Saturday, December 3, 2016
VALERIE GAUNT: HAMMER'S FIRST VAMPIRE
While not entirely overlooked, Valerie Gaunt's contribution to the "Hammer Glamour" canon, and Hammer films in general, is overshadowed by -- if it can be said -- "more glamorous" female stars.
Ms. Gaunt, who died peacefully last Sunday, November 27th, at the age of 84, has the distinction in some instances of being more historically notable than many of them. For example, she was the first Hammer vampire to be seen on the screen in HORROR OF DRACULA (her scene was before Christopher Lee's). She was also the first on-screen female vampire in a Hammer film. Moreover, she has the distinction of being the first vampire in any film to be staked in color, as well as the first to bare fangs in an English-speaking film. And lastly, in order of appearance, she was the second (to Hazel Court) Hammer Glamour actress.
Billed in the credits simply as "Vampire Woman", Gaunt plays the unnamed concubine of Count Dracula, who first meets Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) upon his arrival at Castle Dracula. She pleads for Harker to "help me, please!", and, being the Good English Gentleman that he is, offers her the comfort of his shoulder. Then, in a shot behind Harker, we see the sequence that has since been played over countless times in vampire cinema: Gaunt casts her suddenly hungry eyes on the vein pulsating in Harker's neck, then lifts her head to reveal an open mouthful of razor-sharp fangs. She then lustfully plunges said fangs into the hapless Harker's neck.
At that moment, Dracula enters the room and, in a hideous screech of displeasure at her insolence, grabs her and cruelly throws her to the ground. She hisses like a feral cat who has been deprived of its prey, but the King of the Vampires rules this roost, and unceremoniously scoops her up with an unnatural strength. He bears her in his arms and retreats behind the opening of a hidden bookcase. Harker is left to ponder his fate.
Born Valerie Sheila Gaunt at Stratford-upon-Avon on 9 July 1932, any substantive biographical information of her years before her movie roles is sparse. Before being cast as Justine in Hammer's CURSE OF FRANKENTSTEIN, the first of her only two films, she played on the stage and appeared on two UK 50s TV shows. She is survived by her husband of 58 years, Gerald Reddington.
Although Gaunt's onscreen performance in just two scenes in HORROR OF DRACULA is mere minutes, she nevertheless left a remarkable, historic and indelible mark (two, if you count both fangs) in the annals of the horror film. Long live "The 'First' Lady" of Hammer vampires!