Peter Cushing Centenary – King of the Vampire Killers
By Ben Bussey
If I were to ask who the most iconic screen Dracula was, I imagine the answers would be wide-ranging. Presumably most would be torn between Lugosi and Lee, with maybe a few shout-outs for Oldman, and one or two bending the matter slightly by arguing for Schreck. However, if I were to instead ask who the most iconic Van Helsing is, surely there’s no debate. No way is it Edward Van Sloan or Anthony Hopkins, and it most certainly ain’t Hugh Jackman.
Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing versus Christopher Lee’s Dracula: surely the yardstick by which all hero/villain dynamics in horror cinema are measured. So embedded are Cushing and Lee in the popular consciousness that many people may not realise they actually only met onscreen as Van Helsing and Dracula on three occasions, the latter two of which tend not to be counted as either man’s finest hour. But while both actors played their respective roles against other casts independent of the other, could any of us off the top of our heads name the actor who played the central vampire slain by Cushing in the Lee-free Brides of Dracula? Or, for that matter, could we name any of the other actors to drive a stake through Lee’s heart in any of the four Cushing-less Dracula films made by Hammer, or the Van Helsing from the Jess Franco version? (Oi, stop checking IMDb.)
Nor, of course, were Peter Cushing’s outings as Van Helsing the only films in which he laid vampires to their final rest. Cushing faced off against the undead in seven films overall for Hammer, and over the course of this iconic cycle he laid down the rules for being a great vampire hunter. He’s seen plenty of imitators since, but I’d say he’s never seen his equal.
(Note: I’m not counting 1970’s Incense for the Damned AKA Bloodsuckers, a subpar potboiler in which Cushing had a small supporting role and the ‘vampires’ were really a hippy cult of blood fetishists; or 1974’s Tender Dracula, an oddball French comedy in which, for once, the great vampire hunter actually played the vampire. Cushing’s usual sterling work notwithstanding, both films are pretty piss-poor, and in any case he doesn’t actually kill any vampires in either.)
Naturally, beware of spoilers ahead.
Dracula (AKA Horror of Dracula) (1958, Terence Fisher)
It isn’t until twenty-two minutes into Dracula that Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing enters the action, turning every head and silencing every conversation in the inn. Notably, the innkeeper and his customers see Van Helsing before the audience does, openly staring with that kneejerk disdain that one so often encounters venturing into a local pub for local people, whilst Van Helsing himself eyes his surroundings with an aloof curiosity. It’s an interesting introduction for a character often regarded as an establishment figure, out to persecute Dracula’s anti-establishment nonconformist (although presumably Dracula’s status as ‘Count’ might automatically undo that to some degree); here, Van Helsing is every bit as much the outsider as the vampire might be, and every bit as subject to suspicion bordering on contempt from Joe Public. This sequence of events would soon prove familiar to Van Helsing; initially deflecting the scorn of the sceptics, who soon thereafter are begging for his help once they learn he was right all along. Not for nothing was Cushing frequently cast to provide exposition; he gave a respectable face to socially unacceptable ideas, lending credence to the incredible. Regardless of where you stand on the paranormal in reality, when Cushing says there are vampires, you bloody well believe him.
Recently reclassified 12A by the BBFC, it’s easy to overlook just how unorthodox and shocking Hammer’s then X-rated Dracula must have been on release. Universal’s vampires never bared their fangs, and we certainly never saw blood. Indeed, never before had a vampire film been made in colour, Dracula following on from Hammer’s ground-breaking move of shooting The Curse of Frankenstein in colour the year before. Sure, by modern standards it’s not that harsh, but it certainly hasn’t lost the power to shock. Also, fun fact – the first thing I saw on Twitter immediately after learning Margaret Thatcher had died was a tweet from comic writer Mark Millar reading ‘Peter Cushing confirms death of Mrs Thatcher,’ accompanied by this image:
Truly, no one hammers the stake home like Cushing. There are never any of those glib witticisms or extravagant flourishes we expect today in this post-Buffy/Blade world; indeed, there is never any sense that he enjoys what he is doing. He slays vampires only because he must, and does so with a heavy heart, sincere in his hope that the vampire’s lost soul will now find peace. So many actors since have tried and failed to convey such feeling; only Cushing had that gravitas that really made you believe it, lending a genuine stir of emotion to material which might otherwise have been pretty tawdry (as, indeed, most Hammer productions really were).
Pathos wasn’t the only thing Cushing was great at stirring up, though. Again, this tends to be dismissed nowadays as Hammer productions are looked back on as being quaint and small scale, but his Van Helsing really was a hell of an action hero. The final confrontation with Dracula is a wonder to behold; Lee and Cushing throw themselves into the violent struggle with such gusto, and the climactic destruction of the Count surely remains the single greatest vampire death scene ever put to film. It was this man of action angle that was most played up in the sequel that followed – more on which momentarily.
No. of vampires killed by Cushing: two – stakes Mina, traps Dracula in sunlight.
The Brides of Dracula (1960, Terence Fisher)
Given the absence of Christopher Lee, or any character whatsoever with the name Dracula – indeed, Van Helsing’s earlier battle with the undead isn’t even referenced – it’s not hard to see how some viewers felt cheated by this film on release. Shame, because if you can accept it on its own terms it’s actually one of Hammer’s best, and arguably an ever better showcase for Cushing than its predecessor. Again, Van Helsing doesn’t appear for the first act, making his entrance at the precise moment a hero is needed by our young damsel in distress Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), unknowingly in great danger from the vampire Baron Meinster (David Peel – see, I said you wouldn’t remember him). As you may have seen in our recent debate on Cushing, there was some disagreement over this film – Annie detected a romantic connection between Van Helsing and Marianne, whilst I feel it’s more of a father-daughter relationship. What say you, dear reader…?
Love story or no, The Brides of Dracula ups the ante in many respects, let down only by the antagonist (David Peel ain’t no Christopher Lee). The film boasts a wonderfully twisty-turny narrative, and even better art direction than the first Dracula; the Count lived like a hobo by comparison with the Meinsters. Above all it’s a far more action-packed turn, seeing Van Helsing clash with numerous vampires, and even fall victim to a vampire bite himself - only to cauterise the wound, douse it with holy water and render himself immune. Yes, Cushing’s Van Helsing really is that BADASS. And as if that wasn’t enough, watch out for how he finally defeats Meinster by jumping onto the sails of a windmill and pulling them down to trap the Baron in a massive cross-shaped shadow; perhaps the only time that a vampire would appear to have died of shock. Arch melodrama? Naturally; but again, Cushing brings it just that bit close enough to earth for it to work. He also manages to insert some genuine pathos once again, with his mercy killing of Meinster’s newly-vampirised mother; staking her while she sleeps, and respectfully covering her corpse immediately afterward.
No. of vampires killed by Cushing: again, two – stakes Baroness Meinster; scalds Baron Meinster’s face with holy water, then death by windmill shadow. We should also note the two ‘brides’ of the title are in the mill as it burns, but I’ve opted not to count them as (like Billy Joel) Van Helsing didn’t start the fire.
The Vampire Lovers (1970, Roy Ward Baker)
Ten years had passed since Cushing had slain his last vampire when Hammer drafted him in to lay to rest an altogether new breed of bloodsucker: Ingrid Pitt’s iconic lesbian vampire Mircalla Karnstein. Although this is one of my favourite Hammer films, I must confess I sometimes forget Cushing is in it at all, given he appears only in the opening and closing scenes, with the similarly inimitable Pitt dominating the interim. Cushing’s General von Spielsdorf is considerably less nuanced than Van Helsing, and more of a two-dimensional authority figure. While his rage against Mircalla is justified given the death of his niece, there’s no escaping his sense of disgust at the vampire’s very existence, which – though the word ‘lesbian’ is never uttered, nor any equivalent – cannot help but carry an overtone of homophobia. Cushing’s climactic staking of Mircalla is the closest he ever came to looking like some pleasure was taken from the act, although that same overriding mournful tone remains, even when he follows this up by decapitating her corpse. By 1970, a simple stake through the heart alone just wasn’t going to satiate audience bloodlust anymore.
No. of vampires killed by Cushing: just the one, staking and beheading Mircalla.
Twins of Evil (1971, John Hough)
Technically a prequel to The Vampire Lovers, and the default conclusion for what we now call the Karnstein Trilogy (along with 1970’s wonderfully lurid Lust for a Vampire), this has long been my personal favourite Hammer movie, and as such I’m pleased to see how its reputation has grown with time. To my mind it is this film more than any other which cements Cushing as a true legend of acting, for – as we again discussed earlier – following the death of his wife he no longer felt any passion for life at all. This being so, one can hardly blame him for not feeling especially enthusiastic about a rather cheesy vampire film conceived around the novelty casting of the first identical twin Playboy centrefold models.
Yet despite this, Twins of Evil is, I think, one of Cushing’s greatest performances. With heavy shades of Matthew Hopkins, his character Gustav Weil is, on paper, utterly unsympathetic: a fanatical puritan, he and his brotherhood routinely burn young women as witches based on little or no evidence, and we also learn he routinely beats his wife and young nieces (although this is never shown). Yet with Cushing in the role we really care for this man, believing that, as David Warbeck’s Anton puts it, “he may be misguided, but he’s a good man.” Once again, sadism is not on his agenda; his religious faith may be fanatical, but it is also 100% sincere, as is his repentance once he realises the error of his ways. Even in his laughably OTT death scene – collapsing with an axe in his back, crossing himself before his body gives out – I can’t escape at least a glimmer of genuine sorrow at the sight. We might note that this was the first of only two times that Cushing died onscreen as a vampire hunter; the second death coming in the very next film, in which he returned to the role that started it all…
No. of vampires killed by Cushing: one – beheading Frieda.
Dracula AD 1972 (1972, Alan Gibson)
Well okay, when I said a return to the role that started it all, I really meant a relative of that character. Two relatives, in fact: first, in the 1872-set prologue he’s Dr Lawrence Van Helsing, who meets his own demise in a spectacular fight with Dracula atop a horse-drawn carriage, which also sees the Count skewered on a broken wheel; and then Dr Lorrimer Van Helsing, occult expert and grandfather to Stephanie Beacham’s hippy chick Jessica in swinging London. A wonderfully goofy attempt to rejig the Hammer formula for the modern day, Dracula AD 1972 mostly relegates Van Helsing to a police procedural, assisting the bobbies in their investigation of the weird black magic murders that have brought back the Prince of Darkness. Frankly, old Lorrimer’s peers should have stripped him of his doctorate for not immediately deciphering that oh-so subtle anagram Johnny Alucard. Still, even if Christopher Lee barely conceals his contempt for the whole thing, Cushing as ever lends the film a solemnity it hardly warrants, even in the face of Beacham’s imposing bosom (another matter discussed earlier this week). And once again, in spite of all the inherent absurdity, there’s room found for a soupcon of bona fide emotion. Note the photograph on Van Helsing’s desk in the screenshot above; yes, that’s Cushing’s own dearly departed wife Helen.
No. of vampires killed by Cushing: three – Dracula staked on a broken wagon wheel in prologue; Johnny Alucard trapped and burned by the sun in his own bathroom (though strangely he doesn’t decompose – maybe you have to be a proper ancient vamp for that); finally, Dracula tripped into an open grave booby-trapped with stakes, which Van Helsing then shoves him down onto using a spade. That’s right, Cushing kills Dracula TWICE IN THE SAME FILM.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973, Alan Gibson)
A direct sequel to AD 1972, this one sees Lorrimer Van Helsing called in to help investigate a Satanic cult comprised entirely of high ranking politicians and wealthy corporate types; take a wild guess who might be in charge of it all. Given the whole black magic government conspiracy angle, one suspects David Icke might have seen this back before he saw the light (and it was turquoise). Other than that, there’s only one key thing to say about The Satanic Rites of Dracula… it’s crap. Just crap. Yes, as ever Cushing’s doing his bit, but the material really is dull as dishwater, Hammer having done a far better job at the old elite Satanic cult business in The Devil Rides Out a few years earlier. Lee naturally looks bored shitless, and in the absence of Stephanie Beacham, Joanna Lumley makes for a rather less buoyant Jessica Van Helsing. It’s sad but not entirely surprising that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Lee; but Cushing’s Van Helsing would return, in what was to prove a most outlandish swansong…
No. of vampires killed by Cushing: just the one – Dracula trapped in hawthorn bush (which is now apparently fatal to vampires), then staked with a fence post. Oh, the indignity.
Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974, Roy Ward Baker, Chang Cheh)
In a clear indication of why you should never dwell on the chronology in Hammer movies, Cushing returns as the 19th century Van Helsing, Lawrence – yet this is set in 1904, 32 years after that particular Van Helsing met his end in the prologue of Dracula AD 1972. Mind you, that same film also said Lawrence was Jessica Van Helsing’s great-grandfather, in which case Lorrimer Van Helsing would have to be over a hundred years old to have been fathered by him (a detail they missed in rewriting the part from Jessica’s father to her grandfather, reflecting Cushing’s visibly advancing years)… oh, those trifling headaches. Anyway, this is the film which saw Hammer pool resources with the Shaw Brothers and move the action to China to make the first Kung Fu horror movie, so taking it that seriously would be failing to enter the spirit of things.
Once again though, regardless of the blatant ridiculousness of the whole bloody enterprise, Cushing plays it all as beautifully straight as ever. He even gets to show us a new side to Van Helsing, this being the only entry in which he has a son, in the foppish but not entirely ineffectual Robin Stewart. Cushing also manages to overcome obvious language barrier issues to whip up some chemistry with Chinese lead David Chiang as Kung Fu master Hsi Ching. While this is of course the most action-heavy Hammer, unsurprisingly Cushing is sidelined somewhat in the fight scenes; he is looking pretty old by this point, and obviously not as lithe as his martial arts-proficient co-stars, so for the most part he’s standing in the background shouting, “Strike at their hearts!” Still, while Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires may fall into the guilty pleasure category for most of us, it’s by no means a bad send-off for Cushing’s Van Helsing, and as such I can’t help wishing Lee had agreed to come back one last time (even if they didn’t know at the time that it would be the last). No matter how much greasepaint and lipstick they slap on him, John Forbes-Robertson can’t come close to doing Dracula justice; pit him against even a frail Cushing, and he blatantly never stands a chance.
No. of vampires killed by Cushing: five, that we see at least - the biggest number yet, but then this is without doubt the largest scale Dracula movie. Van Helsing stakes one of the Golden Vampires with a flaming torch, with help from Hsi Ching who kicks the vampire onto it (still counts as Van Helsing’s kill though, dammit); at least two undead goons in the climactic battle, again with torch (although given it’s a big battle, in theory there may be many more we don’t see); he hurls a spear into the back of the last Golden Vampire, who proceeds to fall into an acid bath, Curse of Frankenstein style; then of course he stakes the big D himself, again with a spear.
Which means Cushing’s career vampire kill count is – drum roll – fifteen - five of which were the same bloody vampire over and over. Wesley Snipes has taken out more in single scenes, no doubt. But he never did it with that same natural panache. Peter Cushing – not for first nor the last time this week, we salute you.