Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'The Creeping Flesh' is a neat gothic horror flick

The Creeping Flesh (1973)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Lorna Heilbron, Christopher Lee, George Benson and Hedger Wallace
Director: Freddie Francis
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A 19th century paleontologist (Cushing) uncovers what he first believes is the missing evolutionary link between apes and men, but later finds it to be the skeleton of a demon, a skeleton that flesh appears on when it becomes wet. He devises what he believes is a inoculation against evil, injects his innocent daugther with it... and that's when the nightmare begins.

"The Creeping Flesh" is a decent chiller that is a bit slow in getting started, but once it gets going, it's a riveting experience. It's got Peter Cushing giving one of his best performances as a mentally unstable scientist, Christopher Lee at his most effective as a monstrous villain hiding behind a veneer of respectability, and the unique-looking Lorna Heilbron as a gorgeous and completely deranged young woman.

Out of all the films that uses Victorian-style fantasy, horror, and pseudo-science, this is perhaps the film that captures the sexual repression and misogynism that was at the heart of so much of Victorian thought. And Cushing and Heilbron capture this mindset to a tee.

It may not be the best horror film ever made, but "The Creeping Flesh" definitely captures the mood of "gothic horror" that I was shooting for back when I worked on the Ravenloft line. It's also a film that fans of both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee will be happy for seeking out.

(It might be a bit hard to find, though... near as I can tell, the film is officially out of print. still has some copies for sale, and I suspect it might be rented from various outlets as well.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Scream and Scream Again' is a movie as pointless as Cushing's appearance in it

Scream and Scream Again (1970)
Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Marshall Jones, Peter Cushing and Christopher Matthews
Director: Gordon Hessler
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

One day, during the Swingin' Sixties, three clerks collided in the hall of American International Productions. Each and been carrying a film script--one was a supernatural/political thriller set within a fictitious East bloc country, the other was a modern-day psycho-vampire flick set in London, and the third was a mad doctor/Frankenstein flick--and the pages went everywhere. They tried their best to sort them out properly, but in the end the three scripts were hopelessly jumbled together. In the hopes of covering their sloppiness, they simply put the three mish-mash "scripts" in for review. One ended up being gree-lighted by an indifferent executive. A shooting script was then approved by a drunk producer. Directors went about finding actors, and soon principle photography on "Scream and Scream Again" was underway.

I don't know if that story accurately describes how "Scream and Scream Again" came to be produced, but it's a more generous explanation than one that assumes this incoherent and disjointed movie was intended to be this way.

For more than 3/4ths of the picture there is barely a connection between the various plots, except for a single actor who crosses over between the two. And when they do come together, it's only barely and it's not in any way that seems terribly well thought out. (A sign of the complete confusion that reins in this film is even evident in the theatrical preview where the actor who is identified as Peter Cushing is actually Marshall Jones.)

The story, such as it is, starts with a series of "vampire murders" in London. It turns out that these are being perpetrated by the creation of a mad scientist (Vincent Price) who is working as part of a global secret scientific society to create a superior human race through surgery. When the police refuse to investigate due to political pressure a young coroner (Christopher Matthews) starts doing his own investigation. He is soon in over his head and that's when things get really stupid.

Although Cushing, Lee, and Price get top billing, Cushing is only in one scene (and it's a pointless one at that) and Lee's presence isn't much more than Cushing's. Price's role is larger and very important to the story, but his screen time is still very limited and he doesn't have much to do. His presence is almost as big a waste as that of Cushing and Lee.

And the score, the easy-listening rock/jazz fusion score, is almost too painful for words!

All in all, this film should go on the "must-miss" list, except for those who might be looking for the worst "day-for-night" shots since Ed Wood stopped making Z-grade thrillers and turned to Z-grade pornos. It makes the worst of the Hammer Film efforts look like the work of Orson Wells. What's even more embarrassing for this film is that it looks like it probably had a bigger budget than several Hammer Films combined, based on the number of locations and aerial shots featured.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mile-stone first Kung Fu vampire movie

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973)
Peter Cushing, Julie Ege, David Chiang, and Robin Stewart
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The year is 1904. Decades have passed since Dr. Van Helsing first took up arms against the cult of vampires, and his struggle has brought him to China. While guest-lecturing at a university, Van Helsing is approached by His Ching (Chiang), who, together with his brothers and sister, have dedicated themselves to ridding his native village of the Seven Golden Vampires which have terrorized it for centuries; they require Van Helsing’s expertise in vampire-killing to augment their own considerable martial arts skills, however. Van Helsing and his son Leyland immediately offer their expert services. After wealthy Swedish adventuress Vanessa Buren provides funding, they embark upon the long and dangerous trek to the isolated village of Ping Kuei, facing both bandit lords and vampire minions before the final apocalyptic showdown between the vampiric army of the Seven Golden Vampires and Van Helsing’s band of heroes. Then, as the smoke is clearing, and heroes and villains alike are taking stock of their dead, Van Helsing’s arch-nemesis Dracula makes his presence known—and only one of them will walk away from this final confrontation.

When it was released, “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” was something new and spectacular. It was the first serious effort to mix the horror film genre with the martial arts genre. With everything from “The Bride With White Hair” to “Blade” to “Vampire Effect” on our shelves, this movie may not seem like a big deal, but when Hammer and the Hong Kong-based Shaw Bros. production company teamed up, they were blazing new territory.

“The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” is a film with great potential and an even greater premise, but in the final analysis it fails to live up to both. While there are some great touches in the film surrounding Chinese vampire lore—the lesser vampire minions of the Seven Golden Vampires are “hopping vampires” and shrines to Buddha repulse the evil undead, not just the typical cross—and Cushing and the rest of the cast deliver fine acting performances, the martial arts side of the film is quite lackluster, even by the standards of Shaw Bros. movies of the 1970s. The big battle between the vampire army and the vampire-busting martial artists might have been more exciting if the martial arts displays had been. Certainly, that climactic battle had plenty of horror—with some quite unexpected twists and deaths as it unfolds—but its Kung Fu is weak.

On the upside, Cushing is a joy to watch as always (despite the fact that the actor was dealing with health issues and severe depression following the death of his wife), and his Van Helsing is again a fun mix of scholarly dedication and grim, determined action. He has great on-screen chemistry with everyone in the supporting cast—particularly Ege and Stewart. The addition of Leyland Van Helsing, the son of the great vampire hunter, is a nice addition to the mythos, and it’s too bad that nothing more came of that. (Hammer was always throwing in great characters in the Dracula films that never developed into anything—such as Father Sandor from “Dracula: Prince of Darkness.” But in the case of the younger Van Helsing, primed to take over the vampire-busting franchise, if the character was added simply because the film was deemed to need a vibe younger than the ailing Cushing, or if there were ideas of plans for a new Dracula/Van Helsing direction, “Legend” was destined to be among Hammer Films’ final productions.

Speaking of Dracula, readers have probably noticed that he’s only been mentioned in passing during this discussion. That’s because when Baker and the actors and the rest of the crew were all done with “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires,” Dracula was nowhere to be found in the story. In fact, it was Hammer executives who insisted that Dracula be added to the film, so Cushing was called back for an additional scene. An opening sequence featuring Dracula (played by John Forbes-Robinson) was hastily thrown together, along with a denouement that had Van Helsing dispatch Dracula without even being missed by his companions who stepped outside a moment before the Prince of Darkness revealed himself. I really can’t imagine what the people at Hammer were thinking; I think the pointless presence of Dracula in “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” weakens the film rather than strengthens it.

By the way, I recommend you get the version of “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” that Anchor Bay released as part of their Hammer Collection. Both the DVD and the VHS versions contain the US release of the movie that was titled “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula.” The bit of film butchery is an example of how editing can make or break a film—and in the case of this movie, the editing definitely broke it. They took an entertaining, straightforward vampire/kung-fu hybrid adventure film and turned it into a confusing mess. When the Americans were done transforming “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” into “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula,” they had a movie that even Ed Wood and Uwe Boll would be ashamed to be associated with.

(Trivia: This was the fifth and final time Peter Cushing would play Van Helsing.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

'The Gorgon' is a Hammer Films masterpiece

The Gorgon (1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee and Richard Pasco
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When the spirit of the sole surviving Gorgon sisters of Greek legend rises again to plague a Balkan village, The doctor in a small Balkan village (Cushing) attempts to cover up the fact that citizens are being turned to stone under the full moon, even as a visiting scholar (Lee) attempts to determine the fate of a colleague.

"The Gorgon" is a curious mixture of elements, being part ghost movie, part romance movie, part fantasy epic--but all the elements congeal into a fabulous horror film.

With the usual lush sets that marked Hammer Films of this period, and the usual topnotch direction from Terence Fisher, we have a film that is gorgeous to look at. Add a great script being performed by a fantastic cast, some of whom are in parts we don't typically see them in (Christopher Lee is the monster-busting scholar here, while Peter Cushing is the antagonist who may or may not be in league with the monster) but all of whom are at the top of their game.

"The Gorgan" contains a number of truly chilling moments and the script features a couple of twists and turns, so that the viewer is kept guessing as to who is actually host to the gorgon's spirit until it is revealed. Even better, the final confrontation between the heroes and the Gorgon is one of the most dramatic endings to a Hammer film, period! (The film loses a bit of steam as it heads toward the climax, but the finale more than makes up for the slight drag.)

"The Gorgon" is one of the most underrated horror flicks from Hammer Films. For years it was unavailable even on VHS, but last year Sony finally released four Columbia-distributed Hammer Films in a multi-movie set as part of their "Icons of Horror" series. Get it. All four films in the set are excellent, with the "The Gorgon" being the very best.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cushing gives heartfelt performance
in 'Tales from the Crypt'

Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Starring: Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Nigel Patrick, and Ralph Richardson
Director: Freddie Francis
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

This anthology film from British horror company Amicus is the original screen adaptation of the "Tales from the Crypt" comic book. And it's a fabulous one--with a fine cast of actors, great camera work, and mostly tight scripting.

From the framing sequence--which features a group of tourists that find themselves stranded inside an ancient tomb where they encounter a mysterious crypt keeper (Richardson)--we know we're in for a treat. The crypt keeper's interaction with the lost tourists is the conceit that brings us into the stories.

The first tale in the film is "All Through the House", in which an evil, scheming wife (Collins) murders her husband on Christmas Eve... only to discover what Father Christmas does to those who have been naughty. There are some great visuals and fabulous contrasts of colors here, not to mention great acting by all featured (even the child actor, which is a rare occurance!)

Next up is "Reflection of Death", perhaps the weakest tale of the bunch, because it feels like it's been padded. It's the tale of a man who gets in a horrible car-wreck but finds that no-one will help him or his mistress after he's crawled from the wreckage. There's a nice, chilling twist in this one, but it takes entirely too long getting there.

The third story, "Poetic Justice", is my favorite of the bunch, and it features horror great Peter Cushing in his most touching (and probably deeply emotional) performance ever. He portrays a lonely widower who is driven to suicide after a pair of cruel businessmen cause him to believe that the neighborhood children, who have been his only joy since the death of his wife, have come to hate him. The poor old man gets his revenge, however, in a way that's fitting of "Tales from the Crypt". (In real life, Cushing himself lost his wife shortly before working on this film. I'm of the opinion that Cushing largely plays himself in this sequence.)

The fourth tale, "Wish You Were Here", is a pretty straight-forward spin on the classic "The Monkey's Paw" story. It is based around the standard of a string of badly worded wishes that backfire tragically and horrifically, but the climax of the story is so terrifying and skin-crawling that it literally had me squirming in my chair. Both as a kid and as an adult, the finale of this story is the one that hits me hardest.

Finally (aside from the creepy wrap-up to the framing sequence), we have "Blind Alley", the tale of a vicious administrator of a home for the blind, who is given a fitting punishment by his charges when they've finally had enough. This one also feels a bit padded and it drags a bit, but there are enough chills and scary moments--not to mention fine acting by Nigel Patrick as the hateful, gluttonous administrator.

"Tales from the Crypt" is a little-seen gem, and I recommend it highly to anyone who thinks fondly of British horror films from the Sixties and Seventies.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The film with a built-in bathroom break

The Beast Must Die (aka "Black Werewolf") (1974)
Starring: Calvin Lockhart, Anton Diffring, Peter Cushing, Marlene Clark, Michael Gambon, Tom Chadbon, Ciaran Madden, and Charles Gray
Director: Paul Annett
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Arrogant big game hunter and self-made millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Lockhart) has invited six guests to his isolated estate to spend the weekend with himself and his wife (Clark). Once they are present, he reveals that his land and house has been transformed into a high-tech prison, and that he believes one of his guests is a werewolf... and that he intends to hunt and kill that person once he or she transforms. Together with his security expert (Diffring) and a scholar who specializes in the illness of lycanthropy (Cushing), Newcliffe watches and waits to hunt the most dangerous game of all.

"The Beast Must Die" is a nicely executed merge of the thriller, horror, and mystery genres. (Some even like to throw in "blaxploitation" as an included genre, but, frankly, I don't think it fits that category. The lead character happens to be black, but that's as far as it goes.)

The script is fast-paced, the dialogue witty, and usual game of "spot the werebeast" that is so common in werewolf movies is heightened here by the Christie-esque "Ten Little Indians" aspect of the story. The only really questionable part of the script is some faulty logic on the part of Newcliffe: He's invited these guests, and he's convinced that one of them is a werewolf. Given the mysterious violence that's followed at least three of them around the world, why is he certain that just one who is a werewolf? Why not two, or even all three?

The big-name cast all do an excellent job in their parts, although Lockhart delivers an over-the-top performance that should earn him a place in the Ham Hall of Fame, and Cushing's supposedly Swedish accent is very dodgey on more than one occassion. The camerawork and direction are also very well done... they even manage to make the made-up dog that serves as the werewolf pretty scary at times.

Two big strikes against the film, though, are its score--which mostly consists of annoying, inapproriate, very 1970s jazz music--and the gimmicky "werewolf break" toward the end of the film where the film stops for 30 seconds to allow the audience to "be the detective and guess the werewolf." (According to an interview with the director on the most recent DVD release, this gimmick was added during post-production. Frankly, it shows... there really aren't enough clues provided to effectively guess who the werewolf is before the film itself reveals the beast's identity.)

Despite its warts, this film is an excellent little movie that should entertain lovers of horror films and detective thrillers alike. (Heck, you might even be smarter than me, and you might be able to successfully pick up on clues and guess the werewolf!)

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's elementary that Cushing makes a great Sherlock Holmes

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, Christopher Lee, and Marla Landi
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Cushing) is retained to find the root of and bring to an end the curse that's been haunting the Baskervilles family for centuries before it claims the family's final male member, Sir Henry Baskervilles (Lee). With Dr. Watson (Morell) at this side, Holmes ventures onto the haunted moor to seperate fact from fiction and legend from the all-too-real killer who lurks there.

The Hammer Films adaptation of "The Hounds of the Baskervilles" is one of the best Sherlock Holmes movies ever made. Peter Cushing is excellent as Holmes, Morell is a fine Watson (and he is playing the part in a script that doesn't portray Watson as a bumbling idiot whose only reason for being around is for Holmes to made rude comments about--Watson is an intelligent, capable partner to Holmes here, just like he is in the Arthur Conan Doyle tales--and the rest of the cast is likewise perfect in their various parts.

This version may take some liberties with the novel here and there, but Cushing and Morell should definately be near the top of any list of "Great Homes & Watsons of the Movies." It's a must-see for fans of any of the stars or anyone who loves a well-done Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Lovers of director Terence Fisher's other films for Hammer (such as the Frankenstein series) will also definately want to check this one out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cushing portrays best-ever film Van Helsing

Horror of Dracula (1958)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Melissa Stribling, Michael Gough
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"The Horror of Dracula" starts out looking like a straight adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, but ten minutes in, the film takes a hard left when its revealed that Jonathan Harker has come to Castle Dracula not as a hapless victim but as an agent of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing and that Harker is fully aware of Dracula's true nature.

But it all works, because when Van Helsing appears on screen (played by the late, great Peter Cushing), we get a different interpretation of him than offered in Stoker's novel, and a different spin on vampirism as well. In the Hammer version, Dracula is devoted to spreading a cult of undeath that consists not only of vampires but of human minions who thirst for everlasting life and who are committed to turning the world into a cesspool of evil and corruption. Van Helsing is a man both of action and letters who is the center of a network of brave men and women who have dedicated themselves to eradicating this sinister evil, which, by the close of the 19th century, is viewed as so much superstitious poppycock.

As "Horror of Dracula" unfolds, Dracula claims Mina and Lucy as victims, mostly because he wants to take revenge against Harker and Van Helsing for being pains in his rear... but this vindictive streak becomes his downfall, as Van Helsing penetrates Dracula's lair and confronts him in one of the neatest climaxes of any of Hammer's Dracula films.

While Cushing's energetic, action-hero Van Helsing is a sharp departure from how the character comes across in Stoker's novel, the Dracula in this and subsequent films in what I designate as the "Van Helsing Papers" is truer to Stoker's portrayal of him than any other film version I've come across. He's not the incongruously eveningwear-sporting-but-decaying-castle-dwelling Bela Lugosi, nor is he the pathetic whiner that Gary Oldman portrayed in so so-very-inaccurately named "Bram Stoker's Dracula"... no, the Lee Dracula is a blood-thirsty monster who preys on the life and emotions of the living. He is a strange and alien fearsome outsider, just as Stoker wrote him.

It's over 50 years since "Horror of Dracula" was released, yet it's still a an exciting item to pop in the VCR or DVD player when you're looking for a chilling, adventuresome diversion.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Cancer research kills in 'Island of Terror'

Island of Terror (aka "Night of the Silicates) (1966)
Starring: Edward Judd, Peter Cushing, Carole Gray, Eddie Byrne and Sam Kydd
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Bone specialist Dr. David West (Judd) and pathologist Dr. Brian Stanley (Cushing) travel to a remote island off the coast of England to help stem an outbreak of a strange disease that seems to be dissolving the very bones of animals and island residents. The soon discover that the island is about to be overrun by gigantic, mobile, mutated cells that survive by sucking calcium and other minerals from their victims. Will the scientists find a to destroy the seemingly indestructible, rapidly multiplying monsters before they kill everything on the island... and then spread to the rest of the world? More importantly, will the lovely Toni (Gray) slap Dr. Stanley for his heavy-handed flirtatious comments?

"Island of Terror" is a GREAT monster movie with a fabulous setting and a cast that deliver excellent performances. The movie starts creepy, builds tension steadily, and ends up with an exciting climax where survivors are crammed into a single building for a desperate last stand. It is a classic in every sense of the word, from the Golden Age of sci-fi in at the cinema.

I've heard this film compared to the original "Dr. Who" series, both in a favorable and a disparaging sense. I tend to think the comparison is accurate, particularly of the John Pertwee and Tom Baker years. The monsters bear some resemblance in design to many of those we saw on "Dr. Who" (and perhaps they may seem laughable to the "sophisticated" viewer in the 21st century) and the setting, nature, and development of the story is likewise similar to the stories featured on the TV show. However, "Island of Terror" is much better paced, far better acted, and far better filmed than any "Dr. Who" storyline. (I also suspect that a couple of people who have made such comments have had limited exposure to British sci-fi from the 50s and 60s... and so perhaps everything would remind them of "Dr. Who.")

If you like monster movies and classic sci-fi films, you owe it to yourself to check out "Island of Terror." Another reason to see it is Peter Cushing's performance. He gets to show off his more comedic side, as his character of Dr. Stanley is a lovable joker who is always playfully hitting on his colleagues fiance, Toni.

Unfortunately, this very excellent film has not yet been made available on DVD. The continuing cinematic tragedy of garbage like "Night of Ghoul" being available in several different versions, yet a real classic like "Island of Terror" (and the equallly excellent Cushing thriller "Cash on Demand") continue to languish in VHS obscurity, even being out of print on that media.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Cushing performances
I thought I'd never see!

I love Hammer's "Hound of the Baskervilles" that stars Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. I am also very fond of Tyburn's "The Mask of Death," one of Peter Cushings final performances, where he portrayed an elderly Holmes during WWI.

As such, I have been intrigued by the 1968 BBC television series where he played Sherlock Holmes. I have wanted to see an episode since I first heard it existed, but I had always assumed that it was one of those TV things that had been erased by the passage of time.

But Hosana!, and may God save the Queen and BBC archivists! On December 15, a DVD collection of the only five episodes (out of 16) that are known to survive will be released for all of us Cushing fans to enjoy!

I will be posting reviews of Cushing film appearances as Holmes at the beginning of December to celebrate... and I'll eventually review this set too.

In the meantime, I think I can suggest an excellent Christmas gift for any Peter Cushing fan that you love. I recommend pre-ordering a copy today, using the handy-dandy link below! (As for me, I'm emailing Santa to volunteer to muck out the raindeer stable to see if I can motivate him to bring me a copy....)

Cushing gives one of his very best performances
in 'Captain Clegg'

Captain Clegg (aka Night Creatures)(1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen, Michael Ripper, Oliver Reed, and Yvonne Romain
Director: Peter Graham Scott
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Captain Collier (Allen) of the King's Navy marches into a small swamp-bound coastal village that is a suspected hub of smuggling, not to mention the center of activity by ghostly nightriders on skeletal horses. He is soon matching wits with the masterminds behind the smuggling operations--the kindly Reverend Blyss (Cushing) and coffin maker Jeremiah Mipps (Ripper), both of whom hide secrets deeper and darker than a mere smuggling ring.

I love this movie.

"Captain Clegg" ("Night Creatures" in the U.S. market) is perhaps one of the finest movies ever be produced by Hammer Films.

Set in the 18th century against a backdrop of smuggling and piracy, "Captain Clegg" is an excellent melodrama that's got a thrilling, well-paced story, with compelling, likable, and complex characters, and a near-perfect ending.

High points of the film include the opening scenes with an old man running from spectral riders in the marshes, only to be finished off by a nightmarish scarecrow with human eyes; the sequence where Mipps and his fellow smugglers set out in the hopes of making their scheduled delivery of fine French wines right under the nose of Captain Collier and his men; the breakfast scene where Collier thinks he finally has the goods on Blyss, and the build-up to the film's climax as Blyss's past comes back to haunt him and the smuggling operation starts to come unglued.

"Captian Clegg" is also beautifully filmed and expertly directed--on par with some of Terence Fisher's Hammer work, I think--with Cushing and Ripper giving excellent performances. In fact, Cushing may well give the finest on-screen performance of his career as the enigmatic country vicar with a rebellious streak. Cushing's range as an actor is shown more clearly in this film as in no other I've seen (and I've seen most of them).

I can't recommend this film highly enough. If you order the Hammer Horror Series pack from the discount there, it costs just under US$22--I think "Captain Clegg" alone is woth the purchase price for Cushing fans. (The inclusion of another of his greatest films--"The Brides of Dracula"--is icing on the cake).

'Night of Ghoul' is brightened by Cushing

Night of the Ghoul (aka "The Ghoul" and "The Thing in the Attic") (1975)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, John Hurt, Alexandra Bastedo, Ian McCulloch, Gwen Watford, and Don Henderson
Director: Freddie Francis
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A group of drunken young people out for a drive (Carlson, Bastedo, McCulloch) get lost on country back roads. Over the warning of a crazy country bumpkin (Hurt), they seek refuge in the isolated mansion of Dr. Lawrence (Cushing). When the visitors start dying messily, the secret of the mansion is revealed in all its horror.

"Night of the Ghoul" is a great-looking film burdened a meandering, unoriginal script full of badly written dialogue, which in turn leads to weak performances by most of the featured actors. The one standout performance is delivered by Peter Cushing. It's not unusual that he is the only decent thing about a movie he appears in, but his performance as the tortured Dr. Lawerence is one of his very best and most moving screen appearances. This may be because Cushing reached into himself and used the real pain he still felt from the death of his wife--who had been the center of his world in every way--in one of two tributes he gave to their love on screen. (The other appears in the 1972 anthology film "Tales from the Crypt".)

Aside from Cushing, there's nothing else particularly noteworthy here... and nothing that you haven't seen done better in other movies. Even the Big Secret of Dr.Lawrence's creepy old mansion, while pretty horrendous, is presented in such a feeble fashion that what was supposed to be shocking feels more like a "how terrible... and they were such nice people, too" moment.

"Night of the Ghoul" is a film that admirers of the great talent that was Peter Cushing should seek out. Everyone else won't be missing much if they pass on this film.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cushing rules 'From Beyond the Grave'

From Beyond the Grave (aka "Creatures" and "Tales from the Beyond") (1975)
Starring: Peter Cushing, David Warner, Donald Pleasence, Ian Bannen, Angela Pleasence, Nyree Dawn Porter, Ian Ogilvy, Lesley-Ann Down, Ian Carmichael, Margaret Leighton and Jack Watson
Director: Kevin Connor
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Deep within the back alleys of London is a little hole-in-the-wall antique shop that is crammed with the strangest and most wondrous things. It is run by a kind, elderly man with a thick Northlands accent (Cushing). He can find just the thing you're looking for, he is always helpful, and his prices are very, very fair. But a bad end will come to those who deal with him unfairly, or who outright steal from him.

"From Beyond the Grave" is a misnamed movie if there ever was one. This anthology film which features three stories about three customers to the antique shop run by Cushing's character, and the fates they suffer after they respectively cheat him, steal from him, and deal fairly with him. If *I* were King of the World (or if I'd been the one assigning alternate titles to this one, I would have chosen "Curious Goods", "Final Sale", "Deals to Die For", or something along those lines. Yes, this is a cheesy horror movie--where curses on antiques manifest themselves to punish those who do wrong--but it is nowhere near as awful as its title implies.

All four stories in this one are good, creepy fun. They are all paced just right, and they all sharp dialogue, well-balanced mixes of humor and horror, and a couple of startling moments just to add a little extra zest. The featured actors all give top-notch performances as well, with Cushing, Warner, Bannen, and Angela Pleasence being particularly excellent in their parts. (Of course, Cushing is pretty much always excellent, so I suppose I didn't even need to praise him. I don't think I've seen Ms. Pleasence in anything before or since, but she gives a performance that rivals anything her famous father has ever put forth.)

The first story sees David Warner stiffing Cushing for quite a bit of money when he switches the price-tag on a mirror he desperately wants. Well, said mirror is possessed, and soon Warner's character is killing hookers for fun and eternal life.

The second story has Ian Bannen, a spineless and henpecked husband, attempting to buy a war medal from Cushing so he can artifcially boost his self-esteem. When Cushing refuses to sell the medal to him without proof of actual war-time heroism, Bannen steals it. A chance encounter with a real war-hero and his strange daughter subsequently goes from friendship to horror. (This segment is scariest in the film, and it's final scene is one that will stay with you for a while.)

The third story is mostly comedic in nature, and it starts with a business man cheating Cushing on the purchase of an antique snuffbox (to which Cushing, upon noticing the swindle, comments, "I hope you enjoy snuffing it). Turns out, the cheapskate ends up with a demon on his shoulder, and when he turns to a befuddled medium for help (hilariously played by Margaret Leighton), things end up going from bad to worse. (The finale to this one is as creepy as it is funny.)

Finally, an honest customer comes into Cushing's shop. He's looking for a little something to liven up his study, and he purchases an old door... without stealing, cheating, or lying. The item still turns out to be cursed (we wouldn't have a story otherwise!), and it turns a closet into a room that houses an ancient evil. This final story isn't as strong as the first three, but it's still pretty good. And the fate of the characters are in line with everything that's happened to the cheaters.

"From Beyond the Grave" is definitely one of the better anthology horror films that has been made. If you like your horror with a side of class and thoughtfulness, this is a film for you. I recommend it highly, and I assure you that it's better than the title suggests.

Cushing and Price clash in 'Madhouse'

Madhouse (aka "The Revenge of Dr. Death") (1974)
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, and Natasha Pyne
Director: James Clark
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Famed horror ham Paul Toombes (Price) suffers a total breakdown after his fiance is brutally murdered. After more than a decade in an insane asylum, he is released, and his long-time friend, collaborator, and co-creator of Dr. Death, the character that made Toombes a star, Herbert Flay (Cushing) presents him with the comeback opportunity of a lifetime: The starring role in a television series based on their signature character. Toombes reclutantly agrees, but his reluctance soon turns to horror as someone starts murdering young women and castmembers in ways that reflect the methods of Dr. Death. Is Toombes a homicidal maniac, or is someone else committing the murders and trying to frame Toombes?

"Madhouse" is part murder-mystery, part mad-stalker flick. The truth behind the Dr. Death killings is one that an attentive viewer could have figured out (and it speaks rather poorly of Scotland Yard's finest that they didn't follow that avenue... but if they had, there wouldn't have been a movie). The film sees Price do what he's done in several movies before--he teeters on the edge of madness and he runs around terror-struck, with interludes of expressions of regret and self-doubt. But, it's what Vincent Price was most famous for, and he does it very well in this film.

Price is supported by a decent cast, with Cushing brightening every scene he's in as always (even if he doesn't have much to do until the very end). Quarry, as the obnoxious porn-film director turned TV producer, and Pyne as the perky, ever-helpful publicist, being particularly good in their parts. The one flub acting-wise are a pair of blackmailers who show up about 2/3rds of the way through the film--the actors are as lame as the plot thread they're part of.

What Price and none of the actors are supported by is the script. It only works if the viewer doesn't think about what he's just seen once the movie's over. The ending simply makes no sense whatsoever, not on any level. It's not a failed twist-ending... it's just a nonsensical one. (And this is a shame, because the climactic scene is actually pretty cool.)

Something that makes this movie great fun for fans of classic horror and sci-fi movies, is the opportunity to see icons like Price and Cushing together in the same scenes... but there is one scene where Price suffers by sharing the stage with Cushing. It's very clear in that scene (which it toward the end of the film) that Price's success was built on his amazing voice, and his ability to ham it up and still be lots of fun to watch, while Cushing was a truly Great Actor. I greatly enjoy Price when he cuts loose, but the differences in styles and levels of acting talent between the two men was clearly on display in that scene. (The speech about the Dr. Death character and superior acting talent was something I found mildly amusing, given my opinion above.)

"Madhouse" suffers from a weak script, but I still think it would be fun to watch for fans of Price and Cushing.

Cushing shines in excellent segment of anthology film 'Asylum'

Asylum (1972)
Starring: Robert Powell, Partrick Magee, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Britt Ekland, Charlotte Rampling and Peter Cushing
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Dr. Martin (Powell) is charged with a most unusual final test before being hired for a position at an insane asylum: He must interview several inmates and deduce which of them is the former director of the facility.

"Asylum" is another of those very excellent horror anthology films from the '60s and '70s. This one uses Dr. Martin's final employment test as its framing story (although, in this film, the frame is itself a little twist-ending horror tale that) and the interviews with four of the inmates are the short horrors we are treated to.

First up, we have what is probably the weakest of the bunch... a story where a murdered wife who reanimates to take revenge on her husband and is lover (Parkins), despite having been dismembered and neatly wrapped in a number of individual packages. Athough predictable and goofy, the images of the writhing packages and the capper to the story as it ends and gives way to the frame more than make up for the weak story.

Second, there's the story of a desperately broke tailor (Morse) who receives a most unusual commission from a greiving father (Cushing), and in the end, we learn the lesson that tailor shops and occultism should be kept seperate. This tale is a bit slow-moving, but its beautifully shot, and Morse and Cushing both give excellent performances.

Third, we have the story of Barbara (Rampling) who, after being released from an insane asylum, promptly murders her brother and nurse. Barbara blames the evil Lucy (Ekland) for committing the crime and framing her, but is reality being filtered through the mind of a mad woman? This story is pretty basic and it works first and foremost due to the great performance of Ekland.

Finally, we have the tale of Dr. Byron (Lom), a medical man who has come to believe he can transfer his mind into dolls that he creates. Unlike the other three, this story is not a flashback, but instead takes place in the present and within the asylum walls. It is the most clever and surprising of the bunch, and the way it merges with the framing story is particularly horrific and grand. It's a great closer to a fine collection of stories.

To make this package even better, the film features some nice camera work and a great music score (that is especially effective in the Rampling/Ekland sequence).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Peter Cushing goes in search of Yetis

The Abominable Snowman (aka The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) (1954)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Forrest Tucker, and Maureen Connell
Director: Val Guest
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

English botanist John Rollson (Cushing) joins an expedition led by American explorer Tom Friend (Tucker) to find proof of the existence of Yeti, the Abominable Snowmen of the title. Once the expedition is deep within the frozen wastes of the Himalyas, Rollson and his fellow explorers learn that they aren't hunting some subhuman primate, but are instead tracking what seems to be highly intelligent creatures with supernatural abilities. What's worse... the hunters eventually become the hunted.

"The Abominable Snowman" is an average thriller with great sets, great performances from all the featured actors, and a tense, suspenseful finale. Unfortunately, it moves a bit too slowly, but when it does get to the action or the drama, the pay-off is worth it.

The greatest weakness of the movie is the fact that it doesn't just wear its message on its sleeve, it shoves it down the viewers throat with a number of long speeches delivered in turn by Tucker and Cushing. Yes... man is a destroyer, and man is but a guest on this planet, and life is precious and nature is precious.... The viewer gets the message just from the way the various characters behave, and the way the Yeti behave. The speechifying gets dull after the first run-through, despite the fact that the lines are delivered with great skill and fervor by the actors.

Despite this flaw, I enjoyed the film for the great performances by its actors and the sets. The story also has a numer of chilling moments. In balance, it's worth seeing.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Best of Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

One of my favorite versions of monster-maker Victor Frankenstein is the one portrayed by Peter Cushing. Although Cushing appeared in a total of six Frankenstein movies from Hammer Films, it is the following four films--the ones I think of as "The Frankenstein Chronicles"--that are his best.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Starring: Peter Cushing, Paul Urqhart, Christopher Lee, and Hazel Court
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In this first movie in Hammer's Frankenstein cycle, scientific genius Victor Frankenstein embarks on his life-long quest to be the first human being to create life. He is initially aided and abetted by a fellow scientist, his boyhood tutor, but as Frankenstein turns to murder in order to ensure his success, the assistant turns against him. Soon, Frankenstein's cold-blooded schemes are spinning out of control, and all his evil is turned back upon him. The technical aspects of the film are top-notch, the acting by all the principals is excellent, and on every other level this is a fine horror film.

Although Christopher Lee is present as the creature Frankenstein creates, the real monster is Victor Frankenstein, a man who becomes consumed first by ambition, then arrogance, and eventually madness. Cushing's portrayal of Frankenstein, however, makes this monster personable and likableóthe viewer almost wishes at times that he succeeds in the end. This effect is further enhanced by the fact that the film actually provides a solid reason for why Victor Frankenstein is the way he is. (We have a character who grew up under the tualage of a morally questionable mentor, and who was undoubtedly scarred by the early death of his parents. In fact, although I think he was intended to be sympathetic character, Urqhart's Paul Krempe is as big a villain as Frankenstein, perhaps even bigger. Paul was supposed to be the older, wiser man, but he never instilled his young charge with proper morals... and he never really tried to stop him. He just stole his girlfriend!)

Revenge of Frankenstein (aka "I, Frankenstein") (1958)
Starring: Peter Cushing and Francis Matthews
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Although Baron Frankenstein seemed certain to pay for his sins against man and nature at the end of the first film, Hammer and director Fisher nonetheless managed to save him for an intelligently written and solidly directed sequel. Assuming a new identity and becoming the new head of a hospital for the poor, he builds a body for his crippled assistant from parts amputated from his patients. Unfortunately, body battles mind for supremacy and turns the newly ambulatory man into a shambling, murderous cannibal.

This is one of those rare sequels that is as good as the original. Cushing's Frankenstein is once again a likable character, showing himself to be the only man of medicine in a town who cares about the health of the poor... even if his concern is largely derived from a desire to keep a steady supply of raw materials available for his experiments.

Once again, Cushing is supported by a strong cast and a great script. If there's anything that dissapoints me about this this film, it's that Frankenstein didn't really get revenge on anyone. When I first heard that this film was a direct continuation of "Curse of Frankenstein," I thought the people who stood by and let him go to the guillotine would also return, but they are no where in this story. But, that's a quibble that doesn't make the actual movie any weaker.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Susan Denberg, and Thorley Walters
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

"Frankenstein Created Woman" is one of the most unusual Hammer films. Although obstensibly a horror film, it is probably better described as a poetic mood piece steeped in gothic romanticism. As such, it ranks among most intelligent of all Frankenstein films.

The usual elements of a Frankenstein story are all but missing here, and the mad doctor isn't creating a terrible patchwork man, but instead a beautiful woman. What's more, he is endevours to inhabit the body with a soul. (It seems he is operating under the theory that previous efforts went awry because he was just dealing with brains, not souls.) The story is a quirky one, but it has all the elements of a great gothic tale--dark secrets, tragic love, and ultimate justice. The ending is also a curiously melancholy one.

While Cushing doesn't have as much screentime in this film as in other entries in the series--Frankenstein is more of a catalyst for the film's events than its focus--he gives a performance that is equal to the one in "Curse of Frankenstein." It may even be better than his original portrayal of the character, as something truly different is done with Victor Frankenstein in this film. While all the perfomances here are all superb, Cushing's more gentle portrayal of the fiendish doctor truly shines.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, and Madeline Smith
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Victor Frankenstein has buried his old identity and taken control of an insane asylum that serves as a rich source of parts for his continuing experiments. With the help of a young medical student who has read Frankenstein's 20-year-old texts on his early efforts, Frankenstein creates a creature from parts of the asylum's most promising inmates. Unfortunately for the not-so-good doctor, he is once again saddled with a protoge who starts to suffer pangs of conscience when the lengths to which Frankenstein is willing to go becomes apparent. In the end, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

Once again, Cushing's Frankenstein comes across as likable, even kindhearted when contrasted with the officials in the insane asylum. However, any admirable qualities are quickly revealed as illusions when it becomes apparent that he no longer has within him even the slightest shred of human decency or even a genuine interest in scientific pursuits. For Frankenstein, the creation of his creature has become the means to its own end... he is through and through a heartless monster.

The dark, dank, cramped asylum where the story takes place serves as the perfect mirror of Frankenstein's spiritual state, and Cushing's intense and commanding performance of this man now totally lost in madness is spellbinding. Although Hammer Films was quickly dying as a production house, the final reunion for Cushing and Fisher, who together launched Hammer's gothic reign with "The Curse of Frankenstein" is a splendid and worthy end to an era in cinematic history.