Early Birthday Creepers from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing!
By Kristin Battestella
We’ve raided the horror video vaults yet again in search of more frights and mayhem from that irrepressible, diabolic duo: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing! Their upcoming May birthdays are the perfect excuse for a quick list of creepy, oft-scary combinations, and warm weather horror.
Asylum – A totally fun, spooky score anchors this 1972 anthology film from Amicus Productions, not to mention the great gothic locales, mental institution horrors, and an intriguing frame story puzzle from writer Robert Bloch (Psycho). Director Roy Ward Baker (Scars of Dracula) keeps the filmmaking swift, with proper cuts and zooms for full effectiveness. Although the first story “Frozen Fear” is slow to start its voodoo angles, the murderous twists and turns arrive with increasing suspense and shocker moments. Perhaps it’s hokey, but eerily efficient nonetheless. “The Weird Tailor” features Our Man Cush as a seemingly straightforward gentleman asking for a very interesting custom garment. Again, some may spot the plot, but this tale is still likeably bizarre and macabre. Each of the stories are very fun in getting to their kickers, and “Lucy Comes to Stay” adds some crazy woman hysterias for Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) and Britt Ekland (The Wicker Man) – or so it seems. “Mannikins of Horror” ties into the framing story finale with a perfect, deeply entwined spin, and it’s great to see bookends that are just as long and involved as the featured tales are. Maybe this one isn’t as frightful or as gory and pure horror as other similar anthologies, but the demented mood and atmosphere are excellent. Unlike more elusive seventies horror films, this one also has a great DVD release complete with commentary, Amicus behind the scenes features, and subtitles. Oh my!
Crypt of the Vampire – I’m not sure about his hair, but golly Christopher Lee looks young in this black and white 1963 foreign creepy also titled Terror in the Crypt. While all sexy screaming ladies are dubbed, Lee’s commanding voice adds to his suave count/pimp style – complete with monogrammed smoking jacket, blonde mistress, and spooky castle. Cool carriages, fearful forests, good gothic sets, candles, and mood lighting help to forgive the weird narrations and fast and cheap production. The time period is also some kind of 19th century – the looks are effective but a little nondescript in establishing a year – but fortunately, nightmarish innuendo, shades of skin, and saucy rituals make up the difference. Billowing winds, creaking doors, and ghostly tolling bells also up some very scary moments in the final half hour despite the relative lack of vamps or blood. Interestingly, the family name here is Karnstein, and the female implications are similar to the so-called Karnstein trilogy of vampire movies from Hammer. Of course, some of this back-story might get confusing onscreen, and the poor sound, cheap DVD quality, and foreign filmmaking hiccups might make this tough for some. However, this relatively solid 90 minutes will be fun for gothic audiences and Lee fans.
I, Monster – The DVD presentation for this 1971 twisted take on Robert Louis Stevenson from Amicus is cheap with a bad print, varying color saturation, and poor sound. Nevertheless, the experimentation and psychoanalysis spins on the Jekyll and Hyde theme are intriguing thanks to great debates at the apathetic Victorian gentleman’s club on good and evil or nature versus nurture and the Freudian analysis on horror by the disturbed Doctor Christopher Lee and the suave solicitor Peter Cushing. Though perhaps slow to start and the gruesome mad scientist laboratory is not for feline friends; there is a lot of red and colorful set decoration in the faux Hammer spirit. Scenes with slick Dr. Lee and his lady patients are also wonderfully ambiguous, racy, and fun to watch. Is he evil or just taking the amoral of his medicine too far? The quiet transition scenes, silent-esque performances, and orchestrated score ala the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde show the viewer the suffering personality changes and freaky progression of depravity with just enough horror make up and violence to accentuate a scary death or two. Some longtime fans may find this one a Lee and Cushing retread with the real frights and gore elsewhere, but the impressive take on the oft-told Jekyll and Hyde make this somewhat hidden gem worthwhile.
Tale of the Mummy – Director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) assembled a pretty impressive cast for this 1998 creepy – including Jason Scott Lee, Sean Pertwee, Lysette Anthony, Honor Blackman, Shelly Duvall, and brief appearances by Gerard Butler, and of course, Christopher Lee. Though not a big appearance, the commanding and authentic Sir Christopher helps the period archaeology, dangerous digs, and ancient astronomical threats build, and we know the high tech follow ups and Egyptian mysticism designs will lead to some scary supernatural elements and creative kill scenes. The then modern club scenes and hip music, however, are very dated, and today’s CGI accustomed viewers may find the mummy wrapping effects corny. The Egyptian flashbacks also should have started the tale at its beginning, rather than letting several tomb discoveries and false starts slowly set up events. Though much more fearful in tone then the action fun of Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy, it might have been interesting to see the action here remain exclusively in Egypt with ancient curses and desert madness horrors instead of the London escape and investigation. Nonetheless, the pace moves nicely, and I know I would have much rather seen sequels to this than the Fraser continuations we did receive. Of course, we can’t even give this a proper, restored director’s cut video release stateside. Typical.