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.

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