In the early 1980's, Peter Cushing accepted a draft script from an Italian film company, for an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "Black Cat". The film was to be shot in England — an important concession, for Cushing had little interest in travel. Cushing was to play Robert Miles, a psychic who tape-records the voices of the dead through the help of his familiar, a sinister black cat. Apparently driven mad by the meaningless chaos he knows awaits him in the Next World, Miles uses the black cat to fulfill his darkest, most bloodthirsty desires.
Cusdhing reviewed and annotated the script, but eventually declined the role. According to Christopher Gullo, Cushing's biographer, the most likely reason for his decision was the fact the Italians were unable to guarantee the safety of the cats during filming. Cushing was a gentle man, and refused to take part in any production involving potential cruelty to animals. The role of Robert Miles was then given to Patrick Magee, and the project was assigned to the director Lucio Fulci. But the decision turned out to be a fortunate one, because Magee so made the role his own that its difficult to imagine Peter Cushing performing it.
It's interesting to compare Cushing and Magee: both were gifted stage actors who are probably best known today for their appearances in horror films — many of which were of dubious quality. Of the two, it's undoubtedly Magee who had the deeper impact on the culture of the 20th century: Magee considered his appearances in movies as a side-line, a way to pay the bills so he would be free to do some less-remunerative, but more significant work, like his collaborations with Samuel Beckett. Cushing, on the other hand, famously said, "Who wants to see me as Hamlet? Very few. But millions want to see me as Frankenstein, so that's the one I do." Cushing saw himself as an entertainer more than an artist; though he won significant acclaim for his performances as (e.g.) Osric in Hamlet, Cassius in Julius Caesar or Winston Smith in 1984, he also felt that if audiences wanted to see Baron Frankenstein, they deserved a Frankenstein portrayed with as much sincerity as any character in Shakespeare.
And this brings us to the peculiar notion of fame in theatre. Unlike most other artists, great stage actors leave us only their names and reputations; nothing tangible of their work tends to survive. Everyone who ever saw Richard Burbage, or David Garrick, or Henry Irving is long dead. True, we have filmed or videotaped performances of some of the famous stage actors of modern times, but these tend to represent an isolated moment in their history: it was what they did night after night after night that constitutes the true record of their achievement. Film, on the other hand, is a totally different medium from theatre: film gives us a single performance, assembled with care from weeks or months of work by teams of professionals on both sides of the action, which may be viewed over and over again, unaltered, even after everyone involved with the production is gone. Cinema is in many important respects the opposite of theatre, but its relative durability — and in the age of video and streaming media, portability — means that a mediocre film actor can achieve a popularity that the greatest and most notorious stage actors in history could only dream of.
Thus, by accepting his role in popular cinema with humility, dedication and constant craftsmanship, Peter Cushing secured himself a place in the hearts of audiences worldwide. More people have seen Cushing in The Blood Beast Terror than ever saw Patrick Magee doing Beckett, and while some may lament the triumph of crap over "Krapp's Last Tape", the fact remains that Cushing was a first-rate actor. He could elevate the silliest of productions with his performances. He would often rewrite or otherwise adjust his B-movie roles to give his characters greater depth, based on his canny and sensitive observations of the way people really behaved.
Which brings us to yet another odd fact about an actor's fame: when a great actor gives a great performance from a great script, the audience tends to come away impressed by the quality of the work as a whole. But when a great actor wrests a great perfomance from a script that isn't quite so good, the audience usually comes away impressed by the actor (at least, that's my impression — discuss). Now, Cushing was an extremely modest man who dedicated himself to the success of any production he was involved with — self-aggrandizement was foreign to his nature. But his participation in so many potboilers did as much for his reputation as it did to salvage the dignity of the potboilers themselves. Horror fans of the 60's and 70's went into the theaters with low enough expectations, but came out enthralled by the fact a genuine actor had treated their genre with respect. We loved him for that. And we continue to love him. Certainly he is one of the very few actors ever to be dragged back from the dead for a performance in a prequel. Take that, Robert Miles.
Cushing may have been comfortable working in commercial cinema, but — as the story of the casting of The Black Cat shows — he was not indiscriminate in the roles he chose. He once turned down the part of a child-killer, because he knew that he had many young fans, and felt that his appearance in that role would violate their trust. He brought the same perceptive intelligence to choosing his roles that he did later in adapting them, and the result was a body of work that's remarkably free from embarrassments. Cushing considered The Blood Beast Terror to be his worst film; and while The Blood Beast Terror isn't a good movie by any means — its plot is derivative of too many other films, including Hammer's The Reptile and The Gorgon; its monster is frankly ridiculous; and its technical execution, particularly at the climax, is substandard — nevertheless it doesn't really qualify as a "Bad Movie" in the fullest, stinkiest sense of the term.
In bringing up his worst movies, Cushing could have mentioned another film he later came to regret having starred in: Corruption (1968) — which is also not quite a capital-letters Bad Movie, but certainly is the nastiest film Cushing ever made. In it, he played an aging surgeon with a young trophy wife. His jealousy (and, it's implied, his sexual inadequacy) results in an accident that disfigures her. Tormented by guilt, but even more by his furious wife, the doctor discovers a treatment that temporarily restores her lost beauty — but unfortunately, it requires killing young women to obtain it. Unlike Christopher Lee, Cushing never made any movies for Jess Franco, but if he had, they might have been very much like Corruption. It's a bit of a shock to see Cushing, dressed in mod 60's fashions, frantically rubbing blood across the naked breasts of a slaughtered prostitute. Still, atypical though the film may be, Cushing gives a typically thoughtful performance in it. Without Cushing in the lead, Corruption might well have turned out simply silly: a Monogram programmer filtered through a sleazy late-60's sensibility.
Yet Cushing seems to have had a blind spot for what many of his fans (myself included) consider his very worst film — possibly the only irredeemably terrible movie he ever starred in. I think there are good reasons for that, which we're going to get into; but the very fact Cushing made the movie at all is so unlikely, and the film itself has remained so obscure, that its existence has remained more of a curious rumor than a significant blot on his memory.
The film is La Grande Trouille ("The Big Scare"), also known as Tendre Dracula. Its main claim to fame (if its extremely limited notoreity can be called "fame") is that it's the only film in which Cushing — cinema's most famous vampire hunter — donned a cape and fangs to play a vampire himself. If that's your main reason for seeking out La Grande Trouille, let me give you some advice: don't bother, because Cushing's character turns out not to be a vampire after all, but an actor famous for playing a vampire. Some reference books insist that Cushing's character turns out to be a real vampire after all, but that's just not true: something else may lurk behind the cape and false teeth, but he's no more a vampire than La Grande Trouille is a successful comedy.
Why cast Cushing, who had never actually played a vampire on-screen, as an actor famous for playing vampires? That's one of the questions that makes La Grande Trouille such an enigma. It's pretty clear that the part, though intended from the beginning as a role for Cushing, did not fit the actor at all — almost as though the screenwriters had heard that Cushing was a famous horror actor, but had never seen him act. Yet this, too, doesn't make any sense. Justin Lenoir, the credited writer of the screenplay, seems to have been aware enough of British pop culture to rip off the end of The Rocky Horror Show at the finish of La Grande Trouille — and I'm talking about the stage production here; La Grande Trouille came out a year before the filmed version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How could he not have been aware that the British actor associated with the role of Dracula was Christopher Lee, not Peter Cushing?
In fact, Lee had already parodied Count Dracula for a European movie once before, in 1959, and would do so again (two years after La Grande Trouille) in 1976. As horror fans are generally aware, Lee was discontented with the role of Dracula from the very beginning. After playing the Monster in Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein, a part that had to be played mute — legend has it that Lee's friendship with Cushing began when Lee stormed onto the set of Frankenstein complaining bitterly that he had no lines... to which Cushing replied, "You're lucky! I've read the script." — Lee then found himself playing a vampire whose last line was on page 13. He had no lines at all in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and when the writers finally did start allowing Lee to use his magnificent voice, they gave him lines that were frankly better left unspoken. In spite of his success, and his virtual identification in the public mind with Count Dracula, Lee began to actively hate the role, even going so far as to angrily tear up the Drac photos children brought him to autograph.
But in 1959, only a year after his first appearance as the Count and a good seven years before his next, Lee was not yet sufficiently disgruntled to turn down a chance to make fun of the Count. In Tempi duri per i vampiri ("Hard Times for the Vampires", known in the English dub as Uncle was a Vampire), he plays Baron Roderico, a central European vampire nobleman temporarily forced out of his ancient castle by a team of archaeologists. The Baron goes to stay with his mortal Italian relative, Baron Osvaldo... unaware that Osvaldo has been forced to sell his castle for back-taxes, and is now working as a bellhop in the hotel his castle has become. Poor Baron Roderico can't stay in the family crypt: it's been turned into a bar. While the uncomfortable vampire tries to make sense of 20th-century Italy, the bumbling Osvaldo stumbles across his uncle's memoirs — sort-of the 17th-century equivalent of his Facebook page — and finds out he's dealing with a monster. When Osvaldo ineptly tries putting a stake through his uncle's heart, Roderico decides a little lesson is in order, and turns his nephew halfway into a vampire. Unfortunately, Osvaldo goes overboard with his newfound vampire powers, and ends up biting every woman in the whole hotel... all of whom, much to the consternation of their husbands, fiancés or boyfriends, develop a burning passion for the homely little man and start following him everywhere.
Tempi duri... is a charming little comedy, directed by the popular Italian comedian Steno (Stefano Vanzina). Lee is used effectively in a role that's played relatively seriously. He towers over his rotund co-star, making him seem even more formidable than usual; Renato Rascel's bellhop unform, being all-black with a crimson vest, looks like the vampire's costume in reverse, which adds to the absurdity of their appearance together. Though Baron Roderico is shown to be ruthless at times, he ends up being the only character in the film with an ounce of intelligence or common sense. Osvaldo ends up being cured of his vampirism — possibly by the power of Love, but also possibly because Uncle decided to call off the curse — but it's Roderico who steps in and gets him off the hook with the hordes of insulted men-folk. On the down side, the movie does introduce the musical number "Dracula Cha-cha-cha"; also, even though Lee did speak Italian fluently, his voice was dubbed by an Italian actor, so once again Lee's superb voice went unused.
Thigs were slightly different when Lee made Dracula père et fils in 1976: the Hammer series was over, and Lee may have wanted to put a stake in the role forever. In the French film, Lee (being fluent in French) finally got to speak his own lines. The movie opens in 17th-century Romania: Count Dracula welcomes his unsuspecting French bride Herminie (Catherine Breillat — yes, the Catherine Breillat, future director of 36 filette and À ma soeur!). His purpose is to have her bear him a son before he turns her into a vampire. Initially reluctant, Herminie takes her first steps into her new life as the bride of Dracula... but an encounter with a vampire-hunting former suitor leaves her unable to return to her coffin in time for the sunrise. Devastated, Dracula attempts to raise his half-human, half-vampire son Ferdinand all by himself.
But Ferdinand (played by French comedian Bernard Menez) is a brat, more interested in playing skittles with his mother's urn than learning how to be a proper vampire. As an adolescent of 116 years, Ferdinand still hasn't learned how to hunt his victims: when the Count takes him out to terrorize some easy prey — an old peasant woman, in this case — the old woman thinks he's just adorable, and takes him off to pick daffodils.
And so things go, until the Romanian communists take over and seize Castle Dracula in the name of the People. Dracula and Ferdinand are forced to flee the country, substituting their coffins for those of a pair of French sailors. Unfortunately, Dracula père et fils end up being buried at sea. Ferdinand washes up in France, where he soon falls in with the struggling community of his fellow illegal immigrants. His struggles to survive from day to day as an unwanted foreigner, while at the same time fighting to control his hunger for blood, make for some painfully poignant comedy. In the meantime, the Count is dredged up by some British fisherman — here we have the amazing spectacle of Christopher Lee being hauled aboard a ship in a net full of fish. Once ashore, the desperate (and malodorous) vampire attempts to find some victims to feed off, but is stymied at every turn — the first woman he tries to bite turns out to be inflatable, and the second he chases introduces him, rather forcefully, to the modern invention of the full-length glass door. Just when things look their bleakest, he's found by the casting director of a British movie company, who's looking for somebody to play the lead in a film about Count Dracula...
The elder Drac soon wins acclaim as the ultimate horror method-actor. When Ferdinand discovers that his dad, the horror star, is making a trip to France, the two men have what at first promises to be a joyous reunion: Dracula is so shocked by the circumstances of his son's poverty that he insists on buying him a luxurious new coffin and having him live with him in his five-star hotel. But then a young woman named Nicole shows up to try to entice Dracula into appearing in her new project — and wouldn't you know it? She's the very image of the Count's lost love (and she's played by Catherine Breillat's sister, Marie-Hélène). That's when things start to unravel. The Count is, naturally, obsessed with Nicole, even though the difference even in their apparent ages is significant. But Ferdinand, who never even knew his mother, is infatuated with Nicole as well. When the Count discovers that Nicole really wants him for a series of toothpaste commercials, he is deeply offended. He's even more deeply offended when Ferdinand tries out for the part himself — and succeeds: nobody'd even thought of hiring a goofy, likeable vampire.
The father-and-son rivalry triggers Ferdinand's long-delayed adolescent rebellion, and starts him on a path to rejecting his vampire side completely. Here the film starts to shed some of its overt silliness, and actually ends up saying something meaningful about the tragic friction between fathers and sons. Comedy or not, the film certainly eclipses the later Hammer Dracula films in its overall impact. Even more than in Tempi duri..., Lee is allowed to express the comic dignity-in-indignity that allows him to be funny, even in slapstick, without being the object of ridicule. Lee's co-star, Bernard Menez, is also well-used: he's not an admirable hero, even if we may sympathize with him; we come to like him even though he's barely started on his path to maturity. All in all, Dracula père et fils is one of Lee's best vampire movies — at least in the French version; the movie was clumsily re-edited and badly dubbed (ironcially, sans Lee) for its English version, which should be avoided at all costs.
Unfortunately, the mention of Bernard Menez and things-to-be-avoided-at-all-costs brings us straight back to La Grande Trouille. I've avoided it as long as I can, so let's just get this over with:
The movie begins in the middle of a shot, in the middle of an action, in what is probably an editing mistake they just didn't know how to correct. We're introduced to our two principal characters — though "introduce" is entirely the wrong word, since we're going to have to figure out who these people are for ourselves — Alfred (Bernard Menez) and Boris (Stéphane Shandor), just as they're sharing a swig out of a flask of brandy. They're interrupted by the distant scream of a woman. They're also interrupted by the way the film is cut; it's like starting a sentence in the middle of a syllable.
Startled by the scream, the two immediately spring into action. They start running through the endless hallways of some anonymous building as the opening titles begin. Accompanying their scramble is music by Karl-Heinz Schafer: a sort-of wrong-note parody of the overture to Mozart's Magic Flute (that's oddly appropriate: what better way to symbolize Peter Cushing's presence in this film than a classic that's been ruined for comedic effect?). We think this is some sort of hospital, since their flight is intercut with shots of the screaming woman being sedated and strapped to a gurney in an operating room. The gurney with the pretty young blonde is wheeled next to another gurney containing a withered old woman. Gloved hands pass a scalpel to the presiding surgeon... though the surgeon is wearing a mask, there's no mistaking those sad, soulful eyes: it's Cushing. What kind of ghastly experiment is being performed here? Will our two heroes manage to get to the operating room in time to save the girl? We never find out the answer to question one, because the answer to question two is an emphatic if puzzling NO. Just as Alfred and Boris burst through a door into a darkened room, we see Cushing draw the scalpel across the girl's throat. A polite trickle of red drips from her severed jugular. Cushing turns to look into the camera, loosening his mask and sighing as he holds up his bloody hands.
It's anybody's guess why the mad surgeon played by Cushing needed an entire operating room full of assistants simply to slash his victim's throat. It's also unclear why he seemed to be setting up one of those classic "rejuvenating an old crone with a young girl's blood" procedures, only to abandon it once the girl had been slaughtered. It really doesn't matter; because just at that moment, the lights come up. Cushing's murderous exploits have all been on-screen. Alfred and Boris have walked into the showing of a movie.
You see, Alfred and Boris are television writers. They've been summoned to the office of their boss, the Producer, a presence so aloof and intimidating that he communicates mostly through pre-recorded messages. The Producer is so upset that intends to fire the two of them, bring them back, and fire them again. He's upset because his biggest money-maker, the horror star MacGregor (Cushing) has just announced that he is giving up the horror genre ("In the middle of the 843rd episode!" moans the Producer). From now on, MacGregor insists on only doing romances. MacGregor even has a doctor's note insisting that horror is bad for his health.
I'd like to point out two things here: first, the film's portrayal of Cushing's character as a TV horror star. Cushing had a long and distinguished career in television, but his television appearances rarely had anything to do with horror. Furthermore, MacGregor's popular series is called "Dracula", and (as we've already mentioned) Cushing had never appeared as a vampire in any of his roles, whether they were on the big screen or the small. If anything, the French producers seem to have mistaken Cushing for Jonathan Frid, star of the American soap opera Dark Shadows, who first appeared in that series's 211th episode and went on to star in nearly 600 more. Come to think of it, Frid would actually have been a pretty good choice for the role.
Second, I want to point out the cruel irony of the doctor's note. Not long after completing La Grande Trouille — within the year, in fact — Cushing went on to make The Ghoul, directed by Freddie Francis, for Tyburn Pictures, which was run by Francis's son Kevin. In The Ghoul, Cushing played a former priest who'd lost his faith, after his wife was killed and his son corrupted by an evil mystic in India. Cushing's character was haunted by the memory of his wife's death, and tormented by the monster his son had become... as well as by his own role in feeding his son's unnatural hunger.
Cushing's wife Helen had passed away from emphysema in January 1971. Cushing, who was devoted to Helen, considered this to be the end of his own life. He sank into a deep depression, and by some accounts even contemplated suicide. He was pulled back from the depths of despair in part by his deep religious faith, in part by the support of his many devoted friends, and in part by his inner need to respond to the offers of work that were piling up at his doorstep. But even as he resumed his working life, he admitted that he felt he was merely marking time until he could be reunited with Helen in the world to come. He felt so strongly about this that even as late as 1986, he ended his first autobiography at the point of Helen's death (though his fans eventually convinced him to write a second autobiography involving his later career).
Less than four years after the death of his wife, in an attempt to add a little atmosphere and realism to The Ghoul, Cushing insisted on using some photographs of Helen to represent the dead woman in the story, and photographs of himself as a child to portray the son. Surrounded by these personal effects, Cushing then had to go on to play a man grappling with God over the horrors in his life. Now, Cushing's faith had sustained him through the tragedy of Helen's death, but it's difficult to imagine that the overwhelming burden of his loss did not test that faith, at times, to the breaking point. Emotionally, his role in The Ghoul required him to re-experience the worst and most private pain of his life — for his public performance in a not-terribly-inspired horror flick — and it ended up pushing him further than he could bear to go. Cushing had a breakdown during the filming of The Ghoul — just as "MacGregor"'s doctor had warned might happen in La Grande Trouille.
Back to our story: the Producer calls in his stereotypical Sexy Secretary to bring him the files on the "Dracula" series. She does so, to the strains of some even more stereotypical wailing sax music; she vamps on the desk for a few seconds, until the Producer gives her one of the film's only reasonably funny lines: "Don't even bother, Maggie" he growls; "I'm firing them."
If Alfred and Boris want to get their jobs back, then they must go to MacGregor's country home and persuade him to get back in the horror business. The Boss intends to retool Alfred and Boris's popular romantic soap opera, "The First Tears of Daphne", as a horror vehicle for MacGregor — again, why didn't they get Jonathan Frid?
And if the two imbeciles don't succeed in bringing him back? The Producer draws his letter-opener suggestively across his throat. In a professional sense, of course.
Throwing the pair out of his office, the Producer has a histrionic fit: how could MacGregor do this to him? At the height of his tantrum, he plunges his letter-opener into the breast of a photograph of MacGregor, illuminated on his office wall. Then he calls for his Sexy Secretary to soothe his fevered brow.
The Producer does not notice the blood that trickles from the maimed photograph.
It's probably this last image that has given rise to the idea that Cushing's MacGregor is somehow really a vampire. Actually, the blood dripping from the photo has no impact on the rest of the movie. If La Grande Trouille was a better film, I might take some time to muse on the meaning of that throwaway shot: perhaps, how an actor's public image becomes inseparable from his actual life, and how damage to one can lead to irreparable damage to the other... but this is not a thoughtful film, so I'm not even going to bother to follow up that train of thought.
Hastening out to their car, Alfred and Boris are surprised to discover there are two silent young girls already seated in the rear of the vehicle. They've been provided by the boss as suitable arm-candy for a weekend with a movie star. One of the girls is Nathalie Courval, who made a career for herself as a supporting actress in French movies and television, and who manages to eventually manages to make the best of a very, very thinly-written part. The other, I'm sad to say, is Miou-Miou in a curly wig. Miou-Miou is now a respected actress, but in 1974 she was still getting her start in movies, and getting roles more based on her beauty (and possibly her diminutive screen name) than on her considerable acting ability. Courval and Miou-Miou, as Madeleine and Marie respectively, initially have nothing at all to do. They're just aloof presences in the back of the car. Oh — and, being women, they've filled the trunk of the car with their baggage, ha-ha, so Alfred is forced to toss away the reams of "Dracula" files given him by the Producer.
The ride out to MacGregor's estate is extremely uncomfortable, with the girls mantaining their stony silence, and the boys resenting them like 12-year-olds whose secret clubhouse has been invaded. As Boris, who's driving, confides loudly to Alfred that the pair in the back simply aren't his type, Madeleine — in what I'm afraid the movie thinks is a seductive gesture — slips her legs over the front seat and around his neck. This leads to a supposedly-comic, though entirely avoidable, car wreck.
The car wreck has the immediate effect of rendering all four passengers filthy and bedraggled, even though their Boss's instructions on maintaining their presentability had been very clear. What I'd like to point out, though, is this: even though a second car is involved in the accident — a truck, actually — and even though both cars are comepletely destroyed by the collision, at no point to we ever find out anything about the driver of the second vehicle. He never emerges from the wreckage. He might never have existed — and from the sheer stupidity of the accident, I'd be tempted to jump at this explanation, if it weren't for the fact that somebody honked the horn of the truck just before the crash. We're forced to imagine he's been killed by the crash, though nobody makes the slightest effort to find out. This casual disregard for the consequences of a joke makes for very poor comedy.
The quartet is forced to walk the rest of the way to MacGregor's house. In the middle of a very large field, Alfred and Boris get tired of carrying the girls' copious baggage — women, am I right? — they just drop everything and continue unencumbered.
Then they catch their first glimpse of MacGregor's mansion. And here's one more thing, minor as it is, that the film-makers got absolutely right: Chateau MacGregor is an old, eerie-looking castle on an island in a mountain lake, accessible only by a long, narrow bridge. They come upon it at sunset, and the effect is really stunning.
The group is escorted into the castle by MacGregor's mute, hulking manservant Abélard, who's dressed like a peasant from an old Universal horror flick and who carries an axe. Abélard takes them into the dining hall, a long gloomy chamber, which is dominated by fireplace in the shape of an enormous statue with its head buried sorrowfully in its hands. There's an old woman sweeping the hearth; she looks like a witch from a fairy tale. She introduces herself as Germaine, the housekeeper (she's called Mabel in the English dub). After welcoming the young people to the hall, and instructing Abélard to take them to their rooms, she smiles and disappears into thin air — like a witch in a fairy tale.
It pains me to say that Germaine/Mabel is played by none other than Alida Valli (The Third Man, Les Yeux sans visage).
No sooner has the old woman mysteriously disappeared when MacGregor himself appears, dressed in the typical evening dress and red-lined cape of the stage vampire. He welcomes his guests, and apologizes for Abélard's rough behavior. Have they met the lady of the house? he asks. She used to be married to Abélard, but Abélard had an unfortunate accident with his axe and ended up in the same condition as his historical namesake: castrated. When Alfred replies that they have indeed met Germaine, MacGregor goes into a fit of rage: no one other than he must ever call his wife by that name. Who ever heard of a romantic heroine named Germaine (or Mabel, for that matter)? No! They must refer to her by the name he has bestowed upon her: Héloïse (certainly a much better name for the Romantic Ideal, but unnecessarily cruel for poor Abélard).
So: here we have the first appearance by Peter Cushing in his role as a would-be vampire. It's disappointing. He's called upon to chew the scenery: to go from his suave but slightly sinister welcome to a towering fury, and back again almost immediately. It's an introduction that would have been ideal for, say, Vincent Price. But when Cushing does it, we're left with an uncomfortable realization: for all his talent, there was one role Cushing simply could not play, and that is — a Bad Actor. Vincent Price could play a ham and still give a grand performance. But when Cushing goes against everything in his nature and tries to be a hack, he's just not good at it. Ironically, by failing to pass himself off as a Bad Actor, Cushing, for the first and last time in his film career, actually starts to come off as a small-letters bad actor. The role is all wrong for him.
And this brings us to yet another bit of cruel irony. La Grande Trouille exists in two official versions: one in French, and the other dubbed into English. Cushing, unlike Lee, did not speak French, so his lines were dubbed in the French version (though, again unlike Lee, he was allowed to provide his own voice for the English version). If you're still interested in seeing the film, for some incomprehensible reason, you might be tempted to track down the English version, just for the pleasure of hearing Cushing deliver his lines in his own voice. Don't bother. Cushing's delivery is odd in the film, forced, even shouty at times; and while the rest of the French dialogue is reasonably faithfully translated, it too has a certain forced character, especially in the song lyrics (Yes, there's a song — didn't I mention?). On the other hand, Cushing's dialogue was dubbed by the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort (Birgit Haas Must Be Killed, The Hairdresser's Husband). Rochefort out-Cushings Cushing. His voice is much better suited to MacGregor, and he manages to make MacGregor's increasingly ridiculous lines sound almost dignified.
MacGregor insists his guests dress for dinner. When Madeleine points out that their clothes are ruined and the boys refused to carry the suitcases, MacGregor scoffs. They have now entered the realm of imagination and romance, he insists. They're all entertainers; surely they did not expect to enter the kingdom of romance in a car, with suitcases? No! The castle is theirs to explore, and they may make use of anything they find there.
Abélard shows them to their rooms... leading to a reasonably good running-gag involving the lamps he lights: they tend to blow out every time he slams the door. Madeleine, though, takes quite a liking to the hulking servant, which makes the poor man very nervous. He has trouble lighting Mado's lamp, and each time he succeeds he discovers she is wearing less and less, which flusters him into accidentally putting out the light again... Eventually she is stark naked, which so terrifies the poor eunuch that he runs screaming from the room.
Alfred and Boris go to explore the gloomy castle. There are faces everywhere: faces on the walls, faces on top of the chairs, broken statues everywhere, all seeming to stare blankly back at them. The two men find all sorts of odd things while they search for appropriate dinner costumes: a severed head in a jar, for instance, and a pistol which Boris pockets. But then they find MacGregor's cache of makeup, and Boris becomes excited. It turns out Boris comes from a family of brilliant makeup artists. Boris decides he will respond to MacGregor's challenge by using his skills to transform the girls.
Mado and Marie, in the meantime, have shed their clothes — you knew this was coming, right? This is a French film — in order to take a bath. But the terrifying bathroom is a little too much for them: it's dark, and clammy, and the taps spew blood; when they try to run the hot water in the tub, they end up lighting the shower curtain on fire. This is the cue for them to burst into song. Why? What possible reason was there for these two characters, who up until this point have been virtual non-characters, to launch into a non-diagetic musical number? Who knows? The effect, however, is to give the first humanizing moment in the entire movie to the two girls. Neither of them can sing beyond the basic ability to more-or-less carry a tune. They're also both naked, in oppressive surroundings, so they come off as extremely vulnerable.
To be fair, the song isn't bad. Its lyrics are far more cleverly constructed in the original French than in the accurate, but clumsy English translation. Marie begins by confessing she's afraid of absolutely everything, not just the dark... she actually begins her lyrics on what would be the concluding phrase of the introduction, which gives the song's structure an asymmetry that also reflects the awkwardness of the girls' situation. Mado's advice to Marie is to remember that the monsters in the dark are probably just as afraid of her as she is of them, and that a roll in the hay with the werewolf might not be such a bad idea after all. The pair of them giggle that since men like to be protective of women when they're scared, what they really need to do is call up "a real vampire... or Dracula".
Alas, the closest thing Mado and Marie have to men around here are Alfred and Boris.
Boris applies his "professional" makeup skills to the two women, and the results are far more 1967 than 1974. They look like rejected Doctor Who villains from the Jon Pertwee era. Off they all go to dinner with MacGregor and Héloïse, a dinner that goes about as awkwardly as you might expect. MacGregor, oblivious to his guests' discomfort, continues lecturing them on his conversion to the cause of romance. He waxes rhapsodic about his courtship with Héloïse, chasing her night after night through the moonlit forests... Héloïse leers suggestively at Alfred: "And I was naked!" she crows. Héloïse (Germaine? Mabel?) insists on calling Alfred "Antoine", over MacGregor's protests, because she feels "Alfred" is too mundane.
(Alida Valli's performance as the mad Héloïse is one of the movie's guilty pleasures. She's meant to be the most unlikely figure of romance imaginable: old, unattractive, eccentric, possibly even insane... and Valli is shameless in the role. This is not the Alida Valli we're used to seeing, and it's a bit of a shock to see how well she does broad comedy. Once again, we can only imagine her paired with someone like Vincent Price; both the movie and her role in it might have come off much more successfully.)
MacGregor invites Marie to join him in a waltz. "What waltz?" asks Marie... and at that moment, Abélard sits down at an entirely impossible giant stone piano and begins to play. Before MacGregor can take Marie's hand, though, Héloïse glides smoothly between them and whisks him away. Alfred gallantly tries to save the situation by stepping up to take MacGregor's place. Soon everybody's paired up with their appropriate partners: MacGregor with Héloïse, Alfred with Marie, Boris with the liquor bottles... while Mado drapes herself over the stone piano and casts longing looks at Abélard.
The music is sweet, and sentimental; and for a moment, it becomes clear why Peter Cushing — who disliked leaving England, and who always chose his roles with such care — not only decided to do the film at all, but actually expressed his approval of the finished product: he plays a man who is deeply, passionately in love with his wife. He plays a man who would give up anything, even his starring roles in horror films, just for her.
Unfortunately, that's not quite enough of a reason for us to put up with the movie. Or, for that matter, with this scene, which — touching as it is at first — goes on far too long. It goes on so long that Boris even begins to get tired of his alcohol. He pulls out the revolver he found and begins playing Russian roulette with it. The dancing goes on and on and on, until suddenly it's brought to an abrupt halt by the sound of a gunshot. Boris has lost his game.
There's a moment of stunned silence. "What an amateur," snaps MacGregor, as he stalks out.
And suddenly the movie turns into a Jean Rollin film, just for a moment. Abélard, weeping, carries Boris's body back to his room; the two girls in robes and clownish make-up go off to find some enormous candles; and the statues that fill the castle all begin to shed tears. It's 90 seconds of pure fantastique, and it comes to a grinding halt with the discovery that Boris — the make-up expert — has faked his suicide to shock MacGregor back into a horrific frame of mind.
Boris's next big idea is to make up Marie (24-year-old Miou-Miou) to look exactly like Héloïse (53-year-old Alida Valli — a feat performed by having Miou-Miou, in profile, sit beside an empty mirror frame, behind which sits Alida Valli in an equally-hideous curly wig). Boris paints a bloody wound across her throat: the plan is to leave Marie lying in the hallway, to make MacGregor think his wife's been brutally murdered. A brilliant plan — what could possibly go wrong?
Yet this is, after all, MacGregor's castle, "the realm of imagination and romance", so what does go wrong is not what you might expect. In fact, abolutely nothing happens as you might expect: first, Marie disappears. Boris goes to find Alfred, but discovers a naked Mado in the bed instead; Alfred walks in on the bedclothes heaving, assumes it's a ghost, and runs away. Boris and Mado go to find him, after which Mado throws both men out and tries to get some sleep alone. However, no sooner has she closed her eyes when she is surrounded by a dozen human arms, which caress her until she somehow transmogrifies into Marie...
Alfred, in the meantime, is surprised to find himself confronted with the lower half of Marie's body, sitting in his chair and tapping its feet impatiently. When he runs off in terror, the disembodied legs run after him. Alfred eventually locks himself in a chamber full of mannequins, only to find the top half of Marie's lifeless body propped up on a table like a statue.
If this seems confusing, don't worry: it's all hallucination. By breakfast time, everybody's alive and in their own bodies once more, while MacGregor smacks his lips over what appears at first to be a glass of warm blood (in the English version, it's a Bloody Mary; in the French version, a cocktail made with chicken's blood). Breakfast is interrupted by the sound of Abélard accidentially chopping off his big toe while splitting firewood. Mado goes off to help him — stripping her petticoats into bandages until she's left wearing practically nothing, while another verse of the girls' Song plays in the background.
in the meantime, MacGregor takes Alfred and Marie down into the dungeon to show them his scrapbook. The scrapbook contains stills from several of Cuishing's actual movies, including Tales from the Crypt and the then just-released From Beyond the Grave; it also contains some shots from Curse of the Pharaoh and Beast of Blood, two cheap B-movies that Cushing had nothing to do with. I imagine these have been included to provide some examples of monsters in makeup: with the exception of Tales from the Crypt, Cushing avoided horror roles that involved altering his appearance. He claimed that he wanted Helen to recognize him when she saw him on-screen — even after her death.
Musing over the scrapbook, MacGregor tells Alfred and Marie the story of how he became an actor. We see MacGregor as a boy, in a flashback, just after the deaths of his parents, when both of them have just been interred by MacGregor's MacGrandfather, the MacGravedigger (also played by Cushing). The elder MacGregor insists that the boy learn his trade and follow in the family tradition. But young MacGregor catches sight of a traveling band of players, and insists that he wants to be like them. His grandfather is horrified. Jumping out of his horse-drawn hearse, he runs across the misty moors to chase the mountebanks off his property. The effort proves too much for the old man, who drops dead of apoplexy. Young MacGregor leaves him, ironically unburied, at the side of the road; and with that formative influence weighing upon him, embarks on a career of horror.
And it seems as though the influence of horror might be a little more difficult to escape than MacGregor had thought. For gradually, as the scene goes on, both MacGregor and Héloïse seem to be reverting to form. MacGregor serenely locks Marie into a fully functional mock-up of an electric chair, and Alfred finds himself running for Boris when Héloïse offers to demonstrate her collection of leather whips.
Alfred finds Mado sprawled in the hallway with Abélard's axe buried in her back. More of Boris's makeup, thinks Alfred... but he soon finds he's mistaken: Mado's attentions have proven too much for poor unmanned Abélard, who's gone insane and killed her. Alfred and Boris try running from the crazed butler (who's at least collected himself enough to put his shoe back on). Eventually Abélard catches sight of himself in a mirror and collapses, weeping over what he's become. Boris plies him with brandy from his ever-present flask, while Alfred goes back to rescue Marie on his own.
But Alfred returns to the dungeon only to find that MacGregor's followed the example of his grandfather and dropped dead from over-exertion. This is too much for Alfred, who insists they telephone the police. "The telephone?" mutters Heloïse, in the movie's second genuinely funny line: "Did you hear that, McGregor? The would-be horror story writer wants to know where the telephone is..."
Héloïse has now gone completely insane with grief. She traps Alfred in a chair next to Marie, and begins carving her name in his leg with a knife... he must give her a child, she croons, to make up for the loss of MacGregor. Alida Valli's acting here is so far over-the-top that it shocks MacGregor back to life: "Mabel (Germaine)!" he cries; "How many times must I ask you not to startle the life into me like that!?" (A line so painfully unfunny that it cancels out the two reasonably good punch-lines we've had so far.) Now it's MacGregor's turn to start crooning about Marie giving him a child, to continue the Dracula bloodline.
At this point, Cushing even throws Miou-Miou over his lap and begins spanking her. Is (whack!) MacGregor (whack!) not (whack!) a man (whack!) who's created life (whack!) from dead flesh (oh, so we're doing Frankenstein now)? How do Marie and Alfred know that anything in MacGregor's castle is what it seems to be? Don't they remember last night? MacGregor orders Alfred to reach out and feel Marie's naked midriff: there's no scar, no sign of where she was chopped in half the night before.
But at Alfred's touch, something seems to pass between him and Marie. MacGregor's madness, his descent back into horror, has been a ruse to draw the two of them together. "You see how wise I am to abandon horror?" he asks Alfred. "Why, even virgins are no longer afraid." Once more collected, he and Héloïse leave the young lovers to get better acquianted.
As the Alfred and Marie do the whole French sex-comedy thing and get naked on a slab, MacGregor discreetly leads Héloïse aside. Then, as he begins to remove the ghoulish makeup from her face with tender care, MacGregor reveals to her his true feelings, in the speech which I'm willing to bet was Cushing's entire reason for taking the role:
"She's not afraid of growing old. She's in love. Love is ageless. And because she is in love, she is pure...
Like everything else in the movie, the speech is clumsy, but for a moment it allows us to see the Cushing we know and love. The fake bombast is gone. The words themselves may not be all that convincing, but their delivery certainly is: for a moment, we can imagine he's not just addressing Alida Valli.
This would have been an ideal moment to end the movie. Sure, that would leave the fates of Boris, Mado and Abélard unresolved, but really: how much difference would that have made?
Unfortunately the movie doesn't recognize a high note when it stumbles over one. While all this has been going on, MacGregor's castle has been overrun by what appear to be ghosts. Actually, to American eyes, they look like the Ku Klux Klan... but that's our problem, not the movie's. These sheeted figures sweep silently through the chateau just behind the main characters —until suddenly, as they reach the hallway outside Boris's room, they're not silent any more. In fact, they clomp in a disturbingly unghostly fashion. When the lead ghost trips and falls, he's revealed to be none other than the Producer: the ghosts behind him are his TV crew, and they've come to shoot another episode in their series, "The Bumblers", starring Alfred and Boris. Coming across Boris and Abélard passed out drunk on the floor, they shoot a few feet of footage. Running into Mado's body, tucked into her bed, they shoot some more. Then the Producer scrawls the words YOU'RE FIRED across the wall and stalks out.
But what's this? To the accompaniment of yet another verse of the Song, Mado now appears at the door of the chateau, alive and miraculously unharmed. With a come-hither look, she makes the whole television crew (men and women alike) drop what they're doing and follow her back inside. When the Producer comes back, he finds the film trucks deserted; when he catches up with his crew, he finds them getting ready for an orgy — and they slam the door resolutely in his face. The Producer peers through the keyhole at the writhing naked bodies and gets an idea...
When next we see him, he's dragging Alfred back to the keyhole with a movie camera in his other hand. He thrusts the camera into Alfred's hand, and tells him to start shooting through the keyhole. Horror is done; romance it done... this is the wave of the future! Boris comes up to join Alfred. Well, he muses, if this really is the future of entertainment, then at least he can go back to his true career. Think of all the acres of flesh that will need makeup!
In the meantime, MacGregor and Héloïse are watching through the window. Héloïse asks MacGregor if this is what he meant by romance, and MacGregor shakes his head sadly; no, not at all. It's time for them to go. The world has no place left either for horror or romance. Perhaps they'll wipe the Earth clean and start again, they sigh; perhaps they'll simply go somewhere else. Abélard goes to light the furnaces under the castle, and with a rocky and horrible jolt, the entire castle — presumably with Alfred, Boris, Marie and the whole orgy aboard — takes off into the sky.
Matt Groening to the contrary, I did not choose to review this movie to be a Clever Film Critic. I didn't want to point and laugh at a terrible movie from a beloved star. I had no intention of deliberately digging up what's probably the only movie in Peter Cushing's entire filmography in which his performance alone is not enough to make it worth watching. I chose it based on my own curiosity. I knew it was obscure, and unique in Cushing's output. But I was unprepared for how awful it really was.
Still, I think we can pull three good things out of the wreckage. First is Alida Valli's thoroughly unselfconscious performance as the mad Héloïse. Then there's the incidental music, which Cushing himself thought worthy of special mention... it's really not bad. In addition to the usual spooky cues, Karl Heinz Schafer provides three Big Tunes: there's the goofy Mozart parody that's used in the opening credits, and again when the "comedy" starts getting frenetic; there's the girls' song, which gets sung three times in the course of the film and is surprisingly listenable; and then there's the sentimental waltz, effectively symbolizing the power of love, which also shows up at the end of the movie in different meters and tempi.
And finally — remember, I'm grasping at straws here trying to find the good points — Miou-Miou gets naked. Frequently. Yes, I know, that's very much beneath her dignity... but then again, the whole movie was beneath her dignity, to say nothing of Peter Cushing's. I'll say it again: Miou-Miou, aged 24, is often stark raving nude in La Grande Trouille. How could anyone not appreciate that, at least on some level? There are certainly worse things to see on-screen, and many of them are in this movie. I can almost even imagine Helen Cushing watching with amusement from the Great Beyond, as her husband put Miou-Miou over his knee and began spanking her in that infamous scene. Undignified, yes, but forgivable under the circumstances. After all, there are some sacrifices one must make in the name of art...