Sunday, 29 December 2013


After the disappointment of seeing his maiden voyage as a production executive run away from him, Lee reluctantly signed on the dotted line for yet another Hammer Dracula film.  Like Dracula AD 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula would update the Count’s (mis)adventures to modern day London.  Like every Dracula film he had done since 1968 (with the exception of a jaunt to Spain to make El Conde Dracula for maverick filmmaker Jess Franco), Lee was openly disdainful of the material and swore up and down that he would never do it again.  This time he meant it – this would prove to be his last “real” Dracula film, though the delightful French-made parody Dracula and Son (1978) would allow him to revisit the character (or a variation on it; Lee has insisted that he’s not playing the Count in the film and indeed, his makeup and costuming is quite different) in a script which actually allowed him plenty of screen time and dialogue.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula reunited Lee and Cushing with director Alan Gibson and screenwriter Don Houghton in a tale of a suicidal Dracula, doing his damnedest to spread the bubonic plague as a means of taking down the rest of civilization with him.  It was a darker and altogether more serious entry than AD 1972, but it’s also not quite as much fun.  Even so, Gibson and company give the film production gloss and it’s fun to see (or rather hear) Lee disguising his identity by speaking in one scene with a pronounced Bela Lugosi accent!

Cushing is relegated to the sidelines for much of the film, allowing Michael Coles’ Inspector Murray (another holdover from AD 1972, here sporting a much less Scotland Yard-appropriate hair cut) and William Franklyn’s sardonic MI5 agent to do much of the heavy lifting.  Fan reaction would be less than enthused, but seen today it’s possible to appreciate The Satanic Rites of Dracula as an interesting, offbeat finale to the series that made Hammer the bulk of its profits.


After this final foray into Stoker territory, Lee continued to do his best to establish himself in more “mainstream” assignments, netting a plum role in the James Bond thriller The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) and enlivening the starry casts of such films as The Three Musketeers (1973) and Airplane ’77 (1977).  He would be lured back to Amicus one last time for Arabian Adventure (1979), largely because his role as the evil wizard would enable him to pay homage to one of his acting idol Conrad Veidt’s most iconic roles, as the villain of The Thief of Bagdad (1940).  This slice of hokum from director Kevin Connor was aimed square at juvenile audiences, and Lee’s villain was very much of the obvious, pantomime school – at least in theory; in terms of performance, he does not play down to the audience, making the character a credible menace.  The film also included a cameo appearance for Cushing as a deposed noble man who aids the hero (Oliver Tobias) in his quest.

While Lee’s career was thriving at this time, Cushing’s was not.  The actor had won some good notices for his role in George Lucas’ blockbuster hit Star Wars (1977), but this did not translate to many stellar acting assignments; he would spend the latter half of the 70s lending class and name value to one indifferent film after another, even spreading his wings a bit by going to Greece to film The Devil’s Men (1976) and to Florida for Shock Waves (1977).

Also around this time, both Lee and Cushing were approached by young writer/director John Carpenter, who was anxious to cast one of them for the role of Dr. Loomis in his film Halloween (1978).  Cushing’s agent would snootily reject the script without even showing it to the actor, while Lee would later regret passing on it, correctly noting that it gave Donald Pleasence (who finally took the part after some initial trepidation) a whole new career.  Even so, becoming identified with a new horror franchise was surely the last thing on Lee’s mind, and both actors would go on record as being disdainful of the trend towards more and more graphic depictions of sex and violence in genre fare (though it must be noted that Carpenter’s classy shocker was not guilty of this, even if the films it helped to spawn most definitely were).

While Lee continued to explore the potential of Hollywood into the 1980s, Cushing’s career began to slow down.  Advancing age and increasing health woes would begin to limit his opportunities.  The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, as it were.  Fortunately for fans, his health remained intact long enough for Canon Films to assemble a dream cast for a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy.  The House of the Long Shadows (1983) would unite Lee, Cushing, Vincent Price and John Carradine for the first and only time.  Though directed by veteran shock specialist Pete Walker, the film was an old-fashioned pastiche, a tribute to the old-school “old dark house” thrillers of the 1920s and 30s.  The veteran actors approached their roles with style and conviction, with Lee and Cushing probably coming off the best: Lee puts his aloof persona to good use, while Cushing impresses with his portrayal of the cowardly brother with a pronounced speech impediment, a la Elmer Fudd.  Their efforts are hampered by the charisma free young actors who dominate the proceedings, namely Desi Arnaz Jr. (miscast as the smart ass best-selling novelist who believes he can write a Gothic melodrama in one night, provided the setting is right) and Julie Peasgood.  The two actors have zero chemistry with each other and fail to make much of an impression on the viewer, but once the genre icons begin to take center stage the film has more than its fair share of pleasures, not the least of which is hearing a typically theatrical Vincent Price calling Christopher Lee a “bitch.”

Sadly, the combined power of the veteran actors did little to help the film’s chances at the box office, and the film would for all intents and purposes be dumped to VHS and cable not long after a perfunctory theatrical release.  Price would call the film a missed opportunity, whereas Lee later singled it out as a favorite precisely because it allowed the four actors an opportunity to have fun.  Cushing would contract bronchitis while filming at the drafty manor house, however, and his health would continue to deteriorate.

In 1986, many news outlets reported that Cushing had died. The fact of the matter is, he was still very much alive and would remain so for another 8 years but he was diagnosed with prostate cancer around this time, and the prognosis was not good. Cushing would find it impossible to continue acting, not because he didn’t want to, but because the insurance companies regarded him as a liability.  Lee would undergo open heart surgery to correct a recurring issue and would bounce back, continuing to work without taking much time off, even if most of the films he was doing failed to ignite much interest at the box office.  Towards the end of the decade, however, Lee would find himself being cast by long-time fans turned successful directors, including Joe Dante and John Landis.

In 1994, filmmaker Ted Newsome hit upon the idea of hiring Lee and Cushing to narrate his documentary on Hammer Films, titled Flesh and Blood.  It would prove a tricky deal to negotiate, especially with Cushing’s frail health going downhill rapidly and scheduling conflicts to overcome.  The film would provide Lee and Cushing one last chance to spend an afternoon in each other’s company, however, and Lee did his best to keep his old friend in stitches throughout the recording of the narration.  When Cushing was chauffeured away at the end of the day, Lee knew he would never see him again; sadly, it would to be true.

Cushing would pass away on August 11th 1994; he was 81 years old.  For Cushing, it was an end devoutly to be wished.  In his mind and heart he believed he would be reunited with his beloved Helen.  For his many fans, it was a loss which was felt very deeply indeed.

At the time of writing, Lee is now 91 years old.  He has begun looking more and more frail over the past few years, though he certainly aged very gracefully well into his 80s.  An accident on the set of Hammer’s The Resident (2011) resulted in a broken vertebrae – a serious injury at any stage of life, let alone for a man in his late 80s.  Lee didn’t let the accident stop him from working, however.  He remains in demand, doing cameos for directors who have long admired his talents.  A collaboration with Martin Scorsese on Hugo (2010) was regarded as a major career highlight by the actor, who has since said that he has now worked with just about every major name actor and director he has aspired to work with… except for Clint Eastwood.  The odds of that particular collaboration coming to pass seems slim in light of Lee’s inability to undertake large roles and difficulty with traveling (he was well enough to fly to New Zealand to do the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but director Peter Jackson had to accommodate him by shooting his scenes for the new Hobbit trilogy in England), but even so… his presence in films is a reassuring reminder of the class of actor we used to take for granted.  And to go back and revisit his many films with his beloved friend and costar, Peter Cushing, is to be transported to a time when it really was possible to see top class acting in even the lowest budgeted and most preposterous of genre films.

'A Talent To Terrify:
The Twenty Two Films Of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee',
was written by Troy Howarth with images and artwork
by Marcus Brooks.


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