First impressions: ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ (2019) and its memorable fight scene in the NYPL

This man had no time to waste, and neither did the librarian.

I was NOT planning to write about the new film John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum when I went to see it a couple of weeks ago during its opening weekend. I’d seen the two previous John Wick installments in theaters, so this outing to its third chapter was planned as a fun date night out. But when John Wick hails a cab within the first 5-10 minutes of the movie and directs the taxi driver to the New York Public Library, I knew my next post HAD to be about this movie.

And yes, a little bit of me felt like saying, “Dammit! There’s going to be a library scene, so now I have to really pay attention to this movie!” This happens to me ALL the time, y’all. Librarians and libraries pop up everywhere in movies, just when you least expect it.

What’s a “first impressions” post?

First things first, “first impressions” posts focus on current films that I have watched in theaters that include reel librarians and/or library or archives scenes. The resulting posts are necessarily less detailed — hence the “first impressions” moniker — as I don’t have the luxury of rewatching scenes and taking notes in the movie theater. I do, however, take notes as soon as I can after watching the film. I also was able to rewatch most of this library scene and grab some (grainy) screenshots, thanks to a few YouTube videos.

***MILD SPOILERS AHEAD***

John Wick’s reference interview

Now, back to the movie… when John Wick’s cab gets stuck in traffic, he runs to the NYPL’s central branch and then up the center aisle to the front circulation counter. A white, female librarian with a no-nonsense attitude asks if she can help him. She is older, has short brown hair, and is wearing glasses and a cardigan; her character displays all of the (stereo)typical visual cues of a reel librarian, except for the bun. Susan Blommaert is credited as the Librarian, and she mirrors John Wick’s impassive facial expression.

John Wick’s taciturn reference request?

Russian Folk Tale, Aleksandr Afanasyev, 1864.

The librarian doesn’t ask any follow-up questions in this brief reference interview. Instead, we hear her typing (I’m assuming in a library catalog search screen) and then writes something on a slip of paper (I’m assuming a call number). John Wick stares down at the slip of paper, then back at the librarian, who then points her finger to the right.

Her equally taciturn response?

Level 2.

This is the barest-bones reference interview I think I have ever seen onscreen. And one of the most successful, as we next see John Wick walk down a row of books, straight to the book he needs. This man had no time to waste, and neither did the librarian. To my mind, she is a highly efficient Information Provider in a Class III film.

Side note: Is real life like that? Not quite… Slate’s Natalia Winkelman wanted to see if she could replicate this reference request at the NYPL, and you can read her real-life reference interview experience here. Winkelman also answers the question of whether this book really exists. Bless. ♥

Shhhh! This library book has a secret

When John Wick slides out the exact book he needs and opens it up, we find out that he has hollowed out the inside! He has stashed valuables in this book’s hidey-hole, including a large token, a rosary with a large cross, a few coins, and a photograph of his dead wife.

Library book prop in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Library book prop!

At this point, five thoughts flashed through my head, in this order (it took me longer to suss them out completely on the page):

  1. A book published in 1864 would be out in the main circulating stacks? I don’t think so! That kind of book would probably be super valuable and in an archives or rare books room somewhere. (And this is one of the things that Winkelman found out in the article I referenced above, hah!)
  2. The idea of carving out a hidey-hole in an actual library book — and a rare one at that! — made my librarian heart gasp in dismay. And it is likely to be an actual library book he mutilated, rather than a book he brought from the outside and just placed on the shelves, because otherwise the book wouldn’t have come up in a library catalog search. Unless he swapped a copy of the library book for the real book, which is possible, but he would had to have made a replica call number. It’s also possible I’m overthinking this point… next!
  3. It’s condescending to think that NO ONE would be interested enough in Russian folk tales to check this book out and discover its secret. Every subject out there has its dedicated researchers, and in my experience, folk tales are perennially popular. And if the book were not popular and had no check-outs whatsoever, then it would have been a prime candidate for librarians to (eventually) weed from the collection.
  4. I did mentally pause to appreciate the fact that this scene was filmed in a library — or at least uses or mimics real library book props — because all of the books on the shelves have… say it with me, now… CALL NUMBERS! 😉
  5. Alas, I could not make out the actual call number on the book John Wick slides out or the call numbers in the books around it. If the propmaster wanted to be accurate, the call number would most likely be in the 398.2 call number range, as that’s the Dewey Decimal call number for folk tales and folklore. (And yes, afterward I searched for “Russian folk tales” in the NYPL online library catalog, and that’s the general call number used. I am thorough, y’all. Goes with the librarian territory. 😉 )

Side note: This scene was actually filmed at NYPL’s main branch, as they are thanked in the film’s credits and acknowledgments.

Fight scene in the library!

As John Wick prepares to reshelve the book, a fellow hitman walks around the corner, quoting Dante. This hitman, named Ernest, is played by 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic, an NBA player. He towers over Keanu Reeves by more than a foot.

Ernest towers over John Wick, as seen in the library fight scene in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Ernest towers over John Wick

Ernest has come to kill John Wick and claim the reward money. (Context: Wick broke the rules at the end of Chapter 2, so he was given an hour of freedom before the contract to kill him went live. Chapter 3 starts off, time-wise, immediately after the events of Chapter 2.) No rest for the ‘Wick’-ed! 😉

John Wick: I still have time.

Ernest: It’s almost up. Who’s gonna know the difference?

Ernest then pulls out a knife, and the fight begins in earnest. (Pun intended. I couldn’t help myself! Again. 😉 )

At one point during the fight, Ernest shushes Wick. THE NERVE.

Shushing John Wick during the library fight scene in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Shushing John Wick

The entire fight scene lasts about a minute, and John Wick eventually defeats his foe with the SAME book he came to the library for.

I admit, I was thinking about this scene’s similarity to a fight scene in 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, in which Jason Bourne fights off a fellow assassin with a rolled-up magazine.

Fight in the library stacks in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Fight in the library stacks!

Don’t try this at home the library

And then the kicker. John Wick stands up, walks back into the stacks, and then REPLACES THE LIBRARY BOOK on the shelf, bloodstains and all.

John Wick goes back to replace the library book in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
John Wick goes back to replace the library book

This detail is lauded in several reviews and articles:

Wick’s respect for library protocol is made plain, however — after using a book (Russian Folk Tale, Aleksandr Afanasyev, 1864) as a deadly weapon, his first instinct is to replace that book where he found it. Great work.

Shannon Connellan, Mashable.com

Eventually John kills him by utilizing the book he’s holding as a weapon. That part is great, but the moment of true inspiration comes next when he goes back and replaces the book on the shelf where he found it. This detail works not because it is funny, but because it fits the character so perfectly that it would almost be weird if he didn’t do it. In a genre where impersonality is the name of the game more than ever, it’s a delight.

Peter Sobczynski, RogerEbert.com

This detail is admittedly clever when it comes to reinforcing Wick’s character. OF COURSE he would replace the library book! He is a disciplined man. And he might need the book again. I get all that, and I chuckled myself in the movie theater during this scene.

HOWEVER. I could not be a self-respecting librarian without pointing out that in real life, please DO NOT re-shelve books on your own. You are not doing librarians a favor when you do this. In fact, you’re doing the opposite. Why? Because we like to scan the barcodes of books that are used in the library but not checked out, so we can get a sense of how books are used in the library, even when they’re not checked out or not able to be checked out, like reference books. (This is referred to as “in-house usage.”) So you replacing that book on your own means that you’re depriving that book of its potential in-house usage stats. Also, library staff workers like pages and clerks are trained to re-shelve books, as it’s a major part of their jobs. So those library carts you usually find beside the stacks? Those carts are there for you to put books that need to be re-shelved. Use them, please.

Soap box time over. Thanks for sticking with me!

What about library patrons?

After John Wick replaces the book on the shelf, we next see him rushing down the library steps and into the street. So there seems to have been no consequences — or even acknowledgment! — of there being a very loud fight in the library stacks, which resulted in a dead body.

I can hear you asking, “But if he’s on level two, and there’s no one around, then this is theoretically possible.” Books do, indeed, insulate noise very well. That’s why quiet zones in libraries are often located beyond stacks of books, since they serve as natural sound barriers.

However, the two end their fight outside the stacks, where the tables are, which means the sound would carry. And there are angles in the fight scene that clearly show that there ARE library patrons on level two. Below is an example of what I’m referring to (you can also click the photo to open it in a larger size):

Library patrons in the background of the fight scene in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Library patrons in the background of the fight scene

And these patrons, who are listed in the IMDb.com credits but are uncredited in the movie, do not move or react at all to the carnage happening behind them.

Odd, right? Why include patrons at all in this scene? It would have made a lot more sense in this scene for the level to have been deserted.

Why the library?

One of John Wick’s earliest and most imaginative kills in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum occurs at, of all places, the New York Public Library.

Natalia Winkelman, Slate.com

Why did the director, Chad Stahelski, choose to stage one of the fight scenes in a public library? I figured the main reason is the juxtaposition, that we expect libraries to be quiet, so a noisy fight scene in such a quiet space would feel jarring and unexpected and fresh.

Stahelski confirmed this in a Los Angeles Times interview, that he spent a lot of time thinking about how “to be non-repetitive” in the fight scenes that the John Wick films are famous for. It’s important to note that Stahelski has directed all of the John Wick films, and he is a former stunt performer.

Library bookcases, when there are rows and rows of them, are often visually compelling onscreen. This is also the case in this film, as you can see in the screenshot below:

Rows of bookcases during the library fight scene in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Rows of bookcases are always visually compelling onscreen

What I found really interesting is that Stahelski was inspired to do this fight scene in the New York Public Library WHILE actually being in the New York Public Library. So meta! And the fact that Stahelski is a library user? ♥

“I spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library trying to do some work because it’s quiet,” Stahelski says. “One day, I was down in the stacks and I thought, ‘This would be a great place for a fight scene.'”

In an interview with Josh Rottenberg, Los Angeles Times

Stahelski was also inspired by the constraints of filming a fight scene in the library:

“A lot of people would avoid using the stacks because it’s difficult to shoot in and it would limit their choreography — you can’t do big flying kicks and stuff like that,” Stahelski says. “We’re kind of the opposite: We think, ‘What’s the hardest situation you can put someone in? And are we smart enough to figure it out?'”

In an interview with Josh Rottenberg, Los Angeles Times

And they did indeed figure it out. Well done!

Continuing the conversation

And they did this scene so well that it took me more than FOUR HOURS (!!!!) to draft this initial post. For a scene that lasts less than two minutes. My initial notes, the ones I jotted down on the notepad app on my phone, were pretty brief. But once I started to unpack, er, unshelve the scene, there was a lot more there to analyze and think through than I had originally thought! And of course, I spent time looking up reviews and articles and cross-checking details and citing sources. All part of the service, y’all. 😉

Are you a fan of the John Wick trilogy? Have you seen Chapter 3? You would alert a librarian or call 911 if you witnessed a fight scene in a library, right? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

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First impressions: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)

“To Wong, thanks for everything”

This is another post in my “first impressions” series of posts, which focus on 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 in the movie theater. I do, however, take notes as soon as I can after watching the film.

This also marks the fourth (!) time I’ve analyzed a reel librarian or library scene in Marvel’s Avengers movie series. Past posts include: First impressions: ‘Captain Marvel’ and its archives scene ; First impressions: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ ; and Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’.

First things first:

Here’s a trailer to get you pumped for watching (or more likely, rewatching) Avengers: Endgame.

“Avengers: Endgame Trailer #1 (2019)” video uploaded by Movieclips Trailers is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

My overall impression of the movie? LOVED IT. Except for one nagging question — which I will get into soon — I really can’t imagine how this film could have been done better or done more justice to the myriad characters and storylines. Masterful plotting, pacing, acting, and directing by all involved. I knew it was going to be 3 hours sitting in a movie theater seat, but the time went by quickly for me. Really, really well done.

But of course, I’m realllllly here to talk about Wong (Benedict Wong), the sorcerer librarian character we first got to know and love in 2016’s Doctor Strange. And I cannot talk about Wong’s role in Avengers: Endgame without spoiling the finale.

So y’all know the drill…

SPOILER ALERT.

SPOILER ALERT.

SPOILER ALERT.

And…

SPOILER ALERT.

We good? Good.

Why didn’t they ask Wong?!

I knew Wong was going to be in Avengers: Endgame. There were several clues, including:

There was some hype and anticipation about the importance of Wong’s character to the Endgame finale:

As the surviving heroes are sure to attempt to use the Infinity Stones to undo the effects of the Mad Titan’s snap, they will need to someone to teach them about each of the Stones, and Wong is the leading candidate. More than a bookworm, Wong has also proven himself a formidable warrior in his own right, helping Iron Man and Spider-Man subdue Cull Obsidian during their initial fight in New York City. With Doctor Strange perhaps putting up the strongest fight against Thanos with his extensive magical knowledge on Titan, Wong will need to step up to take his place.

Sam Stone, CBR.com

However, Wong’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Stones — which was highlighted in Avengers: Infinity War — was not utilized AT ALL in this film. SIGH.

About a third of the way through the film, the remaining members of the Avengers & co. (Black Widow, Captain America, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Rocket, War Machine, and Nebula) are trying to piece together their memories of when they came into contact with the stones. They’ve figured out time travel, so now they need to figure when and where they need to travel back to, in order to steal the stones back in time. There is then a montage of them talking together and identifying dates, locations, and stones from their collective memories. (Minor rant alert: During these scenes, Natasha/Black Widow seems to be the ONLY ONE TAKING NOTES WHAT IS UP WITH THAT DUDES HELP THE TEAM OUT AND PICK UP A PENCIL OH MY GOD SIGH.)

And now for a MAJOR rant alert:

As this montage of scenes started playing, I literally said out loud in the movie theater:

“Why didn’t they ask Wong?!”

It SERIOUSLY bugged me that NO ONE thought to call Wong and ask if he could help them piece together the history of the Stones. And there is no good reason for this oversight, because Wong had explained the history of the Infinity Stones to Tony Stark AND Bruce Banner in Avengers: Infinity War. And as BOTH Stark and Banner survived and were in the room helping to assemble memories, then one or both of them should have remembered that Wong could be helpful in this instance, especially after Natasha figured out that New York was key. After all, the last time Stark and Banner saw Wong was in New York, and he left them to guard the New York sanctum.

And sure, Wong was probably busy — after all, he was one of the only remaining sorcerers left, if not THE remaining sorcerer, after the Vanishing — but they still could have called! That’s what librarians are here for, to help with research and answering questions! And it could have been a small thing, like, “Hey, let’s call Wong. He’ll know.” “Oh, he’s not available?” “Okay, gang, let’s try and figure this out ourselves.” IT’S NOT THAT HARD.

A major oversight and the only major flaw in the movie, in my opinion.

No, I’m not letting this go.

#WongForever

To Wong, thanks for everything:

But not all is lost. Wong still proves crucial to the final battle and, you know, saving humanity.

Right as Thanos and his army prepare to wipe out humanity, Doctor Strange and Wong show up via a portal. Across the sky, dozens of portals appear, each revealing more beloved Avengers and their allies, brought back to life by the Hulk’s recent turn in the Infinity Gauntlet. Then there is this pivotal exchange:

Strange: “Is that everyone?”

Wong: “What, you wanted more?”

This exchange demonstrates the camaraderie between the duo, as Wong looks humorously exasperated at Strange’s question. (And Wong is still visually on Strange’s right side — from the perspective of the audience — keeping up his role as Strange’s right-hand man. I first pointed out this visual trend in my Doctor Strange analysis post.)

But why is this two-line exchange of dialogue vital to the movie? Because it reveals that Wong is the one who actually assembled the Avengers! (Even though Captain America got to say that iconic line, it was Wong who did the ACTUAL WORK. Just sayin’.)

“While Doctor Strange was coming back from Titan, Wong took it upon himself to unite the world’s heroes and bring them to the Avengers HQ for the final battle against Thanos.”

Mansoor Mithaiwala, Screenrant.com

Strange had to have brought the Avengers who were with him on Titan to the final battle, but it’s clear that Wong brought everyone else.

Still from 'Avengers: Infinity War' trailer
Wong remains Strange’s “right-hand man” ; Still from ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ trailer

We then see Wong fight in battle and conjure a protective shield, larger than the ones seen in the screenshot above, when Thanos’s ship fires down on the battlefield. Wong remains center screen during this quick clip in the battle, visually positing Wong as a leader of his force. Other protective shields pop up across the battlefield, indicating multiple trained sorcerers. And that got me thinking that Wong probably has been spending a major part of the past 5 years training more sorcerers.

Yep, you can depend on librarians to get. Shit. DONE.

We next see Wong at Tony Stark’s funeral (sob!), standing beside Doctor Strange (again, from the audience’s perspective, on his right side).

And then that got me thinking about Stark’s last words to Wong in Avengers: Infinity War: “Wong, you’re invited to the wedding!” Did Iron Man ever actually get married to Pepper? If so, did he invite Wong?!

Alas, these will remain unanswered questions… 😉

Continuing the conversation:

Do you have any unanswered questions about Avengers: Endgame? Have you seen the film? Did you enjoy it? Are there more Avengers movies I need to revisit for this blog? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

School library scene in ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”

Have you seen the utterly delightful — and rewatchable! — Netflix flick To All The Boy’s I’ve Loved Before yet? It came out this past summer, and the film was written and directed by women and based on the YA novel by Jenny Han. It stars Lana Condor as Lara Jean and Noah Centineo as the Internet’s boyfriend Peter. The two leads have chemistry for days, and watching (and rewatching) this film leaves a huge smile on my face.

Here’s a trailer for the film, so you can have a huge smile on your face:

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix,” uploaded by Netflix, Standard YouTube license

School library scene:


A very brief library scene occurs 13 minutes into the film. Lara Jean walks into the school library during her lunch period, and she breezes past the front circulation desk, where an (uncredited) reel librarian sits. The reel librarian looks up and smiles as Lara Jean walks past, serving as your basic Information Provider helping set the library scene and location.

Exchanging smiles with the reel librarian inTo All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)
Exchanging smiles with the reel librarian

This barest of cameos lands this reel librarian in the Class IV category, films in which the librarian(s) plays a cameo role and is seen only briefly with little or no dialogue.

I liked the colorful panels on the front desk that read, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” ♥


Breaking rules in the school library:


Lara Jean then sits down at a long table and takes out her lunch, which consists of some carrots.

Screenshot from To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

CRUNCH.

Screenshot from To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

Uh oh.

Screenshot from To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

Gulp.

Screenshot from To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

There are rules, girl.

Library sign about Soft Foods Only from To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

Da da DUMMMMMMM.


Lessons learned:


Soft foods only! (I love the detail of the carrot on this sign, LOL!) Lara Jean then packs up right away and heads out to find another spot for lunch.

There is no dialogue in this scene, which lasts less then 30 seconds total, but the images and facial expressions are so dynamic that they tell a story all on their own.

I also quite appreciated that the librarian didn’t need to intervene at all — the rules about the soft food and no noise was enforced by the students themselves! 😀


More school library scenes:


In the mood for more library scenes set in school libraries? I’ve got ya covered:


Sources used:


First impressions: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ (2018)

Letting out some steam in the Records Room

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:

BLACKkKLANSMAN – Official Trailer [HD] – In Theaters August 10,” Focus Features, Standard YouTube License

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:

Screenshot from BlackkKlansman (2018) trailer
Don’t mess with records librarians!

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.


Final thoughts:


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.


Want more “first impressions” posts?



Sources used:


  • BlacKkKlansman. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier. Focus Features, 2018. Based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth.
  • BlacKkKlansman” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Reader poll write-up, Fall 2018 (scary movie edition) | ‘Horror of Dracula’

“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.

Horror of Dracula Official Trailer #1 – Christopher Lee Movie (1958) HD” video uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube license

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.)

The diary of Jonathan Harker
The diary of Jonathan Harker

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.

First glimpse of Jonathan Harker, who poses as a librarian in this Dracula adaptation
First glimpse of Jonathan Harker, who poses as a librarian in this Dracula adaptation
Count Dracula's castle in Horror of Dracula (1958)
Count Dracula’s castle in Horror of Dracula (1958)

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!

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)
My self, my diary

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.

Count Dracula, Jonathan Harker, and the all-important diary
Count Dracula, Jonathan Harker, and the all-important 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.

HarkerHow soon may I start work, sir?

DraculaAs 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.

DraculaI consider myself fortunate to have found such a distinguished scholar to act as my librarian.

HarkerI like quiet and seclusion. This house, I think, offers that.

DraculaThen 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.

The key to the library from Horror of Dracula (1958)
The key to the library!

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!

First glimpse of Dracula's private library
First glimpse of Dracula’s private library

As Harker enters the room, he is startled to find the mysterious woman behind him.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)
I don’t think she’s there to help index the books

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.

Fight in the library!
Fight in the library!
Harker and Dracula duel in the library
Harker and Dracula duel in the library
There's a shortcut tunnel in and out of the library!
There’s a shortcut tunnel in and out of the library!

Lights out:


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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)
Dear diary

He then hides his diary in a boulder outside the house. This detail will be important later!

Hiding the diary before he looks for Dracula's lair
Hiding the diary before he looks for Dracula’s lair

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's lair
Dracula’s lair
Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)
Stake and shake
Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)
Uh-oh!

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)
Do you remember this letter?

The innkeeper and Van Helsing continue talking, and Van Helsing reveals more information about why and how he and Harker were working together.

InnkeeperLook, 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 HelsingPlease 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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)
Have you seen this diary?

IngaThis 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.

Librarian turned vampire?
Librarian turned vampire?

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!

Reviewing Harker's diary
Reviewing Harker’s diary

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)
The diary holds the key

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.

Final showdown in the library
Final showdown in the library — don’t take it out on the books!
Aftermath in the library
Aftermath in the library

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.


Final tidbits:


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.

Behold:

The many faces of Jonathan Harker
The many faces of Jonathan Harker

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!

VHS cover of Horror of Dracula (1958)
VHS cover of Horror of Dracula (1958)

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.


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