as Hammered into the Hell of Fame
by Phil Fasso
I first saw Peter Cushing long before I was a horror fan. During one of its return to theatres, my dad took me and my brother to see STAR WARS. At the most, I would have been 5 (I believe my mom was having her baby shower for Sarah that day), so everything on the screen was a wonder. Even at that early age, I was most fascinated by Gran Moff Tarkin. Cushing plays the territorial governor as an effete, arrogant snob, so overwhelmingly brazen about the invincibility of his planet destroyer that he does down with the Death Star.
I’ve always been fascinated that Tarkin is actually Darth Vader’s higher-up, and keeps the dark Jedi on a leash, which Cushing sells beautifully. Governor Tarkin is my favorite character from the entire STAR WARS franchise (yes, I’m that guy), and that’s all because of Cushing.
In my teens, the local five and dime store Smiles turned into a video store in the 80s. Between that and the rise of cable TV, I discovered that Cushing was much more famous for horror than for being Darth Vader’s boss. Seeing Cushing in the old Hammer films and the Amicus portmanteaus was a revelation. Whether he was creating a monster or fighting Dracula, Cushing owned every horror film in which he starred. Watching him onscreen, in my formative years as a horror fan, gave me a greater appreciation for the genre, and for what an actor could do within its confines.
I also discovered that it was impossible for Cushing to give a bad performance. Sure, his films weren’t always the best, but if he knew it, it never showed. He could raise the level of a decent movie, and in cases such as FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, he could carry a bad one. This is because Cushing bought in. He was dedicated to his craft, and that shows onscreen in every performance. Even under shoddy makeup and a questionable accent in DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, Cushing could shine. I’m sure genre actors such as Cushing and Price were so well-versed in horror, they could have phoned in performances. Neither ever did. Cushing couldn’t take pride in every movie he made, but he could in his roles.
My favorite Cushing roles couldn’t be more diverse. In THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, his Victor Frankenstein is miles away from the hammy, fey Dr. Frankenstein of his predecessor, Colin Clive. Cushing plays him as a haughty aristocrat, a brilliant scientist on the cutting edge of life and death who knows how extremely talented he is, and isn’t shy about sharing it. His ego is as puffed-up as his frilly shirts. He’s become God, and he acts with all the snobbery of a Creator looking down on all the mere mortals who dare to be in his presence. My favorite part of the film, upon later viewings, is that the whole story is a flashback told by Victor as he’s about to be executed. That means this is his view of what went down, and how he sees himself. Cushing excels at selling Victor’s brazenness right down to the end, and creates a classic Frankenstein that is sadly overshadowed by Clive’s inferior histrionics. This was Hammer’s first horror flick, and the first time Cushing paired with Christopher Lee. Hammer was clearly onto something here, and they rode it for a long time. But it’s Cushing that brings me back.
Because of his roles as arrogant aristocracy, people tend to forget that he was also capable of playing protagonists, some of whom were very meager people. His work in “Poetic Justice” from TALES FROM THE CRYPT as Arthur Grimsdyke is even better than his Victor, and it is by far my favorite of his career. Grimsdyke is a simple neighborhood widower who entertains the children and loves his dogs. When he refuses to sell to a rapacious land owner who wants to regentrify, the entrepeneur retaliates with crushing blows to everything in the widower’s life.. Cushing’s performance sells it that Grimsdyke has very little left to live for at the start, and when the land owner starts stripping away the things that make his life bearable, Grimsdyke becomes even more sympathetic. When it’s all been taken away, the character’s suicidal moments toward the episode’s end are heartbreaking. It takes not only talent, but versatility to play both Victor and Grimsdyke effectively. Cushing was more than capable of pulling it off.
Peter Cushing will always be Gran Moff Tarkin to me. Governor Tarkin was my earliest experience watching him, and though I don’t watch STAR WARS that much anymore, every time I do I take the most joy when he’s onscreen. How fortunate I am that he’s also Victor Frankenstein, Arthur Grimsdyke and so many other great characters. He’s also our newest inductee to the Hell of Fame, and I couldn’t think of a better way to honor him than to admit him entry today, on Halloween.