Confessions of A Recent Peter Cushing Fan
By Gabriel Ricard
If I sat down and watched The Satanic Rites of Dracula today, having now seen movies like The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, I probably would've disliked it even more than when I actually saw it for the first time. It's not that it's an especially awful movie. The performances are good, and it starts off well enough, with the plot of Dracula wanting to destroy the entire world via super virus (always a solid bet for those looking to kill a bunch of people all at once) being fairly interesting at first glance. But it's still not a very good movie. What's more, it winds up being completely inappropriate, if you want to use it as a spring broad into the career of Peter Cushing.
But that was the case with me. The first Peter Cushing movie I saw, besides Star Wars, when I was four or so, was indeed The Satanic Rites of Dracula. It came packaged into one of those ten movie DVD box sets. It was the last title in the set that I watched, and I was in pretty good shape for it, as some of the other movies in the collection included the original Night of The Living Dead and the original House on Haunted Hill. And I knew who Christopher Lee was, having seen him in Star Wars: Episode II and The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring. So, I settled back and figured, from the stupid title, that I was in for a decent enough bad movie. I was familiar with the Hammer horror films, but only in reputation. I knew nothing about specific films the company had made, and I had never gotten around to seeing any of them. To be honest, there was no real interest on my part in it. To me, they seemed like the kind of horror movie that was long on dialouge and short on anything even resembling action. I don't mind that so much in other genres, but couldn't stand the idea something like that in a horror film. I felt strongly enough about this that I didn't even feel like giving them a chance.
Which, I admit now, is odd, since I considered myself, and still do, to be a relentless geek for horror films.
When the movie was over, I was rather disappointed. Dracula had logged, at best, ten minutes of real screen time, the scenes of vampires attacking people seemed tacked on, and the ending was just stupid. But as I got up to turn off the DVD player, I realized that it hadn't been all that bad. After all, I realized, that Peter Cushing guy was pretty good as Van Helsing. When I remembered that he had also been in Star Wars, I decided to look him up on the Internet Movie Database (which takes up much more of my life than I'm willing to admit). It was then I learned that Peter Cushing had been in a great number of the Hammer films, and had even played Van Helsing on a few other occasions. I noticed, with some interest, that he had also played Henry Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, and even Winston from Nineteen-Eighty-Four.
What the hell, I figured, remembering Cushing as the only real bright spot to The Santanic Rites of Dracula, it was time to give the Hammer films a shot.
Besides, I was running out of Italian horror films to watch. And I had long since seen everything the old favorites like Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead, and others could throw at me.
I wasn't sure where to begin, so I decided to just start at the beginning. I sought out copies of The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, and the The Hound of The Baskevilles. I still didn't think I'd get much of out of them, but felt that at the very least, I could see if Peter Cushing was any good, or if I had just been lucky with Star Wars and The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
It took me about fifteen minutes of watching The Hound of The Baskevilles, around the point where Holmes makes mention to a "Two pipe problem," to realize that I was wrong to the point where someone should've been nearby to slap the living hell out of me. Maybe draw some blood, too, just so I wouldn't ever dream of being so presumptious again. Because with any great bit of entertainment, whether it's a movie, a music album, a TV show, the goal is to knock you on your ass with whatever intent it's after. It can do that with subtley, or it can do that with an swift kick in the nuts. The Hound of the Baskervilles did this, in the greatest, most subtle way possible. I've learned over the years to appreciate the atmosphere of a film, and that was certainly one of the things I loved about it, but I think it was cast that really appealed to me. More specifically, focusing on the great cast, it was Peter Cushing that I found myself deriving the most pleasure from. I had never seen a Sherlock Holmes film, but I had read most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories. But that didn't matter, because at the end of the Peter's movie (and it is his movie, isn't it?), I made up my mind to not even try to watch someone else in the role. No one, I decided, would ever match up to Cushing, who fit the physical and mental image of Holmes in my mind perfectly.
Presumptious again? You bet. But I'm willing to take that road again, in a case like this.
And the other two Peter Cushing films I picked up? Perfect. Well, as close to perfect as a movie can be. And once again, the casting was phenominal. Christopher Lee deserves every bit of immortality, and has quickly become another top five favorite of mine (though I had considered myself a fan of his from the basis of his LOTR and Star Wars work alone). Michael Gough, who appeared in The Horror of Dracula, easily kicked ass in every scene he appeared in. He's another actor whose work I've enjoyed a great deal over the years, in movies like Batman (Michael Caine will never match up) and The Serpent and The Rainbow.
But again, both movies belong to Peter Cushing. Good or evil, he's the kind of guy you'd want on your side. In many ways, he was the definitive Lovecraft hero. Educated, driven, calm under almost all circumstances. Yes, he was afraid of the terrible things he was facing, but he wasn't about to let that deter him from his goals. Right down to the last frame, even when things have completely gone to hell, his character will be the one to try again. Sometimes, he'll make it, and sometimes, he'll fail miserably. No matter what happens, it's never boring, and it's never cut and dry. Both his victories and his defeats are almost always greeted with the possibility of the work not being quite complete.
Which, of course, opens the door up for sequels. Cushing did these, too. Reprising the roles of Sherlock Holmes, Henry Frankenstein, and Van Helsing numerous times. Even when the scripts were less than steller, you could count on Cushing to bring the same intensity to the character that he had brought in the first film. Unlike many of his collegues, brilliant as they may have been, there was never a case of going through the motions for Cushing. You never got the impression that he was just there to pick up a paycheque and keep his name afloat. Likewise, he never went into a potential disaster of a movie thinking that overacting would be the way to go, to make his performance stand out in a miserable production. Every performance, in spite of how little it may have offered, was taken seriously. It was a perfect example of an actor tackling the problem of typecasting head on, with energy and enthusiasm, rather than resisting it to the point of career damage, or acting as though such movies were really beneath them. Peter Cushing may have felt, like many others, that his range of talent wasn't given a full chance in some of his lesser films, but he wasn't about to use that as an excuse to let down the people who gave even the worst of his movies a chance. There was no serious ego in the man who played Henry Frankenstein every time the role came his way. If that's what people wanted to see him in, he probably figured, then so be it. He was happy to oblige. A fact that never fails to amaze me, because you just don't see that in very many well-known actors.
Which brings into us into another reason that I've come to consider myself one of Peter Cushing's biggest fans. I've had the chance to meet a fair number of entertainers, from Tori Amos, to Tom Savini, to Henry Rollins, and all of them were kind, easy-going people. Those who had a high level of appreciation for the people who support their work. And though I never had the true pleasure of meeting Peter, I have a feeling, from what I've read, that he would've surpassed them all. I've heard dozens of stories from people who have met him. Not one suggests the slightest bit of negativity. None of them tell of an actor, a world-famous celebrity, who didn't want to deal with his fans. Every single experience had a happy-ending.
Reading them only serves to make me wish that I had my own story to tell.
As it stand though, I will not have such a chance in this lifetime. The thought depresses me a bit, the way little things like that can depress me.
But it's not a complete loss. Like any great artist, Peter Cushing has left behind a wealth of material. Films, books, audio recordings, art work. All of it's there for a long look, and all of it provides insight, some more than others, into the life of a man who, almost to the point of disbelief on my end, never stopped giving. With the best part of that being that I still haven't seen or heard everything. A great deal of material remains before me, unexplored, waiting to bring out the best of what I look for in entertainment and, there's that word again, insight.
And it's good to know that even in these dark days of age, I can still find things to look forward to.
COPYRIGHT 2005 RICHARD