I have done a few “first impressions” series of posts over the years, which focus on more current films that I have watched in theaters that include reel librarians and/or library or archives scenes. The resulting “first impressions” posts are necessarily less detailed, as I don’t have the luxury of rewatching scenes and taking notes, but they turn out to be some of my more consistently popular posts.
A little over a month ago, I was able to watch Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, at The Grand Cinema, which is an awesome, independent, arthouse-type movie theater in Tacoma. The film is based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, and John David Washington (the son of Denzel Washington and Pauletta Washington) is perfectly cast in the title role.
Basic plot and trailer:
In the early 1970s, Stallworth is hired as the first black officer in the Colorado Springs, Colorado police department. Initially assigned to work in the records room, he requests a transfer to go undercover and gets reassigned to the intelligence division. While reading the newspaper, he finds an advertisement to join the Ku Klux Klan. He calls and pretends to be a white man, and eventually becomes a member of the Colorado Springs chapter. Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) acts as Stallworth in order to meet the KKK members in person.
This is a film that punches you in the gut, and keeps you thinking and feeling and reacting. It is VERY timely. Highly recommended.
Below is a trailer for the film:
So what does this film have to do with reel librarians?
Records room scenes:
As mentioned in the summary above, Stallworth is initially assigned to work in the records room. There is a small nameplate on the front of the shelving units that says “Records librarian” (which is visible in the screenshot below), although the records room is essentially the archives of the police department. Stallworth is really bored working in the records room, and it’s clear that the records room is like a “right of passage” for rookie cops. It’s not a prestigious job, and the “real” cops look down on their co-workers stuck behind the desk.
(Never mind that detectives could NOT do their jobs or background research without those records and archival materials, and someone to help them locate those records, but WHATEVER. SIGH. >( )
There are two major scenes set in the records room, scenes in which Stallworth endures racial slurs and harassment from his co-workers, particularly from patrolman Andy Landers, a corrupt, racist officer in Stallworth’s precinct. Stallworth lets out some steam after his initial encounter with Landers, as seen in this screenshot from the above trailer:
We also see another records room officer, played by Jeremy J. Nelson, in one of the records room scenes.
Library research scene:
There is also a very brief scene — perhaps two-thirds of the way through the movie? — where the president of the Black Student Union (Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas) goes to what looks to be an academic library and looks up microfiche. In that brief library research scene, you can catch a glimpse of a reel librarian, played by Elise Hudson, who helps set up the microfiche machine for Patrice.
Patrice is researching materials and photos for an upcoming speaker (Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner), and in a later scene featuring Turner’s moving speech, you see the archival photos she found and used displayed around him.
Reflecting on BlacKkKlansman, I realized that this film falls into the Class II category, films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot. This is because John Stallworth, the lead character, worked as a “records librarian” — but more accurately, the records archivist. I would say his character reflects the “Liberated Librarian” character type pretty well, as he is literally liberated from the Records Room and promoted into the intelligence division.
There are two other reel librarians/archivists in the film as well, Jeremy J. Nelson as another Records Room Officer and Elise Hudson as a (more traditional) librarian, although we only see them collectively for a few seconds on screen. They function as your basic Information Providers, there to establish the library/archives settings of specific scenes.
There are no actual reel librarians in this film, landing it in the Class V category. However, there are a few research scenes that I found interesting, so let’s dig in, shall we?
Research scene in the library:
After Libby (Ashley Judd) has served her time in prison for the crime of murdering Nick, her husband (Bruce Greenwood), she visits a public library to look up her former friend, the one who adopted Libby’s son, Matty. This library scene occurs 35 minutes into the film, and it was filmed at the main Vancouver Public Library in British Columbia. (I’ve been there!)
Since Libby’s been in prison the last 6 years, she’s not used to computers or concepts such as email. (Remember, this film was released in 1999.) She even says to a young man who stops to help her out on the computer that “Someone said I should try the internet.” I also really hope that “someone” was NOT a librarian!
This young man asks her a few questions — essentially doing a “reference interview” although it is clear that he is NOT a reel librarian. How do I know that?
He never identifies himself as a librarian
He is casually dressed, with a backpack or messenger bag (most likely marking him as a student)
He only agrees to help her after she reveals that she’s not looking for a guy friend (gross)
His role in the credits is listed as “Handsome Internet Expert,” hah!
After learning that her friend was a school teacher, he recommends that they start at the Washington State Department of Education directory site. Bingo!
While helping her, the young man continually attempts to flirt with her. This is Libby’s priceless reaction:
After getting what she needs, Libby expertly sends the guy on his way by revealing that she had been convicted of murdering her husband. Buh-bye!
This library scene, with nary a reel librarian, lasts a total of 2 minutes. It is effective in helping Libby locate her friend, which gives her the next clue in tracking down her husband.
The best thing about this scene? The old-school web site designs, full of tables and frames. Ahhhhhhh, good times. 😉
You can view the entire library research scene below.
Research scene in the newspaper archives:
Fifty-eight minutes into the film, we next see Libby researching the death of her friend — she suspects at the hand of her husband! — by using microfilm in a local newspaper’s archives. It’s funny, Libby seems much more comfortable using microfilm than she did using a computer. That subtle body language is a nice touch. You can tell it’s a newspaper archives room because in the foreground, you can see newspapers being printed.
This scene lasts less than 30 seconds, but it provides a clue that leads Libby to the next step. In the photo used in the newspaper story about her friend’s death, Libby recognized a painting in the background.
Research scene in an art gallery:
And this next clue leads Abby to a particular painter, Wassily Kandinsky, her husband used to collect. So she heads to a local art gallery and asks the gallery owner to try and track down any purchasers of recent paintings by that artist. The gallery owner looks up the Art Net website for this info, while Libby looks on over his shoulder. (Nice reversal of the first research scene, where a guy looked over her shoulder at the computer!)
Fun fact: The Art Net site still exists! It is a major art site used to “find artworks for sale, online auctions, top galleries, leading artists, and breaking art market news from around the globe.”
Below is a “then and now” collage from how the site (supposedly) looked in 1999, and how it looks now.
This art research scene lasts only a couple of minutes.
Adding up the value of research:
In total, all three scenes add up to less than 5 minutes total of screen time in Double Jeopardy, but they managed to pack in:
three different types of research;
different kinds of research tools, including websites and microfilm; as well as
different research locations, including a public library, newspaper archives, and an art gallery.
And each time, the research leads to vital clues that lead Libby to locating her husband and child.
All in all, Libby comes across as quite resourceful. My final thought is how much more quickly she might have tracked her husband down if she had utilized the resources of a reel librarian… 😉
Double Jeopardy. Dir. Bruce Beresford. Perf. Ashley Judd, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Greenwood, Annabeth Gish. Paramount, 1999.
But first… let’s delve into what “serial killer” really means.
I hadn’t realized before how many several different definitions exist! This Psychology Today blog article, “What defines a serial killer?,” highlights major, differing understandings of this term:
FBI definition: “According to the FBI, a serial killer is someone who commits at least three murders over more than a month with an emotional cooling off period in between.” The FBI also calls it “serial murder.”
National Institute of Justice definition: “The National Institute of Justice provides a definition of serial killing that is closer to the common conception. According to them, it involves committing two or more murders with a psychological motive and sadistic sexual overtones. On this conception, serial killing can be understood as a type of sex crime.”
Federal law: A 1998 federal law, Protection of Children from Sexual Predator Act of 1998 (Title 18, United States Code, Chapter 51, and Section 1111), also linked sex with serial killings and defined it this way: “The term ‘serial killings’ means a series of three or more killings, not less than one of which was committed within the United States, having common characteristics such as to suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same actor or actors.”
The Psychology Today article rightly points out problems with each definition, as sex isn’t always linked with serial murder, particularly with female serial killers and/or serial killers who suffer from some other kind of psychosis.
Therefore, I’m using a more expansive definition of “serial killer” to highlight reel librarian serial killers.
Also, potential spoilers ahead!
Chainsaw Sally (2004):
The title role in this indie film is the reel librarian — and as expected, she is ruthless with a chainsaw!
She kills several people in the course of the film, including:
a man who who talks loudly in the library
a young woman who never returned a library book she had checked out
another young woman working at an ice cream truck who misspells a word on an order form
Her reason for killing seems to be about punishing people who break rules
The film also links Sally’s psychosis and dual personality to childhood trauma, when her parents were murdered in front of her and her brother
A “mousey librarian” (played by Natasha Lyonne), inherits a movie house. To save the family business, she provides her own victims in order to make her own “snuff films.”
I have not yet analyzed this film, so I’m not sure if the film goes into more detail about the reasons why the reel librarian turns to killing. If you have seen this film, please leave a comment below.
Brunette librarian with glasses by day, a blonde lady killer by night!
Jennifer O’Neill plays Heather, a librarian who lures men through newspaper personal ads in order to murder them on the first date.
A knife is her weapon of choice.
Her crimes are outwardly sexual in nature, and she relays fantasy sex dreams to her therapist
The Church (1989):
Italian horror film, also known as La Chiesa, directed by Michele Soavi and written and produced by Dario Argento
Evan (played by Tomas Arana), a librarian cataloging a series of historical texts in an old church, removes a rock in the catacombs — thereby unleashing an ancient evil hidden underneath! Evan becomes possessed by a demon, and goes on a killing spree.
Since the underlying reason goes back to being possessed by a demon, I’m assuming this reel librarian would not be held responsible for his actions. But maybe do a little more research before removing things in catacombs next time, eh, librarian?
A rare comedy that includes a skit about a serial killing reel librarian, “Conan the Librarian” (hilarious!)
Conan the Librarian cuts one patron in half for returning a book late, and he starts to choke another patron because he dared to ask where some books were in the library
We only see “Conan the Librarian” technically kill one patron — slicing the patron in two with his sword — but from this short scene, I think we can infer a pattern of serial murders. I’m sure there are more bodies amongst the stacks!
Violent toward people who break the rules or don’t know the library system
In Wilderness (1996), a British mini-series that was also released in a condensed version, a reel librarian (played by Amanda Ooms) is convinced she turns into a wolf. Has she left a trail of mutilated bodies in her wake? Is it real, or is she hallucinating?
Zodiac (2007): This past year, I have analyzed the David Fincher film Zodiac, a film which goes in depth into the search for the Zodiac serial killer (another serial killer who did not necessarily kill for sexual reasons, but rather for power and the ability to cause mass fear and hysteria). There is no librarian seen in that film, but the power of library books plays a vital role in the investigations.
The Killing Kind (1973): The reel librarian in that film fantasizes about nightmares — or as she calls them “hallucinations, they’re so real.” She fantasizes about killing her father, among others. You can read more about this reel librarian in this “The Killing Kind vs. The Attic” post (2013).
From a Whisper to a Scream (1987): The films opens on a woman being executed by lethal injection; we later find out she’s a serial killer who’s been murdering people since she was seven years old. A reporter present at the execution (Susan Tyrrell) then drives to Oldfield to interview the woman’s uncle, Julian White (Vincent Price). You can more about this film in this “Welcome to Oldfield” post (2014).
“My name’s Jonathan Harker. I’m the new librarian.”
As per the winning entry in the most recent reader poll, this week I am analyzing Horror of Dracula (1958)! The first in the series of Hammer horror films starring Christopher Lee as Count Dracula, Horror of Draculawas a critical and commercial success when it was first released in 1958 — and it has remained a go-to classic ever since. The film was directed by Terence Fisher and clocks in at a brisk 82 minutes long.
This film adaptation differs in several ways from Bram Stoker’s original and groundbreaking source novel. I will not take time out here to enumerate those differences; for a list of them, visit the film’s IMDb.com trivia page. The broad strokes of the main storyline remain relatively intact, however, so I will also not go into detail about the plot. I am also assuming that the reader is familiar with the basic storyline of Dracula and characters like Harker, Lucy, Van Helsing, and Arthur Holmwood.
***SPOILER ALERTS THROUGHOUT***
Meet Jonathan Harker, librarian (?)
John Van Eyssen, a South African actor who later became a literary agent-turned-movie producer, plays Jonathan Harker. Although he only earned seventh billing in the film’s credits, he essentially opens the film, narrating from his diary upon arrival at Count Dracula’s castle in Klausenburg. (Note that the entire film takes place in Germany.)
His first words:
The Diary of Jonathan Harker. The 3rd of May, 1885. At last, my long journey is drawing to its close. What the eventual end, I cannot foresee. But whatever may happen, I may rest secure that I have done all in my power to achieve success. […] I deemed myself lucky to have secured this post and did not intend to falter in my purpose.
Right away, it’s clear that Harker is on a mission.
While Harker eats dinner in the castle and waits for Dracula, he takes out a couple of books from his case. The slim volume with the red cover is Harker’s diary — we will see that volume several times throughout the film. In fact, that diary is so important and onscreen so frequently it’s kind of a wonder the film wasn’t retitled The Diary of Jonathan Harker!
A beautiful but mysterious woman enters the room. Harker hastens to introduce himself.
My name’s Jonathan Harker. I’m the new librarian.
This is the first mention of Harker being a librarian. And tellingly, the word “new” in that introduction indicates there has been a prior librarian. This thread is never followed, but it’s an interesting idea to think about. (The fan fiction practically writes itself, right?! “To all the librarians I’ve loved and lost, XOXO Dracula” ♥ )
His next words are also interesting:
How can I help you?
What I found intriguing about this line is that this is TOTALLY what a (real) librarian *would* say, but Harker says this line in a completely different context than how a librarian would mean it while at, say, a reference desk. Harker says this in response to the lady’s distress, who is insistent that she is being kept in the castle against her will.
She runs away, and then we get our first glimpse of Christopher Lee’s iconic portrayal of Dracula, as he pauses for full dramatic effect at the top of the stairs. (My husband mused at this point, “Why did capes EVER go out of style?!” 😉 )
Dracula and Harker then “meet cute,” and Harker puts away his diary.
These next exchanges between Dracula and Harker constitute the bulk of the context of Harker’s position as the librarian.
They continue talking as Dracula shows him up the stairs to his room, when Dracula references his private library collection.
Harker: How soon may I start work, sir?
Dracula: As soon as you wish. There are a very large number of volumes to be indexed.
When they get into his room, Dracula reveals Harker’s qualifications to be engaged as his private librarian.
Dracula: I consider myself fortunate to have found such a distinguished scholar to act as my librarian.
Harker: I like quiet and seclusion. This house, I think, offers that.
Dracula: Then we are both satisfied. An admirable arrangement.
Dracula then leaves. But after Harker unpacks a few things, Dracula comes back into the room and gives him a key.
Dracula: As I shall be away so long, I think it’s better that you have a key to the library, Mr. Harker. You will find the library to the left of the hall.
Dracula then leaves for the night, and he utters the last words we will hear him speak onscreen, “Sleep well, Mr. Harker.” (Dracula only speaks 13 lines in the entire film, all to Harker!)
Harker then sits down to write in his diary, and he reveals to the audience the specifics of his mission — and his subterfuge!
At last, I have met Count Dracula. He accepts me as a man who has agreed to work among his books, as I intended. It only remains for me now to await the daylight hours, when with God’s help, I will forever end this man’s reign of terror.
Ending at less than 15 minutes, this is quite an efficient opening sequence.
First fight in the castle library:
Harker dozes off in a chair by the fire and awakes when he hears his door knob start to turn. He goes downstairs and into the library, the room opposite the main dining hall. It’s our first peek at the library, and considering what we had heard Dracula say before (“There are a very large number of volumes to be indexed“), the first impression is… underwhelming. There look to be only a few rows of bookshelves along the back wall. I think the fireplace in this set may be larger than Dracula’s private library!
As Harker enters the room, he is startled to find the mysterious woman behind him.
Once again, she pleads with him to help her escape Dracula… and of course she turns out to be a vampire! (The three brides of Dracula in the novel are condensed into this sole role.) After she bites his neck, Harker pushes her away as Dracula rushes in through a door in the middle of the bookshelves. Harker attempts to stop Dracula from hurting the woman, but Dracula pushes him away and then grabs his bride and takes her through the door in the library.
Harker then wakes up on his bed, still fully clothed, and realizes that he has been bit. He takes out his diary again and writes:
I have become a victim of Dracula and a woman in his power. It may be that I am doomed to be one of them; if that is so, I can only pray that whoever finds my body will possess the knowledge to do what is necessary, to release my soul. I have lost a day. Soon it will be dark. While my senses are still my own, I must do what I set out to do. I must find the resting place of Dracula and there, end his existence forever.
He then hides his diary in a boulder outside the house. This detail will be important later!
Harker then discovers a door to an underground lair, where he finds caskets for both Dracula and his bride. He has a wooden stake and hammer, yet his instincts are not as sharp as his stake. Instead of fulfilling his stated mission — “I will forever end this man’s reign of terror” — he starts by staking the woman.
Dracula wakes up, and OF COURSE night then falls, right on cue. Harker’s brain starts to work again, as he realizes the mistake he’s made when he finds Dracula’s casket empty. But it’s too late, and it’s (literally) lights out for Harker.
And I know what y’all must be thinking right now… will Dracula’s books NEVER get indexed now?! 😉
The diary of Jonathan Harker:
But never fear, at least ONE book doesn’t get forgotten — Harker’s diary!
The next scene takes us into the village, where Dr. Van Helsing, played by top-billed Peter Cushing, enters a local inn. Van Helsing starts immediately asking questions about his friend, but the innkeeper is reticent to tell him any information. Inga, the innkeeper’s daughter, lets slip, however, that she remembers Harker and a letter he had her post.
The innkeeper and Van Helsing continue talking, and Van Helsing reveals more information about why and how he and Harker were working together.
Innkeeper: Look, sir, you’re a stranger here in Klausenburg. Some things are best left alone, such as interfering in things which are beyond our powers.
Van Helsing: Please don’t misunderstand me. This is more than a superstition, I know. The danger is very real. If the investigation that Mr. Harker and I are engaged upon is successful, then not only you, but the whole world will benefit.
The innkeeper’s daughter then comes back to serve Van Helsing dinner, with a little extra on the side.
Inga: This was found at the crossroads near that place. He told me to burn it. But your friend was such a nice gentleman, I couldn’t.
This then leads Van Helsing to Dracula’s castle, where he finds the underground lair… and his friend, Harker.
As a distraught Van Helsing takes up the stake and hammer Harker had left on the floor, the camera fades.
The next scene reveals Van Helsing informing Arthur Holmwood and his wife, Mina, about Harker’s death. In this film, Arthur is the brother of Lucy, Harker’s fiancée. In this short scene, when learn that Arthur is suspicious of Harker’s death; that Harker died 10 days ago; that Harker was cremated (“As his friend and colleague, he told me some time ago that he would wish it“); that Arthur and his wife will tell Lucy the news; and that Lucy is ill. This film is certainly efficient in its storytelling, isn’t it?!
Thirty-five minutes into the film, Van Helsing reviews Harker’s diary while a recording plays on a gramophone. The recording is Van Helsing’s own voice, detailing the dangers and signs of vampires. Again, a clever way to include a lot of expository details in a short amount of time!
Van Helsing then starts recording himself, likening vampirism to drug addiction. He also invokes the death of Harker as further reasons to kill Dracula:
Since the death of Jonathan Harker, Count Dracula, the propagator of this unspeakable evil, has disappeared. He must be found and destroyed.
So although Harker is no longer physically part of the film, he and his diary remain central to the film and propel the plot forward. This time, it’s personal!
The last mention of Harker’s diary occurs at 47 minutes into the film, when Arthur is upset at Van Helsing and blames him for (SPOILER!) Lucy’s death. Van Helsing gives Jonathan’s diary to Arthur, stating:
I cannot expect you to believe me, but you will I know believe Jonathan. Here are his last words, his diary. When you have read it, you will understand.
Final fight in the castle library:
The final scene and showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula occurs five minutes before the end of the film.
As Van Helsing follows Dracula to this castle, they meet up in the library — where else?! — and Van Helsing spies sunlight peeking in through the heavy curtains at one end of a large table scattered with piles of books. Van Helsing dashes across the table and throws upon the curtains. Van Helsing leaps back upon the table — scattering books in his wake, and the librarian in me could not help but exclaim, “Don’t take it out on the books!” — and grabs candlesticks to form a cross and force Dracula into the sunlight. Dracula then starts crumbling to ash in the sunlight.
Why a librarian?
Harker is clearly posing as a librarian, as the line in the opening sequence that Dracula “accepts [Harker] as a man who has agreed to work among his books, as [Harker] intended” reveals. However, it does stand to reason that Harker is a scholar of some merit. It would be too easy to check otherwise, especially as the action takes place in such a limited geographic area. And Van Helsing is a scientist, so it is plausible that he and Harker met because of common scientific, or psychiatric, interests.
The idea that Jonathan is a scholar does, theoretically, provide some kind of plausibility about him being able to pass himself off as a librarian — or rather a freelance kind of indexer or cataloger — for Count Dracula’s private library.
I also wonder if the screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, chose “librarian” for Harker’s reason for being at Dracula’s castle (rather than as a solicitor arranging real estate transactions for Dracula, as in the source novel) as a way for Harker to throw Dracula off the scent; i.e. that posing as a librarian would not arouse suspicion in Dracula, as librarians are generally (and stereotypically) mild-mannered. Of course, that reasoning only works when Harker goes in knowing about Dracula to begin with, as is obvious from the beginning narration of this film.
Ultimately, although Harker has quite a significant role in this film, his attempts at being a reel librarian really only amount to that of being an Information Provider. He is there to provide context for thwarting Dracula, and his diary provides clues along the way for Van Helsing, as well as for the audience.
Although we don’t really learn much about Harker on a personal level, I was greatly amused by the variety of facial expressions John Van Eyssen packed into his supporting role.
Although Harker’s change of occupation did not get mentioned on the VHS copy I have of this film, I was amused to discover that the first library scene DID make the side cover!
Past classification struggles:
I first saw this film years ago — clearly, when VHS tapes were commonplace! — and I have to admit, that I have found it difficult to classify this film, according to my usual “Reel Substance” categories.
I first classified this film under the Class V category, films in which there are no actual librarians, because Harker is posing as a librarian in this film. But that never felt quite right, so I eventually decided to reclassify the film under the Class I category, because the fact that he’s posing as a librarian serves as the catalyst for the rest of the film’s plot as well as Van Helsing’s (re)commitment to destroying Dracula.
What are your thoughts on this? I’d love for you to leave a comment and share your thoughts on this or other aspects of Horror of Dracula.
And thanks to everyone who voted for Horror of Dracula! It was fun to revisit this horror classic.
Horror of Dracula. Dir. Terence Fisher. Perf. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Melissa Stribling, John Van Eyssen. Universal, 1958.