However, on-going health problems with his beloved wife Helen necessitated extensive – and costly – testing and treatments. Hammer Horror was on the rise and it offered Cushing a degree of financial stability that he hadn’t really encountered at this stage in the game. The actor elected to throw “respectability” to the wind – and he would embrace a long and fruitful association with Hammer and the horror genre in general. When the time came for the studio to make their seemingly inevitable color version of Dracula (which would be released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula to help distinguish it from the 1931 version directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi), it was every bit as inevitable that they would turn to Cushing to star. He wasn’t really the right “type” to play Dracula himself, but the role of Van Helsing appeared to offer him a consolation prize. The only problem was, the character as described by author Bram Stoker was an elderly Dutchman. Producer Hinds and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster apparently toyed with the idea of sticking with the book and putting their star in a white wig, but Cushing had other ideas: he would play the role as a younger, more agile man. It would prove to be a tremendous inspiration.
Much has been written about the resulting film over the years, but sooner than rehash the usual talk of Christopher Lee’s take on Dracula or director Terence Fisher’s elegant simplicity in realizing the material, let us consider what Peter Cushing brought to the table. It’s well known that Cushing was not particularly enamored with the screenplays by Jimmy Sangster – least of all, the dialogue they contained. A somewhat fussy and exceptionally dedicated actor, he would do his best to enliven the films he appeared in by working in unison with the directors, quietly making suggestions as to how to better develop the scenes and dialogue. If Cushing had no problem shooting down the idea of playing Van Helsing a la Stoker, he was equally comfortable in making suggestions to Fisher about how to overcome some of the logical shortcomings present in Sangster’s scenario. Sangster had written the climax with the idea of Van Helsing pulling a crucifix from his coat pocket and using it to force Dracula into the sunlight. Cushing balked at this, however, rightly pointing out that he had already handed out several crucifixes and was in danger of coming across like a crucifix salesman!
He also felt the ending was a bit static and remembering a film from his youth, he suggested to Fisher that it might be more exciting if Van Helsing were to jump on the table in the Count’s library and use it to get a running start at jumping at the curtains, enabling him to flood the library with sunlight; he would then take two silver candlesticks and cross them together, using them to force his wounded foe into the light. Fisher recognized a good idea when it was presented and wasn’t too proud to utilize it, and one of the most exciting finales in the history of the genre was formed.
Cushing was also ahead of the curve in recognizing that Van Helsing wasn’t entirely “all there.” As he would later recall, anybody who doesn’t leave the house without a supply of crucifixes, holy water, stakes and hammers is hardly your average practicing physician! As such, Cushing would play the role with an edge, making him different from Stoker’s conception and also a bit more ambiguous than other Van Helsings on film, like Edward Van Sloan (Dracula, 1931; Dracula’s Daughter, 1936), Herbert Lom (Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, 1970), Frank Finlay (the BBC’s superb Count Dracula, 1978) and his old friend Laurence Olivier (Universal’s big budget Dracula, 1979). Cushing’s Van Helsing, especially in this first entry, is a steely adversary largely because he’ ever-so-subtly off his rocker. This is most neatly summed up in the marvelous scene wherein the porter played by Geoffrey Bayldon (who would go on to co-star in such Cushing classics as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, 1969, and The House That Dripped Blood, 1970) gets flustered because he thought he had heard Van Helsing talking with someone when in fact the good doctor is all alone; the truth is, Van Helsing was recording on his Dictaphone, but he elects to alarm the nosy servant by proudly proclaiming that he was talking to himself. It’s a rich moment of dark humor that stands in relief against the more wince-inducing comedic relief provided by George Benson late in the film.
Cushing’s Van Helsing is obsessive to a fault, barely taking time to provide much in the way of consolation to the uncomprehending people caught up in the drama. His warmest moment occurs when he comforts the little girl (Janina Faye) who nearly became vampire fodder herself, and it could be that Cushing was insistent upon adding this in to soften the character just a little (it would seem that the controversial line he says about “teddy bears” was an ad lib on his part; the line elicits groans from some viewers because the term did not come into existence until well after the timeframe in which the film is set).
The film was released to tremendous box office and mixed reviews in 1958 and would help to cement Cushing as the successor to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. A sequel would have seemed inevitable, yet it took a while to materialize. Here again, the trials and tribulations in bringing what was eventually released as The Brides of Dracula to the screen can be read elsewhere (I wrote up a piece on the film for this very site HERE), but what Cushing brought to it again deserves special consideration.
As was par for the course with Cushing, he had issues with Jimmy Sangster’s original screenplay. Indeed, he was so appalled by aspects of it that he asked to allow a friend, Edward Percy, to come in and do a proper dialogue polish. Producer/co-writer Anthony Hinds allowed the request and also acquiesced to the actor’s desire for a new climax – as the original one devised by Sangster (wherein Van Helsing uses black magic to defeat the vampire) clashed with his conception of the character. Hinds devised a new bit of derring-do for Cushing to perform and quietly pocketed the original ending with the hopes of dusting it off for a later project… which he would do, on The Kiss of the Vampire (1962).
Cushing would play the character as a bit softer this time around. He’s a warmer, more approachable character and while he’s still fixated on eradicating evil, he seems less obsessive about it. He even displays something of a romantic interest in the film’s damsel in distress (Yvonne Monlaur), which would have seemed unthinkable in the more tunnel-vision-oriented characterization present in Dracula. The film withholds Cushing’s entrance until the second act, but from that point on he quietly dominates the proceedings – no mean feat when one considers the truly imposing work by David Peel as the effete Baron Meinster, Martita Hunt as his disgraced mother and Freda Jackson as the cackling nanny-turned-vampire-midwife. Cushing’s attention to detail manifests itself throughout as does his propensity for juggling as many props as possible without calling too much attention to himself – a fetish of sorts which prompted director Val Guest to refer to him as “Props Peter.”
Brides of Dracula would be another hit for Hammer, but curiously, they would elect to not bring Van Helsing back for future installments like Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) and Scars of Dracula (1970). The Van Helsing surrogates in these later films would range from Andrew Keir’s no-nonsense Father Sandor and Rupert Davies stern Monsignor to John Carson’s folklore-friendly Jonathan Secker and Michael Gwynn’s basically ineffectual village priest. They were all fine in their respective roles, but one couldn’t help but wonder why it was that Cushing was no longer part of the franchise. Things would change, however, when Hammer decided to “update” the franchise to the modern day…
Part Two Later This Week...
Written by: Troy Howarth