Saturday, 21 December 2013


The year 1964, would see Hammer Films spread their wings by going for a mini-“epic.”  She, adapted from the novel by H. Rider Haggard, told of a hidden city presided over by the beautiful and ageless She Who Must Be Obeyed, aka Ayesha, here played by former Bond girl Ursula Andress.  Producer Michael Carreras had long grown bored with Hammer’s stage bound Gothics and pushed his collaborators into going for something bigger and more ambitious.  As was usually the case with Hammer, however, they tended to fall down a bit when they strove for more than their tight budgets could adequately supply. 'She' was an ambitious production by Hammer’s standards but even the increased budget and schedule could only accommodate so much.  Hammer’s veteran FX wizard Les Bowie worked hard to provide the illusion of depth and splendor, but it simply came off as a lot of matte work.

Director Robert Day failed to capture the mystery, the magic and the romanticism; perhaps Terence Fisher might have proved a better fit.  The film was very much a showcase for Andress and she is certainly beautiful, but she doesn’t convey the character’s dignity or fearsome power very convincingly.  The film is further hamstrung by a weak performance by John Richardson as her reincarnated lover.  Richardson rose to prominence in Italian films, including Mario Bava’s splendid Black Sunday, but he was never more than a pretty face and his stiff emoting hurt many a film, including this one.  On the upside, the film allowed a reunion of sorts for Cushing and Lee.  Cushing is terrific as the intrepid adventurer, Major Holly, while Lee adds tremendous dignity and gravitas to the role of Ayesha’s jilted high priest, Bilali.  One of the film’s best moments is a quiet one, wherein Major Holly interrupts Bilali’s devotions and engages in a conversation on the nature of faith.  Both actors are at the top of their game here, as Holly slyly goads Bilali into self-righteous indignation.  If only the rest of the film measured up to this sequence.

From this point on, a subtle shift in power would begin to occur.  Cushing’s star, so prominent in the UK, never really translated across the globe; he was a well-known and admired actor, but his association with genre films would gradually impair his ability to get roles in other types of pictures.  Lee’s name, however, would continue to grow – his star on the assent, he would gradually begin to attract the attention of producers for “higher prestige” pictures, and his name would overcome that as the genre’s major superstar….

In 1964, the two would unite for their first film together at Amicus – the production company established by New Yorkers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky to act as a competitor to Hammer Films.  Subotsky was the company’s main creative force and it was his passion for the genre that prompted them to go into the horror business.  He also felt compelled to settle an old score regarding Hammer, as he had submitted a proposed remake of Frankenstein to Hammer in the mid-50s.  When the studio hit pay dirt with The Curse of Frankenstein, they did so via a brand new screenplay by Jimmy Sangster and didn’t make use of Subotsky’s script, which, according to producer Anthony Hinds, was a “tired rehash” of the 1931 James Whale classic.  In any event, Subotsky felt a bit slighted and would often vocalize his opinion that Hammer’s films were too gory and exploitative for his tastes.  Thus, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors would harken back to the classic Ealing Studios’ chiller Dead of Night (1945), which had made a profound impression on the writer/producer at a young age.  Hammer had never explored the anthology format and had made their name in period-set Gothic fare; Amicus would therefore corner the market in anthologies and would typically set their films in the current day.


The screenplay for Dr. Terror, written by Subotsky, is weak and heavy on cliché, but in the hands of director Freddie Francis and cinematographer Alan Hume (who had just photographed the elegant Kiss of the Vampire for Hammer) it would overcome this hurdle to become a brisk and stylish picture.  The casting was crucial to the film’s success; Subotsky may have frowned upon Hammer’s style, but he recognized that Lee and Cushing were actors of talent and was only too happy to borrow them to give his film added name value.  For the first time, Lee would claim top billing – though Cushing’s special “with Peter Cushing as Dr. Terror” credit may be seen as a way of suggesting that he was still the star attraction; Cushing would be billed first on posters in the UK, while Lee would get preferential treatment in the US – in time, the scales would tip completely in Lee’s favor.  Both actors are in great form here.  Cushing is memorably seedy and spooky as the German-accented fortuneteller, replete with bushy eyebrows and a beard, while Lee gets one of the best roles of his career as the unbearably pompous art critic who is reduced to a hysterical wreck when the severed hand of the artist (a marvelous, low key Michael Gough – world’s away from his mannered performance in Dracula) he compelled into committing suicide comes to exact vengeance.  The cast also includes an early role for Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, who would become a major star in the 70s thanks to such hits as M*A*S*H (1970), Klute (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973).  The stories range from the engaging to the ridiculous, establishing the uneven tone which would dog so many horror anthologies in later years.  It would also prove to be a big hit for Amicus, who would waste little time in reuniting Cushing and Lee for another film.

The Skull (1965) was adapted by Subotsky from a short story by Robert Bloch.  It deals with an occult scholar (Cushing) who becomes fascinated by the skull of the Marquis De Sade.  The skull exerts an evil influence, compelling Cushing to commit murder.  This was every inch the star vehicle for Cushing, who is in virtually every scene, and who would claim top billing over Lee (here given “guest star” billing for his small supporting role) for the final time.  Cushing is marvelous in the film; indeed, he pretty much carries the slim story on his shoulders.

Director Freddie Francis was inspired to ad lib many stylish scenes of “pure cinema,” even inventing a “skull point of view” gimmick which proved to be uncommonly effective; he would reuse the gag later in The Creeping Flesh.  Some critics complained that the film was long on style and slim on story – which is valid as far as it goes -- but the film also offers up plenty of atmosphere and some excellent performances, to say nothing of an absolutely brilliant soundtrack by Elisabeth Lutyens.  It’s Cushing’s show all the way, but Lee impresses as the tight-lipped but nervous fellow collector who warns Cushing off of meddling with the skull.  Nigel Green, Patrick Wymark, Patrick Magee, Jill Bennett and other fine actors add a sense of class to the production, which is arguably the best thing Francis ever directed.

Unless we count a reprise of the finale of Dracula, which Hammer grafted to the beginning of Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965) to bring the film up to its contractually obliged running time, “the boys” would not have another go-around until 1967, when they were brought in to add some much needed conviction to the sci-fi thriller Night of the Big Heat.  Terence Fisher was finding work a little scarce at Hammer, who were exploring the talents of other directors like Francis and John Gilling, and was obliged to undertake some sci-fi films around this time – a genre with which he had zero enthusiasm.  Fisher’s indifference was writ large over Island of Terror (1966), but the character interactions and suspense afforded by the screenplay of Night of the Big Heat appear to have whetted his appetite.  It therefore emerges as an above-average offering which only collapses at the very end, when the monsters from outer space are finally unveiled.  Lee would later recall that they looked like fried eggs, which is a fair analysis; no doubt the title Night of the Fried Eggs was bandied about on set, but the film itself is played straight, without any trace of camp.


Lee top-lines the cast as the mysterious scientist who lurks about trying to avert the alien invasion, while “guest star” Cushing does what he can with his scenes as a well-meaning GP who sweats a ton as the heat rises – yet never sees fit to remove his stained jacket!  Stiff upper lip and all that… Fisher manages a few nice set pieces and the performances help to elevate the material, but the final reveal and general boredom which accompanies the sci-fi angle help to keep it in the “minor” category.

In 1969, Amicus joined forces with American International Picture to produce Scream and Scream Again, a paranoid sci-fi thriller with horror overtones.  It was an uneasy alliance, with Subotsky running afoul of director Gordon Hessler, who had the support of AIP all the way.  Subotsky’s original screenplay was deemed unusable and Hessler brought in his friend, screenwriter Christopher Wicking, to write a completely new adaptation of Peter Saxon’s book The Disoriented Man. Subotsky felt slighted and tried making his presence felt on set by objecting to Hessler’s decision to include some then-graphic touches of sex and violence – but he would soon find himself barred from the set and the editing room.  The film made a ton of money at the box office, but Subotsky said he had no idea why – he thought it was a terrible film; doubtless, his complicated role on the film colored his feelings just a hair. The film’s success was largely attributable, however, to the decision to unite the “big three” genre stars of the day on the same playbill: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  Price and Lee would get the title billing, while Cushing would earn another “guest star” credit.  Arguably, only Price would get a role really deserving of his talents, though Lee does a fine job as the shifty government official who may or may not play a major role in the plot.

The deliberately fragmented storytelling and energetic direction help to make the film an enjoyable one, with John Coquillon’s stylish cinematography and David Whitaker’s pulsing jazz score adding to the fun.  Even so, many fans felt a bit cheated that the three stars didn’t even get a scene together – and Cushing was relegated to a role that any day player could have managed quite well; he couldn’t have filmed for more than a day… and a short day at that.  Regardless, the star power, eye-catching title and lurid ad campaign made it a winner at the box office, even if it remains a controversial entry among fans to this day.


Next Time: Part Four: 'Bloch, Stevenson and a little help from Sammy...'  
'A Talent To Terrify: The Twenty Two Films
of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee' is written by Troy Howarth
with Images and artwork by Marcus Brooks.

1 comment:

  1. Great website of Peter Cushing with the awesome marvellous actor Sir Christopher Lee both multi talented gentlemen with charm and chrisima.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...