Before he was Grand Moff Tarkin, collaborating with Lord Vader to get the Death Star operational and dealing with those pesky relentless rebels, Peter Cushing was Professor Van Helsing in 4 of Hammer’s Dracula films and Dr Frankenstein in 6 of Hammer’s Frankenstein films. He not only played these roles, he outright owned them. Certainly Colin Clive gave the greatest performance of Dr Frankenstein in James Whale’s original 1931 classic, but that was a role that stayed true to Mary Shelley’s tragic hero from her novel. Cushing and Hammer Studios completely re-invented this character into a villainous, diabolical, criminal scientist. Their version of Dr.Frankenstein abused humanity at the expense of his God-complex obsession for creating and experimenting with life. Hammer then used that premise to create, not only some of the greatest horror films, but the greatest horror film series. The result is that as far as overall Frankenstein film franchises go Hammer is the ONLY game in town. (sorry Universal)

Grand Moff Tarkin

Peter Cushing Holds His Own with Vader

The Scenes in A New Hope Pop More with Peter Cushing Cast as a Death Star Commander

George Lucas knew what he was doing when he cast Cushing in the first Star Wars film in 1976. Cushing, with his classic British delivery while matching wits with Lord Vader on the Death Star, added gravitas to this independent American production. In many ways, bringing in a Hammer film horror star was perfect for the Star Wars franchise that was just getting started. When you watch a Peter Cushing horror film, particularly those produced by Hammer Films between the 1950’s-1970’s, Cushing steals every scene he is in. The moment he appears in any of these classic horror films it always feels as if the adult in the room has just walked in, all eyes are on him and the movie becomes elevated. Even the more campier horror films would get an immediate juiced up legitimacy as soon as Cushing walked into frame. Notice that the only scenes in the entire Star Wars filmography, other than with the Emperor, where Vader is equally matched with authority and commanding verbal delivery, is with Cushing.

But Cushing did not just play Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein, he was in a host of other horror films, playing both villain and hero. He was particularly noteworthy as Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s production of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Apologies to Karloff and Chaney, but Peter Cushing is the Greatest Horror Icon of All Time

If you had to pick one actor that personifies Hammer Studios, it is Peter Cushing. To this very day, in the horror film universe, Hammer Studios is indisputably the most important studio to make its mark.  So, it follows that Peter Cushing is the most important  actor in the history of the horror film genre. This blog, A Classic Halloween, is dedicated to serving and honoring the horror genre- past, present and future. It is a rich genre with many sub-genres and a fanbase that is: dedicated, well-read, knowledgeable and does not suffer fools. So this decision to pick an individual to represent the very first Horror Icon of the Month on this blog is not taken lightly. Of all the actors, directors, writers and make-up artists in this rich and historically significant genre, we choose to start off with Peter Cushing.

Peter Cushing

Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein

Hammer Films was a small independent studio, churning out low- budget horror films with assembly-line speed. Cushing could have easily phoned in these roles and looked down on them. Far from it. Cushing threw his heart and soul into every one of these roles, some stellar, some campy, some out-right MST 3000 material. It didn’t matter, Cushing treated each film as if it were the most important work he was doing. As did Vincent Price, Cushing showed up and it is reflected in each of his films. So the horror universe is eternally grateful for his epic body of work, and some of the most important horror films ever put to the big screen.

To sample his work, or re-acquaint yourself, check out these 4 recommendations for the month:

  1. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
  2. Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
  3. Horror of Dracula (1958)
  4. The Mummy (1959)

One final note. In all of film history there are 2 people that can light and smoke a cigarette in the middle of a scene while delivering lines in such a natural way as if blinking or breathing, and that is Humphrey Bogart and Peter Cushing. There have been no actors that look as cool and natural while enjoying a smoke as they deliver perfectly timed iconic lines in great films- just another reason to seek out Peter Cushing films. Enjoy.

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