot, it’s clear that the hairy critter was never in the same shot with him) but it makes for a nice anecdote, and besides, he really does look terrified in his close ups during the scene in question.

The two actors were nearly reunited under similar circumstances – with Cushing as the dynamic protagonist and Lee as the somewhat colorless “hero” – in The Man Who Could Cheat Death, but Cushing, citing exhaustion, incited the wrath of Hammer’s managing director, Sir James Carreras, by begging off at the last second.  German actor Anton Diffring (who would perfect his “mad medic” persona in the following year’s Circus of Horrors for Anglo Amalgamated) would inherit the role of the lovelorn medic who finds the secret to eternal youth and life, while Lee would don a waxy mustache and have very little to do as the hero, Dr. Gerard.

Their next teaming would occur in 1959, with The Mummy.  Jimmy Sangster would pretty much ignore Karl Freund’s 1932 original with Boris Karloff, drawing more inspiration from the series of “B” sequels that Universal churned out in the 1940s.  Cushing would again claim top billing, though Lee played the title character.  Lee again demonstrated an uncanny ability to convey emotion and pathos underneath tons of makeup, while Cushing would add depth to the theoretically boring character of the intrepid archaeologist who becomes the victim of an ancient curse.

Director Terence Fisher and cinematographer Jack Asher would make this into one of Hammer’s most enjoyable and stylish offerings and Lee’s athletic portrayal of the mummy, Kharis, would add some real life and menace into a creature whose shambling in earlier ventures could sometimes come off as unintentionally humorous.  A flashback scene would at least allow Lee some dialogue and “face time,” but if he was growing weary of wearing elaborate make ups, he had yet to vocalize it.  The Mummy would prove to be another hit with audiences (it not critics) and Lee would soon begin branching out into European films – partly to better establish himself with an international audience, and partly to escape the bane of his existence: the British taxation system.  Cushing, ever the homebody, would begin to find himself confined more and more to horror films.

As part of Lee’s “European campaign,” he would take part in a couple of the then-popular Edgar Wallace “krimis” produced in Germany.  The first of these, The Devil’s Daffodil, was to be shot in two versions: one in German, one in English.  The latter would utilized some different actors, with William Lucas stepping in for Joachim Fuchsberger, who starred in the German version.  Multi-lingual Lee would play the role of the Chinese detective Ling Chu in both versions; a truly incongruous effect in the German version in particular, it has to be noted.  Given that the film was shot in London, it had no trouble in initially attracting the participation of Cushing as well – but for whatever reason, he would bow out before filming any scenes.  For Lee, the film is best remembered as being the reason why he couldn’t have a honeymoon right after marrying his wife, Gitte; the production commenced on a Monday following their weekend wedding ceremony.  Oh well, over 50 years later, they remain happily married, so no harm, no foul.

Lee and Cushing would finally reunite in 1963, for The Gorgon.  This uncommonly romantic and atmospheric Hammer horror would become one of director Terence Fisher’s personal favorites.  It is also regularly cited as a favorite by many who normally don’t care for Hammer Horror.  The reasons for this are obvious: the film’s lyrical atmosphere sets it apart from the rather more blunt films they were better known for.  The film also inverts typical casting by putting Cushing into the role of the icy and duplicitous Dr. Namaroff, while Lee gets to play the charming and funny “Van Helsing role,” Professor Meister.  Lee is burdened with an Einsteinian mop of hair, a bushy mustache and a not-terribly-convincing “old man” makeup job, but his hunched countenance and blustery demeanor help to sell the character.  It’s one of his best performances for the company, offering proof of his ability to breathe life into characters with a bit more dialogue and screen time than the usual Dracula assignment.

Cushing comes off less convincingly as Namaroff, largely because his inherently likable persona clashes with the character’s cool machinations.  Cushing seems a bit constrained by the role and falls back on his favored mannerisms as a means of trying to give him a little humanity.  It’s not a bad performance, by any means, but it doesn’t rank high on his list of accomplishments, either.  The central romance is beautifully enacted by Barbara Shelley and Richard Pasco, however, and Fisher’s elegiac approach to the material helps to enable one to forgive the less-than-special-effects work involving the gorgon at the end of the picture.  Audiences reacted cooly, however, prompting Hammer to retreat back to their standard Dracula and Frankenstein formulas for a period.


A Talent To Terrify Is Written by Troy Howarth
with Images and Artwork by Marcus Brooks

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