Posts Tagged ‘Peter Cushing’

Horror Express (1972)

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Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee made a remarkable 22 films together over the course of four decades – the first being one where they never even appeared in the same scene, as the pair actually appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948. More often than not they were antagonists, pitted against one another in a series of Dracula films from Hammer Studios and as Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. It’s a pleasure to come across a film where the two friends share the screen and are (mostly) friendly with one another.

Horror Express is not a Hammer film, but it certainly looks and sounds like one.  The film features Lee as Sir Alexander Saxton, an archaeologist and scientist who discovers a “missing link” in a cave in Manchuria. Returning to England with the specimen via the Trans-Siberian Express, Saxton hopes to change the face of science with his mummified creature. They’re joined Saxton’s friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), his assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinhea), and a whole gang of suspicious characters that include a Polish Countess and her husband, a lovely stowaway, and a mad monk.  Also on board is Inspector Mirov (Jose Pena), a police officer following Saxton around after the sudden and inexplicable death of a thief in close proximity to Saxton’s mummy.  As soon as the train starts moving, people start dying. It rapidly becomes clear that the thing Saxton has in that case is not quite as dead as it appears, and is capable of murdering with one glance of its shimmering red eyes.

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Horror Express is something like The Mummy meets Murder on the Orient Express with a healthy overtone of Italian giallo. The influence of the latter becomes obvious during the murder sequences, a bit more violent and disturbingly realistic than your usual horror fare of the time period. The violence is not overdone, however, and the film relies more cleanly on the slow realization of who, and what, is doing the killing. An abrupt shift halfway through the film makes for some excellent tension, while Saxton and Wells join forces to stop the creature and protect as many people as they can.

Cushing and Lee are enjoying themselves here, as perhaps the only English speakers in a Spanish/British horror film with a primarily Spanish cast. They begin initially as rivals and quickly become buddies, facing the monstrous horror with two very stiff upper lips. The pair are always fun to watch together; their chemistry tends to leap off the screen, even when the surrounding events might make lesser actors into hams. The rest of the cast is quite impressive on the whole, with no one standing out as a poor performer among the rest. You have to be willing to enter into the madhouse spirit of a film like this to get any enjoyment out of it, but at least the cast seem game, taking their parts seriously without overacting.

There’s really not much to complain about with Horror Express, so long as you accept the initial and rather silly premise. The denouement does feel rushed, however, and raises a number of questions of plotting that are never satisfactorily answered. The sudden introduction of Telly Savalas as a Cossack commander is jarring, not least because Savalas does not even attempt to sound like a Cossack. The final showdown comes off as perfunctory, especially after some strong tension building over the rest of the film.

I would not put Horror Express forward as the best film Cushing and Lee made together, but it is very far from the worst. It’s a solid, enjoyable hour and a half spent in the company of one nasty monster, and two of the finest horror actors to ever haunt the screen. As we mourn Lee’s passing, we can find a bright spot in the idea that he’s still stalking monsters with Cushing, on the screen and, perhaps, elsewhere as well.

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Dracula A.D. 1972

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Hammer Studios went into decline as they skated into the 1970s. Their returns would rapidly diminish; they would begin replacing their brand of well-made camp horror with ever greater exposure of skin, blood and pointless violence. But there were a few remnants of the old Hammer as the studio went into the 70s, and none is weirder, or more enjoyable than Dracula A.D. 1972.

The year is 1972 (in case you missed it) and Count Dracula has been dead for 100 years. But his acolytes live on, and it’s time for the King of Vampires to return to wreak havoc on the groovy chicks of swinging London. Dracula is resurrected by a bunch of bored hippies, led by the nasty Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). While the others take the whole satanist ritual as a big joke, Johnny is dead serious. Dracula returns from the dead, looking pretty damn good for being dust and ash for the past 100 years. He wants blood, and he wants it now; cue Johnny running around procuring sexy girls to satisfy Dracula’s bloodlust. But Dracula is particularly interested in chowing down on Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), one of Johnny’s friends and the youngest descendant of Laurence Van Helsing, who staked the undead Count. Meanwhile, Jessica’s grandfather Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and a police inspector (Michael Coles) investigate the mysterious deaths of the young maidens that Dracula has been draining.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is the height of Hammer camp, with a groovy go-go soundtrack, crazy clothes and drug-addled hippies (what with their loose morals and blood-sacrificing ways). There are some uncomfortable parallels between Dracula’s murders and the Manson family killings that only took place a few years before; the film trades on the mainstream fear of the new generation, with the group of friends always looking for a new thrill. There’s an added fluid sexuality – Dracula’s acolytes are all men instead of brides – and, as always, the heaving bosoms and red-paint blood we all expect from Hammer.

But when you come down to it, no Dracula film works without Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee thankfully does not have to wander around swinging London or board a bus in his cape; he instead sticks to the de-sanctified churchyard while Johnny does his dirty work. Cushing and Lee are excellent adversaries, even when they barely spend a moment on-screen together: Cushing’s slight physicality, his solid Englishness, the quiet intensity with which he tries to protect those he loves, juxtaposed against Lee, tall, elegant, with booming voice and nearly black eyes. They make a great team, and Dracula A.D. 1972 brings them together once more.

Dracula A.D. 1972 might be the last great Hammer film. While it shows signs of wear and tear – and foreshadows the studio’s decline – it still has enough campy fun to go around, punctuated by some serious moments of true horror.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)

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Without really intending to, I seem to be going through a schlocky old-school horror movie phase.  I blame society.

The Curse of Frankenstein was Peter Cushing’s first Hammer film, but he goes into it with all guns blazing.  He’s Baron Victor Frankenstein, the man with the penchant for charnel houses and the creator of one nasty Creature (Christopher Lee).  He’s also perhaps the least sympathetic of Cushing’s roles, a man at once a coward and a villain, coldly sacrificing everyone he’s close to in pursuit of his monomania.

The plot is the familiar one, with a few Hammerian touches to give it extra oomph: Victor’s assistant is Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), not Igor; the good doctor is not particularly in love with Elizabeth (Hazel Court), but is having it off with his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt).  The Creature only shows up part way through the film, and then promptly dies.  There’s plenty of decapitation, heaving bosoms, and bright red blood that we come to expect from a Hammer outing.  Victor’s cruelty is also on display: he viciously murders an old doctor for his brain, he imprisons Justine with the Creature when she reveals that she’s pregnant, and threatens to sacrifice Elizabeth if Urquhart doesn’t help him finish his work.  Gone is the tragic doctor of Mary Shelley; this is Franky as the mad scientist.

And who can object to that? Cushing gives his character a cold, calculating gaze, his clipped accent perfect for a man obviously missing a mirror gene or two.  Unlike some of the other actors – Hazel Court, for instance – Cushing rolls over the more ridiculous dialogue without letting it throw him off.  Despite his cruelty, it’s something of a disappointment when he doesn’t get away with murder in the end.

The Hammer films seemed to get better as the 50s moved along, and finally really hit their stride in the early 60s, and this one still shows signs of being uncertain of itself.  There’s an awful lot of build-up to the introduction of the Creature, and when it arrives I was sort of disappointed.  No rampaging around the village, no angry mobs, no torchlit processions.  The Creature sort of wanders around the woods, kills a blind man and then gets shot in the head. Even his final rampage is perfunctory.  It’s a shame, because behind all that decaying make-up is Christopher Lee and it would have been nice to give him a bit more to do.

At the end of the day, while Curse of Frankenstein is not my favorite Hammer film, or even my favorite Frankenstein film, it’s still good fun.  This was a film that basically resurrected classic horror, and brought Peter Cushing into the Hammer fold.  There’s no way to argue with that one.

LAST NIGHT: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, 1967.

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*Well, not quite last night.  But close enough.*

I cannot put into words how much I love 1) Hammer Studios and 2) Peter Cushing.  So there is absolutely no reason for me not to love this movie.

Frankenstein Created Woman is a later entry in Cushing’s extended tenure at Hammer; a 1967 film coming after The Curse of FrankensteinThe Revenge of Frankenstein and The Evil of Frankenstein, making it the fourth (but not the last) time he played the mad doctor.  And while I admit to preferring Cushing’s work as Van Helsing in the Dracula films, the Frankenstein movies have their own deliciously lurid cache, not least because the kindly blue-eyed gent transforms into one cold, evil sonofabitch.

Frankenstein Created Woman takes up about half its running time with the build-up: Hans (Robert Morris), the son of a convicted murderer who watched his father go to the guillotine, has grown up very good-looking but very angry.  He’s Baron Frankenstein’s assistant and in love with the innkeeper’s daughter Christina (Susan Denberg), a lame young lady disfigured by a large mark on one side of her face.  The opening scenes depicting Hans’s nasty temper, Christina’s gentleness, and the cruelty of three dandies, are all well and good, but I admit to waiting for the blood and sewing together of dead bodies.

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This … never happened.

I should not have worried.  Despite being slow-burning at the beginning, the second half of this one erupts when Hans is wrongfully executed for the murder of Christina’s father – the dandies did it – and Christina kills herself. Enter the Baron, who has been wandering in the background talking about capturing the immortal soul of man and putting it into another body, a latter day expositionist.  With the help of his faithful doctor friend Hertz (Thorley Walters), Frankenstein rebuilds Christina’s body, captures Hans’s soul and presto! We’ve got a dual-personality, bi-gendered and buxom monster!

Frankenstein Created Woman is not quite so lurid as even Horror of Dracula or the original (and best) Curse of Frankenstein.  But it is a satisfying revenge story with the typical combination of very good actors speaking very bad lines that one comes to expect from a Hammer product.  The rest of the film proceeds much as you’d think.  While there are not buckets of blood, there are several shocking and grotesque moments as the new Christina sets about taking revenge for Hans’s death.  The theology and philosophy espoused by the Baron especially and the film in general gets to be quite weird, as the soul of Hans apparently possesses some residual memory that turns Christina into a split personality.  The Baron even begins paraphrasing the Bible, as we should have expected he would.  Much is left unexplained, but if you came for cohesive philosophical constructs, you should really have read the plot synopsis first.

My one real quibble with the film is how long it takes to get going, and how little Cushing is utilized.  Of the handful of British thespians who graced Hammer films – Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Herbert Lom, Oliver Reed – Cushing stands at the top. It seems criminal to give him so little to do in a film that proclaims our Franky as the creator of life.

That aside, Frankenstein Created Woman is good fun.  I’m sometimes bothered by how much I enjoy Hammer films.  Probably shouldn’t think too deeply about that one.