When Peter Cushing was a child, his mother dressed him as a girl. He had long blonde hair, tied with a bow, and enviable selection of dresses. His mother had always wanted a daughter, and was deeply disappointed that her second and last child was a boy.
One day Peter went missing, having wandered off in his frock to paddle in some puddles. Fortunately, he was found by a local policeman. When his father called the police station to ask if by any chance they had found a missing boy, the desk sergeant replied there was no boy, just a little girl. It turned out, this little girl was Cushing, and it was the last time he was ever dressed as a girl.
His also mother meted out a strange punishment to her children. Whenever they were naughty, she would pretend to be dead. This caused the young Peter great distress, while his brother, being more robust, suggested kicking their mother to make sure she was dead.
While his mother was a brief but emotionally strong influence on his life, it was another woman, the actress Violet Helene Beck, who was the greatest, most beneficial and enduring passion in his life.
Peter met Helen when they were both struggling actors. It was love-at-first sight, and they married in 1943. Helen recognized that Peter was the better actor, and gave up her acting to support her husband in his career. Success was a long time in coming, taking Peter until middle age for him to make his mark: first in the BBC dramatization of George Orwell’s 1984, and then as Baron Victor in The Curse of Frankenstein.
Cushing became an international star appearing as Van Helsing in Dracula, Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, as Doctor Who in Dr. Who and the Daleks, and later as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars.
When Helen died in 1971, Cushing was bereft, and almost out-of-his-mind. It took him thirteen years to get over her death. He survived this time by working continuously, and being consoled by a letter Helen left him, and his belief that they would (somehow) meet again.
I was in the Peter Cushing Fan Club when I was a child. To me Cushing represented that old fashioned gentlemanly style of horror, in the tradition of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and even Basil Rathbone. Cushing had an intelligence and a warmth of personality that made the whole experience of being terrified tremendous fun.
The new Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi once said (in an old Radio Times Q&A, I seem to recall) that he was also in the Peter Cushing Fan Club, and copied Cushing’s style of signature as his own. Understandable really, as who wouldn’t want to be such a distinguished and thoroughly decent human being?
In 1990, Peter Cushing (then retired) gave an interview to the Human Factor, where he talked about his love for his wife, his belief in an afterlife, his suicide attempt, his cancer, and the key moments from his childhood and his long and successful acting career. As an atheist, I don’t follow Cushing’s views of an afterlife, but his interview is still moving, poignant, and enjoyable—like watching the sun slowly set on a childhood summer.
Bonus: Peter Cushing’s last appearance on Terry Wogan’s chat show, 1988.
There is always something about behind-the-scenes footage that reminds me of my childhood. It’s perhaps the memory of those holiday movies the slightly-posh-neighbors-along-the-road used to show after spending a fortnight in Fuengirola or Benidorm, sometime in the 1970s. The invited guests would be entertained with “Viva Espana” on the record player, a fondue set, a bottle of Rioja and a selection of dips, before the overly-tanned holiday-makers talked through their 8mm films: “That’s Pedro, oh he was nice, and there’s Auntie Jean, look, pink as a lobster.”
I suppose it’s the commentary, which is here supplied by Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews, who all get similarly excited when recognizing old friends and past pleasures: “Look, there’s Bert.” “There’s Roy.” “We’re doing the crossword!” The main difference here, of course, is that this home movie is something far more special: a 16mm-reel of behind-the-scenes footage from Dracula—Prince of Darkness, and it’s all good fun.
Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966) was essentially Hammer Films’ sequel to their classic interpretation of Dracula from 1958. Indeed DPOD opens with archive of Peter Cushing, as Professor Van Helsing, using candlesticks to despatch the Christopher Lee’s Count.
It’s interesting footnote that while previously Lee’s Dracula had spoken in the original film, in DPOD he only hissed. Christopher Lee claimed this was because he read the script.
‘I didn’t speak in that picture. The reason was very simple. I read the script and saw the dialogue! I said to Hammer, if you think I’m going to say any of these lines, you’re very much mistaken.’
However, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster disagreed with this version of events in his autobiography Inside Hammer wrote:
‘‘Vampires don’t chat. So I didn’t write him any dialogue. Chris Lee has claimed that he refused to speak the lines he was given ... So you can take your pick as to why Christopher Lee didn’t have any dialogue in the picture. Or you can take my word for it. I didn’t write any.’
Whichever version you choose to believe, we can all agree that Dracula—Prince of Darkness is a classic Hammer Horror.
Happy Birthday Sir Christopher Lee, actor, singer and cinematic icon, who celebrates his 91st birthday today.
I can still recall the fabulous thrill of seeing Lee’s performance as the gruesome “Creature” in The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), where he managed to make the brutally disfigured creation both pitiful and terrifying. He achieved greater success as the Count in Dracula (1958), a performance that established him as an international star. Lee made the role of Dracula his own by bringing a charm, sophistication, intelligence and sexual attraction to the role.
In both films, Lee played against his friend and colleague Peter Cushing (who would have been 100-years-old yesterday) and together they dominated the box-office from the late 1950s-to mid-1970s, with a range of classic Horror movies, including The Gorgon, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Skull, Scream and Scream Again, The House That Dripped Blood, Dracula 1972 A.D., Nothing But The NIght, The Creeping Flesh, and Horror Express.
Of course, there were also his solo turns with The Devil Rides Out, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Wicker Man, The Three Musketeers and The Man With The Golden Gun.
But unlike Cushing, or Vincent Price (whose birthday is also celebrated today), Lee wanted to be more than just a Horror actor, and therefore moved to America in the 1970s, where his starred in a variety of films—some good, some not-so—which ranged from Airport ‘77, 1941 and Gremlins 2.
Most careers would have finished there, but not Lee’s. He return to form and greater success with roles in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) and then the BBC TV-series Gormenghast (2000), all of which led onto Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and episodes 2 and 3 of Star Wars.
At 91, Sir Christopher is making 2-to-3-films-a-year, and has just recorded and released a Heavy Metal album, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death.
Happy Birthday Sir Christopher and thanks for all the thrills!
Behind the scenes with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing on ‘Dracula 1972 A.D.’
A preview of Christopher Lee’s heavy Metal album ‘Charlemagne: The Omens of Death’
A location report for Jim Clark’s 1974 film Madhouse, starring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri and Linda Heyden. The film was very loosely based on Angus Hall’s pulp thriller Devilday, which told the story of a dissipated actor, Paul Toombes (Price) and his return to acting in a TV horror series about the evil Doctor Dis (Doctor Death in the film). Toombes was an obese, unrepentant, drug addicted and sexual predator, who dabbled in Black Magic, and is suspected of a series of brutal murders. Hall’s character owes something to Orson Welles and Aleister Crowley, and the book offered quite a few interesting plot lines the film never developed. Clark went on to edit Marathon Man, The Killing Fields, and The World is Not Enough, amongst many others. Madhouse was his last film as director.
Here director Clark talks about his admiration for the gods of film James Whale and Todd Browning, while Vincent Price and Peter Cushing talk about why ‘horror’ or ‘thrillers’ are so popular.
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula has never been out-of-print, since it was first published in 1897.
Stoker spent 7 years researching vampire tales from European folklore, including some of the myths and history surrounding Vlad Tepes Dracul, the infamous Prince of of Wallachia, who impaled his enemies on stakes and allegedly drank their blood.
As for the character of Dracula, Stoker captured much of his friend, the actor Henry Irving, in his description of the Count. Later, it was thought Irving would make the perfect stage Dracula, but when asked to read an extract form the book, Irving pronounced it, “Dreadful!”
Since then, there have been many great actors who have portrayed the Count, most notably Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman and Louis Jourdan - who made a memorble TV version back in the 1970s.
Dracula is the most portrayed literary character on film, with 272 films, as of May 2012. The closest rival is Sherlock Holmes with 254 films.
Christopher Lee regarded the character of Dracula as “heroic, romantic, erotic. Irresistible to women. Unstoppable by men.” When cast as the vampire, Lee “played him as a malevolent hero.”
“I decided to play him as a man of immense dignity, immense strength, immense power, immense brain…he’s a kind of a superman really.”
Dracula, and vampires, are re-interpreted by every generation. These days, the vampire is a hormonal bad boy who wants a suburban life. But when I was child, I used to ponder: can vampires lose their fangs? And if they did, what happened?
‘It is often believed that a vampire cannot lose his or her fangs, but I can assure you vampires can, and often do, lose their fangs.
‘The loss of such essential teeth leads the vampire to use various utensils to start the flow of blood: a knife, a cutthroat razor, a bottle opener. Unfortunately, this means the death of the victim, which is generally to be avoided, as the last thing a vampire wants is to attract any unnecessary attention.
‘Such toothless vampires are messy eaters, and are rarely invited to dinner parties, as they waste more than they can drink.
‘Another misconception about us nightwalkers is our fear of garlic. We love garlic – well, most of us do – as it adds flavor to our diet. This is quite understandable when you consider our native homeland is Transylvania, where the local diet is rich in garlic that infuses the blood with a very delicious tang. It also purifies, lowers cholesterol and aids digestion.
‘It is a commonly held superstition that vampires are terrified of the crucifix. Well, while some vampires are Christian and some Jewish, most are agnostic. This is because we are the living dead, or undead. We are the creatures of the night, the residents of limbo, who have not quite died and have not gone to wherever-it-may-be. If at all. We therefore find it hard to believe in an after-life, unless it is this one. Which I suppose means, we are more like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
‘You may be surprise to hear that vampires do date and have various courtship rituals, just like you day-walkers. I can still recall my first date with my dear wife – we dined out on some winos, and got pleasantly drunk. As you can imagine, my future father-in-law was not best pleased when I returned his tipsy, giggling daughter back to their crypt.
‘And let me be clear, once and for all – no we cannot turn into giant bats, dogs or any sort of ethereal mists. Which is a pity, I know. No, sadly, we have to get around on foot or by car. In fact, it was another creation of the industrial revolution, trains that allowed vampires to move away from our overcrowded homeland.
‘As for sleeping in coffins, there is much conjecture about this. Some vampire historians believe we may have slept in coffins, mainly to escape detection. Remember it would have been rather strange in the olden days to get up at night and sleep during the day. Therefore, sleeping in a graveyard became the ideal place to hide out.
‘Or, perhaps, living and sleeping in a coffin is much cheaper than maintaining a house, a castle or a condo on the upper-eastside.
‘Yes, daylight is bad for us, just as it can be for you – it gives us skin cancer, something we are highly susceptible to, as our flesh is undead and has no elasticity or protection from the sun’s harmful rays. But, thanks again to changes in society, we have been able to find work as night watchmen, town criers, long distance lorry drivers, sewer workers, or just generally the night shift workers, who stack shelves or keep garages open, you know the sort. These days, most of us are in IT, where we can work to our own flexi hours.
‘As soon as we started working we made money. And as we made money, we found that we were buying houses, moving into nice neighborhoods, raising our families.
‘Oh yes, we do have families with all that this entails. We start junior off on mother’s blood before weaning them onto small insects, rodents, then medium sized animals.
‘And as for drinking blood, well it is the world’s fast food, a kind-of McDonald’s. Just as easy to pick up, but more filling, and nutritious, and there’s always plenty of it to go round. What amazes vampires is why humans waste so much of it – murder, suicide-bombers, muggings, knifings, gunshots, slaughterhouses, funeral homes, and war.
‘Of course, our kids do all the rebellious - feasting on winos blood, or sucking on a junkie to get high.
‘As for disease, we try to be careful about this, as too often you can catch a dose from some late night snack. That’s why we tend to stick to nice, clean, straight people, middle class people, who go to church, say their prayers, look after their health and work hard for a living. And yes, stakes can kill us. As can silver bullets, regular bullets, knives, and lots of other things too. That’s because we are not, as you say, immortal, we are the Undead.
‘We live to about one-hundred-and fifty or two hundred years of age, but that’s only because our metabolism is slower than yours. Our heartbeats approximately at one beat an hour. As for reflections – you can see us, we’re physical after all not ethereal.
‘So, how can you recognize a vampire?
‘We look like you. A bit pale, maybe. A bit more lethargic. The best way to recognize us is to look out of your window tonight, some time long after dark, and just see how many people are up and about. You can take my word for it, that at least one in ten or one in twenty of the people you can see is a vampire.
‘And don’t be fooled, not all of them have fangs - some of them wear dentures.’
A fine selection of false teeth are on display here, in this short video history of Dracula. Presented by Christopher Lee, who tells Dracula‘s history from novel, to the first theatrical productions and on to the Count’s life on film. With contributions from Bela Lugosi jnr, Peter Cushing, Jimmy Sangster, Freddie Francis and Caroline Munro.
A behind-the-scenes report on the making of The Horror of Frankenstein, Hammer Film’s seventh Frankenstein movie, and their first without Peter Cushing playing the eponymous Baron. This time the role was taken-up by Ralph Bates, who added a certain amount of loucheness to Victor. The film also marked, what has lately been described (see The Ultimate Hammer Collection) as a “bold departure into comedy horror”, which it is, and therefore slightly misfires, undermining the films more horrific elements. But still, there is much to enjoy in The Horror of Frankenstein - Bates’ performance, the always watchable Dennis Price, and great supporting roles portrayed by Kate O’Mara, Jon Finch (soon to be Polanski’s MacBeth), Veronica Carlson, and Dave (Darth Vader) Prowse, who looks as if his make-up as the monster inspired the Kirgan’s in Highlander. Even Cushing makes a cameo on the doctor’s slab.
I am great fan of Cushing, who could be both polite and menacing, a rare talent, and he was never less than convincing in any role he played. Here in an interview Cushing discusses his thoughts about Baron Victor Frankenstein, while Bates discusses his approach to the role. First broadcast on the BBC April 28th, 1970.
Sometimes there comes along a director, whose talent is so apparent that you wonder why they’re not more famous. Glenn McQuaid is such a director, and his first feature, I Sell the Dead, in 2008, offered everything I want from a horror film.
It was my brother who tapped me in to Mr. McQuaid’s work. My brother and I had grown-up under the spell of the horror films produced by Universal in the 1930s and 1940s (with Karloff and Lugosi, and Lon Chaney jnr.), and Hammer films (with Cushing and Lee) from the fifties and sixties. Of course there were also the Vincent Price and Roger Corman collaborations, as well as the Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg anthology films of the 1960s and ‘70s.
We also had a love of stories by Dennis Wheatley (in particular his series of classic horror novels published under his Library of the Occult - Stoker, Shelley, ”Carnaki, the Ghost Finder”, and Guy Endore), and the tales of terror penned by Poe, Blackwood and Bloch.
My brother raved about I Sell the Dead, and when I saw it I had to agree. Written and directed by McQuaid, it stars Larry Fessenden, Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman and Angus (Phantasm) Scrimm, and is near perfect - a witty, clever and engaging story, presented in the style of the best, classic horror film. I was smitten, the same way I was when Boris Karloff as the Monster first walked backwards into the laboratory; or by Oliver Reed when he turned into a werewolf. McQuaid knows his genre and its cinematic traditions.
For his next film, McQuaid is one of the directors (alongside David Bruckner, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Adam Wingard ) of the soon to be released anthology film, V/H/S, for which he wrote an directed the “unconventional killer-in-the-woods chiller Tuesday The 17th”. When V/H/S previewed at the Sundance Film Festival, it received the kind of exposure of which publicists dream.
At its screening two audience members fled in terror – one fainted, one puked. The last time I recall such a response was for The Exorcist in 1973, where there were reports of fainting, vomiting, and even an alleged possession.
When was shown at SXSW, V/H/S was described as ”an incredibly entertaining film that succeeds in being humorous, sexy, gross and scary as fuck.” While Dead Central gave it 5/5.
Though all the directors have been praised for the quality of their films, the reviews have singled out McQuaid for the excellence and originality of his contribution.
Before all this kicked off, I contacted Glenn McQuaid to organize an interview. Over the following weeks emails went back-and-forth, until the following arrived. The interview covers Mr McQuaid’s background, his influences, early work, The Resurrection Apprentice, working with Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman and Dominic Monaghan on I Sell the Dead, to V/H/S.
The full interview with Glenn McQuaid, after the jump….
Peter Cushing liked to read - as can be seen from this rather strange sequence from The Skull (1965).
When the Gentleman of Horror wasn’t reading, Peter liked to play with his toy soldiers at his home in Kensington, London, as this British Pathe News reel footage from 1956 shows. This was Mr Cushing before his career defining performances as Baron Victor in The Curse of Frankenstein(1957), and as Coctor Van Helsing in Dracula (1958).
Playing almost like a particularly claustrophobic Argento film produced by Roger Corman, but starring Hammer’s two most notable leading men, the gory low-budget—but totally wonderful—Horror Express is one of those films that we of a certain age saw repeatedly on “Chiller Theater” type TV shows in the mid to late 70s. When I was a ten-year-old kid, this film absolutely scared the shit out of me.
In Horror Express, which is almost a horror comedy, a supposed “missing link” is discovered in Siberia, but the frozen creature is merely the vessel for an extraterrestrial spirit of “pure evil” that can hop from victim to victim turning them into zombies that bleed from their eyes. It stars Christoper Lee and Peter Cushing as two competitive archaeologists. Telly Savalas has a great supporting role as a brutal Cossack officer who’s a nasty piece of work and there is even a weird Rasputin character, too. It was written by Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet, the same (one-time blacklisted) screenwriters who penned the “undead biker” classic Psychomania. It was directed by Eugenio Martín. Like many European films of the time, this Spanish production was shot without sound and the actors dubbed their voices in later so it’s got that loopy sort of feel.
The film has been in the public domain for years and crappy quasi-bootleg copies have been making the rounds for a while (I have one that has the film reels out of order). At long last, Horror Express fans are getting treated to a new deluxe 2-disc dual DVD/Blu-ray release from cult meisters extraordinare, Severin Films. The new high-definition master has been created using the original camera negative and DVD extras include a recording of an extensive 1973 interview with Peter Cushing. (Cushing’s wife died before filming on Horror Express commenced. He almost backed out of the film entirely).
I wrote a version of this for Planet Paul, but as it’s getting near time for Halloween I thought I’d share. I love horror movies, and when I was younger I was a member of the Peter Cushing Fan Club. No seriously, it was cool. For your dollar a year you received a monthly newsletter, lots of free pix, and many other oddments. One such was a news clipping about the great actor and his longing for death, after his wife, Violet Helen Beck died. Helen gave Cushing purpose and meaning and although he was born in 1913, the world famous actor preferred to see the year of his actual birth as 1942 – the year he met Helen.
It was a love-at-first-sight thing, and the couple married in 1943, and thereafter, Helen, a former actress became the centre of Cushing’s life, encouraging him, and supporting him throughout the early, lean years of his career. As Cushing later said, “I owe it all to Helen. She was an actress and gave up her career for me. She made me what I am. She gave me a confidence, I could never have found on my own.”
If you look closely, you’ll see, in many of Cushing’s movies, a small silver framed portrait of Helen, placed as a prop on the desk of Baron Victor Frankenstein or in the study of Professor Van Helsing.
Cushing’s life with Helen was lived more on a mental plane than a physical one, as he told New Reveille in 1974, “We didn’t consider the physical aspect of marriage very important,” he explained. Yet, their love was so great that Cushing claimed his life ended the day Helen died in 1971.
That night, Cushing repeatedly ran up and down stairs in an attempt to induce a heart attack. He failed and later claimed his actions had been caused by the trauma of his Helen’s death - “I had always hoped that we would depart this life together, but it was not to be.”
From then on, Cushing had a death wish, and stated death was the only happy ending to his love affair with Helen.
“I am not a religious man, but I try to live by Christian ethics. Helen has passed on but she is with me still. She is all around. What I am doing is merely existing – longing for the day when I shall die and join her for ever. We will be together again but time does not heal.”
Before she died, Helen wrote Peter a poem telling him “not to be hasty to leave” until he had lived the life he had been given.
“I could not take away my life, because that would be letting Helen down. But I would be so happy if I could die tomorrow.”
But death did not come quickly for the great, good Gentleman of Horror, Cushing lived for a further 23 years, during which time he made some of his most memorable and successful films.
Trailer for one of the campier Hammer films of the seventies (and that is saying a lot), Dracula A.D. 1972. Starring Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as a Van Helsing descendant and pre-Dynasty Stephanie Beacham (she played Sable) and scream queen supreme Caroline Munro as the requisite Carnaby Street dolly birds.