IN THE SHADOWS: ELISHA COOK, JR.

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today, it’s Elisha Cook, Jr., one of the most recognizable character actors of all time. Small in stature, he often portrayed intense oftentimes frightened characters, especially in his horror movies. One of my favorite Cook performances in a genre film was in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), in which he co-starred with Vincent Price as the terrified Watson Pritchard, the one man in the movie who believed ghosts were haunting the house. Cook also enjoyed a memorable moment in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) when he falls asleep in the back of Kolchak’s car, scaring the living daylight out of the reporter (Darren McGavin) when he bolts upright in the back seat!

Here now is a partial look at some of Elisha Cook, Jr.’s impressive 220 screen credits:

HER UNBORN CHILD (1930)- Stewart Kennedy – Cook’s first screen credit is in this 1930 love story drama.

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) – Joe Briggs – co-stars in this film noir with Peter Lorre. Often cited as the first film noir movie ever.

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) – Wilmer Cook – one of my favorite Elisha Cook Jr. roles is in this classic film noir by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Cook plays the enforcer for Mr. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who Bogart’s Sam Spade torments throughout, at one point slapping him around and eventually turning Gutman against him. Cook is wound up and intense throughout. Also starring Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. One of my favorite movies of all time.

A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942) – Frank Lucas- supporting role in this Laurel and Hardy spooky comedy.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) – Harry Jones – reunited with Humphrey Bogart, with Bogart this time playing Philip Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, this one is so complex that even after subsequent viewings it’s still difficult to figure out who did what to whom, and why! Bogart famously married co-star Lauren Bacall shortly after this movie.

SHANE (1953) – Stonewall Torrey – supporting role in this classic Alan Ladd western. His character is dramatically slain by the villainous gunslinger played by Jack Palance.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1954)- “Semi-Private Eye” – Homer Garrity – plays private detective Homer Garrity hired by Lois Lane to prove that Clark Kent is really Superman in this episode of the George Reeves Superman TV series.

THE KILLING (1956)- George Peatty – supporting role in this film noir thriller directed by a young Stanley Kubrick.

VOODOO ISLAND (1957) – Martin Schuyler – zombie horror movie starring Boris Karloff, notable for featuring the screen debut of Adam West. Holy horror movie, Batman!

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) – Watson Pritchard – one of my favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. roles is in this William Castle horror movie starring Vincent Price as a cold, calculating husband who along with his equally manipulative wife plan a party in a haunted house where the guests are each paid a large sum of money if they remain in the house all night. And they have no choice once they agree, because they are all locked inside until dawn. Cook plays the one man there who believes in ghosts, and spends most of his time drinking and warning the others that they are all doomed. One of the earlier horror movies to employ jump scares, and the scene with the old woman who appears out of nowhere in the basement is a classic.

BLACK ZOO (1963) – Joe – horror movie starring the Hammer ham himself, Michael Gough, playing a character who uses his zoo animals to kill his enemies. Of course!

THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) – Peter Smith – reunited with Vincent Price in this horror movie directed by Roger Corman based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. Cook plays a frightened townsperson who is a yes-man to a tougher townsperson played by Leo Gordon, and they lead the villagers in attempts to oust Vincent Price’s Charles Dexter Ward from their community fearing that he is a menace to their community. And they’re right! Also stars Lon Chaney Jr., in a rare paring with Vincent Price. One of my favorite Roger Corman/Vincent Price movies.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Mr. Nicklas – part of the terrific cast in Roman Polanski’s classic horror movie which also stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, and Ralph Bellamy.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) – Mickey Crawford – plays an informant for Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak in this groundbreaking vampire movie written by Richard Matheson. Cook provides one of the better jump scares in the movie as noted above.

BLACULA (1972) – Sam – Cook appears in back-to-back vampire movies, this one featuring a commanding performance by William Marshall in the lead role in this underrated horror movie which is actually very good.

THE BLACK BIRD (1975) – Wilmer Cook – Cook reprises his role from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) in this comedy about the son of Sam Spade, played by George Segal.

SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Gordon ‘Weasel’ Phillips – this TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring David Soul and James Mason is considered by many fans and critics as one of the two greatest vampire TV movies ever made, along with THE NIGHT STALKER. Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in both these movies!

MAGNUM, P.I. (1980-1988) – Francis “Ice Pick” Hofstetler – Cook’s final screen appearances were on the popular TV series, MAGNUM, P.I., in which he appeared in 13 episodes.

Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in tons of TV shows over the years, including GUNSMOKE, THE WILD WILD WEST, STAR TREK, BATMAN, THE ODD COUPLE, and STARSKY AND HUTCH, to name just a few.

I hope you enjoyed this partial list of Elisha Cook Jr.’s career. He was a character actor who starred in many genre films, some, like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE NIGHT STALKER, are some of the more important ones ever made.

Join me again next time for another edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at the careers of character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael


PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

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Hammer’s THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), is often cited, and rightly so, as one of the most atmospheric vampire movies ever made.

It’s also one of Hammer’s best, and that’s saying a lot, since Christopher Lee doesn’t appear in this Dracula movie, and that’s because when Hammer decided to make a sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), Lee wasn’t interested in reprising the role for fear of being typecast (he would change his mind six years later) and so Hammer wrote a new story featuring a disciple of Dracula, and they brought back Peter Cushing to once again play Dr. Van Helsing.

But the true star of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA just might be director Terence Fisher who does some of his best work for Hammer right here in this movie, at least in terms of atmosphere. In terms of shock and fright, Fisher scored highest with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). His later work for Hammer while always visually impressive, often wasn’t that scary, since admittedly Fisher wasn’t trying to make horror movies but rather tell stories with horror elements. This may have been the reason some of his later films, like THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) didn’t do all that well at the box office.

But Fisher is at his best here with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, as there are plenty of thunderstorms, creepy graveyards, an elegant castle, deadly vampire bats, and with Peter Cushing in the cast, some guaranteed exciting vampire battle action sequences. Another thing that Fisher always did well in these movies was use color to his advantage, often filling the screen with shades of green, red, orange, and even purple.

Look at the composition in the photo above, of a scene early in the movie, inside the tavern when the villainous Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) arrives to abduct the unsuspecting Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur). You can easily recognize the effective use of red, purple and black, a combination of lighting, costumes, and sets. The set design is superb.

The red color in the back, highlighted by the red on Baroness Meinster’s clothes, and the purple light on the floor and to the right, give the scene a colorful composition of horror. Terence Fisher does this a lot in his movies, from the copious use of green in the lab scenes in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958), to the use of red, green, blue, yellow, and purple in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). If you watch a Hammer Film directed by Terence Fisher, you are sure to spot creative use of color and light.

As seen in today’s Picture of the Day from THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, this gem of a vampire movie is imbued with detailed set design and costumes that make it look like a much more expensive film than it really was.

Sometimes watching Fisher’s work is like looking at a painting.

When people say THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is one of the most atmospheric vampire movies ever made, they’re right, and most of the credit belongs to director Terence Fisher.

Take one last look at the photo above. A nice long look.

Yup. That’s art in horror.

That’s also why Hammer horror is a thing. While their horror movies worked on so many levels, they were almost always impressive to look at.

Hope you enjoyed today’s Picture of the Day.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

DAY SHIFT (2022) – Horror/Action/Comedy at Its Worst

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The mindless action/comedy tour continues, and with DAY SHIFT (2022), you can throw horror into the mix.

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the plethora of mindless action comedies at the movies these days, films filled with clever rapid-fire banter between main characters but with stories so ridiculous and over-the-top that they possess no semblance of truth and are about as interesting as watching someone else play a video game. Yawn. These movies have become absolutely wearisome, but since they continue to make money, they aren’t going away anytime soon.

They run the gamut from generally entertaining and fairly well-written, like BULLET TRAIN (2022), to not-so-well written and too-ridiculous-to-be-believed-and-enjoyed, like THE GRAY MAN (2022), to the horribly dreadful and uber boring because not only is the action mindless but the characters as well, like UNCHARTED (2022).

DAY SHIFT, a new horror/action/comedy which premiered this weekend on Netflix, falls into the latter category. It’s pretty bad.

The movie opens with swimming pool cleaner Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) entering a home and immediately being attacked by an old lady who in reality is…. a deadly vampire! We learn everything we need to know about the rest of this movie in this opening action sequence. It goes on for a while, the stunts and action are impeccably polished, and it’s generally entertaining for an opening scene of an action movie, and when it’s done, Bud wins, and he makes a wisecrack.

And that’s what DAY SHIFT is all about. See, Bud’s not really a pool cleaner. He’s a vampire hunter! And in this movie, Los Angeles is crawling with vampires, and so Bud is plenty busy! The gimmick here is that Bud’s ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) has threatened to move to Florida with their young daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) because they can no longer afford her private school which costs $5,000, or her need for braces, which will cost $6,000, so in order to keep his family in L.A. with him, he has to come up with $11,000 real fast! So, he has to get extra aggressive with the vampire hunter gig. However, this plot point is a head-scratcher. Moving to Florida isn’t going to remove Paige’s need for braces or the expense that goes with it, and private schools in Florida are just as expensive as private schools in California, so Bud, if he took two minutes to think about things, should have realized he has other options for keeping his daughter with him in California. But that would suggest some intelligence here, which is something that the script lacks.

Bud is paired up with the dorky Seth (Dave Franco) who has been tasked with making sure that Bud follows all the rules of the vampire hunting company, something that Seth isn’t interested in doing because he likes his desk job and isn’t interested in working in the field. And the main villain here, a female vampire named Audrey (Karla Souza) is intent on two things, populating the city with vampires, and exacting revenge on Bud since the old lady he killed in the film’s opening was her daughter. Don’t ask. The explanation doesn’t make sense. So, eventually Audrey goes after Jocelyn and Paige, and it’s up to daddy Bud to save the day.

As stories go, this one is very lame.

DAY SHIFT reminded me somewhat of another Netflix action/horror/comedy movie, ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021), only in that movie, which was directed by Zach Snyder and starred Dave Bautista, the good guys were battling zombies, not vampires. This similarity comes as no surprise as screenwriter Shay Hatten wrote both movies. Here, Hatten shares screenwriting credit with Tyler Tice.

It’s a pretty ineffective screenplay. The dialogue and banter is neither funny or clever, and there’s nary a laugh to be found. There is one amusing conversation between Bud and Seth about the TWILIGHT series, but that’s about it. It tries to be clever and creative with the vampires, as Seth offers an explanation into the different types of vampires, but the movie never makes an effort to make this part of the film’s lore, and so it’s quickly forgotten. The characters are shallow, and the plot forgettable. Vampire Audrey has the upper hand once she captures Bud’s ex-wife and daughter, and the only reason she doesn’t succeed is she went to the Dr. Evil School of Villainy and talks about all her plans but never acts on them. It’s pretty stupid. And finally, the story embraces one of the worst plot contrivances in the movies, where after the dust settles, mommy realizes that her ex-husband and daddy of their child really isn’t so bad after all since he’s a vampire hunter hero, and they decide to get back together. Gag! That simply is not how people act. This plot point is almost as bad as the “it was just a dream” shtick.

DAY SHIFT was directed by stunt man J.J. Perry, and the result is what you would expect. The action sequences are really well done and slick, and they are the best part of the movie, but that’s pretty much all DAY SHIFT has to offer. The horror and comedy are pretty nonexistent.

Jamie Foxx is pretty much hit or miss with me. Sometimes I enjoy his work, and other times I don’t. I really enjoyed him in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and RAY (2004), but he did little for me in another recent Netlix actioner PROJECT POWER (2020), and he was rather ineffective in BABY DRIVER (2017). Here, he’s okay, but it’s a terribly written role.

But he fares much better than co-star Dave Franco who plays one of the most embarrassingly pathetic characters I’ve seen in a movie in years. Seth is a disaster. Let’s put it this way: the running gag in the movie is that every time Seth gets scared, he pees himself, and so after each action scene, we get to see Seth humiliate himself, and the other characters plus Seth himself make jokes about it. I can’t believe Franco would even play this role. It’s so bad. And then once you think he’s been put out of his misery, after he is turned into a vampire, and Bud beheads him, it turns out he can put his head back on to survive and become a “good” vampire.

Your guess is as good as mine.

One of the best performances in the movie belongs to Natasha Liu Bordizzo in a small role as Bud’s neighbor who also turns out to be a “good” vampire, and late in the film, she helps Bud and Seth. She’s fun to watch, and she makes for a better action hero than either Bud or Seth. We just saw Bordizzo play a very different character in the thriller THE VOYEURS (2021).

Also making an impact in a small role is Eric Lange, who plays a shady character who buys goods from Bud. It’s the kind of role Lange is good at, having played a similar shady type in the TV series NARCOS (2016-2017). He was also memorable in a dark role in the effective horror movie ANTEBELLUM (2020).

But Karla Souza is ineffective as the one-note vampire villain Audrey. She holds all the cards, yet she loses in pathetically stupid fashion.

Rapper Snoop Dogg is on hand as experienced vampire hunter Big John Elliott, but he, like everyone else in this movie, is let down by the script. He has nary a memorable line.

DAY SHIFT is not only the most recent example of the action/horror/comedy movie trope that is already passe and cliche, it’s also one of the worst examples.

If I were you, I’d request the night shift instead.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)

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For the first time ever, starring in the same movie together, on the big screen, it’s Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing!

The movie? SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970).

Imagine being able to make that claim. Now imagine botching things so badly, making a movie so awful, that barely anyone today even knows this film exists, let alone that it starred Price, Lee, and Cushing.

The movie? SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

Years ago, when I first watched SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, I hated it. And why shouldn’t I have? The movie boasts Price, Lee, and Cushing, but they are hardly in this one at all. The film runs 95 minutes, and the total screen time for all three actors combined is just about 20 minutes! Price is in the film the most, and his character has the biggest connection to the main plot. He and Lee do share one brief scene together, right near the end, but Lee is hardly in the film, and Cushing has only one brief scene.

Then there’s the plot, which makes so little sense it’s ridiculous. Vincent Price is on record in later interviews as saying he never understood the script. He’s not alone.

For someone who was used to Hammer Films which gave Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee the signature roles of their careers, and the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films which starred Vincent Price and largely defined Price’s career, to sit down and watch something like SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN was an insult. What. A. Waste.

But hold the negative review! Why? Because a funny thing has happened over the years.

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, has… dare I say it?… aged well.

There’s something unique about the time period between 1965 and 1975, which places SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN smack dab in the middle, where life wasn’t the way it was before or since, and the arts during that decade were different, and so looking at a film like SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN today, it stands out because it is so unlike the structured Hammer Films and Roger Corman movies which came before it. It’s very similar to how Hammer’s own DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) has aged so well. There’s a newfound appreciation for the oddball groovy style of both these movies that didn’t exist before.

So, I gotta say, watching SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN here in 2022, I…. oh boy… actually really liked this movie!

Okay. It still has its ridiculous plot. And Price, Lee, and Cushing are nowhere to be found for the most part, but knowing this going in, and knowing that they’re just going to show up briefly and add what they do to the insanity of this wild, wild plot, is kind of a fun thing.

So, about that plot. Ready? There are multiple storylines going on, and none of them are laid out all that clearly, but that’s okay, because it’s 1970, and that’s how things were. The main plot is about a vampire killer on the streets of London who sexually assaults women and then drains them of blood. He’s also incredibly powerful and would have fit in quite nicely in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) universe in Las Vegas giving Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak a hard time. It’s also interesting to note that the superhuman vampire who outmuscles squads of police officers and scales the side of a massive hill a la Spiderman predates THE NIGHT STALKER by two years!

Here, his name is Keith, and he’s played by Michael Gothard, who would go on to play another strong silent killer in the Roger Moore James Bond flick FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981). Hot on this killer’s trail is Detective Bellaver (Alfred Marks) and his squad of Scotland Yard’s finest, and if there’s anyone who is at all close to being a main character here, it’s Bellaver. Alfred Marks delivers a strong performance as the wise-cracking no-nonsense detective who seems like he would be at home having his own 1970s cop TV show. Tonight it’s BELLAVER, followed by COLUMBO at 9 and KOJAK at 10. He gets some of the best lines in the movie, and he’s actually really, really good. Unfortunately, he’s not Price, Lee, or Cushing, but he is still really, really, good.

Meanwhile, in an undisclosed fascist country, which resembles Nazi Germany, a crackpot of a leader Konratz (Marshall Jones) is busy killing off all his superiors so that he can become top dog on the food chain. He seems to possess a supernatural power for killing.

Then there’s Dr. Browning (Vincent Price) who in his secluded mansion is performing mysterious experiments involving removing the limbs of his patients while they’re still alive, and a la Dr. Frankenstein creating beings piece by piece who have not yet lived.

What do these three plots have in common? Nothing! Actually, that’s not true. They are tied together, and before this one ends, the film does attempt to make sense of it all, and it largely succeeds, although you have to scratch your head for nearly 90 minutes wondering what the f*ck is going on??? But, it seems our maniac friend Konratz is hiring the good Dr. Browning to create superhumans for him, one of which, Keith, has been on the loose in London draining women of their blood.

Far out man. Like, groovy!

And SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN is far out. Like waaay far out. Like past Neptune far out!

For Price, Lee, and Cushing fans, Price fares the best and actually has a few good lines, and of the three horror icons is the only one who gets to really strut his stuff on screen, even if it’s only briefly. Christopher Lee spends his time as Fremont, a top man in the British government, talking on the phone and looking worried. He does show up at the end and has the pleasure of delivering the final plot twist, as if this unstructured script really needs another direction! And, sadly, Peter Cushing has only one scene, to be a victim, done in by the overly ambitious Konratz.

The crazy far out script was written by Christopher Wicking, who also wrote the screenplay for Hammer’s last Mummy movie, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1972), which is also kind of far out, as well as the screenplay for TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976), Hammer’s last horror movie until 2008, which is really far, far out! So, he has lots of experience with this kind of thing.

Gordon Hessler directed SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Hessler also directed Vincent Price and Christopher Lee in THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a film I like much more than SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Probably Hessler’s best movie would be THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), featuring the special effects of Ray Harryhausen.

In spite of its ludicrous and choppy plot, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN does enjoy some neat scenes. There are a couple of really well-done police chases, featuring Detective Bellaver and his Scotland yard crew in hot pursuit of the vampiric Keith. Whenever Vincent Price is onscreen, he provides a vibe in the movie that only Price can, and it’s a shame he’s not the actor who is anchoring this one.

Christopher Matthews as a young doctor snooping around on his own trying to learn the secret of what Price’s Dr. Browning is up to also enjoys some quality scenes. Matthews played Paul in SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), the most violent of the Christopher Lee Dracula films, and he was one of the better parts of that one, until he makes the mistake of discovering Dracula’s coffin.

Unfortunately, the plot involving Konratz and his fascist cronies stands out like a convoluted contrived plot device that seems phony and out of place. It’s the weakest part of the movie. Interestingly enough, in the novel The Disoriented Man by Peter Saxon, on which the screenplay is based, it was a group of aliens who were hiring out Dr. Browning’s handiwork, not dictators in the making. Aliens might have made more sense.

But if it’s sense you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. You won’t find any in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

You also won’t find much of Price, Lee, or Cushing. Sadly, they would appear all together in only one more movie, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983), which while giving them much more screen time and plenty of scenes together, isn’t any better of a movie than SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

But SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN has aged rather well. It’s still a convoluted confusing mess, but somehow with the passage of time it’s become more fun.

This winter, if you’re looking to liven things up a bit, check out SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

You’ll be screaming all right, loudly, at your TV, but not for the reasons you expect.

—END–

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933)

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Ready to go batty?

Good!  Then check out THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933), an atmospheric vampire movie from the 1930s starring Lionel Atwill in the lead role of mad scientist Dr. Otto van Niemann.

In THE VAMPIRE BAT, Atwill demonstrates that had the stars been aligned differently, he might have become a major horror movie star, rather than just a supporting actor, playing as he so often did police inspectors in the Universal Frankenstein and Dracula movies.  He delivers a fine performance in THE VAMPIRE BAT, and there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t have continued to play lead roles in future films with similar success.

A small village is up in arms over a series of vampire-like murders, in which the victims have been drained of all their blood.  Karl, the local police inspector (Melvyn Douglas) doesn’t believe in vampires and instead insists the crimes have been committed by a human culprit.

His girlfriend Ruth (Fay Wray) works for Dr. van Niemann (Lionel Atwill) whose strange experiments should have raised some eyebrows, but since he’s such a respected member of the community, he escapes suspicion.  Instead, the villagers accuse the town simpleton, Herman (Dwight Frye) of being the vampire, since he loves bats and is seen regularly handling the creatures.  

The villagers chase Herman through the countryside with hunting dogs, in a scene clearly reminiscent of the chase scene at the end of FRANKENSTEIN (1931).  In fact, if you happen to stumble upon this scene unaware of what you are watching, you might suspect you are seeing some long lost footage from FRANKENSTEIN of the villagers chasing Henry Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz (also played by Dwight Frye).  At the end of the chase, Herman falls from a cliff to his death, and the villagers then drive a stake through his heart.  They are ecstatic that they have killed the vampire, but this only lasts a few hours, until another victim is drained of blood.

Eventually, Karl’s investigation leads him to Dr. van Niemann, and he discovers that the doctor has been hypnotizing his assistant to commit these murders in order to obtain human blood for his experiments.

The plot of THE VAMPIRE BAT is nothing new, nor is it very exciting.  The screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, who also wrote the screenplays for HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), is average at best, and the biggest strike against the story is that it’s not about a real vampire.  Heck, it’s not even about a real vampire bat!  

Director Frank Strayer does little at the helm to make this one stand out, as THE VAMPIRE BAT contains nary a memorable scene.  

The reason to watch THE VAMPIRE BAT is its cast.  Lionel Atwill is more than satisfactory in the lead role as Dr. van Niemann.  Although Atwill’s signature role, his defining moment in horror cinema remains his one-armed police inspector in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), a supporting role, in the early 1930s Atwill was getting lead roles, and he was shining in them, including 1933’s MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, which also starred Fay Wray.  He’s a convincing mad scientist here in THE VAMPIRE BAT, sinister yet likeable enough to hide his madness from those around him.  Atwill does a good job of not going too over the top with the role.

Also in the cast is Dwight Frye, who sadly was already being typecast in 1933 playing weird madmen.  Frye of course stole the show as Renfield in the Lugosi DRACULA (1931) and nearly repeated the effort as Henry Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).  Here, he’s Herman, the man who loves bats, who tragically gets chased to his death because the villagers feared he was a vampire.  Frye seemed to be able play these parts in his sleep.  

It was a busy year for Fay Wray.  In addition to appearing in both THE VAMPIRE BAT and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM in 1933, she also of course had a notable encounter with one Mr. King Kong in KING KONG (1933).  Interestingly enough, Wray was not a natural blonde and wore a wig in KING KONG.  She has her natural brunette hair here in THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Wray was actually a very good actress and could do a lot more than just scream.  She’s relaxed and very natural in THE VAMPIRE BAT.

The other main star on hand was Melvyn Douglas who went on to make many, many movies and win two Academy Awards.  He had starred the year before in the atmospheric Boris Karloff film THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), and Douglas would return to the genre many years later with two notable performances, with George C. Scott in THE CHANGELING (1980) and in Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY (1981).  

And then there’s Lionel Belmore as the Burgomaster, playing nearly the same exact role he enacted in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), providing yet another connection to the Boris Karloff classic (as well as the fact that both films were shot on the same Universal village set giving both films similar exterior shots.)

When it comes to early 1930s vampire movies, I prefer DRACULA (1931), MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and VAMPYR (1932) to THE VAMPIRE BAT, which doesn’t have as much atmosphere or story as these three classics.

But it does have a great cast, including vintage Lionel Atwill.  I like Atwill a lot, and it’s a shame he didn’t have substantial roles in more movies.  He rarely disappoints.

And for that matter, neither does THE VAMPIRE BAT.  While it’s not a classic of the genre, it is a showplace for some terrific performers working at the top of their craft.

—END—

—This IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column was originally published in 2010 in THE OFFICIAL NEWSLETTER OF THE HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION. It was recently republished within those same pages in November 2021.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BLUEBEARD (1944)

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John Carradine appeared in many of Universal’s classic monster movies from the 1930s and 1940s. He played Dracula in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and in HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), and he played prominent supporting roles in such chillers as THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944) and THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944), as well as appearing in a whole host of others, with some of these roles uncredited, like his brief moment in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) as one of the men who discovers the Monster (Boris Karloff) in the home of the blind man.

And while Carradine did eventually achieve the same fame as his notable co-stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr., he did so mainly as a character actor rather than as the lead. Even as his long and varied career continued onto the next generation of horror stars, where he co-starred with the likes of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing, he still rarely played the lead role.

Over a career which spanned six decades, Carradine amassed an amazing 354 screen credits. On both TV and in the movies, he was everywhere from the 1930s through the 1980s. But it was a rarity to find Carradine in a lead role.

One time that he did get the opportunity to play a starring role and carry a movie on his own is with today’s film, BLUEBEARD (1944).

In BLUEBEARD, John Carradine plays Gaston Morel, a Parisian puppeteer, who seems friendly and harmless enough, but in reality, he’s the infamous Bluebeard serial killer stalking the streets of Paris, violently strangling young women to death. As I said, it’s a rare treat to see Carradine in a lead role. Here as the haunted and tortured Bluebeard, he’s never been scarier! It’s a terrific performance by Carradine. In fact, he considered it his favorite.

BLUEBEARD was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the man who directed the classic Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi thriller, THE BLACK CAT (1934). Like with THE BLACK CAT, there are plenty of innovative camera angles and shots, and also like the Karloff/Lugosi masterpiece, nearly the entire film has background music playing throughout.

Better yet, the murders are chilling and frightening, a testament to how one can create fear without showing graphic scenes of violence.

The screenplay by Pierre Gendron, based on a story by Arnold Lipp and Werner H. Furst, tells the story of puppeteer Gaston Morel who hires women to work with him, paints their portraits, and when he tires of them, he strangles them to death. He then gets rid of the paintings by having a private dealer sell them to buyers who only display them privately, keeping Gaston’s connection to the murders out of the public eye. This private dealer has no issue with Gaston being a murderer, as long as he makes money off the paintings. It’s a lurid plot with modern day overtones, as the way Morel manipulates and then harms women, eventually murdering them, as well as the way his fellow male art dealer dismisses the murders as if these women don’t matter, is symbolic of modern day male predators.

After his latest murder, Gaston meets artist Lucille Lutien (Jean Parker) who like other women, is fascinated with the puppeteer and agrees to design some new puppets for him. Hot on Gaston’s trail is Inspector Jacques Lefevre (Nils Asther) who finally catches a break when by chance he happens to see one of the paintings of the murder victims. He then focuses his investigation on trying to learn the identity of the artist.

BLUEBEARD is an atmospheric, gritty, and genuinely frightening thriller that in spite of its low budget really packs a punch. It’s also a golden opportunity to catch John Carradine in a starring role. He’s excellent as the conflicted puppeteer Gaston Morel. He’s also damned scary!

It’s a shame Carradine didn’t play more leads like this, although he appeared in so many movies in so many supporting roles he certainly made his mark in the movies and for horror fans, his name is up there with the greats like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Price, Lee, and Cushing. And rightly so.

But those guys pretty much always had starring roles. Carradine achieved the same success primarily as a character actor.

Maybe it was because I watched it late at night. Or maybe it’s the fine work of John Carradine and director Edgar G. Ulmer. All I know is, when it was over, I was creeped out way more than I expected. For a black and white 1940s horror movie to get under my skin like that, that’s saying something.

So check out BLUEBEARD. With his terrific performance as Gaston Morel, John Carradine will get under your skin too. In fact, you may even notice your neck starting to feel a bit sore…

—END—

BLOOD RED SKY (2021) – Netflix Action Horror Movie Soars

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BLOOD RED SKY (2021), a new Netflix action thriller horror movie which hails from Germany, reminded me a bite…er, a bit of the classic Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino vampire movie FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) starring George Clooney, in that the first half is a hard hitting thriller, and then everything changes when the supernatural elements emerge in the film’s second half.

The big difference is that in FROM DUSK TO DAWN the audience found themselves rooting for the violent criminals played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino once they were pitted against a gang of vampires, whereas here in BLOOD RED SKY, the audience roots for the supernatural character.

In BLOOD RED SKY, a mother Nadja (Peri Baumeister) and her young son Elias (Carl Anton Koch) board a transatlantic flight to New York because Nadja is very ill and is seeking out a specialist to help her with a blood disease. But the flight is commandeered by a group of terrorists. To survive and protect her son, Nadja reveals the truth about her condition which is more than just a disease, but rather a supernatural affliction that makes her a force to be reckoned with.

Yup. It’s SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006) meets NOSFERATU (1922).

Actually, that makes the film sound campy, and BLOOD RED SKY isn’t campy at all. It’s deadly serious.

And it works.

I really enjoyed BLOOD RED SKY.

The first half is a riveting action thriller about a plane hijacking as seen through the eyes of a young boy and his mother. Carl Anton Koch is very good as Elias, the bright young boy who is happy to be helping his mother on this trip as they seek out a cure for her condition. His reaction when he believes his mother has been murdered is authentic and moving.

Peri Baumeister in these early scenes makes for a sufficiently sick mother, pale, weak, and struggling to find the strength to even get on the plane. And later when she becomes an undead vigilante, she is horrific and frightening.

Kais Setti plays Farid, a man flying alone who befriends Elias when they strike up a conversation in the airport while Elias is waiting for his mom to return from the restroom. His character is probably the one audiences will identify with most, as he is the everyday person caught up in the middle of the action, the man who is willing to help fight back against the terrorists and also protect Elias as best he can.

Dominic Purcell plays Berg, the menacing leader of the terrorists, but it’s Alexander Scheer who steals the show as the loose cannon terrorist Eightball who likes to shoot first and ask questions later. He’s also the terrorist who is up to the challenge of taking on Nadja in her new condition, and he uses it to his advantage.

Director Peter Thorwarth keeps the first half of the movie intense with scenes of heartless terrorists on the plane, and later turns things up a notch to the point where they become downright insane once the supernatural elements enter the movie. There are a lot of suspenseful scenes throughout as well as plenty of violent bloody ones. And while in general this one isn’t really scary, there are a couple of well-crafted frightening moments, one in particular being in a flashback sequence where Nadja is searching for her missing husband and finds herself exploring an empty farmhouse. There’s a moment in this sequence which shows the origins of her condition that made me recoil. Good stuff!

The screenplay by director Thorwarth and Stefan Holtz is a good one. The dialogue is first-rate throughout. One thing I wasn’t crazy about was the construct of the plot, which begins with the plane landing and then tells the rest of the story via flashback. To me, this ruined any chances for a suspenseful ending, as we know the plane lands from the get-go. A riveting landing scene at the film’s end would have made the conclusion that much more exciting.

But I loved the idea for this story, mixing a hard-hitting terrorist plot with the supernatural, all of it happening on board a plane. I was entertained from start to finish.

I also really enjoyed the vampire make-up, which is reminiscent of Count Orlok in NOSFERATU, and this is most likely on purpose.

The movie is in both English and German, with English subtitles.

If you’re looking for a high concept action horror movie, look no further than BLOOD RED SKY.

It soars.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

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HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) is the second of the Universal Monster series to feature all three of the major Universal monsters, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster. It’s also the last of the serious movies in the series, as the next one also starred Bud Abbott and Lou Costello— but that’s no knock, as ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) is a better movie than both HOUSE OF DRACULA and its monster-fest predecessor, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

HOUSE OF DRACULA is also the fifth Universal DRACULA movie, the seventh Universal FRANKENSTEIN movie, and the fourth Universal WOLF MAN movie. There’ll be a math quiz right after the column!

The jury is still out as to which of the two Universal monster party movies, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or HOUSE OF DRACULA, is the better film. In my conversations with horror writers, film critics, and fans, it’s pretty much even-steven. I slightly prefer HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, for a number of reasons, chief of which is it stars Boris Karloff as the menacing Dr. Niemann, and his evil presence is missed in HOUSE OF DRACULA.

One way that HOUSE OF DRACULA is superior to HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is its Dracula scenes. John Carradine enjoys his best on-screen moments as Dracula in this movie. While I’m not a big fan of Carradine’s noble and well-mannered Dracula, I do like him here. In fact, he gets most of the movie’s best moments. His conversation with his intended victim Miliza Morelle (Martha O’Driscoll) at the piano is mesmerizing, and later, when Dracula attempts to abduct her from the home of Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), director Erle C. Kenton pulls out all stops and imbues the sequence with plenty of suspense, complete with on-target music beats for the Dracula/bat transformations for maximum effect.

Unfortunately, like HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN before it, HOUSE OF DRACULA kills off Dracula way too early in the movie. While the undead Count survives a bit longer here in HOUSE OF DRACULA, he’s gone for the entire second half of the movie, which is too bad, since he was clearly the best part of the first half. Edward T. Lowe Jr. , who wrote the screenplays for both HOUSE movies, for some reason keeps the monsters separate for the most part, with minimal interaction. That’s one of the best parts and reasons why ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is clearly the superior movie of the three, as the three monsters interact more and have ample screen time.

In HOUSE OF DRACULA…or as it could also be known as, DR. EDLEMANN’S GENERAL HOSPITAL FOR MONSTERS, Count Dracula (John Carradine) shows up at the home of Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens) seeking a cure from vampirism… or so he says! He’s really there because he’s got his fangs…er, sights, set on the lovely nurse Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) who he had met some time earlier and hence followed her back to the home of Dr. Edlemann, where she works. And evidently lives. Stalker! Night stalker, that is!

Anyway, Dr. Edlemann, being the kind-hearted doctor that he is, agrees. A short time later, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrives at the castle seeking a cure from lycanthropy. The doctor tells him no, that he is too busy trying so save Dracula, and he can only handle one monster at a time. Besides he’s not part of the network of doctors on Talbot’s health plan… no, I’m joking, of course! Edleman agrees to help Talbot as well.

Frustrated and impatient, Talbot attempts to kill himself by leaping from a cliff into the ocean below. Edlemann believes Talbot may have survived the plunge (of course he survived! He’s the Wolf Man! He can’t die! Which of course begs the question, what the heck was Talbot thinking by jumping in the first place? I guess he just wanted to go for a swim). Anyway, Edlemann makes his way down to the caves by the ocean, and there discovers the Wolf Man, who nearly rips out his throat, but strangely and without explanation, the Wolf Man changes back into Larry Talbot and all is well.

As they make their way through the caves, they discover the ailing body of the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) along with the skeletal remains of Dr. Niemann. So… Dr. Edlemann brings the Monster into his castle as well, and now he is taking care of three monsters at the same time!

As stories go, the one told in HOUSE OF DRACULA is pretty weak. It’s just an excuse to get the three monsters in one movie. The screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr. is not a strength.

While the appearance of the Frankenstein Monster is explained when he is discovered still alive with the skeletal remains of Dr. Niemann, no mention is made at all of how either Dracula or the Wolf Man overcame their deaths in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. They just show up, as right as rain.

As I said, Dracula fares best here, and John Carradine as Dracula delivers the best performance in the movie. Again the decision to kill him off midway through the movie is a puzzling one. As such, the first half of HOUSE OF DRACULA is really good, while the second half loses quite a bit of steam. Before he is destroyed, Dracula mixes his blood with Dr. Edlemann’s, and the result is the doctor turns into an evil Mr. Hyde-like creation, going into the village and wreaking havoc. A good deal of screen time is spent on this character, which works against the movie. It would have been far more interesting had Dracula continued to be the main menace in this one.

And while the big news in HOUSE OF DRACULA is that Dr. Edlemann proves to be the best doctor ever!!!…as his attempt to cure Larry Talbot of lycanthropy is… wait for it, wait for it!… is successful! Yes, in HOUSE OF DRACULA, Talbot is cured and walks away free from his curse of being the Wolf Man! The truth of the matter is however that Lon Chaney Jr. enjoys some of his worst moments as the Wolf Man right here in HOUSE OF DRACULA.

The Wolf Man scenes are few and ineffective. The best sequence, in the cave, where he attacks Dr. Edlemann, is marred by the ridiculous and inexplicable moment when he suddenly turns back into a human! Also, Larry Talbot’s scenes are among the worst in the entire series, as he’s stuck saying only his stock cliche lines of “living the life of the damned,” woe is me, blah, blah, blah. His scenes in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN were far better, and his brief love story with the gypsy woman was exceptional. Nothing like that here in HOUSE OF DRACULA. And in terms of acting, it’s one of Chaney’s weakest performances as the character. In fact, after this movie, his contract with Universal was not renewed.

Anyway, he was cured!

The Frankenstein Monster scenes are also negligible, as once again the Monster spends most of the movie lying on his back on a table unable to move until he’s zapped with electricity, to rise for a few seconds, before being killed off again in the film’s finale. Glenn Strange played the Monster three times, and it’s not until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN that he actually gets to enjoy some decent moments in the role.

In the climax to HOUSE OF DRACULA, there is a little bit of suspense as the cured Larry Talbot emerges as the hero and confronts the newly revived Frankenstein Monster, and since fans had followed this sympathetic character through several movies, there’s some suspense wondering if Talbot would survive or succumb to the Monster. And since the fiery climax in the castle is actually footage from the end of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), in which Chaney played the Monster, in this film, as Talbot and the Monster, he’s basically fighting against himself!

Erle C. Kenton directed HOUSE OF DRACULA, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. HOUSE OF DRACULA is the weakest of the three. It’s also incredibly quick, clocking in at just 67 minutes. This one could have been fleshed out way more.

Lionel Atwill appears here once again as yet another police inspector, Police Inspector Holtz. Sadly, Atwill was suffering from lung cancer during production, and it shows. He would die a few months later.

HOUSE OF DRACULA also lacks any memorable female roles. Both Martha O’Driscoll as nurse Miliza, and Jane Adams as the hunchbacked nurse Nina fail to make much of an impact. In fact, they generally share the worst scenes in the film, unfortunately.

And a quick shout out goes to character actor Skelton Knaggs who nearly steals the movie as grumbling villager Steinmuhl. “Dr. Edelmann killed my brother.” When Knaggs says that, he’s scarier than any of the monsters in this one!

Taken as a whole, HOUSE OF DRACULA is a tepid entry in the Universal monster series. But its Dracula scenes are very, very good, and John Carradine gets to shine as the character, until sadly, the sun shines on him, turning him into dust once again, strangely right in the middle of the movie he was dominating so easily!

So, when visiting the HOUSE OF DRACULA, it’s highly recommended you spend time in the Dracula wing.

That is, before he develops a pair of wings and flies away as a bat!

And on that note, it’s time to say so long, before things get really… batty!

—END—

LEADING LADIES: SUZAN FARMER

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Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at lead actresses in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today is an actress mostly known to horror fans for one major horror movie. The actress is Suzan Farmer, and the movie is DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), Hammer Films’ second Dracula movie starring Christopher Lee, and the direct sequel to their mega-hit HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).

In DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the undead count is resurrected when his servant murders an unsuspecting guest at the castle and uses the man’s blood to rescuscitate his vampire master. Suzan Farmer plays one of the guests, Diana, who’s married to the brother of the slain sacrificial victim. It’s a memorable performance in a movie that has continued to age well over the years, and is held in much higher regard today than it was upon its initial release back in 1966, when it was widely viewed as an inferior sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA.

Here is a partial look at Suzan Farmer’s career:

THE SUPREME SECRET (1958) – Tess – Farmer’s movie debut in 1958 at the age of 15.

THE CRIMSON BLADE (1963) – Constance Beverley – High seas adventure which takes place in 1648 and also stars Lionel Jeffries, Oliver Reed, June Thorburn, and Hammer regulars Michael Ripper and Duncan Lamont.

THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES (1964) – Angela – Hammer pirate adventure written by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Don Sharp. Starring Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Duncan Lamont, and Michael Ripper.

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965) – Susan Whitley – Farmer plays the daughter of a wheelchair-bound Boris Karloff. She’s stuck in the castle while Karloff conducts bizarre experiments, all the while her boyfriend Stephen (Nick Adams) tries to convince her to leave daddy and get the heck out of there! Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” Also starring Freda Jackson and Patrick Magee.

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Diana- My favorite Suzan Farmer role and performance. A big reason for this is she’s in some of the best scenes in the movie, certainly the best Dracula scenes. The scene where Dracula (Christopher Lee) attacks her from an open window, and later when he slits open his chest and invites her to drink his blood, are two of the more memorable sequences in the film. Farmer also enjoys playful chemistry with Francis Matthews, who plays her husband Charles. Their dialogue together resonates throughout the movie, and they really do seem like a young married couple very much in love. Farmer also dubbed the high-pitched screams for co-star Barbara Shelley.

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Vanessa – Shot simultaneously with DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, using many of the same sets and cast, including Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Farmer.

PERSECUTION (1974) – Janie Masters – Farmer’s last movie credit is in this thriller starring Lana Turner as an evil mom tormenting her adult son played by Ralph Bates and his family. Also starring Trevor Howard, Patrick Allen, and Ronald Howard.

LEAP IN THE DARK (1980) – Grace- Farmer’s final screen credit was in an episode of this horror anthology TV series.

Indeed, after 1966, the majority of Farmer’s screen appearances were on the small screen on various TV shows.

Suzan Farmer passed away on September 17, 2017 at the age of 75 from cancer.

I hope you enjoyed this brief partial look at the career of Suzan Farmer. She made a lasting impression with only a few appearances in horror films in the 1960s, especially in the Hammer Film DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Speaking of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, with the recent passing of Barbara Shelley, and six months earlier of Philip Latham who played Dracula’s loyal servant Klove, all the major cast members from that classic Dracula movie are now gone, sadly.

Here’s a toast to them, a wonderful cast in a classic Dracula movie.

Please join me again next time for the next LEADING LADIES column, where we’ll look at the career of another leading actress in the movies, especially horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

THE HORROR JAR: Peter Cushing As Van Helsing

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Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) goes to work in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, the column where we look at lists pertaining to horror movies.

Up today a look at the number of times Peter Cushing played Van Helsing in the movies. While Cushing played Baron Frankenstein more— he wreaked havoc as Victor Frankenstein six times in the movies— his portrayal of Dracula’s arch nemesis is right behind, as he wielded crucifixes and wooden stakes five times.

Here’s a look:

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) taking on Dracula in the famous finale of HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher. Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster

Known outside the United States simply as DRACULA, this is arguably Hammer Films’ greatest horror movie. It followed immediately upon the heels of Hammer’s first international hit, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), which starred Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature.

Both actors were reunited in HORROR OF DRACULA, with Lee portraying Dracula, and Cushing playing Van Helsing. Yet the film was tailored more for Cushing than for Lee, which made sense, since Cushing had been Britain’s number one TV star for nearly a decade, while Lee was a relative newcomer.  Cushing had the most screen time and was as awesome as ever, yet it was Lee with his ability to do more with less who arguably stole the show with one of the most chilling portrayals of Dracula ever.

Still, for Peter Cushing fans, his first turn as Van Helsing is pretty special. He played the character unlike the way Bram Stoker had written him in the novel DRACULA.  Gone was the wise elderly professor and in his place was a young dashing action hero, expertly played by Cushing. And with Christopher Lee shocking the heck out of the audience throughout the movie, a believable credible Van Helsing was needed. You had to believe that someone could stop Dracula, and Peter Cushing made this happen. It’s no surprise then, that the film’s conclusion, when these two heavyweights meet for the first time in Dracula’s castle, is the most exciting Dracula ending ever filmed.

HORROR OF DRACULA was also the birth of James Bernard’s iconic Dracula music score.

 

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) hot on the trail of vampires in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Director: Terence Fisher   Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, Edward Percy

Peter Cushing was right back at it again two year later when he reprised the role in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). Unfortunately, Christopher Lee did not share his co-star’s enthusiasm and refused to return to play Dracula, in fear of being typecast. Lee would change his mind several years later.

Anyway,  as a result, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA does not feature Dracula. Instead, it’s a brand new story with a brand new vampire, Baron Meinster (David Peel). While Dracula’s omission may have harmed this one at the box office, that’s one of the few negatives one can find about this classic vampire movie.

Terence Fisher, Hammer’s best director, was at the top of his game here, and for most Hammer fans, this is the best looking and most atmospheric Dracula movie of them all. In fact, for many Hammer Films fans, BRIDES is their all time favorite Hammer Film!

Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing, and once more his performance is spot-on, without equal. Again, he plays Van Helsing as an energetic, tireless hero, this time sparring with Baron Meinster. Their battles in an old windmill, while not as memorable as the conclusion of HORROR OF DRACULA, are still pretty intense and make for quite the notable ending.

There’s also the added bonus of Van Helsing’s relationship with the beautiful Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur). In a neat piece of drama, while Marianne is engaged to be married to vampire Baron Meinster, at the end of the movie, she ends up in Van Helsing’s arms, not the vampire’s.  The future Mrs. Van Helsing, perhaps?

 

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Once again, it’s Dracula (Christopher Lee) vs. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

Director: Alan Gibson   Screenplay: Don Houghton

It would be a long time coming before Peter Cushing would play Van Helsing again, twelve years to be exact, and he wouldn’t even be playing the original character but a descendant of the original Van Helsing living in London in 1972, in Hammer Films’ Dracula update DRACULA A.D. 1972 which brought Dracula into the here and now.

The story goes that after the immense success of the TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1971) which told the story of a superhuman vampire terrorizing present-day Las Vegas, Hammer decided to get in on the action and bring Dracula into the 1970s as well.

A lot had happened since Christopher Lee had declined to play Dracula again back in 1960. He finally reprised the role in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), Hammer’s direct sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA, a superior thriller that sadly did not feature Peter Cushing in the cast. And then Lee played the character again in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which smashed box office records for Hammer and became their biggest money maker ever. Dracula had become Hammer’s bread and butter. Lee reprised the role in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969) and again in THE SCARS OF DRACULA (1970).

With DRACULA A.D. 1972, Hammer finally decided it was time to bring Peter Cushing back into the Dracula series. Unfortunately, the “bringing Dracula into the 1970s” bit did not work out well at all, and the film was a monumental flop at the box office.

The good news is DRACULA A.D. 1972 has only gotten better with age. In 1972, what was considered bad dialogue and sloppy 1970s direction, today is viewed with fond nostalgia, and rather than being met with groans, the campy dialogue is greeted nowadays with loud approving laughter.

And you certainly can’t fault Lee or Cushing for the initial failure of DRACULA A.D. 1972. As expected, both actors deliver topnotch performances, especially Cushing as the original Van Helsing’s descendant, Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. In 1972, Cushing was closer in age to the way Stoker had originally written the role, but nonetheless he still played the Professor as an action-oriented hero. His scenes where he works with Scotland Yard Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) are some of the best in the movie.

Cushing also gets a lot of memorable lines in this one. In fact, you could make the argument, though no one does, that his best ever Van Helsing performance is right here in DRACULA A.D. 1972. The only part that doesn’t work as well is the climactic confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula, as it does not contain anywhere near the same energy level as the conclusion to HORROR OF DRACULA.

 

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) armed with a crucifix and a silver bullet in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973).

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Director: Alan Gibson   Screenplay: Don Houghton

Hammer wasted no time and dove right into production with their next Dracula movie, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973), which reunited the same creative team from DRACULA A.D. 1972, with Alan Gibson once again directing, Don Houghton writing the screenplay, and with Christopher Lee again playing Dracula, and Peter Cushing once more playing Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. Even Michael Coles reprised his role as Scotland Yard Inspector Murray.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA is pretty much a direct sequel to DRACULA A.D. 1972, as the events once again take place in present day London. At the time, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA was considered the superior movie of the two, but the trouble was, back in 1973 so few people saw it, because DRACULA A.D. 1972 had performed so poorly at the box office Hammer was unable to release SATANIC RITES in the United States.

It would take five years for the movie to make it to the U.S., as it was finally released in 1978 with the awful title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDES. Ugh!

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA took a page out of James Bond, and had Dracula acting as a sort of James Bond villain hell bent on taking over the world, complete with motorcycle driving henchmen! It was up to Inspector Murray and Professor Van Helsing to stop him!

Strangely, today, DRACULA A.D.1972 is considered the superior movie, as its campiness has aged well, while the convoluted James Bond style plot of SATANIC RITES has not.

Peter Cushing also has fewer memorable scenes as Van Helsing in this one. One of the more memorable sequences does involve Van Helsing confronting Dracula in his high rise office, a scene in which Lee payed Bela Lugosi homage by using a Hungarian accent, but even this scene is somewhat jarring, seeing Dracula seated behind a desk a la Ernest Stavro Blofeld. The only thing missing is his holding a cat, or in this case, perhaps a bat!

The ending to SATANIC RITES is actually very, very good, and in a neat touch, as if to symbolize that the series had finally ended, after Dracula disintegrates into dust, once more the only thing remaining of him is his ring, a homage to the ending to HORROR OF DRACULA. In that movie, Van Helsing left the ring on the floor, and the piece of jewelry proved instrumental in reviving Dracula in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. At the end of SATANIC RITES, Cushing’s Van Helsing picks up the ring. Most likely for safe keeping.

The series had ended.

Only, it hadn’t.

 

peter cushing- legend of the seven golden vampires

Peter Cushing plays Van Helsing for the last time in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974).

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

Director: Roy Ward Baker   Screenplay: Don Houghton

While Christopher Lee had finally had enough and called it quits after playing Dracula seven times for Hammer, the studio decided it still had one more Dracula picture left.

The gimmick this time was it would be their first martial arts Dracula movie. Yep, Dracula’s spirit enters a Chinese warlord, and he returns to China to lead their infamous seven golden vampires.

Hot on Dracula’s trail it’s, you got it! Van Helsing! And Peter Cushing agreed to play the role again, and since this story takes place in 1904, Cushing once again plays the original Van Helsing, a role he hadn’t played since THE BRIDES OF DRACULA in 1960.

As Dracula movies go, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is— well, interesting. It did not perform well at the box office, and unlike DRACULA A.D. 1972 hasn’t really developed a cult following, mostly because it’s just so— different. Kung fu fights in a Dracula movie?

I actually like this movie a lot, and I think most of it works well. It’s actually quite the handsome production, well-directed by Roy Ward Baker. It also features one of James Bernard’s best renditions of his famous Dracula score.

And of course you have Peter Cushing playing Van Helsing, sadly for the very last time. Also sad is that he’s missing from most of the action scenes here. While Cushing always played Van Helsing as a physical hero, he wasn’t quite up for the martial arts scenes. That being said, I’ll give you three guesses as to who finally destroys Dracula in this movie, and the first two don’t count

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is actually a lot of fun, and today it provides a nice showcase for Peter Cushing’s final movie portrayal of one of his most iconic roles, Dr. Van Helsing.

Okay, there you have it. A look at Peter Cushing’s five movie portrayals of Van Helsing. Now go have some fun and watch some of these!

Hope you enjoyed today’s column and that you’ll join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we’ll look at more horror movie lists.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michaell