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Instant Credibility: The Commanding Peter Cushing

Imagine you’re a making a movie with a castle, flying vampires, re-animated monsters, special effects, and thousands of extras playing angry townspeople.

Sounds great right?

And it is, until you discover; the castle will be made of painted plywood, the monster is a seven foot body builder wrapped in black curtains, the vampires are puppets on strings, the special effects are illegal fireworks, and the townspeople are really the same three guys shot from a bunch of different angles.

So what’s a director to do?

Get Peter Cushing.

By the mid 1950’s when Hammer Film Productions made their first moves into horror business they decided to start with the classics. The unexpected international success of The Curse of Frankenstein, not only solidified Hammer as the ultimate studio for the revived genre, it also brought worldwide fame to its two stars, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Lee was a freakishly tall, dark, and brooding actor who played the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein.

Although Mary Shelly’s famous tale had long been in the public domain, Hammer still took great care to make sure Lee’s monster in no way resembled the flat-headed, bolt-necked, look worn by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece.

As great, and grotesque, as Lee was as the monster, it was the silver-tongued, debonair, Carey Grant meets boarding school headmaster, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Cushing that really stole the show. Cushing’s ease with the material, no matter how fantastic, lent so much credibility, it was easy to believe everything you were seeing on screen was real.

In essence, Cushing was so utterly convincing it helped scare the audience. Hammer agreed, giving Cushing leading roles in nearly every major film they produced for the next two decades.

The audiences didn’t just love Cushing. They loved Cushing with Lee. This created one of the most successful partnerships in film history, making more than twenty movies together over the next two decades. Their success didn’t stop with Frankenstein.

The power pair helped Hammer reboot everything from, Dracula, to the Mummy, to Sherlock Holmes. In one of those “crazy, but true” stories from film history, Cushing and Lee, unbeknownst to one another, actually appeared on film together nearly fifteen years before their international success with Curse of Frankenstein, in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. Cushing played Osric, while Lee carried a spear.

The real charm of Peter Cushing came from his unflappable ability to contextualize important dialogue in what would otherwise be considered impossible high concept camp.

Consider the things Cushing masterfully explained: A wooden stake must be driven into his heart to destroy him, only a silver bullet can kill the creature, satanic forces brought him back to life, pure evil lives inside this skull, she’s possessed with demonic lust, and of course, I created a monster.

Whatever Hammer films lacked in production value, they more than made up with Cushing.

For many younger filmgoers, the first introduction to Peter Cushing came in 1977 with George Lucas’ Star Wars. Cushing played the cold as ice Grand Moff Tarkin, who famously tricked Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia into giving up the position of the Rebel base by falsely promising he would spare her home planet of Alderaan from being destroyed by the Death Star.

If you’ve never seen Star Wars that must read as pure gibberish, but the reason the logic isn’t the slightest bit silly is due to Cushing. Cushing, standing before Debbie Reynolds’ teenage daughter playing a Princess with hair ear muffs, and a nearly seven foot English body builder, the same body builder he’d recently worked with in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell as the Monster, now dressed in a black metal helmet and cape, never skips a beat as he says: “You would prefer another target, a military target, than name the system?”

Everything in this scene is working against Cushing. He’s certainly out costumed, literally wearing grey in muddy contrast to Leia’s pure white and Vader’s darkside black. He’s also out measured, as he’s barely taller than the extremely short Fisher, and is dwarfed by David Prowse’s towering Lord Vader. Not to mention he spends most of the scene upstaging himself in shadow by walking out of his light.

Yet, he still steals the scene. He is clearly the most powerful person in the room, a room that includes Darth Vader, and he never even raises his voice.

Sadly, Cushing’s Tarkin, never survives the Rebel assault of the Death Star, so he only appeared in one installment of the Star Wars franchise, until recently that is.

For most Millennials, their first introduction to Peter Cushing came in 2016 with the prequel (of sorts) to Star Wars: A New Hope. Rogue One utilized CGI in a way that was once only pure Sci-Fi, in that it brought Peter Cushing, who left this mortal coil twenty-two years earlier, back from the dead. Cushing’s legacy is so good, even as CGI, he’s still far and away the most powerful person in the room.

Alfred Hitchcock famously cast stars. He felt it saved him twenty minutes in character development. It made sense, no one ever questioned if Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant had the goods.

Only certain actors have this instant credibility. Peter Cushing, from the first moment he’s on screen, is never in question either, but why?

He wasn’t devastatingly handsome. He didn’t have a great hairline. He wasn’t tall. He didn’t sing. He didn’t dance. He wasn’t strong or muscular. He didn’t know martial arts or use guns. He didn’t use explosive anger, or broken speech patterns, or the “swing for the fences” gimmicks other actors sometime employ.

No, Cushing, with his sunken cheeks, small physical stature, weathered face, and thin lips, didn’t need any of that. He simply exuded stature naturally and with authority.

Interestingly enough Cushing’s credibility wasn’t exclusive to characters who always had high status. His struggling professors, desperate husbands, and mad scientists were equally as convincing as his powerful authority figures.

Off camera, nearly every co-star spoke highly of him as a gentleman and showered him with praise. Christopher Lee, for his part, would always reminisce fondly about their many years as actors and friends, with their only true regret never getting to fulfill their cinematic dream of doing a Western together. I often wonder how amazing that would have been. Imagine them playing two competing railroad magnates, or better yet, with Cushing as a small town preacher who is the only thing that stands between the town and the tall dark gunslinger sent in to bring him down.

Perhaps a CGI Lee could join the CGI Cushing for what would most assuredly be an instant classic.

Rediscovering Peter Cushing will lead you through many fun films over several decades, some of which fall gleefully into the “so bad their good” category.

Except for Cushing, Cushing was never bad.

Of the all the movies Lee and Cushing appeared in together, a must see in my opinion, is one of their last pairings, a British horror film called The Creeping Flesh.

The famous duo play competing scientist half-brothers, in Victorian era England, who fight pure evil in the form of a huge skeleton unearthed by Cushing’s expedition. It’s a must see.

I highly encourage you to seek out old Cushing films, many of which are available on DVD and streaming. You won’t be disappointed. Peter Cushing was truly one of a kind.


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