Tag Archives: Terence Fisher

PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

Although Peter Cushing passed this mortal coil in 1994, he made a recent, posthumous appearance—albeit a digital one—in what is probably his most famous non-Hammer role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue One. His debut film performance was, aptly enough, for Universal horror icon in Man in the Iron Mask (1939), but it wasn’t until ‘s 1957’s Curse Of Frankenstein for Hammer Studios that Cushing secured his iconic niche. Unlike the Universal Frankenstein series, Fisher focused on the doctor himself, as opposed to the monster. With his frosty blue eyes, silver-tongued elocution, and gaunt frame, bringing a fervent athleticism to his early performances, Cushing was ideally cast.

Echoing John Huston’s brilliant deduction that Humphrey Bogart’s villainous screen qualities could be transposed to those of a protagonist in The Maltese Falcon, Terence Fisher next cast Cushing as the quintessential Van Helsing in Hammer’s Horror Of Dracula (1958), opposite his long-time onscreen foil . These dual roles, Frankenstein and Van Helsing, cemented Cushing as a horror genre star. It was typecasting that kept his services in demand, and for which he was grateful.

still from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)He also made an excellent Sherlock Holmes in Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, again cast opposite Lee. It’s possibly the best screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel, and one of Hammer studio’s finest hours. Cushing brings an irreproachable, authentically physical fire-and-ice quality to the role. The film is relatively faithful to the novel, which will surprise those expecting Fisher to transform it into a horror opus—although it has his trademark red-blooded pacing and brooding atmosphere. Lee, as Sir Henry, may not be as exquisitely cast, but brings flair to the character. Someone must have forgotten to tell Fisher, Cushing, cinematographer Jack Asher, set designer Bernard Robinson, and composer James Bernard that this was an overly familiar story, because they approach it with a refreshing sense of discovery. Lee recalls his genuine affection for his late co-star in an interview included on the DVD. Unlike their Universal Horror predecessors and , Cushing and Lee became best of friends. Co-starring opposite each other in twenty-four films, their chemistry was undeniable, and although they did substantial solo work, their names are practically synonymous.

Cushing was cast as the infamous Dr. Knox for Britain’s Shepparton Studio in Flesh And The Fiends (1960, written and directed by John Gilling). Similar to his Victor Frankenstein, Cushing’s Knox is obsessed by his work. His is an icy, stern, brash, one-eyed doctor, but not without a degree of introspective sympathy, in sharp contrast to the deplorable Burke and Hare (as portrayed here by George Rose and ). As with many “mad doctor” films, Knox is driven to immoral extremes by a medically regressive climate. The cast, which includes an Continue reading PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

In 1968 released one of the most relentlessly frightening movies ever made in Night of the Living Dead, but it took a couple of years for the midnight movie crowd to make it into an epic cult phenomenon. Seen today, it holds up effectively, even with our sensibilities jaded from countless hack imitations. Its grainy black, white, and gray palette serves its otherworldliness well during a late night viewing on big screen, which I how I first encountered it. Even Romero could never quite match it, although he continued to try for forty years.

The argument can be made that Romero’s best post-Night of the Living Dead films were outside the zombie genre (The Crazies, Martin, NightRiders, and Creepshow). Still, no one does zombies like Romero (as proved with his 1990 NotLD remake), and the movie closest to the impact of the original was its immediate sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which was a shock satire on Western consumerism, brutalizing in its late 70s comic book colors and deliberate plays on banality. Some claim Dawn is Romero’s masterpiece, although it lacks the original’s reinventing-the-wheel, rough-edged freshness. In 2004, Dawn was remade by who completely missed Romero’s acerbic wit. The underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was the third in Romero’s original zombie trilogy, but did not attain the cult status of its predecessors. Its financial disappointment seemed to render it a finale to Romero’s zombie oeuvre. However, Romero, who has always been a sporadic filmmaker, returned with The Land of the Dead in 2005, which was followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and what looks to be his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Each of Romero’s zombie sequels has its equal share of fans and critics, but at the very least, he has tried to say something new with each entry.

Still from Night of the Living Dead (1968)None have attained the compact rawness of that 1968 yardstick, however. Duane Jones became a cult icon as the doomed protagonist Ben. Previously an English professor, Jones was the first African-American to have a starring role in a horror feature (the script does not specify Ben’s ethnicity). Judith O’Dea, as Barbara, is the eternal victim ( in Savini’s remake, the character is recast as a feminist femme fatale). Together, they hole up in a farmhouse and fight off the marching dead, but are inevitably at the mercy of hayseeds with guns. The shot-on-the-cheap crudeness and novice acting actually add to the mundane horror. It was riveting enough to create an entirely new genre, but predictably, its unique qualities have eluded pale imitations.

Elsewhere in 1968, AIP’s Wild in the Streets (directed by ) Continue reading 1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)

This is the last of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was the last of the Hammer Frankenstein series, as well as Terence Fisher’s final film. It is generally regarded as a weak swansong.  At first glance, it seems a remake of The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), but with a noticeably reduced budget.

Peter Cushing, in his final portrayal of Baron Frankenstein, inexplicably sports a curly blond wig which makes him look a bit like a deranged Shirley Temple, and he looks alarmingly emaciated. Off-screen, the actor’s wife had died, after a long illness, only the previous year, in 1971 (Monster from Hell was filmed in 1972 and remained on the shelf for two years).  Cushing was openly despondent and in intense mourning.  He later admitted to having had suicidal tendencies during this period.   Cushing never remarried, nor did he ever fully recover from the loss.  The toll of that recent personal tragedy is clearly visible on him in this film and, despite all of the atrocities committed by his character, that off-screen blow adds a layer of wearied pathos revealed in the actor’s eyes.

Despite the many elements working against this film, its bad reputation is mostly hyperbole.  Like nearly all of Fisher’s films, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is stamped with the director’s assured composition and electric editing. The opening sequence, with a grave robber (Patrick Troughton, from Doctor Who and Scars of Dracula) being pursued by a constable,  is nearly as kinetically paced  as the tense opening of Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. Later in the film, the Baron, momentarily young again, springs to his old self  in a leap atop the creature’s back.  The creature’s eventual fate is gruesome and frenzied.   These are diversions from a prevailing, fatigued bleakness.  Indeed, a desolate milieu permeates this culmination of Fisher and Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein saga.

Still from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)David (Darth Vader) Prowse plays the monster, and he is as encased in his rubbery, hairy ape-like latex as he was in black armor.  Prowse attempts to inject sympathy into his monster, much the same way that Freddie Jone’s monster did in the superb Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.   Prowse, however, was at the mercy of an immobile costume which defeats his efforts.

The Baron himself is a complicated mix of ruthlessness and an occasional “weak”, but not Continue reading FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)

THE MUMMY (1959)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

The mummy, as a character, quickly became bland. In 1932, director Karl Freund, writer John L. Balderstein, and stars Boris Karloff and Zita Johnann made a poetic film for the Universal horror cannon, re-working the story of Dracula in Egyptian guise.  The Mummy’s Hand (1940) starring cowboy actor (and later Captain Marvel) Tom Tyron, was the first and only real decent of the Universal mummy sequels.  Increasingly feeble films followed Hand, all starring a rotund mummy in the form of a disinterested Lon Chaney, Jr.  Dating back to the original, the plot rarely varied throughout the series.  An Egyptian princess reincarnates in the form of a twentieth century woman, only to have her ancient lover come back, a tad lethargic, gauze and all, to reclaim her.

Oddly, Francis Ford Coppola lazily utilized the mummy’s  reincarnated dead lover plot for his version of Dracula (1992), which, otherwise, was a (mostly) well done, imaginative version of that story.  In 1999 the mummy was revived again in a dumbed down, lame, testosterone-laden joke of a movie starring Brendan Frazier.  That film also spawned numerous sequels.  True to form,the succeeding mummy entries were even worse, which, in this case, isn’t saying anything.

Still from The Mummy (1959)In between the 1932 and 1999 films, Hammer Studios predictably took a stab at the character.  They spared no expense in soliciting the talents of Terence Fisher, along with top stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Where they did spare expense was in an original story. The Mummy (1959) liberally borrowed elements from the formulaic Universal series, and reincarnated the reincarnated princess plot.  Briskly paced direction from Fisher, along with sumptuous color from Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher, almost overcomes the paint-by-number plot, which screenwriter Jimmy Sangster tried valiantly to inject with his own sensibilities.  Of course, the medium of film is more than mere storytelling and The Mummy is a film that tries to go a long way to prove that; because, basic rehashed story aside, the film itself is no lumbering undead.  It may be Fisher’s most energetic work.

Peter Cushing, as Dr. Banning, is in enthusiastic form.  No one can get strangled like Cushing, and his near-death experience and confrontation with co-star Lee in Banning’s study  is pure red-blooded Fisher, ranking with the acting duo’s battle in Horror of Dracula.   Equally interesting is  when Cushing’s Banning antagonizes the antagonist in the most proven way imaginable; he insults the other guy’s religion.  Ironically, it is Banning, rather than the mummy, who limps here, the result of an untended accident in Egypt.  Christopher Lee is the darling among genre fans.  He is far more discussed than  his co-star.  As iconic an actor as Lee is, his favored status is something of a slight to Cushing, since the latter is, normally, the  superior actor.  However, in this film, the acting honors are a draw, with Lee giving an admirably nuanced, minimalist performance as the title character.  Lee’s Kharis cannot compete with Karloff’s masterful Imhotep, but Lee invests genuine pathos, dread, and menace into the role. Yvonne Furneaux is striking as the Kharis/Banning love interest, but not much is required of her other than letting her hair down and shouting “No!”

Kharis’  resurrection from the swamp is beautifully photographed and effectively conveys robust dread.  Another well-shot sequence is the mummy’s entrance into an asylum to exact revenge on Banning’s father.  Franz Reizenstein’s score expertly accentuates the film, matching Fisher’s bloodied full moon milieu.  The Mummy reminds me a bit of The  Guns of Navarone (1961).  You know what’s around the corner, but that hardly stops the enjoyment of getting there.

THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) AND DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

Christopher Lee, as Dracula, greets John Van Eyssan’s Jonathan Harker and basically says, “Welcome, glad to have you as my librarian. That picture of your fiancee is lovely.  I have to leave now, good bye.” After that, Dracula never speaks another word in the Horror of Dracula (1958). End to end, his footage probably runs less than fifteen minutes.

Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster present Bram Stoker’s vampire as a feeding predator. To his victims, he is attractive and desirable. Throughout his Hammer films, Terence Fisher clearly presents evil as erotic temptation. Seen in this light, Dracula’s silent, predatory portrayal in the first “true” sequel—Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—makes perfect sense. This is what sets Fisher apart from his predecessors who told the same story, and the successors who imitated (and exaggerated) his style in increasingly inferior sequels.

In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the vampire is loathsome and repulsive. In Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) the vampire has far more static dialogue, and more charisma, albeit in a silent film stylized theatricality.  With Fisher’s take on the subject, the erotic quality of the antagonist is pronounced, fleshy, and unmistakable.  Yet, Fisher and Sangster also expertly balanced that sensuality with the narrative, never allowing the eroticism to become a caricature the way successors did (thus robbing the series of its freshness).

Compare Fisher’s direction of Dracula’s seduction scene to Freddie Francis’ in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968).   In the former, Dracula seduces Mina (Melissa Stribling).  The scene is shot in a series of extreme close-ups.  Mina expresses dread (with a quivering lip) and breathy anticipation.   Dracula enters her room and descends upon her bed-ridden form.  As he draws towards her, his lips part.  The next sight of Mina is unconsciously collapsed on her bed, violated, blood lightly splattered on her throat and gown.  It is the blood of her husband (in a transfusion) that saves her life.

Still from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)In Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the vampire approaches Zena (Barbara Ewing) in the forest.  Zena nearly spills out of her top and the vampire removes one extra snap for increased spillage.  The attention is so drawn to the stripping that the narrative is second thought.  Later, when Veronica Carlson is seduced by Dracula, her Victorian doll falls from her bed, awkwardly symbolizing the loss of innocence.

As superb as Christopher Lee is in his role as the Count, Peter Cushing is the quintessential Continue reading THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) AND DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

There is a scene in each of Terence Fisher’s trilogy of vampire films—Horror of Dracula (1958),  Brides of Dracula (1960), and Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—in which a wise and devout man releases a vampire from the pains of immortal existence. In the Horror of Dracula, Van Helsing releases Lucy, much to the relief of her brother Arthur.  Arthur smiles as he sees the beauty of innocence restored to his sister.   In Prince, Fr. Sandor releases Helen from the curse, as her brother-in-law, Charles, smiles upon witnessing the peace that finally envelops the troubled Helen.   In Brides of Dracula, Van Helsing, introduced as a doctor of philosophy and theology, releases vampire Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), at her own request.  After being staked, the Baroness shows a touch of a smile.

Still from Brides of Dracula (1960)For the first (and best) sequel to Horror of Dracula, Fisher and the writing team (which included an uncredited Anthony Hinds, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Pearcy) chose a disciple of Dracula, in the person of Baron Meinster (David Peel), as the antagonist rather than the Count himself.  The Baron is blond, pretty, manipulative, charming, and genuinely menacing.  Luckily, Peel fits the bill, although by general consensus he is no Christopher Lee.  Still, he is refreshingly different.  Such a choice allowed the production imaginative freedom and innovation.  The resulting film is inordinately elegant,  poetic and seething with atmosphere.

Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to start a job at a girl’s school when she is stranded at a local inn.  The Baroness Meinster arrives and offers to put Marianne up for the night at her castle.  The locals , well aware of the Baroness’ motives, attempt to to keep Marianne from accepting the invitation, to no avail.   Marianne is introduced to the Baroness’ imperious maid, Greta (Freda Jackson), and discovers that the Baroness’ son, the Baron Meinster, is a shackled prisoner in the castle.  The Baroness’ plan to feed Marianne to her son is upset when her guest releases the Baron from his chains of bondage.

Marianne flees the castle, confused and frightened, unaware that she has set a vampire free.  Peter Cushing‘s  Van Helsing, ever the father figure, discovers  her in the woods, takes her to the school, and, after hearing Mariann’s story, knows that his crusade to rid the world of vampires is far from finished.

Jackson, as Greta, is one of several acting delights here.  She cackles and theatrically waxes poetic.  She hams it up in several scenes, most notably one in which she assists a vampire’s attempt to resurrect himself directly through the soil.  Equally good is Martita Hunt (best known for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations-1946) who becomes her son’s Oedipal victim.  Miles Malleson also does a charming turn in the role of the alcoholic Dr. Tobler.  Cushing, as usual, conveys self-assured, icy precision in a part that  he seems  born to play.  Peel’s Baron puts the bite on Helsing and, in a blood-red, thrilling scene, the Doctor plants a burning iron to his own throat to cauterize the wound.  Cushing masters the scene in his inimitable way.

However, Monlaur, as Marianne, is merely decorative and, consequently, bland, which is a serious defect in the film.  Another glaring flaw is in the some slipshod writing (the result of too many hands in the pot, no doubt).  A compelling, eerie henchman character appears and is ingloriously dropped.  Van Helsing’s appearance is far too convenient and contrived.  A cheesy flying bat is a major distraction.  Despite  the flaws, however, Fisher’s enthusiastic direction is contagious; aided , in no small part, by lavish art direction and camera work.  The finale, at a windmill, is sumptuous and visually exciting.

Unfortunately, there would only be one more good film in the series; Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  After that, the series was pretty much turned over to the hacks and it did not take long at all for the rot to set in.

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

Terence Fisher never considered himself a “horror” filmmaker, and he clearly disliked the term.  While a number of Fisher’s film could be apt examples to drive home his point that he was more than a mere scare merchant, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) will suffice quite nicely. This is a quite literary film, far better than either of Universal Studio’s versions of The Wolfman (1941 & 2010).

Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds (loosely adapting Guy Endor’s novel) weave a narrative tragedy through folklore, mythology, religious metaphor, and character revelation.  The symbols of class struggle ebb throughout the film, beginning in 18th century Catholic Spain.  A beggar is imprisoned in the dungeon by the powerful and callous Marques (Anthony Dawson).  Naturally, the beggar is forgotten about, cared for only by the jailer and his mute daughter.  Years later, after her father’s death,  the now grown servant girl (Yvonne Romain)  tends the beggar.  While cleaning the aged Marques’ room, Romain rejects her master’s sexual advances and is imprisoned in the very same dungeon occupied by the beggar.  After resisting the brutal, savage passions of the Marques, the  girl is raped by the crazed and dying beggar for whom she has cared these many years.  In retaliation, once released, she stabs and kills the cruel Marques, fleeing into the woods where she is found, face up in the river, by  Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans), an empathetic patriarchal figure.

Still from Curse of the Werewolf (1961)Corledo’s servant Teresa (Hira Talfrey, who seems more like a wife than a servant) notices that their new guest is with child and dreads the thought of the baby being born on Christmas, which, according to her tradition, is an affront to God.  Dec 25th arrives and the child, Leon,  is tragically born to a dead mother, who is  finally released from the misery of a peasant life.

In a reversal of the Christ child’s dedication at the temple,  the local priest baptizes Leon, soliciting a storm from the heavens.   Even the baptismal water reacts to the sanctifying of this curse of birth. The water bubbles intensely and reflects the face of a gargoyle from above.  The motherly Teresa, the superstitious one, alone recognizes the sign, while the priest and Don Alfredo dismiss it.

Years later, the child Leon ventures out, tasting the sweet blood of a squirrel, killing lambs and goats.  By now Don Alfredo and the priest know that Leon suffers the curse of the werewolf and the priest warns that only love can relieve Leon from his affliction.  Surrogate parents Don Alfredo and Teresa supply that love to the boy, but as a man, Leon will need the true love of a woman, ala Beauty and the Beast, to harness the wolf.

Some reviewers have predictably commented that the first half of Curse is slow, yet it is in the first half that the narrative is uniquely compelling.  The film unfolds like a literary fairy tale.  Once the narrative takes the obligatory horror route, in the last quarter, with a gray-furred, Henry Hull-looking lycanthrope, it feels a bit recycled, complete with the beast, atop a cathedral,  being chased by the torch carrying mob.

Still, Oliver Reed is superb as the adult Leon, registering torment far more convincingly than either  Lon Chaney, Jr. or Benicio Del Toro.  Hira Talfrey  and, especially, Clifford Evans are equally accomplished as Leon’s concerned guardians.  There are genuinely effective moments of tingling suspense, such as Leon’s cornering an unfortunate prisoner in a cell.  Leon’s virtuous fiancee is his potential salvation, but the animal side of Leon emerges once he ventures out from his sanctuary into a hedonistic society; after which there is, literally, hell to pay.

Curse of the Werewolf is a fine example of a director who utilized a genre for his own aesthetic expression, much the same way that Rod Serling utilized science fiction for his own expressionist gain.