Hammer Studios Characterisation of Van Helsing (2021)

When Hammer Studios optioned the rights to make their own Dracula film way back in 1956 little did they realise that their interpretation of the Van Helsing character would still to this day be ranked as one of the beast incarnations of the celebrated vampire hunter to ever grace the silver screen. This is fully attributed in many ways to the actor Peter Cushing, who with his nuance performance and avid love of prop handling, made his version of Van Helsing a quintessential portrayal. What I find fascinating is the total immersion Cushing has in his version of the author Bram Stoker’s character and how he dominates the screen with his portrayal. In the original source novel Dracula, Van Helsing was an elderly Dutchman, not very mobile but possessed with a keen mind and enough understanding of the vampire mythology to tackle Dracula and his evil. This was a contrast to Cushing’s version, still with the keen intellect, but a man who could physically match his enemies and even best them.

Dracula-title

Cushing played Hammers’ version of Van Helsing in five films for the studio. The first was Dracula (1958) aka Horror of Dracula (USA title), followed by Brides of Dracula (1960) then in Dracula A.D.1972 (1972), next came The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) and finally The Legend of The 7 Golden Vampires (1974). It is interesting to note that in the first two Dracula films, Dracula and Brides, Cushing plays the original incarnation of Van Helsing, Dr. Van Helsing with the timeline being around c.1885 in Dracula and an unspecified date in Brides, though Brides is a sequel minus the titular Dracula as Christopher Lee did not reprise his role, that fell to actor David Peel as the young Baron Meinster. The next time Peter Cushing ‘reprises his role’ as Van Helsing is in Dracula A.D. 1972, this time playing two Van Helsings, Lawrence Van Helsing (1872) and his great-grandson Lorrimer Van Helsing (1972) where he fights Christopher Lees’ Dracula on two occasions in the film. The continuity is thrown straight out of the window as the first two Van Helsing film outings are set in 1885 while Dracula A.D. 1972 begins in 1872! It would seem that there might be two related Van Helsings chasing after Dracula in that 13 year gap, now that is scary. Lorrimer Van Helsing continues his battle with Dracula in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) where he finally destroys the arch vampire in a thorn bush, with a Christlike death scene from Lee.

Brides

Now all this makes for some continuity skews as Lorrimer Van Helsing is descended from Lawrence Van Helsing of 1872 and not the Van Helsing of 1885 (Dracula (1958) and Brides of Dracula (1960)) so going back to an earlier observation, there are possibly two Van Helsings in the Victorian era. Peter Cushing reprises his role as Van Helsing in his final outing for Hammer in the horror/kung-fu spectacular The Legend of The 7 Golden Vampires (1974). The time is 1904, and Van Helsing has a son in tow, Leyland Van Helsing, it has been suggested that this Van Helsing is the actual Van Helsing from Dracula (1958) with a quick calculation this Van Helsing would be about 60 years old or so, possibly a better continuity but I have not verified this. It does suit the age of Cushing when playing this Van Helsing in this movie.

7 Golden Vampires

While writing this little observational essay I wanted to understand Hammer Studios timeline with regards to their Van Helsing character. More of an interest than a definitive analysis, it is obvious that the screenwriters had and wanted to represent their Dracula storyline to suit their production slates and timelines. If you take into account the updating of Dracula into a modern setting, it was obviously easier to bring in Dracula into any setting as he dies, lives again, dies etc, the Van Helsing character is a harder one to update into modern times, hence the ancestral story arc. I thought by writing my ideas down, I might have a better idea of Hammers’ Van Helsing arc, in truth, it is more enjoyable to watch a master craftsman such as Peter Cushing make a literary character his own than to fathom a historical timeline. I think I will watch Dracula (1958) now…

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