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Peter Cushing, The Gentleman Of Horror
With his high cheekbones, sunken cheeks and aquiline nose, Peter Cushing is undoubtedly one of the most striking and iconic faces in horror movie history. Coupling his dapper physical appearance with his calm, well-spoken manner, Cushing has often been described as “the gentleman of horror”. As a lifelong Peter Cushing fan, I would definitely agree with that label, because I think he brought a certain class and inherent quality to every role he played, whether in a horror role or otherwise.
My earliest memories of watching a Peter Cushing movie date back to the late sixties, when I first saw him in the Hammer horror movies I grew to love so much. When I was a little boy who stayed up late to watch Rendezvous with Fear every Monday night at 10:30 p.m., I was immediately struck by this fantastic British actor with an irresistible face, a man who could play either Baron Frankenstein, be Dracula’s sworn enemy, Dr. Van Helsing, with as much charm as charisma. Back in those days, I had to make do with an old black-and-white television, so watching Mr. Cushing in that setting was exciting enough on its own. But then when we finally got our color TV in 1975, and then I got to see all those wonderful Hammer horror movies in glorious technicolor – well, that was an even greater joy than my first exposure to them on my old black and white set back in the sixties!
It wasn’t just the Hammer films that I loved Mr. Cushing in, as he also made some excellent appearances in the Amicus films. Amicus was Hammer’s main rival when it came to producing top-notch horror films, and my favorite Cushing role in those suitcase films was as the tragic ex-garbage collector Arthur Grimsdyke in Tales from the Crypt (1972), who is driven to commit suicide by the cold actions of a pretentious neighbor, who resents the way Grimsdyke befriends local children and harbors dogs in his house, picking up dirt from which is, after all, just a simple case of a lonely, harmless old man playing nice uncle to the local kids. It is, without a doubt, one of Cushing’s best roles, and I truly felt sorry for Mr. Grimsdyke when his tormentor finally made the poor old man hang himself. But of course this is a Cushing horror movie, and in which the character tampered with a Ouija board, it didn’t all end there, because a year later Grimsdyke’s rotting corpse rises from the grave to exact horrific revenge on his ruthless neighbor, ripping out his heart and leaving it for his shocked father to find him the next morning, wrapped in a blood-soaked cloth bearing a Valentine’s Day poem written with blood. Classic Amicus stuff!
Alongside all of his Hammer films, Cushing Amicus films take pride of place on my DVD shelf. Whenever I look at my DVD collection I often think to myself that when I was watching Peter in all those fantastically scary movies years ago I never thought that one day I would own them all in this format forever there to watch whenever I want.
It wasn’t often that Peter Cushing played a villain, but when he did he could really impress, just as unforgettable as he could when he played the gentleman roles. The movie that sees Mr. Cushing at his most ruthless and wicked is, to me, the 1969 classic Frankenstein must be destroyed. In fact, of all the Frankenstein movies he’s starred in, this is the one that truly portrays the baron at his darkest, leaning into such shocking acts as rape and murder. He blackmails a young couple into helping him with his ever-fanatic experiments, and when the girl, Anna (played by the charming Veronica Carlson), inadvertently releases the monster, he kills her in cold blood. Alongside the tragic image of poor Mr Arthur Grimsdyke hanging by the neck in Tales from the Cryptthe scene where poor Anna is lying dead with Frankenstein’s scalpel protruding from her stomach in Frankenstein must be destroyed definitely ranks high on my list of Cushing movies that have the most shock value.
Of course, everyone knows that Peter Cushing has played many other roles outside of the horror genre and has appeared in countless theatrical productions portraying literary characters such as Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Oh yes, and who could forget his occasional appearances on The Morecambe and Wise show, where he constantly harassed the two comedians for their “money”. However, it is for his impressive performances as Baron Frankenstein and Abraham Van Helsing, as well as all of his other horror roles, that I will remember him most. He appropriated these pieces – just as his great friend Christopher Lee did with Dracula and Boris Karloff with Frankenstein’s Monster – and no one, but no one, could succeed him in this regard.
Today’s horror film industry is sadly much poorer without Peter Cushing, the “gentleman of horror”.
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