It’s no coincidence that three of the all-time legendary horror greats celebrated their birthdays within two days of each other. Peter Cushing would have turned 100 this May 26 while Vincent Price would have been 102 on May 27. Sir Christopher Lee is still among us and celebrating his 91st on May 27. So, in celebration of these true masters of horror, let’s take a look at three of their lesser-known flicks.
The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)
Peter Cushing was just beginning to earn a reputation amongst horror fans by 1960. This was due to his relationship with Hammer Films and roles as Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein. In this movie, he plays Dr. Robert Knox, a surgeon desperate to study on fresh corpses. Not quite a mad scientist but certainly working outside of the normal and accepted ways to practice medicine. Throwing the rules out the window, he stumbles upon the services of William Hare (Donald Pleasance, Halloween) and William Burke (George Rose). Yes, here we have a telling of the classic Burke and Hare, real-life killers who, after finding a lack of fresh corpses, did the next best thing and started killing people for the good doctor. Pleasance is about as young as you’re going to see him in a horror movie, yet the creepy factor is already turned up to 11. There’s a romance sub-plot between a medical student and a dance hall girl that slows things down a little but ultimately plays a big part in the climax. This definitely worth checking out. It is out-of-print on DVD but shop around and you should be able to find it for a reasonable price. It contains both the UK version and the continental European version, which has a little more violence and nudity. It also contains the opening credits for the US version, where it was known as Mania.
War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
Vincent Price starred in many adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works. And most times the script strayed quite far from the source material. No surprise that this is the same case here. The story is set in 1903 on the Cornish coast. David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins) plays a comedic character named Harold and Tab Hunter, just beginning to see his star status begin to diminish, plays adventurous Ben. His love interest is Jill (Susan Hart, The Slime People), who is captured by mysterious gill-men (think cheap versions of the Creature from the Black Lagoon). They take her to an underwater city ruled by the Captain (Vincent Price, in all his screen-chewing glory). It seems the Captain and a group of smugglers have lived underwater in a lost city, never aging due to a mixture of gases. However, the city is on the verge of destruction due to an underwater volcano. Basically, think of this as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea meets Roger Corman and Poe. Not a bad way to spend 90 minutes with some cool underwater sequences. It was originally released under the title City Under The Sea, the name of the Poe poem. Noteworthy that is was the last film for director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Night of the Demon). It too is out-of-print on DVD but can be found for about $15 used, either by itself or paired with At The Earth’s Core. However, you can check it out for free on YouTube (at least as of this writing).
The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)
Christopher Lee is known for many iconic horror films, including his seven Hammer Dracula appearances. One year before returning to the role as the famous count, he started another series of movies, bringing Sax Rohmer’s Chinese villain Fu Manchu to life. Fu Manchu is a criminal mastermind, known worldwide for his web of terror and is a master of torture. For every villain we must have a hero, ever in pursuit of bringing his foe to justice. Sir Denis Nayland Smith is that man, played wonderfully here by Nigel Green (Sword of Sherwood Forest). This movie begins with the “execution” of Fu Manchu but it becomes quickly apparent it was all a ruse as the death toll mounts. The plot centers around a killer spray made from rare berries in Tibet. Yes, having Lee play a Chinese role is not politically correct. But you must admit he does it as only Lee can. Aside from Boris Karloff’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), Lee is the best Fu Manchu, which led to four more appearances before the end of the 1960s. Readily available from the Warner Archive Collection, check out a preview clip to see if this is something for you. I really enjoyed it and will be bumping the next four movies up on my list to watch.