With Halloween (and #Nerdoween) season basically beginning—and my love of old horror movies knowing absolutely no bounds—in lieu of my usual Directors Cuts column for the next five weeks, I’ll be taking a look at my seven favorite films by some of my favorite iconic figures in horror. Actors who brought gravitas, authenticity, and class to all of their roles, and who could play heroes and villains in equal measure will be highlighted. Across the board, with all five of these statesmen of the genre, the movies are better for having them in it.
Note: since they tended to get cast in the same films some of the time, I’m going to focus on only one of the icons per film, so if I don’t mention one of your favorites, it might show up on another list.
To start with, I’ve chosen an actor who for a long time I only knew as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars but who has since become arguably my favorite horror actor of all time and someone who I will actively try to watch everything they did, which is particularly hard with 130 credits to his name. I’m speaking of course about Peter Cushing, the British actor who was so prevalent in horror and sci-fi movies for such a long time that you’d be hard pressed not to like a good many of the films in which he stars.
Below are 7 of my favorite horror films that feature Cushing in a lead or supporting role. Since he played the same characters a few times, I’ve chosen one film to represent those whole series (and will do the same for future icons). Let’s dive in, and of course, your mileage may vary.
7) The Beast Must Die (1974)
To start with, I’m picking an Amicus-produced whodunit from the mid-70s that has the strange distinction of being a murder mystery that’s also a “Who’s the werewolf?” movie. A wealthy game hunter (Calvin Lockhart) invites a group of people to his home for the weekend. It’s soon discovered that the reason he’s invited everyone is that he believes one of them is a werewolf. These include the likes of Charles Gray, Michael Gambon, and our own Mr. Cushing who plays the studious Professor Lundgren, and archaeologist and lycanthropy expert. Throughout the movie, people are picked off until there’s a handful of suspects remaining. The movie then stops and the narrator comes in for “The Werewolf Break,” a minute for the audience to pick who they think the werewolf is. It’s a gimmick for sure, but it’s fun. Cushing isn’t the focus of this one, but he gives the role his usual panache and the film’s the better for it.
6) Night Creatures (1962)
For whatever reason, even though he played some wonderful villains, I always like it when Peter Cushing was the hero, or at least a noble anti-hero character. This is a lesser-known Hammer Films outing that I discovered a few years ago that’s a bit more swashbuckling than some, but no less creepy. Cushing plays Reverend Blyss, the mild-mannered parson of a small English village which has been wracked by visits from “Marsh Phantoms,” and the investigation by Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) leads him to believe the phantoms might be a cover for illegal smuggling operations. SPOILERS: Cushing’s Reverend Blyss is actually the highwayman smuggler Captain Clegg and his activities have a bit of a Robin Hood methodology. Seeing people dressed in skeleton costumes whilst riding horseback is quite chilling, and Cushing as the roguish pirate is a lot of fun.
5) From Beyond the Grave (1974)
In the ’70s, Amicus made quite a few portmanteau horror films, usually where a group of strangers get together mysteriously and are told by someone that they’re dead or cursed and then we see each of them in their own sucks-to-be-you horror story. Cushing was in all but one of these—including Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (playing the eponymous Dr. Terror), Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood, Tales from the Crypt, and Asylum. Fittingly, he stars in the final one, From Beyond the Grave, as a Yorkshireman who owns a pawn shoppe and who effectively curses people for the most minor of offenses, leading to their own tales of horror. As much as I love it when Cushing was the hero, I loved him played delightfully wicked as well. This character—just called “The Proprietor”—allows Cushing to have a great deal of fun and take ghoulish pleasure in torturing these people, and I could watch it all the livelong day.
4) The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
It only makes sense that Cushing would star in the very first Hammer Horror Film. Following a string of scary black & white sci-fi movies, Hammer moved into bright and colorful adaptations of Universal classics, with the condition that they not use any story points or distinct visuals from said movies. They decided to start with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and—unable to use the striking flat-top makeup by Jack Pierce—screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Terence Fisher (both Hammer legends) chose to focus the action not on the monster (played here by a mute and heavily made-up Christopher Lee) and instead focus on the sinister, amoral, and often wholly evil Dr. Victor Frankenstein, played by Cushing. He’s truly the villain of this movie and indeed the subsequent sequels, all of which starred Cushing and featured a new monster. One of these was called Frankenstein Created Woman where the “monster” is a busty blonde alehouse wench who died and was brought back. Anyway, this first one is nice and grim and very gory for the time, and Cushing seems to delight in killing folks to further his dastardly delusions of becoming a god.
3) Twins of Evil (1971)
By the ’70s, Hammer was losing the market by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t really do gore like the Americans could. So instead they decided to use what they knew they had in abundance: hot young actresses. By upping the sex, they were able to stay afloat for a few more years. Some of these included the loose Karnstein Trilogy based around a vampire family of aristocrats. Cushing played a German general in the first of them, The Vampire Lovers, but in the third of them, Twins of Evil, Cushing got to represent the more conservative English public by playing a puritan uncle to the titular twins (played by Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson) who is also a violent and ruthless witch hunter. In the story, one of the twins becomes a vampire while the other remains virginal and pure, though to Cushing’s character it doesn’t matter and he goes around killing all of the accused, whether they be guilty or not. This is a nice tie-in to the actual witch-hunting that went on in the 1600s and how horribly violent and unfair it was. There’s a moment toward the end where Cushing realizes that he’s gone completely off the deep end and was willing to sacrifice the innocent along with the guilty. It’s rare for the film’s villain (or one of them, since vampires are real) to have such a change of heart and it makes the film a standout.
2) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Hammer did exactly one adaptation of a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story, and it’s a cracker. Cushing plays Holmes (he’d go on to play the character more on TV in the late ’60s and beyond) opposite Andre Morrell’s Dr. Watson and the two are terrific together. Cushing’s portrayal is much more spiky and acerbic than some of the other cinematic sleuths and much more in keeping with the book version. Director Terence Fisher treats this story exactly as he would one of the company’s horror movies and the result is actually pretty scary, despite the resolution being something wholly un-supernatural. Christopher Lee also stars as the supposedly cursed Sir Henry Baskerville and his panicky performance offsets Cushing, who’s too-cool-for-school.
1) The Brides of Dracula (1960)
And finally, we have what is hands-down my favorite character played by Peter Cushing: Dr. Van Helsing. While he spent most of his time at Hammer playing Frankenstein, it was his four films as two different Van Helsings that I really think redefined the character, the actor, and the studio. He became the lead of the first Dracula movie by the studio (which you might see on another week’s list) and, seeing as Dracula died in that movie, the sequel made two years later allowed for Cushing’s Van Helsing to be like a roaming vampire hunter, which I really wish they’d have continued. Count Dracula does not feature in The Brides of Dracula, but another dashing vampire does and Van Helsing has to save a French girl going to a boarding school from his devilish charms, and the brides he creates. This movie actually features Van Helsing getting bitten by a vampire and we see how he tries to stop the infection, by quickly cauterizing the wound with a red hot brand. Cushing played a descendant of Van Helsing in the latter-day sequels Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and he’s super good in those too—but nothing can match the calm heroism of his ’58 and ’60 Victorian-garb portrayals. I’mma go watch those movies again now.
And there we have it. My seven favorite Peter Cushing horror films. Next week, I’ll take a look at someone who played monsters and scientists alike, and became one of the first Icons of Horror – Mr. Boris Karloff.
Let me know your favorite Peter Cushing horror movies in the comments below!
Featured Image: Hammer Films/Warner Bros
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!