Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cushing Centenary (Part I of II)

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)
THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968)

100 years young today; Peter Cushing's Dr Knox commands the screen in THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS.

"THIS is the story of lost men and lost souls. It is a story of vice and murder. We make no apologies to the dead. It is all true." So begins THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, John Gilling's take on infamous Irishmen Burke and Hare. The film is not only one of the finest British horror films, but a production that may well have provided Peter Cushing with his best ever performance. Capturing the squalid atmosphere of 1828 Edinburgh, the film sees "brilliant, aggressive, provocative" Dr Knox (Cushing) use "resurrection men" Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) to supply fresh cadavers for his prized medical students. When one of these students Chris (John Cairney) becomes involved with feisty prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), the communion begins a chain of events that brings the murders too close to home: Burke is hanged, Hare avoids prosecution only to be blinded by the angry mob, and Knox sees the error of his ways.

Knox is the only person that ultimately changes. Beginning with a relentless flow of intelligence, authority and conviction, this driven rationality for his beloved medical cause ("Men of medicine are the modern miracle workers ... you are entering the most honorable profession in the world") is eventually melted by the fears of a young girl. After instructing Chris that "emotion is a drug that dulls the intellect," Knox quietly tells niece Martha (June Laverick) "as a child, I believed in God and the devil; it took a child to show me what I am now." Cushing's posture and delivery is pitch-perfect across his character arc, and his disagreements with the medical council are laced with a wondrous snideness ("Now, if you would be so good as to incline your heads slightly to the right, you will observe the door; please use it.") Cushing is complimented by sly performances from Rose and Pleasence, who further inject the film with a sardonic black humour. 

The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood. Together with Japan's Mothra, The Blood Beast of THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is part of a pretty exclusive club of moth-related monsters.

On the other end of the scale, Vernon Sewell's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR was described by Cushing as perhaps the worst film he ever made, and few would argue. Two murders have left the police perplexed, with the only witness insane and several petal-like scales left at the crime scenes. Inspector Quennell (Cushing) is drawn to the house of celebrated entomologist Doctor Mallinger (Robert Flemyng, replacing Basil Rathbone after his fatal heart attack two weeks before principal photography). When a further slaying implicates Mallinger and his daughter Clare (Wanda Ventham) the couple flee, but Quennell traces them and - together with daughter Meg (a stilted Vanessa Howard) - travels to a remote fishing village. It is discovered that Mallinger has created a Death's Head moth/female human hybrid, a creature that drinks blood and kills when sexually aroused.

An erratically-edited programmer, Tigon's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR suffers from a formulaic script by Peter Bryan (though there is a bizarre departure with an amateur theatrics sequence), threadbare special effects (that makes the moth mutant on a par with Roger Corman's THE WASP WOMAN) and alleged comic relief (from Roy Hudd as the cliched mugging mortuary attendant who enjoys eating lunch among the corpses). Flemyng's performance as the mad scientist is blatantly suspicious from the opening lecture scene, and Cushing's customarily stoicism allegedly included extensive re-writing by the actor himself. In America, distributor Pacemaker re-christened the film THE VAMPIRE-BEAST CRAVES BLOODfollowed by some even more deranged hyperbole by the publicity department: "A ravishing Psycho-Field with diabolical power to turn into a Giant Death Head Vampire, to feast on the blood of her lovers before clawing them to death."