Saturday, 30 November 2013


For Hammer Films, Dracula was something of a constant: it was one of the first horror franchises they launched, and it would be the last to expire as the company slowly went down the tubes in the 1970s.  When they started the series in 1958, Peter Cushing was their big star.  As the franchise unfolded in the 1960s, Christopher Lee became the more bankable name, worldwide, while Cushing was basically omitted from the sequels as he instead focused on the Frankenstein series.  By the time Hammer got around to the idea updating the Count to the modern time frame, in 1971, they finally decided that the time was right to bring Cushing back into the fold, as it were.  And so it came to be that Dracula AD 1972 would be the first Hammer Dracula film to cast Cushing since 1960 – and the first of any of the sequels to pit him against Christopher Lee’s Lord of the Undead.

1971 would prove to be a devastating year for Peter Cushing.  His beloved wife, Helen, finally passed away after a protracted illness.  Cushing contemplated suicide and fell into a deep despair but ultimately settled on throwing himself into non-stop work as a means of coping with the loss.  He therefore jumped at the chance of reprising the role of Van Helsing for Dracula AD 1972.  The first two films neglected to give the character a Christian name, so screenwriter Don Houghton elected to call the character Lawrence Van Helsing in the 1892 prologue – and Leyland in the modern day section.  Cushing would, of course, play both incarnations of the role.  The prologue was almost certainly the best scene in the film – a virtual mini-movie which allowed Hammer’s super stars to reprise their roles in “familiar” surroundings – but it gives Cushing little time to develop the character in any kind of meaningful way.  Even so, behind the scenes stills reveal that Cushing and Lee made the best of down time between shots, reminiscing over old times and sharing some laughs as they waited for the next set-up.

For the modern day action, Cushing was also given a daughter named Jessica (played by Stephanie Beacham), though by the time the cameras rolled, the relationship was changed to that of grandfather.  The reason for this was simple: the man had aged visibly overnight as a result of his non-stop grieving.  Cushing had always been a thin man, but he became gaunt, even haunted, in appearance.  Cushing seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and his new interpretation of the character would therefore stand in stark contrast to his swashbuckling turn in The Brides of Dracula.  On-set, Cushing would isolate himself from much of the cast and crew, sitting in his dressing room and losing himself in his grief.  His good friend Christopher Lee would try to cut through the misery, but Cushing was beyond consolation; these were the early days of grieving, and the normally jovial and outgoing performer was at his most insular.  Cushing would nevertheless make time to talk to anybody who came knocking at his door, including the British press… but his comments would obsessively return to Helen time and time again; the writing was on the wall, without Helen, Cushing felt his life was meaningless.

The film made a nice profit at the box office but is regularly criticized by fans as one of Hammer’s worst – and most addle-brained – movies.  I make no apologies for loving it, myself, but even if we were to agree that the film is crap (which we don’t), there’s no denying that Cushing gives everything he’s got.  His interactions with Beacham are warm and neatly sum up the feelings on both side of the “generation gap,” as the older man struggles to understand youth culture.  Cushing never plays down in his reactions to Beacham and her slangy (and inevitably dated) expressions, however.  It’s a bit foreign to him, but he doesn’t seem to be coming from the perspective that “kids today” have their head up their arse, either.  He’s every bit the grandfather we all wish we had.  By the same token, he has moments of melancholy as he sits in his conservative, book lined den – the picture of a woman (presumably his late wife – though at this stage in the game, Cushing had not  begun using Helen’s picture as a good luck charm in the set dressing of his films; maybe it was still a little too raw and open a wound at this point) looking on mournfully as he attempts to come to grips with the idea that Dracula has indeed risen from the grave.

When it comes to going up against the vampires, Cushing proves to be just as agile as ever.  Co-star Christopher Neame (who gives a wonderfully hammy performance as the Count’s disciple, Johnny Alucard… get it?) recalled that while Cushing looked frail, he was surprisingly fit and threw himself into the fights and stunts with real energy.  Cushing’s willingness to volunteer for stunts was nothing new – but while it may originally have been born of a desire to do as much of the job for himself that he could, it may at this point have been colored by a subliminal death wish.  The end result is a tour de force performance that unquestionably adds a tremendous amount of class and conviction to the proceedings.  Indeed, it gets my vote as Cushing’s best turn in the role: warm, slyly humorous, but still with that underlying sense of determination.  As for the film, it’s certainly a stylish and well-paced picture, even if it stumbles in its rather middle aged perception of what it was like to be a part of the counter-culture movement.

There’s also the rather mysterious decision to axe the death scene of key supporting player Bob (William Ellis), who is Jessica’s boyfriend in the scenario.  Poor Bob succumbs to the kiss of the vampire and is instrumental in helping Johnny abduct Jessica… and then we don’t see him again until his corpse is found at the very end of the film.  Stills exist which show the character meeting his demise, but for whatever reason director Alan Gibson elected not to include this footage… surely it would have been beneficial to trim that party scene towards the beginning to make room for it?  C’est la vie….


When the time came to make the inevitable follow-up, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), screenwriter Don Houghton devised a scenario which had many clever ideas – but which committed the cardinal sin of sidelining not only the Count, but Van Helsing as well... except this time, he would be called Lorrimer: was Houghton really that lazy that he couldn’t bother to re-check his previous script?  Viewers who had a hard time accepting the admittedly anachronistic depiction of the youth culture in AD 1972 tend to prefer this more straight-faced outing.  It certainly has a number of great things going for it, and it’s well worth investing 90 minutes of your time, but it seems a great shame to see Cushing pushed aside for so much of the film as much of the action is undertaken by the returning character of Inspector Murray (Michael Coles, sporting a far less Scotland Yard-appropriate hairdo compared to AD 1972!) and a new character in the form of wryly amusing MI5 agent Torrance (William Franklyn).  Cushing is wheeled in when it becomes apparent that there are vampires in the mix, but much of the film confines him to his study as he dispenses sage wisdom to the other characters.  He gets to become more actively involved in the last act, however, when he squares off against Lee’s Dracula for what would become the last time.  Behind the scenes stills again reveal that the two actors enjoyed their time together, even if they weren’t put to their best use in the finished film.

Cushing approaches the role with the same conviction as ever, but the limited opportunities afforded to him paint him into a corner somewhat.  Less emphasis is placed on his relationship (played this time by Joanna Lumley) though they have a few nice scenes together.  The highlight is not the showdown between Van Helsing and the Count, however, but a marvelous sequence wherein Van Helsing visits an old colleague (Freddie Jones) who is implicated in the new plague of vampirism.  Jones acts the hell out of the scene, teetering on the edge of pure ham, but never quite succumbing to comic excess; he and Cushing have a terrific chemistry on screen, and it could be that their previous collaboration on Terence Fisher’s nihilistic masterpiece Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) gave them an edge in working out how to play the scene.  The end result was hardly on the same tier as Dracula (1958), but neither was it the disaster that some traditionalist viewers proclaimed it to be.


The strangest chapter in the Cushing-as-Van Helsing saga was yet to come, however… Hammer’s new managing director, Michael Carreras, struck a deal with Sir Run Run Shaw in Hong Kong, hoping to breathe some new life into Hammer’s box office takings by teaming to make a kung fu vampire movie.  The powers-that-be at Warner Brothers (who would distribute the film in the UK but dump it in the US, as had been the case with Satanic Rites) insisted on adding in Dracula to the mix.  By this time, Christopher Lee was ready to keep to his word: no more Dracula.  A new Dracula would be brought in in the form of character actor John Forbes Robertson; he would be given a ghastly makeup job and totally revoiced by David De Keyser by the time the film limped out to theatre screens.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires – or as it was known in the US: The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula – told a far-fetched tale of Dracula taking possession of a Chinese occultist and then taking over his station as the high priest of a cult of vampires in a tiny Chinese village.  The return of the vampires prompts the interest of Van Helsing, who brings his son (Robin Stewart) along to help battle the pesky creatures.  That the film turned out as well as it did is a testimony to director Roy Ward Baker, who tried to breathe a bit of pulpy life into the ridiculous scenario.  Happily, Cushing was not expected to participate in any of the kung fu action, but he has more to do here than he did in Satanic Rites and gives a splendid performance, breathing life and conviction into one ridiculous line after another.

Seriously, you don’t really realize how silly some of the lines really are until you try to say them yourself.  Go ahead, try it: “The whispered word is vampire… and the horror is real and very close!”  Thank god for Peter Cushing!  The actor approaches the role with complete conviction and adds in some nice touches of sly humor in some of his reactions to his son’s blossoming romance with the lovely Shih Szu.  Houghton’s laziness surfaces again, in that the character of Lawrence Van Helsing – established as having been killed off in 1892 in Dracula AD 1972 – is alive and well and fighting vampires in 1904, when the bulk of this film’s action is set.  Once again: c’est la vie….

Cushing’s association with the role of Van Helsing would end with this film, though there were rumblings of another installment to be set in India… it never came to be, of course, and Hammer would effectively cease cinema production for nearly 30 years by the end of the 1970s.  Whether one tends to think of Cushing first as Baron Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes or Dr. (or Professor, depending on the installment!) Van Helsing, there’s no denying that he made his mark on the role for all time.  When Cushing’s friend Laurence Olivier essayed the part in the 1979 version of Dracula, he perhaps would have done well to have looked back on Cushing’s performance for inspiration; the ailing thespian affected a Dutch accent which sounded suspiciously like his Jewish accent in The Jazz Singer and The Boys from Brazil, and many critics gave him a proper skewering… I still think he was pretty good in the part, even if he couldn’t compete with Cushing.

To date, the only actor who came close to stealing Cushing’s thunder was Frank Finlay, who gave a true-to-Stoker interpretation in the 1978 BBC telefilm Count Dracula.  Finlay was brilliant in the part and who knows – maybe if he had played the part more than once?  Anyway, as one-offs go, it was most impressive – and far preferable to Anthony Hopkins’ scenery-chewing in the considerably-less-faithful-to-Stoker Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), title be damned.  As of now, Cushing’s reputation as the finest screen Van Helsing remains assured – and there’s no reason to believe that things are likely to change on that front anytime soon.

Written by: Troy Howarth: 
Banner and Images: Marcus Brooks

Part one of The Trails of Van Helsing HERE:

Banner and Images: Marcus Brooks
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Banner and Images: Marcus Brooks
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