Today would have been Peter Cushing’s 108th birthday.
Now I’m by no means a scholar of Cushing’s work, and he was so prolific I’ve probably only seen a fraction of the films he made over a career that spanned almost 50 years. But I’ve seen enough to know he was a different breed of film star, and I want to take a few minutes just to share the love.
He – often alongside his good friend friend Christopher Lee (whose 99th birthday it would have been tomorrow) – helped elevate everything he was in. He was one of those performers who loved his craft and believed in the product, even when – in some cases – the final product was less than he deserved.
Watching Cushing on screen, he’s never less than magnetic. Even in the later entries in Hammer’s Frankenstein franchise, where he’s reanimating bodybuilders while wearing a bizarre hairpiece, there’s a glint in his eye and a lightness and enthusiasm to his delivery that means he’s never less than watchable.
And yes, I’ll admit that the majority of my knowledge of Cushing comes from his horror and anthology films, but I don’t need Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Jackman or any other Van Helsing, because Peter Cushing put an end to Count Dracula like this…
… and that’s bloody cool.
There’s a well-known story about how, following the death of his wife Helen in 1971, he ran up and down the stairs of their home in an attempt to bring on a heart attack so he wouldn’t have to live without her. As a film fan, I’ve heard a lot of behind the scenes stories from all eras of cinema history, but that’s one of the saddest, sweetest things I’ve ever heard, and will live with me forever.
In his excellent autobiography, Christopher Lee told how he supported Cushing in the months and the years after Helen’s death. For better or worse, he talked him in to joining the cast of 1972’s Horror Express to help take his mind off his grief, and welcomed Cushing to his home for family celebrations so his friend wouldn’t dwell too much on his loss.
Again, to me these are stories that simply wouldn’t happen now. Whether that’s due to the change in the way movies are made – where it seems like everyone’s out for themselves rather than working in cosy groups – or because society seems so intent on holding a microscope up to our stars’ every little grief and upset, I don’t know, but I just find it hard to imagine any other on-screen friends essentially saving each other’s lives like this.
I’d love to have something clever, deep or insightful to say on the anniversary of Peter Cushing’s birth, but I’m happy just to bang on about how great I think he is and hope that you’ll give a couple of his films a go to see if I’m right.
If you’re going to do that, and you don’t mind a bit of a mixed bunch, I’d say try the following…
- Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) – the first entries in Hammer’s long-running franchises and the start of a decades-long friendship with Christopher Lee, give Cushing the opportunity to play the Baron as a surprisingly evil piece of work and Van Helsing as a dashing, intelligent hero.
- Hound Of The Baskervilles (1959) – my favourite adaptation of the Conan Doyle story takes some liberties with the book, but is all the more entertaining for it, and Cushing makes a terrific Holmes.
- Tales From The Crypt (1972) – his performance as the horrifically wronged Mr Grimsdyke segment of this Amicus anthology is utterly heartbreaking, and knowing he helped completely redesign his undead appearance on his lunch break is a lovely touch (and something I only learned recently on the hugely entertaining Here Lies Amicus podcast).
- A Chump At Oxford (1939) – made in Hollywood’s greatest year, this is pretty much a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as one of Laurel and Hardy’s posh tormentors, but it’s incredible to think of Cushing rubbing shoulders with two icons of cinema.
- Horror Express (1972) – I’ll be honest, I didn’t love this film, but it’s certainly interesting, and not just for how he came to be in it. I’m a huge fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Horror Express (like The Thing From Another World before it), is sort of based on the same short story. Also, it was recorded without sound and completely dubbed in post (as was El Mariachi, fact fans), which is fascinating to me.
- and obviously, Star Wars (1977) – Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin might not be the biggest or flashiest role in the space opera, but his British politeness means you almost accept his announcement that he’s about to commit genocide by destroying an entire planet. Plus, he’s the bloke who gets to give orders to Darth Vader – if that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is.
Yes, these are the hits, not particularly deep dives, but I’d recommend checking out anything he’s in – Talking Pictures TV and The Horror Channel can usually be helpful for that, and most of his Amicus appearances (including Tales From The Crypt), are available on YouTube.
If you’ve got a Peter Cushing recommendation for me, please take to the socials or comments section and let me know – I’m always keen to widen my knowledge of cinema, and always happy to see Cushing on screen.