I’m not one for star signs, but some alignments are too perfect to be overlooked even by a skeptic; and so we celebrate May 26 and 27 as the shared birthday of a very special trio of actors: Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and Peter Cushing. Masters of their craft, living legends in their time, reliably the best thing in your favorite horror films. And of course, one of the delights of loving them is knowing how much they all loved and admired each other, too. “My three best friends,” Sir Christopher captioned a picture in his autobiography, Lord of Misrule, showing him beaming alongside Price, Cushing, and John Carradine. The youngest of the four, he would also be extraordinarily long-lived and take many opportunities to informally eulogize the others in interviews and his own charming YouTube remembrances decades after their passing, vlogs by the fireside with a man that at times seemed the last of his kind. They were a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, including, of course, such contemporaries as Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone,* and though Sir Christopher might well have been the last of their kind, their legacy is undying stuff.
I don’t want to sound gloomy, but, 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.
– Christopher Lee on BFF Peter Cushing
For all the friends’ collaborations and imdb-straining CVs, there are only two movies that got Cushing, Lee, and Price together, and only one that also conscripted Carradine. That film was 1983’s The House of the Long Shadows, a horror-comedy that is neither particularly funny nor scary, starring Desi Arnaz Jr. as cynical American writer Kenneth Magee. Magee makes a bet over lunch with his English publisher: he will dash off a Gothic novel to equal Wuthering Heights in 24 hours or cough up $20,000. You know, that’s pretty close to how we got Manos: the Hands of Fate, but I digress. I have done some math on young Mr. Magee’s wager. Let’s say a short novel is 60,000 words. That would be 2500 words an hour and 41 words a minute. So I hope he doesn’t have to eat, poo, or have a tricky typewriter ribbon. Forgiving the fact that Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece, I don’t think you could even jiff up a penny dreadful in that amount of time if you had a suitcase full of cocaine and were Stephen King.
Not to mention Magee is giving himself a handicap of sorts. He wants inspiration for what he clearly feels is a genre of frivolous boilerplate, so his publisher arranges for him to spend his Ultra Nanowrimo at a secluded Welsh estate, Bllyddpaetwr, pronounced “Baldpate.” The house has no threat of modern conveniences and Magee fittingly arrives, frustrated and drenched, on a dark and stormy night. Magee will be accomplishing this literary feat on an old-fashioned typewriter by candlelight. Or will he?
As soon as Magee sets down to work, weird things start happening, or at least weird people start showing up. Nothing much actually happens in The House of the Long Shadows’ first half, and even less makes sense. Though based on a novel and a play, its abrupt, inexplicable twists and turns seem less like a scripted, intentional mystery and more like suggestions yelled from the audience to a spooky improv troupe. “We need a profession and an unconvincing reason for Christopher Lee to be driving by the isolated house at this late hour! Yes, you, madam, in the back!”
I said that the movie isn’t scary or funny, but that doesn’t mean it’s missable. Lee, Price, Cushing, and Carradine, joined by Sheila Keith, make the most of every scene they’re in. Even when Carradine is visibly snoring through the regulation dinner exposition scene, he’s more entertaining than Desi Jr. The movie violates its own integrity so many times, once the story achieves its final cop-out twist, you can look at their performances more or less as independent segments, and those segments are peerless. You can’t carry off august menace better than Vincent Price peering out of the dark, and seeing him working with his friends is a joyful clinic in horror legending, even if the rest of the movie is probably better left stranded in the dark Welsh countryside.
Scream and Scream Again (1970) brought Lee, Price, and Cushing together, too, although in a less comprehensive fashion; Cushing only contributes a brief, though memorable, appearance disconnected from the others, and Lee’s British intelligence officer and Price’s sinister surgeon don’t cross paths until the very end. But this movie has the enviable distinction of being pretty darn good. There are three distinct threads: the first, a runner waking to his own dismemberment and other mysterious doings in a hospital managed by an impassive nurse in the mold of Vulnavia; second, grumpy British detectives hunting a very mod vampire murderer in a floofy lilac shirt; and third, a torture-happy cabal arising out of a vaguely Europey, vaguely Naziey totalitarian state, and they can kill you with Vulcan nerve pinches. It’s got something for everyone. The tone and the feel of it is very contemporaneous with Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971), and I fully expect that our furious Scream and Scream Again detectives are working across from some poor blokes running down leads in those movies. It’s a fun one, for all its eventual bleakness, and everyone should see the Price-Lee stare down once.
Of course, there were lots and lots of pairings of Lee and Cushing, enough so that their names will be as inextricably linked as Dracula to Van Helsing. In a better timeline than this one, maybe they starred in the Van Helsing Mysteries together. Horror of Dracula (1959) in particular has many of my favorite Peter Cushing outfits*** and action hero segments. I wish Cushing had been one of the heroes in my favorite Lee film, The Devil Rides Out (1968). Dennis Wheatley’s tale of very upright, very upper class, very English men doing battle with the forces of Satan, as personified by a shirtless black guy, could only have leveled up with the proper Van Helsing touch, although Lee’s Duc de Richelieu had the arcane knowledge bit well covered. While I’ll always love their turns as Dracula and Van Helsing, I tend to prefer them in (usually somewhat fractious) league together, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) or Horror Express (1972), which sees them as rivals working to unravel the secret of a murdering monster on the Trans-Siberian Express. It also offers a wonderful Rasputin simulacrum (Alberto de Mendoza) and Telly Savalas as a splendidly fierce Cossack.
The Monster Club (1981) is an anthology horror in the style of 70s Amicus pictures based on the work of R. Chetwynd-Hayes. It stars Vincent Price in his only turn as a vampire outside of F-Troop preying on the fictionalized Chetwynd-Hayes (Carradine), and in recompense, introducing the writer of the fantastique to some genuine monsters at his club. The Monster Club. It lurches precariously toward silliness in the framing segments at the club, as Vincent’s vampire Eramus sets up the sorry tales of different members of the monster family tree, but with Price’s preternatural ability to put both arms around camp and hoist it on his shoulders, so well expressed in John Waters’ TCM Tribute, you forget about the ridiculous rubber masks and just enjoy the ghoulish good company.
My favorite crossover among the members of the League though has to be Cushing and Price in Madhouse (1974). Madhouse is about a legendary horror actor, Paul Toombes (Price), who gets institutionalized following the murder of his fiancée, a murder in which he is, naturally, a suspect. Many years later, Toombes is released and reluctantly yields to the gentle persuasion of his friend, the writer of his famous Doctor Death movies, Herbert Flay (Cushing), to play his old part in a TV revival. As soon as production gears up, itself plagued by professional resentments old and new, people start dying in the manner of victims in the old Doctor Death films, and Toombes finds himself again suspect and suspecting himself, too.** As in The House of the Long Shadows, most of the best bits are just Vincent Price and Peter Cushing doing what they do superbly, playing off each other with wit and well-matched skill that is a joy to watch. The way the film repurposes old Vincent Price movies as Doctor Death movies could be seen as cheap – it is, a bit – but it’s also fun to think of Price’s oeuvre as a dense, interconnected series, the closest thing we’ll ever get to an AIP Cinematic Universe.****
So this weekend, if you are inclined, consider a few of these features to celebrate the birthdays of three of horror’s most extraordinary gentlemen from an era when “monsters came as themselves,” in Paul Toombes’ phrase. Take a tour of Christopher Lee’s remembrances on YouTube or his episode of This Is Your Life. We may never see their like again, but we can celebrate that they will never truly die, not as long as we have their stars in the sky and their films in the can.
* I’m not a fan of Route 66, but Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney Jr. did an adorable Halloween episode, “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” that has them meeting in secret to debate the future of the horror industry and to alternately scare and offer kindly advice to the young ladies at a secretaries’ convention.
** I love the extraordinary privilege of Toombes in his police interview, musing, “Did I kill them? I don’t know. Do you? You can’t hold me, you know.” And then sees himself out. You try that the next time you’re accused of murder.
***Peter Cushing’s Hammer wardrobe is my aesthetic and he is my personal style icon. If only there were a Black Milk Peter Cushing collection.
**** Robert Quarry of AIP’s Count Yorga franchise plays an early antagonist to Toombes as a scheming producer that forces his girlfriend into the Doctor Death TV show cast. It’s lovely meta moment when he joins a studio costume party celebrating Toombes dressed as Yorga.
While most of the films here discussed aren’t currently streaming on any online service to my knowledge (although they may, of course, be able to purchase from the usual suspects), The Monster Club is streaming on Amazon Prime, and they also feature some excellent Price-Lee crossover action in The Oblong Box.
Angela will be celebrating the birthdays of Lee, Price, and Cushing (observed) this year with Madhouse, Dracula A.D. 1972, Scream and Scream Again, and something red to drink.