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Saturday, October 30, 2021

The 7 Best Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee Horror Film Collaborations

 "Any teams that are good on the marquee is a very good thing to have. It was just one of those things that came about. Christopher and I were always cast for these parts in Hammer pictures that we have become almost a team. I think now our names separately mean something but together they mean a great deal."--Peter Cushing in 1973.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were an integral part to the childhoods of millions of Monster Kids. One reason they touched so many with their frightfully fun horror films is they were the best of friends off-screen. The two British actors were often cast in the same movies, and frequently as co-stars, giving fans near two dozen enduring Horror and Fantasy features to relive again and again. This is the Magnificent Seven of their best movies among the 22 films they not only made together, but shared screen-time together; a sanguine seven covering their characters and how they varied from one film to the next.  Movies where they didn't interact in the same scenes--like in the bizarre SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970) and the top-tier classic THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971)--aren't included. There are also a quartet of pictures that aren't high caliber but worth seeing for one reason or other.

"My first meeting with Christopher Lee was in 1956 in his makeup as the Monster. So when he took it off at lunchtime I screamed my head off!"--Peter Cushing on Christopher Lee.

The first genre pairing of two of Horror's biggest stars has Cushing as a villain of epically evil proportions and Lee as the misshapen, pitiable monster. Peter's CURSE as the Mad Doctor would turn out to be an even bigger monster than the one he creates. The devilry of the mad doctor was the first of three films directed by Terence Fisher where Lee would play monsters that were either lethal ciphers of diabolical figures, or malevolence incarnate. 
The reveal of Lee's Frankenstein's Monster is on the same level of shock as the 1925 silent version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. That first interaction between the two actors is a classic moment in the film--with the Monster lifting his creator off the ground by the neck, choking the life out of him. Cushing's memorably exaggerated body language and facial expressions in perilous situations are unsurpassed. Meanwhile, Lee's murderously mime-like performance is as good as it gets for a walking pile of stitched body parts and rotting flesh. 
It's an amazing double act that, thankfully, was overwhelmingly successful--leading to more co-starring roles, and occasionally in diametrically opposing portrayals. Cushing would play the crazed scientist differently from one film to the next over the course of his six portrayals--sometimes in an almost heroic capacity like in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967); and, inventively enough, even playing his own creation in the closing moments of REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958). However, he would push immorality to its limits with his most cunningly degenerate depiction of Dr. Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1970).
"Our very first encounter began with me storming into his dressing-room and announcing in petulant tones, 'I haven’t got any lines!' He looked up, his mouth twitched, and he said dryly, 'You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.' It was a typical wry comment. I soon found Peter was the great perfectionist, who learned not only his own lines but everybody else’s as well. He had a gentle humor which made it quite impossible for anybody to be pompous in his company."--Christopher Lee on Peter Cushing.
Hammer Films terror-ific followup to their Frankenstein was an even bigger success. Lee was still the monster, but some major differences were apparent. Lee was no longer a reanimated corpse experimented on by a misguided scientist with a God complex. He was now Count Dracula, the king of the Undead and the embodiment of evil. Peter Cushing was Professor Van Helsing, the personification of good and the Godly, mixing science with the supernatural; and such a fantastic foil you believe the two played the roles against one another more than the three times they actually did.
Lee has a handful of lines in the movie, delivering them in a suave, gentlemanly manner. In his six other Hammer Dracula's, Lee either just snarled menacingly or spoke only a few words or just a line or two; that is till SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), when he got to talk more than all his previous outings combined--playing the role in a more calculatingly evil fashion and bearing an almost zombie-like pallor. Cushing, on the other hand, played Van Helsing like a scientific swashbuckler over the course of five films--three with his compadre Christopher Lee. 
With that said, 1958s DRACULA was another titanic pairing of Cushing/Lee that was quickly becoming the color equivalent to all those spooky B/W Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi double-acts of the 30s and 40s for Universal. The finale is the most animated of all the end duels with Lee's Dracula of the seven Hammer movies in which he starred as the Chief Bloodsucker. Usually he just chokes the hero, throws an object at him, then succumbs to whatever means of dispatch is scripted for that picture (a conveniently placed giant cross; running water; God himself). Both Lee and Cushing have an exciting chase and physical tussle before Dracula is exposed to sunlight, and down for the Count (till the next sequel).

3. THE MUMMY (1959)
The third time's the charm for Cushing and Lee, taking their Horror Tour to Egypt to dabble in Mummy lore. Like with DRACULA, Cushing is the protagonist and Lee the monster under heavy makeup as he was as Frankenstein's Monster. What's unique for this go-round is that Lee's Mummy is both fearsome and pitiable; and the script wraps elements of both his Frank Monster and King Vampire into a Tana Leaf infused mixed drink. 
Resurrected by a vengeful Egyptian after archeologists disturb a tomb, Lee's Mummy is the vessel of retribution. He's commanded to kill till he sees Cushing's wife, the reincarnated form of his lover; and he rebels as he had done thousands of years earlier. Unlike Universal's THE MUMMY (1932), Hammer's version is more closely aligned with the sequels to the iconic Karloff original in its ramped up screen time afforded its cadaverous mangler. Lee's Mummy also doesn't drag his feet, he stomps at a menacing pace to snuff the life from his intended victims.
One of the reasons this film is on this list is Lee is basically Jason Voorhees wrapped up in 2,000 year old cloth. Like his Franken-Monster, he has zero lines but exudes an enormous amount of brutality in just body language alone. He and Cushing have a brief, if wild altercation that leaves The Mummy unscathed, but with a few gaping holes in his dust-filled body. So you're getting the best of both previous movies with these two dynamic performers. Of their first three monster mashes, Cushing is at his most human and Lee at his most terrifying.

Alan Gibson's DRACULA AD 1972 (1972), benefits from a rousing opening, a satisfying finish, and an enthusiastic soundtrack by Mike Vickers; but fails to live up to its premise. How great would that have been to see Peter Cushing's Van Helsing chasing Christopher Lee's Dracula around modern day London? Instead, Dracula remains confined to a dilapidated church for the duration. The apartment encounter between Van Helsing and Johnny Alcucard (Christopher Neame) is the closest you get to Van Helsing battling a vampire in a modern setting. The opening scuffle a hundred years earlier in 1872 atop a carriage between Van Helsing and Dracula is exciting (even if it's mostly stuntmen during this sequence); and their meet-up in familiar surroundings at the finale is surprisingly bloody, if uneventful.
Things don't improve but somewhat worsen in its direct sequel, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973); with Alan Gibson returning to the directors chair. This one mixes a James Bond-style spy plot with horror and succeeds more at the former than the latter. Dracula doesn't show up till a little over 30 minutes into the movie; and keeps quiet till cramming an entire movie's worth of dialog into the last 30 minutes (even getting several more lines than he got in 1970s underrated SCARS OF DRACULA). By this point, just about everything can kill a vampire--making one wonder why anybody would be afraid of them. Dracula is killed off by first being incapacitated by a crown of thorns then abruptly staked by a fatigued Peter Cushing. If nothing else, both actors have a standout moment when Van Helsing confronts Dracula living(?) in his corporate high-rise office.

Cushing absolutely dominates as Sherlock Holmes while Christopher Lee is uncharacteristically reserved in a role modeled on a level of naivety that seems an odd choice for him. It's a refreshing change of pace, though, considering his preceding horror roles in which he carved a trio of memorably frightening personas for himself; making roles his own that were previously immortalized by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The two actors are in extremely fine form, too, sharing some noteworthy scenes together. 
One of the best of these is when Holmes insults Sir Henry Baskerville (Lee) by disparaging his choice of company for dinner with love interest Cecile Stapleton (Marla Landi). Holmes is intentionally rude to him, stating condescendingly that he should enjoy his visit to their hovel and lowly serving of rabbit pie! This is followed by Henry returning fire in a more polite, but stern fashion. 
An earlier highlight has Holmes whacking a tarantula on Henry's shoulder before energetically squashing it underfoot. The spider was real and Lee arachnophobic, giving the scene added realism. Hammer brings Holmes into the horror realm, and Cushing delivering a performance of whip-cracking bravado. Every scene with Cushing is one of quick-witted enthusiasm and a career highlight. 

"What a masterly actor. What total dedication, and what a wonderful friend; and a marvelous sense of humor. We had ourselves in fits of laughter all through these films all the time. But being professionals we knew when the moment came to stop and play the scene appropriately."--Christopher Lee on Peter Cushing.
5. THE SKULL (1965)
Peter Cushing was fantastic at playing either heroes or villains. In THE SKULL, he's neither a mad scientist, a vampire slayer, or an enigmatic sleuth; but an occult historian who gets way more than he bargained for after becoming obsessed with owning the skull of the Marquis De Sade. Eventually possessed by the evil spirit of the French libertine, the title cranium commands him to commit murder.
Cushing is the lead while Lee's role is much smaller and atypical to what he was normally playing. Still, he's given a few sequences of dramatic gravitas his baritone voice was perfect for. He and Cushing play rivals but competitive in the auctioning sense as both are collectors of occult history. It's an eerie film, and a largely visual one, with an unsettling soundtrack adding to the sinister ambiance. Lee isn't in the film all that much but his scenes complement Cushing's.
Dr. Christopher Maitland (Cushing) is so deep into his supernatural studies, the prospects of becoming an observer of some act of devil worship intrigues him. Sir Mathew Phillips (Lee) is terrified of it--having already been a part of one; as he too had been mesmerized by the Skull. Lee is the voice of reason who warns Cushing of what will happen if he doesn't take his advice. He's essentially a more mannered, British version of FRIDAY THE 13THs Crazy Ralph with much more elaborate dialog.

The worst fate that could befall a movie featuring the Two Titans of Terror is that it would be boring. In NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT (1973), you'll find there's literally NOTHING in the NIGHT. This time, it is Peter Cushing playing a knighted character--a doctor, who teams up with Christopher Lee's inspector to solve an interminably talky mystery that will try your patience to either see it to the end or stay awake. Arguably the least interesting movie in their horror catalog; but worth seeing at least once just to see them once more acting alongside one another.

Then there's the movie that brought together the Four Horror Stars of the Apocalypse. It should have been the genre event of the decade. Unfortunately, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983), the penultimate pairing of Cushing and Lee plus Vincent Price and John Carradine, can't be salvaged on their performances alone; largely because they're given very little to do in a film starving for excitement and horror. Described as a "horror-comedy", even co-star Desi Arnaz, Jr. can't squeeze laughs out of dry material. The film has a stellar pedigree, though; sourced from a novel that birthed a famous play and several earlier celluloid adaptations. There are a few good scenes, but it's still vastly disappointing, and made all the worse by an aggravating ending. It's worth seeing once just to see the four aging horror stars in the same film together.

One reason Cushing made such a great bad guy was he was so unassuming. The classic Cushing villain will always be his interpretations of Dr. Frankenstein. Moreover, he was at his most shockingly sadistic as a serial killer in CORRUPTION (1968); and most famously throughout the galaxy as The Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS (1977).  Lee, though, was tailor-made for villainy with his height, deep voice, and intense eyes. For this first anthology from Amicus, Hammer's chief rival, Peter Cushing's Dr. Schreck is basically the Grim Reaper come to collect, reading off the future of five men aboard a train using tarot cards, his "House of Horrors"
Among those to receive their just desserts is Christopher Lee as Franklyn Marsh, an overbearingly pompous art critic in 'The Disembodied Hand' segment. This type of role fit Lee like a glove and the dialog rolls comfortably off the sharpness of his tongue. In the scenes involving their interaction, Marsh treats Schreck's macabre demeanor as insignificant as the paintings he regularly dismisses. 
As the film reaches its destination, Schreck has the winning hand when Lee and the others aboard the train realize their fate. Cushing played essentially the same role in the wraparound segment of another Amicus anthology, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974). Out of all their collaborations, this was the one time Cushing essayed a supernatural character opposite Lee.


Ironically, Spain got possibly the best, most risibly entertaining team-up out of these two more than any of their British outings. Both men are absolutely fantastic working together in Spanish director Eugenio Martino's movie; a film where they essentially brought their Hammer characterizations with them. Chris Lee (in yet another role as a knighted character), as Professor Sir Alexander Saxton, gets to play an heroic figure, if a familiarly pompous one. If Dr. Frankenstein had a spirited sense of humor, he could pass for Dr. Wells as played by Peter Cushing. 
Friendly rivals within the scientific community, they're tasked with outwitting a brain-draining, body-hopping space alien that has stowed away inside the frozen body of a missing link. Cushing gets the best line in the whole movie. He and Lee are questioned by the Inspector if either of them are the monster hiding inside a human host and Cushing replies, "Monster? We're British, you know". Things take an even wilder turn when Telly Savalas shows up as a Cossack with a New York accent.

One of the film's best attributes--and the essence of what this article is about--is that it was a testament to the bond of friendship between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; what they brought to their films they made together because of that friendship.
Cushing's wife Helen had died January 14th, 1971. If ever there was an example of true love it was Peter and his wife. In December of '71 he and Christopher flew to Spain to film HORROR EXPRESS. This was Cushing's first Christmas without his wife so it was an even more difficult time for him. Desiring to quit the picture, Lee was said to have been the driving force that convinced him to stay on. 
For Monster Kids, HORROR EXPRESS was, and remains, a marvelous gift to fans of the duo. That Christmas in '71, Peter would spend the holidays with Christopher and his wife. If there were more relationships like the one Peter and Helen had, the world would never run out of love; and if there were more friendships like the one Peter and Christopher shared, the world would never be short of kindness.
"At some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again."--Christopher Lee on Peter Cushing.

The last time these two lifelong friends got together was in May of 1994 for the Hammer documentary FLESH AND BLOOD: THE HAMMER HERITAGE OF HORROR (1994). A few months later on August 11th, 1994, Peter Cushing would pass away in Hospice care from prostate cancer; finally reunited with his dear Helen. After having played several knighted characters throughout his film career, Christopher Lee became Sir Christopher Lee in 2009. He would join his frequent co-star and best friend on June 7th, 2015 after suffering heart failure while in hospital. 
Both men made many enormously memorable films on their own; but together, they were a uniquely formidable duo who, whether the movie was good or bad, brought a smile to a fan's face with their sharp wit and impeccable delivery. What made them special to a great many horror fans wasn't just that they were great actors, but great friends with a brotherly bond that touched the millions who love their work to this day; and those who will discover their indelibly timeless films tomorrow.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You don't get actors like these chaps anymore..... class
Horror Express, bonkers brilliance!

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