THE HORROR JAR: Peter Cushing As Van Helsing

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Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) goes to work in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, the column where we look at lists pertaining to horror movies.

Up today a look at the number of times Peter Cushing played Van Helsing in the movies. While Cushing played Baron Frankenstein more— he wreaked havoc as Victor Frankenstein six times in the movies— his portrayal of Dracula’s arch nemesis is right behind, as he wielded crucifixes and wooden stakes five times.

Here’s a look:

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) taking on Dracula in the famous finale of HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher. Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster

Known outside the United States simply as DRACULA, this is arguably Hammer Films’ greatest horror movie. It followed immediately upon the heels of Hammer’s first international hit, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), which starred Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature.

Both actors were reunited in HORROR OF DRACULA, with Lee portraying Dracula, and Cushing playing Van Helsing. Yet the film was tailored more for Cushing than for Lee, which made sense, since Cushing had been Britain’s number one TV star for nearly a decade, while Lee was a relative newcomer.  Cushing had the most screen time and was as awesome as ever, yet it was Lee with his ability to do more with less who arguably stole the show with one of the most chilling portrayals of Dracula ever.

Still, for Peter Cushing fans, his first turn as Van Helsing is pretty special. He played the character unlike the way Bram Stoker had written him in the novel DRACULA.  Gone was the wise elderly professor and in his place was a young dashing action hero, expertly played by Cushing. And with Christopher Lee shocking the heck out of the audience throughout the movie, a believable credible Van Helsing was needed. You had to believe that someone could stop Dracula, and Peter Cushing made this happen. It’s no surprise then, that the film’s conclusion, when these two heavyweights meet for the first time in Dracula’s castle, is the most exciting Dracula ending ever filmed.

HORROR OF DRACULA was also the birth of James Bernard’s iconic Dracula music score.

 

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) hot on the trail of vampires in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Director: Terence Fisher   Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, Edward Percy

Peter Cushing was right back at it again two year later when he reprised the role in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). Unfortunately, Christopher Lee did not share his co-star’s enthusiasm and refused to return to play Dracula, in fear of being typecast. Lee would change his mind several years later.

Anyway,  as a result, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA does not feature Dracula. Instead, it’s a brand new story with a brand new vampire, Baron Meinster (David Peel). While Dracula’s omission may have harmed this one at the box office, that’s one of the few negatives one can find about this classic vampire movie.

Terence Fisher, Hammer’s best director, was at the top of his game here, and for most Hammer fans, this is the best looking and most atmospheric Dracula movie of them all. In fact, for many Hammer Films fans, BRIDES is their all time favorite Hammer Film!

Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing, and once more his performance is spot-on, without equal. Again, he plays Van Helsing as an energetic, tireless hero, this time sparring with Baron Meinster. Their battles in an old windmill, while not as memorable as the conclusion of HORROR OF DRACULA, are still pretty intense and make for quite the notable ending.

There’s also the added bonus of Van Helsing’s relationship with the beautiful Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur). In a neat piece of drama, while Marianne is engaged to be married to vampire Baron Meinster, at the end of the movie, she ends up in Van Helsing’s arms, not the vampire’s.  The future Mrs. Van Helsing, perhaps?

 

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Once again, it’s Dracula (Christopher Lee) vs. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

Director: Alan Gibson   Screenplay: Don Houghton

It would be a long time coming before Peter Cushing would play Van Helsing again, twelve years to be exact, and he wouldn’t even be playing the original character but a descendant of the original Van Helsing living in London in 1972, in Hammer Films’ Dracula update DRACULA A.D. 1972 which brought Dracula into the here and now.

The story goes that after the immense success of the TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1971) which told the story of a superhuman vampire terrorizing present-day Las Vegas, Hammer decided to get in on the action and bring Dracula into the 1970s as well.

A lot had happened since Christopher Lee had declined to play Dracula again back in 1960. He finally reprised the role in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), Hammer’s direct sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA, a superior thriller that sadly did not feature Peter Cushing in the cast. And then Lee played the character again in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which smashed box office records for Hammer and became their biggest money maker ever. Dracula had become Hammer’s bread and butter. Lee reprised the role in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969) and again in THE SCARS OF DRACULA (1970).

With DRACULA A.D. 1972, Hammer finally decided it was time to bring Peter Cushing back into the Dracula series. Unfortunately, the “bringing Dracula into the 1970s” bit did not work out well at all, and the film was a monumental flop at the box office.

The good news is DRACULA A.D. 1972 has only gotten better with age. In 1972, what was considered bad dialogue and sloppy 1970s direction, today is viewed with fond nostalgia, and rather than being met with groans, the campy dialogue is greeted nowadays with loud approving laughter.

And you certainly can’t fault Lee or Cushing for the initial failure of DRACULA A.D. 1972. As expected, both actors deliver topnotch performances, especially Cushing as the original Van Helsing’s descendant, Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. In 1972, Cushing was closer in age to the way Stoker had originally written the role, but nonetheless he still played the Professor as an action-oriented hero. His scenes where he works with Scotland Yard Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) are some of the best in the movie.

Cushing also gets a lot of memorable lines in this one. In fact, you could make the argument, though no one does, that his best ever Van Helsing performance is right here in DRACULA A.D. 1972. The only part that doesn’t work as well is the climactic confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula, as it does not contain anywhere near the same energy level as the conclusion to HORROR OF DRACULA.

 

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) armed with a crucifix and a silver bullet in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973).

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Director: Alan Gibson   Screenplay: Don Houghton

Hammer wasted no time and dove right into production with their next Dracula movie, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973), which reunited the same creative team from DRACULA A.D. 1972, with Alan Gibson once again directing, Don Houghton writing the screenplay, and with Christopher Lee again playing Dracula, and Peter Cushing once more playing Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. Even Michael Coles reprised his role as Scotland Yard Inspector Murray.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA is pretty much a direct sequel to DRACULA A.D. 1972, as the events once again take place in present day London. At the time, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA was considered the superior movie of the two, but the trouble was, back in 1973 so few people saw it, because DRACULA A.D. 1972 had performed so poorly at the box office Hammer was unable to release SATANIC RITES in the United States.

It would take five years for the movie to make it to the U.S., as it was finally released in 1978 with the awful title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDES. Ugh!

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA took a page out of James Bond, and had Dracula acting as a sort of James Bond villain hell bent on taking over the world, complete with motorcycle driving henchmen! It was up to Inspector Murray and Professor Van Helsing to stop him!

Strangely, today, DRACULA A.D.1972 is considered the superior movie, as its campiness has aged well, while the convoluted James Bond style plot of SATANIC RITES has not.

Peter Cushing also has fewer memorable scenes as Van Helsing in this one. One of the more memorable sequences does involve Van Helsing confronting Dracula in his high rise office, a scene in which Lee payed Bela Lugosi homage by using a Hungarian accent, but even this scene is somewhat jarring, seeing Dracula seated behind a desk a la Ernest Stavro Blofeld. The only thing missing is his holding a cat, or in this case, perhaps a bat!

The ending to SATANIC RITES is actually very, very good, and in a neat touch, as if to symbolize that the series had finally ended, after Dracula disintegrates into dust, once more the only thing remaining of him is his ring, a homage to the ending to HORROR OF DRACULA. In that movie, Van Helsing left the ring on the floor, and the piece of jewelry proved instrumental in reviving Dracula in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. At the end of SATANIC RITES, Cushing’s Van Helsing picks up the ring. Most likely for safe keeping.

The series had ended.

Only, it hadn’t.

 

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Peter Cushing plays Van Helsing for the last time in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974).

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

Director: Roy Ward Baker   Screenplay: Don Houghton

While Christopher Lee had finally had enough and called it quits after playing Dracula seven times for Hammer, the studio decided it still had one more Dracula picture left.

The gimmick this time was it would be their first martial arts Dracula movie. Yep, Dracula’s spirit enters a Chinese warlord, and he returns to China to lead their infamous seven golden vampires.

Hot on Dracula’s trail it’s, you got it! Van Helsing! And Peter Cushing agreed to play the role again, and since this story takes place in 1904, Cushing once again plays the original Van Helsing, a role he hadn’t played since THE BRIDES OF DRACULA in 1960.

As Dracula movies go, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is— well, interesting. It did not perform well at the box office, and unlike DRACULA A.D. 1972 hasn’t really developed a cult following, mostly because it’s just so— different. Kung fu fights in a Dracula movie?

I actually like this movie a lot, and I think most of it works well. It’s actually quite the handsome production, well-directed by Roy Ward Baker. It also features one of James Bernard’s best renditions of his famous Dracula score.

And of course you have Peter Cushing playing Van Helsing, sadly for the very last time. Also sad is that he’s missing from most of the action scenes here. While Cushing always played Van Helsing as a physical hero, he wasn’t quite up for the martial arts scenes. That being said, I’ll give you three guesses as to who finally destroys Dracula in this movie, and the first two don’t count

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is actually a lot of fun, and today it provides a nice showcase for Peter Cushing’s final movie portrayal of one of his most iconic roles, Dr. Van Helsing.

Okay, there you have it. A look at Peter Cushing’s five movie portrayals of Van Helsing. Now go have some fun and watch some of these!

Hope you enjoyed today’s column and that you’ll join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we’ll look at more horror movie lists.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michaell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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