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Tag Archives: Peter Cushing

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

In the various cinematic incarnations of Mary Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s record for creating life is one of overall failure, for one reason or another. He fails spectacularly, wreaking havoc both on society and the pathetic monsters that he creates. The 1958 Hammer Horror film, The Revenge of Frankenstein, stands out as something of an anomaly, however. Frankenstein actually succeeds in his experiments, only not in the way one expects.

The Revenge of Frankenstein is actually a sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein (starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), though it is not necessary to have seen the original to enjoy the sequel. In Curse, Baron Frankenstein is played by Peter Cushing as an out-and-out psychopath and the film ends with him being executed for his crimes. Revenge opens with Baron Frankenstein (still played by Cushing) about to be executed. He is saved, however, at the last minute, by Karl, a man with a hunched back and paralyzed arm and leg.

Years pass and the action moves to Carlsbruck, where Baron Frankenstein lives as Dr. Stein and has a flourishing practice, much to the dismay of his fellow doctors whose business he has attracted. He has both rich patients with imaginary illnesses and poor patients, who he treats at a pauper’s hospital. One doctor, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews) recognizes Dr. Stein as Baron Frankenstein and blackmails him into allowing him to become his assistant. Frankenstein is not unwilling to have a new assistant, however (thus avoiding the classic movie scientist mistake of working alone), and shows Hans his life’s work.

He has figured out how to put a body together from scraps of human anatomy, but has discovered that the only way to animate the body is to insert a living brain. Thus Karl is willing to allow Frankenstein to insert his brain into a new and better body, with the eager assistance of Dr. Kleve.

(Spoilers contained in final analysis) The plot in The Revenge of Dr. Frankenstein definitely took me by surprise. Cushing’s second incarnation of Frankenstein is a little less overtly psychopathic, but nevertheless still obsessively driven. As in the original The Curse of Frankenstein, the true monster is him. Karl is simply a victim.

Karl’s body is successfully transferred into a new and better body (played movingly by Michael Gwynn, who nicely plays a conscious that feels alien to the body he is now in) and at first I was disappointed when a simple blow to the head renders Karl the presumed monster of the film, terrorizing the city. But it soon becomes clear that Karl is simply a tragic accident in Frankenstein’s unstoppable quest to create life. It brings up the question of what life is. What sets Karl off initially is his fear that Frankenstein is going to display both him and Karl’s previous body as scientific proof of his achievements and Karl poignantly protests that he’s always been an object people stare. He doesn’t want to be a figure of study again. He only wants to live his life.

Peter Cushing treating the poor

But it brings up the interesting question of Frankenstein’s desire to create life. Does he really wish to create life? Since to create life is presumably to create a living, autonomous being. If one truly creates life, then isn’t one obligated to let that new life free? Frankenstein’s plan to put Karl on show, to essentially possess him, is a denial of Karl’s life. One of the fascinating themes of many Frankenstein films is the sense of ownership and possession that Frankenstein feels towards his creation (or subsequent rejection of them).

Frankenstein repeatedly demonstrates a lack of respect for life, even animal life. He transfers lizard brains into frogs, frog brains into lizards, orangutan brain’s into chimpanzees. Unlike the other snooty doctors of the city, he treats the poor, but it turns out that he does so partly to obtain body parts to create new bodies to house fresh brains.

(Big spoiler)The ending in particular took me by surprise. With seven minutes to go in the film, Frankenstein is beaten nearly to death by angry patients whose body parts he as collected for his experiments. They kill his body, but Hans has learned from the master and, much to my surprise, is able to place Frankenstein’s brain into the second body that Frankenstein had cobbled together from the patient’s body parts (a rather macabre reflection that seems to bother Frankenstein not at all).

The new body is really just played by Peter Cushing, looking rather more piratical with mustache and tattoo on his right arm (taken from a pickpocket), but apparently healthy and determined to continue his experiments, apparently fully vindicated in his work. He just can’t show anyone what he has achieved. It rather took my breath away. The monster lives. And he has learned nothing from his previous experiments.

This has been my contribution to “The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon.” Many thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and Reekweegiemidget for hosting! To read the rest of the posts, click here for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Posted by on June 4, 2018 in Movies

 

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Revisiting Star Wars: A New Hope

download (2)Recently I was irreligiously reading plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It made me want to revisit the originals. My sister and I are what you might call Star Wars purists. We like the original three to exist within the purity of our own minds – no prequels, no sequels, nothing but what we imagine ourselves. It’s made me a little wary of seeing the new film, despite the many positive (even rave) reviews I have heard from all sides. I will see it, though…with a wide-open mind! But those plot spoilers really did make me nostalgic for the originals.

1) Like King Kong, the more I see it the more I appreciate it – its pacing, the actors, everything. The scope may be expansive – intergalactic rebellion against oppressive emperor; good vs. evil – but the story is focused relatively tightly on three characters: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo. Lucas never lets the big picture get in the way of the essential story he is telling, thus preserving that giddy feeling of adventure.

2 ) It was a lot of fun to see Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin now that I’ve seen him in films other than A New Hope – mostly his Hammer Horror output. But wow did he look stressed during the latter half of this film. He did not like Darth Vader’s plan to let Leia escape and lead them to the rebel base. He must be an inherently conservative tactician who is opposed to all risks while Darth Vader favors bold strokes.

3) I used to think Luke was kind of whiny, but the more I see the film the more I think his character really works. As it was pointed out on If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History, Luke is just a normal kid, dreaming of something bigger. He’s a great contrast to the other characters – the regal confidence and complete dedication of Princess Leia and the snarky cool of Han Solo – and he actually gets the most character arc of anybody. He’s a much more confident and mature person by Return of the Jedi.

4) Obi-Wan Kenobi and Uncle Owen really don’t like each other (perhaps they should have exploited this in the prequels). Owen dismisses him as an “old fool” and Obi-Wan sounds distinctly bitter about Owen’s attitude of not getting involved. According to Obi-Wan, Owen blames him for luring Luke’s father away on an idealistic crusade. Also, Obi-Wan sounds like a pretty tired, disillusioned idealist himself. This should have been in the prequels!

Leiadeathstar5) When Leia and Darth Vader first speak in the movie, they sound like they are picking up on an ongoing conversation. Darth Vader mentions mercy missions, she complains about his bold defiance of the Imperial Senate. Did this happen a lot? Would he periodically board her ship and not be able to prove that she was doing anything other than mercy missions and have to let her ago while she angrily reprimands him? She must have been driving him nuts. He knew she was a rebel and he couldn’t do anything. He and Grand Moff Tarkin were understandably very eager to finally terminate her. She has the same vibe with Grand Moff Tarkin; they snip and snipe and exchange insults like this was a long-standing thing they do.

6) If you think about it from Leia’s perspective, she gets rescued by a couple of screwballs – a kid, a cranky smuggler, a walking carpet. It takes a while before she even catches sight of her droids, let alone Obi-Wan Kenobi, who dies the moment she sees him. No wonder she looks so nonplussed and skeptical when Luke bursts in and says he’s there to rescue her. Presumably the rebels she works with are a little more professional.

7) I have always been a big fan of Princess Leia, which is why I get slightly miffed when people insist that the original Star Wars was a boy’s world and that the new film finally offers an empowered female character to the mix as if this was somehow novel. Carrie Fisher was perfectly empowered – like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck and other great actresses – who brought her own poise and empowerment to a film, quite apart from anything the script bestowed on her character, though she could do anything the moment required of her, whether it was using a blaster or flying a ship or unsentimentally setting aside her grief to focus on the matter at hand. And I love that moment when Leia lifts a finger to her minion to indicate he should stand back while she goes forward to talk to Luke. She doesn’t even look at him to see if he caught her imperious sign; just assumes that he will see and obey.

8) My sister and I have a theory (ignoring all prequels, of course) that Leia is really the one who is like her father and Luke is like his mother – after all, it is Luke who eventually gets Vader to turn and it is Luke who Vader cannot kill. Vader sees Leia all the time without it ever apparently stirring memories. She probably annoys him because she’s just like him. Luke seems to bring out tenderer feelings.

Grand_Moff_Tarkin9) So I finally realized why the storm troopers just stand by and let C3-PO and R2-D2 simply walk out of the room (I used to think they were remarkably stupid). They had to. If Darth Vader’s plan was to track Leia to the rebel base, then he needed to let the droids go, because she would never return to the base without the plans. This is also why he goes out of his way to kill Obi-Wan. He thinks he can deal with Leia, but the last thing he wants is for a re-emergent Jedi helping the rebel cause. He needed to deal with him separately from the main group.

10) With this plan, Darth Vader is gambling (which Tarkin does not seem comfortable with: “I’m taking an awful risk, Vader. This had better work.”), but Leia is gambling even more that the rebels will be able to destroy the Death Star first. Father/daughter both rolling the dice (she more desperately so) with no one around to appreciate the family drama inherent in it.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2016 in Movies

 

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“Try It, You’ll Like It” – Horror of Dracula (1958)

horror_of_dracula-1958-usa-posterHorror of Dracula is my contribution to the “Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently. The purpose of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon is to share films that can serve as a “gateway” to classic films for people who are either resistant to or unfamiliar with old movies.

Of course, not all movies will appeal to all people and the key is to know your audience. Male? Female? Teenager? Child? Adult? Sci-fi fan? Romantic comedy fan? Musicals? Action heroes?

My target audience for this film is the young superhero lover. Do you know a teenager or young adult who loves superhero and YA fantasy films, but says they are tired of the sameness of superhero and YA fantasy films? Even the recent Dracula Untold managed to look like a re-hash of a Marvel movie. If you’ve heard this complaint voiced, one film to suggest is Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It worked for my teenage cousin, who subsequently became interested in the early Universal Horror films. Not that you have to be a teenager to like this film…or even a fan of superhero films. You could be a Jane Austen miniseries and Fred Astaire musical enthusiast (ahem).

What makes this film so accessible is that though it has less action than most teenagers are used to, there is a lot they are familiar with. It’s in Technicolor, still retains its creepy vibe, weird powers, cool British accents (which always goes over well in the U.S, where college students love nothing more than to imitate a British accent) and has the benefit of starring two actors nearly everyone is familiar with today, thanks to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings: Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) and Christopher Lee (Saruman and Count Dooku). Grand Moff Tarkin vs. Count Dooku? Learning this is like a whole new world and most people are fascinated to discover that the two men appeared in 22 films together and were good friends.

Peter Cushing gets star billing, but we don’t actually meet him until twenty or so minutes into the film. The movie actually opens (after a thundering crash of music with garish red-orange letters streaking across the screen) with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), who has come to work as a librarian at Count Dracula’s castle (Christopher Lee)…or so he says. He soon reveals in his diary that he is really a vampire hunter and is there to destroy Dracula.

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Christopher Lee…making an entrance

But his plan is ruined when a woman at Dracula’s castle (Valerie Gaunt) begs him to save her from Count Dracula. He says he will, but unfortunately his neck looks too inviting and she can’t prevent herself from taking a bite, much to the rage of Count Dracula.

Christopher Lee’s appearance at his point is unforgettable. When Harker first meets him he looks and sounds like a reasonably polite, if brusque and physically imposing, English gentlemen…with a cool cape that swishes nicely when he walks up stairs. After Harker is bitten he emerges onto the scene transformed, with blood dripping from his fangs, red, wild eyes and an almost animalistic intensity…after which entrance we never hear him speak a line of dialogue again.

But before he is killed by Dracula, Harker manages to kill the woman – Dracula’s bride – by driving a stake through her heart. In revenge, Dracula goes to town (by shipping himself off in a coffin) so he can turn Harker’s fiance, Lucy Holmwood, into a replacement bride. And finally, Van Helsing appears (Peter Cushing). He is looking for his fellow vampire hunter and traces him to Dracula’s castle. He finds Harker’s body, but since Dracula is gone, he returns to inform Harker’s fiance and her family of his death.

The majority of the film consists of Dracula preying on the family: Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), her brother Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife, Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling). Van Helsing fails to save Lucy from becoming a vampire, but he does much better after he tells Arthur the truth about vampires and the two of them must fight to save Mina. One of their main troubles is that Dracula seems to have an uncanny ability to invade the house and find his way to the women’s bedroom without anyone realizing it.

Half the tension in the film is knowing that Dracula is about to appear and wondering when. We see an empty doorway and expect he’s going to come through at any moment. When he finally does, the affect is not disappointing. He has a habit of suddenly appearing, either standing still with all the power of his tremendous height (6′ 5″) and presence, or coming through the doorway. He walks through doorways very effectively.

Peter Cushing...wielding a cross

Peter Cushing…wielding a cross

But Peter Cushing makes a superb match for Lee. His Van Helsing is incisive and precise, but also with a will. He is every bit as capable of physical activity when called upon, which stands in marked contrast to the original Dracula of 1931, which resembles nothing so much as a drawing room horror story.

But in this film vampire hunting is not synonymous with superheroism. These vampire hunters (Van Helsing and Harker) are doctors and scholars, educated men who have devoted their lives to understanding and eradicating vampires. They are, admittedly, on the fringe of the scientific community, but are still able to pass themselves off as eminent men and not mere crackpots. Van Helsing is a modern man, who uses a phonograph to record his thoughts and is capable of administering blood transfusions, which was no easy thing in the 1800s (blood types were not then understood).

As a complete rabbit trail, my sister was wondering if vampires are subject to the same blood type concerns as mere humans. Could a vampire with blood type A drink the blood of someone with blood type B or would that be a problem? Someone really ought to look into that.

I was a little confused by the geography of the film. In the novel and 1931 film, Dracula’s home is Transylvania but he leaves to terrorize London. Here, Dracula’s castle appears to be near Klausenburg, a German village. Harker comes from somewhere not far off, only one night’s ride away, so presumably he lives in Germany, too. Everyone has a British sounding name and speak with British accents, but the setting is clearly Germany. Maybe British expatriates?

But Horror of Dracula is a British film produced by Hammer Film Productions in London, a studio best remembered for the horror films they began making in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein. Unlike Universal Studio’s horror films, Hammer horrors had blood, gore, low cut necklines and were altogether racier, more Gothic and more energetic…all in color, which made a distinct impression on audiences. The Curse of Frankenstein was so successful that the following year they paired Cushing and Lee again in Horror of Dracula.

Christopher Lee...making another entrance

Christopher Lee…making another entrance

The Curse of Frankenstein is really about Frankenstein – played excellently by Peter Cushing – and Christopher Lee has relatively little to do as the monster. But although Lee is only in Horror of Dracula less than 20 minutes and has scarcely any lines, the film made him a star and he would go on to play the role so often that he grew to dislike it. Peter Cushing also appears in a few Dracula sequels, but he was more noted for appearing in his own monster franchise: Frankenstein.

Both men are dynamic together, especially in Horror of Dracula, which is perhaps the best showcase for them as rivals. Along with The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula they made The Mummy (you can probably guess who plays the mummy) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (with Cushing as a delightfully zany, arrogant and eccentric Sherlock Holmes and Lee unexpectedly cast as the Baskerville heir Holmes must protect – it was the first time I had seen Lee in a regular suit; he always seems to be wearing tunics, cloaks, or robes). But as an introduction, you can’t beat Horror of Dracula.

I am extremely excited to be participating in the “Try It, You’ll Like It” Blogathon and am grateful to Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid for hosting! For the complete list of “gateway” films to the classics, please click here.

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Posted by on December 5, 2015 in Movies

 

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