Saturday, March 27, 2021

Neat film with an all-star cast AND a werewolf!

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 it's 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. 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, inappropriate, 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!)


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Peter Cushing... baddest of the bad-asses!

Here's hoping everyone has a happy Halloween and Monster Month!

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.