Thursday, 10 April 2014

THE AMICUS FILMS OF PETER CUSHING: PART TWO BY TROY HOWARTH


In 1965 Milton Subotsky next snatched up Peter Cushing’s services for a proposed series of films based on the popular TV series Dr. Who.  The show made its debut on BBC 1 in 1963 and was developed by the team of Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber and Donald Wilson.  It told of a so-called “time lord” named Dr. Who, who is able to travel back and forth through time.  The character as written was an alien, but when the time came for Subotsky to try and bring the character to the screen, it underwent some heavy alterations.


Cushing was hired to play the role as something of an eccentric old duffer and the films they devised for him—Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966)—were hardly a feather in anybody’s cap. In order to secure the necessary financing, Amicus had to reach out to another company, AARU, who agreed to provide the money on the condition that they alone were credited as the production company.  And so it came to be that these films became the first “unofficial” Amicus Productions.  In any event, they have their fans, even if Cushing’s portrayal of the character (to say nothing of his “legitimacy” in the canon of Who portrayals) remains hotly contested among the fans.


In 1967, Amicus got back on terra firma with Torture Garden. The second of their series of anthology horror films, it was the first to be written by the American genre legend Robert Bloch.  Bloch devised a clever variation on the formula established in Dr Terror's House Of Horrors, as a group of strangers are gathered together at a fair ground side show and have their fortunes told to them by a huckster (or is he?) known as Dr. Diablo.  Amicus turned to Columbia Pictures for financing and this time they were allowed to keep their name on the credits. Columbia’s chief request was to include a couple of American stars in the roster, to better help the film’s chances at the box office.


Thus, the original plan to reunite Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee fell by the wayside, as the role earmarked for Lee was given to future Oscar-winner Jack Palance. The film offered up four segments of varying quality, again in keeping with the general trend in anthology films.


The first story stars Michael Bryant as a young man who murders his eccentric uncle (Maurice Denham) and finds himself under the malefic influence of a black cat with strange powers; the second told of an ambitious starlet (Beverly Adams) who gets more than she bargained for when she tries to force her way to the top; a young woman (Barbara Ewing) vies with a dead mother’s influence when trying to win the affection of a pianist (John Standing); and Edgar Allen Poe fanatics (Palance and Cushing) compete with each other to become the world’s biggest fan of their late idol.


Freddie Francis was again brought on board to direct and it would mark one of the last times that he really went out of his way to deliver a stylish movie. Working with cinematographer Norman Warwick, Francis gives each segment its own style and tone: the first segment is pure gothic, the second is slick, the third is stately and the fourth goes for an intense air of claustrophobia.


After the gripping first story, the film falls down rather badly during the next two segments, but things end on a high note with the Poe segment. Cushing and Palance play off each other beautifully: Cushing’s propensity for latching on to his character’s neuroses is muted here, which is just as well as there’s only room for one bundle of tics in this segment and Palance fits the bill beautifully.  Their contrasting acting styles is part of the joy of the piece and one can only regret that they never shared the screen again.


It proved to be another success for the studio, but they would abandon the anthology format for the next several years—and Cushing would find himself alternating between one cheapskate outfit after the other as he embarked on a series of some of his least impressive films.


Things took a turn for the better—for both Amicus and Cushing—when they joined forces again in 1969. Scream and Scream Again marked the first coproduction between Amicus and American International Pictures.  The project originated when Subotsky secured the rights to Peter Saxon’s pulp sci-fi novel The Disoriented Man and concocted a screenplay the hewed fairly close to it.  When American International came on board, however, the project took on another life.  The union of the two studios allowed for the first-ever union of the major horror icons of the period: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  (Boris Karloff had died early in the year.)


Unfortunately, the project wasn’t really conceived as a vehicle for the three of them, so the casting wasn’t properly thought through.  On top of this, American International’s choice as a director, Gordon Hessler, read Subotsky’s script and made no bones of it: he hated it.  Given that Hessler had helped in bringing in AIP’s troubled “epic” De Sade (1969) and had done a good job by The Oblong Box (1969), which he was originally scheduled to produce, with Michael Reeves directing (this changed when Reeves’ deteriorating mental state had him removed from the picture, thus necessitating for Hessler to step up to the plate and direct it himself), the studio was inclined to give him the leeway he wanted in making the picture. Hessler hired Christopher Wicking, a bold and original young talent with a genuine passion for the horror genre, to completely overhaul the script.


Subotsky’s quaint monster movie was therefore revised into a paranoid political thriller with a jigsaw-like structure designed to keep viewers feeling more than a little disoriented.Subotsky was none-too-pleased to have his script effectively junked and his visits to the set resulted in problems with Hessler: the director wasn’t shy about playing up the sex and the gore and this simply did not sit well with the rather old fashioned producer, who had always attempted to make his films as “clean” as possible.


Hessler tired of having to explain his actions, so he asked for AIP’s line producer Louis M. “Deke” Heyward to intercede.  The end result was that Subotsky was barred from the set and was not permitted to tinker with the film in editing.  Thus, the film bore precious little input from the Amicus end of the deal, and Subotsky would later express amazement that the end product proved as popular as it did at the box office. Scream and Scream Again is a strange film but one that grows in stature with reflection and repeat viewings.


The jumbled structure mixes up various plot strands and is difficult to fully comprehend on first viewing, but repeat viewings reveal that it all links together pretty well. Hessler directs with style and energy and the mixture of sci-fi and government paranoia points to the later phenomenon of The X Files.


As for the casting, Price found himself in his usual mad scientist role, but in fact, the character is less “mad” than usual. Lee is on hand to play a shady government official, while Cushing makes a brief cameo as an authority figure in the fictitious fascist state which plays a role in one of the film’s many subplots.  Fans looking forward to seeing their favorite stars sharing the screen felt cheated (Lee and Price DO appear in one scene together at the very end, but Cushing is on his own in his one scene) but it didn’t stop the film from becoming a big earner for AIP.


Next Time in Part Three: 'The House That Dripped Blood' and 'I, Monster' 

'The Amicus Films of Peter Cushing' is written by Troy Howarth
with artwork and images by Marcus Brooks


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