Visitors to this humble blog may have noted a dearth of content of late. The fact of the matter is, things have been pretty crazy here around the Stalking Moon premises. Not only has the day job been at its busiest peak, we've also been dealing with the nervous tension and stress created by our 8-month-old son going through heart surgery, leaving me with very little enthusiasm or energy to write. Now that our boy is through the worst of it and is recovering nicely (thank God), I've regained some of my usual vim and vigor, and realized that I couldn't let the end of May pass without saying a few words about those three icons of horror cinema, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price.
Even those who don't much care for the horror genre will likely recognize the above three names. But what many might not be aware of is that all three men were not only great friends in real life, but also were born within the same two days of each other (in fact, Cushing and Lee were both born on the same day). Being as 2013 marks Peter Cushing's 100th birthday, I thought I'd celebrate this momentous occasion by spending a little time talking about some of these three fellows' most memorable performances, both the ones everyone remembers them for, as well as a few gems perhaps less well-known than they deserve to be.
The silky-voiced, smooth and cultured Price (born May 26th, 1911) was sometimes accused of hamming things up something fierce, a charge which he never denied. The occasional slice of ham was never a problem, really, as, in my opinion, few things are as enjoyable to watch than when Vincent is in full-on, knowing scenery-chewing mode. But Price was also capable of deadly serious performances - witness his low-key yet skin-crawlingly repellent turn as Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General in Michael Reeves' The Conqueror Worm (1968), or his callous Satanist Prince Prospero in Roger Corman's best Poe picture, The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Price also graced more than a few highly-regarded mainstream films, including Forever Amber, Leave Her to Heaven, Laura and The Three Musketeers (with Gene Kelly and Van Heflin). Perhaps his most charming performance for my money is in the odd but wonderful noir flick His Kind of Woman (1951), where he has a field day playing bored actor turned action man Mark Cardigan, who masterminds a daring climactic rescue of Robert Mitchum from mob boss Raymond Burr's yacht.
It was his appearance in the 3D horror classic House of Wax (reviewed here) that launched Price into a career in the horror genre from which he'd never look back. A bon vivant, gourmet cook and learned champion of art in real life, Price often would take movie gigs based more on how much time he'd be able to spend combing the galleries of Europe than the inherent qualities of a given script, but he starred in a number of classic horror gems all the same, including the two Dr. Phibes movies, the low-budget but classy Corman "Poe" films and my personal favorite of his horror work, Theater of Blood (1973). As Edward Lionheart, much drubbed Shakespearean actor out for revenge on the critics who maligned him, Price deftly pokes fun at his own hammy reputation, whilst gleefully carrying out gruesome and imaginative murders on a variety of respected British thespians, such as Jack Hawkins, Terry-Thomas, Harry Andrews, and Michael Hordern.
Vincent Price died on October 25, 1993 (appropriately enough, just a few days before Halloween). I remember his passing well, as I was at that time most familiar with him as the longtime host of PBS' Mystery! series. At the time of his death, I read a quote that has always stuck with me, even though I can't remember to whom it's attributed: "If every man has his Price...make mine Vincent."
Whippet-thin, master of handling props and reams of dialogue, and by all accounts one of the nicest men who ever appeared before a camera - Peter Cushing (born May 27th, 1913) also enjoyed a distinguished early career before becoming synonymous with the horror genre. He spent a few years (1939-1941) as a supporting player in Hollywood, appearing in The Man in the Iron Mask (fortuitously enough, directed by James Whale) and A Chump at Oxford (with Laurel and Hardy) before returning to England to acclaim on stage, acting with Laurence Olivier in several Shakespeare productions, such as Hamlet (including Olivier's 1948 film version). Cushing's career took a fateful turn when he lobbied for and won the part of the cold-blooded Baron in Hammer films' first all-out entry into the genre, 1957's Curse of Frankenstein. He went on to play such archetypal roles as Van Helsing (in numerous Dracula films for the same studio), Sherlock Holmes (both for the BBC as well as for Hammer in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles), Dr. Who, Winston Smith in Nigel Kneale's acclaimed BBC version of 1984, and many others.
Like the other two men, Cushing appeared in a number of pretty bad, schlocky films over the course of his career, but he was always good in them, breathing life into subpar dialogue with consummate professional skill. He retired from the business in 1977, going out on a high note as Grand Moff Tarkin in the mother of all blockbusters, Star Wars, but to me, he was always at his best starring (and sparring) with his bosom buddy, Christopher Lee. The pair made 22 films together, and as good as both the original Hammer Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy films are (not to mention the terrific Hound of the Baskervilles), my personal favorite of their collaborations happens to be Horror Express. This lively and imaginative Eurocult item gives the pair a rare chance to work together as good guys, their combined stiff-upper-lip Britishness fending off an inimicable, body-swapping alien intelligence on a disastrous journey on the Transiberian express.
Peter Cushing died in 1994, and his gentle spirit and reliable craft are still mourned to this day. Christopher Lee's close friendship with the late Cushing has done a great deal to humanize his own rather aloof, imperious manner. Apparently, Lee was instrumental is getting Cushing through the initial period of mourning following his wife's death, gently spurring Cushing on to keep working as a way of coping with his grief. There are also tales of Lee visiting Cushing prior to the latter's death, sitting beside his sickbed and sending the frail Cushing into fits of laughter with his impressions of various Looney Tunes characters.
Tall, imposing Christopher Lee is thankfully still with us, 91 years old this month, and still going strong, with 3 films scheduled for release in 2013 alone (including the second of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy). Somewhat to his chagrin, Lee will always be associated with his most famous part, as Dracula. For my money, his is by far the best screen incarnation of the Count, regal and feral in equal measure, his first appearance in 1958's Horror of Dracula bringing to the character an unprecedented and undeniable sexual charge.
Renowned for playing a true rogues' gallery of hissable villains, from Frankenstein's sad-eyed monster, to the Mummy, Rasputin, Fu Manchu, Scaramanga, Count Dooku (ridiculously-named yet arguably the best thing about George Lucas' banal prequel trilogy) to Saruman the wizard, one of my favorite performances of his also happens to be among his own personal favorites - the aristocratic, commanding and heroic Duc de Richleau, battling demonic possession, devil cults and black magic in one of the best Hammer films, their adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out (1968). Lee is also memorable as the smiling pagan mastermind, Lord Summerisle, in the sunny yet sinister The Wicker Man (1973).
Like his pals Cushing and Price, Lee brought his customary icy mien and solemn dignity to non-genre parts, most notably as Rochefort in Richard Lester's superb, witty 1973 version of The Three Musketeers (and its two sequels), alongside Toshiro Mifune in a U-boat in the funniest sections of Steven Spielberg's elephantine 1941, and even got his chance to play cowboy in a cameo in the Raquel Welch revenge western, Hannie Caulder (1971).
One final, amusing anecdote about these three gentlemen, related by Christopher Lee himself in his autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome (Midnight Marquee Press, 1999):
In 1994, the year he died...Peter and I were together for the narration of a Hammer archive video, Flesh and Blood. There was something a little bit different about Peter, waiting for the end: For 23 years since his beloved wife Helen died, his friends recognized that he wouldn't mind packing up on this earth to join her. Vincent once, in a phone call to me, asked, 'Is he still expecting Helen to be there to greet him?' And I said, 'And looking forward to it.' And Vincent said, 'What if she's out?' I said, 'I shall tell him what you said, Vincent,' and when I did, Peter laughed fit to dispatch him immediately to his journey. When he'd recovered he said, 'Only Vincent could say such a thing, and only you could pass it on.'
So here's some hearty and heartfelt birthday wishes for Messrs. Lee, Cushing and Price - three class acts onscreen and off, whose like we shall never see again.
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