NEWS: Hammer films classic THE HOUND OF BASKERVILLES, starring Peter
Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry
Baskerville... is coming to the US as a BLU RAY release set for JUNE
14th 2016...from Twilight Time. More details, with sleeve art and extras
Great entertainment may not always constitute
great art in the eyes of highbrow critics and scholars, but there’s no
denying the lasting appeal of certain films. Some of these films are the
result of intense planning and preparation; they’re guided by a sense
of purpose and have the benefit of a crack team of technicians and
artisans at their disposal. Others more or less just happen. It seems
safe to say that Horror Express falls into this latter category.
Legend has it that producer Bernard Gordon, having
just overseen the filming of Pancho Villa (1972), starring Telly
Savalas, had access to some elaborate miniature train sets from that
production; itching to get his moneys worth out of the investment, he
decided to get another picture on the rails right away. Enlisting the
services of American screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet
(writing under the name Julian Halevy), Gordon gave them free reign to
come up with a budget-friendly scenario that could be set aboard a
train. Zimet and d’Usseau concocted a wild and wooly combination of
horror, intrigue and science fiction, cribbing elements from Invasion of
the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Thing (1951), with a touch of Agatha
Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, while scratching the surface of
the more cerebral sci-fi fantasies of acclaimed screenwriter Nigel
Kneale. The end result is something of a mishmash and it doesn’t really
bear close scrutiny, but in the hands of director Eugenio Martin, it
rattles along at such a fantastic pace, it really doesn’t matter much.
Key to the film’s success was the casting of
horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The two actors, with
their contrasting styles - Lee, cool and introverted; Cushing, warm and
jittery - had become modern answer to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
thanks to the success of Hammer Films’ The Curse of Frankenstein (1957),
Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), but few of the films they acted in
really gave them much of a chance to interact with each other. In a
typical Hammer horror, they’d have a few terse encounters, then they’d
engage in a duel to the death at the end of the picture; given that Lee
was typically cast as the villain, he seldom emerged victorious,
needless to say.
By the 1970s, the two actors had gone down very
different career paths. Cushing, devoted to his ailing wife and content
among the familiar trappings of the English countryside, tended to stick
close to home; Lee, an outspoken critic of the British tax system,
relocated his wife and daughter to Switzerland for a period in the
1960s, and embarked on a campaign for international stardom by appearing
in as many foreign language films as possible - it was a move that made
him more immediately recognizable in other countries, especially since
the multi-lingual actor was able to actually perform in their own
language, without the aid of a dubbing artist. Cushing’s career was in a
bit of a slump, thanks to a string of less than stellar vehicles that
exploited his name and offered little in return beyond the sheer joy of
working; Lee’s, on the other hand, was in the ascent - he had fought
long and hard to achieve mainstream recognition, and felt vindicated
when he was cast in his first western (Hannie Caulder, 1970) and, most
notably, when he landed a plum supporting role in Billy Wilder’s big
budget The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). For Lee, fresh
horizons were in evidence; for Cushing, his life was
quietly crumbling about him, as his beloved wife Helen eventually
succumbed to emphysema in 1971.
Cushing’s grief over her passing is
legendary - his devotion to her is truly the stuff of great romance, and
his only solution to shouldering the burden was to throw himself into
more and more work. He literally accepted everything he could fit on his
plate, sometimes to the detriment of his legacy - he may have always
delivered a professional performance, but sometimes critics found
themselves wondering what on earth compelled him to accept the films he
agreed to appear in. On the other hand, Lee’s attempts to be choosy
sometimes back fired - thus, faced with a suddenly empty slate after a
string of proposed projects stalled, he would reluctantly don the cape
of his most iconic role, Count Dracula; he loved the role, but hated
what Hammer was doing to the bloodsucker, and he didn’t mind letting the
press know it, either. Lee’s image as a prickly,
opinionated man contrasts vividly with Cushing, about whom seldom a bad
word is uttered. If Lee sometimes came off as arrogant and demanding,
Cushing was the soul of gentility. One thing was certain, however - they
had terrific chemistry (and unlike Karloff and Lugosi, they were good
friends off screen) and their names together on a poster was a benefit
to many low budget horror items. In preparing Horror Express, producer
Gordon and director Martin were fortunate indeed to snag them both.
While Lee’s presence in a Spanish horror title was nothing new (he had
just recently completed several films for Spanish enfant terrible, Jess
Franco), Cushing’s presence was much more unexpected.
Helen’s death, the once travel-shy Cushing broadened his horizons
somewhat, accepting assignments in France and Greece, among other
countries, though he remained fonder of working in England than anywhere
else in the world. The two men had already
appeared in numerous “home grown” pictures together, but Horror Express
would mark their first - and last - collaboration outside of the UK. As
it happens, the entire enterprise nearly fell through when Cushing
attempted to bail upon arrival in Spain. As he explained to producer
Gordon, the Christmas holidays (the filming took place at the end of
‘71) were nearing, and it was his first Christmas in many years without
Helen at his side; a fit of melancholy ensued and he advised Gordon that
he felt it best to resign from the picture in person, rather than doing
so by cable.
A panic-stricken Gordon turned to Lee for assistance, and
as the story goes, the outwardly aloof actor managed to make his friend
and colleague feel at home and all talk of abandoning ship ceased. Lee
and his family would even invite Cushing to spend the holidays with
them, thus creating a little slice of Britannia for the grieving actor
who otherwise might have felt adrift in a
Fans of these two fine actors therefore owe a
debt of gratitude to Lee, for his intervention ensured the completion
of one of the most purely enjoyable films they would ever be a part of,
either alone or as a team. Hammer consistently cast the two men as
adversaries, thus ensuring that their screen time together was limited.
It took a sojourn to Spain for their fans to finally see them carrying a
film together - as equals, sharing barbs at each other’s expense and
clearly enjoying the hell out of doing so.
Lee starts the film in typical stuffy fashion. He portrays the
eminent anthropologist Sir Alexander Saxton, who has uncovered what
appears to be the fossil of a missing link while on an expedition in
Manchuria. Saxton is abrassive, opinionated, imposing, intimidating - in
short, very much the usual Christopher Lee we’ve grown to know and
love. As the film unfolds, however, the character grows in an
interesting way. His so-called fossil thaws out and goes on a killing
spree. He is as incredulous as he is intrigued, but his initial iciness
begins to melt, as well, and he becomes determined to fix the wrong he
has unintentionally inflicted on the other passengers. Along the way he
strikes a few romantic sparks with a beautiful Russian countess (Silvia
Tortosa), and he presents as a dashing man of action. It’s a good part,
and he’s simply delightful in it.
Cushing is also cast very much to type. He
portrays the impish and devious Dr. Wells, a rival of Saxton’s who
unknowingly speeds the catastrophe along by bribing a baggage attendant
to open Saxton’s myserious crate and “take a peek at what’s inside.”
Cushing clearly relishes deflating Lee’s pomposity, knowingly pushing
his buttons and stirring the pot in a marvellously sly manner. Cushing,
too, takes a romantic interest in one of the passengers - in his case, a
sexy Russian spy (Helga Line, veteran of many Spanish horror items,
including Paul Naschy’s Horror Rises from the Tomb, 1973). This leads to
some marvellous comedic situations, notably when Saxton manages to get
his own back at Wells by barging his way into the cabin when the latter
is eagerly trying to console the young woman. Truth be told, the Wells
character is a bit of a meddling jerk, but he, too, becomes more heroic
as the action unfolds.
In addition to the wonderful central performances
by Lee and Cushing, Horror Express has a grab bag of familiar “Euro
cult” performers. Julio Pena (Werewolf Shadow) is excellent as the stern
police inspector who becomes possessed by the alien, Jorge Rigaud (A
Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) brings sly humor and gravitas to his role as
the condescending Count, and the aforementioned Helga Line is
wonderfully sly and sexy as the spy. Best of all is Alberto DeMendoza
(The People Who Own the Dark), cast as a “mad monk” named Pujardov. The
character is clearly modeled on that of Rasputin, and the wild-eyed
DeMendoza plays the part for all it’s worth.
Given that Lee had
previously played the “real” Rasputin so memorably (albeit in a palid
film, Hammer’s Rasputin the Mad Monk, 1965), it’s amusing to see him
reacting with such disdain and contempt to Pujardov’s biblical rantings.
Last but not least, let us not forget Telly Savalas, who shows
up just when things are threatening to run out of steam - he isn’t the
most likely Cossack ever seen on screen, but no matter… he’s a hoot in
the role, and he knows it. Savalas chews the scenery with abandon, and
his confrontation with stiff upper lip Brits Lee and Cushing (whom the
Greek-American actor would later recall with respect and admiration) is a
joy to behold.
Added to the wonderful cast, Horror Express
has much to laud in the technical department as well. John Cacavas
contributes a haunting, Ennio Morricone-inspired soundtrack, while ace
cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa (Jess Franco’s The Diabolical Dr. Z,
1966) helps to disguise the low budget with some elegant lighting and
camerawork. Director Martin, who would later helm several other (but
less memorable) horror items, keeps the pace moving at breakneck speed.
He also displays an appreciation of the script’s sly, tongue in cheek
wit, ensuring that Horror Express is always first and foremost a fun
film. It may not reinvent the wheel or aspire to make profound social
comments, but this is horror entertainment at its finest, acted and
directed with an incisive mixture of commitment and irony. It is also,
arguably, the only Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing film that really
properly exploits the tremendous chemistry these two men had on screen.
level alone, Horror Express is essential viewing for all Lee and/or
The text in this feature first appeared in a feature post on our site, in February 2013. It can be found with full colour gallery, at it's original posting : HERE
: Here's a special requested double pic for COLIN DEAN of both Peter
and Christopher Lee from Hammer's 'THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN' (1957) including some colour repros of Lee in the make up chair for his debut as Peter Cushing's CREATION too!
Happy #frankensteinfriday. As always, we are open for requests!
Whatever comes my way, I love to be able to share with you. Such is the case of these rarely seen candid photographs of Christopher Lee and character actor, Michael Ripper. Neither of course need no introduction to anyone who visits these pages or our facebook page regularly. The little I have leaned about this occasion, has come from the owner of these photographs, James Murray.
By chance, James saw a pic I had posted on the facebook account, of both Christopher Lee and Michael Ripper, at what I thought was their Fanex Convention appearance... Thankfully, James spotted the photograph and the error and kindly wrote to me, explaining that he was working 'on the door' that day, and remembered it well. It was a book signing, attended by Christopher Lee, signing copies of his book, 'Tall, Dark and Gruesome' the Midnight Marquee edition. Being an admirer of Christopher Lee, he brought along his camera and posed for a pic...and managed to capture Michael too!
Michael Ripper, it turns out, found out about Christopher Lee appearing at the signing, and dropped in to see his old friend! Giving everyone the wonderful opportunity to see these two icons, together again, relaxed, chatting about old times.
I am very fortunate that many of you out there send in photographs, cuttings and all-sorts Cushing related material, and for that I am very grateful. It's not always credited or accompanied with any details. So, my hunch... incorrect as it happened, lead to meeting James and obtaining some great photographs, courtesy of Mr Murray!
ABOVE: Michael Ripper and Christopher Lee at the FANEX Convention in 1999.
As TODAY is what facebook is calling Facebook Friends Day...Here is a
special treat, to for you, my good friends here at PCAS. For Absent
Friends... here is Peter and Christopher Lee discussing, their good
friend, VINCENT PRICE, and his ability to surprise and raise a laugh
with his wicked humour. So, 'To Friendship, raise a glass, and a smile
to absent friends! If you can, please do share this clip.
BOO : CHRISTOPHER LEE TALKS TO PETER CUSHING
ABOUT VINCENT PRICE : FROM THE 'ONE LAST TIME' RECORDING
#WHATSTHISWEDNESDAY : Here's a VERY rare production still from a long lost BBC drama that Peter Cushing starred in. CAN YOU NAME THIS PLAY?? Send your ANSWERS to our usual email address firstname.lastname@example.org