East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The other Van Helsing

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I was watching Brides of Dracula last night. The 1960 Hammer movie directed by Terence Fisher does not feature Dracula at all – the Count is name-checked in the title and in the spoken intro – and given for dead – and the main vampire in the picture is Baron Meinster (David Peel), on the rampage in search of young women’s blood in an out-of-the-way corner of Transylvania. It’s a good fun movie, with a lot of original touches, despite the presence of a very dodgy bat. And of course there’s Yvonne Monlaur, that is absolutely gorgeous, in the role of student teacher Marianne Danielle – the damsel in distress of the piece, all the way from Paris to Transylvania to get in a whole lot of trouble.

And we get Peter Cushing, reprising his role as Doctor Van Helsing. Maybe.

Because here things get really interesting: in this movie, Van Helsing is a full blown expert on vampirism – so much so that he lectures a Transylvanian priest on the subject – and carries around a doctor’s bag that contains a few items useful in the fight against the undead: a silver crucifix, mallet and stakes, the works.
He is been called in the area to help curbing a plague – or rather a cult- of vampirism.
This might simply mean he’s got smarter and he has found a new vocation after defeating Dracula two years before (in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula), sure but… his bag also carries a tag, with the letters JVH.

Something’s happening here and it might be really fun to do a little speculation on the matter.

The Doctor Van Helsing in the novel Dracula, of course is called Abraham. And Stoker presents him as older than Cushing. Also, Dracula probably tales place in 1893 while Brides probably takes place in the late 1890s, further accentuating the age difference. Stoker’s Abraham Van Helsing is also physically different (he has a square chin, not the pointy, vulpine Cushing face), and is not presented as an expert on vampires – according to his friend Seward, Abraham Van Helsing “knows as much about obscure diseases as any one in the world”, but in fact he does not recognize the vampire’s curse in time to save Lucy. He is “from Amsterdam” (maybe the Universiteit van Amsterdam) and speaks with a marked Dutch accent, often missing some of the finer points of grammar.

So to recap, Cushing’s J. Van Helsing in Brides has a number of distinctive traits not found in the character in the book…

  • his name begins with a J – Jacob, maybe?
  • he is younger and more physically fit than Abraham Van Helsing. A son? Unlikely. A brother? Maybe. Or maybe a cousin.
  • he is accredited to the university of Leiden
  • he speaks in perfect unaccented English
  • he knows a lot about vampires and is apparently a specialist hunter, acting as a consulting occult detective

But it gets better than that – because the vampire mythos in Brides of Dracula is quite different from the Hammer canon: vampirism is described as a cult, vampires have powers that were not described in the previous Hammer movie, and you can actually cure a vampire’s bite by cauterizing the wound – this is the only instance in the Hammer canon something like this happens.

So, this is a different Van Helsing, a full-blown vampire hunter/occult detective hunting a different sort of vampire. Brides of the Vampire might be seen as the start of a whole different series for Hammer, that simply never materialized.
Or did it maybe intersect the other Hammer vampire mythos – the Karnstein Trilogy (which features non-canonical vampires that can go out in the daylight), possibly with references also to Captain Kronos and Vampire Circus?
Wouldn’t that be great?

This is of course pure speculation, a late night game played building weird theories based on internal inconsistencies and passing throwaway details, but I really like it a lot – because it opens a whole new universe of possibilities for the imagination.
Stories? Sure. And maybe a learned article.
And a good excuse to re-watch old Hammer movies – that is always a pleasure.
A further proof of the fact that insomnia can be conductive to strange inspirations.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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