Stan the Man

 

From charlesskaggs.blogspot.com

 

It might be a stretch to describe Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee, who died last week at the very venerable age of 95, as the Walt Disney of the comics world.  But he was surely the Disney of the Silver Age of Comic Books, which ran from the late 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s.  (The Silver Age came after a period when the medium had been in decline thanks to the rising popularity of television and the stultifying, neutering self-censorship imposed by the comic-book industry in response to crap psychologist Frederic Wertham and his scaremongering 1954 volume Seduction of the Innocent.)

 

The Marvel Comics superheroes Lee co-created with talents like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, such as the Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, are now as deeply embedded in the popular consciousness as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the rest of Disney’s iconic creations.  Mind you, it’s helped that in the last 20 years or so the Marvel characters have transferred with amazing success from the medium of comics to the medium of blockbuster movies.

 

When I was very young, it was difficult in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to find American superhero comics.  Only occasionally would I pick up an issue of Superman that’d somehow drifted all the way from the USA and crash-landed in the racks of the newsagent in my local town, Enniskillen – just as the baby Superman himself had drifted all the way from Krypton and crash-landed in Smallville in Kansas.  However, that changed in the early 1970s when Marvel founded a British-based publishing arm called Marvel UK, which led to titles like Spider-Man Weekly, The Avengers and the Mighty World of Marvel (with strips featuring the Hulk, Daredevil, X-Men, Fantastic Four and so on) suddenly offering brash competition to more traditional British fare like the Beano and Dandy on the kiddies’ shelves of the nation’s newsagents.

 

I’d known that Marvel UK was run for a couple of years by Dez Skinn, whom I’ve written about before in this blog.  But I didn’t know that before Skinn one of its overseers had been none other than Neil Tennant, later to become the witty singer of the Pet Shop Boys.  According to Wikipedia, one of Tennant’s tasks when transferring American-drawn comic strips onto pages destined for British shop-shelves was “indicating where women needed to be redrawn more decently”.

 

I was too young to figure out why, but I soon realised I preferred, say, the awkward, nerdish and accident-prone Spider-Man to the clean-cut, chiselled and scoutmaster-like Superman.  Yes, Stan Lee and his collaborators had hit upon the idea – obvious now, but revolutionary back then – that the most attractive superheroes are the most human ones.  They might be god-like in their strength, athleticism and sensory powers, but to be interesting they have to have the same foibles and insecurities that us ordinary mortals have.

 

But I didn’t like everything that came out of Marvel’s stable of superheroes.  I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for Captain America or for the Fantastic Four.  (That said, I’ve always been haunted by a Fantastic Four story, simultaneously phantasmagorical and baffling, where the Thing takes possession of giant bulldog and escorts it along a twisting bridge into a weird, swirling alternative dimension, before they end up in a gothic castle battling android copies of Dracula, the wolfman, the mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.  Stan and the gang must have been on LSD when they dreamt that one up.)  On the other hand, while my partner has always strongly objected to Iron Man on the grounds that his human alter-ego, Tony Stark, is a playboy arms dealer, I felt sorry for him as a kid; because unlike other, more glamorously-attired superheroes in the 1970s he had to wear a dorky-looking tin suit.

 

From bigmouthmag.wordpress.com

 

In fact, the less that the Marvel characters adhered to the conventional superhero format, the more I liked them.  I was fascinated by Doctor Strange because his adventures didn’t take place in a vaguely science-fictional world like most superheroes’ did, but in a world that unashamedly embraced magic, demons and the supernatural.  Also, I loved Ka-Zar, who wasn’t really a superhero but a muscular Tarzan-like character who’d been reared by a sabre-toothed tiger in the Savage Land, a dinosaur-infested lost world underneath the Antarctic.  Ka-Zar had first appeared as a comic-book character in the 1930s, but Lee and Jack Kirby revived and updated him in the mid-1960s.  (Lee happily confessed to never having read the originals.)

 

Perhaps Marvel UK reasoned that British readers were slightly less enthused by superheroes than American ones because a fair number of its comics were actually based on literary franchises – or on cinematic ones, like Planet of the Apes and Star Wars.  One Marvel UK comic called Savage Sword of Conan first introduced me to pulp-writer Robert E. Howard’s brooding sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian; while another had the self-explanatory Dracula Lives and in addition to Bram Stoker’s aristocratic vampire featured the vampire-hunting Blade, later to be the subject of a not-very-good movie trilogy with Wesley Snipes.

 

And I seem to recall one comic – maybe it was Mighty World of Marvel? – containing a strip called Master of Kung Fu, about a deadly assassin called Shang-Chi whose father is none other than Sax Rohmer’s literary Chinese super-villain Fu Manchu.  (Shang-Chi becomes a reformed character and starts working with Fu Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith.)  Not only did Master of Kung Fu cannily update Rohmer’s novels to cash in on the 1970s’ craze for martial arts, but it also managed to subvert their notorious racism by having a Chinese character as the hero.

 

The more I think about it, the more I understand that Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, through Marvel UK, introduced me to a whole fascinating universe of stuff when I needed it, i.e. when I was a youngster desperate to have his imagination stimulated and empowered.  Now I accept that Lee was no saint.  There were rows and bitterness between him, Kirby and Steve Ditko over character ownership and who got credit for what.  Alan Moore once commented: “I really don’t have a great deal of respect for Stan Lee… when you start in the industry you find out that Jack wasn’t jolly and you find out why; and you find out that Steve wasn’t sturdy and you find out why; and you find out why Stan was smiling.”  Still, as the master showman who kept Marvel on the road, he was a big formative influence on me.

 

Accordingly, whenever I’ve watched a Marvel superhero movie in recent years and spotted the nonagenarian Lee making his customary cameo appearance in it, I’ve reacted almost as if I’ve just bumped into an old friend.  “It’s Stan,” I’ve felt like exclaiming.  “It’s Stan the Man!”

 

From comicvine.gamespot.com

 

Was there anything this man couldn’t do?

 

(c) WingNut Films

 

For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.

 

The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?

 

I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.

 

From @joancollinsobe

 

Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.

 

Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)

 

Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.

 

Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”

 

Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.

 

In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.

 

In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.

 

Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).

 

(c) Fox News

 

Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.

 

Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).

 

He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.

 

(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker

 

Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)

 

Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.

 

(c) Compton Films

 

In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.

 

Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.

 

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.

 

From @sybildanning

 

Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!

 

From zimbio.com

 

When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.

 

Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.

 

(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.

 

And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-christopher-lee

http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/joe-dante-and-john-landis-remember-christopher-lee-20150612

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/alice-cooper-dedicates-his-legend-award-to-sir-christopher-lee/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ9se8i4ujs

 

(c) Seven Keys

 

Happy 100th, Mr Cushing

 

From petercushing.co.uk

 

The actor Peter Cushing, who was born a century ago today, is remembered as a fixture of British horror movies, but for me it’s a role he played in a non-horror film – a swashbuckler set in the 18th century – that best sums up his unique persona.  In 1962’s Captain Clegg, he plays a prim village vicar, given to gently chiding his congregation during church services when their hymn-singing isn’t as energetic as it should be.  However, it transpires that being vicar is just a front for his real activities — for after dark he reveals himself as the titular Captain Clegg, a fearsome former pirate who now, ruthlessly, runs a smuggling operation that his parishioners are all part of.

 

(c) Hammer

 

In his private life, Cushing would have made a perfect village vicar.  He spent his free time in the quiet town of Whitstable on the Kent coast and was a birdwatcher, model-maker and painter of watercolours (as well as being patron of the Vegetarian Society).  Famed for his gentlemanliness, the critic John Brosnan remarked that in the 1970s you could go through the entire British film industry and find nobody with a bad word to find about him.  Indeed, Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in 1976’s Star Wars, said the hardest part of her role was summoning the hatred that, onscreen, she had to show Cushing’s villainous, planet-destroying Governor Moff Tarkin — so charming was Cushing towards her off-screen.

 

Saintly though the real Cushing was, many of his film characters had definitely gone to the dark side.  Several were cold-blooded and fanatical scientists who assumed that the ends justified the means, no matter how unspeakable the means might be — including Baron Frankenstein, whom he played in the series of horror films that Hammer Films based on Mary Shelley’s novel, very loosely, between the late 1950s and early 1970s; and in 1958’s The Flesh and the Fiends, Doctor Robert Knox, who was the real-life Edinburgh medical lecturer that Burke and Hare supplied with freshly-murdered corpses.  Later in his life, as Cushing’s gaunt features grew even gaunter, he got increasingly cast as Nazis, of which Moff Tarkin was one variation.

 

Such was the strange dichotomy of Cushing the person and Cushing the movie villain that it’s a pity he never got around to playing Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  (He did, though, appear as the lawyer Utterson in a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated horror story, 1970’s I, Monster, where the main role was taken by his very good friend and frequent co-star Christopher Lee.)

 

But he played good guys too – most notably Van Helsing in five of Hammer’s Dracula movies; and Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s 1958 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in a sixteen-episode BBC television series in the 1960s and finally in a television movie in the mid-1980s.  His BBC performances as Holmes are much admired, although Cushing, a perfectionist, felt that the show’s hectic shooting schedule didn’t allow him to give the role his best.  With uncharacteristic causticity, he told the actor Douglas Wilmer (who’d played Holmes in a previous series) that he’d “rather sweep Paddington Station for a living than go through the experience again”.

 

(c) Hammer

 

He also played Winston Smith, the doomed hero of George Orwell’s 1984, in a television version in 1954, scripted by Nigel Kneale and performed live before the cameras as TV plays invariably were in those days.  By then in his forties, Cushing was as thin, gaunt and haunted-looking as you’d expect a citizen in a cruelly totalitarian society to be, so he gave Smith a physical as well as emotional believability.  (You can now watch the play in its entirety on youtube — though you’ll probably wince at the fact that it was posted there by the Glenn Beck Book List.)

 

Cushing’s popularity in 1950s British television prompted Hammer Films to hire him for the first of their colour-shot horror movies – The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Dracula in 1958 and The Mummy in 1959 – which began a long tradition of British horror filmmaking, still in existence today thanks to movies such as Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.  Cushing didn’t particularly like horror films but was philosophical about being typecast in them.  If cinema audiences wanted to watch him in them, he thought, fair enough.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that Cushing saw his career flourish while British Gothic cinema itself flourished, in the late 1950s and during the 1960s.  However, his career declined in the 1970s when British horror films, and British films generally, lost their popularity.  I wouldn’t agree with this idea, however.  Maybe it’s because his 1970s movies, which began to appear on TV when I was in my early teens, were the first Cushing movies I was exposed to and so they occupy a special place in my heart.  Or maybe it’s because Cushing’s performances became even more intense and powerful after his wife Helen, whom he adored, died in 1971.  Anyway, I feel it’s in those 1970s films that you get his best work.

 

(c) Tigon

 

In 1972’s Twins of Evil, for example, he plays Gustav Weil, the leader of a band of Nathaniel Hawthorne-style puritans who come into conflict with a vampire cult.  Weil is so sanctimonious and zealous, obviously tormented by psychological demons as well as by the bloodsucking ones around him, that he tips over into villainy and the viewer’s sympathies end up more on the side of the vampires.  Meanwhile, I remember being genuinely upset by the nihilism of the same year’s The Creeping Flesh.  Cushing’s character here is a kindly archaeologist who digs up a skeleton that might just belong to a mythological creature called the Evil One — the devil, basically.  Flesh reconstitutes itself on the skeleton and the Evil One comes back to life.  The film ends with it stalking the world again while Cushing, whose warnings about the thing are dismissed by everyone as a madman’s ravings, is imprisoned in an asylum run by a villainous rival (played as usual by Christopher Lee — he and Cushing made 22 films together).

 

(c) Amicus

 

I wasn’t a big fan of the horror-anthology movies made by Hammer’s rival studio, Amicus, but in the midst of the stories in their schlocky 1972 compendium Tales from the Crypt, Cushing gives a performance that’s rather heart-rending.  In Tales‘ third story, he plays a kindly, melancholy old widower, tormented by snobby neighbours who believe his presence is lowering their neighbourhood’s tone and lowering their property prices.  They wage an escalating hate campaign against him, spreading lies and rumours that deprive him of everything he holds dear – including his pet dogs and the friendship of the local children – until he is driven to suicide.  (This being a horror film, he doesn’t stay dead for long, of course.)  The story is genuinely upsetting because Cushing’s acting conveys the tragic consequences of a real-life horror – the spitefulness that human beings are capable of.

 

To be fair, Cushing appeared in his share of duff movies, but his acting skills could make any film seem about 50% better in terms of quality than it actually was.  A case in point is Freddie Francis’s ropey 1975 film, Legend of the Werewolf, where Cushing is a joy as an amiable Parisian pathologist who has to work out why so many cadavers are suddenly appearing on his slabs with fang-marks and claw-marks.  He was also good in the barmy 1972 British-Spanish co-production Horror Express, which puts him and Christopher Lee together on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906.  Cushing and Lee are on the same side for once and play their roles like bemused horror-movie versions of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in an old Road movie.  Also on the train is a freshly dug-up, alien-possessed and reanimated prehistoric ape that has the power to suck its victims’ brains out through their eyeballs.  “Is Professor Saxton’s fossil still at large?” inquires Cushing at one point with appropriate dryness.

 

(c) Granada

 

With his appearance in Star Wars, Cushing entered the era of the modern cinematic blockbuster, but because of ill-health and because by the late 1970s the British film industry had come close to extinction, it was his last high-profile role.  (It’s a pity that he turned down John Carpenter, who offered him the role of Doctor Loomis in the first Halloween movie.  Carpenter wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Loomis and eventually recruited Cushing’s fellow old British horror guy, Donald Pleasance.)

 

Cushing spent his final years in his beloved Whitstable, where he became a local legend.  Not only does the town have a pub named after him, but his residency there inspired local punk band the Jellybottys to write their most famous song, titled with admirable directness Peter Cushing Lives in Whitstable.  And this year, to mark the centenary of his birth, horror writer Stephen Volk penned a novella called Whitstable, set in the town in 1971 during the months following Helen Cushing’s death.  The novella sees a grieving Cushing approached by a youngster who, confusing him with the vampire-hunting Van Helsing he’s seen in horror films, begs him to protect him from his abusive stepfather, whom he believes is a vampire.

 

 

Many film actors of Cushing’s generation plied their trade in the staid, black-and-white British dramas, romances and comedies of the post-war period, aimed at domestic audiences, and they have faded from the public’s memory now.  But Cushing bestrode a more dynamic strand of British film-making — the British Gothic, which presented its blood and grue in lush Technicolour red and which appealed to international as well as home audiences with its sensationalism and sensuality.  As a result, he remains fondly remembered.  At times icily villainous, at other times a font of avuncular charm, he’s as iconic as ever.