Monday, October 12, 2009

It was always Peter

I recently watched The Curse of Frankenstein again and was once again impressed with how boldly Hammer Film Productions, director Terence Fisher and write Jimmy Sangster all worked together to produce such a splendid reboot of a story (before they were called reboots and one year before their Dracula reboot) so familiar to so many fans. How they took the basic framework of the story and twisted it around just enough to make a story they could call their own while still enjoying the benefits that come from attaching the name "Frankenstein" to the end product. I was again impressed with how well Christopher Lee does in evoking sympathy for the pathetic creature he must play, much more pathetic than his original literary counterpart or the 1931 Universal creation. But more than anything I think I realized, or perhaps better put, finally let myself accept, that without Peter Cushing Hammer films would have never succeeded. That is high praise indeed and I intend it to be the highest praise I can give to an actor underrated by legions of non-horror fans and deified by those in the fold.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are associated with Hammer more than any other two names but the two films that put Hammer on the horror map were this one and the previously discussed Horror of Dracula and in both, even Dracula, Lee is but a supporting player. It is Cushing that carries both films. It is Cushing that makes both films. Without Cushing neither film would have been the success it was and Hammer, perhaps, would have moved on to other things. Goddamit, it was Peter. It was always Peter.

And it's not just that this film, this Frankenstein, wouldn't have worked without Cushing. The 1931 Universal Frankenstein wouldn't have worked with Cushing in the role of the doctor. That role needed an actor who could exhort wildly that his creation had life and then recede into the framework while we follow the monster and his doings. Colin Clive played that role and did it well. But this Frankenstein is Cushing and nothing else. The creature is damn near an afterthought. In fact, he could have never succeeded in bringing the creature to life and it wouldn't have hurt the movie. He could have just kept on killing people and kept on trying and that would have been enough. With another actor it wouldn't have been but with Cushing? Yes, easily.

Peter Cushing had an intensity as an actor that few like him have possessed. Critics and actors like to use the word "intensity" to describe the Marlon Brandos or the John Garfields of the acting world (or any actor associated with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler or Sanford Meisner), actors playing a brutal or brutalized working class American raised on the streets of Brooklyn. But Peter Cushing had an intensity that put all of them to shame - And NO, I am not just saying that for the sake of hyperbole, October celebrations or to give respect to a disrespected genre. I am saying it because it is true. How many people remember Peter Cushing in Star Wars? Everyone! He has but a few lines and yes, I know it's among the most popular films ever made so even minor characters are known, but still, with all the action and starfights and light sabers and Darth Vader roaming around all moody-like there's Grand Moff Tarkin, and he stands out. Now, think back to the movie, the whole saga in fact. There is no character working for the Empire, save the Emperor himself of course, who does not tremble in Vader's presence, except Tarkin. Cushing's intensity was such that he simply wouldn't have been believable fearing anyone.

It is that intensity that makes his Dr. Frankenstein such an astonishing creation. His face, his eyes, his build, his manner of speaking all signal to the audience far beyond the machinations of the script that this Doctor is mad. Homicidally mad. And that becomes our story, and would further become the story of more Hammer Films Frankensteins because fans couldn't get enough of this great yet sadly unheralded actor playing crazy. Peter Cushing changed the way horror fans thought of Doctor Frankenstein. There was the Doctor from the Universal films, the Doctor from the television productions that followed the novel more closely or even the Doctor from Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. They all had a madness to them, an obsession that drove their desire to create life from dead tissue. But they were all also, at their core, decent human beings who loved and felt guilt and revulsion at what they had wrought upon the world. And then there's Cushing's Frankenstein. No guilt, no revulsion. This Doctor is a bastard.

While the movie contains many scenes that make this clear, including a scene early on where the good doctor kindly ushers a brilliant scientist guest to his death over the second floor railings just so he can use his brain for his reanimated creature, the scene that projects it best and brilliantly is one of true horror and perversion. Frankenstein has dug up his first failed creature and brought him back to the lab where he has chained him to the wall and brought his former tutor and mentor to the lab to show him off. He orders him thuggishly to "Stand up!" "Sit down!" and so forth while the creature performs these rudimentary actions with oafish inexactitude. His mentor, and the audience, see a pathetic and horrifying display. A mentally disabled man, chained to a wall, clearly afraid, being yelled at to perform like an organ grinder's monkey. But one look at Frankenstein and the audience knows he's thinking, "Isn't this great?! Look at this! That son of a bitch does whatever I tell him - And he was DEAD before! Goddamn I'm good! Aren't you stunningly impressed?" Peter Cushing's Frankenstein cannot, will not, see that he has done something morally repugnant. He can only see personal glory no matter what the cost has been to others (Cushing would have been superb as Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai - not that Alec Guiness wasn't mind you).

The Curse of Frankenstein put Peter Cushing in the public eye but he never achieved the peer recognition that an actor of his immense talents should have. The Curse of Frankenstein is a fantastic reboot of the Frankenstein story but without Cushing it would have been so much less. The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula that followed set Hammer up for life but none of it would have happened like it did without Cushing. It was Peter. It was always Peter.