Thursday, December 10, 2009

Horror of Dracula

Hammer, 1958
Video from Warner Video

Producer: Anthony Hinds
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster

Van Helsing- Peter Cushing
Dracula- Christopher Lee
Arthur Holmwood- Michael Gough
Mina Holmwood- Melissa Stribling
Lucy Holmwood- Carol Marsh

I've found it relatively easy to find things to say about the other Hammer films I've discussed here. But now we turn to the first Hammer Dracula, HORROR OF DRACULA, and I have found myself stumped. It's a classic, and it deserves to be.

HORROR OF DRACULA is perhaps the only Hammer film to be what we might call "culturally significant," as much for what it ushered in as for what it is. The film, coming in on the heels of Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein, put Hammer on the map as a horror company, and more, put horror back on the map as a genre.

Screening HORROR OF DRACULA I am compelled to imagine it's 1958 and I'm sitting in a theater, opening night. I know I'm going to go see Dracula, but what does that mean? Primarily, especially for an American, it means Hungarian Expatriate Bela Lugosi as the vampire count-- a strange, black-and-white charmer who speaks unintelligible English and uses his hands as gnarled, hypnotic weapons. I think of cobwebs and Hollywood sets, and the sort of chisel-jawed heroes and fluffy-cheeked ingenues of the 1930's-- and these images are fresh, because after a long death at the box office, the old horrors have begun to resurface on television. Along that way the image has become a joke, too, a vaudeville farce and home to Bud and Lou and soap commercials. Lugosi is both sacred and the object of constant profanity. Lugosi and the black-and-white castles are it. That's where we are, 1958, about to see Dracula and thinking of an indelible impression created on Americans nearly thirty years before.

And the film opens, and the first thing that jolts me is *color,* bright, garish color, as the camera lingers on the battlements of the Castle Dracula and heavy, ominous red letters hang on the screen. Color! In a horror movie! The camera moves into the castle, down into the crypt, and finally lingers on a steel-gray tomb, and the name is there, carved in stone, as if we've never heard it before: DRACULA. As if to say, we're not just re-introducing, we're introducing, period. This is it. Director Fisher saw no need to view the American version, and here I am, 1958, Lugosi burned into my brain, and look, I'm forgetting already. Blood falls on the stone and we fade to black.

There's so much here I'll be brief because I could just as well be overlong, hitting the best things to look for in HORROR OF DRACULA:


This is, I think, the most amazing thing about the picture, for those of you who've seen it but may have forgotten the details. Nearly every movie that purports to be an adaptation of the story of the novel begins the same, with Jonathan Harker visiting Dracula because Dracula wants to buy a house in London, after which Dracula sort of invades England.

HORROR OF DRACULA turns this plot completely on its ear by having Harker come to Dracula posing as a librarian. It takes several scenes before we discover that Harker is an undercover vampire slayer, out to dispatch Dracula himself or die trying. Before Harker fails, he slays Dracula's vampire bride. Dracula goes to England to get revenge.

This is a big deal. Dracula is a predator and a vampire in HORROR OF DRACULA, but the plot rises to the level of fable when you recognize that Dracula is like a lion in the forest, which a foolish hunter has lured out into the village.


My single favorite character in all Hammer is Peter Cushing's athletic and brilliant Abraham Van Helsing. The good doctor is introduced here and will, like Dracula, return over the series, so it's worthwhile to see him in what seems to be his early vampire-slaying career. In HORROR OF DRACULA, Van Helsing is still learning, apparently. He is clever and quick, but he doesn't know everything there is to know about vampires yet-- he comes across as a man who thinks he knows everything, hopes he's right, and turns out to be, more or less.

Also interesting is Van Helsing as Harker's partner- presumably they drew straws to choose who would get to go to Dracula's castle, and Harker lost. What did these two men do? Why did they become vampire slayers? I don't mind not knowing.

Cushing is a marvel, stylish and authoritative and sympathetic. He's a wonderful, wonderful character.


Of course, this is the movie that introduced Christopher Lee as Dracula and turned him into an international star. And boy, should it have: Lee is a tall drink of blood, all right, with a voice deeper than the pits of Hell and a strange knack for looking charming when he's at his most dangerous. Just imagine being there, 1958, Lugosi on the brain, and we are introduced to Lee as Dracula.

Lee's Dracula first appears at the top of a staircase, and you expect something odd, really, some sort of attack or flight-- but instead he walks down the stairs, moving into frame and smiling, a charming host of impeccable manners. He seems... serene, this Dracula, the best poster-child for landed nobility you ever saw. And he charmingly, quietly locks Harker in his room.

When Dracula appears again, he roars and snarls and leaps in a vampire rage, his face smeared in blood. The effect is that of having caught the charming noble doing something nasty, and he's turned on you. Amazing. Christopher Lee accomplishes so much with his face and body that you forget that he's not actually in the film that much.

And make no mistake, this is very much the Dracula of SCARS OF DRACULA-- that demanding megalomaniac sexual predator. HORROR OF DRACULA was the first Dracula film to play up the sex, but it's complicated, of course: Dracula sets the Victorian women free, turns them on, but only before doing them great violence. There seems to be real tenderness in his face-kisses to the married and swooning Mina, and truly, both of his victims seem to be locked in their desire to be, um, predated, by Dracula. But this is not the charming bourgeois vampirism of KISS OF THE VAMPIRE; this is evil. He's a bad, bad, dangerous, attractive man.


Actually introduced in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the Hammerscape is still a fresh enough creation as of HORROR OF DRACULA that it's worth mentioning. See! English Germans! Cockney tavern keepers and busty hausfraus with London accents calling people *Herr.* See! English trees passing for eastern European mountains.

See the wondrous colors, the magnificent set decorations of Bernard Robinson, who used chalk on paper to create a breathtaking marble mosaic, who defined the curious red-and-blue palette that would drive the Hammers for the rest of their days. See the sets for the first time, which you'll come to know the way you know the Enterprise.


Lastly, the final moments are still a grabber even forty years later- Cushing pursuing Lee through the Count's house, finally cornering him for duel of brawn and brains in a massive dining hall. Cushing here is a man born to fight the vampire count, a man brought alive by a good opponent. It's a wonder to see Cushing jump on the table, spring from the edge and rip the curtains from the windows as the morning light pours in, then drive the vampire into dust, clutch two candlesticks in his hands in the form of a cross. It's a visceral, breathtaking scene, and an eternal favorite.

Enough. See it.

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