Monday, 30 December 2013

HAJIME ISHIDA'S 'DRACULA PHOTO BOOK VOL ONE' : RECOMMENDED!


It's been a very good year for 'nice' things landing on the hall mat. But this morning a gentle thud, brought a wonderful surprise! Your host has often wondered, why hasn't anyone ever pulled together all the 'best of' photographs from Hammer 'Dracula' movies and plopped them all together in one book? Good quality printing, not that awful blocky, cheap printed, pixelated mess, just full page publicity stills, colour, black and white, no duplicating or doubling up of images, and don't spare the rare ones either!... a lovely way of bringing them all together. A tall order, you'd think? Well, Hajime Ishida has met the challenge and done just that. It's a 'thing of beauty! All NINE Hammer Dracula films are here in half, quarter and full page photographs. You'll be pleased to hear, Peter Cushing is very well represented too. It's a winner! It's 96 pages of 'what you want'! I've attached a link to Hajime's 'Monsterzine' facebook page. So, do yourself a favour and place an order for what is indeed, this years Christmas Cracker! Thank You, Hajime ! A job very well done indeed!





Sunday, 29 December 2013

'THE COUNT'S LAST STAND, AND THE GANGS HERE TOO!' A TALENT TO TERRIFY : STEP OUT!


After the disappointment of seeing his maiden voyage as a production executive run away from him, Lee reluctantly signed on the dotted line for yet another Hammer Dracula film.  Like Dracula AD 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula would update the Count’s (mis)adventures to modern day London.  Like every Dracula film he had done since 1968 (with the exception of a jaunt to Spain to make El Conde Dracula for maverick filmmaker Jess Franco), Lee was openly disdainful of the material and swore up and down that he would never do it again.  This time he meant it – this would prove to be his last “real” Dracula film, though the delightful French-made parody Dracula and Son (1978) would allow him to revisit the character (or a variation on it; Lee has insisted that he’s not playing the Count in the film and indeed, his makeup and costuming is quite different) in a script which actually allowed him plenty of screen time and dialogue.


The Satanic Rites of Dracula reunited Lee and Cushing with director Alan Gibson and screenwriter Don Houghton in a tale of a suicidal Dracula, doing his damnedest to spread the bubonic plague as a means of taking down the rest of civilization with him.  It was a darker and altogether more serious entry than AD 1972, but it’s also not quite as much fun.  Even so, Gibson and company give the film production gloss and it’s fun to see (or rather hear) Lee disguising his identity by speaking in one scene with a pronounced Bela Lugosi accent!





Cushing is relegated to the sidelines for much of the film, allowing Michael Coles’ Inspector Murray (another holdover from AD 1972, here sporting a much less Scotland Yard-appropriate hair cut) and William Franklyn’s sardonic MI5 agent to do much of the heavy lifting.  Fan reaction would be less than enthused, but seen today it’s possible to appreciate The Satanic Rites of Dracula as an interesting, offbeat finale to the series that made Hammer the bulk of its profits.

 


After this final foray into Stoker territory, Lee continued to do his best to establish himself in more “mainstream” assignments, netting a plum role in the James Bond thriller The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) and enlivening the starry casts of such films as The Three Musketeers (1973) and Airplane ’77 (1977).  He would be lured back to Amicus one last time for Arabian Adventure (1979), largely because his role as the evil wizard would enable him to pay homage to one of his acting idol Conrad Veidt’s most iconic roles, as the villain of The Thief of Bagdad (1940).  This slice of hokum from director Kevin Connor was aimed square at juvenile audiences, and Lee’s villain was very much of the obvious, pantomime school – at least in theory; in terms of performance, he does not play down to the audience, making the character a credible menace.  The film also included a cameo appearance for Cushing as a deposed noble man who aids the hero (Oliver Tobias) in his quest.


While Lee’s career was thriving at this time, Cushing’s was not.  The actor had won some good notices for his role in George Lucas’ blockbuster hit Star Wars (1977), but this did not translate to many stellar acting assignments; he would spend the latter half of the 70s lending class and name value to one indifferent film after another, even spreading his wings a bit by going to Greece to film The Devil’s Men (1976) and to Florida for Shock Waves (1977).



Also around this time, both Lee and Cushing were approached by young writer/director John Carpenter, who was anxious to cast one of them for the role of Dr. Loomis in his film Halloween (1978).  Cushing’s agent would snootily reject the script without even showing it to the actor, while Lee would later regret passing on it, correctly noting that it gave Donald Pleasence (who finally took the part after some initial trepidation) a whole new career.  Even so, becoming identified with a new horror franchise was surely the last thing on Lee’s mind, and both actors would go on record as being disdainful of the trend towards more and more graphic depictions of sex and violence in genre fare (though it must be noted that Carpenter’s classy shocker was not guilty of this, even if the films it helped to spawn most definitely were).


While Lee continued to explore the potential of Hollywood into the 1980s, Cushing’s career began to slow down.  Advancing age and increasing health woes would begin to limit his opportunities.  The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, as it were.  Fortunately for fans, his health remained intact long enough for Canon Films to assemble a dream cast for a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy.  The House of the Long Shadows (1983) would unite Lee, Cushing, Vincent Price and John Carradine for the first and only time.  Though directed by veteran shock specialist Pete Walker, the film was an old-fashioned pastiche, a tribute to the old-school “old dark house” thrillers of the 1920s and 30s.  The veteran actors approached their roles with style and conviction, with Lee and Cushing probably coming off the best: Lee puts his aloof persona to good use, while Cushing impresses with his portrayal of the cowardly brother with a pronounced speech impediment, a la Elmer Fudd.  Their efforts are hampered by the charisma free young actors who dominate the proceedings, namely Desi Arnaz Jr. (miscast as the smart ass best-selling novelist who believes he can write a Gothic melodrama in one night, provided the setting is right) and Julie Peasgood.  The two actors have zero chemistry with each other and fail to make much of an impression on the viewer, but once the genre icons begin to take center stage the film has more than its fair share of pleasures, not the least of which is hearing a typically theatrical Vincent Price calling Christopher Lee a “bitch.”



Sadly, the combined power of the veteran actors did little to help the film’s chances at the box office, and the film would for all intents and purposes be dumped to VHS and cable not long after a perfunctory theatrical release.  Price would call the film a missed opportunity, whereas Lee later singled it out as a favorite precisely because it allowed the four actors an opportunity to have fun.  Cushing would contract bronchitis while filming at the drafty manor house, however, and his health would continue to deteriorate.

In 1986, many news outlets reported that Cushing had died. The fact of the matter is, he was still very much alive and would remain so for another 8 years but he was diagnosed with prostate cancer around this time, and the prognosis was not good. Cushing would find it impossible to continue acting, not because he didn’t want to, but because the insurance companies regarded him as a liability.  Lee would undergo open heart surgery to correct a recurring issue and would bounce back, continuing to work without taking much time off, even if most of the films he was doing failed to ignite much interest at the box office.  Towards the end of the decade, however, Lee would find himself being cast by long-time fans turned successful directors, including Joe Dante and John Landis.





In 1994, filmmaker Ted Newsome hit upon the idea of hiring Lee and Cushing to narrate his documentary on Hammer Films, titled Flesh and Blood.  It would prove a tricky deal to negotiate, especially with Cushing’s frail health going downhill rapidly and scheduling conflicts to overcome.  The film would provide Lee and Cushing one last chance to spend an afternoon in each other’s company, however, and Lee did his best to keep his old friend in stitches throughout the recording of the narration.  When Cushing was chauffeured away at the end of the day, Lee knew he would never see him again; sadly, it would to be true.



Cushing would pass away on August 11th 1994; he was 81 years old.  For Cushing, it was an end devoutly to be wished.  In his mind and heart he believed he would be reunited with his beloved Helen.  For his many fans, it was a loss which was felt very deeply indeed.
 

At the time of writing, Lee is now 91 years old.  He has begun looking more and more frail over the past few years, though he certainly aged very gracefully well into his 80s.  An accident on the set of Hammer’s The Resident (2011) resulted in a broken vertebrae – a serious injury at any stage of life, let alone for a man in his late 80s.  Lee didn’t let the accident stop him from working, however.  He remains in demand, doing cameos for directors who have long admired his talents.  A collaboration with Martin Scorsese on Hugo (2010) was regarded as a major career highlight by the actor, who has since said that he has now worked with just about every major name actor and director he has aspired to work with… except for Clint Eastwood.  The odds of that particular collaboration coming to pass seems slim in light of Lee’s inability to undertake large roles and difficulty with traveling (he was well enough to fly to New Zealand to do the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but director Peter Jackson had to accommodate him by shooting his scenes for the new Hobbit trilogy in England), but even so… his presence in films is a reassuring reminder of the class of actor we used to take for granted.  And to go back and revisit his many films with his beloved friend and costar, Peter Cushing, is to be transported to a time when it really was possible to see top class acting in even the lowest budgeted and most preposterous of genre films.


'A Talent To Terrify:
The Twenty Two Films Of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee',
was written by Troy Howarth with images and artwork
by Marcus Brooks.


 





Thursday, 26 December 2013

FOSSILS, FINGERS AND THE COUNT IS BACK: A TALENT TO TERRIFY : PART FIVE


The year 1971 got off to a horrible start for Cushing: Helen finally succumbed after years of ever-worsening health.  For Cushing, the loss would prove unbearable.  Helen was everything to him: his most valued critic, his biggest fan, his best friend, his doting mother, his wife… It was not a loss that Cushing would rebound from easily; indeed, it would cast a pall over his remaining years.  The crestfallen actor considered suicide, but religious principles compelled him to tough it out.  His therapy would be work – non-stop, if at all possible.



One of Cushing’s first films following his tragic loss was Hammer’s first crack at updating the Dracula myth to the modern milieu.  Dracula AD 1972 would be Cushing’s first appearance as Van Helsing since The Brides of Dracula (1960), and the passage of time would be all the more obvious due to the actor’s precarious mental condition at the time of filming.


Cushing had always been a thin man, but after the loss of Helen he would become gaunt – he would also attain something of a haunted aura about him… The original screenplay by Don Houghton initially had Van Helsing as a modern-day father, trying to keep his flower child Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) in line, but Cushing had aged noticeably and a decision was made to make him into Jessica’s grandfather. Cushing’s frail appearance stands in stark contrast to the utter commitment and energy he brings to the role.  It is certainly my favorite of his several attempts at the character, and he has real chemistry with Beacham in their scenes together.



As for Lee, the actor had long vocalized a dissatisfaction with how Hammer had been treating his most iconic role.  He came to AD 1972 out of sheer desperation, as several projects he had signed on to had fallen through at the last minute.  It would seem that the presence of Cushing re-energized him, however, as he approaches the role of Dracula with a gusto that had been notably absent in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) and Scars of Dracula (1970).


The two stars cross path on screen at the beginning (in a wonderful, nineteenth century-set prologue) and again at the end, and their chemistry remains as palpable as ever. Fans would react with mixed emotions at the updated setting, however, and for some the film remains the nadir of the series. Even so, the Lee/Cushing dynamic remained untarnished, and more collaborations were ahead, in short order…



Late in 1971, Lee and Cushing flew to Madrid to make Horror Express.  For Lee, working in the Spanish film scene was nothing new – he had already done several films for Jess Franco, after all.  But for Cushing, leaving the confines of England was a different matter.  He had filmed in Spain and other locales in the 50s – but always with Helen tagging along for support.  Things were different now and with the Christmas holiday looming, he had a change of heart. Fortunately, Lee’s friendship and encouragement would prompt Cushing to stick with it – and thank goodness for it.  Horror Express (1972) would emerge as one of the most purely enjoyable films of either actor  career – and in many respects, it may remain the definitive Lee/Cushing movie.


The two actors are cast to type – Lee stuffy and imperious, Cushing impish and charming – but the characters allow them to grow in interesting ways.  Lee is particularly good as the pompous archaeologist who does an about-face when he realizes that his indifference towards the mayhem is monstrous in itself. He ends up as a swashbuckling hero, rescuing the damsel-in-distress (Silvia Tortosa) in the process.  Cushing is also in fine form as Lee’s scientific rival, and the two actors have some marvelous dialogue.  Cushing’s “Monsters?  We’re British, you know!” is rightly famous, but I always get a chuckle out of Lee’s impatient “What’s he raving about?!,” directed at guest star Telly Savalas, who shows up long enough to liven things up in the final act.


Director Eugenio Martin keeps the action moving at a terrific clip and for once, Lee and Cushing are afforded more-or-less equal screen time.  The supporting cast is marvelous as well, notably Alberto De Mendoza as the Rasputin-like Pujardov, a religious fanatic who crosses swords with Lee (who, of course, played Rasputin himself, for Hammer) and the afore-mentioned Savalas, who makes for an unlikely Cossack but is thoroughly delightful, just the same.


  



After this, it was back to England – but The Creeping Flesh wouldn’t be produced by Hammer or Amicus.  Instead, the “other” major UK genre studio, Tigon, was responsible for this – their only Lee/Cushing vehicle.  In what could only be seen as an amazing coincidence, the story bore a strong resemblance to that of Horror Express: in both films, an ancient fossil is unearthed which contains a clue to the origin of Evil.

 


Horror Express had been a fast paced romp, while The Creeping Flesh was darker, slower and altogether more somber.  The film would mark a return to form for director Freddie Francis, who had spent much of the 70s hacking out one poor film after another – Tales from the Crypt (1972) to one side.  The literate and intriguing script for The Creeping Flesh inspired him to make a more committed job of it, and he responds with one of his most carefully crafted films.  Only a gratuitous subplot involving Kenneth J. Warren’s escaped convict drags the film down; it’s not that these scenes are bad, they’re simply pointless and scream “filler”.



Top-billed Lee isn’t in it as much as all that, but he’s in great form as the embittered half-brother to Cushing’s pampered scientist.  Lee conveys the hurt, resentment and burning anger that is quietly bubbling under the surface and manages to steal every scene he is in.  Cushing has the larger role, and the showier one, and he impresses as the slightly addle-brained researcher.  In what was becoming an obsessive trope, the actor plays a lonely widower who is assailed by memories of his late wife.  Cushing brings tremendous pathos to the role, making him instantly sympathetic, and the ambiguous fade-out makes it unclear whether the story really did happen or if it was just a paranoid delusion.  Lorna Heilbron steals the film from her stars as Cushing’s na├»ve daughter, who succumbs to the taint of evil.  Duncan Lamont, Michael Ripper and other stalwarts help to boost up the faux Hammer flavor, and Paul Ferris contributes a good, creepy soundtrack.


The same year, Christopher Lee would launch his own production company, Charlemagne Productions; the name derived from his illustrious ancestor, the Emperor Charlemagne, and the intent was to create a company that could give Hammer and Amicus a run for their money by producing mature, “up market” horror films for the discerning viewer.  Sadly, Lee would lose control of the project early on and Nothing but the Night would become a problematic film on many levels.

 


The script was based on the novel of the same name by John Blackburn,.  There was a good story to be told there, and in a sense its tale of “possessed” children anticipated a certain Hollywood blockbuster by a year… but the film would be a rather listless and dreary affair, and Rank’s inability to do much with the film in the UK coupled with distribution woes in the US put an end to Lee’s dream of running his own company.

 


 

None of this should suggest that the film is a total loss, however.  Director Peter Sasdy had just directed three fine films for Hammer (one of which, Taste the Blood of Dracula, was among the better of Hammer’s Dracula series) but his stylistic verve is only evident in spurts here.  Too much of the narrative is given over to an unappealing love story between Keith Barron and Georgia Brown, while Lee and Cushing linger on the sidelines as a sort of modern-day Holmes and Watson team.  Lee comes into his own in the second half and gives a commanding performance, while Cushing struggles with a rather unusually bitchy characterization which requires him to snap a lot and shoot plenty of dark glances.


The film builds to a memorable, fiery finale which can’t help but remind viewers of another, much better Lee vehicle from the same period: The Wicker Man (1973).  Speaking of which, it has been rumored that Cushing was considered for the pivotal role of Sergeant Howie in that film – which would likely have made The Wicker Man the most artistically rewarding of their many films together… but the reality is, Cushing was much too old for the part and the man who eventually got the job, Edward Woodward, did a brilliant job with it. If Cushing ever had any particular feelings on nearly being a part of The Wicker Man, he never said so. In any event, his career would continue to move full steam ahead...

The final part of 'Talent To Terrify' will be posted this weekend: 'The Count's Last Stand..And The Gang 's Here Too!'

'A Talent To Terrify: The Twenty Two Films Of Peter Cushing And Christopher Lee is written by Troy Howarth with images and artwork by Marcus Brooks.




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