This week saw the release of a new book that details the life and career of horror legend, Peter Cushing. Titled, Peter Cushing: A Life in Film, we have an exclusive excerpt that talks about The Curse of Frankenstein, and multiple photos from the book:

"Peter Cushing was an unforgettable presence in cult cinema of the fifties, sixties and seventies, and remains one of Britain’s best-loved film stars. Cushing made a huge impact in the groundbreaking television adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and went on to find international fame as Baron Frankenstein and Doctor Van Helsing in the most acclaimed films from the Hammer house of horror. During his lengthy career, Cushing also played Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and Grand Moff Tarkin, the villain of the original Star Wars.

Author David Miller has written a definitive guide to the stage and screen career of a legendary star, drawing upon conversations with Cushing’s friends and colleagues, archive material held by the BBC and Hammer Film Productions, and previously unpublished correspondence with Cushing himself. This in-depth research forms the basis for a revealing re-assessment of the career and achievements of this much admired and very private actor."

Exclusive Excerpt

It is understood that Hammer had tried to engage Cushing before 1956, although it is not known 
in which film he would have appeared. It is very likely, however, that they would have been considering The Creature as a subject soon after its transmission in January 1955 as they had already completed the film of first Quatermass serial at the end of 1954. Producer Anthony Hinds attests that he and Hammer managing director James Carreras actively pursued Cushing, believing that a popular television name would bring audiences back into the cinema.

Cushing saw the trade advertisements for a new colour version of Frankenstein, and recalled the ‘marvellous’ film starring Boris Karloff and Colin Clive. This could be a potential hit, he felt, and asked John Redway to put his name forward. Also, a lead role in a film would be a considerable step up.

The timing of events here was providential – Cushing’s preferred vehicles, the ‘well-made’ plays of Coward and Rattigan, were facing extinction in the West End following the arrival of John Osborne’s anti- establishment tirade Look Back in Anger, first staged
at London’s Royal Court Theatre in May 1956. The Angry Young Man and the ‘Kitchen Sink’ drama were suddenly the rage and Cushing, like many actors of his generation, could not see himself in work of that style. As it was, he was given a rather different type of angry young man to play.

Cushing was invited to a screening of the newly- completed Hammer film X the Unknown, Jimmy Sangster’s Quatermass-inspired story of a sentient radioactive slime that menaces a remote army base. Cushing enjoyed the film and was sold on the idea of Frankenstein. His contract with Hammer was signed on 26th October and reported in the Kinematograph Weekly edition of 8th November.

The Curse of Frankenstein began filming at Hammer’s studios at Bray in Berkshire on 19th November 1956 with director Terence Fisher. Cushing’s fee, at £1,400, was equivalent to more than a year’s pay at the BBC. He was contracted at £100 per day for 14 shooting days in the original schedule, but shooting over-ran by three weeks and details of Cushing’s final fee are not recorded. Cushing’s contract gave the title of the film as simply Frankenstein.

To preclude the legal intervention of Universal, who held copyright in the image of Karloff’s flat-headed Creature, screenwriters Jimmy Sangster and (the uncredited) Anthony Hinds had to develop a completely new script from Shelley’s story. They cut it down to the basic concepts and a minimum of characters, placing it in a Victorian chocolate-box milieu of frock-coats and crinolines. Baron Frankenstein became a Byronic figure, to which Cushing was ideally suited.

Awaiting the guillotine in his prison cell, Frankenstein tells his story to a priest: of how, after years of research, he and his former tutor Paul Krempe had developed a means of bringing life to a dead body. Frankenstein then determined to build a perfect Creature, and went about acquiring materials from charnel houses. He murdered the elderly Professor Bernstein so that the Creature could possess ‘the matured brain of a genius’ but the brain was damaged, and when the Creature was brought to life, its first and only instinct was to kill...

Such is the economy of storytelling that we are scarcely ten minutes into the film before the grown-up Baron is up to his grisly business in his attic laboratory with Paul (played by Robert Urquhart) looking on.
In keeping with his intention that the story was to
be presented like a fairy-tale, Fisher leads us through an almost magical array of vividly-coloured liquids, humming machinery and the spinning vanes of the generator. With total control, Cushing conducts a symphony of sparks and flashes, adjusting a retort here, flicking a lever there, his eyes darting from one piece of equipment to the next. Fisher used close-ups judiciously and rarely fills the screen with the Baron’s face, except once, after Frankenstein and Paul’s first experiment to resurrect a dead puppy. Frankenstein listens for the dog’s heartbeat and Cushing’s expression of wonder is accentuated by a triumphal key-change in James Bernard’s thrilling score.

The great attraction of the Baron’s character is
his complete delight in his own work. Cushing’s charm ensures that the viewer wants Frankenstein to succeed, however dreadful his intent. ‘Neither wicked nor insane,’ says Paul of his former pupil. ‘Just so dedicated that he can’t see the terrible consequences that could result.’ Later Frankenstein shows off a stolen pair of hands with a guileless little smile, like a schoolboy with a prize conker, and sings happily to himself as he pops a pair of eyes into a jar.

Despite criticisms of excessive gore and gristle, Sangster and Hinds’ script elucidates more grisly details than we actually see. ‘Half the head’s eaten away’ grimaces Paul of the newly acquired corpse they bring back to the laboratory. Fisher deftly catches the glint of light on a knife and Urquhart’s look of suspicion and revulsion as Frankenstein cuts off the head, then idly wipes his bloodied hand on his lapel.

Throughout the film, the Baron is rarely off the screen for more than a few moments, and when he is not delivering his lines Cushing shows us that Frankenstein is listening and thinking, his mind working each new situation to his advantage. When his cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court) arrives, engaged to marry him under a childhood arrangement, Frankenstein uses her as a housekeeper – while carrying on an affair with the maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt). Then, when he needs a bargaining tool to ensure Paul’s co-operation, he threatens to involve Elizabeth. The jealous Justine announces that she is pregnant, and the Baron throws her to his newly re-born Creature without compunction.

The Creature itself is only on screen for about ten minutes and unconscious for half of those. But its first appearance is a moment of true horror that shows Terence Fisher’s ability to deliver a really potent scare when he wanted to. In the role of the creature was 34-year-old Christopher Lee and, after attempting to strangle Cushing to death in their first scene together, went on to be a lifelong friend.

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