A Third Helping of Peter Cushing!
By Kristin Battestella
That irrepressible and delightfully spooky little old man is up to his diabolic tricks again in this trio of period science fiction and scares!
At the Earth’s Core – Grand Moff Tarkin himself Peter Cushing adds wonderful charm and humor along side Doug McClure (The Virginian) and Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me) in director Kevin Connor’s (The Land That Time Forgot) 1976 Edgar Rice Burroughs adaption– the final AIP and Amicus produced picture. Though lovable, Burroughs’ tales are simplistic or juvenile today, and the hokey names and places here are tough to pronounce. Fluorescent pink colors, smoke, plastic plants, and very bad rubber creatures don’t disguise the obvious backdrop screens, but dated production aside, the Victorian fantasy, old technology, spectacles, gears, and gizmos add heaps of fun. Top hats, bemusing umbrellas, and proper posh accents counter the totally impractical, fast and easy science and strengthen the still intriguing premise. I wish we could still make more science fiction and fantasy films like this without our high tech, super smart ways. All this stuff goes down inside the earth, the humans there all speak English, and we never even know! Although people of all creeds appear as slaves, the period “master race” wording and comments about being unable to identify one of another race because they all look a like are iffy. Large crowd and fight scenes do make it difficult to tell who is who and the male battle bonding is slightly homoerotic, but it’s easy to root for McClure – who keeps on his Victorian waistcoat thru it all! The pace slows with awe, look at me zooms on the intelligent, high tech dinosaur birds, but both Burroughs and the film were ahead of the then uncommon theory. Kinky scenes with these giant birds swooping down to take the women add enough suggestion, but the fight the beasties, get the girl, white savior educate the primitives and free the slaves plot meanders without real goals, morality, or Prime Directive considerations. The characters, however, are surprisingly well developed with twists ahead of the exciting multi level battle finale. The 90 minutes may be too long and the DVD elusive, yet there’s enough whimsy and bittersweet to keep this corny humor and adventure watchable and entertaining for the whole family.
Blood Beast Terror – This 1967 British moths run amok tale starts off a little too slow and takes the better part of its 88 minutes in getting to the countryside for the eponymous vampish action. Though fun too see, the Victorian interiors, morbid bugs, and inexplicable entomology feels a touch hokey, familiar, or similar to other turn of the century macabre. Robert Flemyng’s (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) diabolical motivations and back story aren’t fully revealed either, as the pacing and editing between his science and Peter Cushing’s murder investigation is too uneven. While it’s nice to see OBE Pete as an undercover, one step behind inspector instead of as yet another Victorian scientist, perhaps the narrative should have been exclusively one or the to invoke the mystery of the case or the fear of the pursuit. Fortunately, the pleasing older cast does inspire our sympathy and intrigue on both sides, even if it’s tough to tell the handsome young victims apart. Beautiful daughters Wanda Ventham (Doctor Who) and Vanessa Howard (Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) also smartly factor into the good or ill or innocence and kinky. There’s also a whiff of Frankenstein parody and parables from director Vernon Sewell (The Crimson Cult) along with a fun awareness thanks to the onscreen mad scientist play within a play. Whatever preposterousness the title may conjure, the effects here aren’t bad at all. We don’t really have a full reveal until the fast paced finale, and the personal and monster pursuits come together to forgive any quibbles.
The Creeping Flesh – They’re brothers! I finally saw this somewhat elusive, non-Hammer 1973 Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing pairing on television, and the gory paintings, fun bones, giant skeletons, and ghoulish laboratory feelings are worth the pursuit. The Late Victorian designs are perfect, from great accessories, books, and old gadgets to bloody slides, microscopes, and real monkeys – although that part isn’t too pretty! Lovely family dynamics with Lorna Heilbron (Clarissa) add to the household history, brotherly competition, and paternal sacrifices in this search for evolutionary answers gone awry. I’ll say it: the titular effects are indeed creepy and well done; fine editing, suspense directing, smart shadows, shrouded figures, and what you don’t see film making by Freddie Francis ties the dastardly science mood together. Lunatics on the loose, prehistoric skeletons with special properties – the mix of modern scientific theories and fantastic fiction isn’t sick and twisted but provides just enough intrigue and gruesome to match Big Cush’s desperation and obsession. Are diseases, madness, and evil one and the same and can science fight such a thing? Both Lee – who’s rocking that goatee! – and Cushing are up to varying degrees of no good for different reasons. Mistakes, immoralities, and gentlemanly slick add to the tension, connections, and aha twists between them. Although the flashbacks and their implications are well told along with some bawdy and rapaciousness, the timeline can be confusing and I wish there were subtitles. Despite some implausibility, this science meets horror question makes for a dang entertaining and intense finish. Why isn’t this frickin’ DVD readily available?!