With his prominent cheek bones, sunken cheeks and aquiline nose, Peter Cushing is undoubtedly one of the most striking and iconic faces in the history of horror films. Coupling his dapper physical appearance with his quiet, well-spoken manner, Cushing has often been described as “the gentleman of horror.” As a lifelong Peter Cushing fan, I would certainly agree with that appellation, as I believe he brought a certain kind of class and inherent quality to each role he played, be it a horror part or otherwise.
My earliest memories of watching a Peter Cushing movie go back to the late sixties, when I first saw him in the Hammer horror movies I grew to love so much. As a small boy staying up late to watch Appointment With Fear every Monday evening at 10.30 pm, I was instantly struck by this fantastic British actor with the compelling face, a man who could play either Baron Frankenstein or Dracula’s arch nemesis, Dr Van Helsing, with equal charm and charisma. In those far off days, I had to be content with an old black-and-white TV set, so watching Mr Cushing in that context was thrilling enough in itself. But then, when we finally got our colour telly in 1975, and I was then able to view all those wonderful Hammer horror movies in glorious technicolor – well, that was an even bigger joy than my initial exposure to them on my old black-and-white set way back in the sixties!
It wasn’t just the Hammer movies that I loved Mr Cushing in, for he did make some excellent appearances in the Amicus films too. Amicus were the main rivals to Hammer when it came to producing top-quality horror movies, and my favourite Cushing role in these portmanteau films was that of the tragic ex-garbage man Arthur Grimsdyke in Tales From The Crypt (1972), who is hounded into committing suicide by the cold-hearted actions of a snooty neighbour, who takes exception to the way Grimsdyke befriends local children and harbours dogs in his house, picking dirt out of what is, after all, just a simple case of a lonely, harmless old man playing the kindly uncle to the local kids. This is, without doubt, one of Cushing finest roles, and I really felt sorry for Mr Grimsdyke when his tormentor finally drives the poor old man to hang himself. But of course, this being a Cushing horror movie, and one where the character has been tampering with a Ouija board, it didn’t all end there, for one year later, the rotting corpse of Grimsdyke rises from the grave to exact a grisly revenge on his ruthless neighbour, ripping out his heart and leaving it for his shocked father to find the next morning, wrapped up in a blood-soaked cloth bearing a Valentine’s poem written in blood. Classic Amicus stuff!
Next to all his Hammer movies, the Cushing Amicus films take special pride of place on my DVD shelf. Whenever I look at my DVD collection, I often think to myself that when I used to watch Peter in all those fantastically creepy films years ago, I never once thought that one day I would actually own them all in this format, always there to watch whenever I want to.
It wasn’t often that Peter Cushing played a baddie, but when he did, he could really impress, just as unforgettably as he could when he played the kindly gentleman roles. The movie that sees Mr Cushing at his most ruthless and nasty is, for me, the 1969 classic Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. In fact, of all the Frankenstein films he starred in, this is the one that really portrays the Baron at his darkest, stooping to such shocking acts as rape and murder. He blackmails a young couple to assist him with his ever-fanatical experiments, and when the girl, Anna (played by the lovely Veronica Carlson), inadvertently sets the monster free, he cold-bloodedly knives her to death. Alongside the tragic image of poor Mr Arthur Grimsdyke hanging by his neck in Tales From The Crypt, the scene where poor Anna is lying dead with Frankenstein’s scalpel protruding from her stomach in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed certainly ranks high in my list of Cushing movies which have the most shock value.
Of course, everybody knows that Peter Cushing did play many other roles outside the horror genre, and has appeared in countless stage productions portraying such literary characters as Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Oh yes, and who could forget his occasional guest appearances on The Morecambe and Wise Show, where he persistently harassed the two comedians for his “money.” However, it is for his awesome performances as Baron Frankenstein and Abraham Van Helsing, along with all his other horror roles, that I shall mostly remember him. He made those parts his own – just as his great friend Christopher Lee did with Dracula and Boris Karloff did with the Frankenstein Monster – and nobody, but nobody, could fill his shoes in that respect.
The horror movie industry of today is, sadly, a much poorer place without Peter Cushing, the “gentleman of horror.”