THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

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Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE OBLONG BOX (1969)

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This one is a reprint from September 2010, originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association:

 

IN THE SPOOKGLIGHT

By

Michael Arruda

 

Vincent Price made a career playing over-the-top hammy dramatic characters in colorful period pieces in the 1960s.  He’s at it again in THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a film in which he is paired with Christopher Lee.

THE OBLONG BOX is loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name—very loosely, as in just borrowing the title!

The story begins in Africa, with Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) tortured by natives, his face apparently scarred beyond recognition. Markham’s brother Sir Julian Markham (Vincent Price) arrives too late to save him.

They return to England, with Sir Edward now a crazed lunatic. Sir Julian is forced to keep his brother locked in chains in an upstairs bedroom of their mansion.  With the help of a family friend Samuel Trench (Peter Arne), Edward plans his escape.  They hire an African witch doctor to supply Edward with a drug to imitate death.  The plan is for Edward to be removed from the house as a “corpse” only to be revived and rescued later by Trench.

However, Julian immediately seals Edward’s lifeless body inside a coffin and unknowingly buries his brother alive. Trench decides rescuing Edward from a premature burial is too dangerous and out of the question, and so he leaves him for dead.

Meanwhile, Dr. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee) has been paying grave robbers to supply him with bodies for his research. As luck would have it, his grave robbers dig up Edward. When Neuhartt opens the coffin inside his laboratory, Edward attacks him but doesn’t kill him, deciding he could use the doctor as an accomplice.

Edward then dons a crimson hood and seeks revenge against both Trench and his brother, going on a bloody rampage through the countryside, slitting the throats of his victims. Eventually, Julian discovers his brother is still alive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between brothers, as well as the obligatory unmasking of Edward’s hideous face.

THE OBLONG BOX has long been considered too long, too slow, and too rambling by critics, but I’ve always liked its intricate plot with its many pathways.   It takes the viewer along a very creepy ride, with premature burials, African voodoo, a masked maniac, and bloody murders.

THE OBLONG BOX was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves, the talented young director who had just finished another Price movie, THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) [also known as THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL), a film that had been very well received. Sadly, Reeves died before he could direct THE OBLONG BOX, and so the directing duties went to Gordon Hessler.

A lot has been made of Hessler’s lackluster direction of this picture, and I would have to agree. In spite of its strong story, there really aren’t a lot of memorable scenes in THE OBLONG BOX.  On the contrary, there are a lot of weak scenes. The bloody killings are tepid and the blood obviously fake, and the final confrontation between Edward and Julian is also a disappointment, as well as the unmasking scene.  The make-up job on Edward’s face is embarrassingly routine. Still, Hessler can direct.  Five years later, he would be at the helm of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), one of the best of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies.

The acting is just OK. With Vincent Price, you get exactly what you would expect, an over-the-top hammy performance. As always, he’s fun to watch.  Christopher Lee is cast against type as the decent Dr. Neuhartt, but sadly, there’s not a lot for him to do with this role.

Alister Williamson is a disappointment as Sir Edward Markham.  As the main villain, Edward should dominate this movie. He doesn’t. Had Christopher Lee played Edward, THE OBLONG BOX would have been a much better movie. Of course, I can understand Lee not always wanting to play the bad guy. Trouble is, he’s just so damned good at it! I wish he had played the role.

Speaking of bad guys, probably the most memorable performance in THE OBLONG BOX belongs to Peter Arne as Samuel Trench. Trench is the slimiest character in this movie, and Arne plays him to the hilt.

But the most disappointing part of this movie is that in spite of the pairing of the two horror superstars, Price and Lee only share one brief scene together. Rip-off!

And the final nail in the coffin— heh, heh— regarding THE OBLONG BOX is that its ending doesn’t make any sense. It’s one of those endings where you see it and you know it was shot just to have a shocking last scene, even though based upon what has happened before, it makes little or no sense.

But even with all these flaws, I still like THE OBLONG BOX, for the simple reason that I love its plot, an exciting roller coaster ride of frights and thrills.  The screenplay was written by Lawrence Huntington, with additional dialogue by Christopher Wicking.

THE OBLONG BOX is an example of a movie that succeeds because of the strength of its writing. The direction is fair and the acting okay, but it’s the writing that lifts this one to memorable status, which is a rare thing in movies, a medium dominated by directors and actors.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKULL (1965)

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in THE SKULL (1965).

 

Amicus Productions, the other horror film company from Great Britain that competed with Hammer Films in the 1960s-70s, is famous for their anthology horror movies, but one of their all time best horror films is not an anthology flick but one that tells a single story.

It’s THE SKULL (1965), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and it’s one of the better horror films to come out of the 1960s, if not for anything else, for its original story.

Of course, it helps to have superior source material.  THE SKULL is based on the story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by Robert Bloch.

THE SKULL (1965) tells the story of Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), a collector of all things macabre, who is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade by the shady buyer and seller Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark). Not sure if he wants to add it to his collection or not, Maitland visits his friend Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) to seek advice on the item’s authenticity and is shocked when Sir Matthew tells him it is the real deal because Marco stole it from him. When Maitland offers to help Sir Matthew get it back, Sir Matthew tells him he wants no part of it and warns Maitland against purchasing it, citing the skull’s dangerous supernatural powers. Maitland scoffs at his friend’s warning and even calls him a coward, saying he’d welcome the full force of the skull’s powers if they existed so he could write about them.

Maitland goes ahead and adds the skull to his collection.

You should have listened to your friend’s advice.

Because it turns out that the skull is indeed evil, and it leads to the death and destruction of everyone who comes in contact with it.

THE SKULL has a lot of things going for it, and it’s one of those movies that has aged well and holds up better today than when it first came out.

For starters, it’s one of the first Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror movies not to be a period piece. It’s set in modern times, and as such, as much as I enjoy all the period piece Hammer Films, THE SKULL plays like a breath of fresh air.

THE SKULL also gives Cushing and Lee a chance to appear in the same scenes together and actually hold some intriguing conversations. Prior to THE SKULL, most of their movie scenes together involved them dueling to the death, with Cushing’s hero usually gaining the upper hand over Lee’s monster. Here, they share some noteworthy scenes together. My favorite is their conversation over a game of pool where they argue over the power of the skull. With a little imagination it’s easy to perceive this scene as a dialogue between Baron Frankenstein and Scaramanga. It kinda has that feel.

There’s also a neat dream sequence— or is it?— where Cushing’s Maitland is whisked away by some weird gangster thugs and taken to a secret court where he’s forced to play russian roulette with a loaded pistol. It’s a bizarre sequence, but it really works.

The special effects here for a 1965 movie aren’t half bad.  The skull looks pretty cool, and the scenes shot from inside the skull, an idea conceived by director Freddie Francis, also work.

But what works against the movie, and in the past, used to prevent me from truly loving it, is it has pacing issues, especially towards the end, where there are long scenes of Peter Cushing sitting and staring at the skull, which are hardly all that thrilling.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

One, according to director Freddie Francis, the script by producer Milton Subotsky was largely unfinished and resembled more of an outline than a full-fledged screenplay. According to Francis, he had to add quite a bit to the film’s story to make it reach feature-length.

Also, while Freddie Francis directed a lot of movies, he’s more known for his cinematography, for films in the 1950s, and later, on such classics as THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and GLORY (1989). He’s not one of my favorite horror movie directors, although I did enjoy his work on DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which I think is his best horror movie.

But as I said, THE SKULL has aged well, and I regard it much more highly than I did say thirty years ago.

The pacing remains slow, but that seems to matter less now, because its scenes of horror have only gotten better. It opens with an extremely atmospheric graveyard scene which takes place in the 1800s, and so even though this one isn’t a period piece, it begins that way, which makes its switch to modern-day later all the more effective.

There’s something very intelligent and artistic about the entire production, and that’s the part that seems to have gotten better with age. The other notable thing about THE SKULL is it’s not a movie where the good guys win. The forces of darkness are the victors here. In fact, the entire movie seems to be seeped in an aura of evil. It really resonates.

And the film has a very strong cast.  Of course, you have Cushing and Lee, but they’re supported by folks like Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, and Michael Gough.

Peter Cushing always delivers a top-notch performance, although his best work is when he plays the hero or the villain. Here, as Christopher Maitland, he’s a flawed character who isn’t strong enough to fend off the powers of the skull, but as such, it’s rather refreshing to see him play this kind of role.

Christopher Lee’s Sir Matthew Phillips is largely a supporting role, but it is an excellent performance nonetheless. As many of Lee’s early performances so often were, it went largely unnoticed by critics, but he is quite good here as the man who, unlike Maitland, realizes just how dangerous the skull is and tries to tell his friend to walk away from the supernatural object.  Lee does a terrific job creating a character who shows both strength and fear.

Producer and writer Milton Subotsky had a vision for this film to be a feature-length horror movie with very little dialogue. He once said in an interview, “It’s a fantastic film and I think, will someday be considered a horror classic.”

It may have taken over 50 years, but I think Subotsky was right.

We’ve reached the point where we can safely call THE SKULL a classic horror movie from the 1960s.

–END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CURSE OF THE FLY (1965)

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the curse of the fly poster

THE CURSE OF THE FLY (1965), the third movie in the original “FLY” series, is the odd duck of the FLY family.

First of all, the monster known as “the Fly,” that human-fly hybrid with the hideous fly head atop a man’s body does not appear in this film. Second, neither does Vincent Price who starred in the first two films. And third, whereas the first two movies were American productions, this one hails from the UK.

As a kid, I never liked this movie for the simple reason that the “Fly” did not appear in it. But don’t let that major omission fool you, because at the end of the day, THE CURSE OF THE FLY is a well-written horror story that has a lot of things going for it, which is a rarity, because usually by the time you get to the third film in a series, there’s a lot of repetition.  Not so here. THE CURSE OF THE FLY pretty much stands on its own.

The original THE FLY (1958) was about a scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) whose experiments with a teleportation machine went awry when unbeknownst to him a fly got trapped inside the device with him, and during the transport. their genes were spliced together, and what emerged from the machine was a monster with a fly’s head on a man’s body.

The sequel RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) followed Andre’s adult son Philippe (Brett Halsey) as he continued his father’s experiments, and he too had fly trouble and was also transformed into a fly monster. Vincent Price appeared in both films as Francois Delambre, Andre’s brother and Philippe’s uncle. Strangely, in spite of Price’s star power, his roles in these two FLY movies were simply supporting ones.

In THE CURSE OF THE FLY, we meet yet another son of Andre’s, Henri Delambre (Brian Donlevy) who with his two adult sons continues to work on saving the Delabmre legacy by continuing to tinker with the teleportation machines. At least these folks are careful and make sure there aren’t any flies in the machines with them. So, while there is no fly monster in this movie, there are mutants. See, in spite of all this tinkering, the Delambres still have not perfected the technology, and the mutants are all the victims of their experiments. The Delambres keep them locked in secret rooms on their property.

THE CURSE OF THE FLY is mostly about Henri’s son Martin (George Baker) who in spite of his father’s dedication to the cause wants out of the family business.  Good thinking there, Martin!  Instead of helping his dad, Martin decides to get married, and he surprises his father when he returns home with his new bride, the lovely Patricia Stanley (Carole Gray.)  Henri believes this is a bad idea, having a stranger on the property when they’re conducting their experiments, but once he meets Patricia, he changes his mind and welcomes her into their home.

But unbeknownst to both of them, Patricia has escaped from a mental institution, and this is why THE CURSE OF THE FLY is such an interesting movie. It has a really neat story. In fact, the film opens with Patricia running aimlessly along a dark road where she is almost hit by a car driven by Martin. Yep, this is how the two of these characters meet, and shortly thereafter, they fall in love and get married. For Martin, it’s all part of his getting away from his dad, and for Patricia, it’s about her getting away from the institution.

And later, when she begins to see strange things at the house, like the mutants, she begins to wonder if she’s going crazy again. So really, even more so than the Delambres, THE CURSE OF THE FLY is about Patricia and pretty much follows her story arc.

THE CURSE OF THE FLY was directed by Don Sharp, who directed a few Hammer Films, including their highly regarded THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), Hammer’s follow-up to THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). Sharp also directed the first two Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies, THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (1965) and THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966).

Sharp gives THE CURSE OF THE FLY a definite British feel. It’s creepy throughout, and its black and white photography only adds to the mood.

And that’s easy to do here because THE CURSE OF THE FLY has a strong screenplay by Harry Spalding. The story is believable and the dialogue matter-of-fact and realistic, and I love the dueling story arcs.  You have Patricia’s story on the one hand crossing paths with the whole Delambre plot.  It’s really a neat story.

Carole Gray is convincing as Patricia, the young woman with mental issues who finds herself living in a house with people conducting strange experiments.  Gray also starred in the thrilling science fiction movie ISLAND OF TERROR (1966), which was directed by Terence Fisher and starred Peter Cushing.

George Baker is just as good as Martin Delambre.

Brian Donlevy, who enjoyed a long career spanning four decades, and who starred in two early Hammer movies, THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1955) and ENEMY FROM SPACE (1957) gets top billing here.

While there are no “monsters” in this one, there’s lots of creepiness, making THE CURSE OF THE FLY a worthy entry in the FLY series.

Summer time is almost here. So the next time you grab the mustard and curse the fly you’re swatting off your hot dog, think of poor Patricia, living in a house with mad scientists and mutants, in the nightmare world of THE CURSE OF THE FLY.

—END—

 

 

 

 

THE HORROR JAR: Genre Films Where PETER CUSHING Did NOT Play A Doctor/Scientist/Professor

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Peter Cushing and the Skull in THE SKULL (1965), a horror film in which Cushing did not play a doctor.

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists of odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.

Up today, my all time favorite horror movie actor, Peter Cushing.

When you think of Peter Cushing, his two most famous roles immediately come to mind, Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing, two characters who were also both doctors.  In fact, a lot of Cushing’s roles in horror movies were of medical doctors, professors, or scientists.  So much so, that I thought:  when did he not play a doctor?

Turns out— many times.

Here’s a look at those roles, the times Peter Cushing starred in a horror or science fiction film but did not play a doctor or scientist.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959) – Sherlock Holmes.  Technically not a horror film, but that being said, Hammer Films added plenty of horror elements to their rendition of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tale.  Directed by Terence Fisher, with Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville.  Superior little movie, atmospheric and full of thrills, with Cushing’s energetic Holmes leading the way.

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Cushing as Holmes in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959).

 

NIGHT CREATURES (1962) – Rev. Dr. Blyss – even though the character is identified in the credits as “Dr. Blyss” he’s really the vicar of the small village of Dymchurch— check that, he’s actually the infamous pirate Captain Clegg, hiding out, posing as the vicar, while secretly smuggling rum in this rousing adventure/horror tale by Hammer Films.  Cushing at his energetic best.

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Peter Cushing delivers one of his best performances, as Captain Clegg/Dr. Blyss in NIGHT CREATURES (1962).

 

SHE (1965) – Major Holly – lost cities, a supernatural woman, and lots of action in this fantasy adventure by Hammer Films.

THE SKULL (1965) – Christopher Maitland – plays a private collector interested in the occult who purchases the skull of the Marquis de Sade with deadly results.  Christopher Lee co-stars as Cushing’s rival in this fine horror film by Hammer’s rival, Amicus Productions.

TORTURE GARDEN (1967) – Lancelot Canning – another film by Amicus, this one an anthology film featuring five horror stories based on the works of Robert Bloch.  Cushing appears in the fourth segment, “The Man Who Collected Poe,” once more playing a collector of the macabre.  Jack Palance co-stars with Cushing in this segment.

THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968) – Inspector Quennell-  One of Peter Cushing’s worst movies.  In fact, Cushing himself considered it his worst.  Produced by Tigon Films, a company that tried to join Hammer and Amicus as a voice in British horror but ultimately failed.  The monster is a woman who turns into a giant moth that preys on men’s blood, and Cushing plays the police inspector (in a role originally written for Basil Rathbone) who tries to stop her.

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970) – Major Heinrich Benedek – pretty much just a cameo in this film, famous for being the first time Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price all starred together in the same movie.  A bizarre flick, perfect for 1970, but ultimately a disappointment as Cushing and Lee only appear briefly, while Price gets a bit more screen time.

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) – General von Spielsdorf – Cushing finally appears in a vampire movie where he’s not a doctor or a professor!  This time he’s a general, but he’s still hunting vampires in this atmospheric and very sensual vampire film from Hammer, starring Ingrid Pitt as the vampire Carmilla.  The first of Hammer’s “Karnstein” vampire trilogy.

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) – Philip Grayson – Another anthology film by Amicus.  Cushing stars in the second segment “Waxworks” and plays a retired stockbroker who runs afoul of a nefarious wax museum.  Director Peter Duffell once said in an interview that Peter Cushing’s entire segment in this film was simply a contrivance to place his head on a platter, which remains one of the more shocking images from the film.

TWINS OF EVIL (1971) – Gustav Weil – Cushing is excellent (as he always is) in this vampire film from Hammer, playing a different kind of vampire hunter.  He leads the Brotherhood, a fanatical group of men seeking out witches in the countryside, a group that is every bit as deadly as the vampires.  As such, when the vampire threat becomes known, and the Brotherhood turn their attention to the undead, it makes for a much more interesting dynamic than the typical vampire vs. heroes.  It’s one of Cushing’s most conflicted roles.  There’s a scene where he laments that he only wanted to do the right thing, that really resonates, because for most of the film, he’s been doing the very worst things.  The third “Karnstein” vampire film.

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Peter Cushing as the fanatical Gustav Weil in TWINS OF EVIL (1971).

 

I, MONSTER (1971) – Utterson – plays a lawyer in this version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale by Amicus, which changed the names of Jekyll and Hyde to Marlowe and Blake, played here by Christopher Lee.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) – Arthur Edward Grimsdyke – famous Cushing role in yet another anthology film by Amicus.  Cushing appears in the third segment, “Poetic Justice” where he plays an elderly junk dealer who is terrorized into suicide by his neighbors, but a year later, and this is why the role is famous, he returns from the grave.

DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972) – Captain – cameo in this Vincent Price sequel.  Blink and you’ll miss him.

ASYLUM (1972) – Smith – appears in the segment “The Weird Tailor” in this anthology film by Amicus.

FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972) – The Headmaster – plays a sinister headmaster, in this thriller written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, and also starring Joan Collins and Ralph Bates.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) – The Proprietor – plays the owner of an antique shop, and the man in the wraparound story in this Amicus anthology horror vehicle.

MADHOUSE (1974) – Herbert Flay – plays a screenwriter in this one, and best friend to Vincent Price’s horror actor Paul Toombes.  Toombes is having a rough go of it, as the character he played in the movies- Dr. Death – seems to be committing murders in real life.  A really interesting movie, not a total success, but definitely worth a look, mostly because Price and Cushing share equal and ample screen time in this one.

TENDRE DRACULA – Macgregor – bizarre ill-conceived French horror comedy, notable for featuring Cushing’s one and only performance as a vampire.

LAND OF THE MINOTAUR (1976) – Baron Corofax – plays the villain to Donald Pleasence’s heroic priest in this tale of devil worship and demons.

STAR WARS (1977) – Grand Moff Tarkin – aside from his work in Hammer Films, the role which Cushing is most known for.  As Tarkin, he’s the one character in the STAR WARS universe who bossed Darth Vader around and lived to tell about it.

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Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS (1977).

 

SHOCK WAVES (1977) – SS Commander – Nazi zombies attack!    Nuff said.  With John Carradine.

THE UNCANNY (1977) – Wilbur – Cushing plays a writer who learns that cats are a little more “active” than he first imagined in yet another horror anthology film.

MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND (1981) – William T. Kolderup – plays the “richest man in America” in this bizarre horror comedy.

HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983) – Sebastian Grisbane – famous teaming of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and John Carradine in the same movie for the first (and only) time ever, this really isn’t a very good movie.  It tries hard, and ultimately isn’t all bad, but could have been so much better.  Price and Lee fare the best.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE MASKS OF DEATH (1984) – Sherlock Holmes – Holmes comes out of retirement to solve a case.   Again, not horror, per se, but since this film was directed by Roy Ward Baker, written by Anthony Hinds, and of course starred Peter Cushing, there is a definite Hammer Films feel about this movie.  John Mills plays Dr. Watson.

There you have it.  A list of genre films starring Peter Cushing where he did not play a doctor, scientist or professor.  Perhaps next time we’ll have a look at those films where he did don a lab coat or carry a medical bag.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price: Their Busiest Years

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Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price all share birthdays in May— Cushing on May 26, 1913, Lee on May 27, 1922, and Price on May 27, 1911.

To celebrate, here’s a column where we’ll look at their busiest years in the business, and they had a lot of them.  According to IMDB, Peter Cushing had 131 screen credits, Vincent Price had 201, and Christopher Lee surpassed them both with a whopping 281 screen credits.

But which years did they appear on screen the most?

For Peter Cushing, he had three such years.  In 1940—very, very early in his career— and in 1972, he made seven screen appearances.  But he did one better in 1974, with eight screen appearances.

Here are his eight screen credits from 1974:

1. SHATTER – Rattwood

2. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE  – The Proprietor

3. FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL – Baron Frankenstein

4. THE BEAST MUST DIE – Dr. Lundgren

5. THE ZOO GANG (TV series) Episode:  “The Counterfeit Trap” – Judge Gautier

6. MADHOUSE  – Herbert Flay

7. THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES – Professor Van Helsing

8. TENDER DRACULA, OR CONFESSIONS OF A BLOOD DRINKER  -MacGregor

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Peter Cushing plays Baron Frankenstein for the last time in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974), the year he made the most screen appearances, with eight.

There are a couple of “lasts” and a “first” in this list of credits for Peter Cushing during his busiest year in 1974.  Both his role as Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL and as Professor Van Helsing in THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES marked the last time he would play these characters.  He played Van Helsing five times in the movies, and Baron Frankenstein six times.

TENDER DRACULA, OR CONFESSIONS OF A BLOOD DRINKER, marked the first and only time that Peter Cushing played a vampire in a movie.

Also of note, Cushing co-starred with Vincent Price in MADHOUSE. And surprisingly, during his busiest year ever in terms of screen credits, Cushing did not star in any films with frequent co-star Christopher Lee that year.

 

Christopher Lee, with his 281 credits, seemed to be busy every year he was working, but his busiest year was very early in his career, in 1956, when he amassed 11 credits in that one single year.

Here they are:

1. CHEVRON HALL OF STARS (TV series), Episode:  “Captain Kidd” – Governor

2. PRIVATE’S PROGRESS – Major Schultz

3.ALEXANDER THE GREAT – Nectenabus (voice)

4.THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (TV series) – Louis

5. PORT AFRIQUE – Franz Vermes

6.PURSUIT OF THE GRAF SPEE – Manolo

7. BEYOND MAMBASA – Gil Rossi

8. RHEINGOLD THEATER (TV Series) – Appearances in various episodes

9. AGGIE (TV series) – Inspector John Hollis

10. SAILOR OF FORTUNE (TV series) – Yusif/Carnot

11. THE ERROL FLYNN THEATER (TV series) – The Visitant/Compte de Merret/Maurice Gabet

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Christopher Lee in the 1950s, right around his busiest year in the biz, 1956.

And while 1956 may have been Christopher Lee’s busiest year in terms of screen credits, it would be the following year that all his hard work would come to fruition, for in 1957 Christopher Lee would achieve international stardom for his role as The Creature in Hammer Film’s megahit, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), the film that also launched Peter Cushing’s international career, for his starring performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein.

 

Vincent Price didn’t have just one, but three busiest years of his career.  He made eight screen appearances in one year three times, in 1956, 1969, and 1970.

Here’s a look at those credits:

1956

1.SERENADE – Charles Winthrop

2.WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS – Walter Kyne

3.LUX VIDEO THEATRE (TV series) – Joseph Bentley/Dr.Austin Sloper/Christoff

4.THE ALCOA HOUR (TV series) – Alvanley

5.THE VAGABOND KING – Narrator (voice)

6.SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE (TV series) -Sgt. Gary Williams/Dr. Philip Redmond

7.THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – Baka

8. CROSSROADS (TV series) – Reverend Alfred W. Price/Rabbi GershomSeixas/Rev. Robert Russell

 

1969

1.MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE – Dan Ruffalo

2.DANIEL BOONE (TV series) – Dr. Thaddeus Morton

3. THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS – Mr. Morality

4.THE OBLONG BOX – Julian

5. BBC PLAY OF THE MONTH (TV series) – Dr. Austin Sloper

6.THE GOOD GUYS (TV series) – Mr. Middleton

7. WORLD WIDE ADVENTURES:  ANNABEL LEE (Short) – Narrator

8. GET SMART (TV series) – Dr. Jarvis Pym

 

1970

1.SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN – Dr. Browning

2.AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLAN POE – Narrator

3.CRY OF THE BANSHEE – Lord Edward Whitman

4.LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE (TV series)

5.HERE’S LUCY (TV series) – as Vincent Price

6. MOD SQUAD (TV series) – John Wells/Wentworth

7. HOLIDAY STARTIME SPECIAL (TV movie)

8.CUCUMBER CASTLE (TV movie) – Wicked Count Voxville

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Vincent Price in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)..

Some things of note regarding these credits:  in THE OBLONG BOX, he co-starred with Christopher Lee, and in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN he starred with both Lee and Peter Cushing, the first of only two times that all three of these actors appeared in the same movie together.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the busiest years in the careers of three of the busiest actors in horror film history.

Happy Birthday Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price!

Thanks for reading, everybody!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)

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Since Christopher Lee was not interested in playing Dracula again after Hammer Films’ megahit HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), (it would take him a few more years to change his mind) Hammer made a sequel without him, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), in which Peter Cushing reprised his role as Doctor Van Helsing.

And after the success of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, Hammer decided to follow it up with another vampire movie, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), this one without either Lee or Cushing, and without their A-List director, Terence Fisher.  It was directed by Don Sharp.

All this being said, while not as highly regarded as some of Hammer’s best vampire movies, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is nonetheless a well-made, well-acted, and extremely atmospheric vampire movie.  If not for a poorly conceived and executed conclusion, it would have been even better.

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE opens with a chilling pre-credit sequence which is quintessential Hammer.  As the village priest leads a burial ceremony, complete with grieving townspeople, a man Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), arrives upon the scene.  Taking a shovel, he drives it into the loose soil of the girl’s grave, causing a fountain of bright red blood to gush from underneath the ground.  Cue James Bernard’s rousing music score.  It’s a perfect beginning to another atmospheric Hammer vampire film.

A young couple Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel) on their honeymoon arrive in a small European village, stranded there temporarily when their car runs out of petrol.  They are invited to the castle overlooking the village, and there they meet their host, Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) who introduces the couple to his family, which consists of his son and daughter, and he promises to get them some petrol so they can continue their journey.

In the meantime, Dr. Ravna invites Gerald and Marianne to a party at the castle.  It seems like the perfect idea, until Gerald and Marianne realize that their hosts— and in fact all the guests— are vampires!  We’ll take that petrol now, thank you very much!

When Marianne is abducted by this undead family, Gerald turns to the knowledgable Professor Zimmer for help in saving Marianne and destroying the vampires.

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE has a lot of things going for it.  First off, it looks fabulous.  In terms of atmosphere and capturing that whole vampire feel, it’s up there with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).  Director Don Sharp deserves a lot of credit for the way this one looks.

And while its story is nothing new— young couple runs afoul of a vampire in a remote European village— there are parts of it that are refreshing.  For instance, instead of one vampire, we have a family of vampires, and eventually an entire congregation of vampires.

The Ravna family is charming, hospitable, and friendly.  They don’t seem like vampires at all.  It’s easy to see how Gerald and Marianne let their guard down so easily.  And unlike the traditional black and red garb that Dracula wears, Ravna and his vampires wear white robes.

Producer Anthony Hinds wrote the screenplay under his pen name “John Elder.”  Hinds wrote a lot of Hammer Films, including some of their best, films like THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), to name just a few.  It’s an intriguing screenplay.

There are things, however, that don’t work all that well.

For starters, Noel Willman is no Christopher Lee.  His vampire Dr. Ravna is a little too non-vampiric. He comes off as polite and gentlemanly, with just a touch of vulgarity.  He’s hardly sensual, and the scenes where he commands his vampire women to do his bidding are difficult to believe.  The best part of his performance is it’s easy to believe when village officials refute accusations that he’s a vampire since he’s the area’s most upstanding citizen.  Willman pulls off this side of Ravna’s personality with ease.  The problem is he doesn’t do much with the other side, the darker side.  He’s not much of a vampire.

Barry Warren and Jacquie Wallis are both rather wooden as Ravna’s adult vampire children, Carl and Sabena.  The best vampire performance in the movie belongs to Isobel Black as Tania, one of the village girls held captive by the Ravnas, who is turned into a vampire.  Black’s Tania is sensuous, mesmerizing, and eager to drink blood.

Edward de Souza makes for an amiable hero as Gerald Harcourt, although he does tend to overract a bit at times, something he didn’t do in his earlier Hammer Film appearance, in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).

Jennifer Daniel is less effective as heroine Marianne Harcourt.  She’s rather blah.

And as the main hero, the eccentric Professor Zimmer, Clifford Evans does an adequate job, although just as Noel Willman is no Christopher Lee, Evans is no Peter Cushing either, and Zimmer is no Van Helsing.  KISS OF THE VAMPIRE definitely misses a strong presence like Cushing or Lee.  But Evans is a very good actor, and in the scenes where Zimmer is not drunk, Evans makes him an effective vampire hunter.

While director Don Sharp makes KISS OF THE VAMPIRE a very atmospheric vampire movie, he doesn’t handle the horror scenes as well.  The scene where Harcourt and Professor Zimmer rescue Marianne from Ravna’s clutches lacks punch, and there really aren’t any memorable shock scenes in this one, other than the pre-credit sequence.

Then there’s the ending.

The conclusion where Professor Zimmer uses a black mass ritual to destroy the vampires was originally conceived for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).  The vampire in that movie, Baron Meinster, was supposed to have been torn apart by a horde of vampire bats, unleashed by a ritual performed by Dr. Van Helsing, but Peter Cushing balked at this idea, claiming that Van Helsing wouldn’t resort to the dark arts to defeat a vampire, a decision I believe he was spot-on with.

So writer Hinds went with that idea for his ending to KISS OF THE VAMPIRE.  While it’s an intriguing idea, mostly because having bats attack and destroy your vampires is pretty unique when it comes to vampire movie endings, I’m still not sure I understand it. Professor Zimmer says his ritual will in effect turn the forces of darkness on each other, but I’ve never understood why this happens.  What is it that Zimmer does that makes the vampire bats attack the vampires?  Are they confused?  Vengeful that the vampires allowed Zimmer to perform this ritual?  It’s never clearly explained in the movie.

The sequence is ultimately done in by inferior special effects.  The incoming swarm of vampire bats descending upon the Ravna castle is filmed with cheap animation, looking like the bats in SCOOBY DOO cartoons.

The bats inside the castle look just as fake and don’t look any better than the bats used in the old Universal Dracula movies.  In fact, in color, they actually look a bit worse.

As such, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE has never been one of my favorite Hammer movies.  It’s not bad, but it lacks the sensuality and horror usually associated with the best of the Hammer vampire flicks.

Then again, if the vampiric Tania were to show up at your bedroom window in the dead of night, I doubt you’d be able to turn her away.  In fact, I’d wager to guess you’d be powerless to prevent her from giving you the KISS OF THE VAMPIRE.

Wild garlic, anyone?

—END—