By Dr. Abner Mality

Here at Wormwood, we are not entirely atheists, although the God (or Gods) we worship might be different from yours. We also have a whole pantheon of saints that we bow and give praise of enlightenment and talent who have given us Children of the Worm much cause to be thankful over the years.

Chief among these saints is SAINT PETER. No, this is not the snobbish old fellow who checks your ID at the gates of Heaven, but rather a different Saint Peter. In life, he was the British actor Peter Cushing and there are few men I have more respect for. According to those who knew him, this gentle Englishman was truly a saint upon the Earth, kind-hearted and loved by all. Yet while the real Peter Cushing was a friendly and humble man, on film he brought to life some of the arch-fiends of our time. He was the man who could order Darth Vader around like he was a schoolboy and order the destruction of Alderaan without blinking an eye. He was the diabolical scientist who escaped the guillotine to rob countless graves and bring undead creatures to life. A couple of times, he seemed to be Death himself.

I worship all the horror icons of old....Saint Boris, Saint Vincent, Saint Bela, Saint Christopher and the rest. They are the dark reflection of the saints others pray to. But Saint Peter holds a special place in my heart. He was such a consummate professional, so able to rise above the films he was in and make them greater. He exuded class like Mike Tyson exuded thug and put a special touch on everything he was involved in.

I will now pay homage to Saint Peter by looking at some of his "miracles" ...performances and characters that were especially noteworthy, scenes that were unforgettable. Perhaps you have witnesses some of these miracles yourself. If not, I urge you to seek out these cinematic moments of excellence and experience for yourself the Miracles of Saint Peter.

1. BRIDES OF DRACULA: Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Cushing's most beloved character was the saintly and courageous Dr. Van Helsing from the Hammer Dracula cycle. Over the years, a legion of great actors have played Van Helsing...Anthony Hopkins, Edward van Sloan, Laurence Olivier (we'll ignore Hugh Jackman...please!)...yet Cushing has emerged as the archetype of the role. His performance in the first Hammer vampire film "Horror of Dracula" set the tone, but I personally feel that his return engagement in the sequel "Brides of Dracula" provided some of the best scenes of his career.

The film sees Dr. Van Helsing called upon to investigate mysterious murders at a school for young women. Of course, we know as well as he does that a vampire is behind the killings. In this case, it is the sinister Baron Meinster, formerly held captive by his wicked mother but now free to terrorize the world.

Several scenes stand out. The insane serving woman of the Baronness coaxes a newborn vampire girl from the ground almost like a midwife helping to give birth. In another, Van Helsing visits the former home of Baron Meinster and finds his mother concealing her fangs in shame. "I let this monster loose upon the world and now there is no release!", laments the woman. Van Helsing holds up a hammer and stake, saying "There is one release." The scene shows Van Helsing's great compassion, beautifully relayed by Cushing.

In the most harrowing sequence, Van Helsing himself has been bitten by the Baron, meaning he will soon become a vampire slave of the fiend. Sick with horror, the Professor presses a red-hot poker against his neck and cries out in agony. This was a scene that held me in an iron grip as a kid...and still does. Van Helsing has enough presence of mind to pour holy water on his wound, curing him. This whole scene is amazing and Saint Peter carries you through it every step of the way.

2. CASH ON DEMAND: Not all of Saint Peter's parts were in the horror and fantasy genres...he was much too versatile to be solely restricted to any particular genre. In 1962, he gave a superb performance in this realistic crime/suspense film from Hammer Studios. Over the course of this movie, Peter's character Mr. Fordyce, an incredibly stuffy and particular bank
manager, shows overbearing fussiness bordering on the psychotic, nail-biting fear, icy anger and finally, a complete meltdown resulting in the total reinvention of his personality. It's an incredible acting tour-de-force that I talked about in much greater detail in my review of the "Hammer Suspense Classics" which you can find elsehwere here at Wormwood.

The biggest highlight of "Cash On Demand" is seeing how Cushing's Mr. Fordyce is put through his paces by the suave yet ruthless robber Col. Hepburn, superbly played by Andre Morell. The chemistry between these great actors is almost a physical force you can feel. The "miracle" in the film is how Fordyce is given a second chance at life by the ordeal he's been through...and also how Cushing makes you experience his transformation.

3. TALES FROM THE CRYPT. This was the best of the rash of horror anthology movies released in the 60's and early 70's and provided Mr. Cushing with his most memorable role of the decade (aside from Grand Moff Tarkin in "Star Wars"). Produced by Amicus Studios, the British rival to Hammer, the movie got its inspiration from the tacky EC horror comics of the 1950's and offered 5 grisly tales from the original "Tales From the Crypt" comic, updated to a 1970's British sensibility.

The film is played mostly straight and lacks the campy aspects of the 1990's TV series. Whereas the cackling corpse puppet of the TV show version of the Crypt Keeper tends to annoy after repeated exposure, the film version is a somber monk portrayed by respected actor Sir Ralph Richardson.

Although my personal favorite of the five stories is the nasty "Blind Alley" (about the twisted revenge the blind victims of a ruthless ex-military man chosen to run their sanitarium take upon him), there's no doubt that Cushing's segment, "Poetic Justice", is the one that is best remembered. It allowed the aging actor to play not only a humble and kind-hearted character, but also an actual zombie!

Cushing plays Arthur Grimsdyke, a dishevelled but likable widower and junk man who is a special favorite of the neighborhood children. But he is not the favorite of a couple of snobbish house-owners who feel that he and his house are a blight on their upscale street. The younger of these begins a heartless campaign of innuendo and intimidation against the harmless old man which reaches its climax when Grimsdyke receives a sack full of anonymous Valentines all insulting and condemning him. It proves too much for Grimsdyke, who commits suicide.

But that's not the last we see of him. In one of the great "rising of the dead" scenes in Hollywood history, Grimsdyke rises from his grave a year after his death and exacts a bloody revenge that is truly "poetic justice".

At first, Cushing is heart-breaking as the eccentric old man driven to suicide. The scenes of Grimsdyke speaking to his deceased wife are especially poignant because Cushing's own beloved wife died around the same time the movie was filmed. But then, the old man becomes an object of fear when he returns as a mouldering corpse to get his just desserts! This is truly one of Saint Peter's defining performances.

4. NIGHT CREATURES: This 1962 Hammer feature has all the appearances of being a horror film but actually is more of a swashbuckling adventure set in the late 18th century. Also known as "Captain Clegg", the film again allows Cushing to show his versatility as he gets to play another "saintly" character who is anything but the meek and pious man he seems to be.

"Night Creatures" is one of several adaptations of the English legend of "The Scarecrow"...a masked figure who led smugglers against heavy-handed British soldiers. Disney made a surprisingly effective version of the story, "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh", with Patrick McGoohan playing The Scarecrow role. But for sheer spookiness and entertainment, "Night Creatures" is the one to see.

Cushing plays Dr. Blyss, the mild-mannered preacher and town leader of an isolated village set in the bleak Romney Marshes. Little do Dr. Blyss' parishoners realize that their bespectacled deacon is actually the notorious pirate Captain Clegg, supposedly hung years ago and buried in the churchyard. Clegg has assumed the idenity of Blyss as a cover. He also has another identity...the Scarecrow, the feared leader of liquor smugglers who dress themselves as glowing skeletons to keep the superstitious villagers quaking in fear.

Though Clegg/Blyss is deeply involved in the smuggling trade, he has otherwise reformed and uses profits from his trade to help the local folks. Now a special detachment of crack British soldiers under the lead of the hard-bitten Captain Collier has been sent to destroy the Scarecrow no matter what. 

Collier and Clegg play a great game of cat and mouse, leading to an exciting climax. The former Captain Clegg is also being hunted by a hulking, mute mulatto who Clegg tortured and left to die years ago. This may the most physical role Cushing ever did, as he engages in a wild battle with the mulatto at the film's end. Once again, Peter managed to play a man who has many sides to him...humble community leader, feared ex-pirate, sinister outlaw, and finally, hero. It's a tremendous role for him and while "Night Creatures" is not strictly a horror film, there are some pretty eerie scenes.

As a trivia note, the British doom metal band Cathedral did a song "Captain Clegg" based on this very film!

5. FRANKENSTEIN & THE MONSTER FROM HELL: Besides Prof. Van Helsing, Cushing's other great "signature" role was the obsessed, amoral Baron Frankenstein in Hammer's long-running Frankenstein series. Van Helsing and the Baron could not have been more different. Where Van Helsing was compassionate and always thinking of the welfare of others, Baron Frankenstein was calculating and ice-cold, always willing to sacrifice others for his ultimate goal of creating new life. Nowhere was he more driven than in the very last film of the Hammer Frankenstein cycle, "Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell".

Although it can certainly be said that "The Curse of Frankenstein", the very first film of the cycle, was also the best, I think "Monster From Hell" really gives us Peter's best performance as the Baron. At times, he seems reasonable, almost affable and always sane...except for a few small slips that show how disturbed this great man of science really is. As always, Cushing's performance is extremely subtle...his madness not overstated at all. I'll provide an example of this...another "miracle of St. Peter".

Baron Frankenstein and his young protege Dr. Helder are operating on their latest hideous monstrosity, trying to put functiioning eyeballs into the blind sockets of the inert hulk. It's a gruesome moment that contains this  graveyard levity:

BARON FRANKENSTEIN: Now, in approximately one hour, when the narcosis wears off, we shall see...

DR. HELDER:  Let us hope it is he who sees...

BARON FRANKENSTEIN: (puzzled) "He Who Sees?"

DR. HELDER: Sorry...

BARON FRANKENSTEIN: (begins to laugh, becoming slightly hysterical) "He Who Sees!" I like that!

In this small scene, Cushing transmits not only macabre humor, but an impression of a man to whom ordinary laughter is unknown. A fine moment, but strung together with others like it, part of a tremendous performance by an actor who knows his character inside and out.

6.  FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE:  1974 was a very, very busy year for Saint Peter and included this under-rated horror anthology from Amicus Studios. Amicus was a great specialist in these multi-story movies and produced many of the best, including the previously covered "Tales From The Crypt".

This time around, Peter plays the "host" character who serves as the catalyst for four tales of the macabre. He had earlier served this function as the sinister Dr. Schreck in "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors", a fun movie in and of itself. But "From Beyond The Grave" gives Cushing something more novel to sink his teeth into.

He plays an owner of a strange antique shop and is known simply as "The Proprietor". The Proprietor seems to be a harmless, shabby old gent, not a million miles away from Arthur Grimsdyke but with something of a dark and threatening edge. The Proprietor has the knack of selling peculiar antiques to unsavory characters who then meet grisly fates, which are chronicles in the four stories being told here. Cushing doesn't appear in the stories themselves, but he holds the tales together and at the end, he has a great fun scene.

A thief has made his way to The Proprietor's shop "Temptations Ltd" and in the dark, he encounters the old man himself. Feeling he has nothing to fear from the old fellow, the thief pulls a gun on him. Cushing then begins to shuffle forward, muttering, mumbling and tut-tutting his assailant. The thief warns him to stand back and when The Proprietor fails to obey, shoots him full blast. To his horror, the bullets have no effect and now he backpedals frantically from the advancing old man. He trips, falls into an open casket and before he has time to do anything else, the spiked lid closes in on him. "Dear, dear", the Proprietor mumbles, stepping up to the shop window and putting up a "Closed" sign.

Not the biggest Cushing role, but one of the most fun and you can tell Peter has a great time with it!

7. THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN This 1957 Hammer film is the very best movie to ever deal with the subject of The Yeti/Bigfoot. OK, OK, I know that's not saying much considering what else is out there, but it's actually a thoughtful and brilliantly atmospheric examinatiion of what the Yeti could actually be and it packs a wallop.

As always, Saint Peter is a big part of what makes the film work. This time he works beautifully with an actor many never would have picked for such a good match...Forrest Tucker. Yes, the wacky star of the goofy sitcom "F Troop" and the villain of many a Western somehow finds himself the perfect foil for Peter Cushing.The beefy, blustery American and the slight, cultured Englishman are natural opposites, which works to their advantage. During the course of "The Abominable Snowman", the tension between the pair is on par with Cushing's teaming with Andre Morell and of course, Christopher Lee.

Cushing plays Dr. John Rollason, a botanist looking for samples in the remote Himalayas who becomes mixed up in brash American Tom Friend's expedition to capture a Yeti for commercial purposes. Tucker plays Friend (supposedly based on real-life Yeti hunter Tom Slick) as the typical hard-charging American showman with no thought for the scientific aspects of the Yeti while Cushing's Dr. Rollason is a humane and principled scientist. The two clash frequently on the expedition, which is being shadowed by the Yeti, who seem to be capable of using illusion to mislead those who hunt them. The last 10 minutes of this movie is one of the most gripping I've ever seen and the scene where Cushing finally encounters the Yeti is absolutely unforgettable.

Written by Nigel Kneale, the same man who created the famous "Professor Quatermass" series, "The Abominable Snowman" is one of Hammer's best movies and again shows how brilliantly Cushing could interact with actors of all types.

8. THE SKULL. This 1965 Amicus film should be a lot better known. I rank it with the very best horrors of the 60's and better than most of Hammer's Dracula/Frankenstein output from the same period. It was written by horror master Robert Bloch and directed by the great Freddie Francis, but it features perhaps the most intense and physical performance of Peter that features almost no dialogue during its best moments.

This time, Saint Peter plays Prof. Maitland, a collector of the strange and macabre. He purchases what he believes to be the skull of the demented Marquis De Sade from a shady dealer who has stolen it from another collector (played by Christopher Lee). Almost immediately the Skull exerts a terrible influence on Maitland, turning him into a psychotic killer.

Intense is not the word for the film. You can almost feel the palpable evil exuded by the Skull and Maitland's helpless futility in trying to battle it. Cushing pushes himself to the limit in the scenes where he's forced to kill...and where the hideous floating Skull dogs his every move. Freddie Francis pulled out all the stops in this one, even filming a lot of the movie from The Skull's perspective as it zooms eerily throughout Maitland's mansion. Cushing truly makes you feel Maitland's anguish...another great performane and "miracle" of the man called Saint Peter.

These are what I consider the hallmark performances of a superb actor, but you could easily pick 8 more of your own. Such was the skill and talent of Mr. Cushing, who deserves all the accolades I can give...and many more.