It’s a Throwback Thursday behind the Velvet Curtain, and no, don’t expect a picture of me in a blue baby bonnet, or one in which I’m decked out in bad ‘70s prom gear. Today I just want to reflect for a moment about the cluster of significant birthdays that this week represents for fans of the horror genre.
I don’t mean to suggest any supernatural coincidence or anything like that, but it does seem odd, sort of startling, and ultimately very pleasing to think that three of the greatest stars who were ever to be associated, however exclusively, with any single film genre were all born during one calendar week, the last week of the month of May. (For those of you not paying attention, that’s the one we’re cruising through right now.) Of course they starred in many other sorts of films—romantic dramas, swashbucklers, comedies, thrillers, westerns, biblical epics and Shakespearean adaptations—but when mentioned together the names Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee form a sort of unholy triumvirate of horror royalty. Fine actors all, they represent the sort of genre star the modern Hollywood system doesn’t seem much interested in cultivating any longer—classically trained journeyman players whose career trajectories didn’t indicate “stardom” right out of the gate, who brought a wealth of life experience to each role and were never encouraged to groom eccentricity out of their personas or their performances, who could be recognizably human even in the most sinister of circumstances.
Vincent Price, the oldest of the three, was born on May 27, 1911, which would make the birthday just past his 104th. (He died in 1993 after battling lung cancer.) After studying at Yale, Price made his screen debut in 1938, second-billed opposite Constance Bennett, in Rowland V. Lee’s Service de Luxe, a screwball comedy also starring Charlie Ruggles and Mischa Auer which served to indicate early on that Price’s talents would be best served by fewer attempts to mold him into another William Powell. Price was soon cast in Lee’s Tower of London (1939) alongside Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, and made his first appearance in a horror film in The Invisible Man Returns (1940). After a decade and a half of crafting a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors in films as diverse as The Song of Bernadette (1943), Laura (1944), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Shock (1946) and a lead turn in Samuel Fuller’s western The Baron of Arizona (1950), Price starred as Dr. Henry Jarrod in Andre De Toth’s 3-D hit House of Wax (1953), and his return to horror five years later in The Fly (1958) signaled the beginning of Price’s rise within the genre.
The sight of his sardonic, almost satirically arched eyebrows have been tattooed on my memory ever since my earliest encounters with Famous Monsters of Filmland, and he was often terrific in films like The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) and The Witchfinder General (1968). For my money, though, his finest hour came in what was his 100th movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), which served as one of the primary gateways into my own nascent horror fandom. (I saw it theatrically on my 11th birthday.) The impression Price manages to make as the disfigured musicologist Dr. Anton Phibes, who crafts elaborate vengeance, based on the biblical plagues of Egypt, against the medical team who failed to save his wife’s life after a gruesome automobile crash, is baroque and disturbing, even given the movie’s irreverent undercurrent. But it is even more so because the familiar visage of Price is, in Phibes, merely an immobile reconstruction of a face burnt away during that accident. Price uses the grey-tinged lineage of that face to great effect, but really it is only Phibes’s eyes, alive and brimming with righteous hatred, and that familiar voice, also reconstructed acoustically to intone doom (“Nine… killed… you… Nine… will… die”) but also to mock and further anger Phibes with its very lack of musicality, of humanity, which carry the weight of his performance here. And it is a brilliant performance.
Christopher Lee, the youngest of this horror triumvirate at 93 (and the only one still with us), made his debut appearance on May 27 as well, but 11 years after Price’s, in 1922. His mother a countess, his father a soldier, Lee came from an interesting line that intermingled society, politics and European culture—his great-grandfather was an Italian political refugee and his great-grandmother was a well-known opera singer. (The actor’s full name is Christopher Frank Carandini Lee.) Lee attended Wellington College and later served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. After the war he found employment within the Rank Organisation, where he trained as an actor and began to find small parts in films such as Corridor of Mirrors (1948), Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), in which he appeared as an uncredited spear carrier. (Peter Cushing also appeared in Hamlet, in a much bigger part, though the two were not seen on screen together.)
Of course the two would unite for a slew of memorable turns in horror films produced by the none-too-venerated (at the time) Hammer Studios, first in the refashioning of Mary Shelley’s story, here entitled The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), but even more indelibly in Terence Fisher’s follow-up during the subsequent year, Horror of Dracula (1958), known simply as Dracula in the U.K. Lee’s performance as Bram Stoker’s eternal dark prince of the night would prove to be so iconic and so memorable that the actor would eventual bristle against it, seeking refuge from the far-reaching shadow not only of Dracula’s cape but from the horror genre itself. (Thankfully, he came to re-embrace the legacy of both.)
The same year he appeared as Rochefort in Richard Lester’s hit adaptation of The Three Musketeers (1973), which would help pave Lee’s entry out of horror exclusivity, he also made quite a mark as Lord Summerisle, overseer of the mysterious British island community where police sergeant and staunch Christian moralist Edward Woodward will discover many strange goings on, in The Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardy. Lee had done insinuating villainy many times, but no role he had before or since ever tilted toward the sort of seductive madness he embodies here. Though the role amounts only to a relatively brief cameo, Lee’s spirit hovers over and through the odd, haunted naturalism that makes The Wicker Man such an unusual, vexing and profoundly unsettling movie, and it’s one of my sure favorites among his multitude of on-screen appearances.
And then there is Peter Wilton Cushing, who would have turned 102 this past Wednesday, having been born on May 26, 1913. (He succumbed to prostate cancer in 1994.) Cushing came from a working-class background, in the London suburb of Dulwich Village, and later in the town of Surrey, where Cushing found employment as a government surveyor and eventually began getting his acting feet wet in local theater productions. He eventually obtained a scholarship and moved on to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, before deciding to make the move to Hollywood, where he made his debut appearance in James Whale’s adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), and later was cast alongside Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in A Chump at Oxford (1940) and with Carole Lombard and Brian Aherne for a memorable performance in William Wellman’s Vigil in the Night (1940). He ended up returning to England, however, serving the war effort during World War II by signing up for a stint with the Entertainment National Service Association.
Cushing continued on stage in London’s West End before being fortuitously cast in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) and eventually becoming a familiar face on British television. But of course it was Hammer Studios that solidified Cushing’s career and his standing among the genre cognoscenti by casting him opposite Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and then again as vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing, who definitely has Lee in his crosshairs in Horror of Dracula (1958). Hammer would soon pair the two yet again in their version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), with Cushing as Holmes, Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, and Andre Morell, another great Hammer stalwart, as Dr. Watson.
Of course Cushing’s many appearances for Hammer, and indeed his multiple roles in and out of the horror genre ever since the late ‘50s, are unimpeachable—you won’t hear me say a bad word about any of them. And given that I consider Peter Cushing, alongside Cary Grant, my favorite actor, I don’t know that I would ever be able to single out just one performance as my absolute favorite, so I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll mention the three that automatically come to mind every time I think of Peter Cushing and get to wishing that he was still around.
First, it’s hard for me to understate the impression that Terence Fisher’s Hammer production Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) made on me when I saw it in a theater at the tender age of 10, and so much of that is due to Cushing’s superb turn as a Baron Frankenstein, one considerably more sinister and depraved than his previous incarnations. In an appreciation of Fisher and the film that I wrote in 2010, I summed up the presence of Fisher’s lead actor thusly:
“Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.” This movie is a masterpiece, probably one of the two or three best movies that Hammer ever produced, and that simply wouldn’t be the case without Cushing’s welcome gravitas.
In 1971, Cushing’s wife Helen, to whom he had been married since 1943, died, and the actor, having already withdrawn from one production to be at her side, felt distraught and unmoored in her absence. Soon later he told a British interviewer:
“Since Helen passed on I can’t find anything; the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be reunited again someday. To join Helen is my only ambition.”
Thankfully, Cushing did find the strength to go on, but his work after Helen’s death often seemed haunted by the presence of her memory and the inescapable pain that accompanied it. In fact, he managed two of his most memorable performances directly in the wake of her passing. In Twins of Evil (1971, directed by John Hough), religious fanaticism gives way to pained anger and loss for witch hunter Gustav Weil, who wields fury and indignation in controlling two visiting nieces under his care until true evil, in the form of the vampire Count Karnstein, forces him to reconsider his righteous crusade. The degree to which the world as Weil has always understood it, has always insisted it should be, crumbles beneath his feet is reflected in the wounded horror reflected in Cushing’s eyes, an emotional condition that was probably all too easy for the actor to summon forth.
And as the poor, unfortunate Arthur Grimsdyke in the “Poetic Justice” segment of Freddie Francis’s terrific Tales from the Crypt (1972), Cushing musters a tiny gem of a performance that can only be termed heartbreaking. Grimsdyke, a lonely widower, is targeted by a wealthy family who want to level his ramshackle property and upgrade the neighborhood. To speed things along, they begin a relentless campaign of humiliation and abuse that results in the man’s suicide, each new and escalating level of despair communicated by Cushing with a clarity and empathy that vividly echoes the actor’s own still freshly despondent state. Grimsdyke, of course, has the last word, from beyond the grave, as would Cushing, in his way. He continued his career for another 15 years before retiring, fully aware of the place he now held in the hearts of film lovers worldwide, and doubtless still cherishing the memory of the woman who had been taken from his side so many years before—another form of poetic justice, to be sure.
Happy birthday to all three of these fine and distinguished gentlemen and actors, wherever they may be. Thanks for the memories of all your superb performances as well as the joy we all take in revisiting them again and again.