Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Happy Birthday Peter Cushing

Peter Cushing (1913-1994)

Without doubt horror's finest actor

Happy 102nd Birthday

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review - "The Creeping Flesh" (1973)

Seldom has a horror film been produced which could actually be likened to a Shakespearean tragedy. A notable exception is 1973's The Creeping Flesh, which is described by author Mark A. Miller in his book Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema as being "the best of the last [Cushing and Lee contributions]." Highly atmospheric, morose, and brooding, The Creeping Flesh boasts one of Cushing's finest performances which we shall examine as we conclude Peter Cushing Month.

Peter Cushing stars as Professor Emmanuel Hildern who has returned from New Guinea with a skeleton of what he believes to the be the embodiment of evil. Hildern is a broken man after his wife lost her mind and confined to an asylum overseen by his cold, emotionless brother Dr. James Hildern (Christopher Lee). It was while in James' care that Emmanuel's wife died. However, fearing that insanity may be a hereditary trait, the Professor has lied about his wife's mental illness and death to his only child, his daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilborn). Quite by accident, Emmanuel discovers that when exposed to water, the skeleton miraculously re-glows flesh, and drawing some of the blood from the specimen, the Professor inoculates his daughter, hoping to vaccinate her against insanity. Soon, his plan backfires and before long both Emmanuel and his brother James will look pure evil in the face...

In the 1970's, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were lucky to have a spat of well-written movies come their way. The two men starred in three successive films: Horror Express, The Creeping Flesh,and Nothing But the Night (1973). All three films had very original premises, which was not the norm for quickly-produced horror films at the time. While the previously-reviewed Horror Express' script allowed for a fun, scary romp, The Creeping Flesh is different. It's a very downbeat film, laboring on topics like insanity and the root of evil. These type of philosophical discourses were few and far between in films of this sort, and this manages to make The Creeping Flesh feel rather sophisticated in a way. At the end of the day, it's still a cheaply produced horror film, but the ideas which it touches on are far deeper and more far reaching.

Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) prepares to vaccinate his
daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilborn) shielding her from madness
The concepts which are introduced in the film are expertly handled by Cushing and Lee. While Cushing is today best remembered for his excellent turns as Baron Frankenstein or Professor Van Helsing, his role as Professor Emmanuel Hildern may be one of his best on screen. Hildern begins as the typical dotty scientist who abandons the needs of his family (in this case his daughter Penelope) to make a breakthrough in scientific thought. Hildern becomes a more multifaceted person when we learn that he does care for his family and is trying to protect her in his own misguided manner. Of course, like most dotty scientists in horror films, his plans go horribly awry. Cushing lends a great deal of realism to his performance as Hildern, and he becomes one of Cushing's most pitiable characters. One of the film's most memorable (and heart-wrenching scenes) finds Hildern's daughter, Penelope, discovering the secret about her mother, donning her mother's old dress and beginning to play the piano. Hildern, lured to the room in which he has stowed his wife's possessions first believes that his wife has returned to life, only to have his own ludicrous dream shattered when he discovers that it was Penelope all along. Cushing, sobbing uncontrollably, is simply stunning.

While Emmanuel Hildern may be one of Cushing's most emotional roles, the part of James Hildern is surely one of Christopher Lee's coldest. Whether he is subjecting a patient to electric shock therapy, or shooting an escaping prisoner in the back, seldom has a character as heartless as James Hildern been put on the screen. What is fascinating about James is that he is not truly a villain, he's simply an unlikable guy who, like his brother Emmanuel, is driven by his desire to revolutionize scientific thought, which leads him to stealing the skeleton from Emmanuel's lab come the tense finale. Lee is simply in top form here.

However, the true standout (aside from the already lauded Cushing) is Lorna Heilborn as Penelope. After she's vaccinated by her father for madness, she begins to spiral downward, losing her mind completely. It's an emotional punch in the gut for the viewer knowing how much Emmanuel tried to protect his daughter, made all the more poignant by Heilborn's excellent performance. All of the stars are wonderfully directed by Freddie Francis, a veteran of many Hammer films and Amicus horror anthologies which meant that he'd worked alongside Cushing and Lee many a time. Though at heart a cinematographer, Francis managed to combine his love for camera work with directing which manages to give The Creeping Flesh a truly unnerving atmosphere, and come the finale, a number of wonderful camera shots.

Looking into the face of pure evil
As noted above, The Creeping Flesh is greatly benefited by a truly engaging, original screenplay which was written by Peter Spenceley and Jonathon Rumbold. Many reviewers have likened the story to a Shakespearean tragedy, so it's no great spoiler to say that the characters aren't very well-off come the ending. But, the roots of the tragic story-line go deeper. It is the misguided efforts of the main characters which eventually leads to their downfalls which adds greatly to the sense of irony which permeates the entire movie. There is also a brilliantly choreographed twist ending which is hinted at in the film's very beginning, and with the introduction of this twist, the film's entire meaning is flipped dramatically on its head. There is much debate over what actually happens in the movie, the ending rendering much of it ambiguous, which is just one more indication that The Creeping Flesh was taking risks where other horror films of the period were not.

It would not be misguided to call The Creeping Flesh one of the best horror films of the 1970's. An original screenplay creates three vivid characters, all of whom are brought to life brilliantly on screen and who extenuate the emotional vein which runs through the picture. What's more it's filmed by a director who had a keen eye for fascinating visuals and capped off with nicely realized twist ending. All of these ingredients make The Creeping Flesh a horror film not to be missed by both the Peter Cushing enthusiast or a vintage horror film fan. It receives a well-deserved 4.5 out of 5 from me.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Review - "Horror Express" (1972)

Despite the fact that British Hammer Films paired Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on a number of occasions, it was a small Spanish studio who paired the two in one of their most memorable,exciting, and truly unnerving horror films. Originally entitled Panico en El Transiberiano (Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express), the film was ultimately re-titled in English-speaking countries as Horror Express. The excellent film is the subject of today's review for Peter Cushing Month.

In the early 1900's, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) discovers a neolithic creature encased in ice while exploring the caves of Manchuria. Placing the creature in a crate, Saxton plans on traveling back to Europe across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express where he runs into his rival, fellow anthropologist,Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing). Before long it becomes clear to both men that Saxton's specimen is not dead and is now running amok on the train - it's glare able to kill a man. A race against the clock is soon on as Saxton and Wells must stop the monster and discover the creature's secret.

On a personal note, I discovered Horror Express a many years ago when I came across it in a video store. Fascinated by both Lee and Cushing, though arguably pretty unfamiliar with the bulk of their work, I decided to give the film a try. Being perhaps of an impressionable age, I found the movie incredibly chilling, and I daresay I had never seen a movie which caused me to lose sleep. More recently, I discovered that the film was restored on Blu-Ray (and believing that I am not as impressionable as I once was) jumped at the chance to see the film again. Boy, am I glad that I did. Horror Express is without doubt one of the strangest horror films I have ever seen, but such a fascinating, entertaining film, and even after all this time, still pretty unnerving.

Horror Express can be looked at as one of those "kitchen sink" horror films. In the span of a 90-minute movie, we have: an Edwardian setting, a speeding train, a neolithic monster, a creature from beyond this world, zombies, blood, gore, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, a pretty countess, a Rasputin-like mad monk, an incredibly eerie musical score, and Telly Savalas. I'll give you a second to let that all sink in. Ready to continue? Good. Despite the combination of eclectic plot points, the film succeeds in making everything work. Never do any of the sub-plots or characters feel superfluous - they all add greatly to the overall story. In fact, Horror Express' greatest asset is its very original script, written by Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Halevy. While the film begins in the usual monster-on-the-loose vein, by the mid-way point, an interesting twist has been introduced and the whole film is truly turned on its head.

"Monster? We're British you know"
The excellent screenplay is complimented in no small part by its stars. Christopher Lee heads up the cast as Sir Alexander Saxton. Lee gets to play a heroic character in the film, an occurrence which was fairly uncommon in '70's horror films. He lends true weight to the (at times silly) story and the seriousness with which Lee conducts himself adds gravitas. Peter Cushing's Dr. Wells is one of the actor's most endearing creations; even in the scenes in which Wells is experiencing the most dire of circumstances, Cushing's eyes cannot help but twinkle. What is notable about Cushing and Lee in this movie is that the two of them are both agents of good, easily setting aside their differences to save the day. Both are also endowed with some very campy bits of dialogue, but both actors, ever the professionals never let the audience see them make light of their faintly comical lines. For example, after Saxton's creature has broken out of its crate, killing the train's baggage man, Wells demands: "are you telling me that an ape that lived two million years ago got out of that crate, killed the baggage man, and put him in there, then locked everything up neat and tidy and got away?" to which Saxton steadfastly replies: "Yes, I am." Perhaps the most infamous case of unusual dialogue to be found in the film comes after Julio Pena's police inspector accuses Saxton and Wells of possibly being the monster themselves. "Monster?" Cushing's Wells counters, "We're British you know."

The supporting cast compliment Cushing and Lee wonderfully - if not at times achieving a memorable status with a bit of zealous overacting. Alberto de Mendoza walks away with perhaps the film's most memorable role, that of the mad monk, Father Pujardov, who goes a little off his rocker come the film's final third. Silvia Tortosa is likable in the extreme as Countess Petrovski, and any possible romance between the Countess and Saxton is well-handled. One cannot overlook the obvious elephant in the room, that elephant being Telly Savalas as cossock Captain Kazan who attempts to restore some order on the train. Savalas hams it up in the extreme, seen gargling with a glass of vodka. It's an insane performance, totally in-keeping with the nature of the film.

Despite its at times campy nature, Horror Express still manages to be an unnerving film. Due in no small part to the sense of claustrophobia, the sense of tension in the film is produced almost effortlessly. Unlike Hammer, whose scenes of extreme gore were few and far between until the early '70's, Horror Express different. The creature, who wipes its victim's brains of their memories causing blood to weep from their eyes, noses and mouths, is truly a chilling sight. Horror Express was one of the first horror films of its kind to use blood extensively. One cannot overlook the terrifically eerie musical score either which was provided by John Cacavas. Cacavas' score somehow manages to sound creepy, funky, and vaguely Russian all at once. Click here to listen to the film's haunting theme.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about the production of the film was Peter Cushing's reluctance to accept the part. Produced in late 1971, Cushing was still suffering from the recent death of his wife Helen and was not keen on traveling to Spain, especially due to the film's scheduled shooting around the Christmas holiday. It was Christopher Lee, Cushing's close friend who convinced Cushing to stay on, and Lee even invited Cushing to spend Christmas with his family. That's what's so appealing about Horror Express - it is perhaps the only film in which Cushing and Lee co-starred which showed any indication of the two men's strong friendship which existed off screen.

Rather perfectly described as The Thing from Another World meets Murder on the Orient Express, Horror Express is a fun, eccentric horror romp. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are delightful as the film's leads, leading a host of great supporting actors in the campy, creepy fun. As a standard horror flick it's very entertaining. As a Cushing and Lee collaboration, it's one of the best, which therefore earns it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review - "Dracula A.D. 1972" (1972)

By the early 1970's, Hammer had run its course in terms of projects. The '70's saw Hammer films such as Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Lust for a Vampire and Demons of the Mind. Gothic horror films were becoming passe in the era and it seemed that there was only one thing which the studio could do to keep their films fresh - move 'em to the modern day. Despite the fact that Gothic horrors were the staple of Hammer Films, there was high hopes for a script written by Don Houghton called Dracula - Today. Houghton's script, eventually directed by Alan Gibson, would become entitled Dracula A.D. 1972 and reunited Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing respectively. The film is the subject of today's review as we continue Peter Cushing Month.

1872 - Professor Van Helsing (Cushing) fights to the death with Count Dracula (Lee). Killing Dracula, the Professor expires before one of Dracula's followers scoops up the vampire's ashes and buries them outside a church. One-hundred years later, Van Helsing's grandson, Lorrimer (also played by Cushing) has become a well-respected scientist studying the occult,but has become distanced from his own grand-daughter, Jessica (Stephanie Beachman). One evening, Jessica and a group of her friends, including the creepy Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) decide to hold a black mass in a deserted church, and in doing so resurrect Dracula. When a series of murders begin to occur in Chelsea, Scotland Yard Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) soon allies himself with Van Helsing with the intent of closing in on the Prince of Darkness, Count Dracula himself.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is a hard film to defend at times. It's cast primarily comprised of young people living in the Swingin' '60's dates the movie incredibly, as does the simply unreal dialogue. During the black mass, Johnny Alucard tells the others "dig the music kids" as he begins to play the dirge-like, black mass music. All of this is complimented (if one can truly use the word) by a truly out-of-place jazzy score by Mike Vickers. All of this dates the movie terribly making it feel like an incredibly dark episode of The Brady Bunch. Yet, the film is so entertaining. It is almost impossible not to find something to enjoy in the movie if one knows not to think too deeply into it.

As noted above, Dracula A.D. 1972 was made in response to changing audience opinion and tastes. Perhaps the most obvious influence was the release of Count Yorga, Vampire in 1971. The film, starring Robert Quarry, found age-old vampire Count Yorga taking up roots in then-modern California. It seemed apparent to Hammer that if the Yorga film (which spawned a sequel) could be a tremendous success than the same could be done with Bram Stoker's original. On paper, the idea that seemed like a good one, and one has to believe that in 1972, Dracula A.D. 1972 was a bit more palatable when (unfortunately) phrases like "far out" and "groovy" were commonplace.

The cast of Dracula A.D. 1972 helps to elevate the at-times campy script. Of course to this viewer, Peter Cushing is the centre of attention as Lorrimer Van Helsing. Cushing's third go-around as vampire hunter is one of his most interesting due to the fact that this new modern day creation is not used to vampire hunting. Despite the fact that Van Helsing is descended from a long line of monster fighters, Cushing's character here is fighting the forces of darkness for the first time, especially toward the finale when Jessica, his grand-daughter, has been kidnapped by Dracula. Cushing introduces a number of interesting character touches, especially in one fine sequence wherein Van Helsing must steal a flask-full of holy water from a church. Cushing's nervous expression is actually quite humorous.

Interestingly, Christopher Lee is top-billed this time around as Dracula (the last time he and Cushing played Dracula and Van Helsing in 1958's Dracula, Cushing walked away with top billing as the Professor), despite the fact that Dracula is side-lined for much of the film. As ever, Lee is the incredibly domineering as Dracula. One would never know that by this point in time Lee had become very disillusioned with Hammer continually urging him to don the cape of the vampire time and time again. Lee also looks impressive in this outing - much better than his oddly pale-faced appearance in the previous, far inferior Dracula film, Scars of Dracula (1970).

The remainder of the supporting cast give a number of fine performances. Stephanie Beachman's Jessica undergoes an interesting change in character as she becomes closer to her grandfather as the film progresses. Christopher Neame as Dracula's follower, rather preposterously named Johnny Alucard (that's Dracula spelled backwards), almost steals the show from Cushing and Lee. Neame gives a truly unnerving performance and his climatic struggle with Cushing's Van Helsing is well choreographed and exciting. A word must also be said for Caroline Munro as Jessica's ill-fated friend Laura. Munro is truly memorable, especially when she decides to take part in the black mass, and gets covered in Alucard's sacrificial blood. Munro was one of Hammer's most famous latter-day faces also turning up in their film Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974) and in 1977 she would go on to appear alongside Roger Moore in The Spy who Loved Me.

Cushing in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)
Just as the aforementioned Count Yorga, Vampire spawned a sequel, so did Dracula A.D. 1972 and I'd like to take a moment to take a look at that follow-up as it once more teamed up Cushing and Lee. Almost given the title Dracula is Dead...and Well and Living in London, Hammer's final Dracula film came to be called The Satanic Rites of Dracula and was released the following year. Working as a direct sequel, the film finds Van Helsing called in by Inspector Murray once more to investigate some strange goings-on involving four prominent government men who have taken to practicing Devil worship. Van Helsing soon learns that one of these men has perfected a new strain of plague, and when the Professor learns that Dracula may still be alive, he springs into action once more in order to save the day...and all of humanity as we know it. Just as campy as its predecessor, The Satanic Rites of Dracula does seem to take itself more seriously, mixing a darker story-line with a little dash of espionage. There's no real reason why I don't like the film as much, but compared to Dracula A.D. 1972, the film is lacking in a distinct sense of fun. However, if you're a big fan of Cushing and Lee and want to see the final film in which they played their most famous roles together, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is an entertaining ride.

In all, Dracula A.D. 1972 is a fun, incredibly campy horror show. If the viewer is willing to check their expectations at the door than it is possible to find this film incredibly entertaining, reveling in every "groovy" moment. I am luckily not the only person out there who seems to enjoy this film. Writer Sinclair McKay wrote in his entertaining analysis of Hammer horror's, A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: "I just have to say at this point - hand held high - that [Dracula] A.D. 1972 is one of my favourite Hammers. This preference can't be explained, it just is, that's all. Against all odds, it's an insanely cheering (and hypnotically watchable) production." I couldn't agree more and I give Dracula A.D. 1972 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Review - "The Flesh and the Fiends" (1960)

We begin Peter Cushing Month II with one of Cushing's more often overlooked films. Though strictly-speaking not a horror film, 1960's The Flesh and the Fiends was certainly marketed like a horror film, and released in America under the title Mania. Nevertheless, the creepy costume drama boosts one of Cushing's finest early '60's character parts, and he just about steals the show. So, without further ado let's dive right in and take a closer look at The Flesh and the Fiends.

Edinburgh, 1928. Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) is lamenting the difficulty of obtaining bodies for dissection in his anatomy class. This leads Knox to turning to body snatchers who despoil graves, digging up their occupants who eventually end up on the Doctor's operating table. The lucrative trade of the body snatchers draws the attention of William Burke (George Rose), a down-on-his-luck landlord, and his friend William Hare (Donald Pleasence). Burke and Hare develop an evil scheme quickly: why dig up graves when they can provide Dr. Knox with fresher corpses...freshly murdered corpses. Turning a blind eye to the killer's activities, Knox tries to evade the authorities' investigation as well as the crisis of his aid Chris Jackson (John Cairney) who has fallen in love with a barmaid, Mary Patterson (Mary Whitelaw). Will Knox get away with his schemes, or will the misguided scientist's actions soon prove to be undoing...?

"This the story of lost men and lost souls," reads the caption which opens The Flesh and the Fiends. "It is a story of vice and murder. We make no apologies to the dead. It is all true." The fact that this film is based in truth is perhaps one of the most interesting things about it. Burke and Hare, real people, who did indeed begin robbing graves and later turned to murder, did exist. Their heinous crimes would go onto influence many writers and storytellers, including Robert Louis Stevenson whose short story The Body Snatcher is in part inspired by their crimes. Burke and Hare have since entered into popular culture, attaining the same grim status as Jack the Ripper.

Despite the film's claim that it makes "no apologies to the dead", the movie does handle its subject matter fairly delicately. And that may actually be the film's main weakness. George Rose and Donald Pleasence are great together as Burke and Hare, but they never seem quite evil enough. Pleasence in particular gives a grand performance, but in a film which relied on its melodramatic (but true) subject matter, a more grandiose performance from both men could have accentuated their characters' un-likability even more. Again, that's not to say that they were bad, but there was potential for more.

Cushing as Dr. Robert Knox
However, as usual, Peter Cushing must be praised for his role of Dr. Robert Knox. Despite his star billing,Knox is a fairly minor character, especially as Burke and Hare take centre stage. However, Knox is one of Cushing's finest performances of the early-'60's. Knox is the epitome of the misguided scientist who disregards all in order to better science. Cushing based his performance of Baron Frankenstein in his numerous turns for Hammer on Knox,and the parallels are quite visible. Both men are cold and aloof, science governing their minds over all. Cushing also allows Knox to grow as a character, something which is fairly infrequent in films of this kind in the period. As Knox begins to realize what trouble he has gotten himself into, Cushing makes Knox a far more redeemable figure, one we can almost sympathise with come the finale.

As I noted above, The Flesh and the Fiends is not really a horror film. If is without doubt a creepy, dark film, but The Flesh and the Fiends is truly a costume drama. Impressively mounted, the cast is extensive and the sets are beautifully-designed; Knox's lecture hall is a truly impressive set and Cushing looks quite at home behind his podium. That's not to say that there aren't some horrific moments especially towards the end as Burke and Hare's bloodlust overwhelms them and Knox begins to targeted for his complicity in the two men's crimes.

The Flesh and the Fiends was more-or-less remade in 1985's The Doctor and the Devils based on an original screenplay by Dylan Thomas. Jonathon Pryce and Stephen Rea starred as Burke and Hare equivalents Fallon and Broom and Timothy Dalton took on the role of Dr. Thomas Rock, a substitute for Knox. The film was directed by Hammer horror veteran Freddie Francis. More recently, Burke and Hare would also turn up in John Landis' dark comedy Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the killers with Tom Wilkinson taking on the part of Dr. Knox.

The Flesh and the Fiends is a flawed, but ultimately overlooked film together. Excellently realized with lavish costumes and sets, the movie is complimented by a fine cast. Donald Pleasence and George Rose provide a good turn as Burke and Hare, but Peter Cushing easily steals the show as the misguided Knox and manages to give one of his strongest performances of the period. The Flesh and the Fiends gets 3.5 out of 5 from me. Make sure you check back regularly as I continue to review some more Peter Cushing films as I once more celebrate Peter Cushing Month.