Friday, October 1, 2010

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Being Film #1 in Hail Horror 5

Happy October, folks.

With the release of LET ME IN, Hammer Films, that wonderfully blood-saturated UK production company looks to be getting its foot back into the world of horror. To celebrate Hammer's reintroduction into the spotlight, I decided to kick off the fifth year of Hail Horror with Hammer's version of the Bram Stoker classic, DRACULA, or HORROR OF DRACULA as it was known upon its release in the United States.  Filmed with lush, vibrant urgency by Terence Fisher, who was responsible for many of Hammer's best films such as THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, THE MUMMY, and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, (the latter two films solidifying, along with DRACULA, the powerhouse pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), HORROR OF DRACULA offers all of the earmarks that typify a "Hammer" film, and provides a few pleasant surprises for those familiar with the source material.

The surprises start right away: first with the voice over narration of Jonathan Harker, echoing the epistolary nature of Stoker's novel.  A red leather diary opens as Harker's voice begins the story, and then dissolves to a shot of a carriage travelling through the woods.  I don't know why but this, the first of many beautiful outdoor shots, served to ground the film in a weird sort of reality even as the rest of the film's sets evoked a twisted reflection of the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk blended with Roger Corman's lurid Poe adaptations and, even further back, the black and white Universal films that set the standard for classic horror.  Take for example the lair of Dracula, and its resemblance in its columns and arches to Doctor Frankenstein's quarters in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN:

Harker arrives to this seemingly empty stone palace, employed by the Count as a librarian.  When the camera first turns to Christopher Lee in the iconic black suit and cape, it's a powerful moment - our not only our first glimpse of the Vampire in the film, but also Lee's first performance of the legendary creature of the night.  Immediately a few things are evident:  Lee's physicality, his imposing height and ease with his body as he comes down the stairs the strength as he takes Harker's bag and practically glides up the stairs.  Lee's voice, perhaps his most recognizable feature now, is no less imposing in its youth, and the grace with which he speaks to Harker and comments on his luck in finding such a learned person to act as his librarian, as well as the concealed lust upon remarking on a picture of Harker's fiancĂ©e Lucy (one of many differences from the source material) is pitch perfect.  It's his voice that's his real disguise - in fact once we see the Count for what he truly is, I don't think we ever (sadly) hear Lee's voice again in the movie - just one of many interesting moves HORROR OF DRACULA employs throughout the film.

We soon learn that Harker, far from being the naive milquetoast of other films is completely aware of the Count's true nature: he took the job to get close enough to kill Dracula.  Unfortunately things don't go as planned and after being attacked by one of Dracula's brides Harker is bitten and left to die, but not before killing Dracula's female companion and hiding away his diary to be found by his partner in crime, Doctor Van Helsing.

As great as Lee's performance is in the film, Peter Cushing gets top billing and earns it as the intrepid doctor/man of action and, like Lee, imbues the doctor with a lot more physicality than is typical for the role.  With his sharp features and piercing voice Cushing always made for an uncommon protagonist, at once more modern and sinister than what was considered a leading man in his day, and it's funny how his charisma works in tandem with Lee's in this and the other pictures they did together,  Doctor Helsing (the movies makes his first name out to be Van) informs Arthur and Mina Holmwood that Harker is dead.  Lucy, Arthur's sister, can't be told as she been sick with some sort of anemia and they fear the shock might cause her further harm.  Anemia?  The pace picks up as the good doctor realizes that the Vampire is already here and he might be too late in saving poor Lucy from a fate worse than death.

Having read the book and the bare bones of the story laid out so many times on film and television the constant switch-ups and surprises really work to HORROR OF DRACULA's advantage.  Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood race to stop Dracula before more can die, and what could have been a tedious chamber drama turns into something much more visceral as the two combat the growing threat of the Undead.  From the moment Dracula discovers Harker's fight with the female vampire, Lee's performance is like a snarling animal: more than just the lack of any more dialog, his actions and strength bring to mind a hungry wolf more than a fluttering bat.  More surprises await, and the climax involves a pretty great (if slightly predictable now) twist and a great final fight between Van Helsing and Dracula that flies in the face of what we would expect for a film made in 1958.

I think the films Hammer produced in the late 50s and 60s are too easily overlooked as dated and quaint when compared to today's jump scares and casts of 20-something actors.  Combining a rich visual palette, stirring music and acting that's the very measure of English restraint even as it threatens and occasionally does break free from its prison.  HORROR OF DRACULA might not be the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel even put to the screen, but its novelty and outstanding performances from its two leads make it one of the best.

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