Sunday, 26 May 2013

Astute, eloquent, and immaculate: Peter Cushing as Van Helsing

‘I am in doubt, and so have done the best thing I know of; I have written to my old friend and master, Professor Van Helsing, of Amsterdam, who knows as much about obscure diseases as any one in the world. I have asked him to come over, and as you told me that all things were to be at your charge, I have mentioned to him who you are and your relations to Miss Westenra. This, my dear fellow, is only in obedience to your wishes, for I am only too proud and happy to do anything I can for her. Van Helsing would, I know, do anything for me for a personal reason. So, no matter on what ground he comes, we must accept his wishes. He is a seemingly arbitrary man, but this is because he knows what he is talking about better than any one else. He is a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day; and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind. This, with an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, and indomitable resolution, self-command, and toleration exalted from virtues to blessings, and the kindliest and truest heart that beats – these form his equipment for the noble work that he is doing for mankind – work both in theory and practice, for his views are as wide as his all-embracing sympathy. I tell you these facts that you may know why I have such confidence in him,’ writes Dr. Seward in a letter to Arthur Holmwood dated Saturday, 2 September with regards to Miss Westenra’s health.

With all his peculiarities of action, manner and speech, the character of the Dutch Professor Abraham Van Helsing, ‘M.D., D.Ph., D.Lit., Etc.’, has been interpreted and portrayed in many ways since the first stage and film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In 1957, when British Hammer Films were to adapt the novel for their second excursion into Gothic horror, Dracula, they turned to the star of their The Curse of Frankenstein, Peter Cushing, for a suitable actor for another role as both scientist and outsider.

Usually acting on very limited budgets, Hammer had to limit the range of characters and action to a minimum, so Van Helsing himself took on the role of the prime vampire hunter after his collaborator, Jonathan Harker, had become the victim of Count Dracula. Cushing’s Van Helsing then is not the wise old man who conducts the younger men in their hunt for Dracula; he is himself the active vampire hunter taking the lead, and very physically running and jumping about in order to hunt down and eliminate Dracula and his vampire women. He also becomes the one who employs the latest technological advances like a phonograph, much to the amazement of the common man who is unable to understand why Van Helsing is ‘talking to himself’.

Cushing’s Van Helsing is, as Cushing’s roles almost always are: ever as astute as he is eloquent and immaculately attired, revealing exactly that attention to detail that Cushing appears to have applied when preparing himself for his roles. All this is exemplified in the curious, but at the same time fascinating scene in which Cushing records his observations and conclusions regarding vampires on the phonograph.

As for his study of vampires, Van Helsing tells us that ‘the study of these creatures has been my life’s work. I’ve carried out research for some of the greatest authorities of Europe, and we’ve only just scratched the surface.’

We in the audience probably feel uncertain as to whether Van Helsing is actually a progressive scientist, as the reference to ‘the greatest authorities of Europe’ would lead us to believe, or he is dabbling in things that truly transcend any reasonable boundaries of scientific method, as in the case of Cushing’s other grand role, Victor Frankenstein. Although we experience that the vampire in Hammer’s Dracula is a real phenomenon, the boundaries between science and metaphysics are blurred, and when we learn more of Van Helsing’s encounters with another vampiric aristocrat, Baron Meinster, in the follow up, The Brides of Dracula (1960), the religious symbolism is no less apparent. The vampires are ultimately killed with the sign of the cross (using the sails of a wind mill, perhaps echoing Universal’s Frankenstein films), and, when Van Helsing himself becomes the victim of a vampire, he must cleanse himself from the infection using holy water.

In Hammer’s series of Dracula films, Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula acts a sexual threat against the bourgeoisie, tempting both unmarried and married women to stray from the accepted paths. In Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) he exposes the double standards of the family fathers who live a philistine double life seeking to taste forbidden fruit outside their lives as faithful husbands, fathers and citizens.

Peter Cushing only plays the role of Van Helsing in some of the films, allowing others to act as the one who restores order to family and society. Van Helsing, however, appears to live outside the mainstream of society, no doubt because of his knowledge concerning the very forces that threaten society, while his intelligent and direct manner also appears to offend polite society.

Cushing did, however, also the play the role of a religious figure at the core of a society, a fanatical zealot who is not only chastising women in general, but is always on the outlook for both witches and vampires, in Hammer’s third variation on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Twins of Evil (1971).

Hammer’s Count Dracula himself was introduced as an eloquent aristocrat, but was soon turned into a nonverbal force that appeared to have a rather limited freedom of movement, and as Hammer itself struggled to maintain it’s existence, they tried to bring both Dracula and Van Helsing into the 1970’s in Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Consequently, Cushing plays Lorrimar Van Helsing, a descendant of the original Van Helsing, but generally remains as astute and dynamic as his forefather, but unfortunately both films are, although not without some merit, in retrospect signs of the death agony of Hammer’s Gothic formula when compared to it’s competition: blockbuster horror films like The Exorcist and The Omen.

As is The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, in which Peter Cushing added vampire hunting in China to the curriculum vitae of Van Helsing. It certainly has entertainment value, but overall the whole idea of a series of Dracula films based on Hammer's formula was probably becoming obsolete at this time.

Peter Cushing himself remained closely related to the genre, but also got the chance to play an important role in the first Star Wars film. Still, among his finest moments are his roles as Victor Frankenstein in Hammer’s series of rather thematically and artistically coherent Frankenstein films, and as Van Helsing in first and foremost Dracula, which was released on Blu-ray in a magnificent and highly recommended, restored edition earlier this year.

This post is part of the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon celebrating the centenary of Cushing’s birth. Peter Wilton Cushing was an English actor born on 26 May 1913, who appeared in numerous films, including films produced by Hammer Films. He died on 11 August 1994.

1 comment:

Joe Thompson said...

You picked the perfect title to describe both Peter Cushing and his interpretation of Van Helsing. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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