Monday, 28 April 2014

TROY HOWARTH: POTIONS AND VALENTINES: THE AMICUS FILMS OF PETER CUSHING PART FOUR


The House That Dripped Blood marked a highpoint for Cushing’s relationship with Amicus.  The same could not be said of the next (and last) Cushing/Lee/Subotsky outing.  I, Monster (1970) was adapted by Subotsky from the Robert Louis Stevenson novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”.  It’s easy to forget that Stevenson constructed his story as a mystery; now it is so much a part of pop culture that even those who’ve never read it or even seen one of the many film versions will be well aware that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same person.


In adapting the story, Subotsky was scrupulously faithful in almost every respect; for reasons best-known to him, however, he elected to change the name of the central character(s) to Dr. Marlowe and Mr. Blake.  Star Christopher Lee has often railed against the logic in doing this, to say nothing of imposing the idiotic title of I, Monster on the finished film, but his frustration is not evident in the finished product; it is, in fact, one of his most accomplished performances.  Subotsky initially hoped to lure Peter Duffel back to direct, having been pleased with his work on The House That Dripped Blood, but the young director was not keen on becoming typed as a horror director.  Lee suggested a young filmmaker named Stephen Weeks, who had made a short film called 1917 (1970), which had greatly impressed the actor.


Weeks jumped at the chance, but soon found himself in the unenviable position of directing a film in a 3D process which proved impractical, to say the least.  In essence, the process called for perpetual motion in the frame: the camera had to remain in movement and during those few shots that were static, people had to be moving about in the frame.  It was a headache to view with 3D glasses and it was eventually abandoned when Subotsky realized that it simply wasn’t worth all the fuss.

 

Sadly, this still resulted in a film that proved difficult to cut together; transitioning from one tracking shot to another proved unbelievably difficult for editor Peter Tanner, and some scenes were compromised by garish camera angles designed to play up the 3D effects.  On top of that, for all the tricky camerawork, it was a very static piece: long-winded, talky and dull.  Weeks did the best job he could under the circumstances, but it proved to be a disappointment all around.  On the plus side, Lee gives a dynamic performance: his portrayal of the stiff-necked Marlowe is very much in keeping with his screen image, but his performance as the childlike Blake is a revelation: he starts off as an impish child, happy and mischievous in the extreme, but as the story unfolds he becomes more and more horrific … and pathetic.  Lee’s ability to elicit pathos in such horrific characters is one of the elements that keeps him in line with the likes of Karloff and Lon Chaney, Sr.  It’s just unfortunate that one of his best performances had to be in such a dull film.


Cushing doesn’t fare very well here: his role as Marlowe’s lawyer friend, Utterson, is dull and one-dimensional, and the actor doesn’t seem to be able to invest much life into it.  He doesn’t do badly, by any means, but he disappears into the scenery somewhat, and, sadly, some of his scenes are pretty much wrecked by the incompetent thesping of co-star (and wannabe horror star) Mike Raven.  Raven speaks with his own voice here, which only serves to make one better appreciate Hammer’s decision to have him looped by Valentine Dyall in Lust for a Vampire (1970).  I, Monster failed to attract much attention at the box office, and helped to convince Subotsky and Rosenberg that their fortunes lay in the anthology format.

 

Christopher Lee would bid his farewell to Amicus at this stage, but it doesn’t appear that the parting of ways was at all unpleasant for either side. Cushing, however, would remain loyal to his friend Subotsky and would continue to appear in more films for the company. In the meantime, however, his personal life underwent a major upheaval and life, as he knew it, would never be the same.


Following the death of his beloved wife, Helen,  Cushing lost the will to live. He contemplated suicide, but his strict religious principles prevented him from doing so. Sooner than sit around and brood, he opted to throw himself into his work.  He accepted project after project for the pure purpose of remaining busy at all times. In hindsight, he said “Yes” to quite a few projects to which he should have said “No, thanks,” but this was not the case with his next project for Amicus.


Tales from the Crypt was something of a dream-come-true for Milton Subotsky.  The popular comic book was created by William Gaines and Al Feldstein in 1950 and ran on a bi-monthly basis through 1955.  It became the target of a firestorm of criticism when worried parents began to blame it for the rise in juvenile crimes.  In much the same way as people now try to blame video games and violent films for society’s ills, these blackly humorous comics—always with a moral twist at the end—were seen as a corrupting influence.  Bowing to pressure from civic-minded protestors, the comics came to an end in early 1955, but not before they had made a powerful impression on millions of readers, including Milton Subotsky.


Subotsky was able to negotiate a deal with Feldstein and Haines, and, in 1971, Tales from the Crypt went into production.  Subotsky hand-picked five tales and penned the adaptation himself.  The crew would be comprised of some of the studio’s most reliable craftsmen, including Freddie Francis (director), Norman Warwick (cinematographer), Tony Curtis (art director) and Douglas Gamley (composer). As usual, Amicus rounded-up a top-notch cast. Sir Ralph Richardson was lured into making one of his infrequent genre film appearances as the mysterious cryptkeeper; it was a role that called for his presence on set for only a couple of days, but Subotsky and Rosenberg got a lot of mileage out of playing-up his presence.  Inevitably, they also had their eye on bringing Peter Cushing on board, but they hit a roadblock when he declined the role he had been offered.

 

Cushing didn’t find much interest in the role of business tycoon Ralph Jason, the protagonist of the “Wish You Were Here” segment, but according to director Francis he took an instant liking to the character of the kindly garbage man, Arthur Grimsdyke, who is driven to suicide by his heartless neighbors in “Poetic Justice.”  As written by Subotsky, the character was little more than a bit part, but Cushing felt it could be expanded with a minimum of fuss and asked to be allowed to work with Francis on doing so.  Not one to upset his favorite star, Subotsky agreed; the film would benefit enormously as a result.  Other crucial casting would be filled by the likes of Ian Hendry, Joan Collins, Nigel Patrick, Richard Greene, Roy Dotrice, Barbara Murray and Patrick Magee.  Amicus continued their tradition of snagging top drawer British acting talent and Tales from the Crypt would go on to become a huge money maker … though reportedly, Subotsky and Rosenberg saw little of it owing to their production arrangement with Feldstein, Haines and the distributor, Cinerama.


The film rehashes the usual formula: a group of people on a tour of some ancient catacombs become lost and stumble upon a strange man who begins telling them things about their future.  The first segment, “And All Through the House,” deals with Joanne (Joan Collins), who murders her husband on Christmas Eve before falling prey to an escaped lunatic dressed up like Santa Claus.  The second, “Reflection of Death,” depicts what happens when Carl (Ian Hendry) leaves his wife for another woman. The third, “Poetic Justice,” deals with horrid snob James (Robin Phillips, in a role reportedly earmarked for Ralph Bates), who drives his elderly neighbor Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing) to suicide.  The fourth, “Wish You Were Here,” shows Ralph (Richard Greene) making an ill-fated wish on an ancient statue and not living to regret the consequences.


And the fifth, “Blind Alleys,” deals with stiff-backed Major Rogers (Nigel Patrick), who takes over as the head of a nursing home for the blind and deals with the wrath of the clients when his severe tactics go too far.  At the end, it’s revealed that these are not visions of the past but glimpses of what has already transpired, and that the characters are all on their way to hell …


Freddie Francis directs with economy and a good sense of pace. The film isn’t quite as stylish as his earlier films for the company, but it stands head and shoulders above his other, generally drab and disinterested work of the period. He and cinematographer Norman Warwick create some memorable images, notably in the Cushing segment when the old man returns from the grave to exact vengeance. The stories are an uneven lot, with the second and fourth barely registering at all, but the other stories more than compensate. When Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis launched their popular TV show based on the comics in 1989, the first story they elected to film was “And All Through the House.”  It would be a gorier, more over-the-top version, enjoyable in its own way, but the Amicus version tends to linger in the mind longer. “Blind Alleys” and “Wish You Were Here” would also be revisited later on, as well, with the latter appropriately marking the directorial swansong of Freddie Francis.


Tales from the Crypt contains some stellar performances (Nigel Patrick and Patrick Magee are both in great form), but nobody makes a greater impression than Peter Cushing.  His portrayal of Grimsdyke is a thing of beauty.  He is the heart and soul of the film, a reminder of gentle humanity in an otherwise bleak and sardonic universe.  It’s easy to see why Cushing took a shine to the part, which was little more than a plot device in Subotsky’s original conception; with it, he could funnel all of his grief, loneliness and isolation into a form of acting as therapy.  Working with Francis, he created a magnificent portrait of a good man driven to suicide by the callous world in which he lives.   Cushing takes the character to the brink of caricature but never loses his footing, making it one of his most memorable and genuinely heart-wrenching performances.


It would garner him some of the best notices of his career, as well as netting him an award as Best Actor at the second French Convention of Fantasy Film; it was a richly deserved accolade, as the role served to remind one of his ability to inhabit a character role so completely that it was possible to forget for a while that we were watching Peter Cushing at all.

Written by Troy Howarth
with Images and Design by Marcus Brooks
Part Five Coming Soon...


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