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Remembering the Greatest
Partnership in Horror History:
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

Fifty years ago in the corridors of Bray Studios, workers are busy preparing props, making sure the makeup departments are well prepared and that daily scripts have been updated and authorized by the script supervisor. Terence Fisher is in deep thought, his movie being shot today The Gorgon is over budget and actress Barbara Shelley has demanded that she be the ‘Gorgon’, adding that she would be happy to use real snakes in her wig. This leads producer Anthony Nelson Keys to call a meeting. But Shelley will be left disappointed, the Gorgon will be played by actress Prudence Hyman and the snakes will not be real. Later, after the film had been completed Keys would go on record to admit that he wished that he had listened to Shelley.

Shelley will not be disappointed about her rejection for too long. Waiting for her in her dressing room is her co-star, Christopher Lee. Lee serenades the actress and then sings her opera, a knock at the door which Lee seemingly was expecting reveals his great friend Peter Cushing standing there with a wide smile, he pauses enters for a moment and starts to dance on improve to Lee’s singing; Shelley perplexed asks if he is okay? To which Cushing replies, ‘this is my impersonation of Sylvester the cat!’ What Shelley was thinking at this point was anyone’s guess. Two well known respected actor’s one still singing aloof but with vigor and the other one pretending to be a cartoon character. They were there of course to cheer Shelley up and offer her their support and this is how Cushing and Lee did it. Soon after it’s back to the business end of making films and Lee is called away whilst Shelley offers Cushing a drink before he breaks into Gilbert and Sullivan and the Nightmare song from Lolanthe.

The Gorgon would mark Cushing and Lee’s 7th film together and yet this was their first teaming up in five years. Their partnership had hit the rocks when Lee in the early 60s moved to Switzerland. But once they were reunited there was no stopping them. They would make up for lost time co-starring in another four films after The Gorgon in a two year period. In all, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starred in an incredible 22 movies together over a period of 35 years. Almost all were horror films – however both actors strangely enough were not fans of the genre. They both refused to call their films horror, instead opting for macabre. What became satisfying for fans that watched their movies then and still watch now is how they would play off of one another. In The Curse of Frankenstein, Cushing plays a somewhat evil character, but could also be seen as eccentric and a little mad. Lee plays the monster. In Dracula, Lee plays the evil vampire whilst Cushing switches roles completely playing the good Van Helsing out to slay anyone who has no reflection and a hatred for garlic. They both had their own Hammer franchises; Lee of course with Dracula and Cushing with Frankenstein. But from the 9 Dracula movies made, Cushing starred only in four and Lee only starred in one Frankenstein venture. But to cement their on screen presence was the fact that they were both the best of friends. They would spend hours visiting each other and playing games, or simply calling each other up with disguised voices. One knew the other that well. Lee has reminisced since that their days together were full of laughter and joy, the complete reverse of what went on screen as sworn enemies.

Cushing and Lee’s first two movies were not exactly together as they did not share any scenes – but are still recognized within the twenty two that they shot. They were far from the horror genre though, with Hamlet (1948) being the first movie and Moulin Rouge (1952) being the second. Christopher Lee remembers in his book the first meeting. “Our very first encounter began with me storming into his dressing-room and announcing in petulant tones, ‘I haven’t got any lines!’ He looked up, his mouth twitched, and he said drily, ‘You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.’ It was a typical wry comment. I soon found Peter was the great perfectionist, who learned not only his own lines but everybody else’s as well, but had a gentle humour which made it quite impossible for anybody to be pompous in his company.”

It wasn’t until 1957 that the pair struck the public eye with Hammer. The Curse of Frankenstein changed everything for the actors and perhaps for the horror genre. This was the first Frankenstein film since the Universal classics and Cushing it seemed had gone full circle. Whilst in Hollywood in the 1930s he had met up and starred in James Whale’s The Man in the Iron Mask. Whale of course was the director of the first two Frankenstein films for Universal.

A legend had been born and gothic horror had entered Hammers vaults, something that would be so successful with the studio that the theme would last another 20 years. With the success of Frankenstein it seemed only natural to look into Universal’s other horror monsters – so Dracula got the treatment. Though Universal used their influence to get the title changed in America as to not confuse with their original 1931 classic. So the Horror of Dracula it came to be known. This presented Lee with one of his finest acting appointments, Count Dracula – and this time he was paired with Cushing – with no hideous monster make up. At the films premiere in New York City, the pair was surrounded by fans and photographers alike and Cushing stayed for an hour after the movie signing autographs – it was clear that both actors were enjoying being stars. Though it wouldn’t be long before Lee was required in the makeup department again, when both were signed up in another monster franchise for Hammer: The Mummy – and Lee got the mummy role complete with a three hour make up job.

Because studio contracts had long been defunct it meant that Hammer’s stars were able to freely except roles with other studios. Cushing and Lee would be no strangers to Amicus – which at the time with its gothic undertones was seen as a Hammer productions rip off. But if truth be told Amicus delivered many solid films throughout their near twenty year tenure, even if admittingly their marketing of their catalogue of films was indeed uncannily like that of Hammer's. Though plenty of the films from Amicus were straight horrors, The City of the Dead (1961) which starred Lee was one of their finest, and Cushing and Lee starred in the Freddie Francis’ directed The Skull (1965). But Amicus will be best remembered for their portmanteau series of films. Between 1965 and 1980 Amicus would produce 8 of them and the very first starred Cushing and Lee in the fantastically named Dr. Terrors House of Horrors. Cushing stars as a German tarot reader who boards a train carriage with Lee and some other travellers including Donald Sutherland and Roy Castle. Cushing plays the wraparound segment and in-between stories like he would on Amicus’

From Beyond the Grave as the shopkeeper from Temptations Ltd. nine years later. In Dr Terrors he seems to deal out the cards with relish and hence each story begins. Arguably Lee’s is the finest as an obnoxious art critic, who is hounded by a disembodied hand of someone he has made an enemy of. Cushing would go to star in six out of eight Amicus portmanteau’s whilst Lee starred in just two. His second one was The House that Dripped Blood which also starred Cushing but in a separate segment. Perhaps Cushing’s finest moment for Amicus though was as Arthur Grimsdyke in a segment from Tales from the Crypt. He played a caring old age pensioner who entertained kids but is hounded by a rich neighbor to the point of his own suicide. It’s a sad tale, and yet you feel Cushing had a ball by the segments end as he was made up for the final confrontation as a zombie!

Though the duo rarely did anything but horror together probably through typecasting they were still given the opportunity to do so. Films such as She (1965), One More Time (1970) and Arabian Adventure (1979) are good examples of the pair stepping out of the genre. One More Time was a curiosity; both have very small cameo roles in this Jerry Lewis comedy. Cushing plays Frankenstein and Lee plays Dracula. They decided to appear because Sammy Davis Jr, the lead actor was a huge fan of Hammer Horror films and loved the pair. Because of the mere seconds they appear, One More Time remained the only film in their careers where they did not get credit billing on screen.


“Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starred in an incredible 22 movies together over a period of 35 years.”

By the end of the 1960s Cushing and Lee had become national institutions it seemed that their films and faces were always at the cinema. However in 1971 Cushing’s wife Helen died and so too in some ways had Cushing. The spark that he would show in front of the camera would never be the same again. Although his professionalism and acting technique was still there for all to see. However he was frail looking and told a reporter "Since Helen passed on I can't find anything; the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be reunited again someday. To join Helen is my only ambition. You have my permission to publish that ...really, you know, dear boy; it's all just killing time.” He immersed himself in his hobbies which included painting and model building and worked in the industry, taking a lot of offers because he needed the company. He went on to star in 32 more features in the next 14 years. While others may have hid themselves from the media and became recluse, Cushing ended up doing the opposite. But his pairing with Lee did slowdown. After his wife’s death they starred in just seven films together. Lee once said: “There was something a little bit different about Peter, waiting for the end: for twenty-three years since his beloved wife Helen died, his friends realized that he wouldn’t mind packing up on this earth to join her. Vincent [Price] once, in a phone call to me, asked, ‘Is he still expecting Helen to be there to greet him?’ And I said, ‘Looking forward to it.’ And Vincent said, ‘And what if she’s out?’ I said, ‘I shall tell him you said that, Vincent,’ and when I did, Peter laughed fit to dispatch him immediately on his journey. When he’d recovered he said, ‘Only Vincent could say such a thing, and only you could pass it on.'”

They continued to spend time together and because each other’s birthdays followed Cushing May 26th and Lee’s May 27th they would celebrate in style each year. And the films rolled on and performances got juicer. Horror Express (1972) saw the pair in fine form, playing anthropologist rivals on a Siberian train. But there is a monster in the crate ready to create havoc. Lee is especially good as the moody one. Horror Express also contained one of the great cameos in Telly Savalas. The Creeping Flesh followed this time as estranged brothers, and Lee again playing the bad guy. They would also get to work with another horror and acting legend – American Vincent Price, on Scream and Scream Again (1970), and Cushing separately on the horror spoof Madhouse (1974), which at times predated Wes Craven’s theme on tongue in cheek horror in Scream by several decades.

The final film together was in 1983 with House of the Long Shadows, and it would be a fitting finale. Not only would they share ample screen time but they would be joined by Vincent Price and John Carradine – the movie was billed as the four masters of horror, and so it was. Within eleven years three of them would have passed on. For Cushing the 80s marked his retirement with an announcement in 1988, however he continued to be in the public eye either on television or writing two autobiographies. He was often seen in his home town of Whitstable which he loved dearly. Christopher Lee moved to America, but in truth his career took a backwards step as he could only find starring roles in B movies. The likes of Jaguar Lives, An Eye for an Eye where he became good friends with Chuck Norris and the diabolical Howling II, hardly helped his resume. In 1994 when Cushing passed on, Lee had completed his descent with Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, it was the 7th film in the franchise but the producers felt it necessary to drop the number.

When Cushing died on August 11th, 1994, Lee was heartbroken. A friendship that had lasted almost half a century was dissolved when Cushing’s body after a decade’s battle with cancer had given up. It was time to join Helen, a woman in his life that he had missed for 23 painful years. How fitting it was that the very last project Cushing worked on three months before his death was with Lee, a narration of Hammer Horror films called Flesh and Blood. Thirty seven years after they had set pulses racing and spread terror and fear injecting the genre with a quality of acting rarely seen before or since the two of them reappeared to claim their thrones once more. Just one more time before Cushing said his inevitable good byes. Lee was one of the few that knew how seriously ill his friend was and after his passing was inconsolable. He famously said about Cushing and friendship: “At some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again”.

And yet even with Cushing no longer here the two could claim to star in another hit franchise, not Dracula, or Frankenstein but Star Wars. That is effectively what happened when Lee agreed to be Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones. Because of the chapters being out of chronological order, it appears now for a younger generation at least, that Cushing stars in the later film even though he died before Lee! Lee himself passed on just last year no doubt to share a glass of the fine red stuff with his old friend, but these two genuine horror legends will never be forgotten.

A few years ago I along with some friends made the trip to Whitstable to honour what would have been Cushing’s 100th birthday. In Whitstable you will find a street named after him, a bench in which he dedicated to Whitstable from him and his wife, his house complete with blue plaque and a pub called The Peter Cushing, which ironically used to be a cinema. It was outside his house that I was presented with a situation that seemed to come straight out of one of his horror movies. An old couple stopped and looked at me, we talked a little about Cushing and then the man turned to me and said: “I know where his remains are.” Cushing’s remains are located at a secret location as per his wishes with only a handful of people who know where they are. The man continued to stare; I was lost for words expecting him to reveal the biggest secret since herb n ‘spices in a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “But, you know what I’m not going to tell you,” he replied. He scampered off with his wife down an alley way that runs parallel with Cushing’s old house and was gone. The truth is, I didn’t want to know, but I got the feeling that Cushing would have been in his element smacking his hands together complete with grin that we were still talking about the gentleman of horror some 20 years after his death.

David Bronstein, HMS

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