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Appetite for Resurrection

Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) makes time with Justine (Valerie Gaunt) in "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957)

Welcome to Day Three of the
Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon. Today, we’re going to begin our journey through the six Frankenstein films starring Peter Cushing and produced by Hammer Films.

I’ve been a fan of the Mary Shelley classic Frankenstein since I first read it in my youth. The novel is a series of nested stories, starting with the journal of a North Pole explorer and including a tale told by the monster itself, but most of these are abandoned in adaptation for a more linear plotline. I also adore the Universal Pictures film from 1931, starring Boris Karloff and directed by James Whale.

It’s somewhat suprising, then, that I hadn’t seen any of the Hammer Films Frankenstein series until very recently. I had been aware of them, sure, and looked forward to watching them someday, but just never seemed to get around to them. I recorded three of them when they aired on TCM during last Halloween, but still they sat on my DVR, unwatched, until last month when Jon Kitley of Kitley’s Krypt issued a challenge to his Kryptic Army.

The April Mission was to confess to not having seen two “horror classics” and then remedy that. As a dutiful soldier, I chose The Curse of Frankenstein and its immediate sequel, The Revenge of Frankenstein. After a six day work week, they were welcome treats on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

London-based Hammer Films had been cranking out “quota-quickies” for twenty years before The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) was a surprise sci-fi blockbuster. The spelling of the title was a very conscious choice, designed to take advantage of the newly created X certificate given to films of an adult nature, suitable for those 16 years of age or older, and roughly equivalent to the MPAA’s R rating. Even with the X certificate, Xperiment and its would-be sequel, X the Unknown (1956), caused quite a stir with censors because of their macabre subject matter and imagery.

American producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky had written a script for Frankenstein and the Monster and submitted it to Associated Artists Productions. a.a.p., negotiating to distribute Hammer films in the U.S., forwarded it on to them. Hammer was disappointed with the script and although the novel was already in the public domain, the script borrowed heavily from Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1939).

Jimmy Sangster had been working for Hammer as an assistant director when his plot for a Quatermass sequel instead became the surprisingly successful Quatermass pastiche, X the Unknown. Despite protests that he was a production manager, not a writer, Sangster was commissioned to write The Curse of Frankenstein in an effort to move the film away from the old Universal treatments. Hammer was so impressed with the results, the project quickly transformed from a black-and-white quickie to a full color production. Though their Frankenstein and the Monster never materialized, Rosenberg and Subotsky would go on to found Hammer rival Amicus Productions, whose horror anthology films would make great use of Peter Cushing as well.

Sangster’s script may have impressed Hammer, but it didn’t fare well with the British Board of Film Censors:

“We are concerned about the flavour of this script, which, in its preoccupation with horror and gruesome detail, goes far beyond what we are accustomed to allow even for the ‘X’ category. I am afraid we can give no assurance that we should be able to pass a film based on the present script and a revised script should be sent us for our comments, in which the overall unpleasantness should be mitigated.”

Regardless, the script remained unchanged. Terence Fisher was tabbed to direct, having already worked with Hammer on some crime films and a couple of minor science fiction entries. Not wanting to be unduly influenced, Fisher avoided seeing the Universal Frankenstein film. Curse was the first time Fisher directed Cushing, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Peter appeared in 14 Terence Fisher films in all.

Cushing was chosen for the lead because of his work for BBC television, most notably in Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale’s controversial adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954). The film opens with Cushing’s haggard and imprisoned Baron Victor Frankenstein receiving a visitor. The priest was summoned by Frankenstein to hear his tale of murder and madness because the people will trust and listen to the priest, and that’s the only chance the doomed Baron has if his story is to be believed.

Movie Poster for "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957)

Movie Poster for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Baron’s narrative, told in flashback, forms the basis for the rest of the film. We meet the Baron in his youth, played with smug confidence by Melvyn Hayes. Hayes, 22 at the time, appears far younger as the freshly orphaned Baron, heir to the title and his family fortune. The scene features our introduction to Victor’s young cousin Elizabeth. Played by the buxom “horror queen” Hazel Court (Devil Girl from Mars) for the bulk of the film, here she is played by Hazel’s own daughter Sally. Sally did not care for the acting experience, and this remains her only film credit.

We are also introduced to fresh-faced Dr. Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), interviewing for a position as a tutor. Krempe is surprised to find that the Baron and his prospective pupil are one and the same. While at first amused, Krempe sees the opportunity here, but later horrors prove he made a far better tutor in science than father figure.

Though his scene is brief (less than 3 and a half minutes of screen time), Hayes makes quite an impression as the young Baron. He is headstrong, demanding, and impatient, a boy made a man by the untimely death of his parents, and death would prove his great nemesis, not the villagers or authorities who come to fear and loathe him. Hayes had previously worked with Fisher on the Hammer crime film The Black Glove (1954). Though he shares no scenes with Cushing (seeing as how they play the same character), he would re-team with Cushing outside of Hammer Films in the crime film Violent Playground (1958) and the horror film The Flesh and the Fiends (1960).

The passage of years is reflected in the return of Cushing to the title role and the growth of Krempe’s facial hair. Their first great scientific achievement is the resurrection of a puppy. Victor’s gasp of “Paul, it’s alive,” is as close as we get at this point to the shrieking madman presented in the Universal version. The cute animal’s rebirth, amid non-maniacal joyful laughter, only subtly foreshadows the horror to come and subverts our expectations. This is happy, healthy, adorable science at work.

Krempe wants to publish immediately, to announce their discovery and benefit the world. A smug Victor sips brandy from a snifter. Here, he lets Paul do the shouting as he calmly, politely, coldly refuses to share their discovery. Restoring life is not enough for Victor. He wants to create life from nothing.

A hanged man provides the raw materials. The scene of Victor cutting the condemned man from the gibbet was the first shot for the film. This night crime forms our first truly horrific images. The music begins to take on a sinister tone as well. Paul’s concern grows as Victor grimly sets to work, heedless of the blood staining his noble finery. An acid bath, used to dispose of the corpse’s head, is not only a source of grisly sound effects, but functions as Chekhov’s gun, foreshadowing later events.

“This is Frankenstein… who revolted against nature…
who experimented with the devil and was forever cursed…”

While Paul is nauseated and unnerved, the work makes Victor hungry. His appetites form a theme that runs through the film, his thirst for brandy coupled with a thirst for knowledge, his hunger for power over death, his lust for the maid Justine and for intellectual challenge. Cushing’s enthusiasm in the role is infectious, and makes some viewers uncomfortable as they root for a Victor Frankenstein that is darker and more selfish than other, more refined incarnations.

While Victor is off procuring the severed hands of an accomplished and freshly deceased sculptor, Elizabeth (Hazel Court) returns. Her exchange with Paul is pure confusion as she first confuses him for Victor (having last seen him as children), and then surprises Paul with the announcement that she’ll be moving into the manor, clearly something Victor neglected to discuss with his mentor turned lab assistant.

When Paul warns against the danger of Elizabeth discovering their activities, Victor doesn’t see the harm. He is blind to the horror he is wreaking in the course of his ambition. Justine, the maid and Victor’s secret mistress, is also less-than-enthused about Elizabeth’s arrival. Victor finds her jealousy amusing. Having grown up without adult supervision or rules, he is a petulant child with no sense of responsibility or accountability.

This is apparent in his murderous scheme to acquire a suitable brain, that of Professor Bernstein. As Bernstein and Frankenstein share brandy and cigars, the professor and Elizabeth try to show Victor the importance of family and fraternity. He is moved by Bernstein’s words of wisdom, but undeterred. He has come too far to turn back now and Bernstein’s fate is sealed with a shove.

In Bernstein’s crypt, Paul confronts Victor in the act of removing Bernstein’s brain. In the ensuing struggle, the brain is damaged, and Victor is distraught for the first time, not from having committed murder or losing a mentor and friend, but from having his plans derailed. Victor is forced to admit that he cannot finish his experiments without Paul’s help, and he resorts to subtly threatening Elizabeth to get his way.

During their discussion, a lightning strike triggers the apparatus and brings the creature to life. It’s nearly 50 minutes into the film before the bandages are torn away and we see the horrifying visage of Frankenstein’s Monster (Christopher Lee) for the first time. While Phil Leakey’s make-up may have been last minute, it lends a bloated, sloughed pallor to the creature that works well in color to indicate its necrotic origins.

If not for Paul’s intervention, creation would have strangled creator to death upon their first meeting. Ungrateful, Victor blames the creature’s murderous nature on the damage done to the brain by Paul. Soon, the monster is loosed on the countryside to murder a blind man and his grandson (the latter heavily implied off-camera). Victor promises to warn the villagers, but doesn’t. His chief concern is not their lives but that of his creation. Paul shoots the creature through the eye and everyone lived happily ever after.

Except Victor cannot let the dead lie. Upon his return to the manor, he is confronted by Justine, who reminds him of his promises to marry her. He laughs at her plight, her innocence and gullibility, both taken advantage of to periodically sate his primal lusts. She claims to be pregnant with his child, causing him to grow serious, but he tells her it would be easily blamed on any of a number of other villagers. When she ups the stakes by threatening to tell the authorities about his experiments, he dismisses her harshly. He is not moved by love or responsibility, but by the danger she poses to his work.

Justine sneaks into his laboratory that night, eager to find some proof of his criminal activities. She stumbles upon the exhumed creature, and Victor locks both the maid and his unborn child in to be murdered at the hands of his true creation. Victor blithely plays off her disappearance at a sumptuous breakfast with Elizabeth. “I expect some village Lothario eloped with her. She always was a romantic little thing.”

Elizabeth (Hazel Court) snoops around in "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957)

Elizabeth (Hazel Court) snoops around in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

With his experiments in order, Victor leaves Elizabeth to plan their impending nuptials. Despite Elizabeth’s eagerness and obvious physical charms, Victor decides to work on the eve of their wedding. Paul arrives at Elizabeth’s invitation, and upon hearing from her that Victor’s work has resumed, immediately heads for the laboratory. There, Victor demonstrates his command over the creature, treating it like a dog, hearkening back to the puppy they first resurrected together.
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Paul is horrified, but Victor is quick to share credit as well as blame for the results of their collaboration. Victor vows to continue until his determination is satisfied. Finally, Paul is left with no alternative. He must go to the authorities and tell them of their collective crimes.

Seeing Paul rush out with Victor in pursuit, Elizabeth is concerned. She heads to the laboratory to see what has distressed them so and finds the acid bath, mere moments before she herself is found by the hideous creature, broken free of his chains. It doesn’t menace her immediately, however, and, during his struggles outside with Victor, Paul has the opportunity to see the thing lumbering about the battlements. Victor rushes to fetch a pistol and confront the thing on the battlements, but both shots and the thrown pistol only serve to focus the creature’s rage on its creator. Victor sets the thing alight with a hurled lamp and watches with revulsion as it falls through a window into the acid bath.

We return to our framing device, with the imprisoned Victor miserable at the fruit of his labors. The priest is unconvinced, but Victor perks up at the announcement that Paul has come to call. Victor seeks corroboration from Paul, but Paul insists Victor is responsible for Justine’s murder (her body presumably found in the laboratory). With the monster dissolved and Paul and Elizabeth departed, Baron Victor Frankenstein is left to face the guillotine alone.

So much for five sequels, eh? Well, we’ll see that guillotine again tomorrow as we witness The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). Be here or be square.

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

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!

Remembering Peter Cushing –
 From Hamlet to Hammer

Peter Cushing as Osric in "Hamlet" (1948)

Today is Day Two of the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon and, more properly, the birthday of this beloved actor. Here at WeirdFlix, we’ll take a quick look at the long and storied career that made him such a celebrated film icon.

Peter Cushing was poised to follow in his father’s footsteps as a surveyor when he accepted a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After working as an assistant stage manager to the Worthing Repertory Company, he made his stage debut in 1935′s The Middle Watch. By 1939, he was ready to depart for Hollywood and try his hand in film, debuting in James Whale’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). Cushing worked with director Whale one more time in They Dare Not Love (1941), but Whale’s most famous film, Frankenstein (1931), would clearly have a greater impact on Cushing’s career to come.

Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet was Sir Laurence Olivier’s follow-up film to his own Henry V of a few years prior. Henry V was the first commercially successful film adaptation of Shakespeare, and earned Olivier an Honorary Award from the Academy after being nominated but snubbed for Best Picture and Best Actor. Hamlet, in which Olivier would also star as well as direct, was not so easily overlooked, being awarded both Best Picture (the first British film to receive that honor) and Olivier’s only Best Actor Oscar.

In his first major film role, Peter Cushing plays the foppish Osric, a courtier dispatched to invite Hamlet to a duel against Laertes. Osric’s verbal sparring with Hamlet brilliantly foreshadows the fencing match itself. As Cushing’s Osric looks on, Hamlet and his nemesis cross swords, but there is a fourth party present who would eventually figure heavily in Cushing’s life and films. Christopher Lee stands sadly mute as a spear carrier in the scene, sharing the screen with Cushing for the first time.

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Hammer Films

With a few notable exceptions, such as the period pieces The Black Knight (1954) and Alexander the Great (1956), Cushing spent most of the 1950s back home working for the BBC on the telly. A star performance in Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of the George Orwell dystopian sci-fi classic Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) received particular acclaim. During this same period, London-based Hammer Films was making a name for itself with science fiction and horror films, starting with a 1955 feature film adaptation of Kneale’s BBC television serial The Quatermass Experiment (1953).

After a number of production woes, Hammer Films sought out Peter Cushing for their Frankenstein project, now titled The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Christopher Lee was cast not so much for his acting chops, but for his towering 6′ 5″ frame. Universal fought to keep Hammer from using any aspects of the James Whale/Boris Karloff version, so much more focus was placed on Cushing’s Baron rather than the monster. We’ll take a deeper look into Cushing’s dread Baron tomorrow as we’ll spend the rest of this blogathon discussing and dissecting his six turns as Doctor Frankenstein for Hammer Films.

With a budget of only £65,000 (about $270,000), The Curse of Frankenstein grossed nearly £2,000,000 (about $8,000,000) despite scathing reviews and critical outrage. Hammer went back to the well a year later, re-teaming Lee and Cushing as Count Dracula and his nemesis, Van Helsing for Dracula (1958) (Horror of Dracula in the U.S.). The Mummy followed in 1959 with Lee vs. Cushing once again, and the era of Hammer Horror had well and truly begun.

Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes in "Hound of the Baskervilles" (1959)

Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes in
Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Perhaps one of the strangest Lee/Cushing Hammer films was
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Though Cushing was an ardent fan of Sherlock Holmes and the film was far more faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories than previous efforts, it received only mixed reviews from critics. Nonetheless, Cushing went on to play Holmes for 16 episodes of the BBC television series and again in Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death (1984), his penultimate film.

Cushing and Lee became fast friends. They would work together on 23 films in all, most often as bitter rivals. This includes The Devil’s Agent (1962), where Cushing’s scenes were cut, and their minor collaborations pre-Hammer.

“He really was the most gentle and generous of men. I have often said he died because he was too good for this world.” — Christopher Lee

Later today, we’ll look at the latter years of Peter Cushing’s career, from nearly a decade of horror anthologies (1965 – 1977) to Star Wars to a team-up with three other fright flick legends. Please join us, and be sure to check out some of the other tributes to Mr. Cushing elsewhere around the web by clicking on the badge above. Thanks to Frankensteinia for hosting this wonderful celebration of a life lived and loved.