Wednesday, November 30, 2016

RIP Valerie Gaunt (1932-2016)

It was announced yesterday that former British actress Valerie Gaunt had died in her home on the Isle of Man, at the age of 84. She had not made a film since 1958, when she left acting to marry Gerald Reddington, who has now survived her. To the best of my knowledge, she never agreed to be interviewed about the only two feature films in which she ever appeared: Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958), both directed by Terence Fisher; however, thanks to them, despite her early retirement, she was never completely out of the public eye.

In THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Gaunt played Justine, the comely housekeeper for Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein, who freely gives to this servant what he withholds from the lady of the chateau, Elizabeth (Hazel Court), his cousin and fiancée. Justine is barely in the picture yet her few brief scenes - a clandestine kissing scene with the Baron, a fit of jealous rage that escalates to threats when she discovers his plans for marriage do not include her, and her final entrapment in the lair of the Creature - not only convey all the sides of a well-rounded character but provide the deliberately restrained film with almost all of the emotional dimension it contains.

But it was Gaunt's final performance in DRACULA that was truly revolutionary. Here she was cast as another servant of sorts, a vampire bride of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) who is introduced as an innocent appealing to Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), a visiting librarian, to rescue her from a life of imprisonment. Appearing before him as someone isolated, vulnerable, needful, full-bosomed and available, she deftly navigates a path through Harker's defenses to his bare throat.

When Dracula - previously seen as the most urbane of noblemen - bursts into the library with all his undead, animal hatred and bloodlust exposed, he knocks the female predator aside. There are brief shots following such as the one at the top of this tribute, showing the Bride as she really is - and in these short seconds, an entirely new screen archetype was minted: The Technicolor vampiress, unabashedly sexual, fangs protruding over lips of blood - a virus that would subsequently infect the vampire cinema of every other country in the world. It should also be mentioned that, only fifteen days prior to Gaunt's death, we also lost actress Lupita Tovar - the sexy vampire ingenue of Universal's Spanish DRACULA (1931) - whose performance in that film embodies the first step in the direction of what Gaunt achieved.

I've never seen anyone discuss this, but there is a moment in this classic scene when - shortly after Harker is hurled aside by the Count - the camera cuts to Harker as we hear an anguished scream from the Bride, off-camera. The moment reeks of a cut made to appease the film censors of the day, but no photographic evidence of that moment has yet surfaced. The scene ends with Harker seeing Dracula carrying the Bride out of the library seconds before losing consciousness.


The Bride seems to fail in her attack on Harker but is actually twice victorious. She succeeds in biting him, as Harker discovers in his shaving mirror the morning after, and the following morning - when he trails his host and his attacker to the crypt they share - she succeeds once again, on the cusp of nightfall, when he makes the mistake of dispatching her before dealing directly with the Count.

Before Harker must deal with his mortal error in strategy, the aftermath of his first staking presents him with an appalling insight into the existence of this woman, as her voluptuous form corrupts into the remains of an elderly crone. Implicit in this simple shock effect are years of enslavement. As in all the film's best moments, a flurry of conflicting emotions is conjured, including an ironic empathy for the hunger that strove for all those years to keep this bitter reality at bay. As Dracula awakens behind his back, Jonathan Harker is shown that what has passed for life has been only illusion.

Valerie Gaunt's entire screen career might amount to less than ten minutes onscreen, but her iconic value cannot be overestimated. Appearing only in the right roles at the right time, she left us with a handful of scenes that advanced the working vocabulary of an entire sub-genre of horror cinema.

(C) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.