❉ In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. First off: Peter Cushing as Van Helsing
Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. First off: : Peter Cushing as Van Helsing
I can remember the first time I saw Hammer’s Dracula. It was a late night double bill on BBC2. My parents were out with friends and my 17 year old brother, who was supposed to be baby-sitting, had disappeared off with his girlfriend. In my muddled, 10 year old head I must have assumed they were listening to music or something. So, all unnoticed, I slipped into the front room and turned on the TV, eager to experience the grown up world of telly after 9pm.
I don’t remember what else was in the double bill, but I do remember Dracula. Oh lord, do I remember Dracula. It made me the fan I am today; of film; of horror; of Christopher Lee; of fantasy in general. I can pinpoint the exact moment, as well. And it’s this one.
The film has taken a number of liberties with the novel – as well it should, it’s not awfully good (although paired with War of the Worlds it gives a great insight into Victorian fear of foreigners doing to us what we’ve been doing to them only harder and more vigorously) – including having Harker being a vampire hunter from the very beginning and removing the England sections entirely. This, of course, is a great cost saving exercise as the whole story can take place in Castle Dracula. By killing off Harker mid way though the film it beats Hitchcock to the bait and switch punch two years before Psycho and establishes Dracula as a real threat. One can’t escape the thought that the world would be a better place if Francis Ford Coppola had done the same at the end of the first act of his version. But perhaps no change it makes is stranger to someone familiar with the novel than this: it turns Van Helsing into an action hero.
To those of us of a certain generation, Peter Cushing is the embodiment of a particular sort of genteel, steely evil; a persona carved in our collective consciousness like an effigy in granite due to his suave turn as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. But the type was created earlier. His Frankenstein is, I think, the greatest ever essayed in any medium. He found a core of cold calculation reflected in those ice blue eyes that really made you believe that he would stop at nothing to achieve his goals in the name of Science.
Yet here, he is the hero. His slight frame and English reserve set against the imposing mass of Christopher Lee’s sexually aggressive continental Count. He should not prevail — and yet he does. And it is this moment, this climactic sequence, this image, that has lived on in my mind’s eye for all the years since.
Not for this Dracula the swift and merciful stake through the heart; no, he is forced inch by agonising inch into the shaft of sunlight, his skin blistering and scorching and blowing away like dried leaves, revealing the ancient bones beneath. It is how we get to that moment, though, that gives the scene it’s power.
The two foes fight throughout the castle, and Lee becomes more animalistic obviously having the upper hand. Eventually they tumble into the great hall. Van Helsing runs the length of the vast, medieval table that dominates the hall and throws himself bodily at the massive curtains; they fall with him and the light stabs in. Dracula falls but Van Helsing has no way to push him into the light. And then, with a flick of those cold eyes, he sees; leaping once more into the table he grabs two massive iron candlesticks and rams them into the shape of the cross; using this makeshift crucifix he drives Dracula into the light and his final destruction.
At least until the sequels.
It’s an unexpectedly kinetic scene; an oddly muscular performance from this most intellectual of performers. The adrenaline high it gave 10 year old me was pure cinematic heroin; I was hooked.
Looked at it now, of course, there is much more to enjoy. The camera lingers on the destruction of the Count, but it’s the cut backs to the reaction shots of Van Helsing – determined, set of jaw and then, inch by inch, pity and sorrow creeps over his face and those cold eyes soften – that really give the moment its soul. It is telling, I think, that the rest of the Hammer Dracula and von Carstein canon spend all their time trying to top this death scene, find increasingly baroque ways to off a bloodsucker. They knew they’d captured cinematic lightning in a bottle here and they spent two decades trying to find it again. The original is still the best, though. It has a power which is undeniable.
It’s there in the set of his shoulders; the force with which he thrusts the improvised weapon at the camera; the low angle looking up at him, emphasising the strength of this ordinary mortal who dares to take on the king of the undead. Even the cold iron of the candlesticks echoes ancient folk tales about protection and speaks of the primacy of technology and industrialisation over the feudal pyramid scheme that Count Dracula brings from the middle ages. He advances towards the camera, implacable; as the reverse shots looks down on the writhing, pathetic Count, Van Helsing grows larger in the frame. Finally, he turns and walks away, leaving only dust in his wake. Ingenuity and improvisation beat cunning and raw, phsycial power; that’s a very human kind of victory.
The best thing, of course, is that the script just called for Van Helsing to pull a cross from his pocket. Cushing decried this as nonsense – how many was the man supposed to be carrying? “He was like some sort of crucifix salesman,” he would chuckle in interviews. So I was Cushing who came up with the business with the candlesticks and created an iconic moment in horror.
I’ve watched countless horror movies in the years since, chasing that same high; a hundred – no, thousands – of images in my mind. But when I think of heroism, when I think of light pushing back the dark – I see Van Helsing and his candlesticks and a ten year old boy on the edge of his seat.
❉ Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial