Acting scary: The performers who made horror convincing again

Peter Cushing and Francis Matthews in The Revenge of Frankenstein
Peter Cushing and Francis Matthews in The Revenge of Frankenstein

THE sad death at 86 of the actor Francis Matthews provides an opportunity to reflect on what he, and a host of his contemporaries, brought to the horror genre.

Today, Francis Matthews is hardly a household name, even in Britain, where he provided the voice of Captin Scarlett and became a major star in a series of Paul Temple mysteries on the BBC. But he was one of a host of capable actors who lent their talents to the golden age of British horror movies.

Genre fans will remember Matthews as the assistant to Peter Cushing’s baron in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), or as one of the uptight English tourists who make an ill-advised decision to stay the night at Castle Dracula in Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1966). The supporting casts of those Hammer films were filled with fine character actors: Richard Vernon, Patrick Troughton, Andrew Keir, Thorley Walters, Peter Sallis, Paul Eddington and the ubiquitous Michael Ripper, to reel off a few.

When Hammer brought Frankenstein and Dracula back to the screen in the late 1950s, they also brought first class acting back to horror cinema. The heyday of Hollywood horror films had seen a handful of fine performances (a number of which were by Britons like Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger), but by the 1950s, genre acting was much more likely to attract derision than acclaim. When people lampoon American horror and SF movies of the Cold War era, you can bet that as well as spoofing some ropey visual effects, they will send up the kind of lantern-jawed hero and shrieking love interest that passed for characters in too many of those films.

Hammer Films had once been in the business of importing Hollywood actors such as Richard Carlson, Paul Henreid, Cesar Romero and Lloyd Bridges. Its first two Quatermass movies starred the faded American heavy Brian Donlevy. But by the time its gothic cycle started with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Hammer had changed its approach.

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing
Peter Cushing as Van Helsing

The key was Peter Cushing. A very considerable actor who had worked with Laurence Olivier, and appeared in Olivier’s film of Hamlet, Cushing was also one of the first major stars of British television drama, having appeared in a succession of live TV plays, most famously 1984. It cost Hammer to hire him, but it was worth it. He brought such steely focus to the role of Frankenstein, and then to Van Helsing in the Dracula series, that the films set a new standard for genre acting. There would be no camp humour or empty histrionics; despite the occasional moment of comic relief, horror would be performed in deadly earnest.

It was this seriousness of tone that so disturbed some critics at the time. Nina Hibbin in the Daily Worker wrote: “I went to see Dracula … prepared to enjoy a nervous giggle. I was even ready to poke gentle fun of it. I came away revolted and outraged.” Tellingly, she bemoans the “misuse of one of Britain’s finest character actors”, Miles Malleson, as an undertaker.

Christopher Lee was hired to play Frankenstein’s monster because of his height, but he turned out to be such a fine actor that he was cast as Count Dracula, matching Cushing for presence and authority. Over the coming years, Hammer would help launch the careers of a host of actors who would find success outside the genre, including Oliver Reed, Herbert Lom and Ralph Bates, as well as filling their cast list with first rate supoprting performers.

There’s somethng obviously missing so far – the lack of women of equal stature to these men. Hammer often seemed to choose its women based on looks more than acting ability – but nonetheless, it gave us the great Barbara Shelley and a number of other actresses who were more than decoration, including Hazel Court, Jacqueline Pearce, Sarah Lawson and Angharad Rees.

Hammer’s main competitor, Amicus Productions, caught on, and its films often had even more heavyweight casts than Hammer’s: Sir Ralph Richardson, Joss Ackland, Denholm Elliott, Nyree Dawn Porter and Donald Pleasence were among the names hired for a few days’ work to lend prestige to their portmanteau movies. Other producers took a similar approach, and it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that practically every significant British actor of the 1970s had a genre movie behind them.

Perhaps Hollywood learned from all this. The exciting new approaches to screen acting that emerged in the 1950s may initially have passed genre movies by, but when producer William Castle and director Roman Polanski made Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, they hired high calibre actors like Mia Farrow and John Cassavettes. The Exorcist followed suit, the quality of its performances adding immeasurably to the visceral power of the movie. These movies may have helped consign Hammer to history; but in a roundabout way, they owed the stars of Hammer a great deal. 


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1 Comment

  1. A really interesting piece Darren. You know, when younger audiences see a Hammer film now they may find the acting overly theatrical or mannered, event to the point of amusement. But everything needs to be seen in the context of its times, and Hammer really did set a new standard for sophisticated acting, and indeed, characterization, in genre films.

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