“Peter Cushing:

 Hero and Villain Extraordinaire”

By Michael Arruda

                    What makes Peter Cushing, the actor, so memorable, so popular, so enjoyable?  The immediate and most obvious answer is that he is a great actor, pure and simple.  Had Mr. Cushing chosen not to make horror films and instead concentrate on other more “serious” roles, he would have been just as successful, if not more so.

Take a look at the biggest names in the history of horror cinema.  Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney (Sr. and Jr.), Price, Lee, and Cushing.  Each of these actors, with the exception of Price and Cushing, is most famous for his portrayal of a monster.  But even Vincent Price, whose fame is more closely associated with Edgar Allan Poe tales,  is fondly remembered for portraying such “monsters” as Dr. Phibes, the disfigured villain from House of Wax, and the Invisible Man.

            Peter Cushing, however, achieved superstar status for his portrayals of Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula.  The fact that Mr. Cushing became internationally famous in horror films not playing a monster is an impressive feat that shouldn’t be taken for granted. 

    Compare Cushing’s portrayals with the actors who played these roles in the Universal Studios originals.  Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein and Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing.  Not that there’s anything wrong with these able actors’ performances, but neither of these men went on to horror superstardom because of these roles.  Granted, Jimmy Sangster’s scripts gave more depth to these characters than their Universal counterparts, but had Peter Cushing starred in the Boris Karloff Frankenstein, he assuredly would have done a heck of a lot more with the script than Colin Clive! (talk about a horror fan’s fantasy: imagine for a moment Cushing’s Baron in the same movie as Karloff’s monster!  Wow!  Just the potential for physical confrontation between the two would have made for unforgettable cinema!). 

A topnotch actor who was able to deliver superb performances on a consistent basis, Peter Cushing also had range.  He could play both the hero and the villain with ease.

            Who else in the field can we say that about?  Karloff, Lugosi, Price, Lee, they all excelled as villains.  But as heroes?  They were okay, but they were hardly memorable.  Only Peter Cushing mastered both sides of the coin.


How was Peter Cushing able to switch back and forth between hero and villain so often, so successfully?

To find the answer, we shall examine two of his most famous portrayals, Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing, the two roles which best exemplify Peter Cushing’s success.

There are several distinctive characteristics present in nearly all Mr. Cushing’s performances, traits which audiences grew to expect and enjoy:  his athleticism, his use of props, his gentleness, and most of all, his authoritative manner.  Whether good or evil, when Peter Cushing’s characters were on the screen, they generally meant business! 

In the first 20 minutes of Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee terrifies the audience with his violent, shocking portrayal of Count Dracula.  Like Jonathan Harker in the movie, we in the audience are trembling with fear, it’s that scary a performance!  Enter Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.

The frightened villagers tell him go away.  “We didn’t ask for any help!” 

“You need it all the same,” Van Helsing replies with a calm confidence that immediately eases our fears.

Here is a man, Van Helsing, who knows how powerful an evil force is Dracula, yet he continues his pursuit undaunted.  He makes us believe that perhaps Dracula can be stopped. 

It’s a phenomenal performance on Cushing’s part.  In most horror movies, the heroes tend to be wooden, boring characters, while the monsters and villains tend to be the most interesting and dynamic.  Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula changed all that. 

Gently examining the bite wounds on Lucy’s neck, he calmly assures her,  “We’ll soon have you well again.”  But moments later, when he instructs Mina to place garlic flowers inside Lucy’s bedroom and close all the windows, he raises a firm finger to her face and warns authoritatively, “If you don’t, she will die!”

There’s an edge to Cushing’s heroes which makes them extremely palatable.  In the case of Van Helsing, his quest to hunt Dracula is not based on a personal obsession but on the need to save others.  Cushing as Van Helsing never gives you the feeling that what he is doing, driving a wooden stake through a young woman’s heart, for example, is wrong; on the contrary, he convinces you that unless he is successful, the entire world will suffer.  Cushing’s Van Helsing is more akin to Churchill and Roosevelt than Captain Ahab.

Thus, when a teary-eyed Gerta explains that she removed the garlic flowers from Lucy’s bedroom, resulting in Lucy’s death, and Van Helsing’s face resonates with anger, we don’t think him a tyrant, but a caring physician who has just lost a patient.  We are sympathetic to his anger because we understand the gravity of Gerta’s error.  Cushing has made us understand. 

When the vampiric Lucy attempts to sink her fangs into Arthur Holmwood’s neck, Van Helsing intervenes, mercilessly pressing a crucifix against her forehead.  The cross burns its impression into her flesh.

As Lucy retreats to the safety of her crypt, Van Helsing approaches another of the vampire’s intended victims, Tanya.  He wraps the little girl in his overcoat.

“You look like a little teddy bear, now,” he says warmly.    Pointing to the horizon, he adds gently, “If you watch over there, you’ll see the sun come up!”

The birds are singing, welcoming the dawn, but the horror is not yet over.  Inside the crypt, Van Helsing informs Holmwood that Lucy is a vampire and must be destroyed by driving a wooden stake through her heart.  In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Van Helsing brutally drives the stake into Lucy’s chest.  Moments later, he beckons the sickened Arthur to look at his sister.  Holmwood peers into the coffin to see Lucy more beautiful than ever; her soul released from Dracula’s curse. 

This is a great sequence in the film, one that effectively highlights the range of Peter Cushing.

The conclusion to Dracula provides an excellent opportunity in which to view Mr. Cushing’s athleticism.  When Van Helsing realizes that Dracula is hiding in the Holmwood basement, he doesn’t walk to the cellar.  He races! Charging down the stairs, ripping the lid off  Dracula’s coffin, finding it empty.

            When Dracula bursts through the cellar door a moment later, it is the first time in the film that the two protagonists have laid eyes on each other.  Interestingly enough, it is Dracula who retreats, locking Van Helsing in the cellar.

            The doctor pounds on the door for Holmwood, who quickly arrives and rescues Van Helsing.  Gerta screams from upstairs, and Van Helsing leaps over the bannister rather than running around to the steps.  This memorable action was suggested to director Terence Fisher by Cushing himself.  And there are no stunt men here; it’s Peter Cushing doing the leaping and running.

Van Helsing and Holmwood chase Dracula and Mina back to the vampire’s castle, and once there, Van Helsing pursues the vampire king inside.  In the film’s final minutes, we finally get the physical confrontation we’ve been waiting for.  Dracula hurls a candlestick towards Van Helsing, and as the doctor ducks out of the way, the vampire grabs him by the throat and pins him down, preparing to bite him on the neck.  Van Helsing feigns unconsciousness, and Dracula eases his grip.  Van Helsing takes advantage and shoves the vampire away, but there’s no where to run.  Apparently cornered by Dracula, Van Helsing jumps onto a table, runs across it, and leaps into the air, ripping the curtains from the window, showering the room with sunlight.  He then grabs two candlesticks, placing them in the form of a cross, and forces Dracula into the sunlight where he crumbles into dust.

Far and away, the most memorable conclusion to any vampire film.

            The use of the two candlesticks for a cross rather than a plain crucifix was also suggested by Cushing to director Fisher, a clear demonstration of Cushing’s knack for using props.

            Peter Cushing reprised the role of Dr. Van Helsing in The Brides of Dracula (1960), this time matching wits against the vampiric Baron Meinster (David Peel).  The finale of this movie, although not quite as memorable as the finale of Dracula, does contain a better fight scene, as the vampire and the doctor duke it out in a windmill.

Of course, the most memorable aspect of this scene is that Baron Meinster actually bites Van Helsing!  The doctor then uses a hot poker to burn the bite from his neck, splashing it with holy water, completely healing himself of the vampire’s disease! 

Cushing’s scenes with Yvonne Monlaur highlight both his gentleness and authoritative nature.  When he first finds her unconscious in the woods, he warmly assures her that she has nothing to fear.  “I’m a doctor.  Dr. Van Helsing.”

Later, when he tells her that her fiancé Baron Meinster is really a vampire, he demands she reveal to him his whereabouts, grabbing her by the shoulders and urging gruffly, “Marianne, tell me!”  And of course she does, and our hero finds the vampire and destroys him.

            Twelve years after The Brides of Dracula, Peter Cushing returned to his role as Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula A.D. 1972.  A flop upon its release, it fairs better today, if you look at it as a period piece from the 70s, and if you overlook the rock band Stoneground’s ten minute performance scene immediately after the credits; but even that grows funnier and more tolerable with time.

            Even though Mr. Cushing wasn’t getting any younger, he still brought with him his signature athleticism to the role of Van Helsing.  His confrontation with young Johnny Alucard is a good example.  During a physical struggle in which the younger Alucard is getting the better of Van Helsing, the vampire hunter sees a sliver of sunlight coming through the window.  Grabbing a hand held mirror, he uses it to direct the light into Alucard’s face.  Very clever.  Very memorable.  The use of the mirror produces a far more lasting image than had Van Helsing simply opened the curtains.  It’s little things like this that audiences notice, enjoy, and remember about Peter Cushing.  It’s what makes them want to see the actor again and again.  Simply put, Cushing’s never boring!

Some of Cushing’s best scenes in Dracula A.D. 1972 are with Stephanie Beacham, who plays his granddaughter Jessica in the film.  Desperately trying to understand his granddaughter’s “hip” lifestyle, Van Helsing struggles to reach her, both before and after Dracula becomes involved.  When Jessica awakes from a Dracula-induced nightmare, Van Helsing consoles her, telling her that everything’s going to be alright, assuring her repeatedly that she’s “awake now.”  It’s Cushing at his gentle best.

            His scenes with Police Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) are also topnotch.  In particular, the scene in which he tries to convince the inspector that Dracula and vampires exist.  His sequence of lines finishing with “But there are dark corners and horrors almost impossible to imagine, even in our worst nightmares, there is a Satan,” are arguably Van Helsing’s finest of the entire series.  The most impressive aspect of this scene is that Cushing’s Van Helsing confronts a  modern day “facts only” police inspector and successfully convinces him that vampires exist, and in doing so, convinces the audience as well!

            The pre-credit fight sequence between Van Helsing and Dracula (Christopher Lee) is good enough to be the ending of most vampire films, yet it’s just the beginning of this one.  Thus, one could argue that Dracula A. D. 1972 gets off to the best start of any film in the series.

In the film’s finale, Van Helsing calls to Dracula and says, “look upon me and remember!” and we see a flashback of the opening fight sequence, but what we really see, not on film but in our minds, is the climactic confrontation from Dracula.  There is a history here, which makes this scene all the more powerful.

Peter Cushing would play Dr. Van Helsing two more times, with Christopher Lee in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) and without Lee in Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973).  Both films contain the usual standout performance by Mr. Cushing.

While Peter Cushing mastered the role of cinematic hero with his portrayals of Dr. Van Helsing, it was his performance as a villain that first catapulted him to horror film superstardom.  The villain, of course, was Baron Victor Frankenstein, and the film, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). 

        It is in The Curse of Frankenstein that Peter Cushing delivers his finest film performance.  In nearly every scene, he does something special.

        Pushing Paul’s (Robert Urquhart) hand away from the little dog just before it comes back to life, as if to say, “don’t mess it up!;” gently touching Elizabeth’s (Hazel Court) chin as he responds to her request that she help him with his experiments with a sly “who knows my dear, perhaps you will, one day;” humming when he’s about to let Paul into the laboratory to show him the Creature’s face for the first time; the way he nervously tries to shield the dead professor’s brain from an intruder before he realizes it’s only Paul, and his demeanor immediately switches to one of confidence.  

It’s a performance that’s full of energy.  Mr. Cushing has fine support throughout by an able cast, but it is he and he alone who carries this movie.

The best scene in The Curse of Frankenstein nicely exhibits the talents of both its stars, Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Victor Frankenstein shows Paul that the Creature (Lee) is still alive, and then he tries to impress his former teacher with how much he has taught the Creature, issuing such commands as “Stand up” and “Sit down.”

“Is this your perfect physical being?  This animal!  Ask it a question of advanced physics!  It’s got a brain with a lifetime of knowledge behind it!  It should find it simple!”  Paul mocks Victor in disgust.

“Shall I tell you something, Paul,” Victor replies.  “I chose a brain, a brilliant one.  It was you who damaged it.  You who put a bullet in the wretched thing!  This is your fault, Paul!  But you won’t win.  ---If I can’t cure him with brain surgery, I’ll find another brain!  And another!  And another!”

            The tension is almost unbearable.  The anger of Paul Krempe vs. the spoiled schoolboy  intensity of Victor Frankenstein.  Cushing is so on target with his lines in this scene that you either find yourself believing him (yeah, more brain surgery, that would work!) or wishing Paul would hurry up and give him his comeuppance!

Of course, this scene is also the shining moment for Lee’s Creature.  For a monster that has done nothing in the movie but kill mercilessly, in this scene, thanks to Lee’s movements and facial expressions, the Creature evokes sympathy.  It looks ashamed, almost as if it’s begging Paul Krempe to once again shoot it and put it out of its misery.  A powerful scene.

            Despite Paul’s logical arguments to the contrary and the Creature’s pathetic behavior, Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein remains focused on his goal.  He will succeed.  He will stop at nothing, even if it means stealing countless more brains!  It is this intensity that Cushing brings with him in this performance that really wins over the audience.  There’s something appealing about this kind of dedication, even though it borders on the edge of insanity.  Cushing bestows on the Baron that intangible which every generation has a different word for; in short, Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein is cool.

In The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Cushing plays the Baron much more heroically and makes him less villainous than he was in Curse.  However, he doesn’t take the Baron’s edge away.

In a great scene, when he is first confronted by young Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), he listens as Hans begs to become his assistant.

            “I wonder if I can trust you?”  Victor asks, rising from the dinner table and lifting a large steak knife.  He wipes the sharp knife with a towel as he delivers his next line, “but uncertainty is one of life’s fascinations, isn’t it?” Hans’ eyes, as well as our own, are not on Baron Frankenstein: they’re on the knife!

Towards the end of the film, when Frankenstein and Hans are searching for Karl (the monster), Frankenstein questions Margaret Conrad (Eunice Gayson) about the last time she saw Karl, and he nearly twists her arm off in the process.  Can you imagine Colin Clive twisting a woman’s arm? 

Cushing portrays the Baron as even less villainous the third time around in The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), and he’s actually quite heroic in this picture.  It’s important to comment here that part of the reason for the Baron’s popularity is that he’s not a total villain.  As manipulative and cold as Baron Frankenstein can be, we in the audience still want to see him succeed.  Another testament to Peter Cushing’s fine acting.

When the Baron declares about his enemies, “I won’t let them beat me!”  we’re not rooting for his enemies.  We’re rooting for him!  Even though his creation is another monster.

In The Evil of Frankenstein, the monster (Kiwi Kingston) is a Boris Karloff clone that lumbers about and grunts a lot.  Although barely memorable, this monster does give Mr. Cushing plenty of opportunity to use his athleticism.  The Baron chases, leaps on, and actually tangles with this brutal creature, at one point utilizing a burning lamp to fend off the monster.

The Baron is as authoritarian as ever in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967).  When his assistant Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters, in a delightful performance) says he can ask the prison guard for the body of their soon-to-be-executed friend, the Baron lashes out, “Ask?  You don’t ask!  You demand!

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) is the one film where Peter Cushing plays the Baron as a complete villain.  This time around, he’s a blackmailer, rapist, and murderer.  Not a character you want to join for a chat!  Still, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the most suspenseful film in the series, and very enjoyable. 

            Yet how much more enjoyable it might have been had the Baron not been so evil.  Imagine if Frankenstein had not blackmailed Karl (Simon Ward) and Anna (Veronica Carlson) into helping him.  Imagine if instead he had offered to cure Anna’s sick mother in exchange for their assistance!  The villain in the movie could have come from elsewhere.  A  corrupt police inspector, perhaps, out to capture the Baron at all costs.  In this way, the audience would have been rooting for Frankenstein and Karl to succeed when they kidnap Dr. Brandt from the insane asylum.

Or perhaps Dr. Brandt himself, with his sanity restored, could have proven to be quite the vile character. But alas, it is the Baron who is more evil than ever.  The result is a solid performance by Peter Cushing, but one that is too cold to endear itself to audiences. 

            Director Terence Fisher was surprised by the lack of success of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.  Perhaps audiences weren’t prepared for this dark a Baron Frankenstein.  Granted, the Baron had never been a character you’d want as a role model for your children, but in this film he’s so much more aggressively villainous, it’s almost to the point of vulgarity.

            Peter Cushing returns to playing a more likeable Baron Frankenstein in the series’ last film, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973),  and thus he evokes more sympathy this time around.

However, he is still more villain than hero.  He tells his new young assistant flat out, “I’m not a murderer, Simon,” when in fact he is responsible for the death of the man in question.

But as he reminisces about his past failures, we in the audience find ourselves reminiscing with him, wishing with him for that ever elusive successful creation.

            Cushing adds a new element to this portrayal of the Baron, and it is fitting for a final performance.  Cushing plays the Baron with a hint of insanity, clueing the audience in that it may be time for him to retire.  Indeed, at the film’s conclusion, there is little doubt that the most recent failure with the “monster from hell” has unhinged the Baron’s mind, and as the end credits roll, we know we won’t be seeing any further adventures of this Baron.  His days in the laboratory are over.

A fitting ending for the Hammer Frankenstein series.


Just once it would have been nice had the writers allowed the Baron to succeed.


Peter Cushing instilled the villainous Baron Frankenstein with heroic qualities.  He gave the heroic Dr. Van Helsing a strength rooted in violence that made even Count Dracula retreat! 

            Perhaps this is the secret to Peter Cushing’s acting success.  How he was able to switch back and forth between hero and villain so effectively.  He played both of them, hero and villain, as complete persons.  His heroes weren’t untarnished and his villains weren’t completely despicable.  Even the evil Baron from Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed has some inspired moments, beaming, for instance, as he tells young Karl about his work, “We were seeking to preserve for all time, the great geniuses of the world.  When they die their brains are at the height of their creative power, and we bury them under the ground to rot!  Because the bodies that house them have worn out.  We hoped to remove their brains at the instant of death, thus preserving for posterity, all they contain!”

Peter Cushing gives us the whole person in his characterizations, and we identify with that wholeness.  His heroes are not wooden but exciting, and his villains are not shallow but complicated.

Whether he’s playing a valiant vampire hunter or a deadly surgeon obsessed with creating life, he gives a depth to these characters which makes them unforgettable.  It’s what makes us root for Baron Frankenstein.  It’s what fascinates us about Dr. Van Helsing.

It’s what makes us love Peter Cushing.


© 2001 Michael J. Arruda