Today, May 26, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of British actor Peter Cushing – best known in some quarters as Imperial Gov. Tarkin, who holds Darth Vader’s leash rather loosely in the 1977 classic “Star Wars” – so I marked the date by watching one of his later horror films, “Madhouse.”
It isn’t a great role for Cushing, who died in 1994 after a long, distinguished and beloved career. He’s a supporting player to Vincent Price, who stars as Paul Toombes, an aging actor lured out of retirement to reprise his role as Dr. Death, anti-hero of a series of horror thrillers.
Released in 1974, “Madhouse” had the distinction of being the last movie Price made for American International Pictures, home of the classic adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe in which Price starred in the 1960s. The movie business was changing even by then and AIP was looking to replace Price with Robert Quarry, who was the third male lead here. Quarry had made a little splash as Count Yorga, a modern-day vampire, and it’s said AIP and producer Samuel Arkoff thought he, rather than Price, was the future.
But horror movies were about to see a huge change. Long the province of a particular breed of actor, like Price and Cushing, and director, like Roger Corman, and producer, like Arkoff, horror films were proven to be worthy of mainstream attention in 1973 when “The Exorcist” was a huge hit. Low-budget horror movies were still drive-in theater fare and would be for several years to come, but by the time “Madhouse” rolled around, people were looking for the new, the young and the shocking in their horror films.
“Madhouse” also held the distinction of being able to evoke the nostalgia, perhaps the last of its kind for its type of film, for earlier horror films. It could do this because of Price’s long-running screen presence. At various points, Cushing and Quarry screen some of Toombes’ earlier horror films, and they show scenes from some of Price’s films, particularly the Poe pictures conveniently (and inexpensively) owned by Arkoff and AIP. The presence of those clips led director Jim Clark to acknowledge former Price co-stars Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in the opening credits. It’s a nice gesture but also makes me wonder: Did Clark and Arkoff think the presence of those old-school names would add to the luster of “Madhouse?”
Cushing, whose role as Toombes’ longtime friend is so obviously an attempt to mislead that the final shot has someone referring to a red herring, might be a familiar face to legions of filmgoers from “Star Wars” but is best known to his many fans for his roles in British horror films made by Hammer studios beginning in the 1950s.
Cushing – whose fan club I belonged to in the 1970s and 1980s – sometimes played Dracula nemesis Van Helsing and sometimes played monster maker Dr. Frankenstein in the Hammer outings. He and cohort Christopher Lee always added a touch of class to every movie in which they appeared.
Happy birthday, Peter.