Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cushing is must deliver Xmas 'Cash on Demand'

Cash on Demand (1961)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, and Richard Vernon
Director: Quentin Lawrence
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A bank manager (Cushing) is forced to assist in plundering his own bank when a robber (Morell) holds is wife and child hostage.

This is an undeservedly obscure thriller with stars Peter Cushing and Andre Morell showing that you don't need hundreds of millions of dollars, gunplay and lots of violence to make an exciting movie. Most of this film takes place within a single room--the bank manager's office--and most of it is Cushing and Morrel talking. This is a movie that shows that a great film can arise from a solid script, good actors, and competent direction and editing. (This film cost about $60,000, adjusted for inflation; not single shot is fire; and the worst violence is when Andre Morrel slaps Cushing a couple of times.)

The film is a remarkable entry into the psychological thriller genre, one of roughly a dozen of this type of film co-produced with Columbia Pictures during the early 1960s in the hopes of capturing the success Universal Pictures and Alfred Hitchcock had with "Psycho." This wasn't new territory for Hammer, however, as they had released numerous crime dramas and thrillers during the 1940s and 1950s, before the studio hit cinema gold with their celebrated Technicolor gothic horror flicks.

But the black-and-white thrillers the studio produced during the early 1960s were better than those earlier efforts, and "Cash on Demand" is one of the best.

The film's strength comes to a large degree from Peter Cushing and his portrayal of Fordyce, a man who treats the bank he manages as his kingdom, his staff as serfs, and his office as his throne room. He is an unliked and unlikable in his professional life, but Cushing presents Fordyce's soft side with a single glance at the picture of his wife and son that he keeps on his desk... and that one glance is all the audience needs to be on Fordyce's side once Andre Morell's villanious and manipulative Hepburn enters the bank and turns Fordyce's throne room into his prison and forces him to destroy his kingdom in order to save his the ones he loves.

We feel for Fordyce as he is reduced from a proud and unyielding to sniveling and begging. But we also watch to see how far Hepburn can push Fordyce, if Fordyce will break, and what the result will be if he does.

But Cushing's performance wouldn't be as strong if he didn't have Andre Morell to play off. Morell presents Hepburn as a charming, cheerful person and he delivers every line with a smile in his voice... but in a couple of instances, he reveals his character's true nature and it becomes apparent that he is a mirror image of Fordyce: Fordyce is a soft man within a cold, hard shell, but Hepburn is a hard man with an even harder core hidden behind a soft and smiling exterior. Hepburn has seen through Fordyce's exterior and he takes a great deal of pleasure at breaking it down while lecturing him on proper interaction with his fellow man. The humanistic approach that Hepburn takes to life--and it is one that seems to be genuine, not just part of his picking at Fordyce as he waits for the right moment to clean out the bank vault--makes him a fascinating and interesting character.

One of the biggest surprises is the film's ending. It is a far more modern one that I anticipated, and it's a great close for a great film. Another appealing aspect is that the film, which takes place just before Christmas, ultimately ends up like a sideways take on "A Christmas Carol," with Fordyce standing in for Scrooge and Hepburn being all the Christmas Ghosts in one smiling--yet very menacing--package.

"Cash on Demand" is one of the six movies featured in "Icons of Suspense: Hammer Films." It's worth the price of the almost all by itself.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Peter Cushing plays Holmes one last time

The Masks of Death (aka "Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death") (1984)
Starring: Peter Cushing, John Mills, Anne Baxter, Anton Diffring and Ray Milland
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

An elderly Holmes (Cushing) and Dr. Watson (Mills) come out of retirement in the years just before the start of WWI to investigate two baffling mysteries that turn out to be related. Old friends also return, and Holmes may even get to have a rematch with The Woman as he tries to solve the mysterious deaths of five unconnected men in London and the disappearance of a German prince from a country estate.

Peter Cushing once again gives an excellent performance as Sherlock Holmes in what I like to pretend is his final role. He was dying even while making this movie, but he did not appear so frail so as to it being obvious, as he did in the few other film appearances he had after this one.

Cushing's Holmes is often gruff and cranky, but he remains charming and likable. John Mills also gives a good performance as his loyal assistant Watson, who is treated far better by both the actor and the script writers than he is in most adaptations; it is very clear in this film that Watson is only a dunce when compared to Sherlock Holmes.

This made-for-TV movie is an excellent Holmes adventure that captures the feel of Conan Doyle's stories like few attempts to bring Holmes to the screen have. It's also a reunion/farewell performance of sorts for actors and crew that were regulars on Hammer and Amicus productions, as it features several actors who were were regulars in those films and is directed by Roy Ward Baker.

"The Masks of Death" is, sadly, not available on DVD and long out of print on VHS.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The continuing adventures of Van Helsing

Brides of Dracula (1960)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, Martia Hunt and David Peel
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Dracula has been destroyed by Van Helsing, but his cult of vampiric corruption lives on. Van Helsign (Cushing) must save a young teacher (Monclaur) from the vile attentions of one of Dracula's disciples (Peel).

This is a curious "Dracula" movie, because while he is invoked in the title, Dracula is very much a pile of ash back in his castle, having been dispatched at the end of "Horror of Dracula."

And, despite the lack of an actual appearance by Dracula, this is one of my very favorite Hammer Dracula/vampire movies. It's even superior to “Horror of Dracula” in several ways, making it among the rarest of sequels.

First, the Baron’s castle from the first part of the movie features some spectacular sets; the sequence in the vampire's castle when the innocent Marianne comes to realize that she is trapped in a house of madness and evil, is quite possibly one of the most effectively creepy things in any Hammer movie, period.

Second, Cushing is at the top of his game here. His performance is full of zeal and it is the best he gave in any of the Hammer Films he was featured in. The mixture of horror and steely determination that he gives Dr. Van Helsing as he confronts the vampires and their twisted human servants is very well acted. He is also served well by a plot that allows the Van Helsing character to shine, fantastic sets, and excellent lighting and camera work that constantly reinforces the film’s gothic horror tone.

Finally, the climax is one of the most thrilling of any of Hammer’s vampire movies, and Baron Meinster’s doom provides the best death of any vampire in their productions.

All in all, “Brides of Dracula” may be the best film director Terence Fisher ever made. It is certainly the best of all Hammer’s Dracula movies. (And it’s quite possibly made stronger by the fact that Dracula is nowhere in it. I think Peel’s evil, bug-eyed Baron Meinster comes across as far more sinister and evil that Lee’s staid and distant Count Dracula ever did.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

'Shatter': Peter Cushing's Worst?

Peter Cushing reportedly stated that "Blood Beast Terror" was the worst movie he ever did. I beg to differ. While I haven't seen every film he has made--but I'm working to rectify that!--I doubt any can be as bad as "Shatter," one of two co-productions that Hammer Films made with Hong Kong-based Shaw Bros.

I believe this is the only film with Cushing in it that I have ever assigned a One Rating to.

Shatter (aka "Call Him Mr. Shatter") (1974)
Starring: Stuart Whitman, Lung Ti, Lily Li, Anton Diffring, and Peter Cushing
Directors: Michael Carreras and Monte Hellman
Rating: One of Ten Stars

Shatter (Whitman) is one of the world's top assassins. After killing an African dictator, he travels to Hong Kong to collect his fee, but instead finds himself a hunted man. Shatter hates being screwed out of his hard-earned cash, so he sets about getting revenge against the crimelord who crossed him (Diffring). Along the way, he gains a young martial artist as an ally (Ti), hooks up with a sexy Chinese mama (Li), and annoys a British Intelligence officer (Cushing). Everything basically unfolds at random, puntuated with gun-battles, explosions, and car chases.

From beginning to end, this movie makes no sense. I fancy myself pretty smart, but, despite the fact that the movie is populated with characters who are clearly just taking actions dictated by the plot, I can't figure out what the plot is. Why does Shatter go to Hong Kong, other than the fact that the company that co-produced this travesty with a failing Hammer Films, is based there? Since those who contracted his services were planning on killing him, why wait until he was in their backyard? Why didn't Shatter arrange to be paid in a way of his choosing--it can't be surprising that criminals would want to weasel out of paying him, now could it? What is Peter Cushing's character doing in the film anyway?

"Shatter" attempts to be a poor man's James Bond, but it comes across as the DT-riddled bum's James Bond. Even Peter Cushing's being featured doesn't make this one worth the time you'd spend opening the DVD case, let alone watching it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

All-aboard for the 'Horror Express'

Horror Express (1973)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Sylvia Totorsa
Director: Eugenio Martin
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A British explorer (Lee) finds what he believes to be proof of Darwin's theory of evolution high in a frozen mountain glacier on a mountain in northern China. As he is transporting the frozen carcas back to the West on the Trans-Siberian express, a weasely collegue/competitor (Cushing) decides to get a look at the find, and inadvertently unleashes a horror that has lain dormant for tens of thousands of years. It quickly becomes apparent that no-one onboard the train is safe as it makes its way across the frozen wilderness....

"Horror Express" is another one of those movies I remember being scared by as a kid. Specifically, the scene where the Kozak leader (played by Telly Savalas(!)) and his men are battling the monster in a darkened traincar. This is one of those films that is exactly as scary as I remember it!

A bit slow-moving at times, "Horror Express" still provides plenty of chills and shocks... and even a couple of unexpected plot-twists. The lighting, camera-work, and special effects all help underscore the growing tension in the film--even if some of the FXs are a bit cheesy--and the actors are all very good, despite the fact that this is one of those international European production where a dozen different languages were being spoken on the set. Lee and Cushing in particular shine; I think this movie features some of the better performances given by either one of them.

I think this is a must-see if you're a fan of Cushing, Lee, or the Hammer Films-style of movies.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

'Blood Beast Terror' is Cushing's Worst?

The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Robert Flemyng and Wanda Ventham
Director: Vernon Sewell
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A blood-sucking creature is on the loose, and Inspector Quennel (Cushing) is hot on its trail. All the clues point to the household of harmless entomologist Dr. Mallenger (Flemyng). Can his wanton, promiscious daughter (Ventham) be a literal man-eater?

Peter Cushing reportedly described this movie as the worst one he was ever in. While it isn't all that good--it's slow-moving, it's requirements for special effects to turn a buxom babe into a giant blood-sucking moth are beyond the meager budget it was produced with, and the ending is one of the most abrupt and badly motivated among the many abrupt and badly motivated endings of British monster movies from the 1950s and 1960--but it isn't anywhere near as bad as "Scream and Scream Again," so I can only assume that either Cushing had a better time making the latter film or he hadn't made it yet when he talked down "Blood Beast Terror".

While it's certainly true that this is one of those very rare occasions where Cushing doesn't seem to be giving the role his all--this is the only time I remember feeling like he "phoned in" his performance--he still brings more life to the scenes he's in than is found virtually anywhere else in the film. In fact, aside from Cushing, the only interesting thing in the picture is Wanda Ventham (or, more specifically, Wanda Ventham's cleavage).

This is a film you can safely skip until you've seen every other Peter Cushing movie there is. And, yes, that includes "Top Secret!"

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cushing battles undying evil in 'The Mummy'

The Mummy (1959)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Furneaux, and Christopher Lee
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A Victorian archeology expedition unearths and carries off the treasures from the tomb of Egyptian princess Ananka, so the secret society devoted to protecting it pursues the members back to England. Here, the fanatics unleash her eternal protector, a mummy (Lee), onto the British countryside. Whether the expedition members are in manor houses or insane asylums, the mummy finds and kills them, until only John Banning (Cushing) remains. When the mummy confronts Banning, however, it becomes captivated with his wife (Furneaux), who bears a strinking resemblance to his long-dead mistress.

Hammer Films' revival of "The Mummy" in gorgeous color is one of the best films that production house was responsible for. Better than "Horror of Dracula", but not quite as good as "The Curse of Frankenstein," it is a suspenseful movie. Cushing is as good as ever, and Lee also turns in a good performance as Kharis, whether as the shambling mummy, or as the living man during the flashback to ancient Egypt. The entirety of the final confrontation between Banning and the mummy is movie-making excellence.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Obscure Peter Cushing film soon on DVD!

A while back, Universal's Hammer Films entry in the "Franchise Collection" DVD multipack series brought me "Captain Clegg," a Peter Cushing film I'd resigned myself to never have the chance to see.

This year, on April 6, Sony is releasing the Hammer Films entry in the "Icons of Suspense" series. It contains six rarely seen Hammer thrillers, one of which I've never heard of before now... and "Cash on Demand," another Peter Cushing film I'd thought I'd never get to see!

"Cash on Demand" stars Peter Cushing as a bank manager who must cooperate with robbers in order to save his kidnapped wife and chid. Dating from 1961, it is a film I've been wanting to see for years. (And one that sounds just like "Firewall" and several other thrillers from the past decade.)

I've pre-orderd my copy of the set already... DVD review backlog be damned!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cushing is Frankenstein at his most evil

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1970)
Starring Peter Cushing, Simon Ward and Veronica Carlson
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

This could have been an Eight or Nine Star entry into Hammer's Frankenstein series, but, unfortunately, the portrayal of the central character, Baron Frankenstein, is off when compared to other entries, particularly high-points like "Revenge of Frankenstein" and "Frankenstein Created Woman."

In those films, there was something twistedly heroic about Frankenstein... one almost finds oneself hoping he'll succeed. But here, he is just a vicious killer and a brutal rapist--a creature with no redeeming qualities save for the inherent charm of the actor who portrays him, Peter Cushing.

The plot has Frankenstein blackmail a crooked doctor at a local asylum into giving him access to a mad scientist so Frankenstein can cure the madness through brain surgery. The corruption of Frankenstein and the crooked doctor spread to engulf the doctor's otherwise innocent fiance. On the very night of Frankenstein's seeming triumph, everyone ends up paying for their crimes, including Frankenstein himself. The "morality play" aspect of this film works extremely well. What doesn't work is Frankenstein's completely monstrous nature. And it's made worse by the brutal rape he visits upon Veronica Carlson (who gives what is probably her best performance in this film).

The rape scene is disruptive to the movie not only because of what it does to the character of Victor Frankenstein, but also because it doesn't really fit with the overall flow of the story--it comes out of left field and it doesn't seem to have any impact on the events that follow, as the characters carry on as if it never happened. In fact, according to interviews with the principles, it was added late in the production on the insistence of the producers, and over the objections of the actors and the director; Cushing in particular, being a gentleman among gentlemen was reportedly more upset about the scene than anyone else, despising both what he had to subject Ms. Carlson to, as well as what it did to his on-screen character. The odd disconnect is there, because the later scenes with Carlson and Cushing had already been filmed, and there was neither the time nor the interest to reshoot any of them.

It's a shame, really, that this otherwise fine film should be marred to such a great extent because a studio executive wanted to "sex it up."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Beware the Underwater Nazi Zombies!

Shock Waves (1977)
Starring: Brooke Adams, Luke Halpin, Fred Buch, Jack Davidson, D.J. Sidney, Peter Cushing, John Stout and John Carradine
Director: Ken Wiederhorn
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two young couples (Adams, Halpin, Buch and Sidney) are stranded on a remote island as undead Nazi supersoldiers rise from the ocean's depths to take revenge on their creator (Cushing) and all the living.

"Shock Waves" sounds like it should be the ultimate cheese-fest--how can something featuring underwater Nazi zombies NOT be? Especially a movie from the 1970s, made by inexperienced filmmakers on a shoestring budget?

Well, in the case of this film, the inexperience worked in their favor.

With classic horror stars Peter Cushing and John Carradine available each for four days of the film's four-week shooting schedule, director Ken Wiederhorn set out to make a movie in the vein of the old fashioned 1950s and 1960s Hammer horror fests but with a more modern sensibility. What he ended up with was a film that included some of the sexiness of a Hammer picture--Brooke Adams spends much of a film in a bikini and the rest of it in a barely buttoned shirt--and the mood over high velocity splatter that was increasingly in vogue during the late 1970s.

But, Weiderhorn, mostly be accident if the coversation on the DVD commentary can be believed, created a film that is far more of a mood piece than a horror show, with the zombie attacks being as horrorfying as they not so much because they are underwater Nazi zombies that seem to be able to pop up anywhere there's water (even in a disused swimming pool), but because there is an atmosphere of hazy, nightmarish dread that permeates the entire film from the moment our protaganists encounter a strange weather phenomena at sea to the final image of a sunburned, blistering Brook Adams.

With creepy locations, creative camerawork, surpringly creepy Nazi zombies and good performances by all cast members, "Shock Waves" is a film that is undeserving of its obscure status. It's almost worth seeing for Brooke Adams alone, as she is one of the better "damsels in distress" I've encountered in a horror movie, possessing a pretty face, an attractive body, and vulnerable quality that makes you fear for her safety throughout and whince with extra sympathy when she is terrorized or injured.

And then there's Peter Cushing. While this isn't is best performance--his "German" accent is even more suspicious than the "Swedish" one he tried to do in "The Beast Must Die,"--he still draws your attention like metal shavings to a magnet in every scene he appears in. He is thoroughly believable and repulsive as the Nazi commandant who eventually gets what he deserves.

And even setting Adams aside, this film is undoubtedly the masterpiece of underwater Nazi zombie movies. Maybe Oliver Stone can do a remake, once he's done showing us all how Hitler really wasn't such a bad guy,(as explained at Shades of Gray) with the Nazi zombies being heroic champions of a Greener Planet. After all, Underwater Nazi Zombies have no carbon footprint whatsoever!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cushing reveals 'The Evil of Frankenstein'

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Peter Woodthorpe, Sandor Eles, and Katy Wild
Director: Freddie Francis
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) returns from exile to find that his ancestral home has been looted by the corrupt leaders of nearby Karlstaad. Fuming with anger, he roams the nearby mountains, where he comes upon the monster he originally created, frozen in a mountain-top glacier. With the help of his faithful assistant Hans (Eles), a deaf-mute beggar girl (Wild), and a heapin' helpin' o' mad science, he restores the creature to "life." However, it is only with the help of Zoltan (Woodthorpe), corrupt, dark-hearted showman and hypnotist that Frankestein is able to bring the monster's awareness back from the mental shell it retreated into after its "death" a decade earlier. Unfortunately for Frankenstein and his friends, the monster is now under Zoltan's control, and he quickly starts using it for nefarious purposes.

This is Hammer Frankenstein film has grown on my since I first saw it several years ago. I still think it's one of the weaker in the series--it's to the Hammer 'Frankenstein' movies what "Scars of Dracula" is to the 'Dracula' series... a kinda-sorta reboot and remake of the initial film in the series--but I found myself liking it quite a bit more than I did originally.

First of all, Cushing gives another great performance of Frankenstein... and for once, the "good" Baron actually has cause to feel put-upon and persecuted; the townsfolk of Karlstaat really are a bunch of bastards, and the betrayal he faces at the hands of Zoltan is also something that would fill even a sane person with righteous indignation. Frankenstein really has more of a heroic air about him in this film, and most of "evil" that's committed comes from corners other than his. (Okay, so he DID create a monster made from human body parts, but can't anyone let bygones be bygones?!)

Second, although the story is thin, it is quote good. The film's strength is derived mostly from Cushing's ability as an actor--as, with the exception of Woodthorpe's destible Zoltan character, the rest of the actors turn performances so muted or predictable that they are little more than parts of the sets--but his performance is made all the stronger by the way the story elevates Frankenstein almost to the level of tragic hero; he is a man pursuing a dream of science, but he is ultimately doomed to failure through his own actions. (In this case, it's hiring Zoltan that's his main mistake... he really should have asked for checkable references first!)

The film also has one of the best Frankenstein Monster Labs in the series. That weird Martin the Martian raygun-style lightning catcher on the roof is very cool, as is the entire set-up by which Frankenstein transfers electricity into the monster's body.

Finally, the film shows us that Frankenstein's Monster is a mean drunk. Never let your monster drink booze. He's sure to run amok and light your house fire.

On the downside, the film has the second-worst monster in the series (only the furry beast of "Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell" is worse). It is suitably hideous, but the square-headed mask worn by the actor is shown so-very-clearly to be a mask in every closeup shot by the makeup around the actor's eyes. There's also the aforementioned issue of a very thin story, not to mention an illogical reason for why Frankenstein returned to his ancestral castle in the first place.

All-in-all, I think "The Evil of Frankenstein" (a film that's as mistitled as "Revenge of Frankenstein" was, as there are characters in this film more evil than the Baron) is worth a look if you're a fan of Hammer movies. It's even more worth a look if you're a fan of Peter Cushing... now that I've watched the movie again, I think it can be ranked among his best performances. It's not among the best overall of the Hammer Frankenstein films, but it's worth your time.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cushing vs Hound of the Baskervilles:
The Rematch

It the mid-1960s, Peter Cushing starred in 16 episodes of a BBC-produced series devoted to adapting Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales to the small screen. Althogh believed lost for nearly 20 years, a few episodes have been rediscovered and brought to Region 1 DVDs by American cable network A&E.

Naturally, I got me a copy as soon as possible. I'll be posting reviews of the six episodes and the odd little documentary included in the three disk set over the next couple of weeks.

In general, the episodes are quite good. Peter Cushing once again plays an EXCELLENT Holmes (after starring as the character in the first ever color Sherlock Holmes movie for Hammer Films a decade or so earlier.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 (1968)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Nigel Stock and Gary Raymond
Director: Graham Evens
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Cushing) and Dr. Watson (Stock) are called upon to solve the mystery of a spectral hound that seems to be visiting very real death upon the Baskerville family. Will they solve the mystery before Sir Henry Baskerville (Raymond) joins his forebearers in the most gruesome of fashions?

"The Hound of the Baskervilles" is the famous and most-often adapted Sherlock Holmes story, and it is the second version of the take that Cushing starred in. It seems odd choice to lead with in this DVD collection, as the earliest chronological episode included in the set is "A Study in Scarlet" and Cushing/Holmes is absent for the second half of the first episode and about 2/3rds to seonnd part. Most consumers of this will almost certainly be buying it for Cushing, and even if they weren't, his absense is felt. While Nigel Stock and the rest of the cast are talented and give admirable peformances, they don't have Cushing's presence.

As an adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," it's as faithful as can be expected and as well-done as other similar BBC productions from the 1960s. It is even better in many areas, as there are no pathetic attempts at night-for-day shots and most of the sets are well-constructed. On the downside, though, there seems to be a timidity against showing violence that goes beyond even typical television avoidance. For example, when Watson tustles with an escaped convict on the moor, all we get to see is the convict preparing to strike and then Watson stumbling backwards the next scene. The blow happened somewhere during the reversal of angles, but we didn't get to see any action. There are two or three instances like that in the film. The hound is also dissapointing. We don't really get to see anything as far as what it looks like.

However, despite not showing us the hound (and barely showing us the characters' reactions to it), the BBC director and editors did get the ending exactly right. It is suspenseful, with Holmes and Watson rushing through the fog along a nearly invisible path through deadly quicksand pits, the hound howling somewhere nearby, and Henry Baskerville walking blindly toward doom.

While the 1950s Hammer adaptation is more exciting and colorful, this version is more in keeping with Doyle's original story. I prefer the Hammer version, but this one is also well done, and Cushing is, once again, absolutely magnificent as Sherlock Holmes.