The year 1971 got off to a horrible start for Cushing: Helen finally succumbed after years of ever-worsening health. For Cushing, the loss would prove unbearable. Helen was everything to him: his most valued critic, his biggest fan, his best friend, his doting mother, his wife… It was not a loss that Cushing would rebound from easily; indeed, it would cast a pall over his remaining years. The crestfallen actor considered suicide, but religious principles compelled him to tough it out. His therapy would be work – non-stop, if at all possible.
One of Cushing’s first films following his tragic loss was Hammer’s first crack at updating the Dracula myth to the modern milieu. Dracula AD 1972 would be Cushing’s first appearance as Van Helsing since The Brides of Dracula (1960), and the passage of time would be all the more obvious due to the actor’s precarious mental condition at the time of filming.
Cushing had always been a thin man, but after the loss of Helen he would become gaunt – he would also attain something of a haunted aura about him… The original screenplay by Don Houghton initially had Van Helsing as a modern-day father, trying to keep his flower child Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) in line, but Cushing had aged noticeably and a decision was made to make him into Jessica’s grandfather. Cushing’s frail appearance stands in stark contrast to the utter commitment and energy he brings to the role. It is certainly my favorite of his several attempts at the character, and he has real chemistry with Beacham in their scenes together.
As for Lee, the actor had long vocalized a dissatisfaction with how Hammer had been treating his most iconic role. He came to AD 1972 out of sheer desperation, as several projects he had signed on to had fallen through at the last minute. It would seem that the presence of Cushing re-energized him, however, as he approaches the role of Dracula with a gusto that had been notably absent in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) and Scars of Dracula (1970).
The two stars cross path on screen at the beginning (in a wonderful, nineteenth century-set prologue) and again at the end, and their chemistry remains as palpable as ever. Fans would react with mixed emotions at the updated setting, however, and for some the film remains the nadir of the series. Even so, the Lee/Cushing dynamic remained untarnished, and more collaborations were ahead, in short order…
Late in 1971, Lee and Cushing flew to Madrid to make Horror Express. For Lee, working in the Spanish film scene was nothing new – he had already done several films for Jess Franco, after all. But for Cushing, leaving the confines of England was a different matter. He had filmed in Spain and other locales in the 50s – but always with Helen tagging along for support. Things were different now and with the Christmas holiday looming, he had a change of heart. Fortunately, Lee’s friendship and encouragement would prompt Cushing to stick with it – and thank goodness for it. Horror Express (1972) would emerge as one of the most purely enjoyable films of either actor career – and in many respects, it may remain the definitive Lee/Cushing movie.
The two actors are cast to type – Lee stuffy and imperious, Cushing impish and charming – but the characters allow them to grow in interesting ways. Lee is particularly good as the pompous archaeologist who does an about-face when he realizes that his indifference towards the mayhem is monstrous in itself. He ends up as a swashbuckling hero, rescuing the damsel-in-distress (Silvia Tortosa) in the process. Cushing is also in fine form as Lee’s scientific rival, and the two actors have some marvelous dialogue. Cushing’s “Monsters? We’re British, you know!” is rightly famous, but I always get a chuckle out of Lee’s impatient “What’s he raving about?!,” directed at guest star Telly Savalas, who shows up long enough to liven things up in the final act.
Director Eugenio Martin keeps the action moving at a terrific clip and for once, Lee and Cushing are afforded more-or-less equal screen time. The supporting cast is marvelous as well, notably Alberto De Mendoza as the Rasputin-like Pujardov, a religious fanatic who crosses swords with Lee (who, of course, played Rasputin himself, for Hammer) and the afore-mentioned Savalas, who makes for an unlikely Cossack but is thoroughly delightful, just the same.
After this, it was back to England – but The Creeping Flesh wouldn’t be produced by Hammer or Amicus. Instead, the “other” major UK genre studio, Tigon, was responsible for this – their only Lee/Cushing vehicle. In what could only be seen as an amazing coincidence, the story bore a strong resemblance to that of Horror Express: in both films, an ancient fossil is unearthed which contains a clue to the origin of Evil.
Horror Express had been a fast paced romp, while The Creeping Flesh was darker, slower and altogether more somber. The film would mark a return to form for director Freddie Francis, who had spent much of the 70s hacking out one poor film after another – Tales from the Crypt (1972) to one side. The literate and intriguing script for The Creeping Flesh inspired him to make a more committed job of it, and he responds with one of his most carefully crafted films. Only a gratuitous subplot involving Kenneth J. Warren’s escaped convict drags the film down; it’s not that these scenes are bad, they’re simply pointless and scream “filler”.
Top-billed Lee isn’t in it as much as all that, but he’s in great form as the embittered half-brother to Cushing’s pampered scientist. Lee conveys the hurt, resentment and burning anger that is quietly bubbling under the surface and manages to steal every scene he is in. Cushing has the larger role, and the showier one, and he impresses as the slightly addle-brained researcher. In what was becoming an obsessive trope, the actor plays a lonely widower who is assailed by memories of his late wife. Cushing brings tremendous pathos to the role, making him instantly sympathetic, and the ambiguous fade-out makes it unclear whether the story really did happen or if it was just a paranoid delusion. Lorna Heilbron steals the film from her stars as Cushing’s naïve daughter, who succumbs to the taint of evil. Duncan Lamont, Michael Ripper and other stalwarts help to boost up the faux Hammer flavor, and Paul Ferris contributes a good, creepy soundtrack.
The same year, Christopher Lee would launch his own production company, Charlemagne Productions; the name derived from his illustrious ancestor, the Emperor Charlemagne, and the intent was to create a company that could give Hammer and Amicus a run for their money by producing mature, “up market” horror films for the discerning viewer. Sadly, Lee would lose control of the project early on and Nothing but the Night would become a problematic film on many levels.
The script was based on the novel of the same name by John Blackburn,. There was a good story to be told there, and in a sense its tale of “possessed” children anticipated a certain Hollywood blockbuster by a year… but the film would be a rather listless and dreary affair, and Rank’s inability to do much with the film in the UK coupled with distribution woes in the US put an end to Lee’s dream of running his own company.
None of this should suggest that the film is a total loss, however. Director Peter Sasdy had just directed three fine films for Hammer (one of which, Taste the Blood of Dracula, was among the better of Hammer’s Dracula series) but his stylistic verve is only evident in spurts here. Too much of the narrative is given over to an unappealing love story between Keith Barron and Georgia Brown, while Lee and Cushing linger on the sidelines as a sort of modern-day Holmes and Watson team. Lee comes into his own in the second half and gives a commanding performance, while Cushing struggles with a rather unusually bitchy characterization which requires him to snap a lot and shoot plenty of dark glances.
The final part of 'Talent To Terrify' will be posted this weekend: 'The Count's Last Stand..And The Gang 's Here Too!'
'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.