When I wrote this column in 2015, Valerie Gaunt was still with us. She recently passed away, on November 27, 2016 at the age of 84.
R.I.P. Valerie Gaunt.
This column is dedicated to her memory.
In The Shadows: VALERIE GAUNT
By Michael Arruda
Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies. The subject of today’s column, Valerie Gaunt, compared to other actors we’ve visited in this column, did not amass a great number of screen credits. In fact, she only has four screen credits, but two of them happen to be in two of the most memorable and influential horror movies of all time, Hammer’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
If you’ve seen these movies, then you definitely will remember Valerie Gaunt, because she makes quite the impression in both movies.
In THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, she plays Justine, the servant in the Frankenstein household. Now, in the Mary Shelley novel, the character of Justine is rather innocent, which makes her horrific fate all the more tragic. The Creature murders Victor’s younger brother William, and then he frames Justine for the crime. As a result, Justine is wrongly hanged for the murder.
In THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Justine’s not so innocent, but she still meets a tragic end. Justine in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is having an affair with Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), even while Victor is engaged to his cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court).
Valerie Gaunt is exceedingly sexy as Justine, and you can easily see why Victor Frankenstein is so interested in her. And in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Gaunt gets to appear in two of the more memorable scenes in the movie.
The first is when she tells Victor she’s pregnant with his child, to which he coldly responds, “Why choose me as the father? Pick any man in the village. Chances are it will be the right one.”
Justine begs Victor to marry her, because he promised her that he would, and when he refuses, she threatens him, telling him that she’ll go to the authorities and tell them what he’s been doing in his laboratory. Victor tells her that she’ll need proof, to which she replies, “I’ll get proof!”
Poor Justine. You should have left that house while you had the chance.
Which brings us to the second memorable Justine scene in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, when she decides to search Victor’s laboratory for evidence to bring to the police. It’s one of the more suspenseful and scary scenes in the film.
We see Victor leave the lab, and then Justine sneaks inside, poking around the lab as James Bernard’s thrilling music plays in the background, and as she looks at some mice in a cage, Terence Fisher’s camera pans behind her where we see the shadow of the Creature’s hand reaching upwards. As Justine turns and sees the Creature (Christopher Lee), she screams and runs for the door, but Victor is there, and he locks her in, to be murdered by his insane creation.
It’s a terribly frightening sequence.
There’s a still where we see Justine standing in front of the door with the Creature walking towards her, but this shot doesn’t exist in the final print, as the scene is shot from the point-of-view of the Creature as he closes in on Justine.
Gaunt returned in the next Hammer hit, HORROR OF DRACULA where she played the Vampire Woman who lives in Dracula’s castle, and she’s just as memorable here as she was in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Who can forget her first appearance as she silently approaches Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) inside Castle Dracula, wearing that long flowing white gown? When she asks Harker for help, for him to rescue her from Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) what man would be able to resist? (Okay, Peter Cushing as Van Helsing might have resisted, but really, who else???)
And Gaunt is involved in two of the more violent scenes from HORROR OF DRACULA as well. The first is when she tries to bite Harker, and suddenly Christopher Lee’s Dracula explodes onto the scene, hissing, with his bloodshot eyes and bloody fangs. It’s the first of many shots of Lee snarling as Dracula and it’s pretty much the first time in horror movie history that a vampire was portrayed this way, this violently. Supposedly, for those who saw HORROR OF DRACULA at the movies back in 1958, this was the scene that got the ball rolling, that let them know that what they were seeing was different from the horror moves which came before it. In short, it scared the heck out of them!
The second scene finds Valerie Gaunt’s vampire woman lying in her coffin, when Jonathan Harker makes the fatal mistake of driving a stake through her heart first rather than Dracula’s, giving Dracula time to make his escape. Some have written that Harker staked the vampire woman first because she had attacked him, and for Harker, staking her first was personal. I suppose that could be true. Personally, I think the opposite was true, that Harker felt bad for her since she had asked him for help, and he let his emotions get the better of him and decided to free her first before destroying Dracula. Either way, it was a bad decision.
In the shot afterwards where we see that the vampire woman has aged after Harker has driven a stake through her heart, that’s not Gaunt in make-up, but an entirely different actress, an elderly woman who famously fell asleep while lying in the coffin in between takes.
And here’s an interesting tidbit of a possible “in-joke” that I’ve noticed on my multiple viewings of HORROR OF DRACULA. In the scene where Harker finds Dracula and the Vampire Woman in their coffins, if you pay attention, you’ll notice James Bernard’s music playing a theme from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, as if to say, here’s Christopher Lee and Valerie Gaunt together again. You just saw them last year as the Creature and Justine.
Bernard does this again a short time later when Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing finds Jonathan Harker in the same crypt, another possible in-joke since Cushing also played Victor Frankenstein.
Valerie Gaunt appeared in just two Hammer Films, but these two appearances were enough to make a lasting impression. Here are her two Hammer Film credits:
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) – Justine – has an affair with Peter Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein, and then makes the ill-fated decision to search his lab in search of evidence to force him to marry her. The only evidence she finds is Christopher Lee’s homicidal Creature.
HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) – Vampire Woman – begs Jonathan Harker to rescue her from Dracula’s castle but rewards him with a bite on the neck. She’s eventually attacked by Dracula (Christopher Lee) and then gets a stake in the heart from Jonathan Harker.
Valerie Gaunt – July 9, 1932 – November 27, 2016.
Hope you enjoyed this edition of IN THE SHADOWS, and I’ll see you again next time when we look at another character actor from the horror movies.
Thanks for reading everybody!
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.