Top 10 Peter Cushing Performances

For my first article I have decided to take a look at the top 10 performances of one of the greatest actors who ever lived the late, great Peter Cushing.

Its hard to know where to begin when describing Cushing’s contributions to both horror and cinema in general. This is a man who defined so many iconic roles from Van Helsing to Victor Frankenstein to Winston Smith to Sherlock Holmes to Grand Moff Tarkin. He truly is one of the all time greats and though he sadly has been somewhat overlooked despite the enduring popularity of many of his movies decades after they were first released he will always remain an icon to genre fans around the world.

He gave every single performance his all. Even some of the greats can be accused of phoning it in when they felt the script was beneath them, but never Cushing. This is a man who would treat films like “Shatter” as though they were Shakespeare. He always gave it his all no matter what.

 

 

10/ Grand Moff Tarkin/ Star Wars

Now I know a lot of you probably think this should be higher. It was sadly Cushings last major role, though he did have a steady career afterwards until ill health forced him to retire he never quite enjoyed the success of Star Wars again. Grand Moff Tarkin is really Cushing’s final iconic character. Still whilst I am glad that one of Cushing most celebrated performances came near the end of his career I just don’t think this was quite as memorable a character as some of his earlier roles. Grand Moff Tarkin is very much a one note character. He’s just evil for evil’s sake and that’s it really. However still it cannot be denied that Cushing despite being by all accounts a true gentleman (so much so Co-Star Carrie Fisher felt bad at having to say horrible things to him when Lea confronts Tarkin) was the perfect villain. Watching his performance as Tarkin you can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have been a great Bond villain. He excels at making Tarkin charming yet repulsive and quietly menacing too. His performance also just oozes arrogance which ultimately proves to be his undoing at the end when he refuses to exit the Deathstar at seemingly their moment of triumph. Sadly Tarkin isn’t given as much to do in the movie when compared to Vader, but he does get arguably the most memorable villainous moment in possibly the entire franchise when he destroys Lea’s home world and kills billions of innocent people for seemingly no reason other than sadistic cruelty. Cushing was reportedly very proud of the work he did on Star Wars though he did often joke about how Grand Moff Tarkin sounded like something that flew out of a cupboard. It cannot be denied that Tarkin is one of his most iconic and enduring roles and whilst I do enjoy it immensely I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as some of the others on this list, but then that’s just my opinion.

9/ Paul Beresford/ The Avengers, Return of the Cybernauts

 

Not a very well known performance of Cushings this still nevertheless makes its way into my list. This marked Cushing’s only ever appearance in the iconic series “The Avengers” (though he did appear in the first episode of the sequel series “The New Avengers”). Paul Beresford was another villainous performance. Similar to Tarkin he was a charming even somewhat affable character on the surface, but underneath was a cold, icy, ruthless even sadistic character. Paul however ranks higher on this list than Tarkin simply because I feel that Cushing was not only given more to do here as he was the main villain in this occasion, but also because Paul I feel was a lot more fleshed out too. Paul is seeing revenge for the death of his brother Clement Armstrong the creator of the Cybernauts. Thus I feel there is somewhat more motivation for his character as opposed to Tarkin and Cushing was really able to get into the character more. Of course just because Paul had more reason do NOT assume that that made him more sympathetic. Paul in some ways is even more terrifying than Tarkin. What he intends to do Ms Peel and John Steed is utterly horrifying. He attempts to take complete control of their bodies using a device several scientists he captured invented for him. Both Steed and Peel will remain aware, literally trapped in their bodies for the rest of their lives, unable to speak or even move. Its even more chilling how calm Paul remains throughout all of it, torturing Mrs Peel, murdering the scientists who refuse to help him carry out his grisly tasks with the Cybernauts. He never raises his voice or reacts in any over the top way at any point. Cushing underplays it perfectly and makes the already fairly sinister character seem even more frightening as a result.

 

8/ Doctor Who/ Doctor Who and The Daleks/ Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD

 

The complete opposite of his last two performances on this list Doctor Who was obviously based on the long running television character known as The Doctor. Doctor Who was intended to be more kid friendly hence why unlike the mysterious and at times unpredictable Doctor Doctor Who was simply an eccentric scientist who had built a time machine his backyard almost as a hobby. It goes without saying that Doctor Who is not as good a character as The Doctor, but still I must admit I have always enjoyed Cushing’s performance in these two films. Aside from the Daleks themselves I feel its Cushing’s performance that really carrier both of these two movies. Much like William Hartnell he is able to inject a certain child like quality into the character that makes him seem instantly likable. Growing up as a child I just adored Cushing’s Doctor Who he was someone I always felt so safe around, he was someone I knew I could count on if there were monsters. Of course then I saw “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” and “Star Wars” and the image of Cushing as a friendly old grandfather quickly evaporated. It was like watching Santa rape someone or blow up planet seriously. Still Doctor Who will always remain one of my favorite good guy roles of Cushing’s. Cushing was actually in the running for the role of the second Doctor, but had to turn it down due to his busy schedule. He later came to regret that decision, but nevertheless expressed great admiration for the actual Second Doctor actor Patrick Troughton and said he was honoured to have been a part of such a huge franchise as Doctor Who. In hindsight I think it probably was best for Troughton who was brilliant to have played the Second Doctor and ensure Doctor Who’s success for the next 50 years in the process. Still a little bit of me will always wonder what Cushing would have been like as the actual tv Doctor. Cushing would also be invited to play the role of professor Solon in the fourth Doctor story “The Brain of Morbius”, however again his busy schedule prevented this from happening.

 

7/ Gustav Weil/ Twins of Evil

 

This was Cushing’s first role after the tragic death of his wife Helen Beck which makes it all the more ironic that it is without a doubt one of his least sympathetic characters. Gustav is a witch finder who captures and burns young women to death if he suspects them of being Witches. He is utterly without mercy and at first glance appears to be the villain of the piece. However ironically one of the men whom he has suspected of witch craft Count Karnstein is actually a satanist and later becomes a very powerful and dangerous Vampire.  Cushing had made a name for himself playing Vampire hunters most notably in the Hammer Dracula series. He was often the knight in shining armour who would come in and destroy the evil Vampire, but here the are able to turn it on its head in quite an interesting way. The roles aren’t reversed, fortunately Karnstein is anything but a sympathetic Vampire, but Weil is certainly not Van Helsing either. When they face one another at the end in a fight to the death you’re not sure who to root for. You feel like rooting for Cushing because he’s always the person you root for in a Vampire movie, but then you remember in this film he has burned several innocent young women to death in cold blood. Its definitely one of Cushing’s most underrated performances and it must be said that he and actor Damian Thomas who plays Karnstein play off of each other perfectly.

 

6/ John Banning/ The Mummy

Another one of Cushing’s more overlooked performances this to me was also one of Cushing’s best performances opposite his long time collaborator and best friend Christopher Lee. John Banning to me was an interesting character as whilst he was the hero of the film he was at the same time not an entirely likable character. He was somewhat arrogant breaking into the ancient tombs and taking ancient treasures without a care or regard for other people’s cultures. Added to that the fact that the Mummy is portrayed as genuinely sympathetic character by Lee makes the movie more than just the standard hero vs monster flick.

 

5/ Sherlock Holmes/ The Hound of the Baskervilles

Sherlock Holmes was Peter Cushing’s favorite role. A lifelong Holmes fan much like Jeremy Brett you can tell just how enthusiastic Cushing was about the part when you watch him on screen. He really throws himself into the role like no other. Cushing’s Holmes was at that point arguably the most faithful to the original novel. His Holmes was a man who could be quite rude and even difficult to life with. This has since been taken to extremes with other interpretations of the character over the years, but Cushing was really the one who started it. He played Holmes many times right throughout his career with his last performance being in 1984’s “The Mask of Death” at the age of 71. However for me his performance in The Hound of the Baskervilles opposite Andre Morell as Professor Watson and Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville will always be not only his best performance, but one of the all time greatest performances of any actor as Holmes. No one really captured the characters eccentric genius quite as well as Cushing did for me.

 

4/ Winston Smith/ 1984

 

Cushings performance as the ill fated Winston Smith in Nigel Kneale’s 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s classic is really what propelled him to stardom in his native UK. At the time of its broadcast it was very controversial and to this day still has the power to send shivers down the viewers spine thanks in no small part to Cushing’s performance. Cushing truly excels in the torture scenes at the end as does of course Andre Morell as O’brien. Both men are able to show us perfectly how Winston’s will and spirit is slowly crushed over the months of agonizing torture culminating in the infamous Room 101 sequence where Winston is finally broken when exposed to his greatest fear rats. Cushing terrified expression as he screams pathetically “Do it to Julia!!!!” the former love of his life almost make it to hard to watch and manage to capture the horror of that classic moment from Orwells novel perfectly.

 

3/ Professor Victor Frankenstein/ Hammer Frankenstein Series

 

 

One of Cushings most memorable characters, Victor Frankenstein was the role that propelled him to international stardom. Cushing’s professor Frankenstein is every bit as iconic a character as Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Chaney JR’s Wolfman and Christopher Lee’s Dracula. Much like their performances it completely reinterprets the character in a fresh and exciting way, but at the same manages to become just as iconic as the original novel. Cushing’s Frankenstein was not the morally dubious, yet sympathetic character from Shelley’s novel nor was he the guilt ridden scientist from the original Universal movies. He was an out and out villain who happily murdered lonely old men and pregnant women for the sake of his creations. Frankenstein much like Tarkin and Paul could be charming , but he would often lose it when thing didn’t go his way such as in “Frankenstien Must Be Destroyed” where he brutally stabs Veronica Carlson’s character to death with a scalpel after he believes she has ruined his latest experiment. Cushing played the role in 6 movies in total all of which charted the professor’s attempts to conquer death. Whilst Frankenstein was a thoroughly villainous character in his own mind he still saw himself as genius who was simply ahead of the curve. However as the series went on and more people died as his experiments came to nothing the horror of what he has done does begin to haunt him, hence his line in the final entry of the series “Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell”  “If I can succeed just this once then every sacrifice will have been worthwhile”. I’d say that Peter Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein is the most iconic interpretation of the character The image we have of professor Frankenstein in popular culture largely comes from this film. Obviously a large part of Professor Frankenstein comes from Colin Clive’s memorable performance in the 1931 Universal movie “Its alive, its alive, ITS ALIVE!!!”. However still I think a large part of the characters image also comes from Cushing. One only has to look at the recent comic book series “The School of the Damned” which is kind of like an X-Men with horror movie characters. Their Victor Frankenstien character is very clearly modelled on Cushing more than any other actor.

 

2/  Van Helsing/ Hammer Dracula Film Series

 

 

The role that Cushing is most recognized for even today. Peter Cushing is Van Helsing just about everything we think of as Van Helsing comes from Cushing’s portrayal even more so than the novel itself. Prior to Cushing’s performance in “The Horror of Dracula” opposite Christopher Lee as the Vampiric count the character of Van Helsing had never actually been portrayed as a Vampire hunter. He was someone who had knowledge of Vampires as he was so well read on just about every subject. However he was not someone that devoted his entire life to destroying them who spent all day searching for them and all night battling with them. He was really more of an eccentric scientist. Cushing however was the one who turned him into the ultimate Vampire hunter we now know and love, the man who lives outside of society who travels from town to town hunting Vampires wherever they may be. I would actually argue that Cushing’s Van Helsing was the first character like that on the big screen overall. In my opinion his Van Helsing made the Vampire hunter into as major a character as the Vampire himself. Prior to “Horror of Dracula” the Vampire hunter was not a character that people cared about much in movies. Though Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing did appear in “Dracula’s Daughter” without Dracula, the emphasis was still very much on the vampire and indeed in other movies the Vampire wasn’t even always killed by a Vampire hunter it would usually just be the same type of person who killed any other type of monster like Werewolves and the Frankenstein Monster, the romantic lead or angry villagers. Cushing’s Van Helsing however established a new type of horror character the Vampire hunter who not only was just as important as the Vampire, but in some cases even eclipsed him such as in “Brides of Dracula” where Dracula does not appear and the Vampire Baron Meinster plays second fiddle to Cushing’s Van Helsing. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter” and “Blade” stories where the Vampire Hunter is the leading character as far as I’m concerned can all be traced back to Cushing’s Van Helsing. Cushing’s Van Helsing was a very engaging character. You simply could not take your eyes off of him when he was on the screen. He completely carries “Dracula AD 1972” (sadly Christopher Lee is completely pushed to the side). He brought  a real physical side to the role. Unlike Van Sloan’s old scholarly Van Helsing, Cushing’s was one who could actually get in  dramatic, physical even brutal confrontations with the undead which made him the perfect match for Lee’s much more physical Dracula. There have been a number of references and tributes to Cushing’s performance as Van Helsing over the years such as most notably Peter Vincent in the “Fright Night” franchise an actor well known for playing Vampire killers who is obviously based on Cushing (and named after both Cushing and another horror icon Vincent Price).  Cushing for me will always be cinema’s greatest Vampire killer.

 

1/Arthur Grimsdyke/ Tales From The Crypt

 

I know you were probably thinking what could possibly top Victor Frankenstein and Van Helsing Cushing’s most enduring characters well that answer is Arthur Grimsdyke. Grimsdyke is a truly tragic character a lonely widow who is a genuinely nice man, but who is eventually driven to suicide by two of his neighbours who  launch a vicious smear campaign against him. Grimsdyke later returns as a zombie to enact his revenge. Grimsdyke is such a helpless, well meaning character it is truly heartbreaking to watch his vile neighbours ruin his life. Convincing the neighbourhood children his only friends that he is a pervert, taking his two dogs away from him its almost unbearable to watch. Its hard to believe that this was the same man who later blow up a planet in Star Wars, but that’s just proof of what a good actor Cushing was that he was able to play two such different characters so perfectly. Grimsdyke was the first of many characters Cushing would play who had lost their loved ones such as in “Asylum” and “The Ghoul”. This was due to Cushing having lost his wife Helen Beck not long before. Grmsdyke’s wife was even called Helen. There is one particular scene where Grimsdyke is attempting to communicate with his wife and Cushing plays it with such intensity that you wonder if his wife is contacting him or if Grimsdyke is so desperate to believe it that he is actually convincing himself that she is. Whilst characters like Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein and Grand Moff Tarkin may be more iconic, Grimsdyke for me will always be Cushing’s most powerful and moving performance. The final scene just before he commits suicide where he reads the cards that have been sent by the neighbourhood children telling him to kill himself never fails to make me cry.

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