It’s Hammer (Films) Time

For devotees of British horror films and lovers of sonorous voices that dance on the ears like a favorite melody, this is a weekend of celebration and tribute: yesterday (May 27) was the birthday of both Christopher Lee (1922-2015) and Vincent Price (1911-1993), and the day before was that of my favorite of the trio, Peter Cushing (1913-1994). While none of them found success at the Academy Awards, making this entry a bit of an extravagance (and a digression I can ill afford, given my recent neglect of the amazing 21st Academy Awards), I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to this trio who–and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here–changed life on this Earth for the better in every conceivable way.

4018747705_90cff03a51_oPictured: the high watermark of the human species.

We’ve seen Vincent Price a couple times on Oscars and I…he played the Evil Atheist in The Song of Bernadette, a film so saccharine you can sweeten your coffee with it, and the hilariously-named William Gibbs McAdoo in 1944‘s travesty Wilson. I was first introduced to him in Roger Corman’s delightfully campy The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), but my favorite of his films (so far…I still have roughly 600 to watch) is William Castle’s 1959 House on Haunted Hill:

I could post a clip, but do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing.

I also love his turn as The Devil in The Story of Mankind, which I only heard about and saw because it was the last film to feature the Marx Brothers (in separate scenes). My memories of the film are vague, but as I recall it, there’s a new Super Bomb available and the Devil and someone from the Other Place are debating whether humanity, up until 1957, has been a force for good or evil. Being as it was that era’s equivalent of an Ocean’s movie, you can guess the verdict. It’s not a good film by any stretch, but the collection of Golden Age talent is without equal and who other than Vincent Price could make the case for the irredeemability of the human species?

priceless“I know my mere existence suggests otherwise, but hear me out.”

This footage of Price reading Poe’s The Raven just confirms that his was the greatest speaking voice in cinema history. If I had one wish, it would be for his voice to narrate my internal monologue.

Christopher Lee, of course, needs no introduction for anyone who’s been to a movie theatre in the past 75 years. He appeared in over 200 movies and is the champion of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, able to be connected to literally anyone who has ever been in a feature film in an average of 1.2 steps. And, to justify this article a bit further, he holds the record for longest gap between appearances in Best Picture-winning films. He played a spear carrier alongside best friend Peter Cushing in Hamlet (1948), and then played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), an interim of 55 years (and yes, I know he only appears in the latter film in the Extended Edition).

A lot of people know that he was an avid Tolkien aficionado who read the books once a year, but my favorite bit of trivia is his involvement in the technical side of his character’s death scene in ROTK: a former SAS operative, he advised Peter Jackson on exactly the kind of noise a man will make when stabbed in the back. He is a great example of how a person can simultaneously be a lovable, grandfatherly figure and literally the most dangerous man alive.

Saruman's_death_3“No, no…when a body drops 200 feet and is impaled on a wooden spike, you get more of a starburst pattern when the blood sprays out. Amateurs.”

I suppose he’ll be remembered by many for his turn as Saruman, but he considered his best film to be the deeply creepy 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, in which he played the mysterious leader of a pagan cult on a remote Scottish island. I’d have to agree with his assessment, even though for me it’s a close race between this and Taste the Blood of Dracula.

I consider myself a fairly incredulous person, but I’d probably join this cult if he were the leader.

Finally, Peter Cushing. who lived in Whitstable. He’s probably best known nowadays for his role as Admiral Tarkin in the original Star Wars, a film now considered a classic but which starred fewer Oscar-winning actors than Caligula (true story). His role in the film may have been minor, but it was the one that always stuck with me. I don’t know about you, but when I saw the movie I got the sense that Princess Leia’s snide comment about him and Darth Vader wasn’t just a bit of space sass. There was definitely more to their relationship than the classic commander/weird-shiny-helmet-guy dynamic.

petercushingstarwarstarkin5756Sometimes, Vader held the leash.

But anyway, Cushing got his first major role in Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet, 1948’s Best Picture, as Osric, and the fact that he didn’t get typecast as the go-to Dandy Courtier in every period piece made in the next 45 years speaks volumes about his versatility as an actor (even if I’d absolutely watch his entire oeuvre if it consisted only of that). The majority of his film career was spent alongside Christopher Lee in the Hammer films, often playing the scientist/policeman battling against Lee’s monsters, and he brought a quiet, avuncular dignity to every role he played.

star-wars“I can’t stay mad at you. Alderaan was a boring planet, anyway.”

He and Christopher Lee made many films together and became best friends over the years.  I love their Dracula films, with Lee as the vampire and Cushing battling him as Van Helsing, though occasionally their “roles” were reversed, as in the wonderfully silly Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, also available in its entirety online:

The film that tried to make us believe that a disembodied, malevolent hand is some kind of threat. Seriously, man, just pick it up and throw it away…its mobility is really limited.

These three combined to make some of the greatest films of the 20th century in any number of genres, but will always be remembered for their indelible impact on the horror genre. Watching them perform, in particular watching Cushing and Lee together, is to witness three actors who adored their craft, who never took themselves too seriously, and who must have been amazing to know and work with.

Christopher Lee’s words after Cushing’s death might just be the best eulogy to a lost friend I have ever heard, and the last line accurately describes the legacy of Price, Cushing, and Lee: “[A]t some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. …And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”



2 thoughts on “It’s Hammer (Films) Time

  1. Pingback: 21st Academy Awards (1948) – Part II | Oscars and I

  2. Pingback: 25th Academy Awards (1952) – Part I | Oscars and I

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