Dracula, Frankenstein, and Peter Cushing's Hammer Horror Years
October 16, 2020 | by Shannon
Peter Cushing Creates Frankenstein, Kills Dracula, and Finds Film Stardom While Christopher Lee Serenades Him with Opera. It’s Peter’s Hammer Horror Years!
With the success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Peter Cushing’s epic association with Hammer Film Productions officially began. Cushing would star in an impressive twenty-two horror films for “the studio that dripped blood.” Horror of Dracula (1958) would prove one of the most successful. Opposite good friend Christopher Lee in the film’s title role, Horror of Dracula remains a classic film that defines our current interpretation of Bram Stoker’s horrifically fascinating character.
Peter Cushing’s flawless portrayals in these gothic horror tales marked his successful transition from television star to film star. Consistent film work had long been the goal of both Peter and his admirably supportive wife, Helen. But film stardom through Hammer came with a price: despite his great versatility, evidenced by decades on stage and television playing varied roles in many genres, Peter Cushing would forever be viewed as a horror film star, a label that many Hammer stars, such as Christopher Lee, found stifling.
Bringing His Hammer Roles to Life
Though Cushing undoubtedly would have enjoyed more varied film work, he always viewed his Hammer years with pride. Peter’s great talent for research, and ability to humanize these horror characters that so many viewed as one-dimensional, not only contributed to the resounding success of Hammer’s horror films, but also made the work rich and fulfilling for Peter. This was a man who was passionate about acting, and could quite literally bring any character to life, and enjoy the process.
Let’s get to the plot, and, as I disclaimed last week with Hamlet (1948), the plot of Horror of Dracula (1958) does vary from Bram Stoker’s classic novel, and my summary that follows is of the film!
Another disclaimer: though Horror of Dracula is quite tame in gore–especially by today’s standards–some of the pictures that follow do show blood and vampires. My goal was to keep the visuals classy while still providing a feel for the film, but I want to give any readers sensitive to these images a heads up!
Our story begins in Klausenburg, Transylvania. It’s 1885, and Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) has just been hired by Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) to sort out the library in his grand, isolated castle.
But we soon learn that Harker isn’t a librarian at all: he’s a vampire hunter. Harker knows that Dracula is a vampire, and that he preys on the town’s citizens. Harker plans to gain Dracula’s trust so he can kill him, not an easy task, as killing a vampire requires pounding a stake through its heart…!
Unfortunately, Harker’s true identity is discovered by Dracula before he can accomplish his task. Worse still, one of Dracula’s brides bites Harker in the neck. This means it’s only a matter of time before Harker too becomes a vampire.
Van Helsing Comes to Castle Dracula
Harker uses his remaining time as a lucid human wisely, killing the vampire bride who bit him, and informing his good friend Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) of the situation. Harker hopes Van Helsing will come to Klausenburg, find his diaries, and put an end to Dracula once and for all.
Van Helsing does come to Klausenberg, and finds the diaries. He also accomplishes the difficult task of staking his friend Harker, who he finds resting in a coffin in Dracula’s crypt. But Dracula himself is no longer at the castle, and Van Helsing quickly surmises that Dracula has gone to Karlstadt, where he plans to make Harker’s fiancee, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh) his new bride.
By the time Van Helsing arrives in Karlstadt to inform the Holmwood family of Harker’s death, Lucy is already infected by Dracula. Van Helsing sees proof in the bite marks on her neck. He advises Lucy’s brother Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) to keep the windows to Lucy’s room closed—so Dracula can’t get in—and to put garlic flowers around the room, a vampire repellent.
But Van Helsing’s instruction’s are ignored, and Lucy eerily welcomes Dracula’s bite again, which proves fatal.
The death of his sister convinces Arthur of Dracula’s existence, but Arthur will not permit Van Helsing to use Lucy—who will now awake at night to find her own victims—to lead him to Dracula. Van Helsing stakes Lucy in her coffin, and begins his search for Dracula once more.
Arthur decides to help Van Helsing find Dracula. He tries to give his wife Mina a crucifix to wear as protection against Dracula, but she resists. When the cross is placed in Mina’s hand, it burns her skin, evidence that Dracula has already bit her, and plans to make Mina his next bride.
Saving Mina and Finding Dracula
Van Helsing performs a blood transfusion from Arthur, to Mina, and saves her life. The men now plan to catch Dracula that night before he can bite Mina again. But Dracula outsmarts them, and manages to steal Mina from her room. Van Helsing knows that at this point, there’s only one place Dracula can take her: back to his castle.
Van Helsing and Arthur are hot on Dracula’s trail, and catch up with him back at his castle, trying to burry Mina alive just as daylight breaks. To escape the fatal light, Dracula hurries into his dark castle. Van Helsing follows Dracula, while Arthur tends to Mina.
Dracula vs. Van Helsing
In the castle, it’s a showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula.
It looks like Dracula will win, for he manages to get hold of Van Helsing’s neck, and goes in for the bite.
When Van Helsing appears to pass out, Dracula relaxes his grip on his soon-to-be-victim, and takes a moment to enjoy his victory.
Van Helsing was only pretending to be unconscious, and he breaks free from Dracula. Looking to the curtains that cover the large castle windows, Van Helsing devises to use the fatal sunlight against Dracula. He gets atop a refectory table, and with a running jump, Van Helsing tears the curtains down, exposing Dracula to the light of day.
Dracula recoils in pain. The sun proves too much for this vampire. To finish him off, Van Helsing takes two candlesticks from off the top of the table, and, walking towards Dracula, forms a crucifix.
Before Van Helsing’s eyes, Dracula disintegrates, leaving behind nothing but his ring.
Good triumphs over evil, Arthur and Mina are reunited, and Van Helsing lives to kill a vampire another day.
And that’s the end of the film.
The Remarkable Helen Cushing
If you remember from my post on Hamlet (1948), the spunky Helen Cushing was responsible for getting her husband’s television career up and running in 1951. And it was television that finally made Peter Cushing a star.
Peter would appear in over thirty live television plays for the BBC. He quickly became an audience favorite, winning the Daily Mail Award for Outstanding Actor of 1953-54, and again in 1955. Perhaps sweetest of all for Peter though, was that his father, who had once called him “forty and a failure,” lived to see his son’s success, and let Peter know he was proud of him for it.
In his autobiography [aff. link], Peter credits Helen for all the accolades that were suddenly awarded him in droves:
“For three years in succession my work received awards, fulfilling Helen’s prediction and her faith in my abilities. They should have been given to her, not me. Whatever success I may have achieved, was due entirely to Helen.”
How sweet is that???
Live Performance Nerves
Even as Peter found success on television, he suffered from nerves and insecurities before and during his performances. At the time, nothing on television was pre-recorded, unlike films and most television shows today. And unlike theater, live television was not conducive to ad-libbing: if an actor forgot a line or a piece of stage business, it was painfully obvious.
Once again, Helen was there for Peter. Ultimately, Peter got special permission from the producers to have Helen at the studio during live performances. Helen’s proximity turned out to be all Peter needed to calm his anxieties.
Helen to the Rescue, Again.
Helen’s constant supply of encouraging notes further boosted Peter’s confidence. Her notes are so incredibly sweet, and indicative of the great love in their relationship, I have to share a few lines that Peter generously printed in his autobiography [aff. link]:
“…There is nothing that can defeat a man—except his own acceptance of defeat. And of all men and women I have ever known—you have the greatest courage, integrity, honor…a keen wit—a quicksilver brain, and the tenacity of a terrier! Your name is held in honor and love by all…Reflect on your victories over the many seemingly insurmountable obstacles—ill health, poverty, persecution of the jealous and base. All these you defeated and rose and triumphed to win the heart of the nation.”
How lucky Peter was to have such a support system in his lovely wife! As Peter himself said of Helen’s notes:
“How could I fail, with such incredible love and support—which passeth all understanding? Her words still inspire and steer me on the course I know she wishes me to take…”
Hammer Film Productions Introduces a TV Star
By 1956, Peter Cushing’s skilled television performances and popularity with audiences caught the attention of film studios. Many studios eyed television and its stars as competition: after all, the increasing popularity of television cut into film profits as more and more theatergoers opted to stay home and watch TV.
But Hammer Film Productions head James Carreras saw an opportunity with television stars. Hammer, a small studio, founded in 1934, had just found its niche in horror films with 1955’s The Quartermass Xperiment. The way Carreras saw it, if he could convince a popular television star to cross over into his films, Hammer Studios would benefit. So when Peter Cushing expressed interest in appearing in Hammer’s newly announced project, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Carreras gladly offered him the title role.
Despite the film’s meager budget, and the unfavorable comparison by some critics to Universal Studios’ 1931 film version of Mary Shelley’s classic story, The Curse of Frankenstein was a resounding success with audiences. The film’s great popularity came as a complete surprise to all involved. As Peter Cushing shared in a 1973 interview,
“No one connected with that first film had any idea that this incredible snowball would start and keep rolling to this very day.”
Hammer immediately set out to start their next gothic horror film series, inspired by another classic character that Universal Studios put on screen in 1931, Dracula. Hammer’s new star, Peter Cushing, would head the cast as Dr. Van Helsing, the vampire slayer, in Horror of Dracula.
Universal Plays Games
During the production of The Curse of Frankenstein, Universal Studios made things difficult for Hammer. Universal viewed itself as the creator of Frankenstein onscreen, and threatened to sue Hammer if there were any make-up similarities between their respective films, or if Hammer so much as used the word “monster” in their Frankenstein production. As Jimmy Sangster, the Hammer screenwriter behind both The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula shared,
“As soon as the project [Frankenstein] was announced, Universal started gnawing their teeth and threatening to beat us to death with their legal cudgels. Never mind that the original Mary Shelley novel was in public domain, they had made the movie, and God forbid we should infringe their ‘copyright.’”
Unfortunately for Hammer, Universal was just as disagreeable when it came to Dracula. Eventually, the two studios agreed to a 80 page legal document that covered the copyright issues Universal so worried about.
Even as the legal agreement was worked out, Hammer plowed right along with filming, and production on Horror of Dracula began in November 1957.
Friends and Foes
Playing the film’s title character of Dracula was Christopher Lee. The 6 foot 5 inch Lee, similar to Peter Cushing, struggled as an actor for ten years before finally earning his big break as “The Creature,” the gruesome creation of Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Lee, who, for so many years found that “I wasn’t getting anywhere looking like myself,” in the film industry, suddenly found that his height, usually a deterrent in movie work, was actually an assert in Hammer’s horror films.
A Comical First Meeting
Lee and Cushing had actually both appeared in Hamlet (1948)—Lee would comically but truthfully state he was one of the guys carrying that stereotypical Shakespearian spear in the background—as well as 1952’s Moulin Rouge. But it wasn’t until Frankenstein that Cushing and Lee officially met. As Christopher Lee shares in his autobiography [aff. link] the two men became fast friends:
“From the first time we met on the set of Frankenstein, at Bray, Peter Cushing and I were friends. Our very first encounter began with me storming into his dressing-room and announcing in petulant tones, ‘I haven’t got any lines!’ He looked up, his mouth twitched, and he said dryly, ‘You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.’ It was a typical wry comment.”
Lee also shares in his book that once fully bandaged up in his “creature” costume for Frankenstein, he loved nothing better than to go sing opera to Peter:
“Generally when I was fully encased in bandages, I preferred to go in and harass Peter, singing opera to him through the crevices, and performing soft-shoe shuffles with him…”
How awesome is that??!
I can totally picture Christopher Lee, all gruesome-looking in full costume, serenading Peter, and dancing with him.
And by the way, Lee actually was an accomplished opera singer!
A Friendship Sealed
By Dracula, the friendship was sealed. Peter later remarked that it was his buddy Lee who kept the atmosphere on Dracula fun and enjoyable, despite the darkness of the plot:
“He [Christopher Lee] is a man of many attributes, among them a most marvelous sense of humor plus the ability to laugh at himself, and the uncanny skill as an impersonator, which helped enlighten the darkness hanging over Count Dracula’s entombed habitat, when we were not shooting.”
It was a friendship that only deepened over time, with each man respecting and appreciating the other’s humor and talent. All in all, Peter and Christopher would appear in twenty-two films together over the years.
Peter's Contributions to His Hammer Roles
Peter Cushing was known for his great contributions of research and ideas to his films over the years. To ensure that his Baron Frankenstein looked knowledgable and confident as he made the various surgical cuts and stitches necessary to bring “the creature” to life, Cushing called up his own physician, and learned the true scalpel techniques of a professional.
Forrest Tucker, Peter’s co-star in Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman (1957) joked that Peter could save a film company thousands on research: with meticulous Peter around to do the work, there was no need to pay a research department. Given his eye for detail and intuitive way of knowing what would work on screen, it’s not surprising that Peter’s contributions to Dracula ultimately shaped the film, and created one of its most iconic scenes.
Peter's Van Helsing
In Bram Stoker’s book, Abraham Van Helsing is a very old Dutchman. But at the time of filming Hammer’s Dracula, Peter Cushing was only forty-three, and still very athletic from his years of swimming and rugby. Peter’s appearance was definitely not that of the old Dutchman in Stoker’s book.
Before accepting the role, Peter suggested Hammer forget about making him up to be an old man in the film. As Peter shared in a later interview:
“In the book by Bram Stoker, he’s [Van Helsing] described as a very old, little, withered man who speaks almost double-Dutch. And this was going back nearly twenty-five years when I was younger and prettier. When I was offered the part, I said ‘Well, instead of making me up, I think we’d better play it as myself.’ And they agreed to that.”
Cushing’s push for a younger Van Helsing was wise: there’s no way the final showdown between Dracula and Van Helsing would be as gripping if Peter’s natural athleticism was stifled by geriatric costume and makeup. Portraying Van Helsing as his own age, Peter could realistically—and gracefully, I might add–dart onto Dracula’s table, high jump to tear down the thick curtains from those huge castle windows, and expose Dracula to that fatal sunlight. It was a job for a younger man, no doubt. Thanks to Peter’s insistence on straying from Van Helsing’s advanced age in the novel, this dramatic scene works beautifully in the film.
Another Cushing Contribution
In fact, the run down the table and jump to the curtains were also Peter’s ideas, as was the use of candlesticks as the final crucifix that disintegrates Dracula. As Peter recounts in his autobiography [aff. link]
“…the script [of Dracula] demanding Van Helsing to carry so many crucifixes, it read as if he was a traveling salesman in these relics, and could have been risible. At the denouement of the film he forces the Count into a shaft of sunlight by confronting him with one…Rather than take yet another [crucifix] from my pocket, I asked Terry [the director] if there could be some candlesticks on the long refectory table, which I could grab and clash together in the form of a cross. He thought it was an excellent idea…by the time the scene was ready to be shot, there were the two perfect candlesticks adorning each end of the table, and dramatic use was made of them.”
“Dramatic use” indeed! Peter’s idea to use the candlesticks in place of a more traditional cross lends to the spontaneity of the scene, and is undoubtedly one of the most memorable shots in the film.
"For it or Against it"
At the time of its release, Horror of Dracula was a smash hit with audiences, earning an estimated $3.5 million worldwide. As had been the case with Hammer’s Frankenstein, critical response was another story: the critics either loved Dracula, hailing it as a work of art, or they hated it, condemning the film as distasteful trash. As the screenwriter of both films, Jimmy Sangster, would say of critical response to these pioneering horror movies,
“You were either for it or against it. There was very little middle ground.”
Despite the torn critical response, Universal Studios was obviously impressed, for after the success of both The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, Universal gave Hammer the rights to re-make the rest of the gothic horror tales Universal had earlier popularized onscreen, including The Mummy and The Phantom of the Opera.
Dracula and Frankenstein: Horror Classics
Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula continue to gain praise and popularity today, even from the critics. So, what is it that makes these two Hammer horror films—which each generated their own epic series of films through the years—so timeless and compelling?
It all comes down to the great efforts of each individual on the team responsible for these two groundbreaking productions.
Terrence Fisher, who directed both Frankenstein and Dracula, believed it was important in horror films, or, as Fisher preferred to call them, fantasy films, that regardless of what happened throughout the storyline, in the end, good must triumph over evil. As Fisher once shared:
“If my films reflect my own personal view of the world in any way, it is in their showing of the ultimate victory of good over evil, in which I do believe. It may take human beings a long time to achieve this, but I do believe that this is how events work out in the end.”
Despite the darkness of both the Frankenstein and Dracula plot lines, Fisher successfully instills a moral code in each film. At the end of the day, most of us like it when the good guys win, and in both Frankenstein and Dracula, they do. It’s a concept that seems quite removed from the horror films produced today, making Fisher’s take all the more compelling sixty-plus years later.
Jimmy Sangster, who wrote the screenplays for Frankenstein and Dracula, believed that these films remain captivating because of their unique spins on classic stories. Taking Frankenstein for instance, Sangster decided to switch the focus of his screenplay from “the creature,” and put it squarely on Baron Frankenstein. As Sangster writes in his autobiography [aff. link]
“I was more interested in Baron Frankenstein than the monster. The monster couldn’t help doing monstrous things. Having the hands of a famous sculptor isn’t going to be much good if his brain is full of broken glass before it’s even put in his reconstructed head. On the other hand, everything monstrous that the Baron did was well thought out. Done for a reason. A much more interesting character.”
This new perspective was groundbreaking at the time, and audiences continue to appreciate Sangster’s unexpected twist in story focus, undoubtedly a reason why Frankenstein and Dracula continue to be revered.
Cushing and Lee
Of course, the most obvious reasons why Frankenstein and Dracula were so successful on release, and remain so mesmerizing today, are the two stars of each film: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Both actors would experience physical pain in their quest to give audiences authentic scenes in each film. Most notably for Peter, to get that vampire staking business down perfectly in Dracula, he had more than a couple misses, injuring his own hand. As Peter recounts in his autobiography [aff. link]:
“Even now, the knuckles of my left hand, which held the wooden spin in place, still bear the scar of many a miss.”
Christopher Lee on the other hand would have a few scares with his eyes. During Frankenstein, Lee even thought he lost his vision after acid from the fake blood used in one scene got into his eyes. A second optical scare occurred during the filming of Dracula, when Lee’s eyes reacted adversely to the red contact lenses that were so integral to Dracula’s blood-thirsty appearance. Lee then further injured himself as he stumbled around the set in a teary, blurry haze from the discomfort of those red lenses!
Scarred knuckles and impaired vision. Now that’s dedication to your craft!
Beyond the Physical
Perhaps less obvious, but a far more important contribution Cushing and Lee made to Frankenstein and Dracula was their commitment to finding the motivations behind their characters’ often despicable actions. It would have been so easy to take the acts of these sinister characters—with the exception of the noble Van Helsing, of course—at face value.
But Cushing and Lee didn’t.
Both actors sought to understand how their characters could legitimize such gruesome behavior. Peter said it best in his autobiography when he summed up the mindset he adopted to bring depth to Victor Frankenstein. Peter had to view the character as a man ahead of his time, whose cruel and sinister actions were motivated by an obsessive desire to find scientific truths, not from an intent to harm others:
“This view of the characters I played helped me a great deal…In order to give some sort of credibility to Victor Franketnstein’s nefarious deeds, which became more and more bizarre, and he more and more ruthless…I needed to hold onto his basic motivation.”
With that much dedication to gaining insight into his characters, it’s no wonder that The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula continue to captivate and gain fans.
The Issue of Typecasting
With each Hammer film Peter Cushing starred in, he became more and more associated with the horror film genre, something that deeply worried his wife Helen, who longed for Peter’s versatility to be recognized.
Good friend Christopher Lee shared Helen’s view, and experienced typecasting himself. Lee’s portrayal of Dracula was flawless, but as he says in his autobiography, playing Dracula was
“…the third and final nail in my coffin. Count Dracula might escape [at the end of each film] but not the actors who played him.”
Cushing on Typecasting
Peter on the other hand was a bit more pragmatic than Helen about the typecasting issue. After so many lean years, Peter loved that he could finally give Helen more than the bare necessities she’d lived on without complaint for so long.
And perhaps Peter was a little less worried than Christopher Lee about typecasting, expressing his immense gratitude on several occasions at all that his years as a Hammer horror star provided:
“But for any actor to be associated with a form of success like Hammer’s, I think it is absolutely wonderful and if that means being thought of as a ‘horror actor,’ then I think it’s the most marvelous thing that could happen to me.”
And my personal favorite Peter Cushing quote about his Hammer horror films comes from an interview he did in the early 1970s:
“I hope Hammer have scripts ready for future Dracula and Frankenstein films which I can play in a wheelchair. The horror pictures give so much pleasure. And that is what film-making is all about. How lucky I was to get the first chance sixteen years ago. Give up playing Van Helsing in the Draculas? Over my dead body.”
Star Wars Next Week!
And that’s it for Frankenstein, Dracula, and Peter Cushing’s years as a Hammer horror film star.
Join me next week for our last week with Peter as I cover his final years, and perhaps Peter’s best known performance in 1977’s Star Wars.