Tag Archive for Amicus Productions

Remembering Peter Cushing –
 Dr. Terror, Tarkin, and Beyond

Peter Cushing in "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" (1965)

We’re back for Day Two of the
Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon with an overview of Mr. Cushing’s later works. After getting the ball rolling at Hammer Films, Cushing starred in a handful of non-horror swashbucklers in the early 1960s. In Sword of Sherwood Forest, he is Robin Hood’s perennial nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham. He plays the light-hearted legal counsel to the hero of The Hellfire Club (1961) and father to the hero of Fury at Smugglers’ Bay (1961). To avoid legal hassles with Disney, Cushing’s character in Captain Clegg (1962) (given the more horrific title of Night Creatures in the U.S.) was renamed Parson Blyss, but the film is an adaptation of Doctor Syn just the same. The story hinges on how he relates to the dread Captain Clegg and whether Blyss/Syn is hero or villain, so I won’t spoil that here.

Amicus Productions and Portmanteau Horror

Founded by American producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky but based in Shepperton Studios, England, Amicus Productions made a pair of teenage musicals before they decided to enter the horror market. The two had previously co-produced The City of the Dead (1960) (Horror Hotel in the U.S.) with Christopher Lee. Inspired by Dead of Night (1945), what Subotsky considered “the greatest horror film ever,” his scripts for a television series languished until he pulled them together to create his own horror anthology film.

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) features Peter Cushing in the title role, that of Doctor Schreck, translated as “Dr. Terror” from German. As the doctor himself explains, “An unfortunate misnomer for I am the mildest of men.” Dr. Terror serves as the erstwhile host in a framing device, a gimmick used in the controversial EC Comics of the early 1950s. Here, he uses a pack of Tarot cards to read the fates of a number of predictably doomed train passengers.

Peter Cushing as Arthur Edward Grimsdyke, risen from the grave, in "Tales from the Crypt" (1972)

Peter Cushing as Arthur Edward Grimsdyke,
risen from the grave, in Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Of the eight portmanteau horror films that Amicus produced, Cushing appeared in six: Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1970) (with Christopher Lee), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Asylum (1972), and From Beyond the Grave (1974) (with Peter Cushing again hosting the framing sequence). Cushing also starred in The Uncanny (1977) a non-Amicus anthology where he plays a writer trying to convince the world about the evil of cats through a trio of tales. As someone who is horribly allergic to the fuzzy little buggers, I don’t need any convincing.

Cushing sadly turned down a few key horror roles in the 1970s. He was AIP’s first choice for Dr. Vesalius in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), the target of the tile character’s wrath, but he turned down the role due to his wife’s illness. Cushing never did go toe-to-toe with Vincent Price’s Abominable Doc, but they did manage to team up in Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972).

He was also John Carpenter’s first choice to play Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978). His second choice, predictably enough, was Christopher Lee, but both declined the role due to the lackluster budget and negligible pay. Donald Pleasence, Carpenter’s third choice, took the role for a meager $20,000.

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Star Wars (1977)

Writer/Director George Lucas initially sought Cushing out for the role of space sensei Obi-Wan Kenobi, but decided his features better suited the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin may be the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star, but the real power behind the throne is the Dark Jedi Master Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones but played with physical presence by David Prowse. Prowse had previously played opposite Cushing as the title monster in Hammer Films’ final Frankenstein film, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).

Though a towering 6’5″, Christopher Lee only wears a size 11 narrow shoe. Cushing, on the other hand, at just over 6′, has worn a size 12 since his youth. This ended up figuring into the direction of Star Wars, as wardrobe only had size 9 riding boots for Tarkin. They proved so uncomfortable that Cushing was able to convince Lucas to film him almost exclusively from the knees up to hide his soft plimsolls.

“Adored and idolized by young people and by people who go to see a certain kind of movie, I feel he will be fondly remembered for the next 350 years at least.” — George Lucas on Peter Cushing

House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Earl Derr Biggers’ novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, had already been adapted to film six times before Michael Armstrong wrote the screenplay to House of the Long Shadows (1983). The film was promoted heavily as the only one to team horror icons John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price, though it largely serves as a silly horror comedy vehicle for Desi Arnaz, Jr.

Movie Poster for "House of the Long Shadows" (1983)

Movie Poster for House of the
Long Shadows
(1983)

Arnaz plays Kenneth Magee, a writer looking to compose a great Gothic novel in twenty-four hours. Looking for equal parts seclusion and inspiration, he sets up shop in a deserted Welsh manor. He gets plenty of the latter but none of the former as the house is still inhabited. Visitors arrive, murders start, and writing becomes nigh impossible.

The triple twist at the end will inspire more groans than smiles, but it does what it says on the tin, teaming these four horror legends together for the first and last time. Without them, the film would be justifiably forgotten, and certainly wasn’t the springboard for Arnaz that anyone hoped, since he went on to star in the ill-fated genre television show Automan later that year.

This was the last time Cushing and Lee worked together, and Cushing would only make a handful of films afterward. In 1989, he was honored (not knighted) as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Lee believed it “too little, too late.” Cushing passed from prostate cancer in 1994 at the age of 81. He is sorely missed.

Please join us again tomorrow as we’ll take a closer look at the birth of Hammer Horror in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Even if you’re a rabid Cushing fan and have seen the flick a hundred times, give us a chance. We hope to shed some new light on this classic and its treatment of the Baron. Thanks for visiting and we hope to see you again soon!

A Dozen Diabolical Dogs – #8: Shane

"Shane" in "Tales from the Crypt" (1972)

Major William Rogers is the new director at the Elmridge Home for the Blind. With over twenty years of military experience, he is determined to run the facility as efficiently and economically as possible, even if it means shutting off the heat at 20:00 hours (8:00 p.m. to you civilians) and cutting back on food rations.

As the officer in charge, Major Rogers (Nigel Patrick) is certainly not going to sacrifice his own comfort. Paintings adorn the walls of his office. His lunches consist of steak and wine. And when he cannot finish his steak, he feeds the scraps to his Belgian Malinois, Shane.

Shane is a good dog. Shane protects his master from the ungrateful residents. As spokesman George Carter (Patrick Magee) tries to explain, blindness makes their other senses more acute such that the subpar food is intolerable, scurrying insects can be heard all around, and the cold bites like a wolf. Major Rogers is unmoved. Shane is there to make sure such complaints do not become threats. Like Shane, the residents of Elmridge should learn not to bite the hand that feeds them.

“Blind Alleys” is the fifth and final story in the horror anthology film Tales from the Crypt (1972), based on the notorious EC Comics series of the same name that thrilled children and horrified parents, teachers, shrinks, politicians, and clergy. Freddie Francis directed the film for Amicus Productions, one of several portmanteau films the studio produced, and the third for Francis. He would go on to direct a fourth, Tales That Witness Madness, for World Film Services, often mistaken for one of the Amicus series. Despite directing mostly horror flicks, Francis worked as director of photography on a wide variety of critically-acclaimed films including The Innocents, The Elephant Man, and Glory.

After one of their number dies from the director’s callous neglect, the residents begin plotting their revenge. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but Shane figures prominently into the cleverly devised scheme. Major Rogers doesn’t “see it coming”, and most likely, neither will you.

A portion of "Blind Alleys" as it appeared in Tales from the Crypt # 46

A portion of “Blind Alleys” as it appeared in Tales from the Crypt # 46


Sir Ralph Richardson (Doctor Zhivago) appears as the hooded, mysterious Crypt Keeper, issuing a dire warning to begin each of the film’s segments. His portrayal is stiff and lifeless, unlike the wisecracking punster that appeared in the comic book and subsequent HBO television series. It does fit the tone of the overall film, however, and deftly avoids the pitfall of camp.

Here is the film’s climax in all its vengeful glory, running a little over 10 minutes. Enjoy at your leisure.

Slightly NSFW due to blood and viciousness.

The story was later adapted for the television series episode “Revenge is the Nuts” with Anthony Zerbe (The Omega Man, The Dead Zone) playing facility director Arnie Grunwald (closer to the Gunner Grunwald character of the comic story). The sleazy sexual angle that is almost requisite in the comic series is restored here for HBO with the quirky but cute Teri Polo (Meet the Parents) playing the target of Grunwald’s unwelcome and unsubtle advances. Bruno the dog is also closer to Brutus as depicted in the panels above, but all in all, the TV adaptation doesn’t have the same pathos as the Freddie Francis film. It never conjures sympathy for Teri Polo and Isaac Hayes the way that Patrick Magee and company do with their grim determination.

Please join us for the rest of these infamous “Dog Days of Summer” as we count down
“A Dozen Diabolical Dogs”.

Let’s All Go to the Lobby…

Movie Poster for "At the Earth's Core"

Let’s All Go to the Lobby…
Let’s All Go to the Lobby… and Get Ourselves a Drink!

Some films are so bad they’re good. Some films benefit from a little liquid encouragement. Some people seek out such entertainment. We are such people, and we’re willing to share our discoveries with you.
Please remember to drink responsibly.

Tonight’s Feature:

At the Earth’s Core(1976)

At the Earth’s Core is a Victorian adventure film based on the science fiction novel of the same name written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (of John Carter and Tarzan fame). I suppose it could be called steampunk, but the steam-tech is primarily employed to get our heroes to the subterranean world of Pellucidar, and, aside from a little social revolution, there’s precious little punk. Still, this should be a hoot for the top hat and pocket watch crowd or anyone else who likes pulpy adventure.

Doc Perry and David in the "Iron Mole" from "At the Earth's Core"

Doc Perry and David in the "Iron Mole" from "At the Earth's Core"

Peter Cushing

Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) is Dr. Abner Perry, the inventor of the “high calibration digging machine,” or “iron mole” as it’s nicknamed. We come into the film on the day of its inaugural “burrow.” Perry intends to dig through the heart of a Welsh hill and demonstrate the effectiveness of his device. Doc is a bit of a scatterbrain, but he has his moments of trademark English bravado and derring-do, making this a very unusual role for the normally stoic and sometimes sinister Cushing.

Caroline Munro as Princess Dia in "At the Earth's Core"

Caroline Munro as Princess Dia in "At the Earth's Core"

Doug McClure

Doug McClure (The Land That Time Forgot) joins Dr. Perry as David Innes, an American financier and son of one of Perry’s best students. David, on the other hand, was amongst the worst, but Doc still sees plenty of promise in “young” David. David’s a Victorian-era meathead, but he’s got guts, and guts is enough.

Caroline Munro

Caroline Munro (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter) is Princess Dia, because every Edgar Rice Burroughs story requires a princess and who better than the nubile Munro. Dia is one of the first inhabitants of Pellucidar that Doc and David meet, and she provides both exposition and motivation to our heroes.

In order to prepare for our voyage, you must first “ante up.”

Ante: A shot of Fireball cinnamon whiskey or alternatively, Firefly sweet tea vodka, or some other fire-themed liqueur. Harder lemonades or tea liqueurs would also be appropriate to the Victorian theme.

Now, once the feature has begun, pick your poison (beer, hard lemonade, etc.).
These are the few simple rules you must obey:

  • Rule # 1: Drink to new acquaintances whenever a named character is introduced.
  • Rule # 2: Any time a named cast member dies, drink to their memory.
  • Rule # 3: Drink for courage any time a rubber monster enters the scene for the first time.
  • Rule # 4: Drink to victory any time a rubber monster is vanquished.
  • Rule # 5: Every time you see a Mahar blink, then you must take a drink.

“What the deuce is a Mahar?” you ask. Patience, old sport. All will be revealed in time.

I recommend a 15-minute intermission about halfway through for cigars (a David Innes vice), restroom breaks, water (hangover-proofing), snacks, etc. Appropriate snacks include hot wings, smoked turkey legs, or, for vegetarians, seven layer bean dip. In any case, I do NOT recommend drinking additional alcohol during intermission.

Beer BottleBeer BottleBeer Bottle
Difficulty Level:
Viewers will typically consume 35 oz.
(3 bottles at 1/2 oz. per drink, 12 oz. per bottle)
of alcoholic beverage if all rules are obeyed.
 
Running Time: 89 min. (+15 min. intermission)

If you want to check your work or just live vicariously through others, click the link
(“iron mole”) below for the official At the Earth’s Core scorecard:

The "Iron Mole" from "At the Earth's Core"

The "Iron Mole" from "At the Earth's Core"