Happy Birthday to Peter Cushing! Here Are His Ten Best Roles
Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, Michael Haffner, Sam Moffitt, and Tom Stockman
Peter Cushing, born on this day in 1913, was one of the most respected and important actors in the horror and fantasy film genres. To his many fans, the British star, who died in 1994, was known as ‘The Gentle Man of Horror’ and is recognized for his work with Hammer Films which began in the late 1950’s, but he had numerous memorable roles outside of Hammer. A topnotch actor who was able to deliver superb performances on a consistent basis, Peter Cushing also had range. He could play both the hero and the villain with ease.
Here, according to We Are Movie Geeks, are Peter Cushing’s ten best roles:
- 10. Dr. Maitland
During the 1960s, Amicus Studios had a knack for borrowing from the pool of Hammer Studios actors and filmmakers to make their own Hammer-inspired films. While these movies (some would call them rip-offs) were usually inferior to the original Hammer signature productions, with THE SKULL in 1965, they hit all aces. Based on a Robert Bloch (PSYCHO) story, THE SKULL got a Hammer director in Freddie Francis (EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA HAS RISEN…), plus the classic duo of Hammer Films actors, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. With Lee in solid support, Cushing essays one of his best roles as Dr. Maitland, a seemingly mild-mannered collector of occult objects. Unfortunately for Dr. Maitland, when his latest acquisition is the possessed skull of the Marquis de Sade, he gets much more than he bargained for. THE SKULL is a superior supernatural thriller shot with flair and imagination by Francis. The visual style is dark and foreboding, and some sequences are shot from the point of view of the skull, giving us a “skulls-eye view” if you will. This technique is used to great effect in the latter stages of the movie, as the evil spirit tries to exert its influence on Dr. Maitland. Cushing is excellent as a man of science and genteel nature being torn apart by forces he can neither understand nor control. The entire second half of the film is essentially a battle of wills between Maitland and the demonic skull, embodying all of de Sade’s “cruelty and savagery.” Many of these scenes have a nightmarish quality, such as when Maitland is forced to play Russian roulette. Here Cushing displays such simple desperation that we identify with him completely. By the film’s end, when the final struggle for Maitland’s soul is reaching a climax, Cushing expresses emotions by letting all the bewilderment, fear, and relief play across his face in various degrees. Even those of us most comfortable in our knowledge and beliefs can be undone when faced with the unknown.
- 9. Harry Fordyce
CASH ON DEMAND (1962) is a film that shows how versatile Peter Cushing could be. In a part with no fantastic or supernatural elements Cushing simply owns the movie, along with Andre Morrell who has a basically fool proof scheme to rob the bank (on Christmas Eve on less) which Cushing’s Harry Fordyce manages. Fordyce is the original horrible boss, brow beating and talking down to his employees, threatening their careers and throwing temper tantrums over ink pens and minute amounts of money. Morrell is holding Fordyce’ family hostage and threatens to kill them unless the vault is cleaned out by the end of the day. Fordyce has to help him or risk losing his wife and children who are “all he’s got”. In a heartbreaking scene he admits as much to an employee whose help he needs to insure the robbery goes as planned and that he “has no friends.” Cushing takes us from despising this little martinet to hoping he can somehow keep his family and his job. Shot and edited to more or less real time Cash on Demand is as suspenseful as the best Hitchcock films, and Cushing helps make it work beautifully as a thriller. He gives Fordyce a set of nervous mannerisms including, standing up on his tip toes and rocking back on his heels, straightening his tie, cocking his head to one side, adjusting his eyeglasses, smoothing his hair and by the film’s end he is doing them all at once bringing the tension to an excruciating level. And there is a double twist ending that is incredible and I would not reveal to anyone, watch it and see!
8. Dr. Who
DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965) was the first taste of the Doctor Who name for the American market (the TV show had yet to air stateside). It was not a success here though Cushing was cast instead of William Hartnell (the TV Doctor at the time) because he would have been more familiar to American audiences. Cushing’s Doctor in the film, and its sequel DALEKS INVASION EARTH 2150, is not a 900-year old nameless Timelord from the planet Gallifrey as in the show, but simply a daffy old human scientist named Dr. Who who’s invented a machine to travel through space and time. These changes are probably the reason why these films aren’t really recognized as proper Doctor Who amongst the show’s die-hard fans. Cushing plays the character as a kindly, absent-minded grandfather, similar to the character he would later play in AT THE EARTH’S CORE and a lighter portrayal than what the TV actors were known for. The story had Dr. Who and his companions encountering the metal monsters known as the Daleks on the lost planet of Skaro and was aimed squarely at the family adventure crowd. It was fun and colorful, yet never campy. Still, the show’s fans hated it at the time, though their opinion has softened over the years. DALEKS INVASION EARTH 2150, released the following year, was darker and a bit more serious, and is considered to be a superior sequel.
7. Reverend Blyss
In Hammer’s NIGHT CREATURES (1962) we get a look at how well Peter Cushing could play a part portrayed by another good actor around the same time period. About a year after Night Creatures was released to theaters Walt Disney broadcast The Scarecrow, an early miniseries, on Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Both productions tell essentially the same story, a tale of smuggling, secret identities and piracy based on stories written by Russell Thorndyke. Cushing is simply terrific as Dr. Blyss, the British title of Hammer’s production, a smarmy, self absorbed vicar in the tiny hamlet of Romney Marsh (he admits at one point his favorite topic of conversation is himself!) The vicar has a secret, he is really Captain Clegg a notorious pirate and now smuggler and many of the small town’s men are his own pirate crew. Patrick McGoohan played the same character in Disney’s beloved production under the character’s original name, Dr Syn. Both versions are excellent and are fine examples that show there is more than one way for good actors to play an engaging part. Just for more contrast there is a version from the 30s called Dr. Syn, with George Arliss, which is also a nice production.
- 6. Arthur Grimsdyke
When the great Mr. Cushing wasn’t haunting the hallowed halls of Hammer Studios he was often found at nearby Amicus Studios lending his considerable talents to their line of horror anthology features. In their biggest box office hit TALES FROM THE CRYPT, based on the much beloved EC comics line of the 1950’s, Peter was cast not as a demented doctor or an intrepid investigator, but finally got the full make-up treatment and played a monster, albeit a very sympathetic one. Comics originators Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein always said that the dead rising from the grave to exact revenge on their tormentors in life was their favorite type of spook story and such is the tale of Arthur Grimsdyke (a much better moniker than Abner from the original 1952 “Haunt of Fear” page-turner). For much of this segment (one of five in the 1972 flick) Cushing played a kindly, gentle character which, by many accounts, was much like the actor himself. Arthur rescues broken toys from the trash (he’s a long-time city worker), repairs them and gifts them to the neighborhood kids when not taking in stray dogs. This helps fill his days after the passing of his beloved wife. The fact that Cushing himself had lost his dear Helen after nearly 30 years of marriage (this was the first film he had done after a several month break to mourn) gives the scene of Arthur trying to talk to his wife via a “spirit board” an extra emotional heft. Unfortunately, the across the street neighbor lusts after his property and begins a campaign to get Arthur to vacate. The sequences of him losing his dog, his job, and his young “mates” (the helpful neighbor invited the local “mums” to tea and warn them about that “filthy old man”) are wrenching. The final straw is on Valentines Day as Arthur is stunned to receive a bundle of cards from the postman. But each one contains a cruel, taunting poem, courtesy of said neighbor. Your veins may be full of ice water if you aren’t moved by Cushing’s excellent work here. He goes from euphoric to bewildered to deflated in just a few seconds of screen time as he reads them aloud. This pushes him over the edge and sets up one of the film’s greatest images after a flash forward as the year-old corpse of Grimsdyke claws out of the grave. Kudos to make-up master Roy Ashton in giving us a ghoul worthy of original comic artist “Ghastly” Graham Ingles. Arthur’s sublime rhyme crime (couldn’t resist) is a memorable capper to the segment. Prior to this film we knew that Cushing could shiver our spines, but with this superb performance he proved he could also touch our hearts.
- 5. Sherlock Holmes
In 1959, riding high with their successes reviving Frankenstein and Dracula, Hammer Studios turned to one of the greatest detective stories ever written, A. Conan Doyle’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. It is said that the Sherlock Holmes character has been filmed more than any other, so it probably seemed like a grand idea to employ the formidable resources of Hammer to bring arguably the best Holmes story to life. The result was not only one of the best Hammer films, but also one of the best Sherlock Holmes movies of all time. Hammer brought their A-team to film the tale; director Terrence Fisher had already helmed Hammer’s reboots of Dracula and Frankenstein, with the Mummy soon to follow. Hammer’s dynamic duo of Cushing and Christopher Lee signed on to play Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, respectively. Add to these credits Hammer’s stable of production personnel, and the result is a prime example of the studio in its glory days, with a sumptuous musical score, outstanding sets and costumes, and atmospheric cinematography—the first Holmes story ever filmed in color. While some of the original book’s details were modified to augment the more Gothic and horrific elements of the story, the movie as a whole is a faithful adaptation. For his part, Lee was given the rare opportunity to play a romantic lead, which he relished—especially given the beauty of his costar, Marla Landi. Lee also once remarked that a difference between he and Cushing—and perhaps a key to their onscreen chemistry—was that he used a more economical style of acting, whereas Cushing was more energetic. Lee never moved or made an action unless it was necessary to the performance, while Cushing utilized constant motion and activity to enhance his portrayals. This quality serves Cushing well as Holmes, whether he is gesturing or walking about a room, he is in constant motion to show that a brilliant mind is capable of attending to both physical and mental chores with equal acuity. Cushing also uses his physical presence to display Holmes’ sometimes aggressive nature, by standing a bit too close to other characters when interrogating them. Cushing is so immersed in the portrayal that he doesn’t need to resort to disguises and subterfuge to gain an advantage in this investigation. Cushing is at times rude, reticent, or overbearing to not only accentuate the eccentricity of the classic character, but also to fool the audience into believing a character trait when the opposite is true. Unfortunately, audiences at the time were possibly oversaturated with Holmes, and the film fared poorly at the box office (the classic Basil Rathbone portrayals of Holmes were still relatively fresh, with the last Rathbone Holmes film released just a dozen years before Hammer’s version, to say nothing of the numerous 1950s television portrayals by Rathbone and others). As a result, a planned series of Holmes films starring Cushing never materialized. This is sad news for movie lovers, because with his precise diction, hat, and pipe, it’s elementary that Cushing was one of the very best incarnations of the world’s greatest detective.
- 4. Gustav Weil
“The Gentleman of Horror” may be best known to fright fans as Baron Von Frankenstein or Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing, but Cushing created just as memorable of a character with the terrifying Gustav Weil. The Hammer film TWINS OF EVIL arrived later in the British studio’s run of classic horror films. It’s considered the first in a loose trilogy of films called The Karnstein Trilogy; all of which stem from the erotic vampire novel CARMILLA. The family of vampires featured in the series is known for their ability to be able to walk around in the daylight and for their insatiable lust for the female flesh. Eliminating lesbian vampires is no easy task, but Gustav Weil’s main objective in TWINS OF EVIL is precisely that. In all seriousness though, Cushing plays the puritanical leader of a religious order called “The Brotherhood” with maniacal zeal and brutal intensity. You would hate the character all the more if it weren’t for a few scenes where you see that he may actually have a heart underneath his questionable ‘rule with an iron fist’ demeanor. He says to his wife in one scene, “I have tried always to be a good man.” Her response speaks to the essence of the character: Yes . . . you have tried. The character of Gustav Weil only appeared in TWINS OF EVIL. Cushing was meant to play a different vampire killer in all three of the Karnstein films but had to bow out of LUST FOR A VAMPIRE due to his wife’s illness and subsequent passing. It’s been widely discussed by some of his costars that Cushing was nothing more than a kind gentleman on the set between scenes. That kindness is nowhere to be found on-screen in Cushing’s take on the evilness that can reside in religious fervor.
- 3. Grand Moff Tarkin
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . . Peter Cushing portrayed one of the most intimidating figures in the galactic universe. Not just anybody can raise his or her voice to the supremely evil Darth Vader and scold him for force-choking someone. But that is exactly what Grand Moff Tarkin does in his very first scene in George Lucas’ original sci-fi classic. With his never changing stern expression and icy stare, Cushing commands every scene he’s in, which is actually only a handful of short scenes in the entire 121 minute film. Lucas was originally thinking that Cushing would play the part of Obi -Wan Kenobi – a part eventually given to Sir Alec Guinness – before having him play the small but integral role of a General in the Galactic Empire and commander of the Death Star. His prescience is felt on the Death Star as he plays a central part in the interrogation of Princess Leia. The character has become so popular with fans of the STAR WARS series that a younger version of him can be seen in EPISODE III- REVENGE OF THE SITH and for THE CLONE WARS animated tv series. Outside of his horror films with Hammer Studios, many remember Cushing the most for this small but pivotal role. Who needs more than 10 minutes of actual screen time when you get to deliver such juicy lines as, “We will then crush the rebellion with one swift stroke.”
- 2. Professor Van Helsing
Peter Cushing’s signature role aside from the obsessed corpse-stealing Baron (who was really more of a monster than any of his experiments) was this horror hero created by Bram Stoker. Cushing essayed some version of vampire slayer Van Helsing in five films, as opposed to his six outings as the demented doctor. Let’s start with the first and best outing, 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA. This is a more dynamic slayer than Edward Van Sloan’s slow-moving professor who faced Bela Lugosi in the 1931 DRACULA. Cushing gives us a determined crusader who’s not intimidated by the locals as he searches for Harker in 1885. Later we get a bit of whimsy as his servant is confused by Van Helsing’s use of an early version of a dictaphone (“I thought you were talking to someone” “Yes, I was talking to m’self”). But he’s all business as he meets the Holmwoods and see that Harker’s fiancée Lucy has been visited by the Count. Later the doctor is in full action hero mode as he swoops in to save Arthur and his little daughter Tania from a deadly kiss from his undead sister (love the cross searing into her forehead!). Then there’s the softer side of our hero as he gently comforts the shaken child ( Giving her a cross necklace “Will you wear this pretty thing?’ and bundling her up in his coat “You look like a Teddy bear”). But his best (and most physical) work is saved for the film’s fabulous finale. After a furious horse carriage chase, Van Helsing finds Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) attempting to hide from the approaching dawn. The two struggle and the doctor appears to pass out from the Count’s vise-like grip. But as the vampire leans in, fangs ready to strike, Van Helsing’s eyes burst open (ah, playing possum!). He’s able to push the fiend off of him, hop on to a long table, and leap to a curtain (like a classic film swashbuckler), ripping it away to reveal the streaming sunlight. But that’s not all! As Dracula tries to crawl away from those killing rays, Van Helsing stops him in his tracks by grabbing a pair of candlestick holders and using them as a cross to keep him at bay. Supposedly Cushing himself came up with many of the stunts, making for one of Hammer’s most thrilling hits (I saw it while home from school sick, catching it on the local TV morning move. I was practically bouncing off the walls during the last moments, adrenaline destroying that flu bug!). Of course, the studio would have to make a sequel, but it didn’t feature the Count (Lee wouldn’t don the cape and teeth again for several more years). Instead 1960’s THE BRIDES OF DRACULA stars Cushing once again as Abraham Van Helsing who tracks down a disciple of Dracula, Baron Meinster. We get to see the doctor early on as an almost fatherly figure to the innocent Marianne, the Baron’s intended victim. In order to protect her, he must do his job, first having to dispatch the tragic mother of the Baron (she actually tries to hide her fangs). The film’s high point is the big throw-down between the doctor and Meinster. But this has a much different outcome than the battle from the last film. Thanks in part to his crazed, still human, servant Greta, the Baron knocks out the doctor and bites him! When Van Helsing awakes, he sees the throat marks in a mirror. Cushing registers shock, despair, and resignation within seconds of his realization. But then his determination kicks in as he grabs a horseshoe maker’s tool from a blazing brazier (the fight was in a stable) and sears it into the wound. Before he passes out once more, he splashes his smoldering neck with holy water. The bite marks disappear and Van Helsing recovers in time to destroy Meinster using a windmill. It would be a dozen years before Cushing would return as the doctor in DRACULA A.D. 1972. This entry veers away from Hammer’s series as it opens in 1872 with Lawrence (?) Van Helsing and Dracula battling on top of a careening stagecoach. When it crashes, the Count (Lee again) is impaled on a broken wagon wheel. The doctor uses all of his strength to push Dracula on to the spikes, before he dies of his injuries. In the then modern year of 1972, the vampire lord is resurrected and sets his sights on Jessica, granddaughter of Professor Lorrimer (Cushing ) Van Helsing. The film focuses on the current “grooovey” trappings and gives Cushing little to do until the big rescue finale. The intervening years had taken a toll on the actor, and besides the opening sequence, there’s little action work. But the prof would be back next year in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA with Jessica now a member of the British Secret Service investigating an occult high society club and a plot by Drac to unleash a new plague (is he trying to destroy his own food supply?). Again, Cushing is kept out of much of the pseudo 007-style action until he must, once again, rescue his granddaughter from Drac in the big finale. The film’s highlight may be a conversation between Lorrimer and the mysterious D.D. Denham who is, in reality,the Count. In order to keep up the ruse, a harsh light is trained on the prof”s eyes while Dracula speaks in a heavy accent (Lee almost seems to be mimicking Lugosi). It was back to the past for Cushing’s final slayer role in the following year’s THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES. This co-production between Hammer and Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio set in 1904 finds him as Professor Lawrence Van Helsing (could he be the son of Abraham? A nephew?) enlisted to help a rural village in China destroy the title menace. Cushing stays out of most of the martial arts mayhem (yup, it’s the first kung-fu vampire flick), but goes into action in the final moments when it’s revealed that Kah the High Priest behind the seven is really (of course) Count Dracula in disguise. But Lee bowed out of this hybrid and actor John Forbes-Robertson is on the receiving end of Cushing’s spear. In five films over the course of sixteen years, Peter Cushing made this unstoppable adversary of evil one of the movies’ most dynamic, enduring heroes.
- 1. Doctor Frankenstein
While Peter Cushing mastered the role of hero with his portrayals of Dr. Van Helsing, it was his performances as the villainous Baron Victor Frankenstein that launched him to horror film immortality. Over the course of six films for Hammer studios, all but one directed by Terence Fisher, Cushing showed how a man can evolve into something truly evil because he is obsessed with the desire to bring life back to a corpse. In CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), the Doctor embarks on his life-long quest to be the first human being to create life. But, as in the sequels, the real monster is Victor Frankenstein, a man who becomes consumed first by ambition, then arrogance, and eventually madness. Cushing’s portrayal of Frankenstein however, makes this monster personable and likable – the viewer almost wishes at times that he succeeds in the end. Although Baron Frankenstein seemed to pay for his sins against man and nature with his life at the end of the first film, Hammer and director Fisher nonetheless managed to save him for the intelligently written and solidly directed sequel THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958). Assuming a new identity and becoming the director of a hospital for the poor, he builds a body for his crippled assistant (Michael Gwynn) from parts plucked from his patients. Unfortunately, body battles mind for supremacy and transforms the man into a shuffling, murderous cannibal. Cushing plays the Baron much more heroically and makes him less villainous than in Curse, however he doesn’t take the edge away. In THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1963 – the only film in the series not helmed by Terence Fisher but by Freddie Francis) the monster (Kiwi Kingston) is a flat-top Karloff clone that lumbers about and growls a lot. Although not as memorable as Christopher Lee’s creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, this monster does give Mr. Cushing plenty of opportunity to use his athleticism. The Baron chases, leaps on, and actually tangles with this beast, at one point using a burning lamp to fend him off. Many of the movie’s trappings are lifted directly from the Universal Frankenstein series— the monster frozen in ice, the return to the ransacked castle, the exploding lab at the movie’s end, making the film seems like an anomaly in the Hammer series. FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) is one of the most unusual Hammer films. Although ostensibly a horror film, it is probably better described as a gothic romance and as such, it ranks among most intelligent of all Frankenstein films. Here the doctor isn’t creating a patchwork man, but instead a beautiful woman (played by tragic beauty Susan Denberg) and attempting to inhabit her body with a soul. The story is a peculiar one, but it has all the elements of a great gothic tale – dark secrets, tragic love, and ultimate justice. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) is the one film where Peter Cushing plays the Baron as an utter villain – a blackmailer, rapist, murderer, and ruthless tyrant. In order to continue his experiments, the Baron blackmails a young couple into helping him abduct a brilliant but mad brain surgeon from the lunatic asylum so that he can operate on him, cure his sanity and transplant his brain into another body. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is the most unpleasant, yet suspenseful film in the series. In FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1973), Victor Frankenstein has shorn his old identity and taken control of an insane asylum that serves as a source of parts for his continuing experiments. With the help of a young medical student who has read Frankenstein’s 20-year-old texts on his early efforts, Frankenstein creates a creature (David Prowse) from parts of the inmates. The dark crowded asylum where the story takes place serves as the perfect mirror for Frankenstein’s mental state and Cushing’s intense and forceful performance of this man now lost in insanity is mesmerizing. Although Hammer Studios was in its waning days, this final reunion for Cushing and Terence Fisher, who together launched Hammer’s gothic dynasty with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, was a worthy end to their collaborations.