Friday, April 26, 2013

The Horror of Dracula

The Horror of Dracula aka Dracula (UK title) (1958)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster (from the novel by Bram Stoker)
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling

From the director of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT comes this early Hammer production, the first to feature the now-classic pairing of Lee and Cushing as arch-nemeses Dracula and Van Helsing and only the second of Hammer’s series reinventing the classic Universal Monsters (after Fisher’s own THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN one year earlier). That’s a lot of baggage for one 1958 horror film, and one would be forgiven for imagining that this would be at best a middling oddity, a prototype which showed promise but still suffered unmistakable signs that the creators were still defining their formula.

You’d be forgiven for imagining such a thing, but you’d be wrong. Turns out that they got it right the first time: Fisher delivers a fully-formed vision with a startling ferocity and focus, and a seemingly intuitive grasp of the delightful mechanics that would eventually define the Hammer brand. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise after watching his highly entertaining DEVIL RIDES OUT, but for a 1950s horror film HORROR OF DRACULA is surprisingly packed with action, perverse sexuality, and imagination, even as it hews more faithfully to the original Stoker novel than most versions of the tale.

Man, this Castle is all stairs and no lights. How'd they ever get this place insured?

I love that unmistakable Hammer feel, but I have to admit that a lot of their films feel languid and uneventful, padding their running time with boring exposition in posh sitting rooms and interminable footage of people driving places. Sometimes the atmosphere is strong enough to justify the measured pace, but a lot of the time --let’s face it-- it’s not, and you’re left with a ridiculously low ratio of horror to scenes of a bunch of iffy English actors sitting in front of bookshelves and remarking that they don’t believe in this or that. I had assumed this tone was set early on, since 50’s horror tended towards slack pontificating (see, for instance, the enjoyable but mostly uneventful CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON only a few years earlier). But I guess not, because HORROR OF DRACULA packs a lot into it’s slim 82 minute runtime, teasing the essence of Stoker’s novel out of its taut screenplay while adding little elements of its own character.

Finally, a practical application for his years of experience cultivating tomatoes.

The most important of these, obviously, is Christopher Lee as Drac himself. In later films, Lee would often find his Dracula sidelined, revived by some hippie cult only to swish around in a cape for a few scenes at the end. He looks great in the cape, of course, but isn’t always given much to play. Here, though, he’s mesmerizing; his performance (while short on dialogue) combines Lugosi’s seductive coldness with a unique animal intensity. Lee plays the Count not as a wanly magnetic hypnotist, but as a calculating predator who moves slowly only because he is patiently waiting to pounce. There’s an athleticism and a sense of barely-concealed raw power to his performance. His sexuality is not one of desire, but of overwhelming force. As such, it makes sense to cast skinny little Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Abraham Van Helsing. Cushing looks ludicrously overmatched by 6’ 5’’ Lee, but he has an inherently resolute British seriousness to him, giving him just enough fight to stand up to an ancient evil or two (check out the finale, where he --and not a stunt double, I don’t think-- leaps off a table like a monkey and swings down on a gigantic curtain). Though it was obviously a stroke of genius for George Lucas to cast him as a villain, Hammer always saw Cushing as a good guy, and here he aptly demonstrates just what a stalwart Brit can do with a little moxie, a bible, and a well-sharpened stake. Still, Lee is commanding enough that for once Dracula seems like a genuinely overpowering being, and Cushing’s plight seems convincingly desperate.

Fun fact: Christopher Lee put out two "Symphonic Metal Concept Albums" about Charlemagne. I'm not even a little joking and I urge you to click on the link if you don't believe me. 

Interestingly, even though this film seems amazingly subversive for 1958 (PSYCHO, remember, was still two years away) it was originally intended to be even more button-pushing. The recent discovery of a badly-damaged longer Japanese cut features a more explicit seduction scene and a bloodier final death for the Count (including Dracula peeling away his burning flesh in a groundbreaking makeup technique which, alas, no one but the Japanese saw until the 2012 blu-ray release of the film). I take both these elements are more evidence of director Fisher’s surprisingly unheralded desire and ability to make crowdpleasing, overstuffed horror on a Hammer budget. DEVIL RIDES OUT obviously attests to that, but HORROR OF DRACULA impressively finds time for atmosphere too, particularly in its highly effective crypt scene, which gets plenty of mileage for the classic Hammer foggy British gardens setting without skimping on the fangs. With a few books dedicated to his work published in recent years, it seems like Fisher may finally be getting his due, both for creating (essentially from nothing) the essence of the Hammer Horror identity and for crafting genuinely entertaining horror films in their own right. THE HORROR OF DRACULA is a testament both to that legacy and to the enduring appeal of Stoker’s tale.



(see also: Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN series)

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