Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The Gentleman of Horror

He played a villain in Star Wars and a roguish fop in Olivier's Hamlet. He's probably killed Dracula more than any other actor, and has certainly resurrected more corpses. A superb Sherlock Holmes, he was equally adept as a master criminal.

I can think of few better actors than Peter Cushing.

In the heyday of Hammer Horror, eloquent men battled to save buxom beauties. Gothic sets loomed large and stately. Even cheap backdrops and props had a charming theatricality. And the very best of Hammer, usually directed by Terence Fisher, would cast an immediate spell over willing viewers. They were eerie, tangible, classical.

In today's "horrors", boys swear a lot, barbie spends most of her time on the phone, and high school gossip features prom-inently. In other words, instantly disposable. I can't think of one teen horror film in the last ten years I've watched more than once.

Of course, they do make the odd period horror nowadays - Branagh's Frankenstein, Coppola's Dracula, Sleepy Hollow (an excellent tribute to Hammer) - but there's something missing. A focus, a simplicity of story and style, consistency.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was a breakthrough role for Cushing. While the famous 1933 Universal Frankenstein featured a wobbly, over-the-top doctor, Cushing made him not only abrasively self-confident but, more importantly, sophisticated. As bad as the character became (pretty bad!), we wanted him to succeed because, though misguided, he really was a genius breaking new ground. Cushing portrayed that cruel intellect perfectly.

Indeed, throughout the series, if Frankenstein was left to his own devices, he would probably achieve everything he set out to. It is the moral inflexibility of friends, colleagues and society that foils Frankenstein at every turn. Unlike the 1933 original, Cushing's character, not the monster, is the film's focus. To my mind, this approach is far more intriguing. Dissecting the mind of the brilliant creator, as opposed to the dumb creation, leaves less room for pathos, more scope to explore this destructive obsession. I can think of few actors better able to convince of the rationale behind an immoral decision.

In 1958, Hammer released The Horror of Dracula, with Cushing in the role of Van Helsing. Again, the actor anchored this patently silly mythology with utter conviction. Especially when using props, he made the scenes completely believable.

A string of sequels followed (for both franchises). No matter the quality of the film, he was dependable. A remake of Karloff's The Mummy proved successful, in which played the hero opposite Christopher Lee's startling monster. What struck me about Cushing's performance in that film was how precise his diction was. An English gentleman, an eloquent star.

Amid a rash of forgettable horror projects, he made perhaps the definitive version of Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles. Again with Hammer, he was sophisticated, wily, he listened. Cushing never hogged a scene. A subtle reaction can play as vital a role as a bravura monologue. As Holmes, he mastered both.

Popular with his colleagues as well as his countless fans, Peter Cushing gave legitimacy to an entire generation of British horror, and remains, to this day, the definitive gentleman of that particular genre.

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