Happy Birthday Definitive Vampire Hunter – Accept no Substitutes
Scanning the headlines today, much of the world appears as usual to have succumbed the the opportune forces of hatred, fear and stupidity and I felt my inner workings clutching up with despair to an extent that defies immediate ability to offer any commentary.
So I though instead of old Hammer horror movies and was reminded that today would have been Peter Cushing’s 103rd birthday. Apparently Peter Cushing was always rather perturbed and a little irritated (as irritated as any such polite man could be) by the fact that people in the street feigned fear of him. “But I always play the hero – never the monster!” he would accurately point out. He was also famous for being in one of the longest running sketch jokes ever – the “I’ve not been paid yet” Morecambe and Wise sketch – which ran for more than a decade.
For sure, he played an authentic villain in the most famous film he was ever involved in – Star Wars a New Hope. Apparently Carrie Fisher found it difficult to apply the term “foul stench” to Peter Cushing, a man with exquisite manners who gave off a faint whiff of lavender.
So he would. Apart from Dr Frankenstein, his signature role was typically Van Helsing. When he wasn’t playing Van Helsing, we was playing a Van Helsing type. Whatever the nature of the supernatural threat (usually Christopher Lee), it would be the task of Peter Cushing to be the first to have a well informed “bad feeling” about things. Now Hammer films did not have huge special effects budgets. The monster’s screen time had to be carefully rationed and strategically lit. And now that I think about it, just about the scariest things that happened in a classic era Hammer movie, made between 1957 and 1972, were the scenes where Peter Cushing gathered a group of young people around a table and explained to them precisely why they need to all be very afraid. Because when Peter Cushing tells you that you need to be afraid, he does so with such utter conviction and integrity that you are afraid. These scenes are the scariest in the movies and therefore, in a sense, despite being an agent of light rather than darkness, Peter Cushing really is the scariest Hammer actor. His is a terror born of tough love. He is scary because of his essential goodness, a goodness that is determined to confront us (for our own good) with the reality of evil. As a consequence, he communicates the nature of evil far better than whatever special effect belatedly lumbers into view.
It is to be noted that while Peter Cushing, the definitive Van Helsing, grew old and died like a normal person, his nemesis Christopher Lee, the definitive Dracula, lived on and on and on and on.