Sunday, May 26, 2013

Peter Cushing: The Man Who Did the Unthinkable. Twice.

By the end of the summer of 1977, I still hadn't seen a single Hammer film.  I had no cable, there were no vcrs (at least none that cost under $2,000 and had more than seven movies available for them) and revival houses in my part of the country were rare (Charleston, South Carolina).  Seeing a Hammer production from the fifties or sixties meant staying up late and catching it on after hours tv, that is, if you even knew it was going to be on in the first place.  So, again, I hadn't seen a single Hammer film.  Not yet.  Star Wars, on the other hand, I'd seen five times.  Like so many movie fans of my generation, this was my introduction to Peter Cushing (and Alec Guinness, for that matter - God, I wish they'd had a scene together) as Grand Moff Tarkin.  It was and is, I submit, a formidable introduction.

I cannot imagine another actor pulling off what Cushing did.  What he did was, essentially, put Darth Vader in his place whenever he damn well pleased.  Now, I know what you're thinking:  The Emperor did the same thing, many times.  Yes, but the Emperor was a Sith Lord, who made Vader his apprentice.  Tarkin was a goddamn imperial pensioner, devoting a lifetime to military service.  No force, no Jedi babble, no ancient religion.  No, Tarkin belongs to the same class of force-choke guinea pigs that Vader has such a fun time with throughout the original trilogy.  He had no physical way to control Vader and yet had no problem saying, in so many words, "All right, Vader, knock it off and sit down, we got work to do."

So that was my introduction to Peter Cushing and it was a great one.  But later, much later, I finally got to see all the Hammer films he did, including all the ones with the great Christopher Lee, and I was justifiably amazed.  I was amazed because Cushing did something I didn't think possible.  First, with The Curse of Frankenstein, he took one of the most well established gothic horror stories in history, one that had been published and republished a thousand times, one that had been adapted to film countless others, and reinvented it as a Cushing original.  I do not exaggerate when I tell you that no matter how many times I read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, how many adaptations I watch, or how many parodies I see, there is only one Victor Frankenstein, and it's not the one Shelley created, it's the one Cushing did.

If you've seen The Curse of Frankenstein, you know that Victor Frankenstein as portrayed by Peter Cushing is, quite simply, a son of a bitch.   This is not Colin Clive nor even the obsessed but sympathetic character of the book, cascading the tragedy of his creation with one careless and cowardly error after another.  This Frankenstein has the viewer, almost from the start, rooting for anyone but him.  He is the protagonist of the story and yet, the antagonist as well.  He's the Jake LaMotta of horror, a character you can't turn away from but you can't sympathize with either.  He's a trainwreck of humanity, made worse by the fact that he considers nothing he does wrong because he considers himself so much better than the rest of us from the moment he walks in the room.  He's arrogant, smug and violent.  Christopher Lee's monster is almost superfluous to the story and for good reason:  Cushing's Frankenstein doesn't need to create a monster, he already is one.

A year later, in Horror of Dracula, Cushing did it again.  He took another character, well established from the original source (Bram Stoker's Dracula) and its many adaptations, and made it his own.  Van Helsing, like Victor Frankenstein, is much different on paper and in the many film adaptations than the Van Helsing Cushing created on film.  And once again, like Frankenstein, the Van Helsing Cushing created - younger, leaner, more focused and direct, free from flightiness or extravagance - became the go to Van Helsing for the genre.  After The Brides of Dracula (still my favorite Hammer production of all time) I could never see Van Helsing portrayed by anyone else again without thinking they were doing it wrong.

On this day we celebrate Peter Cushing's 100th birthday but I celebrate something more.  I celebrate an actor so skilled at his craft, and so confident in his abilities, that he could take on long established, completely defined roles like Frankenstein and Van Helsing and make them his own.  And in making them his own, make them the standard for all to follow.  Many actors have had the chance since to create a new standard.  All have failed.  Happy Birthday to Peter Cushing, 100 today, and the standard bearer still.

This post is part of the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon, hosted by Pierre Fournier, running from May 25th through May 31st. 


Joe Thompson said...

Greg: I like your idea of Peter Cushing doing the unthinkable twice. You could tell that he thought about what he was doing in any performance. Your best statement: "Cushing's Frankenstein doesn't need to create a monster, he already is one." Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

Dan Day Jr. said...

Great article. I think people take for granted what a game changer Peter Cushing was for the cinema of the fantastic. The whole cliche of "the fearless vampire killer" really starts with him.

Greg F. said...

Joe, Cushing fills his Dr. Frankenstein with a cold, detached horror that makes the creation of the "monster" into the kind of horrifying act that Shelley originally intended. The story may not follow hers but, in the end, I think Cushing got to the heart of it more than anyone else.

Greg F. said...

Dan, so true. His Van Helsing has an authoritative, scholarly feel to it, leaving behind the many over the top portrayals in the rest of the Dracula adaptations through the decades. His Van Helsing is fearless and calm and collected. The way he goes about healing himself in Brides of Dracula, as if follow directions in a textbook for how to bleed out the poison of a vampire bite, is amazing.

Barry P. said...

Nice post, Greg! I especially enjoyed your comments about Peter Cushing's Dr. Frankenstein as the true monster in "The Curse of Frankenstein." I couldn't agree more.

One of my first exposures to Cushing was also through Star Wars, back in the 70s. It's been great to back-track, and re-discover his work in Hammer horror and other films.

Caftan Woman said...

Really enjoyed your take on the performances of Peter Cushing filled with great insight and enthusiasm for a fine performer.

Craig Edwards said...

A splendid analysis of a truly marvelous actor - I read in one of these blogathon posts that his scripts for the Hammer films were "covered in hieroglyphics - little notes, word changes, bits of business" - it really made me love him all the more to know that he wasn't just showing up, saying the words, and counting the money. He took his job seriously. Your post reflects back on how successful he was at it. Thank you for posting it.


Fellow Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon Participant