Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Monsterpiece Theater: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee- Beyond Hammer

by Rustbelt

When someone mentions Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, two words often come to mind: “Tarkin” and “Dooku.” Ah, Millennials…I’d weep for them, but I choose not to. The other two words commonly associated with this famous duo are “Hammer Studios.”

Indeed, they were the original stars that put Hammer on the map. Or did Hammer offer them the breaks they needed by playing, respectively, Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula? Here are my reviews from previous years covering Frankenstein and Dracula. I’ll let you decide. But in addition to sequels of those particular films, the two also starred in Hammer’s versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy, among many others. But neither actor limited themselves to just Hammer. They branched out into movies for other studios as well.

The Skull (Amicus, 1965)

Plot: In 1814, on the grounds of the Charenton Lunatic Asylum in France, a group of men dig up a grave and decapitate the corpse within. The leader (Maurice Good) takes the head home and encounters his girlfriend (April Olrich), who is conveniently taking a bath and showing as much skin as the British Board of Censors will allow. (Oh, Amicus! You REALLY want to be Hammer, didn’t you?) The man rebuffs her, takes the head into another room, and gives it a chemical bath that leaves only the skull. Noticing strange vapors, the girlfriend breaks in and finds the man dead.
We then jump ahead to present-day 1960’s at an auction house in London presided over by Michael Gough. Rival, though friendly, occult item collectors Dr. Christopher Maitland (Cushing) and Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee) vie for a collection of demonic statues, with Phillips winning by heavily overpaying.

That night, Maitland is visited by shady occult items dealer Marco (Patrick Wymark), who sells him a book about the Marquis de Sade which has binding made of human flesh. The next night Marco returns with a skull to sell. When the asking price is deemed too high, he explains that it is the skull of de Sade. He then tells us that de Sade’s skull was stolen by a phrenologist for examination, but he and his girlfriend died soon after. Maitland still refuses because of the price.
Later, while playing pool with Phillips, Phillips tells Maitland that the skull is real and that it was stolen from him. He’s also glad that it’s gone. He says it’s possessed by an evil spirit that made him buy the statues. (It specifically needed the figure of Balberith- the demon who tempts men to commit murder.) He warns Maitland to avoid the skull at all costs, especially during the new moon- the night of Devil worship when the skulls spirits gather around it.
Maitland, however, soon finds his mind invaded. He has a nightmare where policemen arrest him, a judge forces him to play Russion roulette, and he encounters the skull. Ignoring Phillips’ advice, he goes to Marco’s apartment…er, um. Sorry. British film. His flat, with plans to steal the skull, but also finds Marco mysteriously dead. After avoiding the police, Maitland steals the skull, but kills the landlord (Peter Woodthorpe) in the process. Later, the skull ‘commands’ Maitland to steal the Balberith statue, and Phillips is killed as well. Finally, the skull compels Maitland to kill his wife (Jill Bennett), but he resists and stabs the skull instead. As punishment, the skull floats through Mailand’s house, cornering and killing him as well. The film ends as the skull ‘watches’ the befuddled policemen who investigate the latest murder.
Thoughts and Background: I’m a little biased because this is the one earliest non-Star Wars films I ever saw starring Cushing and Lee. Therefore, it’s full of ghoulish nostalgia for me. Interestingly, this is based on the short story, The Skull of the Marquis de Sade, by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. And in a strange twist, there ARE some facts at work here. The skull of the Marquis de Sade was, according to several accounts, exhumed at the loony bin where he’d been locked up for the last decades of his life for phrenological study. (For those not in the know, he was an 18th-century French aristocrat known known for torturing friends and servants for pleasure and then writing about the joys of sexual perversions. His name is where we get the word ‘sadism.’) The skull was later lost.

The film is quite enjoyable. The only drawback is how long some of the sequences are. Director Freddie Francis claimed that the screenwriter only gave him an outline and much of the dialogue had to be made up on the spot. Francis was a former cinematographer and it seems he tried to make up lack of a script with long, carefully-filmed sequences. Still, the film is well-paced and provides enough material for the actors to work with. A good watch for late on Friday or Saturday night.

Cushing (as Dr. Christopher Maitland): This is definitely Cushing’s film. His character studies the occult while believing in none of it. This skepticism makes him vulnerable to ignoring advice. Later, when the skull takes over, Cushing shows his acting chops by alternately displaying blank possession, rage, conflict (when he refuses to kill his wife), and, finally, abject terror when the skull attacks. It really makes you feel for a man who, though a foolish academic, is clearly trying to fight the demonic forces taking him over.

Lee (as Sir Matthew Phillips): More of a cameo role in this one. Lee’s scenes are few, but effective. He also gets to display something rarely seen from him on film: concern and empathy. It’s a rare non-villainous role for him. Following his own experiences with the skull, he begs Cushing’s character to get rid of the skull and save himself. Of course, Cushing’s character ignores him. (Personally, if Christopher Lee told me not to do something, I’d obey pretty quickly.)

Did You Notice…? The last 25 minutes of this film are mostly silent. It’s easy to overlook. I only really took this to heart after reading an interview with the screenwriter of Carnival of Souls. That film is also mostly silent, but, like The Skull, it can be hard to tell because of the effective soundtrack. Whereas Carnival relied mostly on atmosphere, Skull relied on Cushing’s expressions to convey the action without dialogue. Thank goodness British actors are taught to ‘act with the face.’

Horror Express (Granada Films, 1972)

Plot: Our story begins in China in 1906. Professor Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) has just completed an expedition in the mountains where he found a fossil that could be the famed ‘missing link.’ When he arrives at the train station to board the Trans-Siberian Express, a thief is killed trying to break into the crate containing the statue. His eyes are left white and bleeding. A Rasputin-esque monk named Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza) declares the crate evil, as he can’t draw a cross on it with chalk. Saxton still orders the crate be taken on board.
Not long after departure, Saxton’s rival, Dr. Wells (Cushing), after hearing what he thought to be something alive in the crate, bribes a baggage man to look inside. The baggage man disappears, and is later found inside the crate with the same bleeding, white eyes.

Soon, the creature kills a spy and is gunned down, but not before possessing Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña). In the meantime, Saxton and Wells examine the dead bodies and the eyes of the creature. They conclude that it drained its victims’ brains of knowledge through its eyes, and that it could even transport its consciousness through this method, which they later learn can only be done in the dark. (The ape creature was just a host.) Soon after, several more people die and the train telegrapher alerts the Russian authorities.
The train is eventually stopped and boarded by a company of Cossack soldiers led by Captain Kazan (Telly Salvalas). Before you can say “who loves you, baby?” (Oh, come on! How could I resist?), he turns his attention to the suspicious Mirov, who is confirmed to be the creature when his eyes glow red in the dark. The creature transfers himself into the weak-willed and cowardly Pujarnov, who has switched his alliance from God to the Devil.

The Pujarnov-creature is then confronted by Saxton in the front of the train and begs to be let go, declaring itself to be a being of pure energy from beyond the world. He also forces Saxton’s hand by raising all of the people he killed. Saxton and Wells move everyone into a rear car while avoiding the zombies and then release the car’s latch. The engine steams onto a dead-end track (re-touted by Tsarist authorities afraid the train was taken over by revolutionaries) and crashes, killing the creature.

Thoughts and Background: That was a tough plot to summarize. At its heart, this film is based on the 1938 short story Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell; the same source material for John Carpenter’s The Thing, so any similarities of an alien assuming other peoples’ identities for survival is not coincidental.

This is a very enjoyable film with a unique setting. It makes me wonder how people with far more limited scientific knowledge and technology (compared to today), would fare against a creature like this. Speaking of the setting, there’s a long-standing rumor that this film was made with sets left over from either Doctor Zhivago or Nicholas and Alexandra. Producer Bernard Gordon denied this, saying that while items from Pancho Villa were used, only stage was available, so each car set had to be built and all scenes shot before they could move onto the next part of the train, rather than the script.
The film is also quite unsettling and philosophical. It features several grisly autopsy scenes and the scenes of the white, bleeding eyes are disturbingly effective. The film also has characters debating science and faith while trying to determine the creature’s origin. (See below.)

I should also mention the performance by Savalas. He doesn’t try to sound Russian at all, but comes off sounding and acting like Kojak. (Odd, since Kojak was still a year away.) Yet, he dominates the screen when he’s on it and actually has the two lead actors vying for our attention with him. That’s not easy to do.

Cushing (as Dr. Wells): Cushing has a somewhat happy-go-lucky role, at least at first. He merrily greets Saxton at the train station and even comforts a beautiful lady who needs a room on the train. (She later turns out to be a spy). All in all, it looks like Cushing got to have a lot of fun here. Except he probably didn’t. Cushing almost didn’t make this movie. His wife, Helen, died a few months before filming and left him devastated. When he arrived in Madrid, he almost quit, feeling it was too soon to resume acting. Only the encouragement of his BFF Christopher Lee got him to stay and do the film.
Lee (as Professor Sir Alexander Saxton): Lee is more back to form in this film as a dominating character who demands that he be obeyed no matter what. However, he actually makes the transition from slightly villainous to determined protagonist after the creature escapes and he and Wells need to team up to stop the creature. You kind of get the feeling that his character got humbled after creature’s breakout and that he was, in fact, capable of putting his ego aside when the situation required.
What was the creature, anyway? On the surface, I suppose it is meant to be an alien. This is mostly a sci-fi film, after all. There are several things to support this. For one thing, the creature is confirmed to be an energy being, a different form of life. It also claims to have come with others millions of years ago and- a la E.T.- was accidentally left behind. It even seeks out to drain scientists and engineers on the train whose knowledge could be used to allow it to travel back to space.
However, it could also be supernatural, even demonic. As mentioned, the monk fails to draw a cross on the crate containing the creature. Later, a crucifix falls from a wall when the possessed Mirov walks near it. Finally, the creature tells Saxton that if he lets it go, it’ll give him all the knowledge it has collected over the years- a true Faustian pact. Also, the scene where the dead are raised as zombies could be either an unknown scientific process, or the creature’s command over the souls it has killed. Tough question to answer, IMO.

The Creeping Flesh (World Film Service, 1973)

Plot: The film starts with shots of a demonic abstract painting. The camera then pans out to show a scientist is painting it in his lab. He then informs a visiting scientist that he needs help in stopping an evil he accidentally unleashed on the world and begins his story.
The year is 1894, and professor Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) has just returned from New Guinea with a skeleton that he believes will help him solve the riddles of evolution. Even better, the results from this discovery should help him win the Richter Prize, whose £10,000 will also solve his financial problems.

But bad news intervenes: Emmanuel learns his wife, long imprisoned for mental illness, died while he was away. Also, his angrily frustrated half-brother James Hildern (Lee)- who runs the asylum where Emmanuel’s wife was locked up- plans to try for the Richter Prize himself and will no longer fund his half-brother’s expeditions.
Emmanuel returns home and accidentally discovers that pouring water on the skeleton’s finger causes it regrow flesh. He cuts off the finger and, after examining its blood, determines the creature to contain evil in viral form, thus proving a theory he’d been working on. He and his assistant then try to create a vaccine to protect people from evil. However, personal life intervenes when Emmanuel’s daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) breaks into her mother’s room and learns that her mother was a beer hall dancer. (Emmanuel had lied to her that her mother died years ago and told her nothing of her mother.) Remembering his wife’s mental downfall and fearing that Penelope may come down her mother’s hereditary insanity, Emmanuel injects her with the unperfected vaccine.

At this point, all Hell breaks loose. The monkey Emmanuel tested the vaccine on in the lab goes crazy and kills itself. Penelope steals her mother’s clothes and heads for London’s East End. Mistaken for a prostitute, she attacks several men and kills a lunatic (Kenneth Warren) who escaped from James’ asylum.

Penelope is taken to James’ asylum and James blackmails Emmanuel. In return for all of Emmanuel’s research, he promises not to reveal Penelope’s guilt to the authorities. But it’s not enough. James hires a thief to steal the skeleton. In the process, rain falls and the creature gains flesh and lives. It eventually tracks down Emmanuel and breaks off his finger- the same one he removed from it.
The scene returns to the lab from the start. Only, the younger scientist leaves and locks Emmanuel inside. James tells the young man that Emmanuel is crazy and claims they’re related. The final shot shows Emmanuel in a typical cell, begging for help and missing a finger.

Thoughts and Background: Whew! That summary was a doozy. Of all the films in this article, this was easily the creepiest. Freddie Francis is back in the director’s chair and he’s greatly improved since The Skull. Though some scenes- like Penelope running through Whitechapel, the ending carriage scene, etc.- seem a little long, he puts his cinematography skills to good use here. It’s a forgone conclusion that the film didn’t have the budget to fully show the monster here. Francis solves that by cloaking the creature in a shroud and shooting it from a distance that makes it look like the Grim Reaper- a fitting allusion. He also uses shots of the creature’s shadow outside Emmanuel’s mansion, growing larger as it approaches. This mirrors the gradual loss of light noticeable throughout the course of the film.
Moreover, the film goes from idyllic home settings to the filth of Whitechapel and the draconian experiments being carried out by James (probably based on real-life experiments of the time). It gives the movie the feeling of a world collapsing in on itself. It’s all very unsettling and an excellent example of a low-budget crew coming up with creative ways to create an atmosphere where talented actors can complete the creepy tale.

Cushing (as Emmanuel Hildern): Here, Cushing’s job is to play a control freak whose life is falling apart just as he may have found the solution to his problems. Though he has lied to his daughter about her mother and milked his half-brother for funds, you can’t help but feel for him. You feel that he had good (though misguided) reasons for his actions, and it truly hurts as the film goes on. He loses his daughter to insanity, loses his discovery to his immoral half-brother, his assistant is killed, and he’s attacked by the creature at the end. Cushing is so good at evoking sympathy that I couldn’t help but groan, “Come on! Give this poor guy a break!” It all adds a tragic element that can keep viewers much longer than most films of this time would be able to.
Note: The subplot involving Cushing’s character mourning his dead wife became a common theme for Cushing. A widower after 1971, he said he simply understood the grief and had no problem showing it as part of the plots in his films. In fact, he often dedicated such performances to his late wife.
Lee (as James Hildern): Lee now takes on a fully villainous role. At first, when he informs Emmanuel that he intends to take the Richter prize for himself, he seems like just another typical Ebenezer Scrooge-type character. But when he blackmails Emmanuel over Penelope’s sudden insanity, he reaches a new level. Reputation was everything in Victorian society, so James is punching Emmanuel right in the stomach. Seriously, I hated this character and wanted him to get what he deserved. But this is one of those cruel horror movies that gives you a logical, though gut-wrenching conclusion. Speaking of which…

About that Ending… Is that really how it ended? OK, truth be told, I actually read a synopsis of this film before getting around to it and thought to myself, “the ending is straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari!” In that film, (see above ‘Dracula’ link), the main character is revealed to be an asylum inmate and his nemesis, Dr. Caligari, to be the man running the asylum. Here, we have almost the same ending. But was it real? Or was it all Emmanuel’s madness?

Well, it could be real. Emmanuel and Penelope were clearly nuts at the end and would’ve been locked up. He’s also missing his finger. Furthermore, James says that Emmanuel has been there for three years, and was locked up when he (James) won the Richter Prize. Perhaps James did steal Emmanuel’s research and win. As for his denial of his family (he claims that Emmanuel foolishly believes that he is his half-brother and Penelope is his daughter), that could just be him cruelly covering up a potential scandal- an already-established theme of the film.
But could it be madness. The whole story, we’re told, is recounted by Emmanuel. He could easily have added everyone he sees daily- including James and Penelope- along with his mutilated hand into his tale. In his hostility to his jailor, he may also have invented the idea of James stealing the research needed to win the Richter Prize. Plus, remember the Dr. Caligari thing I noticed? Well, the painting in the cell is in an abstract style that seems similar to the German Expressionism used in Caligari. Subliminal hint? Maybe.


tryanmax said...

It's been awhile since I enjoyed the pure popcorn of Hammer Studios. You've provided a good list to jump in with. Don't think I've seen Horror Express. (Hard to say, these used to be on late at night all the time. Ah, the good ol' days.)

Backthrow said...

Good stuff, Rustbelt! I've enjoyed all three films, many times, which is more than I can say for most of their fright-film counterparts in the 2000s.

Note to tryanmax: none of this trio are from Hammer, but rather, from their rivals, though they have a similar look/feel. The Skull is from Amicus (distributed in the U.S. by Paramount), Hammer's chief competitor in UK horror & sci-fi films in the 1960s/70s. Their specialty was horror anthologies, most featuring either Cushing and/or Lee, such as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967), Tales From the Crypt (1972), Vault of Horror (1973) and Asylum (1972). They also made and those two early, non-cannon Dr. Who films, starring Cushing as The Doctor (Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)), as well as the Edgar Rice Burroughs-based fantasy-adventure flicks starring Doug McClure, Land That Time Forgot (1974), People That Time Forgot (1977) and At the Earth's Core (1976).

The Creeping Flesh is actually from the tiny UK film company, Tigon (World film Services was the U.S. distributor). They made a handful of horror films and sex comedies, though their horror flicks are fairly well-regarded: The Conqueror Worm (1968, a.k.a. The witchfinder General), starring Vincent Price; Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), starring The Skull's Patrick Wymark; and The Creeping Flesh.

Horror Express was a UK-Spanish co-production from the even-smaller Benmar Productions (working in tandem with Granada Productions). Benmar made a couple of quasi-spaghetti westerns (Captain Apache (1971), A Town Called Hell (1971)) and one other horror film, Psychomania (1973, a.k.a. The Death Wheelers), involving undead bikers, and starring George Sanders, in his final film role.

Geek mode: off. As you were, ladies and gentlemen...

ArgentGale said...

Nice start to the series, Rustbelt! All of these movies sound awesomely creepy and well-acted. Sadly I missed the boat on the original, unedited Star Wars so I don't have much exposure to Cushing's work. The first role I saw Lee in was actually Saruman in Lord of the Rings and he still remains one of the most memorable characters in the movies. You're right about him having a commanding presence I definitely wish they had done more with the voice of Saruman scene from the books in The Two Towers movie with Lee in the role. And to lapse back into game geekery I definitely appreciated Lee doing the voice of Ansem the Wise and his alter ego DiZ in Kingdom Hearts II! That was a pleasant surprise and great addition to the game.

- Daniel

Rustbelt said...

tryanmax, I gotta side with Backthrow. These films are all non-Hammer.
Give 'Horror Express' a try. It's pretty good.

Rustbelt said...

Backthrow...wow. Just...wow.

I stand a-back. For I have been royally out-geeked. ("I'm sick. I'm dying. And yet, I have a taste for nachos.")

I too, remember when this stuff was on late at night. 'Fear Fridays' on AMC...'Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs' on TNT...good times to be a teen.

Rustbelt said...


Cushing's performance is one of the few details that seems to be mostly unaltered from version to version of the original Star Wars. It gives you a really good look at what he was capable of.
I think my first exposure to Christopher Lee must have been his appearance in 'Gremlins II: The New Batch." He practically spoofed himself as an in-house mad scientist.
Yeah, LOTR could always have used more of him as Saruman.
I haven't seen KH2. Fun fact, though...KH1 came out when I was briefly a cast member- via the College Program- at Walt Disney World. Perfect game for the situation! My roommates and I played that for hours between our shifts. (They were luckier than me. Three of them worked at the Studios, while I got to do quick food service at one of the resorts. Oh, if only I could've gotten one day- just one day!- at MK, that would've been great.)

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