Cushing vs. Lee: Classic Showdowns Between the Titans of Terror
The Hammer Film Production outfit is synonymous with many things, but there are two names that immediately conjure the great Gothic horror films of Hammer’s heyday: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The genre giants have appeared in over twenty films together, but their most memorable work was with the UK company that made them horror legends. Off-screen, the actors became fast friends – a relationship that was nurtured until Cushing’s death in 1994. On screen, the masters of horror were pitted against each other in a duel to the death -- battling it out in the name of good versus evil. Here are five classic Hammer films that brought Cushing and Lee together as one of horror cinema’s most memorable duos.
The Curse of Frankenstein
Hammer breathed new life into the horror genre in 1957 when they created the first film in a series of trademark gothic horror movies. The Curse of Frankenstein made Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee horror film stars – the British rivals to their American movie monster counterparts, Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. This was a monumental picture for Hammer -- being their first color feature and a film that would lead to many sequels for the studio, as well as the resurrection of other classic horror icons like Dracula.
The film starts with Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) narrating a tale of murder and insanity from his prison cell. Wealth and power were afforded to the Baron at a very young age, which eventually grows into the ultimate God complex when his scientific experiments reach an alarming crescendo. The Baron -- along with a Doctor (Robert Urquhart) he befriended in his youth -- have discovered they can bring the dead back to life. Things start to spiral out of control when Frankenstein sets his sights on a human experiment and he stops at nothing to procure the morbid ingredients needed for his new creation. A creature (Christopher Lee) is born and Frankenstein quickly learns that the monster cannot be contained.
Though Hammer’s version of Mary Shelley’s novel focuses more on the Baron rather than the lumbering brute, Lee’s imposing stature and strong performance -- that evokes pity and terror -- is unforgettable. Though Cushing is often typecast as his persona suggests – reserved and eloquent – some of his more exciting roles are the ones where he’s a total creep, and Curse of Frankenstein captures that perfectly.
Christopher Lee changed the face of Dracula when he starred with Cushing in 1958’s Dracula. He imbued the role with a never before seen eroticism and intensity – and with almost no dialogue (the actor had only 13 lines in the entire film). Hammer eliminated certain characters and plotlines from their feature (like the lunatic R. M. Renfield), which gave more screentime to Cushing’s Van Helsing. Rivaled only by Lee’s new-fanged appeal, Cushing’s performance as the doggedly determined Doctor turned vampire hunter is one for the books (especially his acrobatic showdown at the film’s end). The movie combines over the top drama with some of the traditional vampire mythos and a stylish, atmospheric backdrop. Dracula’s blood and violence shocked audiences who had been used to seeing their gore shrouded in black and white shadows. This was the first time that the formidable duo would take on the roles that dominated their filmography with Hammer – and there’s an enthusiasm in both of their performances that’s refreshing to watch.
After Hammer tackled their revision of Frankenstein and Dracula, it was only a matter of time before they explored one of horror’s oft-forgotten monsters with their 1959 film, The Mummy. Audiences couldn’t get enough of Cushing and Lee – though Lee was not pleased about being hidden behind makeup for a third horror feature. The filming of Mummy was grueling for both actors, however, who suffered injuries from effects props. Luckily they pushed forward and the result is an authentic effort – if not a somewhat romantic vision of ancient Egypt – filled with gorgeous details and strong performances all around. We get a peek at Lee without makeup in various flashback sequences as Kharis – the priest of Karnak who was sentenced to eternal living death because of his love for Princess Ananka. As the mummy, he’s a massive force to be reckoned with – sometimes looking more like Swamp Thing than the standard bandaged behemoth, but it nicely distinguishes his character from Karloff’s and works to Hammer’s advantage. Cushing perfects his wits versus brawn routine here as the archaeologist skeptic turned believer when Kharis seeks revenge for the desecration of his tomb.
Dracula A.D. 1972
More than a decade later, things had changed for Hammer Films – and many would say for the worse. Still, our dynamic duo was going strong despite the fact that the later films often felt like our top-billers were relegated to supporting roles. Hammer’s 1972 mod-happy movie, Dracula A.D. 1972 was made the year its title dates it – and I do mean dates it (the clothing, music and dialogue help … ). This one tends to be a love or hate venture for fans. Still, everyone’s favorite Dracula was paired up with several lovely vamp-vixens (Caroline Munro being a foxy favorite) and the now grandfatherly Van Helsing seemed as energetic as ever. Drac A.D. brought Cushing and Lee together in their titles roles for the first time since Dracula – although reservations from both actors almost made this a movie that never was. The gimmicky, modern setting raised some questions and Lee abhorred the script. It’s hard to blame the actors for feeling that way, when the struggle between “old” and “new” Hammer is pretty painful – but the allure of seeing horror’s famous fiends together again helped make this feature a cult favorite.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula
We’ve come to the end of the road for Hammer’s twosome, as their 1974 film The Satanic Rites of Dracula features the fanged fiend and his nemesis for the last time together on screen. Lee was vehemently against making the movie -- which was a sequel to Dracula A.D. 1972 -- and wasn’t shy about telling everyone that this would be the last time audiences would see him in the role that made him a star. Despite any bitterness, both Lee and Cushing remained true professionals to the very end – living up to their own exacting standards and participating in every aspect of the filmmaking process that they could. Satanic Rites plays out more like a spy flick or sci-fi thriller at times, partly due to another modern-day setting, but also because the actors fight amongst the threat of a man-made plague. We get to see Lee’s Dracula perform under the guise of reclusive property investor D.D. Denham – something unique to the actor’s long-standing role. Cushing is Professor Lorrimar Van Helsing, who uncovers Denham’s true identity and also happens to carry the world’s tiniest gun -- loaded with silver bullets (a plot device Cushing argued against expounding upon, thank goodness). Even a sleazy satanic ritual couldn’t save Satanic Rites from being a disappointing end in the duo’s run together, but the film’s historical significance in Cushing and Lee’s shared filmography cannot be ignored.
To check out all the amazing artwork that Hammer used to promote their legendary films, pick up a copy of Marcus Hearn’s The Art of Hammer: Posters From the Archive of Hammer Films.
Alison Nastasi is an entertainment writer for AOL’s Moviefone and Cinematical websites, and lifelong Hammer Films junkie (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org).