Tag Archives: Peter Cushing

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Horror Express

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It didn’t take long for the genres of horror and science fiction to start mingling. It’s a natural marriage, after all, and the two often blend seamlessly, the best and among the earliest example likely being the first two Universal “Frankenstein” movies. Throughout the 1950s, horror and science fiction were frequent bedfellows as atomic terrors ran amok across assorted landscapes. Increasingly, however, it was the science fiction element of the films that was in the forefront, with the horror placed in the background unless one was genuinely terrified of superimposed grasshoppers. By the middle of the 1950s, science fiction was still enjoying the occasional big budget celebration a la This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) while horror films were becoming increasingly cheap, b-movie quickie affairs. Not that that means there weren’t plenty of gems in the mix, but compared to science fiction, horror was lagging.

It was in this setting, however, that England’s Hammer Studio decided to mix the two together once again in what they hoped to be a high-class concoction, first as a television series and then as the film The Quatermass Experiment. Although horror was often regarded as a dying genre, Hammer proved that handled properly and with respect, fans were still ready to turn out for a good horror-scifi half-breed. Two more Quatermass films were made, the latest being 1967′s superb Quatermass and the Pit, which sees the good doctor and investigator of all things extraterrestrial and paranormal grappling with an alien carcass discovered beneath London and possessed, seemingly, of a Satanic nature as well.


Which brings us nicely, if rather half-assedly, to Horror Express, a film that seems to draw from both the feel of a Hammer film as well as that of a ripping HG Wells story without actually being from either source. The idea of gods, angels, and devils as space aliens is no longer especially new and novel, though few serious (or even comical) studies of the notion exist in film. It’s a favorite of conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists, however, with the best-known proponents of the idea being those who believe that “ancient astronauts” visited Earth thousands of years ago and helped with everything from the erection of the Egyptian pyramids to the construction of Incan, Mayan, and Aztec pyramids to the carving and raising of the ominous heads on Easter Island. Apart from the notion that aliens were jetting through the cosmos showing off their masonry and stone-carving skills is the theory that so-called holy beings, your Jesus and your various angels and maybe even a Greek god or two, were beings from another planet whose miraculous powers were rather run-of-the-mill back home but really something here on Earth where we didn’t have the ability to turn water into wine. Thus these creatures would be perceived as gods and angels, and the naughty ones as demons and devils, by us backward shepherds here on planet Earth.

It’s not a completely daft idea, as far as such theories go, at least no more so than Jesus being the son of a supreme being who created everything out of nothing and, with the entire universe at his disposal, whiled away the centuries picking on Job and pulling stunts like, “Abraham, sacrifice your son! No just joking! Dude, I can’t believe you were really going to sacrifice your son.” The idea that these angels, that perhaps even Jesus himself were aliens isn’t entirely insane, especially when you take into consideration the power of Jesus to appear as a blond-haired, glowing white guy despite his Jewish-Arabic origins.


Horror Express is not a Hammer film, it could easily pass for one thanks to its quick pace, period setting, and the presence of Hammer’s two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and while it doesn’t present us with the scenario of our deities being space travelers, it does rely heavily on the notion that beings from other worlds have visited this planet long before the presence of mankind in our current form, and that if said beings were perhaps trapped in the body of a monkey for two million years only to find themselves awakened on a train going through Siberia, they’d be annoyed. Lee stars as Professor Saxton, an intrepid scientist-adventurer the likes of which we simply do not see enough of these days. On an expedition to the far north of china, his team uncovers the remarkably well-preserved mummy of an humanlike ape Saxton assumes to be the missing link, not to mention being one of the greatest anthropological or archaeological discoveries of all time. Hey, consider that some people think of a particularly nice chunk of pot shard to be one of the greatest discoveries of all time, and you can understand why Saxton is so excited about his Peking Man.

Sexton immediately returns to the city with his find and books passage to Europe on board the Trans-Siberian Express, only to discover that much to his chagrin his number one scientific and one-liner rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), is also along for the trip and keeps bugging Saxton about seeing what’s in that padlocked box. A Chinese thief at the station doesn’t see fit to badger Saxton and, assuming the crate is full of jewels or fine women’s lingerie, goes about taking a peek. When the police find him, he’s dropped dead with blood pouring from his sockets and his eyes turned completely white. Saxton, being a fine, condescending British scientist, doesn’t think much of the incident. The guy was a thief, after all. A mad Russian monk with wild unkempt hair and beard (is there any other kind of Russian monk), however, sees the entire affair as a sign that whatever is contained within the crate must surely be the work of Satan. To prove his point, he attempts to draw a cross on the box, only to discover that being the wooden container of all things Luicferian, the cross will not show up. Whether or not something less holy, like perhaps, “Springsteen 4 Ever!” would have showed up is one of the mysteries that shall remain forever unanswered.


Although the cross incident impresses the locals, Saxton dismisses it as a simple parlor trick, and points out that the guy is bugging his eyes out and ranting and raving about Satan. So all aboard the horror express, including Saxton, Wells, the crazy monk Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, who acted in Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and One on Top of the Other, among many European cult films), a suspicious Russian police inspector named Mirov (Euro-cult veteran Julio Pena, who also starred in films like Horror Rises from the Tomb, Werewolf Versus the Vampire Women, A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins and Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary), a mysterious female spy, two Russian nobles, and a whole host of other people whose only job is to fill up the dining cart. In other words, it’s a regular Agatha Christie gathering, the kind you always get on these old trains but rarely, if ever, on modern trains. See, therein lies the problem with modern rail travel: not nearly enough intrigue. Used to be that for the price of a ticket, you’d get spies menacing one another with stilettos, upper-class society types embroiled in murder mysteries, and alien-possessed monkey-men throwing things at Peter Cushing. No more. Maybe instead of offering the usual “first class, second class, et cetera” nonsense they should offer something like, “first class, second class, and turn-of-the-century intrigue class.”

Needless to say, it isn’t long before the ape-man claims another victim, this time a porter whom Wells had bribed to take a peek into the box and report back to him. Then the ape-man picks the lock and disappears, much to Saxton’s annoyance. Faced with no other reasonable possibility, Inspector Mirov and the two British scientists are forced to assume that a two-million year old ape man has somehow been revived, learned to pick modern locks, and is currently at large and turning people’s eyes white. An autopsy on the baggage handler also reveals that the brain is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, disregarding then the obvious statistically rare and dismissible occurrence of an ugly, pockmarked baby bottom. It’s clear that this is no ordinary two-million year-old missing link. As the list of victims grows, Wells, Saxton, and Mirov join forces to uncover the mystery at the heart of the creature’s rampage. Things only get harder when they realize that the creature itself is not the ape-man, but an entity inside the ape-man which is able to leap from one body to another when the need arises. This revelation prompts the best line in the entire movie, in which Mirov turns accusingly to Saxton and Wells and proclaims, “Even one of you could be the monster!” to which Cushing’s Wells replies indignantly, “Impossible! We’re British, you know!”


Eventually, it is discovered that the entity is a space alien, marooned on the planet millions of years ago and really keen on getting the hell out of here. The creature’s trump card in attempting to get Wells and Saxton not to kill it is that it’s seen millions of years of earthly history prior to being frozen and can provide them with knowledge immeasurable. It’s a tempting Faustian deal, but one the stolid British researchers resist, though the crazed monk, fearing that this beast is Satan himself, decides to cast his lot with the side whose physical manifestation is running amok on the train. AN impromptu stop at a remote Siberian outpost allows Cossack soldier Telly Savalas to board the train with his troops and either get to the bottom of things in a quick and efficient manner or provide more corpse fodder for the creature, who also reveals an ability to revive the bodies of its victims and send them, zombie-like, shambling through the claustrophobic train cars in a final horrific onslaught against the living. You guess which eventuality comes to pass.

Horror Express is a ripping good yarn with a fast pace and a snappy wit. Cushing and Lee are superb in one of their countless pairings, and each horror veteran crackles with energy as they dig deep into their characters and revel in the story around them. Though there are a couple tongue-in-cheek touches to the film, the film itself is never completely tongue-in-cheek. Rather, it simply relies on clever twists and a wicked sense of humor to carry the admittedly zany plot. There is plenty of ammunition on hand for those who wish to pick apart the logic of a film about an ancient alien consciousness riding the rails with Telly Savalas, but the spirit of the film is so high and the performances so winning that one scarcely has time or cause to pause and think about the absurdity of the blood from the eye of the creature acting as sort a microscopic slideshow. That the creature’s memory is contained in the fluid of the eye is in itself not a bad idea, but the fact that Lee and Cushing can extract a drop of blood and look at it under a microscope to enjoy various pictures of dinosaurs and the earth from outer space is, well, you know, as outlandish as the fact that people are only mildly surprised when a two-million year-old monkey mummy springs back to life and starts killing.


There are also a series of coincidences that the alien must have been eternally thankful for – such as the fact that it needs to figure out how to get out of the locked box, only to be able to absorb the skills of a Chinese thief. And it needs to learn some way of building a rocket capable of escaping earth’s atmosphere only to be put on a train alongside a female spy stealing a sample of an indestructible metal to be used in the construction of, perhaps, rockets. And that the creator of the metal, the formula of which is so secret that only he himself knows it, is also on board.

But honestly, none of this matters, because what Horror Express wants to be is a faced-paced, fun horror-scifi thriller, and that’s exactly what it is. Cushing’s Wells is hilariously pompous yet thoroughly likable, and Christopher Lee gets to play yet another stern but heroic man of reason, something he proved considerably adroit at in The Devil Rides Out. The supporting cast is comprised of Eurocult veterans, largely from Spain, all of whom have extensive experience in horror, historical adventures, and spaghetti westerns, among others. And then there’s Telly. Although a big enough name thanks to turns as Kojak on television and as Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service so that he’s never been identified as a horror film icon, there’s no denying that when Savalas made a rare appearance in such a film, it was usually going to be pretty good, not to mention pretty weird. In the same year as Horror Express, Savalas appeared in Mario Bava’s superb mindwarp of a horror film, Lisa and the Devil. He goes pretty far over the top here as a sadistic Cossack soldier, but his performance, while bordering on camp, works within the context of such a playful film. I only wish he’d shown up earlier, but I guess too big a dose of his character would have ruined the performance.


Part of the reason Horror Express got made was that the producer purchased the model train that was used in the bigger budget historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra and figured, heck, if he owned this really keen train set, he might as well make a crazed scifi-horror film around it. Exteriors are appropriately bleak and hopeless looking, bringing to mind when combined with the mind-stealing alien life form the sci-fi classic Thing from Another Planet, remade in the 1980s by John Carpenter simply as The Thing. Horror Express shares quite a bit with Thing from Another Planet, in fact. From the icy setting to the alien to the claustrophobic interiors and growing sense of paranoia that infects the passengers. Much of the film is beautifully shot, with exquisite sets and decoration, and some of the scenes are genuinely eerie, the most prominent being the horde of white-eyed ghouls shambling through the darkened train cars as the remaining passengers scramble for safety. Cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa has a ton of horror, science fiction, and spaghetti westerns to his credits, and he works wonders within the confined spaces of the train. Coupled with a superb score, the film has a nearly overwhelming sense of dread that is tempered only by the spriteful performances of Lee and Cushing.

The monkey man make-up is neither dazzling nor awful, and though we probably get too clear a look at it too often for its own good, it’s hardly of a quality that would destroy a film, especially one so heavy with wit and stand-out performances. There are some fairly gory special effects, but nothing out of the ordinary for what other studios, including Hammer, were doing at the time. Some bleeding eye violence, some gratuitous brain surgery, that sort of thing. If you miss the days when horror and science fiction, while not exactly being intelligent, were at least willing to play with lofty ideas and theories and mix them together with charm and drollness, then by all means hop on board the Horror Express and please forgive me for statements like that. I hadn’t sent he film until I sat down to watch it for this review, and the only reason I don’t regret having missed out for so long is that it gave me the chance to have such a wonderful, rollicking good time at the horror films to discover.

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Scream and Scream Again

What the hell? It’s rare these days that I have that reaction to a film. By this point, I really have seen just about everything, and the one thing that keeps that from being a depressing revelation is that sometimes something will pop up to remind that I haven’t seen anything. This movie was apparently based on a book called The Disoriented Man, and while watching it, that was definitely an apt description of me. Scream and Scream Again seems for much of its running time to be three completely different movies. By the end, of course, things will be tied together, but not in a way that necessarily makes much sense. The end result is not unlike watching one of those Thomas Tang/Godfrey Ho ninja movies where they’d buy bits and pieced of a couple old Hong Kong films, splice them together with some scenes from some unfinished Italian action film, then stick in a series of newly shot scenes featuring white guys in red and yellow ninja outfits with headbands that say “Ninja!” on them and call the whole hideous Frankenstein’s monster a movie.

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Brides of Dracula

When people talk about the sequence of films that make up Hammer Studio’s “Dracula” series, a good many of them make the eight-year leap from the first film, 1958′s Horror of Dracula to Dracula, Prince of Darkness in 1966. It’s quite a jump, indeed, but one that seems to land you just about where you need to be, with the latter film beginning with a quick recap of the climax from the former. What gets lost in between the two films is the actual first sequel to Horror of Dracula, which is a shame because it’s one of the best in the series, and one of the best vampire films Hammer ever produced.

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The Mummy

Ahh, Sangster and Fisher. If you want my opinion, and you must or else you’d go read a much better website that this, that screenwriter-director team is as integral to the success of the Hammer horror films as the Cushing-Lee acting team. When you make a list of the best films Hammer produced, the Fisher-Sangster duo comes up quite frequently. The whole quartet is at it again with this, Hammer’s third reimagining of a classic Universal Pictures horror icon. By now, there was no real gamble involved in the Hammer formula. Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula had proven the effort, and Hammer’s only challenge now lie in maintaining the high standards set by those two films. With two Universal legends left, those being the mummy and the Wolfman, Hammer decided to go all old Egypt and bring the bandaged avenger of desecrated tombs into the Technicolor world of Hammer horror.

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Horror of Dracula

Hammer Studio’s Horror of Dracula is, without a doubt (at least in my mind), the absolute best vampire film ever made, and quite simply one of the finest examples of proper Gothic horror that’s ever been filmed. It was a busy couple of years for Britain’s Hammer Studio. In 1955, their sci-fi/horror thriller based on the popular TV character Quatermass became a smash hit, and the studio soon learned it was because audiences were hungry for shocking, boundary-pushing films of the fantastic and horrible that still handled themselves with a degree of wit, intelligence, and dignity as would befit a rousing British tale of terror. Inspired by that film’s success, execs turned to studio director Terence Fisher to rework Mary Shelley’s classic tale of Gothic horror, Frankenstein. It was a risky move for any number of obvious reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Universal’s Boris Karloff version of the monster was practically a global icon. Hammer had to come up with a completely new approach to the monster’s appearance, since the Universal version was copyrighted, and they figured that while doing so, they might as well ratchet up the sex and violence and see just how much they’d be able to get away with in a horror movie.

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Curse of Frankenstein

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Technically, this should have been the first Hammer horror film I reviewed, if for no other reason than the sake of some chronological order running through this ongoing journal. This is the one that started it all. Well, no, technically I guess Quatermass Xperiment started it all, but this is the one that really made “all” all that much more. But in our zeal to watch a good vampire movie, we skipped ahead a bit and went for Horror of Dracula first. A faux pas, perhaps, but thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks and the web, you can always read this one first then skip on back to the other one. Or you can do what most people are probably doing anyway, and just not worry about it.

1955′s Quatermass clued the folks at Hammer in to the fact that maybe they had something on their hands with this horror and sci-fi business. They rushed out two more horror-scifi amalgamations, then in 1956 went to work on what was to be their first in a series of films that were, depending on who you are, either adaptations of classic works of British gothic horror, or remakes of old Universal Pictures horror films. The four biggest films in the Universal pantheon of horror were Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, Dracula with Bela Lugosi, The Mummy again with Karloff, and The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr. For their first crack at the legends, Hammer went with Curse of Frankenstein.

It was a bit of a gamble, what with the Karloff film being one of the great iconic films not just of horror, but of movies in general. Hammer was going to have to figure out a way to do something just as good but totally innovative, something that would at once hearken back to and be largely different from its legendary predecessor. To start things off they assigned studio director Terence Fisher to the project, then furnished him with well-known television star Peter Cushing to portray Frankenstein. A good start, but if the Karloff film had taught anyone anything, it was that whoever plays the Monster will be the focal point of everyone’s attention. Hammer had a long series of auditions for a variety of big, hulking men before finally deciding on a tall but relatively lean actor by the name of Christopher Lee. Lee already had a decently long filmography under his belt, but most were small parts in small films, so he was more or less an unknown at the time. So an unknown director directs two seasoned but obscure character actors in a film based on a character that had more or less been made into a parody by the time Universal was finished with it, all at a time when interest in old Gothic horror was at an all-time low in favor of whiz-bang science fiction adventures. No problem.

There were other hurdles to clear. Universal was none too happy about someone making a new Frankenstein film. Although they didn’t create the character, they reasonably argued that when the average moviegoer heard the name Frankenstein, they didn’t think of Mary Shelley’s novel; they thought of the Universal movie. Hammer could have argued back that nothing they were going to do could have been any worse than some of those Frankenstein sequels that Universal pumped out during the 1940s. But that would have been rude to bring up. Universal threatened to sue Hammer if their monster came out looking anything remotely like the Karloff Monster, so Hammer went about stitching together, if you will, an entirely new look for Frankenstein’s frightening creation. Hammer also decided that, rather than focus on the tragic tale of the Monster and “tampering in God’s domain,” they’d focus, like the book, on the title character and his obsession with research.

The gambles paid off in spades. Christopher Lee’s monster, while never the icon that Karloff’s was, looked hideous and creepy because, for the most part, it looked so real, like a ghoulish, pallid man who had been created out of sundry body parts from other corpses. And the focus on Frankenstein himself allows Peter Cushing to shine and give audiences a doctor who is as memorable as the creature was in the original film. At the center of the film is Frankenstein’s own mania regarding research. As one character points out in the film, minutes before being pushed to his death by Frankenstein so the mad doctor can have a fresh, genius brain, some scientists have trouble with becoming obsessed with research then quickly growing bored with the outcome. Cushing’s Frankenstein is obsessed with research to the point that he really doesn’t care about the outcome. When he and his assistant Paul revive a dead dog, thereby making the single greatest achievement in the history of science, all Frankenstein is concerned with is taking the research to the next level. And when that next level is achieved, when he has created a man from the parts of dead men, all Frankenstein is interested in is yet more research, further pushing the boundaries of what he’s doing all day and night locked up in that lab.


Cushing’s portrayal is brilliant. He plays the doctor not as a mad scientist who turns remorseful and attempts to atone for his transgression, as was done by Colin Clive in the original, but instead as a man so engrossed by his research that he completely lacks any concept of the notion of good or evil. He doesn’t willingly violate taboos; he simply doesn’t comprehend that they even exist. Everything he sees is either an aide to or obstacle in his research. He is utterly amoral, but never evil. Cushing strikes the proper blend of British reserve and over-the-top histrionics. A role of this nature requires one to go over the top at certain moments, but there are a lot of different grades of over the top. Lesser actors simply ham it up and look ridiculous. Cushing, however, pushes it to exactly where it needs to be. The story revolves around him, and he’s more than up to the task of carrying its weight.

He’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast. Robert Urquhart is wonderful as Paul, first Frankenstein’s mentor and later his colleague, a man torn between a sense of decency and morality and a sense of curiosity about just what this brilliant madman can achieve. He suffers the car wreck syndrome, wanting to turn away but unable, too enticed by the doctor’s bizarre experiments just as he is repulsed by them. Hazel Court, who would go on to star in a handful of the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations that came from AIP and Roger Corman, is featured as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s hapless bride-to-be who finds herself loyal to the baron even as he ignores her utterly in favor of his research. And then there’s Christopher Lee, charged with turning in a world-class performance as the monster without uttering a line of dialogue beyond “Arrhhh!” Karloff was able to do it in 1931, and Lee repeats the feat by giving us a monster that is not nearly as gentle and innocent as the Karloff creature but still plenty pathetic and tragic.

His make-up and outfit are truly ghoulish and eerie. I remember seeing a picture of him long before I’d ever seen the movie, back when I was in the second or third grade and bought a set of monster movie books through that Troll Book Order thing that made us so happy at the end of every month. There were four books in the set: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and then a general one about space monsters. I don’t recall there being one about mummies, but I could be forgetting, though everything else about the books remains vivid. I was already a huge monster movie fan by that time and had devoured the old Universal movies and Godzilla, but these books opened up a world I’d never seen. I was particularly impressed by the woodcut print of Vlad Tepes with all those impaled guys around him – you know the one. It shows up in any and every book or documentary about Dracula. But the thing that really scared the heck out of me was the full-page picture of Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s Monster, in that black coat with the ragged skin and the misty eye. Freaked me out, and I still think it’s the most effective Frankenstein make-up there’s been. Man, I sure wish I still had those books. I remember they had black covers with a picture of the signature monster on them. There was this picture in the space monster volume of some guy in a weird black spacesuit kneeling over another guy in a black spacesuit who has been reduced to a skeleton. I’ve looked for years for that movie, but I have no recollection of the title, and that one photo isn’t much to go on.

The appearance of the creature is, of course, of thematic importance and always has been. Frankenstein goes on about how he will create man from scratch, perfect in every way, with the hands of an artist, the body of a hero, and the brain of a genius. And in every adaptation, this one included, the best he can do is a shambling flesh mound with homicidal tendencies. For Curse of Frankenstein it’s a symbol of the fact that the doctor doesn’t care about the ends so much as he does the means. All he wants to do is build and research. He’s created life, after all, and he’s blind to the eventual repercussions or its position as something of an abomination.

The attention to set dressing is wonderful as well. The film looks gorgeous and would set the high standard that would become one of the trademarks of Hammer films. If it’s not historically accurate down to the very last detail, it’s at least suitable convincing and complex. Frankenstein’s lab is, naturally, filled with all manner of scientific gadgetry, including a spinning turbine that makes that “mad scientist lair” whir, though I can’t help but think his experiment might have ended up better if he’d had a Jacob’s Ladder on hand. Fisher’s shot composition is wonderful as well. The scenes of Lee’s monster ambling through bleak, yellow-and-brown fall forests is still incredibly creepy, as the scene in which Paul takes aim and blows off a goodly portion of the monster’s head remains shocking.

The script by Jimmy Sangster is wonderful, literary feeling without being slow, and with several nods to the Shelley source material, though like all adaptations of both that and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it plays it pretty loosely with what was in the book versus what goes up on screen. Curse of Frankenstein manages to be suitably bombastic with subtle touches, and because like subsequent Hammer Gothic horrors it takes itself so darn seriously, it never devolves into the arena of camp. This is, after all, a film based on a famous work of literature, and so it is lent the proper weight and respect. The film never lagged for me or got boring, and this is a testament to Cushing’s command of the screen and the sharpness of the dialogue and pacing. It’s a film that realized you don’t have to pack in a generic “thrill a minute” to keep audiences interested so long as what you are saying is reasonably intelligent and engrossing.

Curse of Frankenstein was a smash success. Audiences went wild for the film’s brazen mixture of Gothic horror, vivid Eastmancolor, and gore. It opened the door to several sequels and established Hammer as the preeminent name in horror the world over. It revived the entire concept of the Gothic horror movie, paving the way for such coming innovators and history makers as Mario Bava and Corman’s Poe films with Vincent Price. It launched the careers of both Lee and Cushing into the stratosphere, though it would be several more movies before Christopher was allowed to really use that theatrical, booming voice of his on more than a few lines. The success of Curse of Frankenstein also convinced Hammer to try their hand at reinventing a couple more classic Universal monsters thought flogged to death during the ’30s and ’40s. And once that started, everything else at the studio was put on hold as they became the Hammer House of Horrors, so to speak. Their resurrection of Dracula was another smash. To complete their cycle, they would then turn once again to the team of Fisher, Cushing, and Lee and give the world The Mummy.