HOWARD JACKSON examines Peter Cushing’s portrayal as Van Helsing in Hammer’s Dracula…
Somewhere in another galaxy a long time ago there must be a school that has a staffroom where all the teachers look like Peter Cushing. It is no insult to say that every performance of Peter Cushing offers a type of schoolteacher. He has been inquisitive, anxious, authoritarian, contemptuous, all knowing, paternal, interfering and much more. The characters of Cushing are serious, opinionated and assume authority but there is variation. The teacher that cracks the jokes has eluded him but if everyone in the staffroom looked like Cushing we would have landed on a gloomy galaxy. His appearances on the Morecambe And Wise Show, though, did involve him in humour. The joke was that anarchic comedians had conned a naïve actor or schoolteacher substitute.
Cushing creates in The Curse of Frankenstein an inventor who is an overbearing and self-centred cad, the kind of schoolteacher not prepared to let the kids use the equipment in the school laboratory. The popular notion that Cushing repeated this performance in Dracula is nonsense. In the book by Stoker, Van Helsing is Dutch. Boats, the English Channel and waves were beyond the budgets of Hammer films in the 50s. Van Helsing in Dracula had to be something other than the eccentric alien created by Stoker. Cushing provides a complex hero and dominates the movie. The shabby genius of Frankenstein was replaced by a precise perhaps narcissistic dandy. Compared to the three-piece suits and elegant scarves that Van Helsing wears the cloak of Dracula looks like gothic utilitarianism.
‘Cushing is perfect for the melodramatic material…’
Cushing is perfect for the melodramatic material because his restrained style adds needed dignity. He rarely blinks and never raises his voice but we know when Van Helsing is shocked and angry. The slight frame of Cushing means that violence alone will not defeat the vampire threat. Van Helsing succeeds because he is quick thinking and decisive.
The movie is not without cheese, ham and stodge. It also has an odd stop-start rhythm. The quick cuts to startled expressions irritate and they probably annoyed Cushing because in one scene he covers his face with a hand covered in a large glove rather than succumb to the dramatic overacting of Michael Gough. The restraint of Cushing means that he never quite establishes an intimacy with his audience but he is in character. Not willing to play the fool or be patronised Van Helsing is distant from the other people in the film. In one scene the butler asks Van Helsing if there had been people in the room because he thought he had overheard voices.
‘I was talking to myself,’ says Van Helsing.
In fact, he was making a recording using the latest Victorian phonograph. But what Van Helsing has said is not a lie. His singular ambition obliges him to talk to himself. If he is lucky, he will leave a useful legacy on the phonograph. Cushing also talks to himself. It is the consequence of his thespian technique. The reserved actor and his characters have secrets. His name may not be associated with charisma but his mystery invites wonder.