“Peter Cushing: 

Keeping Us In Stitches”


 Michael J. Arruda


The Frankenstein family vault.

Baron Victor Frankenstein has just completed the most ghastly of procedures: he has removed the brain of the recently deceased Professor Bernstein. He is seconds away from completing this crime, when he is discovered by his former friend and teacher, Paul Krempe.

“I thought I’d find you here,” Paul declares.

“That was very intelligent of you,” Victor replies sardonically.  “Now that you’ve found me, what do you want?”

“You killed the old man, didn’t you?  You killed him and now you’re mutilating his body!”  Paul accuses.

“Mutilating?  I’ve removed his brain.  Mutilating’s got nothing to do with it.”

“I can’t prove you murdered him.  But I can stop you from using his brain.”

“Why?  He has no further use for it!”

The scene is from The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).  The actors are Robert Urquhart as Paul and Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein, and the audience is chuckling.


Because Peter Cushing in his performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein has given the character such audacity that we in the audience cannot help but chuckle. 

  Does he have no shame, we ask?  We can’t believe it, he’s so bold.  We like this boldness and react to it by laughing when he basically tells Paul to “stop being such a ninny!”

Naysayers will claim that Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is only as funny as the lines in the script make him, but that’s not necessarily true.  The timing and delivery of those lines is key, and Peter Cushing is always on target.

As a result of Mr. Cushing’s complete mastery of the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein and the conviction with which he delivers his lines, he makes Frankenstein a three-dimensional being with both good points and bad, which prevent him from falling into the trap of becoming a cardboard villain.  Thus, we buy into Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein completely, and subsequently marvel at his boldness and laugh at his insults.  As much as he is responsible for transplanting the hearts of others, he’s also responsible for winning our own.

And Victor Frankenstein isn’t the only Cushing character to win us over so thoroughly.  Peter Cushing gave all his screen characters depth, and as a result, humor.  Therefore, although he has frightened us with his performances as the diabolical Baron Frankenstein and other villains, and although he has made us cheer when he’s defeated evildoers and monsters, he’s also made us laugh.

Quite often, as a matter of fact.  Do the naysayers still not believe?  Well, even the best of fans may have forgotten how many times Peter Cushing’s characters have made us chuckle, smile, and flat out guffaw.

Come with me now as we examine some of Peter Cushing’s funnier moments on screen, all of them, by the way, in horror films.

In Horror of Dracula (1958), as Dr. Van Helsing, he is dictating into his Dictaphone when the hotel porter (Geoffrey Bayldon) enters the room.  Van Helsing hands the porter a message, who upon receiving it stands there, staring at his surroundings, apparently dumbfounded.

“Anything the matter?  What is it?”  Van Helsing asks.

“Well, sir, to tell you the truth, when I was outside, I thought I heard you talking to someone.”

“Of course you did.  I was talking to myself!”

The man cowers and excuses himself, and as he leaves the room we see an ever so slight smile on Van Helsing’s face, revealing that he knows full well the implications of what he has just said.  He may be the hero of the movie, but he’s not above having a little fun at someone else’s expense! 

When Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee board the Horror Express (1972), they discover an alien life form that is preying upon the passengers.  Cushing portrays Dr. Wells, a scientist, who finds himself having to work with his old colleague and rival Professor Alexander Saxton (Lee), to battle the alien menace.

At one point, the police request that Wells examine one of the dead victims.  The doctor excuses himself from his dinner table and seeks out his female assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinhart) in the dining car. 

“Miss Jones, I shall need your assistance.”

Miss Jones glances at the lovely young woman with whom Dr. Wells had just been dining.

“At your age, I’m not surprised!”  she quips.

Wells’ eyes widen in embarrassment.  “With the autopsy!”

In Night Creatures (1962), Peter Cushing plays Dr. Blyss, the seemingly pious vicar of the seemingly peaceful village of Dymchurch.  However, all is not what it seems.  Dr. Blyss is really Captain Clegg, the notorious pirate, and Dymchurch is seething with smugglers and pirates, led by none other than Blyss himself.  The smugglers act under the guise of the “Marsh Phantoms,” ghastly skeletal creatures that frighten away all those who may harbor suspicions.

Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) leads a troop of soldiers into Dymchurch to search for the elusive smugglers.  After a botched raid attempt, they spy a scarecrow in the distance moving, and they realize it is a man, the lookout who had warned the smugglers of their approach.  They shoot the “scarecrow,” hitting him in the wrist, but the man still manages to escape.

The next morning, Collier pays a visit to Dr. Blyss, who he strongly suspects is involved.

Collier latches onto Blyss’s wrist, and the vicar flinches.  Collier smiles, uncovers the wrist and is both disappointed and shocked not to see a wound.

“Why did you flinch when I touched your arm?”  Collier asks angrily.

“It wasn’t my arm, Captain.  You trod on my foot!”

On the Island of Terror (1966), strange turtle-like creatures with snake-like appendages slither about attacking innocent victims, devouring their bones!  To the rescue come a bone specialist, Dr. West (Edward Judd), and a pathologist, Dr. Stanley (Peter Cushing). Together, they discover that the creatures are the result of cancer research gone awry.  Organisms that were created to devour cancer cells have mutated into aggressive hungry monsters in search of human bone.

Peter Cushing’s performance as Dr. Stanley is filled with light moments that make watching him in this movie an absolute delight.  Whereas Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing always seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, Dr. Stanley has no such burden--- at least not until he encounters the deadly cancer creatures!

In fact, Dr. Stanley is quite the lighthearted fellow, who’s quick with a quip and a joke.  When one of the murderous creatures just misses him with its appendage, the doctor remarks, “Nasty little fellows, aren’t they?”

Later, after Dr. West uses an axe to amputate Stanley’s hand in order to save his life, in a rather gruesome scene even for today’s standards, Stanley still finds room for humor.  When West jokes for his friend to “shut up,” Stanley replies good-naturedly, “Watch it boy, or I’ll sue you for malpractice.”   

Of course, sometimes Peter Cushing made us laugh when his character wasn’t even trying.  He’d be at his most ruthless, and he’d deliver a line so effectively cold that we in the audience could do nothing but laugh. 

Take Star Wars (1977) for example.  The imprisoned Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is led by Darth Vader (David “the body” Prowse  and James “the voice” Earl Jones) to meet his boss, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing).

Upon seeing Tarkin for the first time, the princess scoffs, “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash.  I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”

Tarkin half grins, producing that slight look of contempt which Cushing mastered so well in his portrayals of Baron Frankenstein, and he replies snidely, “Charming--- to the last.”

It’s a great little moment, one of Cushing’s best in the film.

Although Peter Cushing was often blessed with some classic lines of humor in his many fine roles, quite often it was his actions and expressions which made us chuckle.

In Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), as the modern day descendant of Dr. Van Helsing, Cushing’s character encounters more of a struggle understanding the lifestyle of his  granddaughter (Stephanie Beacham) than he does battling the revived Dracula (Christopher Lee).

“Grandfather, look, if it makes you feel any better, I’ll admit something to you.  I’ve never dropped acid, I’m not shooting up, and I’m not sleeping with anybody just yet.  The full extent of my wild ways stretches to half a pint of lager now and again,” Jessica Van Helsing confesses to her grandfather, apparently trying to ease his fears regarding her lifestyle.

Although the concept of a generation gap between Lorrimer Van Helsing and his granddaughter is sad, the vampire hunter’s reaction to this brash announcement is not.  His  expression is one of discomfort that his granddaughter is speaking to him so openly of these things.  You can almost hear his thoughts: “Give me a vampire, and I’ll drive a stake through his heart, but this?--- Heaven help me with this!

When Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes first arrives at Baskerville Hall in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958), he is led to his room by Dr. Watson  (Andre Morell).  It’s nearly a hoot watching these two characters traverse the hallways of Baskerville Hall, with the impatient Holmes pointing to wrong bedroom doors, and Watson grunting, “No, this way,” as he literally must direct his friend towards his room.

Later in the film, Holmes is investigating an abandoned mine shaft with the unsavory Dr. Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) and the suspicious Mr. Stapleton (Ewen Solon), when a railroad car smashes into a support, caving in the roof and trapping Holmes inside the mine.

The rescue efforts seem futile, a situation both Dr. Mortimer and Mr. Stapleton don’t seem to mind.

“You must resign yourself to the fact that there’s not the slightest hope he’s still alive,” Mortimer tells Watson.

Of course, Watson refuses to give up hope and declares, “There’s still a chance.”

“A very good chance,” calls Holmes’ voice.  The men are shocked to see Holmes sitting inside their horse drawn carriage.  “I’ve been sitting here for the last ten minutes waiting for you.”

Watson is overjoyed.  “Holmes!  Thank heaven your safe!”

Holmes smiles and adds, “Most gratified!  Now, when the general applause has died down, I wonder if we could get back to the hall.  I’ve hurt my leg, I’m cold, and I’m hungry.”

It’s a wonderful moment in the film, one that has audience members shaking their heads and smiling alongside the jubilant Dr. Watson.

On the subject of jubilation, in the first few moments of the movie She (1965), Peter Cushing’s Major Horace L. Holly gets to strut his stuff on the dance floor!  Yes, Peter Cushing dances! 

Surrounded by beautiful women, Major Holly and his friend Job (Bernard Cribbins) partake in a belly dance that makes for a rip-roaring fun scene, one that’s not to be missed by Peter Cushing fans!

Ironically, it was in his most diabolical role that Peter Cushing most often made us laugh.  The role, of course, is Baron Victor Frankenstein.

Each film in the series contains a handful of enjoyable scenes in which Peter Cushing somehow manages while portraying this manipulative unscrupulous egotist to evoke humor.              Even in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) where he portrays the Baron at his absolute most villainous, there are times when he makes us chuckle.

While the Baron (incognito, of course) is busily working on some correspondence, he can’t help but overhear his fellow residents discussing the “evils” of the experimentations of Drs. Brandt and Frankenstein.

“The devil’s disciples, the pair of them!”  one of the men accuses.

Unable to take anymore, the Baron turns around to face the four gentlemen.

“Excuse me?  I didn’t know that you were doctors?”

“Doctors?  We’re not doctors!”

“I beg your pardon.  I thought you knew what you were talking about.”

The second film in the Frankenstein series, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), is chock-full of humor.  Making his first appearance after he has escaped from the guillotine, the Baron emerges from a shadowy corner of the prison graveyard and declares to grave robber Fritz (Lionel Jeffries), “Good evening!  I am Baron Frankenstein!”

Fritz clutches his heart and collapses, falling backwards into the newly opened grave.  The Baron leaps in after him, checks his pulse, and upon discovering that the man is dead, glances up at his new partner, Karl (Oscar Quitak) and shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, “At least he landed in the right place.”

Using the alias Dr. Stein, Baron Frankenstein sets up a new practice in the town of Carlsbruck.  It is here that he treats young Vera (Anna Walmsley), under the watchful eye of her mother, the Countess (Margery Cresley).

Dr. Stein cannot find anything wrong with Vera and suggests that there’s nothing more he can do for her, but the Countess disagrees, saying there’s a great deal he can do for her.  He’s a man, and Vera needs a husband. Stein is not impressed but continues with the examination anyway.  As he prepares to listen to Vera’s heart, he produces a crude version of a stethoscope.

Vera recoils, “You always used your ear before.”

“I still use my ear.  This just magnifies the sound,” Stein replies.

“Oh mama, it’s so cold!”

“Stand still.  Now breathe deeply,” Stein instructs.

“I can’t breathe.  That thing’s so cold!”  Vera pouts.

“Can you hear the palpitations with that?  Wouldn’t it be better if you used your ear?”  the Countess asks pompously.

Dr. Stein huffs to himself, puts away the stethoscope, and rolls his eyes as he places his ear on the smiling young Vera’s heaving bosom! 

When Dr. Stein is visited by three members of the medical council, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), Dr. Bergman (John Welsh) and the president of the council (Charles Lloyd Pack), he is as flippant as ever.

“Well?  What can I do for you?”  Stein asks while examining a patient, refusing even to make eye contact with his visitors.

“I am the president of the medical council.”


“At our last meeting it was agreed that you should become a member.”

“Really?  I am greatly honored, gentlemen.”

“Then you accept?”


Stein is just as brash with his patients at the poor hospital, whose body parts he uses for his new creation.

“You must have it off,” he declares, examining his patient’s arm.

“Have what off?” asks the patient, who only moments before had been telling the old man in the bed next to him that he’d strangle Stein before he allowed him to cut up his body.

“This arm.”

“You’ll have to strangle him with one arm, Harry!” says the old man in the adjacent bed.

“He ain’t gonna have my arm off, that’s for sure.”

“If you’d rather die, it’s up to you,” Stein warns.

“Let him have it, Harry,” implores the old man.

“I won’t be able to work no more!”  the patient complains.

Stein turns to his assistant. “What is his work?”

“Pickpocket!”  the assistant replies.

“You’ll have to find another trade,” Stein says, “or use the other hand.”

Later, after Stein and his new assistant, the young doctor Hans Kleve, have successfully transplanted Karl’s brain from his old deformed body into a healthy normal body, Hans makes a troublesome realization.  Dr. Stein had transplanted the brain of an orangutan into Otto, the lab chimpanzee.  Otto is a flesh eater, and Hans realizes that monkeys don’t eat meat.  Something was wrong.

“Did Otto eat flesh before you operated?”  Hans inquires.

“No,” Stein replies unphased by Hans’ apprehensions.  “I discovered it soon after the operation.  He ate his wife.”

“Ate another monkey?”  Hans asks in shock.

“What else would he be married to!”

The third film in the series, The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), is also graced with light touches.

In a scene that is outright funny, an angry Baron Frankenstein bursts into the room of the burgomaster (David Hutcheson) when he realizes the official has confiscated many of his personal belongings from his abandoned home.

“I’ve come for my property, burgomaster.  My ring, for instance!  My chairs, my desk, my carpet,” the Baron shouts as he pops his head into the man’s bedroom, spying his buxom wife waiting for him in bed.  “Even my bed!”

As he ruffles through the official’s closet, “My clothes!  Convenient for you that we’re both the same size!”

“You have no right to be in this town, let alone in my house!  Your property was confiscated!”  the burgomaster defends himself.

“Confiscated?  Stolen!”

Suddenly, the burgomaster’s wife begins screaming hysterically.

The Baron promptly turns to her and commands, “Be quiet woman!”  and slams the door in her face!

Moments later, as the police converge on the scene, the Baron locks himself in the bedroom with the burgomaster’s wife.  Using the bed sheets, the Baron ties himself a long line, while the wife watches him with admiration.  Just before he climbs over the balcony, he glances at the woman and utters a cool, “Good night.”

He then escapes into the night just as the police burst through the door!

Some critics have complained that this scene is out of place, that it borders on the ridiculous, and that the script is unsuccessfully attempting to turn Baron Frankenstein into a James Bond type of character.  However, taken for what it is, comic relief, the scene is a natural progression of the narrative, and Cushing’s Baron is reacting the same way he would have reacted had the scene taken place in any other of the “Frankenstein” films.  His performance, as it is throughout the series, is consistent, making it the one constant that holds the series together.

Later in the film, when the Baron and Hans (Sandor Eles) revive the Creature (Kiwi Kingston), they are unable to stimulate his brain.

Hans suggests, “Perhaps some sort of physical shock?”

The Baron retorts, “I’ve just passed the full force of a bolt of lightning through his skull, Hans!  Isn’t that shock enough!”

The solution, the Baron decides, is a shock of a more mental nature, and he seeks out the help of a carnival hypnotist, the great Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe).

Zoltan hesitates, concerned that he’ll be arrested if he lingers around town any longer, since he has been evicted for performing his act without a license.  The Baron assures him there’ll be plenty of time for him to leave if he fails.

“Fail?  Me, fail?  There isn’t a man born of woman that I can’t put under!”  Zoltan boasts.

“Then this experiment should prove very interesting!”  the Baron quips.

When the Baron brings Zoltan to his Creature, he assures the hypnotist, “He has a good brain and excellent eyes.  I won’t tell you where I got them, but I can assure you they’re perfect!”

In Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), the Baron is called into court as a witness in a murder trial in which his young assistant Hans (Robert Morris) has been falsely accused of the crime.  His verbal sparring with the prosecutor is topnotch and extremely memorable.

“You are Baron Victor Frankenstein?”

“I am.”

“And what is your occupation?”

“I am a busy man.  Your Honor, is this really necessary?”

“Please answer the question,” the judge orders.

“Your occupation?”  the prosecutor repeats.

“I am a doctor.”

“Of medicine?”

“Of medicine, law, and physics.”

“And of witchcraft!” remarks one of the men in the audience, in fact one of the three men who actually committed the murder.

“To the best of my knowledge,” the Baron replies to the man, “doctorates are not awarded for witchcraft, but if ever they are, no doubt I should qualify.”

Some of Peter Cushing’s best scenes in  Frankenstein Created Woman are with Thorley Walters, who plays his sometimes daft assistant, Dr. Hertz.  The two men share a warm enjoyable camaraderie not seen in any other relationship in the Frankenstein series.  In fact, other than Holmes and Watson, there may not be a more enjoyable pair to watch on screen in a Peter Cushing movie than Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Hertz.

“Good evening, gentlemen!  Are you having a party?” the Baron asks the three young men who had just been bested by Hans in a restaurant brawl, as he and Dr. Hertz enter for dinner. 

“What have you done here?”  the Baron asks, examining the head wound of one of the injured men.  “You should have that attended to.”

“I’ll be alright.”

“On the contrary, without immediate attention, it could develop into something quite unpleasant.  What do you think, doctor?”  the Baron inquires, turning to Dr. Hertz.

“Very nasty,” Hertz comments.

“Hmm,” the Baron continues, “I’m sure Dr. Hertz would render first aid--- for a small charge.”

“How much?”  the wounded man inquires.

“His normal fee would be ten crowns, but since this is an emergency, and he has a charitable disposition, perhaps I can persuade him to do it, for five?”

“Payable in advance!”  Hertz completes the deal.

In the final film of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973), although the Baron is portrayed by Peter Cushing as being in his waning years, very close to senility, he still has not lost his verbal edge over those around him.

This time around, the Baron is hiding inside an asylum under the alias of Dr. Victor, using the hospital’s mental patients for his experiments.  Needing the brain of a brilliant professor (Charles Lloyd-Pack), Dr. Victor leaves a note for the professor to find declaring that his condition is incurable.  The professor is devastated and hangs himself, thus allowing Dr. Victor free access to his brain.

The Baron’s newest young assistant, Dr. Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is outraged at Dr. Victor’s actions and promptly reprimands his mentor.

“You’ve written ‘incurable’ and deliberately left it for him to see!”

Dr. Victor huffs exasperatedly and replies, “I was unable to cure him.  Could you?  Could you have cured him?”

“Of course I couldn’t.”

“Then he was incurable!”  Dr. Victor justifies himself.

Cold, calculating, perhaps even insane, but humorous nonetheless.

Throughout his many performances over the years, Peter Cushing has entertained us thoroughly.  He’s best remembered both for frightening us and for making us cheer when evil monsters have fallen by his hand, but it also should not be forgotten how often, even in his most villainous roles, he made us laugh and chuckle and shake our heads in affectionate disbelief. 

Which is half the reason why, like revisiting an old dear relative, we continually watch him on screen over and over again.