10 scary pictures for Halloween 2017

 

From crafthubs.com

 

Continuing Blood and Porridge’s celebration of Halloween – yesterday I listed my favourite collections of short horror stories – this post is about ten of the creepiest pictures I’ve come across in the past year.  (I constantly scour the Internet for interesting paintings and illustrations and have a folder on my computer with nearly 2000 images in it, starting with work by Abanindranath Tagore, Adolf Hoffmeister and Afewerk Tekle and ending with work by Yayoi Kusama, Yoshihisa Sadamatsu and Yoshu Chikanobu.)

 

First, a tribute.  September 2017 saw the death of Greek-Egyptian, later American artist Basil Gogos, who was best known for providing covers for the juvenile horror-movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  He invariably depicted classic movie monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon and / or classic horror-movie actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price in impressively lurid and vivid colours.  Gratifyingly, years later, the elderly Gogos got more work painting album covers for disreputable rock stars like Rob Zombie and the Misfits, who’d read Famous Monsters and loved his work when they were kids.  Here’s a Gogos portrait of the silent film star Lon Chaney – ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ – playing a vampire in the lost 1927 horror film London After Midnight.  (Knowing Chaney’s penchant for contorting, warping and punishing his body in order to play extreme roles, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d filed his own teeth to points to create those piranha-like fangs.)

 

© Famous Monsters of Filmland / Warren Publishing 

 

Another talent we said goodbye to this year was comic-book artist and illustrator Bernie Wrightson, who passed away in March.  Although Wrightson provided breath-taking illustrations for editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and stories by Edgar Allan Poe, I thought I’d represent him with this item, which is definitely more in keeping with the horror comic-strips (like Swamp Thing) with which he originally made his name.  It also embodies a certain type of hospitality that’s commonly extended to visitors in the American south – and particularly in Texas.  In horror films, anyway.

 

From stevedoescomics.blogspot.com

 

Talking of Edgar Allan Poe, I often include in these Halloween posts something by Poe’s most famous illustrator, the Irishman Harry Clarke.  However, this year, I thought I’d provide a Poe illustration by the German-American illustrator and wood-engraver Fritz Eichenberg instead.  This shows the monstrous ape from Murders in the Rue Morgue.  Its use of lines, whilst softer and more flowing, and less stark and angular than in Clarke’s work, is equally memorable.

 

© Random House

 

And here’s another fearsome beastie, courtesy of Oregon painter Adam Burke.  The image of a wolf – or is it a werewolf? – stalking towards a human victim is an archetypal one in horror stories and, indeed, in fairy tales.  But what I like about this picture is the macabre touch that Burke adds to the would-be victim’s features, suggesting that the wolf is in for a shock.

 

© Adam Burke

 

A lupine theme features prominently in the work of Polish artist Jakub Rozalski, many of whose paintings take place in an extraordinary parallel universe where Eastern European peasants trudge about their fields, forests and hillsides while a truly strange occupying regime watches over them: a regime consisting of legions of Prussian-like soldiers, and huge clanking steampunk robot-tanks and robot-tractors, and… packs of werewolves.  This is the most werewolfish picture I could find in Rozalski’s portfolio and it even has a hint – a saucy hint, it must be said – of Little Red Riding Hood.

 

© Jakub Rozalski

 

From the werewolf to another archetypal figure of Halloween, the witch.  In the past year I’ve discovered the enchanting work of the Ukrainian, now Israel-based children’s illustrator Sveta Dorosheva.  This decorative picture of a witch is at the macabre end of her range.  It has a sly, humorous sense of the grotesque that Roald Dahl, author of the best children’s witch story ever, would have approved of.

 

© Sveta Dorosheva 

 

Another female artist I’ve come across lately is Laurie Lipton.  Though she’s a New Yorker, her haunting black-and-white pictures featuring skulls and skeletons seem to evoke Mexico and the great Latin rival to Halloween, Day of the Dead.  Here’s an example of her work depicting a ladies’ tea party that’s mannered but mouldering, refined but rotting, decorous but decomposed.

 

© Laurie Lipton

 

A skeleton plays a big part in 1972’s The Creeping Flesh, one of the last great gothic movies produced during Britain’s horror-movie boom of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  It begins with the inmate of an asylum painting a disturbing picture in his cell.  The man, played by Peter Cushing, was once a palaeontologist who dug up a monstrous humanoid skeleton during an expedition.  Back in his laboratory, and after one of its finger-bones got wet, the skeleton showed the alarming characteristic of being able to regrow its flesh when exposed to water.  And predictably, Cushing’s unscrupulous scientific rival, played by Christopher Lee – who else? –  soon broke into his lab, stole the whole skeleton and whisked it out into the night while a thunderstorm was drenching the countryside in rain.  Cushing’s painting depicts the hideous, reconstituted creature that later that same night came clumping back to his house and drove him insane.  I’ve no idea who was really responsible for the painting we see in The Creeping Flesh, but I was pleased to discover this still of it a few weeks ago.

 

© Tigon Films

 

From film-art to book-art now.  This cover for the recent Penguin Classics edition of the Ray Russell novel The Case Against Satan is just wonderful.  It was created by collage artist Lola Dupre, who takes different-sized versions of the same image and painstakingly assembles pieces of them to create a hallucinogenically fragmented and mutant master-image.  In fact, from what I’ve seen of her work, I think the Russell cover is her finest effort to date.

 

© Penguin

 

And lastly, it’s about time I included in these Halloween posts something by the late, great Edward Gorey – who in terms of morbid Gothic humour was second only to Charles Addams in the world of American drawing and illustrating.  Looking at this sublime Gorey picture called Donald Imagined Things, I find myself imagining things too.  I find myself imagining that little Donald in the picture was actually little Donald Trump, and the big scary snake-thing had swallowed him whole.  That would have spared us all a lot of stress six decades later.

 

© Pomegranate

 

His Ollie-ness

 

(c) Constable

 

I recently read What Fresh Lunacy is This?, a biography of the late and legendarily hellraising British movie star Oliver – ‘Ollie’ – Reed.  Written in 2013 by the film journalist Robert Sellers, it’s a brisk and engaging book.  Sellers knows and delivers what his core readership wants, which is a detailed account of Ollie’s outrageous booze-fuelled antics during four decades of stardom.  But he’s also aware of Ollie’s films and gives these due attention and respect.

 

Sellers’ book fully conveys the paradox of Oliver Reed.  On one hand he was often kind-hearted, funny, loyal, boundlessly generous and impeccably good-mannered.  On the other hand his character also contained a Pandora’s Box of vices: petulance, childishness, boorishness, cruelty and obnoxiousness.  And usually what unlocked that box was the alcohol consumed during his interminable drinking sprees.

 

From moviemorlocks.com

 

What Fresh Lunacy is This? cites several possible reasons why Ollie poured so much liquor down his neck.  He was at heart a shy man and booze bolstered his confidence.  He was conscious of being both well-to-do and an actor, two things he didn’t much care for; and booze was his way of bonding with the common folk whom he felt much more comfortable with – builders, soldiers, sailors, gardeners, road-workers.  Later, he realised he was frittering his talents away on sub-standard movies and booze provided an outlet for his frustration.  And, ever the showman, he felt obliged to give the Great British public what they wanted, which was the spectacle of him raising hell on an apocalyptic scale.  The book never identifies which of these was the prime motivation for his behaviour.  I suspect it was a combination of them all.

 

What often gets overlooked in accounts of Ollie’s life is the fact that he was a very fine actor, one of the most memorably intense and brooding ones that the British film industry produced.  His CV contained some treasurable performances: as King in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963); Gerald Crich in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969); Father Urbain Grandier in Russell’s The Devils (1971); Athos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and Four Musketeers (1974); Dr Raglan in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979); Vulcan in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988); and Proximo in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).  Thankfully, Sellers’ book gives his acting the credit it deserves.

 

Anyway, here are a few new facts I learned about Ollie whilst reading What Fresh Lunacy is This?

 

Ollie’s grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, in the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “one of the great figures of the English theatre” and “the most successful actor-manager of his time”.  Beerbohm Tree’s half-brother and Ollie’s great uncle, meanwhile, was the essayist, humourist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm whose one-and-only novel, Zuleika Dobson (1911), is ranked by the Modern Library publishing company at number 59 in the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  Ollie bought the film rights to Great Uncle Max’s book but never managed to get it to the screen.

 

(c) The Rank Film Organisation

 

I’d known that, early in his career, Ollie had appeared briefly in The Bulldog Breed (1960), a gormless and irritating comedy featuring the gormless and irritating Norman Wisdom. He plays the leader of a gang of hoodlums who waylay Norman at a cinema and give him a (well-deserved in my opinion) kicking.  What I hadn’t known that one of the sailors who rescue Norman from the hoodlums was played by an equally young and un-famous Michael Caine.

 

In 1962 Ollie appeared in the swashbuckler Captain Clegg, one of several movies he made for the British studio Hammer Films, alongside the much-loved and gentlemanly horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Noticing how Reed rather overacted in a scene where his character gets shot in the arm, Cushing later wrote him a letter of advice.  “I think you’re going to go a very long way, Oliver,” the letter said.  “But always remember, if you are hurt, you don’t have to act hurt.  If somebody grabs you, just blink.  The screen is so big that even the slightest movement makes the point.”  Ollie took Cushing’s suggestion on board.  His best performances are distinguished by their stillness and understatement.  He conveys a great deal with only a modicum of expression and movement.

 

The 1967 comedy I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname was among a half-dozen films Ollie made for the famously gobby director Michael Winner.  Generally, Winner and him got along like a house on fire.  But one day, Ollie’s patience snapped when he had to film a scene where he was propelling a punt along the River Cam in Cambridge with, at one end of it, a cameraman and Michael Winner barking directions through a megaphone.  Ollie got so fed up with Winner “f**king rabbiting on in that grating voice of his” that eventually he jumped off the punt, taking the pole with him, and swam ashore – leaving Winner (“shouting and screaming and gesticulating so ferociously that he almost capsized the boat”) and his cameraman helplessly adrift on the river.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Ken Russell’s The Devils saw Ollie appear alongside the actress and fervent left-wing political activist Vanessa Redgrave who, during filming, wanted to show solidarity with a one-day strike organised by the Trade Union movement against the early-1970s Conservative government.  She tried to get the performers and crew on the set to stop work and walk off it.  Ollie was having none of this, believing that a day’s strike-action was the last thing Britain’s beleaguered film industry needed.  The pair of them had a furious ten-minute confrontation about it in his dressing room, which culminated in Redgrave bursting into tears.  “So I put my arms around her,” recollected the gallant Ollie, “and gave her a cuddle.  Then I slapped her on the bottom and sent her back to her own dressing room.”

 

In the early 1970s, Ken Russell and Ollie were working on an ultimately-unrealised project about the quartet of knights who killed Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral in the 12th century.  Discussing the film in the great hall of Ollie’s country mansion one night, the pair of them somehow ended up in a swordfight that climaxed with Russell slashing open Ollie’s shirt, and his chest underneath, with a rusty six-foot broadsword.  “Excellent!” enthused the wounded hell-raiser.  “Now we’re blood brothers.”

 

Ollie’s 1981 movie Venom is the story of a house where a hostage situation is taking place and where, somehow, an ultra-poisonous black mamba snake is also slithering around loose, endangering both hostages and hostage-takers.  It’s infamous for the rivalry that existed on set between Ollie and his co-star, the great but deranged Polish-German actor Klaus Kinski.  Venom’s director, Piers Haggard, noted that Kinski “had no sense of humour”; whereas Ollie “had a fabulous sense of humour, very wicked… and he definitely liked a laugh at Klaus Kinski’s expense.”  One day Haggard was informed that the film’s financiers, the aristocratic Anglo-Irish Guinness family, would be visiting the set, but soon forgot all about it.  When Lord Guinness, his wife and children were ushered in, they were treated to an unscripted scene where Ollie, laughing like a maniac, came charging down a staircase pursued by an enraged Kinski who was screaming, “You f**king English c**t!”, presumably because he’d just been on the receiving end of an Ollie-prank.  Small wonder that Haggard claimed the black mamba had been the easiest cast-member to work with.

 

(c) Morrison Film Group / Handmade Films / Paramount

 

By the early 1980s, his career on the slide, Ollie made movies in some unlikely places with some unlikely backers.  The historical epic Lion of the Desert (1981) was filmed in Libya and funded by Colonel Gaddafi.  Meanwhile, A Clash of Loyalties (1983) was a personal project of Saddam Hussein and was made in Iraq even though the Iran / Iraq War was in full swing at the time.  Holed up in a large, boring hotel when they weren’t filming, Ollie’s antics kept the crew entertained.  On one occasion he created such a rumpus that several Arab guests pulled out guns, believing that the hotel was being attacked.

 

The early 1980s was also when Ollie had his penis – ‘the mighty mallet’ as he called it – tattooed and he liked nothing better than to whip it out in public and show people the results of the tattooist’s art.  Whilst making Castaway for the renowned British director Nicholas Roeg in the Seychelles in the mid-1980s, a dislike developed between Ollie and the producer’s assistant.  One day he spied her eating a meal in a restaurant, crept up behind her, loosened the tattooed mallet and dropped it onto her shoulder.  She promptly stabbed it with her fork.  Ollie did not attempt this stunt again.

 

Ollie cemented his reputation as a booze-monster with a string of drunken appearances on British TV chat shows during the late 1980s and early 1990s: Aspel and Company, Des O’Connor Tonight, After Dark and The Word.  In doing so, he effectively doomed what was left of his movie career since producers became too frightened of his reputation to hire him – as Sellers puts it, he was “the sniper at his own assassination”.  At least on Des O’Connor Tonight he befriended a fellow guest, the Liverpudlian comedian Stan Boardman.  When Boardman performed on the island of Guernsey, where by now Reed was living for tax purposes, he invited him to the gig.  There, Ollie didn’t take kindly to an audience-member who was heckling Boardman.  The comedian recalled how Ollie grabbed the heckler, “gave him a big bear hug, lifted him up on to his feet, dragged him out onto the dance floor and they collapsed together in front of about three hundred people.”  The next day, Stan and Ollie headed for a restaurant where by coincidence the exact same heckler was sitting having a meal.  Renewing hostilities, Ollie flung himself on top of him and they ended up rolling about the floor, knocking crockery everywhere.  The man eventually fled the restaurant.  Presumably he never heckled Stan Boardman again.

 

In 1999 Ollie died in Malta, where he’d been making Gladiator for Ridley Scott.  I knew he’d expired in an establishment in Valetta called the Pub, from a heart attack seemingly caused by over-exertion – he’d just been knocking back rums and arm-wrestling with a bunch of young ratings from a Royal Navy warship.   (In fact, I knew that very well because I’d drunk in the Pub in Valetta myself on a few occasions.)  However, I hadn’t known that his death happened by accident.  His original intention that day had been to have a quiet meal with his wife at a nearby Chinese restaurant, but the restaurant had been closed and instead they’d wandered into the Pub and encountered the sailors.

 

I like to think there’s a parallel universe where the Chinese restaurant had been open that fateful day, so that Ollie avoided the Pub, the ratings and the heart attack and survived to make a few more films – buoyed by the success of Gladiator and the acclaim that his performance in it received.  (As Proximo, he’s one of the best things in the movie.)  Who knows?  He might have worked with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and the Coen Brothers; and made a couple more pictures with old acquaintances such as Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott.

 

(c) Scott Free Productions

 

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

 

RIP, Sir Christopher

 

(c) British Lion

 

Alas, a moment that I’ve dreaded has finally arrived.  The name of Sir Christopher Lee – who was just about my most favourite actor on the planet – is currently trending on Twitter because it was recently disclosed that the mighty actor has passed away.  He died in hospital last Sunday after developing respiratory problems, but his death wasn’t announced publicly until today, after his family members had all been informed.

 

My many reasons for liking him included his productivity, versatility and venerability.  By the time he turned 90, which was three years ago, he’d made about 275 films and I’m sure he’d added a few more to that total (including the recent, high-profile third Hobbit movie) between then and now.  He was also Britain’s most linguistic actor – he spoke German, French, Italian and Spanish and also knew a bit of Swedish, Russian and Greek, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to assist in the dubbing of some of his English-language movies for foreign markets.

 

And he was surely Britain’s most literary actor too, because his massive film and television CV contained adaptations of stories by Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, Alexandre Dumas, Ian Fleming, Rider Haggard, Washington Irving, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Rohmer, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne and Dennis Wheatley.

 

And he seemed to have been around forever.  He was making films back in the 1940s and if he hadn’t been legendary for anything else, he would have been on the strength of the mind-boggling fact that he was the only actor in history to have conducted sword fights with Errol Flynn and Yoda.  (Lee had a light-saber duel with George Lucas’s sentence-mangling space-muppet in 2002’s Attack of the Clones.)

 

From cuerdasdeacero.com

 

In recent years, he popped up in movies made by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson, all of whom, as nippers, had watched him avidly in the old Hammer horror movies that he made with Peter Cushing.  And he also – I love this – carved out a new career for himself by lending his distinctive voice to symphonic and concept heavy metal albums recorded with bands like Manowar and Rhapsody of Fire.  I can’t think of a cooler hobby to take up when you’re in your late eighties.

 

And of course, he was Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1974), a member of the landed gentry who was not adverse to burning the odd virginal Free Presbyterian policeman as a sacrifice to the pagan gods, in return for a decent harvest on his island estate.  Yes, this man was truly magnificent.

 

One of the sweetest comments I’ve seen on Twitter since the announcement of his passing was by someone who speculated that his dear old friend and Hammer colleague Peter Cushing might be waiting to greet him outside the pearly gates.  Yes, I can just imagine Cushing’s clipped, gentlemanly tones echoing what he said at the beginning of the 1972 Spanish-British horror movie Horror Express, when his character bumped into Lee’s character on a railway-station platform.  “Well, well, well…  Look who’s here!”

 

(c) Granada Films

 

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.