Cushing and Lee: The dynamic duo of classic horror movies

Can you be excited to see someone and terrified at the same time?

Absolutely. That’s how I’ve felt most of my life about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the iconic duo from Hammer Films.

Their movies gave me nightmares as a kid – the otherworldly creatures, the bright Hammer Films blood, the eerie woods (someone always got lost in the woods), that startling music and those faces. (If you’re wondering what I was doing watching these movies when I was very young, blame my dad. But that’s a topic for another post.)

I know Cushing often played the kindly, intelligent professor or scientist (until he went mad with power as he did as Victor Frankenstein), but there was an unsettling quality about his face despite the fact he was a good-looking man. His patrician nose, attractive widow’s peak and angular cheeks that grew sharper as he aged gave him the look of someone from another time. You can’t process that logically as a kid.

Lee was simply overpowering. Hide him under bandages as Frankenstein’s Creature or as a mummy or let him play a good guy in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959) and his towering 6’5” frame, long face, dark eyes and deep voice could still intimidate.

Each man was a commanding screen presence, a trait new to me as a kid. Put them on screen together and it was mythical. Between those faces, the characters, the stories and their overwhelming presence they freaked me out – while hypnotizing me at the same time.

As I grew older, I began to watch their movies as if they were an amusement park thrill ride: I was hesitant to get on, but my (internal) screams gave way to grins and giggles once I came out without a scratch. I wanted to go again.

So I did. And still do. And they still get to me every time.

Their distinguished film careers combined for 130 years and well over 200 movies. It’s a shame to only highlight 10 percent of their life’s work, but it’s their 22 collaborations that I most fondly recall. They may have been Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in life, but to this classic movie fan they  remain Cushing-Lee, a dynamic duo not to be separated and the reason I wanted to highlight them in the “Dynamic Duos in Classic Film” blogathon hosted by Citizen Screen at Aurora’s Gin Joint and Classic Movie Hub.

Here’s the link to the Day 1 of the blogathon.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee first shared film credits (not necessarily the screen) in small roles in “Hamlet” (1948), “Moulin Rouge” (1952) and “Alexander the Great” (1956).

But I consider “Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) their first film together since it’s where the Cushing-Lee dynasty we know today started. It was the first of Hammer’s famous British Gothics and the first in a string of four films in two years they made for Hammer, all directed by Terence Fisher: “Curse of Frankenstein,” “Horror of Dracula” (1958), “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959) and “The Mummy” (1959).

Those films cemented their status as horror icons, changing their careers and the future of an entire studio. Freddie Francis, who directed them in such films as “The Creeping Flesh” and “The Skull,” said Cushing and Lee were“the luckiest two things that ever happened to Hammer.”

Why did the pairing work so well together, especially when the men usually played such disparate characters? I think it’s for two reasons. First, they  were actually quite similar. Despite how much their looks may have troubled me as a kid, both had distinctive voices and an aristocratic look. And though we make much out of Lee’s height, Cushing was just a few inches shorter at 6 feet tall and appeared up to the task of anything Lee threw his way.

They were also lifelong friends and Lee’s emotional comments about his friend’s death speak volumes about their relationship:  “I don’t want to sound gloomy, but, at 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. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”

* * * * * *

They are my favorite screen duo, yet it’s amazing that in some of their most popular films, they shared little screen time. When they did, the moments were so powerful they are what we remember most about the movie.

In “Curse of Frankenstein” we have to wait 40 minutes to see them together  but it’s so worth the wait.

Creator and Creature stand feet apart not knowing what to make of each other, though Frankenstein’s face moves from shock to awe (his creation is alive!).

The Creature rips the bandages from his face revealing a shocking grayish-green face marked by open cuts, bubbling pockets of flesh and stitches.

The music swells, a gong rings out (yes a gong!) and the camera rushes in for a close-up.

The Creature grabs Frankenstein by the collar, spins him around and chokes him with two hands, lifting him off the ground.  It’s quick, it’s shocking and it’s exciting.

In “Dracula,” the duo provides a frenzied finale in a hand-to-hand battle that takes clever quick thinking by Van Helsing (making a giant cross out of candle sticks; pulling down the curtains to let in the sunlight) to bring Dracula to an end (or does he?).

Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) creates a crucifix in “Dracula.”

There are multiple confrontations in “The Mummy,” but this film is different because the creature we are supposed to fear is such a sympathetic character, thanks to a remarkable performance by Lee who has only his eyes in some scenes to convey his emotions.

As Kharis, the high priest doomed to a horrific everlasting death 4,000 years earlier because of a forbidden love, Lee was wrapped head to toe in bandages and unable to speak.

But watch him brilliantly show his fear seeing the tomb that will encase him for centuries (below); the hatred at recognizing the men who desecrated his beloved’s tomb; and the recognition and love at discovering his reincarnated love. It may be Lee’s best performance in a Hammer film.

Christopher Lee’s eyes say it all in “The Mummy.”

* * * * * *

That unholy trio of films and characters may be what the duo is most known for, but there’s plenty more to watch. Check out these three collaborations  for something different than the unholy trio of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles.” They don’t play Holmes and Watson – that would have been something – but you can’t lose with Cushing as the Great Detective and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. It’s a nice change of pace to see them in this classic Sherlock Holmes story, especially watching Lee as a well-dressed, clean-shaven “normal” character.

“The Gorgon”

“The Gorgon.” The Greek myth about a creature  who could turn people to stone with just one look is set in 1910 Germany in this Hammer production. It’s 50 minutes into the film before Cushing and Lee are on screen at the same time – and even then they aren’t in the same room. But I can’t help but recommend the film because of its fantastic premise. A favorite moment is when Dr. Namaroff (Cushing) is asked to if he’ll perform an autopsy on the latest murder victim and he replies: “On a body that’s turned to stone?”

I especially love the duo’s distinct appearances in “The Gorgon.” Cushing is attractive, with trimmed beard and sleeked back hair. His suit fits impeccably. In contrast, Lee is rumpled with bushy hair and unkempt mustache with a personality to match. Although the two are at odds as they so often were in their films, neither is a bad guy – they just have different ideas of how to deal with the same problem.

“Horror Express” (main photo). This old-fashioned monster yarn features our favorite pair as rival professors/scientists who become reacquainted on a train. But there’s something dangerous about the 2 million-year-old fossil in the crate brought on board by Professor Saxton (Lee). Bodies start to mount up, all with white eyes and brains drained of memory. There’s an odd holy man, talk of an evil eye and the fossil-turned-creature can take over a human body. Then Telly Savalas shows up and starts chewing the scenery. Yes, it is that much fun.

* * * * * *

Cushing-Lee still freak me out as an adult (to this day, Lee’s silent, shadowy entrance in “Dracula” jolts me every time) but I don’t miss the chance to see one of their films. Even though I own several on DVD, I stop what I’m doing if their movies are on TCM and take the time to visit these old friends. There’s not another pair of actors I would rather watch – even if I still close my eyes sometimes.

Cushing-Lee Filmography

“Hamlet” (1948)

“Moulin Rouge” (1952)

“Alexander the Great (1956)

“Curse of Frankenstein” (1957)

“Horror of Dracula” or “Dracula” (1957)

“Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959)

“The Mummy” (1959)

“Gorgon” (1964)

“Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” (1965)

“She” (1965)

“The Skull” (1965)

“Island of the Burning Damned” (1967)

“Scream and Scream Again” (1970)

“The House That Dripped Blood” (1971)

“I, Monster” (1971)

“Dracula A.D.” (1972)

“Horror Express” (1972)

“Nothing But the Night” (1973)

“Creeping Flesh” (1973)

“Santatic Rite of Dracula” (1973)

“Arabian Adventure” (1979)

“House of the Long Shadows” (1983)

 

 

8 thoughts on “Cushing and Lee: The dynamic duo of classic horror movies”

  1. I absolutely adore this, Toni. I relived my childhood and my reaction to these two icons as I read your descriptions. Tp play off Francis’ words, Cushing Lee may well be the best thing to ever happen to us. These two will live on forever. Thank you so much for this touching tribute about the horrors they brought us.

    Aurora

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  2. I had delightful chills reading your description of some of these film scenes and your deep affection for these two actors. I think they would be pleased to know of this impact.

    A little family sidebar: During her years of animation study, my daughter kept a framed poster of the Lee-Cushing Hound of the Baskervilles in her studio space. I don’t know if it was inspiration or some sort of talisman, but she was never without them.

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    1. Thank you! I’m glad that my affection for them came through in my piece – I truly do hold them in high regard. Love the note about your daughter and the poster! Thanks for reading. Toni

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  3. I am a huge fan of Hammer Films and much of it is because of Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee. It was Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula that I first saw of the Hammer movies, and both men impressed me immensely. They were both so versatile. They could be heroes (Cushing as Van Helsing, Lee as Duc de Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out) or they cold be villains. And both could express so much with just a gesture. Definitely they are two of my favourite actors of all time.

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    1. Thanks very much for reading and for taking the time to write a note. I agree with what you said about their versatility and how they expressed so much with a gesture. It’s nice to meet another fan of the duo!

      Like

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