Thursday, October 27, 2011

Culture Shock 10.27.11: Chuck Norris has met his match: Peter Cushing

Chuck Norris is no longer the toughest guy on the Internet.

Despite various "Chuck Norrisfacts" you may have heard — "Duct tape uses Chuck Norris to hold things together," "Chuck Norris destroyed the periodic table because the only element Chuck Norris recognizes is the element of surprise," etc. — Chuck has met his match.

A few weeks ago, another Internet meme quietly started making the rounds. It said:

"Killed Dracula with a pair of candlestick holders. Blew up Alderaan. Fought Daleks. Has been to the Earth's core. Killed more vampires than Buffy. Outsmarted Moriarty. Verbally bitchslapped Darth Vader. I beg your pardon, but do you really think Chuck Norris can top that?"

And who, pray tell, fits that description? Only one man: Peter Cushing.

Although not as famous today as his longtime friend and costar Christopher Lee, Cushing was just as important to the success of the second great era of horror films, spanning almost two decades from the late 1950s to the early '70s. Working together and separately, Cushing and Lee were their generation's equivalent of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Cushing was arguably the finest actor of all of the horror icons. Whether playing an upright hero or a depraved villain, his performances were precise, measured and deadly serious.

His Baron Frankenstein in 1957's "Curse of Frankenstein" marked the first time the character was played as an outright villain, rather than as a flawed, tragic hero undone by hubris. And his Dr. Van Helsing in the following year's "Horror of Dracula" was a bold, energetic take on the character. For the first time, Dracula's arch nemesis was an action hero, and their final showdown remains the screen's best confrontation between the vampire and the professor.

Cushing was the face of British horror, both for Hammer Films and Hammer's chief rival, Amicus. Cushing appeared in virtually all of Amicus' signature anthology films, from "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" in 1965 to "From Beyond the Grave" in 1974.

Amicus also cast Cushing in numerous sci-fi films, most notably as the Doctor in two movies based on the BBC television series "Doctor Who" — "Doctor Who and the Daleks" and "Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D." — and as a scientist in the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation "At the Earth's Core."

Cushing was Sherlock Holmes in the first color Holmes film, Hammer's 1959 version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and he also played the Great Detective on television for the BBC.

But in a way, what has become Cushing's best-remembered role outdoes them all.

As Grand Moff Tarkin, military governor of the Galactic Empire's outer rim in the original "Star Wars," Cushing put Darth Vader in his place. He then ordered the Death Star's destruction of Alderaan, population 1.97 billion, just because he could.

That's first-class villainy. It tops anything else in the other "Star Wars" movies and, let's be honest, Chuck Norris has no answer for it.

Yet, by every account, the real Cushing was one of the nicest people you could ever know. He was a man so in love with and devoted to his wife that when she died in 1971, he started to slowly waste away.

Although still active in films until the 1980s, Cushing was never the same. He died in 1994 at age 81.

Halloween is the perfect time to sample the work of this most unassuming of horror stars. Cushing stars in "The Gorgon" and "The Creeping Flesh," airing back-to-back Sunday beginning at 5 p.m. CDT on Antenna TV (locally on digital channel WHNT-19.2).

Then, on Halloween, Turner ClassicMovies will feature four of Cushing's films during a marathon of eight Hammer movies from 6:15 a.m. CDT until 7 p.m. First is "The Gorgon" again at 7:45 a.m., then "Curse of Frankenstein," "Frankenstein Created Woman" and "The Mummy" starting at 12:45 p.m.

And who wants to watch Chuck Norris movies at Halloween, anyway?

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