I’ve got the remote and it’s All Hallows’ Eve -
time for a creature double feature
It’s been a funny old month: extra work commitments and other projects resulted in this blog almost dying from neglect, and myself scaling new heights in obnoxiousness due to sleep hours being purloined to meet deadlines.
But right at the very end of October my work/life balance has almost levelled out again - just in time for Halloween.
I’ve had most of a weekend to myself, and an opportunity to finally watch a couple of blu-rays which I bought months ago. Happily, they are early Hammer Horror classics, both from 1959 and featuring Sir Chris and ‘The Cush’ at the their very finest.
You can keep your Cumberbatch and Brett - if there was ever an actor born to play the World’s first consulting detective, it was Peter Cushing. And he grabs this role as only a life-long Holmes fanboy and perfectly cast leading man could.
Dying his hair, raising the timbre of his voice and embracing all the higher functioning autism traits of the character, his Holmes crackles with nervous energy. He’s a man out of step with the rest of humanity, always several steps ahead of anyone he encounters and not slow to display the inevitable impatience.
|"Come on Cumberbatch and Brett, I'll take you both on ..."|
Cushing’s performance is so startling that it makes you forget there’s a dog in this. And that’s just as well because no-one has ever been able to do the Baskerville Hound justice, not even Sherlock’s most recent dodgy CGI attempt.
Having said this, anyone familiar with the works of Conan Doyle will tell you that there’s a problem with this particular story. Bringing his most famous creation back ten years after the great detective’s assumed demise at Reichenbach, Conan Doyle did not originally intend The Hound of the Baskervilles to be a Sherlock Holmes adventure.
And this might help explain why Holmes himself is absent for the middle portion of the tale, which, along with having to eventually depict the Hound, brings down most adaptations of this novel.
As Cumberbatch’s Holmes recently remarked in a beautifully meta-textual moment: “I’m hardly in the one with the dog!”
Hammer’s secret weapon is the wonderful Andre Morell as a capable and quietly intelligent Watson, and his scenes with Christopher Lee’s Sir Henry Baskerville carry the story on nicely until Cushing’s dramatic reappearance.
|"Steady Holmes, I think he's got Kryptonite..."|
Beautifully directed by Terence Fisher, this is an expensive -looking production, with first rate performances all-round, including New Zealander Ewen Solon. Hammer’s inevitable tweaks to the story result in a thrilling prologue sequence and a progressive substantial female role.
|Christopher Lee as the anxious Sir Henry Baskerville.|
Yes, “Elementary, my dear Watson” is uttered, but the fact that Cushing says it, even if Conan Doyle never wrote it, makes it canon to me.
Best in Show, this Hound is a must see.
If The Hound of the Baskerville’s was Cushing’s star vehicle, The Mummy (1959) belongs to Christopher Lee. Although he gets to incant a little during the ancient Egypt flashback sequence, as Kharis the revived Mummy he speaks not single word.
|The high Priest Kharis...|
This isn’t his Frankenstein creature in bandages, but a performance which refuses to be smothered by costume, mud and makeup, or silenced by a complete lack of dialogue. I don’t know enough about mime to call this a masterclass in silent acting, but it surely is.
|...returned to life four thousand years later.|
Only able to emote with his eyes, Lee’s Kharis is an unstoppable juggernaut shrugging off close range shotgun blasts, but also immensely dignified despite his pitiable state. And best if all, tender and sympathetic when moved by millennia-old lost love. The number of close ups Kharis is given indicate the directors confidence in Lee to deliver despite every possible physical restriction to his performance. Best screen Mummy ever? Absolutely.
|Cushing wanted to justify the hole in the Mummy on the film poster, |
so suggested putting a harpoon through him.
Cushing as John Banning, the remaining target of the Pharoah’s curse, brings all the urbanity, conviction and energy which he always does (apparently busting out some parkour when Kharis first pays him a visit) but I couldn’t quite shake the suspicion that the character of Banning needed to be played by a younger man, and Cushing would have been better cast as his older friend and advisor.
However - to contradict myself again, it’s also difficult to imagine anyone else in the passive aggressive showdown he shares with the Mummy’s ‘keeper’ - it’s a classic Cushing scene of steely resolve beneath an icily formal veneer.
The spectacular climax sees Kharis undone, not by Cushing’s shotgun-blasting posse, but Yvonne Furneaux as Elizabeth Banning. In the Mummy’s eyes at least, she is the reincarnation of his lost love Ananka. Her gentleness with him at the film’s climax makes you side with Kharis, as you should want to do with all truly great screen monsters.
|Yvonne Furneaux did Fellini's La Dolce Vita straight after this...|
Perhaps the closest to a straightforward Universal adaptation, Hammer’s The Mummy conflates the plots of three or four of the older studios bandaged horror films, and distils their essence perfectly.
If you only ever see one Mummy film - make it this one.