Many fans of both older horror movies, especially those from the Hammer Studios and Star Wars (1977) will likely have a fond remembrance of the horror icon Peter Cushing, he was more than a legendary actor, he had an immense passion and love for cinema and his wife, whose death greatly affected him on and off the screen. This tribute will focus on many aspects some most likely unaware of and while critics celebrate one’s birth, I choose to note their death, for it truly summarizes their entire life and dedication to the genre of horror. Peter is often found likely between horror icon’s Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, though his career would later more align to Lee, nevertheless he easily became part of the second generation of the ghoul pack; born on May 26, 1913 his career spanned over 6-decades, making at least 100 films, in multiple genres, but namely that of horror and thriller.
For those unaware of the greatness of Cushing, let’s refresh, for his life and early roles led to incredible twists and turns that plague and assisted him in becoming the legend. Most actors, have some sort of ailment that can ruin their lives, however, instead of cowardly running from it he fought against it, that was nyctophobia, which means the extreme fear of night or darkness, left from his upbringing under the bizarre control from his mother. Nevertheless, he didn’t use the conveniences of modern medicines, rather indulging in his love affair to bird watch, staying out until dusk and using that to force himself to overcome the phobia. It even extended to him taking strolls after midnight, focusing his mind other tasks, and roles in films to overcome this issue.
Cushing, started in the world of make-believe by losing himself in his comics, and creating puppet shows for family members and neighbors, he always enjoyed bringing smiles to audiences, this attribute would carryover throughout his career. He first achieved modest success with a scholarship to the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama and quickly learned sloppy auditions are never a proper way to achieve anything, and focused into the school of thought of Hard Knocks to improve his diction. It was actually a common issue for many actors from Sean Connery to Michael Douglas, each had the problem, but hard work and dedication to the craft of acting aids in overcoming them. This led to earning nearly 100 tiny bit roles in over 3-years, though his film debut came in 1939, in a director James Whale’s (Frankenstein ) The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), which he buffed his way into the role by claiming he was excellent fencer, reality no experience, but face it it’s something many actors did and continue to do in the business, fake it till you make it. Nevertheless, his break came from the movie Hamlet (1948) the movie earned Academy Award for Best Picture, he met his new friend Christopher Lee, they would work together for two non-horror movies, before embarking on Hammer Studios horror flicks.
Now, the portion that most hope for, the Horror Films, after a successful run with television programs (movies and episodes) Cushing read about a low-budget independent production studio seeking to adapt a new story of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, a story he much enjoyed as a child, and having previously worked with James Whale it all seem the perfect alignment of the stars. He found himself cast into the lead role for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), directed by Terence Fisher, as opposed to the Universal Studios movies which focused on the Monster, Hammer preferred to explore the Doctor. Those unfamiliar with this movie need to venture to discover it now, as Dr. Frankenstein seeks to achieve his own goals regardless of nature or man laws, while Lee played the Monster, their casting together only solidify the friendship and in fact lee, later became Cushing’s salvation. An interesting tidbit for this film, and something that Peter added to preparation, he would use props as an extension of his role, and showed the signs of method-acting, by contacting a surgeon to know how handle a scalpel properly as well as the facial looks at what he is seeing and doing translate to the audience authentically, he earned the nickname of “Props Peter”. WOW! All of that for one movie and best for the passion to cinema fans!
The success of the movie, green lighted Hammer Films and Cushing to join forces with The Abominable Snowman (1957) and then The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), which had reuniting with director Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. Then later in 1958, came the adaption of the Bram Stoker’s novel into Horror of Dracula brought back Lee once more and become horror duo for many more films, in fact 24. Lee, starred as Dracula, but the top-billing to Peter as Doctor Van Helsing, who noted his biggest challenge during filming, making sure he never misses when striking the stake into the undead. Silly thought, but he noted in a description, Helsing’s conviction to banish the devilish creatures, centers his determination, and how sloppy it would have been to miss, that could doom his own character. Both movies earned favorable box-office returns, though critics panned them greatly, as inferior to the 1931 Frankenstein and Dracula, never fairly assessed them on their merits until much later in cinematic history. In 1959, Cushing starred as his favorite character in many the novels he read, Sherlock Holmes, (a role he later reprised four more times) for the Fisher film The Hound of the Baskervilles, it was to the first of many stories, however the audience disapproved, as it lacked monsters. Throughout his career he would reprise his role as Doctor Baron Frankenstein 6-times and as Doctor Van Helsing 5-times, while doing 22-horror films for Hammer Productions.
Aside from his Hammer Studios work, he continues to make other horror films, namely for another independent Amicus Productions namely Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), which was the first in a series of anthology movies. In fact, Cushing starred in the first four of the six in the series, the beloved by many fans The House That Dripped Blood (1971) from famed Psycho (1960) screenwriter Robert Bloch. While it’s easy to say Cushing and Lee did many movies together, he also worked with other horror icons and legends at the time Vincent Price, the first co-starring role came with Scream and Scream Again (1970), which included Lee and another fan favorite Madhouse (1974).
However, in the latter portion of 1970, Cushing suffered and only his closest friend knew the pain, his wife Violet Beck-Cushing ‘s illness, it forced him to drop-out of numerous productions, on January 14, 1971, she passed on, leaving him in a deep depression, often stated that his life ended with her, but a poem, found afterwards from her encouraged him to carry-onward turning away darkness and despair. Christopher Lee mourned with him, and later worked to return him to the craft of acting, taking nearly a year to complete.
Nevertheless, in 1971 Cushing became a bit of recluse providing voice acting for audiobooks for the Blind, namely a collection of one-hour Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact, some of this first movies back, showed the effects of his wife’s death took a physical pounding on him, for example in Dracula A. D. (1972), the role casted him as Stephanie Beacham’s father, however a script rewrite caused a change to a grandfather. In the film, a picture on Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing, was of Cushing’s deceased wife, this repeated itself in tribute in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), marking the end of Hammer Studios working with either Lee or Cushing. It was the anthology film Tales from the Crypt (1972) that seem to help Peter the most, with a few script changes, a scene plays out of him speaking to a framed photo of his wife, using sheer emotions to express his grief and acceptance all with pure authenticity. According to several reports the scene on set moved much of the crew, and showed his love for his departed wife, but the resolve to continue onward, which later to a string of horror films over the new several years, and writing books as a form therapy.
In 1977, an interesting and exciting film director approached him and that was none other than George Lucas, who needed a strong villain character, one that everyone would recognize as a sinister individual for the role of Grand Moff Tarkin commander of the Death Star. Cushing like his counterpart Alec Guiness had trouble learning the script with technical jargon it was the equivalent of a foreign language, nevertheless as a professional he worked tiresomely to say the lines with authority and natural in tone. The role gave him a high amount visibility in his career and encourage many to search his older movies in his resume.
In 1978, after the acclaim of Star Wars, a young director named John Carpenter, approached him to play the role of Dr. Loomis in a film perhaps some of you know called Halloween, though he turned down the role, as did his good friend Christopher Lee. In May 1982, he found himself diagnosed with prostate cancer, and somehow he recovered well enough to leave the hospital without surgery or chemotherapy using a natural medicine approach, as he was an avid vegetarian, who had strong convictions concerning afterlife and a reuniting with his wife that carried him for another 12-years. In 1983 he had the opportunity to star in House of the Long Shadows, that served as few lasts in terms his last horror film, and last time Lee and he were on the same picture. It was for its time the expendables list of horror icons with Vincent Price and John Carradine starring in the horror-parody flick. In 1994, on the 11th of August the curtain of his life came to a close for Peter, his gothic sense and exquisite demeanor came to an end at the Pilgrims Hospice in Canterbury.
Therefore, this concludes our revisiting of this Horror Icon and showing his influence still exists in the genre, from the style and craft used by Doug Bradley when approaching his phenomenal character Pinhead in the Hellraiser franchise. Even director Tim Burton used Cushing’s style to lay the groundwork and structure for his film Sleepy Hollow (1999), hence his contribution is still significant now at the 25-year anniversary.
Selected Horror Movies:
Feature Films- 49 titles
House of the Long Shadows (1983)
Mystery on Monster Island (1981)
Shock Waves (1977)
The Uncanny (1977)
Land of the Minotaur (1976)
The Ghoul (1975)
Legend of the Werewolf (1975)
From Beyond the Grave (1974)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)
The Beast Must Die (1974)
The Big Scare (1974)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)
Nothing But the Night (1973)
The Creeping Flesh (1973)
And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973)
Horror Express (1972)
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Asylum (I) (1972)
Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)
Fear in the Night (1972)
Twins of Evil (1971)
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
I, Monster (1971)
Incense for the Damned (1971)
The Vampire Lovers (1970)
Scream and Scream Again (1970)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
Torture Garden (1967)
Island of the Burning Damned (1967)
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Island of Terror (1966)
The Skull (1965)
The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
The Gorgon (1964)
Night Creatures (1962)
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
The Mummy (1959)
Horror of Dracula (1958)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror (1994 TV Movie)
Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death (1984 TV Movie)