I recently watched an interesting old black and white video clip of my favourite actor, Peter Cushing. In a 1973 BBC interview, the interviewer asks Cushing to explain why he doesn’t like the term “horror” when referencing the types of movies he’s done.
Cushing: “It isn’t that I object to it. I just feel it’s the wrong adjective as applied to the films I do. Because horror to me is, say, a film like The Godfather. Or anything to do with war, which is real and can happen, and unfortunately, no doubt, will happen again some time. But the films that dear Christopher Lee and I do are really fantasy. And I think fantasy is a better adjective to use. I don’t object to the term horror, it’s just the wrong adjective!”
He said the very same thing a decade later in a 1986 interview for Time Out magazine: “I don’t really care for the adjective “horror”. I think the films are fantasy as much as anything. Horror is concentration camps, war, murder, real things. It’s car accidents and plane crashes.”
Peter Cushing was born in 1913, so I’m not surprised that his definition of “horror” leans this way. He saw both World Wars and the Korean War; he lived through the Great Depression, and bore witness to an age that condoned killing a man for having a different coloured skin. He lost the love of his life when he was only 48. Cushing knew what true horror was.
And after hearing his reasoning, I’m going to have to agree with his assessment. Whether he was playing Dr. Frankenstein or Van Helsing, the films he’s best known for are more fantasy than anything. No one ever said that you couldn’t have a suspenseful or even frightening fantasy film. Because what is fantasy?
Fantasy simply means “made up”. And what could be more made up than vampires, werewolves and witches?
And how do these films make you feel when you watch them? In Why We Love Frankenstein’s Monster and Hate Michael Myers, I explored an aspect of this idea. A “monster” who is the victim of his nature or circumstance is much easier to like than the embodiment of pure evil for evil’s sake.
Cushing [regarding the fan mail he was getting (1986)]: “What they say in their letters is that the horror films of today, they repel you and you’re sickened. And the Hammer ones that we did make you shiver and shake and cuddle each other to feel comforted, but they never repelled. And that is, I think, frightfully interesting coming from young people who must be so immune now to seeing these terrible things on the news – football fights and Ireland and South Africa – it’s just dreadful, isn’t it. One has become so used to that as part of everyday life that I think watching a Dracula picture made 25 years ago must be rather like watching Noddy in Toyland.”
There’s no enjoyment to be had from witnessing undeserved torture and cruelty, especially if it’s perpetrated by a monster (human or otherwise) who has no justification for unleashing hell on an innocent.
But a good Cushing/Lee/Price fantasy film? The characters are rooted just enough in reality for the viewer to invest in their well being, but are still removed enough that they can’t be mistaken for said reality. Sounds like fantasy to me and how can you not enjoy that?
I doubt any of us (myself included) will suddenly start referring to Dracula as a fantasy film instead of horror, but Cushing’s stance on the matter should at least give us some good food for thought. We’re quick to slap labels on things, especially today, and we’d be prudent to stop and think about those labels before we assign them.
But whether you prefer to call them horror or fantasy, I think we can all agree that there’s only one way to label a Peter Cushing film: Just. Damn. Good.
Until next time, unpleasant dreams . . .