Posted by Richard Harland Smith on April 12, 2013
The consensus among Hammer horror fans and genre know-it-alls seems to be that Michael Gough’s performance in DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958) is the film’s one black mark, a detriment to what otherwise might be considered a perfect motion picture. The disdain generated by Gough’s contribution is best summarized, I think, by Jonathan Rigby, who branded the character of Holmwood (in his essential 2000 study English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema) “fey and theatrical” and admonished the actor playing him for “laboured line readings (which) contribute to a slackening of pace.” I’ve heard this line of thinking echoed elsewhere (most recently, in the making-of featurette included with the Lionsgate/Icon Blu-ray/DVD release of the film, where Jonathan repeats the charge and writer Kim Newman backs his play). At the risk of voicing a minority opinion and the attendant loss of status among heretofore like-minded freaks, I must say that I disagree, gentlemen… I most heartily disagree.
Michael Gough was often called upon to embody key characteristics of the Victorian strain, straddling 19th and 20th Centuries with one toe gingerly touching modernity and the other sunk to the ankle in the muck of repressive antiquity. He could be stuffy and ineffectual, as here (and in his earlier appearance in Marc Allegret’s BLANCHE FURY, as yet another aristocratic boob who loses his wife to a different sort of predator), he could be venal and merciless (oh, pick ‘em… how about his brutal paterfamilias in THE CORPSE, aka CRUCIBLE OF HORROR, and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, where his undying hatred poisoned the very wallpaper?), or he could be butlers (from WHAT A CARVE-UP and CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, aka THE CRIMSON CULT to his recurring turn as Bruce Wayne’s loyal and resourceful valet Arthur Pennyworth in Tim Burton’s 1989 BATMAN reboot and three sequels). We don’t get a lot of information about Arthur Holmwood but we might infer a little: though not titled, Arthur carries himself with an air of importance and is afforded due deference. His home is cramped and not much of a showplace but this might be down to living abroad (in Karlstadt — perhaps he has a diplomatic situation) but really it’s due to art director Bernard Robinson’s lack of budgetary wherewithal. Going back to Bram Stoker’s source novel, Arthur becomes through the course of the narrative a lord of the manner (Lord Godalming, to be precise) but no such inheritance seems to await him here. No, he’s just an angry white dude with some money and little patience for folderal or fantasy… and when Peter Cushing’s vampire killer Van Helsing informs Arthur and his missus that Jonathan Harker, betrothed of Arthur’s sister Lucy, is dead under mysterious circumstances, well… you know how that conversation is going to go.
Arthur Holmwood serves a particular function in DRACULA in that he is the audience’s surrogate, its proxy. It is his function within the context of the plot to get in the way of forward momentum and voice doubts about all of the information Van Helsing is offering about the existence of vampires, about the threat to the living of the undead. Somebody has got to say “Bosh! Flimshaw!” and that’s down to Arthur Holmwood. And we hate him for it. Hammer would serve up a character such as this from time to time, someone to embody the status quo, to provide the voice for the masses who don’t immediately buy into this kind of thing. In DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965), the onus fell upon Barbara Shelley, playing the sort of timorous flipside of Arthur Holmwood — a devout, middle class British woman whose entire existence is limned by fear. She soon falls victim to the horror and becomes the horror as part of a convention that dictates that any character we deem a pain-in-the-ass must die, even when their fears (as are Shelley’s in D, POD) are justified. Gough’s Arthur Holmwood doesn’t have fears so much as he does attitudes, postures. He does not seem to act on instinct but by convention, tradition, and an autopilot that is very much hardwired to societal orthodoxy. Arthur is heir and victim of an establishment that does not, that cannot, countenance the supernatural… and though we hate him for being intractable it is precisely this adamantine quality that makes the midportion of DRACULA compelling and even thrilling. Early on, after Arthur has sent Van Helsing packing, he shares a brief scene with his wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling). She reaches out to him, appeals to his better self, and we see him soften for a moment, and there is the character in a nutshell. The moment confirms that Arthur Holmwood can be reached… but how?
“Win their hearts and minds and we’ll win the war” somebody once said about some people. As written by Jimmy Sangster, Hammer’s DRACULA is not just about defeating Undying Evil, about usurping an ancient predator, but about changing the prevailing (British) mindset, about getting people to face reality even in the face of unreality. Van Helsing endeavors to save both Lucy (Carol Marsh) and Mina but it’s really Arthur’s soul he’s after. For my money, Gough plays Arthur brilliantly, coating the underlying denial and repression with a veneer of superiority and pride in ignorance — boy, if there were ever a model for modern behavior, this is it! The difference between Arthur Holmwood and the nabobs and douche coupes who bank their ignorance like P.T.O. hours nowadays is that once Arthur learns that his paradigms of the way things should be cannot sustain him, he finds another way, he opens up, he drops his guard and starts listening to people. It’s fitting that director Terence Fisher and his crew have Arthur’s ignorance die in the churchyard, society’s dustbin, where he has gone to confront his beloved sister Lucy, who has in death joined Dracula’s ranks. The scene in the cemetery is really DRACULA‘s high point, the confluence of its themes and ideas, the place where mythology and fact meet head-on, and where Lucy, the fiendish flipside to the sweet girl in braids we had met earlier in the film, attempts to seduce her own brother with a kiss. (Truth be told, we don’t know if Arthur shrinks from Lucy because of the threat of vampirism or the specter of incest.) It’s a game-changer.
Van Helsing’s destruction of Lucy by stake has a physical effect on Arthur, who clutches his heart as if he too has been stricken. Coming from the stoic Arthur Holmwood, this seems out-of-character, incongruous, over-played, and I’m sure the moment has inspired gales of derisive laughter at revival screenings of DRACULA over the years. I’m not so sure the moment is over-played. Have you ever lost a sister? I have, though thankfully not in so horrific a manner; nonetheless, Gough’s moment of horror, despair, and physical agony speak to me and work for me. And when we next meet Arthur, he’s well on the road to becoming a fully-rounded and useful individual, a soldier in the good fight against Big Bad. There’s a moment in DRACULA that I have loved since the first time I saw it as a boy: with Lucy destroyed, Dracula (Christopher Lee — maybe I should have said that earlier but it kind of goes without saying) turns his attentions to Mina and drinks her blood. Van Helsing prescribes a blood transfusion, with Arthur playing the part of the donor. After the doctor has topped Mina off, he offers Arthur a little glass of something, a restorative, which Arthur declines. “No, I’m all right,” he says, his voice soft, and he’s smiling. (Van Helsing prevails, because he knows best, and Arthur drinks it.) That little smile never fails to break my heart.
When Arthur joins Van Helsing in his search for Dracula’s hiding place, he is a new man — but what’s funny is that he seems in so many outward ways exactly the same. The bit in which he and the doctor are stonewalled in their information-gathering by a stubborn border guard has a wonderful payoff as Arthur — whose face never changes expression as Van Helsing’s entreaties are rebuffed by the civil servant, acting (as Arthur had once done) in allegiance to propriety and protocol — begins to spike bank notes on the guard’s spindle… until a figure has been reached and a price met. One gets the sense that this is Arthur marshaling his strengths — a sort of steeliness and intractability — in the service of good. He earns his keep as a horror movie hero and he is rewarded with a surprisingly uncompromised victory, provided he can live with the fact that Dracula tapped his wife. And I think Arthur, at least the new Arthur, can.
At the end of DRACULA, Jonathan Harker, Lucy, Dracula himself, and a few incidental characters are dead or destroyed. Van Helsing is vindicated, therefore unchanged. (A seasoned actor, Peter Cushing knew he had no character arc but he conveys such mixed emotions of relief, disgust, and even sadness at the end that you are led to believe the character has completed a great journey.) Mina is understandably confused and overwhelmed, missing pieces of her life, and at least at this early stage unable to process. This leaves Arthur Holmwood as the only principal character who has been in full possession of his senses since Frame One and who has undergone a profound change in character. To my mind, DRACULA is as much his journey as anyone else’s and he certainly deserves the ribbon for Traveled Farthest to Be Here. Arthur’s scene of reconciliation with Mina at the final fade-out beyond the walls of Castle Dracula, as the Count is returning to dust within, is as uncommonly beautiful a moment as horror movies allow us, capturing as it does an interlude of rapprochement and renewed commitment to love, a love that is possible not in spite of what has happened but because of it, because the characters have gone (in Bram Stoker’s words) through the flames together. (I will go further out on that limb to suggest that the character of Arthur Holmwood, so often reduced or removed from adaptations of the novel, has never mattered more than he does here.) Melissa Stribling was a talented and lovely actress, in whom the essential goodness of Mina Holmwood is clearly embodied, but it is Arthur’s transformation that drives the film home, the sloughing off of useless Victorian postures — the pride of no achievement, the propriety that protects nothing, the repression that inhibits self-knowledge, and the fear that precludes action. Michael Gough carries the ball, selling the character in a way that one of Hammer’s more benign romantic leads (say, Edward de Souza or Richard Pasco — imagine the mugging that Oliver Reed would have brought to bear) could not, permitting us — encouraging us — to dislike him intensely before welcoming us back to attend his atonement. I would hope that the film’s restoration and digital reemergence will encourage a reassessment of Gough’s performance in DRACULA, whether or not a renewed consensus will be that he is (as he is to my mind) the film’s most valuable player.
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