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.