Jack: While David Basnett and I manned the Dark Chapter Press stand at Screen-Con, a small, family-oriented convention up here in the North East, at North Shields, we listened to a talk from Mark Iveson. Mark took the stage to deliver a fascinating introduction to some of the horror movie stars of yesteryear, and how their careers were tossed around on the stormy seas of popular culture. We chatted to him afterwards and learned of the book he has written on this subject and we invited him to write a piece for the blog, which he was kind enough to do.
If you find the topic interesting, please follow the link at the bottom of this article, to pick up your copy of Cursed Horror Stars by Mark Iveson.
I came from that generation of youngsters who watched famous Horror Double Bill on BBC2. It always began with a classic Universal chiller and then followed by a full-blooded Hammer horror. These films not only fuelled my love of the genre, they introduced me to many great actors whose names are synonymous with my young life.
My favourite horror stars at the time were Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, and what I found fascinating about these immensely talented men was their incredible ability to turn a dismal movie into a masterpiece. I was also a fan of comedy, westerns and science fiction, but it was horror I always wanted to write about; I just needed the right idea.
My first writing efforts were film reviews for a variety of civil service magazines. This began around the late 80s at a time I regularly went to the cinema and had plenty of movies to choose from. I even threw in a few music and theatre reviews, such was my eclectic life back then. Happy times!
I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to write a book. I was in America visiting a childhood friend who had written an unpublished novel so I guess that stirred something up inside me to embark on a similar undertaking. There were a couple of major drawbacks about getting started – how and what?
Being a horror fan with a love for movie reference books I decided to combine the two – a sort of ghoulish Halliwell’s Filmgoers Companion christened The Tomb Army! A definite reference to my Geordie roots. But this was the 80s. The internet was in its infancy so most of my original work came from existing books. I also wrote to various authors for advice. Let’s face it, I wanted to be a writer but still didn’t have a clue where to start!
It was my lack of knowledge that held things up when working on my book, as well as life in general. I played league badminton, was an accomplished dancer, worked on community radio and later learnt the guitar. Procrastinating! What a lovely word! Sadly, it’s a negative one for a writer. Why must we writers put ourselves through horrors to try and write? All of a sudden washing, ironing and general housework never loses its novelty value!
Several years down the line, I still didn’t know how to go about it. I had plenty of self-help books as well as a subscription to The Writing Magazine/Writers’ News. If I was to succeed in my goal I needed to meet writers, learn from them, and be inspired. I decided to attend the Swanwick Writers’ Retreat at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire. It is a week-long retreat for novices and established writers, and perfect for someone who needed to learn.
Swanwick introduced me to what I wanted – and more. Writing courses, guest speakers, and meeting famous writers. I was so overwhelmed by the place I really wondered if I was cut out to be a writer and that it was all just a silly dream.
But people can achieve their dreams, some of them at least, and my brief meeting with crime writer R J Ellory gave me the belief I needed. He wrote 22 unpublished books before his 23rd got published. Now that is determination and dedication rolled into one! For me Swanwick could not be a one-off. I had to go every year until I achieved my goal, even if it meant sacrificing holidays abroad. I needed this and as technology increased, writing became equally technical; it wasn’t about just writing. It wasn’t too difficult giving up Kos and Crete; Swanwick is a holiday away too with discos, and various evening activities including a regular buskers’ night I’ve organised over the years.
The increase of internet links such as IMDB made cinema reference books redundant. Where should I go now for inspiration if my book is too unworkable? To fill the void I became a regular contributor for the movie webmag Shadowlocked. Other magazines I wrote for included the vampire magazine Bite Me, the North East arts magazine Up Front and the English-speaking Swiss magazine The Geneva Times.
Inspiration finally came when I read about the death of Robert Quarry in circumstances ill-befitting a top horror star. As I looked into the downside of the genre, several actors and filmmakers caught my attention, people whose films I have seen many times – I’ll explain more about them later.
Initially Cursed Horror Stars consisted of 21 mini-biographies. Taking on the ‘less is more’ approach, I eventually chose five actors about whom I could write in greater detail. I wanted to take into account the idea that these men were in some way cursed by the downside of horror typecasting.
But it was more than just mere typecasting; alcoholism, drug abuse, financial problems, personal demons and bad luck were also contributing factors. Always living under the dominant shadow of his famous father, the life of Lon Chaney Junior was consumed by alcohol, which he hid behind an abrasive personality until the booze finally destroyed him. The brilliant Basil Rathbone could do no wrong in Hollywood until his fictional alter ego Sherlock Holmes took over his life and eradicated his career, leaving him an extremely bitter man.
After achieving major success in Fritz Lang’s disturbing M (1932), Peter Lorre became a star. Sadly, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with him, a situation made worse by long term financial problems and morphine addiction. Fellow Hungarian and morphine addict Bela Lugosi became a big star as Dracula (1930), but the spectre of the count hung around his neck like an albatross, and thanks to his limited range, ended up starring in some truly awful movies.
And the main selling point of the book, and what prompted me to write it in the first place, is the life of Robert Quarry. Tipped to replace Vincent Price as America’s king of horror following his memorable performance as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Quarry had the talent and presence to make it big. Sadly, bad luck and a succession of life-threatening incidents derailed his promising career.
Writing the book hasn’t been easy since I suffered from depression for a number of years. But being stubborn I pressed on. Of course I had my fair share of rejection letters until Telos Publishing accepted my manuscript. Of course I still felt like a novice as I still had much to learn about the writing process. For a writer this journey is never ending and for me I’m just starting out.
30th November 2015 saw the publication of Cursed Horror Stars. Being a bit superstitious I told only a handful of people. But once it got published it was time to tell the Facebook world! I’ve since presented a couple of local talks on the subject, with more to follow. My writing journey has taken a new step.
The actors I mentioned weren’t the only ones considered cursed, and the following people, which I reluctantly jettisoned from my book, had their own demons. The impeccable Lionel Atwill, one of the great Hollywood villains, fell victim to a sex scandal, another great villain, George Zucco was allegedly committed to an asylum thinking he was a mad doctor, the tormented Colin Clive drank himself to death and character actor Dwight Frye died in obscurity working in a munitions factory. Former Radio One DJ Mike Raven fancied himself as a horror star but the fact he could not act meant he wasn’t so much a has been as a never will be.
Of the filmmakers, James Whale and Tod Browning blotted their copybooks in Hollywood, Michael Reeves’ promising career was cut short by a drug overdose at 25 and Edward D Wood’s career as a director descended into his own private hell. When Hammer Films were on top, producer Michael Carreras bought the company from his father only for it to sink into oblivion taking Carreras with him.
Were they cursed by their association with the genre? We may never know, but then even Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and Boris Karloff had their own dark sides.
There was one actor who certainly wasn’t cursed, and that was Sir Christopher Lee. If anything Sir Christopher’s career is a phenomenal one. “Acting has been very good to me,” he famously said. “It has taken me to play golf all over the world.”
From bit player to horror star, from horror star to movie legend, from movie legend to Knight of the Realm. Sir Christopher has been there, done that, and bought enough t-shirts to open a massive warehouse. And with the recent anniversary of his death, I am proud to pay my own tribute to the genre’s last great icon.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on 27th May 1922. The son of a distinguished British army officer and an Italian Countess, his relatives included step-cousin Ian Fleming and actress niece Dame Harriet Walter. When his parents divorced, his mother married a wealthy Swiss banker.
Lee had intended to go to Eton but when his step-father’s fortunes dwindled, he attended Wellington College where he met lifelong friend Patrick MacNee (who died a few days after Lee). During his time at Wellington, he immersed himself in horror and fantasy literature and even began acting in several school plays.
Joining the RAF, Lee served in 260 Squadron as an intelligence officer where he saw action in North Africa. After his demob he decided to give acting a go by joining the Rank Charm School. He made his film debut in Corridor of Mirrors (1948).
Lee starred in 11 films for Rank but they were mostly bit parts. His output included an unseen spearman in Hamlet (1948), which featured his future friend Peter Cushing. For the next 10 years he worked in film and theatre without progressing very far. The parts got bigger but his presence was too imposing for his better-known co-stars to deal with. Not surprisingly many producers felt he was far too tall and foreign-looking to make an impression in British films.
Lee’s fortunes changed when he played the Monster in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1956). Next came his most famous role – Dracula (1958). Unlike the mannered Bela Lugosi, Lee’s interpretation was that of a handsome but intensely feral being who could lure his female victims with a simple snarl. It was enough to establish Lee as a big star.
Lee was never happy with being labelled a horror star, but he continued to act in chillers for Hammer and other studios before moving to Switzerland in the early-sixties to try his luck in high profile European made movies (he spoke several languages). For the most part all he got was Eurotrash facsimiles of his early Hammer output.
Returning to the UK, Lee played Fu Manchu in several movies and made an excellent Duc De Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out (1968), but with the endless run of Dracula sequels for Hammer, his disenchantment with the genre grew.
Lee’s performance as Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) slowly paved the way for non-horror roles that included Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (1973) and Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). He gave his finest ever performance as Lord Summerilse in The Wicker Man (1973), although his one venture as producer with the chiller Nothing But the Night (1972) wasn’t a success.
In the mid-seventies Lee moved to Hollywood where he took on an eclectic range of movie roles. Other than a few exceptions his film output wasn’t exactly memorable but it helped rid the spectre of Dracula. By the time he permanently returned to England, producers and fans viewed him in a different light.
It was Lee’s memorable cameo in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) that brought him a long overdue but well-deserved superstar status. Not only did it start a long professional association with Burton, it led to an offer to play Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
From then on Lee was never away from the big screen, fiercely busy in star cameos as he approached his nineties. His career went full circle when he returned to the vampire cinema in Dark Shadows (2012), to Hammer in The Resident (2011) and more or less repeated his role of Lord Summerilse (AKA The Old Gentleman) in The Wicker Tree (2011). His efforts brought him a well-deserved knighthood in 2009.
Lee’s death on 7th July 2015 left fans with a deep sense of loss, but it also left them with an amazing body of work that can never be replaced. RIP Sir Chris!
If this post article has grabbed your interest, why not pick up Mark Iveson’s book, Cursed Horror Stars, today – just follow this link.
You can also find Mark at his website, juct click here.