Sunday, October 29, 2017

Monsterpiece Theater: Cushing and Lee- Just Random Stuff

by Rustbelt

So, what’s the Cushing and Lee theme this week? Well, there really isn’t one. I just decided to pick some random films they starred in and review them on their own. Finding these two in films isn’t hard. During the course of his career Lee alone starred in more than 300 films - as either a lead, a supporting role, or just a cameo (or so I’ve read). The hard part is picking which films to review. However, it seems my schedule made the decisions for me.

Due to my lack of time, I’ve had to fall back on some films that I’ve already seen- including one whose every copy should be burned at the stake and wiped from the invisible bits of cyberspace. Mankind would do itself quite well to rid itself of this abomination. But we’ll save that for a few paragraphs on. For now, let’s start with one studio I’ve been teasing for the past three weeks and, amazingly, haven’t talked about in a single review until now.

The Mummy (Hammer, 1959)

They just had to do it, didn’t they? The Count, the Monster, a Werewolf two years later, and, now, a Mummy. As memorable as their work was, those Hammer people really liked following in Universal’s footsteps, didn’t they? Well, we’ll get to that in a second. First, the film.

Plot: In 1895, British Egyptologists Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) and Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) are hard at work searching for the tomb of princess Ananka. With them and stuck in bed due to a broken leg is John Banning (Cushing), Stephen’s son and Joseph’s nephew. Not long after, the archaeologists find the tomb and enter, but not before an Egyptian named Mehmet Bey (George Patell) gives them the requisite warning not to enter the tomb. Of course, they do anyway and one of them- the elder Banning- is attacked after finding a hidden scroll.
Fast forward three years and to the U.K., when John Banning is called to his father who has been living in an asylum. The older man claims he was attacked by a mummy in the tomb. Naturally, John refuses to believe and soon enough, his dad is killed.
It turns out that Mehmet Bey has, in fact, brought a long-dormant mummy to England to kill those who plundered Ananka’s tomb. While going through his father’s papers, John treats the audience to exposition that takes up most of the film’s second act. In relating what his father told him, the younger Banning explains how Princess Ananka’s funeral was carefully overseen by the high priest Kharis (Lee). Kharis was later caught trying to blasphemously bring Ananka back to life and, as punishment, was buried alive and cursed to be her eternal protector.
Later, Whemple is killed by Kharis and Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne) calls on John at his home where Banning fails to convince the inspector of what is happening. Kharis tries to kill John, but John’s wife Isobel- a dead-ringer for Ananka- comes in and causes Kharis- upon seeing her- to disobey Bey’s orders to kill. (Yvonne Furneaux, BTW, plays both Ananka and Isobel.)
The film climaxes when Bey personally brings Kharis to kill John. The bandaged one almost succeeds when Isobel again arrives, albeit in proper period dress. John then tells her to do the most scandalous, unladylike, anti-Victorian deed of the late 19th-century British Realm- she lets her hair down, causing Kharis to again recognize her. Kharis instead kills Bey and carries off Isobel into a swamp, until she orders him to let her go and the police open fire.
Thought and Background: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Hammer was kowtowing at the altar of Universal when scripting this one. Almost everything is borrowed/stolen from a Universal movie: a high priest trying to bring his dead lover back to life and spotting her modern doppelganger (The Mummy, 1932); a modern Egyptian priest worshipping a dead mummy and characters named Kharis and Banning (The Mummy’s Hand, 1940); characters named Mehmet Bey and Isobel and the former taking Kharis overseas to exact revenge (The Mummy’s Tomb, 1942); and the entire ending featuring a mummy and his lady love in a swamp (the Mummy’s Ghost, 1944). Good grief.

Sure, this film has its flaws. The scene of Lee as Kharis in ancient Egypt is very long and extensively detailed. There’s also a flashback to the beginning of the film that adds little more than Lee’s brief appearance. It almost feels like padding. And unlike other films where I’ve noted that Hammer added material and made it work, his film doesn’t add too much. Still, it’s well-shot, brightly colored, and all characters- including the comic drunks hired by Bey to transport Kharis- come off quite well. It’s a good addition to the Hammer canon, though not quite one of the best.
Cushing (as John Banning): It’s truly odd to see Cushing in a rather happy-go-lucky type of role. Usually, he’s either villainous, melancholy, or a loner. And since he’s playing a younger member of a family, he adds a zeal that makes him feel much younger than his years. It really is an enjoyable part to watch him play. And although he does eventually settle into a more ‘professor’ role near the end, you can tell he really enjoyed making this movie.

Lee (as Kharis): Once again, Lee finds himself playing a mute, heavily-costumed creature. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Kharis is not a pitiful, pathetic slouch. In the ancient Egypt scenes, Lee portrays Kharis as first dominant and dignified; then bewildered and terrified as his character is mummified alive for his sins. Later, as a mummy, Lee goes anti-Universal. Kharis is powerful and unyielding- none of Universal’s dragging of the bandages here. Lee also adds a nice touch with his eyes when Kharis looks at Isobel; he visibly softens with a look of longing that causes him to spare Banning. You really need a professional like Lee to pull this off.
Also, Lee hit a real benchmark here: he became only the second actor to play Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy for a major studio. The only other guy to do that is Lon Chaney, Jr. (Son of Dracula, Ghost of Frankenstein, and The Mummy’s Tomb.) Chaney, I should note, still kept an edge: the title role in The Wolf Man. Lee never played a werewolf.

(I couldn’t find a free link for this one. So, here’s a trailer.)

The Beast Must Die (Amicus, 1974)

Question: what happens when Hammer’s top rival throws Agatha Christie, The Most Dangerous Game, and 70’s Blaxploitation into a blender? Let’s find out.

Plot: The film starts off commonly enough, with a random black guy running through a forest being trailed by an apparently evil-looking security force of white guys getting their orders through headsets and from an evil-looking man sitting at an evil-looking control panel. Several times, the evil-looking guards close in, only for the evil-looking man to tell them to ease off. Finally, the black guy reaches a clearing where well-dressed people are eating lunch, er, taking tea. (Blast! I knew I’d screw up eventually.) But before he can ask for help, several of the evil-looking guards come out of the woods and open fire. He falls! Movie over!

But of course not. You knew it wouldn’t be that short.
The guy just laughs. You see, it WAS ALL A RUSE! The black guy, Tom, (Bahamian actor Calvin Lockhart), is, in fact, a filthy rich big game hunter. He was simply testing his newly-installed security system. The evil-looking guy in the evil-looking control booth, it turns out, is Pavel, a Polish(?) guy who installed the mass system of sensors, bugs, and cameras. Later, at a lunch party, Tom explains his motives to his guests, who include Jan (Michael Gambon), a pianist; his wife, Davina; Super Eurotrash artist Paul (Tom Chadbon); former diplomat Arthur (Charles Gray, a.k.a Henderson in You Only Live Twice and Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever); and archaeologist Lundgren (Cushing). Because people have died around them, Tom believes one of them is a werewolf and wants to hunt them. I guess big cats are no longer a challenge.

(Robin Leach voiceover) “Welcome to Tom’s palatial estate in Fool-on-Foot-shire where the guests are treated to exotic foods, expansive entertainments and being hunted down by their host on suspicion of being dogs in another life!”
Tom tries to test his guests with a silver candlestick, but Lundgren explains that won’t work because there’s no wolfbane in the air. Tom, of course, then supplies it. That night, a large ‘dog’ is sighted that chases Tom and then plows into the control room, killing Pavel right after he says he doesn’t believe in werewolves. Isn’t that how it always happens? (That massive security system is also destroyed in the process. Money to burn, I suppose.)

The next day, Tom sabotages everyone’s cars and cuts all telephone lines, determined to flush out the killer puppy. His wife Caroline (perennial overactor Marlene Clark), begs him to stop, thinking he’s finally gone overboard. But Tom wants to prove he’s right. He does so by boarding a helicopter that night and chasing a wolf while shooting at it with an automatic rifle loaded with silver bullets. He succeeds in saving Caroline from the animal in a shed, but accidentally blows up the helicopter and kills strafes his pilot in the process. What could be more sane?
The final night, Tom sets his sights on jerkoff Paul, who’s a loner, a weirdo, has hairy hands, and was missing when the wolf attacked. Paul is especially ticked off over the death of his pilot. (Yeah, First World problems.) He then orders everyone to taste a silver bullet- causing Caroline to transform and be killed by Tom. Lundgren then realizes that she must been infected during the werewolf the previous night. With Paul and Arthur now murdered, the beast is revealed to be…Jan! Tom then kills him in the woods, but not before being bitten.

Finally, in a total You Get What You Deserve Moment, Tom goes inside and blows his brains out before the curse can affect him. Only Lundgren and Davina survive.

Thoughts and Background: Okay, maybe that was a little harsh, but I’m just having fun. Truth be said, this movie isn’t that bad. Most of the characters are pretty well done. Some get more attention than others and the screen time is proportional to their roles. We don’t have Star Trek-esque moments of giving characters scenes solely for the sake of giving them something to do. Calvin Lockhart really nails his character; a charismatic guy, driven guy whose ego is teetering on the thin line between reality and insanity before going completely mental as the movie goes on. There are also enough twists and turns to keep viewers guessing who the werewolf is. (The film includes an infamous 30-second “Werewolf Break;” a pause for the audience to guess who the beast is.) The only problem, as I mentioned, is the actress playing Caroline. She’s one of those types who thinks that overdoing her inflections and gestures counts as acting. It doesn’t. And that’s why it’s too bad her character doesn’t disappear earlier.
Cushing (as Dr. Lundgren): Cushing has very little to do here. He puts on a German-ish accent (shades of Dr. Schreck?), and fills the role of Exposition Expert. He explains the (movie) science behind lycanthropy, as his character has been studying the werewolf phenomenon all his life. After that, like Charles Gray, he’s really in the background. Maybe that was to keep his character mysterious. Or maybe the filmmakers just forgot to make use of the talent they had in the cast. Who knows?
And to be fair, Christopher Lee took some odd roles, too.
Maybe he’ll fare with a more visible- and better- role here.

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, (Hemdale Film Corporation, 1985)

Oh, God in Heaven. I spoke too soon. Pray for me on this one, folks.

Plot?: Set right after the ending events of the first film (wherein anchorwoman-turned-werewolf Karen White exposed her bestial side on the late news before being shot with a silver bullet), Karen is being laid to rest- and then wakes up in her coffin. Meanwhile, her friend Jenny and brother Ben (the pre-Chris Evans Captain America Reb Brown) run into mystery man Stefan (Lee).
(Note: From this point on, Ben will be referred to by one of the many nicknames given to Mr. Brown by Mike and the Bots via his appearance in the sci-fi disaster, Space Mutiny.

And yes, that is Mr. Lee in the C.A. clip with Rip Hardpeck. I don’t know too much about it. What say we keep things at one disaster at time, OK?)

Stefan tells them that Karen was a werewolf and shows videotape evidence. (Wait? Wasn’t that broadcast all over L.A. at the end of the last movie? Oh, well.) He adds that the bullet was removed during Karen’s autopsy and that she will be stolen from the church and brought back to life because werewolves aren’t supposed to be buried in consecrated ground. Naturally, Butch Deadlift refuses to believe any of this and vows to kill Stefan instead(?).
That night, before saving Karen’s soul, Stefan goes to the seedy scene of L.A. for a punk rock concert where some powerful werewolves are hanging out. After some convoluted editing where, I think, the wolves attack while raving 80’s style..? I’m not sure. At least Stefan gets some cool shades for his efforts.

Back at the church, Stefan prepares to stab Karen with a titanium stake, er, spike. Whatever. Jenny and Bulk Van Der Huge arrive to stop him, allowing Karen to come to life as a wolf and try to attack Stefan. Nice going, Gristle McThornbody. Anyhoo, a few more werewolves attack and the group capture one of them. As Jenney and Slab SquatThrust watch, Stefan interrogates the wolfman, asking where Stirba (Sybil Danning)- Queen of the Werewolves- is located. Finally, the old wolf guy gives in and says she’s in Transylvania. (But of course! Ceausescu won’t let Dracula be published, so we gotta find a substitute!) Stefan kills the wolfman with his titanium and (presumably) does the same to Karen’s corpse. He says that he must destroy Stirba to save the world. Jenny and Big McLargeHuge vow to help him. He adds that some werewolves are too strong for silver and must be finished off by titanium. I forget. Is that the result of getting a Tanooki Suit or a Fire Flower?
Anyway, they’re preceded to Transylvania by werewolf Erle, who is taken to Stirba in time for a ceremony where a virgin is sacrificed and her youth is transferred to the elderly Stirba. Stirba then strips, as does the whole group, and an orgy breaks out. Then…then…OH, SCREW IT!!!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you don’t plan ahead. I should’ve more wisely adjusted my time and reviewed some worthy film- like the original Wicker Man. No bees, there. But I ran out of time and fell back on this. I confess. I didn’t re-watch it. I can’t do it. This is all from memory.

Suffice to say, they go to a very, very eastern European town in Transylvania. They find some allies, who all get killed one by one. There’s another werewolf orgy scene with the actors covered in thin ‘wolf- hair and growling the whole time. Matrix: Reloaded ain’t got nothing on this. Eventually, Jenny gets captured and Thick McRunFast has to rescue her. They head back to town and abandon Stefan as confronts and kills his sister(?!) Stirba at the cost of his own life. Meanwhile, Jenny and Lump Beefbroth go back to L.A. and seem concerned when a kid comes to their door on Halloween night in a werewolf costume. Then the credits roll to 80’s underground rock.

Please! Somebody, help me!
Thoughts and Background: Am I still alive? Well, I’m typing, therefore I must be. I think I’ve already answered this section, but I’ll add a few things. This film is a mess. Not only is the story a disaster, but I remain convinced it was edited by aliens who thought all humans have ADD. (In other words, a generation ahead of their time.) It keeps flipping back to unrelated POVs, stock images of buildings and Europe-y clocks, recycled footage, and odd dream sequences. (The first werewolf ceremony includes a ‘visionary’ shot of a wax head melting off of a fake skull!) I never thought filmmakers could aspire to be a poor man’s David Lynch, but these guys sure tried. And did I mention the acting? I’m not going to bother with the tree-stump wooden acting of the actress playing Jenny. And Buff DrinkLots? While it may not be his fault that he’s a chunkhead, the fact that he could have anything resembling an acting career is proof that Hollywood is evil and hates America. As for Sybil Danning, well, to the sad chagrin of any adolescents reading this, stripping- no matter how many times you do it- is not a substitute for acting skills. As a mature adult, I approve this message.
Lee (as Stefan): Oh, Chris…who did you owe money to? Even mafia debtors aren’t cruel enough to make you star in something like this to pay them off. (I think.)

Simply put, Lee hated this film. The director later stated that Lee kept to himself, frustrated by the disastrous acting of his co-stars. Yeah, Crunch Bonemeal can have that effect on you.

But it seems Chris got the last word. Years later, he was cast in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The story goes that, as soon as he arrived, Lee sought out director Joe Dante. Dante was also the director of the original The Howling. Upon finding the guy, Lee apologized profusely for having starred in a sequel that so marred a movie that he (Lee) had incredible respect for.

But if it’s a trailer for this one you need…it’s your funeral. (NSFW)


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the post, Rustbelt. It strikes me that Lee and Cushing would do almost any movie. Some were good, some weren't. And in the process, they created careers that will definitely be remembered.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, that's absolutely true. Their careers were absolutely prolific. And, IMO, they both brought a dignity and class to every movie they were in- whether that film deserved it or not. cough**cough**...Howling II...cough**cough**

Interestingly, I remember reading some of Lee's comments about 'Attack of the Clones.' After dissing Lucas' remarks that the most important thing is the story, ("No, in Star Wars, the most important things are always the special effects."), he talked about he enjoyed working with the kid who played Boba Fett. The kid asked Lee if he'd seen him in any films before. Lee responded, "Well, I've been in 267 movies, so you're probably seen me in something!"

Anonymous said...

Rustbelt: I own Howling II. It is every bit as terrible as you said.He wasn't lyin' folks. But due to to the modern miracle of the remote control I can fast forward to the end credits. For those who haven't seen this, the end credits play over a loop of Sybil Danning ripping open her shirt. Again and again and again. I also own Slave of the Cannibal God. Am I ashamed, you ask? Sometimes. But not always. ;)

Anonymous said...

And by the way, Reb Brown turned in some terrible performances in his day. But when Blaster dies on the bridge in Uncommon Valor I still cry dammit!

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