Monday, May 26, 2014

Happy Birthday Peter Cushing

I'll be short, simple and to the point for once:

Happy Birthday Peter Cushing - There will Never be Another Like You

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee - Best Enemies

Of all the one-screen pairings of actors, one is seemingly overlooked more than others. Though they appeared in nineteen films together, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are overlooked as one of the great classic film pairings. Whether they were both on the side of the angels or agents of opposite sides, both put forth their best efforts in all of their appearances together. Off camera, Cushing and Lee are very close friends and their friendship surely translates to film. Today, as I continue Peter Cushing Month, I take a look at the duo's multiple appearances together.

Cushing and Lee's first two partnerships are interesting in that they share no scenes together, though for the sake of completeness, I will include them in this write up. First there was 1948's Hamlet starring Laurence Oliver which featured Cushing in the comical supporting role of Osric and Lee puts in an early, un-billed appearance as a spear carrier. In 1952, the two appeared together in Moulin Rouge directed by John Houston. The film was early in both actors' filmographies with Cushing putting in an appearance Marcel de la Voisier and Lee plays French impressionist artist Georges Seurat.

But the history of the two's on screen career would change forever when the two became linked to horror films and their friendship grew exponentially on the set of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. In 1959, Cushing and Lee appeared in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles, Cushing of course playing Holmes and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville - the first time in the two's collaborations in which the actor was playing not only the hero, but not a supernatural being. Lee was back to playing the villain later that year when the two starred in Hammer's The Mummy.

Peter Cushing deals out Christopher Lee's fate
in 1965's Dr. Terror's House of Horror
Throughout the early '60's, the two parts ways, yet they were reunited and Cushing and Lee would appear in four consecutive pictures beginning with 1964's The Gorgon (click here to read a review of that film).  The Gorgon aside from being one of Hammer's most atmospheric films, is notable for flipping the Cushing and Lee formula, featuring Cushing in the role of the heavy and Lee as the professor whose main goal is to bring the monsters to book. Cushing would play a villain again in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, his first film for the studio Amicus which would become his home away from Hammer. Cushing and Lee reunited at Hammer for the adventure/thriller, She, an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's novel which co-starred Ursula Andress. Back at Amicus, Cushing and Lee appeared in The Skull which finds Cushing possessed by the supernatural forces after he comes into possession of Marquis de Sade's skull. The film is noted today for featuring nearly no dialogue in the last twenty-five minutes. The duo's last collaboration of the 1960's was Night of the Big Heat which told the story of a small island which has been invaded by extra-terrestrial beings. Cushing's role is decidedly minimal in this not-very-well received motion picture.

In 1970, Cushing and Lee joined forces with Vincent Price in Scream and Scream Again, a horror/sci-fi film in which Price's mad scientist is creating a race of android-like beings. Curiously, Cushing failed to share any scenes with his fellow horror stars. The two stars appeared (again albeit separately) in The House that Dripped Blood, a collection of horror vignettes which also featured such names as Ingrid Pitt and Jon Pertwee.

Good vs. evil again - Dracula A.D. 1972 
At this point in Cushing's life, he went through a great deal of trauma as his beloved wife Helen passed away. But Cushing, the constant professional, returned to the screen, appearing as the hero opposite Lee's Jekyll and Hyde in 1971's I, Monster. Next, Cushing returned to the role of Dr. Van Helsing for the first time in eleven years, matching wits with Lee's Count Dracula in 1972's Dracula A.D. 1972. Hammer's change of pace, dragging the vampire count kicking and screaming out of the Gothic world, may not have been a great success, but it did afford the two actors to play their most beloved characters once more. That same year, Lee and Cushing reunited for Horror Express, a Spanish/British collaboration and certainly the cheesiest horror film I have ever come across. Cushing and Lee star as a dueling geologists who uncover a primitive humanoid in a Manchurian cave, which miraculously comes to life and begins to feast on the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express as the two journey back to Moscow. Also featuring Telly Savalas, Horror Express is the epitome of campy '70's horror, but did award Peter Cushing to speak one of the finest lines of dialogue in a horror film. When accused that he has become possessed by the shape-shifting monster, Cushing memorably retorts: "Monster? We're British you know!" Cushing and Lee were reunited for The Creeping Flesh as feuding brothers and the two were once more fighting on the side of the angels come 1973's Nothing But Night, a film for which Christopher Lee aiding in producing.

Cushing returned to the role of Van Helsing once more battling Lee's Dracula in 1973's Dracula and his Vampire Bride, Hammer's final Dracula film. The film would be one of the duo's final collaborations as Cushing's film roles decreased and Lee began to move away from the horror genre. They reunited in 1979's Arabian Adventure and for the final time in 1983's House of the Long Shadows, a personal favourite of this writer. House of the Long Shadows co-starred Vincent Price, John Carradine and Desi Arnez Jr. Though not exactly a quality film, it is an enjoyable romp and it's great to see the kings of the horror genre uniting in one picture.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee ought to be considered as one of the finest on-screen duos in film history. Appearing in nineteen films from 1948 to 1983, the two versatile stars put forth their best in every role they played. Whether fighting for good or each other, Cushing and Lee are no doubt an integral part of classic horror.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review - "The Evil of Frankenstein" (1964)

Released during the height of the studio's run, The Evil of Frankenstein was the third film in Hammer's series featuring Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein. A year after the successes of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, Hammer followed up their adaptation of Mary Shelly's novel with a sequel - The Revenge of Frankenstein. Sadly, I have never seen this film, so I cannot judge how good or bad it is. Nevertheless, I have seen Evil of Frankenstein and it is the subject of today's review as we continue Peter Cushing Month.

Though it was the third in Hammer's Frankenstein franchise, oddly The Evil of Frankenstein does not follow the chronology of the previous two movies and finds Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein working in a secluded European village. After stealing a corpse to further his experiments, Frankenstein is found out by a village priest, and along with his assistant Hans (Sandor Eles), the two flee the town. Frankenstein and Hans arrive in the remote village where he first conducted his notorious experiments. After having created a Monster (Kiwi Kingston), the Creature went on a rampage, before it was apparently killed by authorities. While searching the grounds of his now dilapidated castle, Frankenstein uncovers the Monster's remains and is determined to bring it back to life. But, his brain-damaged creation will need help, so the Baron turns to the assistance of a stage magician named Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe).

The Evil of Frankenstein is not very highly regarded by those who have seen it. Reviews have called it "dismal" and "the worst of Hammer films' Frankenstein series." This seems really quite harsh in my mind, but I cannot deny the fact that the film is mediocre, and the weakest of the Frankenstein films I have seen. I think the movie's greatest weakness is its story, which is really too campy to be taken seriously. Hammer's other Frankenstein films regarded its material with true seriousness and professionalism. The Evil of Frankenstein is more of a throwback to the Universal horror films of the '30's and '40's, which by itself would not be a problem at all. However, the movie seems to take a page from Universal's less successful efforts.

Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein
is up to no good once again
The ties to Universal Studios does not end there. Hammer had managed to strike a distributing deal with Universal and were therefore able to use a make-up for the Monster similar to the famous design for Universal's 1931 original. The result is rather dire, any attempt to emulate the famous make-up falls flat. The hardest blow comes when one realises that the make-up worn by Christopher Lee's Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein was a fine, original concept, and Hammer should have had more confidence in their abilities without trying to vainly emulate a classic.

What of the cast? Of course the main attraction is Peter Cushing's Baron. Cushing seems rather detached this time around, and I hazard a guess that he wasn't in love with the script this time around as he is uncharacteristically dull. Cushing retains a bit of aloofness which is in-keeping with the Baron's character, but little of the great spark and zest which drove the Baron's experiments is lacking this time around. Due to Cushing's unfortunately lacklustre performance, Peter Woodthorpe easily steps in and steals the show as Zoltan, a stage magician and hypnotist who the Baron employs so he can communicate with his comatose Creature. Woodthorpe is deliriously over-the-top, but he nicely counteracts Cushing's understatement, so the two's double-act is rather nice. Kiwi Kingston was a New Zealand-born wrestler and actor, known today for little else than his performance as the Creature in this film. To put it mildly, Kingston cannot hold a candle to Christopher Lee's portrayal of the Creature seven years earlier.

The Evil of Frankenstein is not a terrible movie however. The pre-credits sequence which finds Frankenstein up to his old tricks again as he steals a body is intense and incredibly atmospheric, and probably the film's highlight. Also of note is a nice score by Don Banks which is at once melodic and bombastic and underscores the film beautifully. Click here to listen to the film's opening credits theme.

In all, The Evil of Frankenstein can at times be disappointing, but I wouldn't put it down as a terrible movie experience. While it lacks strong central performances, the film does have some nice scenes of atmosphere and musical score. Therefore, I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review - "Captain Clegg" AKA "Night Creatures" (1962)

Hammer Studios is today best remembered for its contributions to the horror genre. But their work in other fields is just as impressive, and today's film, though marketed as another horror picture, is quite different from the studio's norm. Captain Clegg (1962) is an entertaining pirate film starring Peter Cushing in one of his finest performances, and today I'll take a closer look at this unorthodox movie as we continue with Peter Cushing Month.

Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) arrives in a small coastal English village to investigate mysterious goings-on. It seems as though the town is being ravaged by ghosts - mysterious, skeletal figures glimpsed riding on horseback throughout the nearby marshlands. Collier is suspicious of everyone, and becomes even more so when the kindly Reverend Dr. Blyss (Peter Cushing) points out the pirate Captain Clegg's grave in the churchyard. Little does Collier know that Blyss is in actuality in charge of an elaborate smuggling scheme, transporting illegal liquor out of the village. As Collier closes in on the truth, he jeopardizes the lives of the squire's son, Harry (Oliver Reed) as well as the woman he loves, Imogene (Yvonne Romain). Will Blyss and the others manage to escape free, and what secret is the seemingly innocuous clergyman hiding?

Though it was obviously marketed as a horror film, Captain Clegg is not. No matter how much attention the marsh phantoms receive on posters and the film's trailer, the film is truly a character piece and an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Oddly enough, the closest thing which I can liken this film to is the 1973 crime caper film, The Sting starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman!

The finest thing about the film is Peter Cushing's wonderful performance, one of his finest from '60's. Cushing is obviously having a grand old time playing the role of Reverend Dr. Blyss, and honestly I cannot see how he couldn't. The character of Dr. Blyss is not a hero, nor he is a villain, making him a complex character and a ripe one for any actor to play. Cushing, a fan of all kind of swashbuckling cinema, finally got the opportunity to play a gung-ho character, and come the blood-and-thunder finale, he actually gets to swing on a chandelier! Cushing's performance truly makes Captain Clegg.

The other actor of note is Patrick Allen whose performance as Captain Collier is just as morally ambiguous as Cushing's Blyss. Allen and Cushing have great on-screen chemistry, and their scenes together shine, especially as Collier comes closer to learning the truth behind Dr. Blyss and the marsh phantoms. It is also interesting to note Allen's varied filmography. Aside from his performance herein, Allen turned in a number of on-screen appearances, including an early turn in Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. Allen also did a great deal of voice work during his long career, and he narrated the first series of Blackadder starring the great Rowan Atkinson. Small world getting smaller.

Captain Clegg is a film which is liable to surprise its viewer who goes into the movie expecting the usual Hammer horror show. It is an adventure of the best kind and with a number of show-stopping pieces and brilliant performances, it proves to be on the studio's best offerings. I give Captain Clegg 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review - "Brides of Dracula" (1960)

Hammer Studios' first sequel to 1958's Dracula is notable for one reason above all others - it doesn't feature Dracula at all! Christopher Lee's vampire count is completely absent, and in fact it wouldn't be for another six years before he donned the cape of the vampire. In the meantime, Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing turns up once more to fight the forces of evil throughout Europe. So, is 1960's Brides of Dracula a film which could have used Lee's participation to make it complete or does it fare well enough on its own? Brides of Dracula is the next installment in this month's review series Peter Cushing Month, so as always, let's take a closer look.

Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) is a French student teacher on her way to a boarding school in Transylvania. Abandoned by her coachman in a small town, Marianne accepts the invitation to stay the night at the Chateau Meinster by the castle's owner, Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt). Marianne's reception at the castle is lukewarm and she becomes worried when she discovers that the Baroness' son (David Peel) is locked in one of the castle's rooms. Freeing the Baron from his makeshift prison, Marianne discovers too late that he is a vampire, who after killing his mother, escapes into the night. Marianne now must fight for her life - but as luck would have it help is on hand as Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) just so happens to be passing through the village. Soon, the forces of good and evil are engaged in a tremendous battle royale.

Brides of Dracula is one-hundred percent, unashamed pulpy fun. Whereas Hammer's previous horror efforts had relied upon expert pacing and plotting, Brides of Dracula moves from one show-stopping set piece to the next. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with this approach. In fact, Brides of Dracula is perhaps the most fun Hammer horror film to watch. Nevertheless, the film is enthused with some fine character moments and fine performances abound.

Cushing takes centre stage as Van Helsing once more, despite not being present for the film's first act.In terms of performance, Van Helsing has subtlety changed since Dracula. Van Helsing appears to be a bit more kind this time around and less aloof, his main goal in the film to protect Marianne Danielle. The vampire hunter also comes across as a bit more athletic this time around, continuing to show a side of swashbuckling adventurer. In one memorable scene, Cushing's Van Helsing actually gets to side across a full-length dinning table and come the impressive climax, the doctor jumps onto the blades of a moving windmill. (Wouldn't Errol Flynn have been proud?) We also catch a glimpse of Van Helsing's true humanity as he relieves the Baroness Meinster of her great burden in the only way he knows how. Cushing's performance is one of the things which truly elevates Brides of Dracula from what could have been a trashy, cheap thriller into a truly effecting motion picture.

Brides of Dracula also features some fine performances from its other cast members. Yvonne Monlaur's Marianne is the epitome of innocence as she is lusted after by the bloodthirsty Baron. David Peel's Baron Meinster is a masterpiece of horror movie villainy and certainly one of the most impressive vampires to emerge during the period. Martita Hunt's Baroness is perhaps the film's most memorable character, and like Cushing, adds many layers to the film. Lastly, there is Freda Jackson as the mad housekeeper Greta, whose scene of cackling madness is one of the film's creepiest moments.

In all, Brides of Dracula is a fine horror film and makes for an incredibly entertaining evening of horror movie viewing. Peter Cushing's second turn as Van Helsing is grand, adding new facets to the famed character. Brides of Dracula manages to combine horror, thrills, some dark comedy and pathos, and creates a very entertaining piece of Hammer horror cinema. I therefore award it 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Top 10 Hammer Horror Films

As I continue with Peter Cushing Month here on this blog, I have decided to do something a little different. It is a well-known and documented fact that Cushing gained most fame at Hammer Studios, and Hammer's impact on the history of horror films is just as well known. So today, I count down the Top 10 Hammer horror films. Let it be known that I have not seen every one of Hammer's films, so the following list is made up of my ten favourites. So, without further ado, let's begin.

#10 - The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) - Also known as House of Fright, Hammer's unorthodox adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde flips the story on its head. By having Jekyll become a handsome, debonair Mr. Hyde, actor Paul Massie shows off an evil which can lurk inside just about anyone. The film is dripping with atmosphere and, despite being made fairly early in Hammer's repertoire, is not for the faint of heart.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll also boats fine performances from Dawn Addams as Jekyll's deceitful wife and Christopher Lee as an equally deceitful friend. But Paul Massie really does steal the show as Jekyll and Hyde and manages to send a few shivers up and down the audience's spines. Though rather downbeat in nature, the film is elevated by some black comedy. In all, its a handsomely made, well-acted horror film and a nice, though dramatically different, adaptation of Stevenson's beloved classic.

#9 - Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) - The third film to feature Christopher Lee as Bram Stoker's vampire count, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave finds the vampire out for revenge after a traveling priest exorcises his castle. Traveling to the priest's village, Dracula spreads terror wherever he goes as he sets his sights on the priest's niece (Veronica Carlson).

Dark in tone and suspenseful in execution, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave may not feature Hammer's most complex plot, but it nicely features Lee in the role of Dracula. There is also something incredibly moody about the film, making it Hammer's most atmospheric horror film. Rupert Davies co-stars as the heroic priest who wonderfully contrasts the epitome of evil that is Lee's Dracula. Veronica Carlson makes her Hammer debut in this film and she proves to be an excellent actress. Her acting chops truly show on a film further down this list. Though not as memorable as some of the other installments in Hammer's lengthy Dracula series, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave makes for an entertaining horror film and it proves that even sequels to incredibly successful films can be quite enjoyable.

#8 - The Phantom of the Opera (1962) - Hammer's adaptation of the beloved Gaston Leroux novel is quite atypical for the studio. Scaling back on the level of violence and blood, Hammer's Phantom of the Opera is nevertheless an atmospheric, thoroughly creepy film. Herbert Lom stars as the Phantom in an underrated and well-done performance. Interestingly, Hammer's first choice to play the Phantom was (of all people) Cary Grant, which might explain why the horrific nature of the film is toned down a bit.

The rest of the cast performs admirably. Heather Sears makes for a fine Christine, the Phantom's protege. Edward de Souza appears as the film's hero, and Michael Gough is wonderfully evil as the movie's true villain. (For all you Doctor Who fans, Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor, puts in a brief appearance as well.) The film also features an original score as well as an original opera which is performed throughout the movie. It is a beautiful composition, and the scene in which the Phantom gets to see his work performed is truly moving. This version of the story was also the first to have the Phantom play Bach's Toccata on the organ, an iconic image when it comes to all things Phantom of the Opera. In all, The Phantom of the Opera is an excellently realised, beautifully executed, though very atypical horror film.

#7 - Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969) - Peter Cushing's penultimate turn as Baron Frankenstein sees the monster-maker at his nastiest. After committing a foul murder, Frankenstein flees town and, under an assumed name, takes up residence at a small rooming house (run by actress Veronica Carlson). Soon, Frankenstein is up to his old tricks again as he sets to work creating another Creature.

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed has just about everything which made Hammer horror so successful. Cushing simply cannot be topped in his role as the Baron, which truly shows Cushing's versatility as an actor. He could play roles on both sides of the law equally well. Veronica Carlson co-stars as Anna, the owner of the rooming house, and she proves to be one of the best actresses in all of Hammer's horror films. Also featured in the cast is Simon Ward as Anna's boyfriend who becomes wrapped up in Frankenstein's schemes, Freddie Jones as the Creature and Thorley Walters who is on hand to supply some comic relief as an inept police inspector. Frankenstein Must be Destroyed is one of Hammer's most triumphant hours, and one of the last films which the studio released which can be given universal praise.

#6 - Cash on Demand (1961) - If I had more time I would devote an entire review to this fine film. You could argue that it isn't quite a horror film, but must still be put on this list as it is a contemporary thriller. Peter Cushing stars as Mr. Fordyce, the manager of a small London-based bank. One afternoon a man (Andre Morell), claiming to be his superior arrives at the bank, but it transpires he has come, equipped with a complex scheme to rob the bank, with Fordyce's unwilling assistance.

A criminally underrated film, Cash on Demand proves to be one of Hammer's finest films as its entire plot relies on the performances of Cushing and Morell. The two actors are brilliant and they add a great deal to this tale of suspense. Set entirely in the bank, the film has an unnerving sense of claustrophobia about it, which makes it a truly intense experience to watch. Again, though not a horror film per se, it is a thriller of the very best kind and is a must-see for fans of Hammer and Peter Cushing alike.

#5 - The Brides of Dracula (1960) - This is where the task of counting down the top ten becomes far more difficult as these next five films are all excellent in their own ways. Nevertheless, number five is The Brides of Dracula, a sequel of sorts to 1958's Dracula which doesn't feature Dracula at all!

All the same, The Brides of Dracula is one of Hammer's most entertaining films and probably the most fun of all the movies which they made to watch. Once more starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing it finds the intrepid vampire hunter fighting evil once more, this time in the form of the monstrous Baron Meinster (David Peel). The Brides of Dracula is the closest any horror movie will come to being a swashbuckling adventure as it moves from one dramatic set piece to the next. Yet, the movie manages to take its subject matter incredibly serious with Cushing adding multiple layers to the film as does Martita Hunt as the Baron's mother. Combining horror and adventure, The Brides of Dracula is a very entertaining way to spend one's time if they're in the mood to watch a bit of Hammer horror.

#4 - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) - I'm sure that my regular readers so this one coming a mile away. Hammer's only foray into Sherlock Holmes territory ended extremely well as the studios' adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous detective novel is probably the most atmospheric and one of my favourites.

Perfectly cast as Holmes, Peter Cushing turns in one of his best performances as Holmes and is partnered with Andre Morell who is one of the screen's best Dr. Watsons. Christopher Lee makes for a fine Sir Henry Baskerville and they all perform against one of Hammer's most atmospheric backdrops. The Hound of the Baskervilles brilliantly captures the ghost-story like air of Doyle's novel, and to this day and deliver a chill or two to its audience. There were hopes that the film would be the start of a Sherlock Holmes series for the studio, but low box office returns did not bring this to fruition. Nevertheless, the film is a timeless mystery and one of the best examples of what Hammer was capable of during their heyday.

#3 - The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) - This film must be included on the list as it, more so than any other Hammer horror film, revolutionised the horror genre. Mary Shelly's incredible Gothic horror tale is lovingly brought to life on screen and not only did it change the future of horror films, but was the first movie to pair Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on screen.

The Curse of Frankenstein features Cushing's breakthrough role as Baron Frankenstein, obsessed with bringing a being from the dead back to life. Expertly handled by its principle cast, as well as director Terence Fisher, The Curse of Frankenstein would prove to have all the right ingredients for audience's tastes, and the formula for horror was repeated countless times throughout each of the studio's coming attractions. In my mind, The Curse of Frankenstein is sadly overlooked today as being one of the most important films in the history of cinema. Try to imagine the horror genre today without it.

#2 - The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) - Another unorthodox horror film, The Curse of the Werewolf ignores the traditional conventions of werewolf cinema, and finds its protagonist, Leon (Oliver Reed) being born a werewolf due to his status as an "unlucky" child. The film is dark and brooding, not featuring the traditional black comedy of Hammer's early efforts, but that fact only heightens the drama of the story.

Oliver Reed is brilliantly cast as Leon and his role in this movie would lead him to stardom. The rest of the cast is equally excellent including Clifford Evans as Leon's sympathetic father figure, Catherine Feller as the woman Leon loves and Anthony Dawson as an evil marquis. The Curse of the Werewolf is also notable in Hammer's repertoire for being set in the eighteenth century Spain as opposed to nineteenth century England. Special mention must also go the make-up as Oliver Reed's werewolf is one of the finest I have ever seen, and the transformation scene is brilliantly executed. The Curse of the Werewolf might have been Hammer's finest film if it weren't for...

#1 - Dracula (1958) - This adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel holds a special place in my heart one reason above all others - it was the first Hammer horror film I watched after I mustered up the courage to do so. It is a brilliant film, not only for its depiction of Stoker's famed vampire, but due to an excellent plot and performances.

Again, Peter Cushing shines in the starring role of Dr. Van Helsing, vampire hunter extraordinaire who will stop at nothing to rid the world of the vampire plague. Cushing's performance is one of his best and alongside Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling, the three turn in grand performances. Of course, Christopher Lee's Dracula is the main attraction, and Lee's performance changed vampires forever. Lee's bestial vampire is truly a terrifying presence on screen and I think solidifies this movie as a true classic.

So, there we have it - my top ten favourite horror films released by Hammer Studios. Again, I have not seen every single one of Hammer's releases, so if you think that I;'m missing something on this list, I'd like to know. Or, do you agree with my ten selections. Feel free to leave a comment below and make sure you check back in for my next Peter Cushing review.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Review - "The Mummy" (1959)

With the great successes of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (1957 and 1958 respectively), Hammer Studios' next Gothic horror turn would be yet another remake of a Universal horror film. This time the studio would be filming The Mummy, the subject of this review for Peter Cushing Month.

Before we go onto the review proper, I feel that a little bit of history is needed. Universal Studios' The Mummy was a great success upon its initial release in 1933. Boris Karloff, coming off of the recognition which came with his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster in 1931's Frankenstein was a solidified as an international star and he became known as "Karloff the Uncanny." Curiously, Universal never made a sequel to the much-loved film, and when they did revisit the Mummy, it was an entirely different story. 1942's The Mummy's Hand, the first in Universal's new Mummy series is a personal favourite of this writer, and Hammer's 1959 remake owes a quite a bit to that film as well as its subsequent sequels.

The Mummy (1959) begins in Egypt, 1895. Archaeologist Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) is determined to find the tomb of Egyptian High Priestess Ananka. After months of futile digging, he and his brother Arthur (Raymond Huntley) and his son John (Peter Cushing) uncover the long lost tomb, but no sooner has Banning set foot inside the tomb does he suffer a nervous breakdown and go mad. Three years later, Banning, know residing in a mental institution calls for his son John, warning him of a mummy who is out to kill all those who desecrated Ananka's final resting place. John believes these are the ravings of his disturbed father, but when Banning is found murdered, John starts to think that there may be some credence to his father's story.

The Mummy strikes different chords within me. It is sadly one of the few Hammer horror film I have seen which I cannot give universal praise. While it is by no means a bad movie, it is far from perfect, and I think its main problem lies within its plot. Whereas other Hammer horrors boasted fantastic, suspenseful plots, The Mummy features a story which is far more languid and leisurely paced. Little suspense can be wrought from the plot, and when the film surges into a flashback, it feels as though the action has come to a dramatic and unnecessary halt.

Christopher Lee (left) and Peter Cushing (right) in 1959's
The Mummy
The cast does make up for some of the story's faults, though not entirely. Peter Cushing is good as John Banning, though he is a bit too old to be playing the character. Cushing was naturally a very mature actor and in all of his scenes he comes across as being akin to his performances as Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes in that he is ready to take on whatever the ancient Egyptian Gods throw his way. There is nothing wrong with the performance, but I felt as though John Banning should perhaps have been a bit more naive and a bit less likely to grasp the concept of ancient curses and a mummy back from the dead.

The other star attraction is, of course, the Mummy, played by Christopher Lee. As Kharis, an ancient Egyptian high priest, who defiled the Gods in trying to restore his love Annaka to life, Lee's mummy is a force to be reckoned with. Physically Lee is very imposing, using all of his six feet four inches to his best advantage as the unstoppable mummy, but he seems underused in the film. During the flashback set in ancient Egypt, Lee seems slightly uncomfortable as the high priest, but the same seems to apply to all of the actors dressed in ancient garb during this sequence.

The rest of the cast is pretty unmemorable, though their acting is fine. Yvonne Ferneaux is severely underused as John Banning's wife Isobel and Eddie Byrne is pretty "by the numbers" as a police inspector. George Pastell walks away with top honours in this film as the determined follower of the ancient Egyptian Gods who unleashes the mummy on the world. The scene in which he confronts Cushing's Banning is probably the film's highlight.

In all, The Mummy is not a bad film but it suffers from a slow plot and under-developed characters. Despite the valiant efforts of both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the film cannot overcome these problems. But, I implore you not to come away thinking this movie is a train wreck. There are some show-stopping moments and it serves its main purpose to entertain its audience. Therefore I give The Mummy 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Peter Cushing: A Sherlock State-of-Mind

What would this celebration of Peter Cushing Month be without a look at Cushing's multiple turns as the world's greatest detective. The only problem is: I have reviewed all of Cushing's performances as Sherlock Holmes - in some cases multiple times! So, to save myself from repeating myself, I have included links below to some of my posts about Peter Cushing and the great detective.

Peter Cushing - The Immortal Sherlock Holmes?

Avoid the Moor in those Hours of Darkness...
The Horror of the Hound

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review - "Dracula" (1958)

"Who will be his bride tonight"? "The terrifying lover who died - yet lived." Though extremely lurid in nature, Hammer Studios certainly knew how to attract attention to the next horror film following the commercial success of The Curse of Frankenstein. It seemed like an obvious choice to follow up Mary Shelly's Gothic masterpiece with the epitome of horror novels, Bram Stoker's Dracula. Today, more than fifty years since its first release, Hammer's Dracula is an engaging and entertaining bit of horror cinema, and one of the finest horror films ever made. Today we continue with Peter Cushing Month by looking at 1958's Dracula!

Before I take a look at the film itself, I think it would be best to look at the history of Dracula. Published in 1897, Bram Stoker's novel had held audience's attention in many forms. Almost as soon as Stoker's book was published he attempted to adapt it to the stage, trying to cajole the great actor (and his boss) Sir Henry Irving to play the part. Irving, apparently so disgusted with the part, refused to appear. However, Dracula's many stage incarnations was still in its infancy. In the 1920's Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane decided to bring the horror novel to the stage and set about writing a play with the help of John L. Balderston. What eventually transpired changed the history of Dracula forever as a little-known Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi stepped into the role of the vampire, instantly mesmorising audiences. The screen adaptation which followed in 1931 was the catalyst for the Golden Age of horror films which followed.

Interestingly Hammer's Dracula does not follow the plot of Stoker's book, nor does it seek inspiration from the famed play. Instead, Jimmy Sangster (who had also scripted The Curse of Frankenstein) streamlines the plot, cutting out many characters, but heightening the suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse bewteen good and evil. Jonathon Harker (John Van Eyssen) has traveled to Castle Dracula on the pretense of acting as Count Dracula's new librarian. However, Jonathon's true mission is to kill Dracula (Christopher Lee) who is a vampire. Dracula traps Jonathon in the castle and turns the tables on his would-be assassin. After Jonathon's abrupt disappearance, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who had employed Jonathon in his task, journeys to Castle Dracula, only to find that Dracula has vanished. When Jonathon's sister Lucy falls victim to the vampire, Van Helsing swears that he shall stop Dracula, no matter what the cost.

Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing
Dracula was really the movie which put Hammer on the map as the new leader in horror films. Everything about the film is brilliant - its atmosphere, its acting, its plot. Everything comes together so well to make a truly engaging movie-going experience. In my mind, the film's greatest asset is its script, which thought streamlining the Dracula story considerably manages to generate great suspense, and unlike some moments in The Curse of Frankenstein, there is never a dull moment. The hunt for Dracula's resting place becomes a frantic race-against-the-clock which makes for real edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

Peter Cushing is simply unmatched in his performance as Van Helsing, vampire hunter extraordinaire. Though Van Helsing is described in Stoker's novel as an older Dutch professor, Cushing's portrayal is much more akin to Sherlock Holmes. This Van Helsing is a young man of action who isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with the villains of the piece, and come the blood-and-thunder finale, exhibits some athletic prowess which would make a swashbuckler surprised. Cushing's Van Helsing is also slightly aloof and at times condescending, but he is nevertheless an agent of good, and despite a somewhat prickly exterior, you cannot help but be instilled with the knowledge that good with triumph. Interestingly, Hammer was banking on Cushing's name for the film - his name appears above the film's title in the opening credits, but as the Dracula series progressed, Christopher Lee's count would take centre stage. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing would not cross paths with Lee's vampire again until 1972's Dracula A.D. 1972.

So, what of Christopher Lee's Dracula? It would be unfair to compare Lee's Dracula with Lugosi's as the two men's performances couldn't be more dissimilar. Lee's Dracula is a monster - there is very little humanity left in him, and Lee's red-eyed, fanged vampire is pretty nightmarish. Interestingly, Lee's Dracula has only 16 lines of dialogue throughout the film and speaks to no other characters other than Jonathon Harker.

The rest of the cast is equally fine. Michael Gough runs the gambit of emotions throughout the film as the once stiff and upper-crust Arthur Holmwood. Melissa Stribling plays his wife Mina who becomes the object of Dracula's reign of terror, and Stribling's performance adds an unnerving note of sensuality to the film. In the unforgettable scene in which Dracula corners Mina in her room, Stribling seems to greatly anticipate the vampire's bite - almost biting her lower lip "as if she were a school girl with a crush." Dracula also boasts some fine black comedy performances including George Benson as a n easily-bribed border crossing guard and Miles Malleson as a comedic undertaker.

Dracula is released in 1958, and when released in America, the name was changed to Horror of Dracula in an effort not to confuse the film with the 1931 original which was being re-released at the time. Since its release, there have been countless other Dracula films - the vampire count is the second most adapted literary character of all time (Sherlock Holmes being the first). Though some subsequent films may have eclipsed Hammer's film, I still hold Dracula in very high regard. I therefore give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review - "The Curse of Frankenstein"

Here's a bit of history. Horror films were at their height in the 1930's and '40's. Universal Studios dominated the horror market, but it wasn't long before other Hollywood studios such as 20th Century Fox, M-G-M and RKO jumped on the bandwagon. It is generally accepted that horror died out in the late 1940's and that a new breed of film emerged to tingle the spines of audiences - sci-fi. Movies such as It Came From Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Blob were this period's most famous offerings - the nostalgia of vampires, swirling mist and monsters seemingly long forgotten.

That is until Hammer Films decided to remake Mary Shelly's immortal novel Frankenstein as a full-fledged horror film. Gothic horror was about to make a dramatic comeback, and the eventual product, 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein would redefine horror films forever. Today, we begin Peter Cushing Month as I review this still powerful and entertaining film.

The Curse of Frankenstein begins in a small Swiss hamlet where the once noble Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is imprisoned for murder. A priest arrives at the Baron's cell and the Baron begins to tell his unfortunate story. As a young medical student, Frankenstein became interested in the secret of life, and, with the help of his tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), successfully restored life to a dead dog. But Frankenstein's ambitions get the better of him. He is determined to create a man himself, to build a human being from scratch. In his quest to do so, Frankenstein turns to lying, grave robbing and even murder. In obtaining a brain for his creature, something goes terribly wrong, and once it is fitted into the cranium of the monster, terror ensues as the Creature (Christopher Lee) is brought to life and begins to terrorise the countryside.

The Curse of Frankenstein is an incredibly handsomely-made film, made even more stunning when one remembers it was the first of its kind. Prior to the film's release, Hammer had dabbled in science fiction horror, but most of their previous ventures had been in black and white. Even though The Curse of Frankenstein was made on a minimal budget, it certainly doesn't show. The sets, costumes and acting is all top natch. The quality of Hammer's early horror films in part inspired Alfred Hitchcock in making Psycho - the director took it upon himself as a challenge to create a high-grossing horror film made on a low budget.

The acting is The Curse of Frankenstein's finest achievement. The main focus of the movie is shifted from the Creature to Baron Frankenstein himself, expertly played by Peter Cushing. Though Cushing has gained the reputation as the good guy, or the gentle man of horror films, his characterisation of Baron Victor Frankenstein is one of pure evil. Frankenstein is a vainglorious, self-obsessed man, driven purely by his scientific desires - and the occasional tryst with maid Justine, out of eye-shot of his fiancee. Cushing's villainous performance couldn't be heightened if he were oozing slime every time he spoke. But, what is so brilliant is that we cannot help but feel for Baron Frankenstein. We see that he is an adulterer, grave-robber and murderer, and yet we are sucked into his word of villainy. It is simply a mesmorising performance.

But what a Frankenstein movie would be complete without a creature? Though granted little actual screen time, Christopher Lee's performance as the Creature is a powerful and imposing one, due in part to Lee's impressive physicality. The Creature, as played by Lee, comes across as a genuine threat, and is fairly unpredictable. This heightens the horror of the Creature's scenes dramatically. A word must also be said for the make-up, an original concept by Hammer make-up artists, which was created last minute when Universal Studios (who owned all copyright claims to the famous make-up as worn by Boris Karloff in their 1931 original) threatened legal action. So, we're given a very human-looking Creature - two different coloured eyes and scars not withstanding.

The Curse of Frankenstein is also fortunate enough to have an excellent script written by Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster. Sangster's story is fast-paced and energetic, moving from one great set piece of the next. There are also few scenes set outside of Frankenstein's castle, lending the story an air of claustrophobia which lends the movie an extra aura of suspense and horror. Sangster would come to script many more of Hammer's ventures and his story for The Curse of Frankenstein is an excellent example of Hammer's writing at its best.

The Curse of Frankenstein still holds up remarkably well today, due no doubt to the excellent performances from its principle actors, which truly never goes out of style. Peter Cushing turns in one of his best, villainous performances and opposite Christopher Lee's excellent performance as the Creature, The Curse of Frankenstein stands out as one of the finest horror films of the period. The film would also push the envelope in what was acceptable in horror films, and it would pave the way for Hammer's future offerings. I award The Curse of Frankenstein 4 out of 5 stars.

Check back regularly for more Peter Cushing reviews!