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October 28, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #43 - Horror of Dracula

It's often hard to see that Horror of Dracula, which seems tame by today's standards, is a film to which almost all of the horror traditions we believe in can be traced back to.  Blood?  Got it.  Breasts? Not quite bare, but on display.  A silent killer?  Not quite, but Count Dracula only speaks 13 lines - all to one character - and Christopher Lee would go completely silent in the next Dracula film he did (Dracula - Prince of Darkness).  These days it's hard to believe that this film was once deemed violent and controversial, considering everything that's happened to the horror genre from Psycho to Saw.  (This is the only time I'll ever connect those movies, I swear!)  But it's true; I can't think of a single horror film pre-Psycho that resembles the future of horror like Horror of Dracula does.
Still, the great thing about Hammer's first take on Dracula is that, at its core, it understands the allure of Count Dracula.  This wasn't hard to miss at the time - Universal's version that starred Bela Lugosi was STILL playing in some theaters (despite being 27 years old), and another Dracula film - The Return of Dracula, starring Francis Lederer - would open a month before Hammer's film had its premiere in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (If you had asked me to guess where Hammer's first Dracula film premiered earlier in my days, I'd have never, ever guessed Milwaukee.)  That American black-and-white film was quickly forgotten by audiences - even after the producers added a color shot that mimicked the stakings in Horror of Dracula.
Horror of Dracula marks the first time that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would appear as the top-billed stars in a film together, and both did their part to keep the film relevant.  Though the role of Van Helsing had been played before and would be played again, I've always felt that Cushing does to it what Karloff did to Frankenstein's monster.  This is the textbook example of a vampire expert, and this Van Helsing even makes comments about the similarity between vampirism and addiction to drugs, which would become a hot button issue in vampire films of the '80s and '90s.  A lot of credit has to go to the writing by Hammer's unsung hero Jimmy Sangster, but Cushing doesn't need much help to make the role his own.
Plus, we've got Lee.  His turn as Dracula, though marred by difficult contact lenses that at times rendered him blind on set, is the rare new take on a classic character that soars.  His physical presence - at 6'5" tall - is key to the film, as he's certainly more imposing than that Hungarian fellow who never drinks wine.  This is another bit of flash forward to the future of horror - in which killers got bigger and slower and quieter - but Lee's size is not the only thing that makes his Dracula effective.  The man shows a keen ability to play both the human Count and the inhuman Dracula without speaking for the film's final two acts.  There's a startling - and effective - disconnect between the proper Count he plays at the beginning of the film and the snarling beast he becomes when threatened.  Lee became Dracula just as Cushing became Van Helsing, though Lugosi's staying power has kept both portrayals fresh.  (I'll never be able to give up on the "Creatures of the night..." line from Bela.)
There's a lot more to love about the cast of Horror of Dracula.  Michael "Alfred Pennyworth" Gough is excellent as the skeptical Arthur Homewood who slowly comes to believe Van Helsing's tales.  More exciting are the main female roles, including Virginia Madsen lookalike Melissa Stribling as Lucy, and Carol Marsh (who might give the film's best performance) as the doomed Mina Harker (one of the film's biggest steps away from the source material).  I'd be ashamed to not mention Valerie Gaunt as Dracula's undead bride in the opening scenes.  With her pale flesh and revealing dress, she is an unforgettable part of the film's hook.  From the first time we see her trying to seduce - and then feed on - Jonathan Harker, we know this film is a different kind of monster than any Dracula that Universal produced.  The sexual aspect of the film would carry on throughout, leading up to a meeting between Dracula and Lucy that ever-so-slightly implies rape. 
The staged nature of the production is directed well by Terence Fisher, with a deliberate pace that seems to fill the runtime with as much information as was possible.  Composer James Bernard sets the tone - literally - for Hammer's series of horrors with his haunting and occasionally aggressive score, and the sets are luscious and memorable - despite the fact that Hammer nearly fired the set designer for being too different from Universal's film.  The combined efforts of those involved - plus some fine costumes and effects - make the 81 minute film feel like an epic production on a grand scale.
And then there's the gore.  Though it's incredibly minimal by today's standards, the amount of blood shown on screen - usually dripping from mouths or necks, and at one point spurting from a chest - was extremely unheard of for the cinema of 1958.  Horror of Dracula had to fight cuts by censors, and a few moments when the film fades to black remind us that the film probably wanted to show even more than it did.
When summing all these things up, Horror of Dracula becomes the prototypical Hammer horror in my eyes.  The film, like so many that would follow it, bridges the gap perfectly between the romantic side of horror that prevailed in the 1930s and the disturbing and violent films that would follow.  We've lost that balance over time, as society becomes less willing to accept stories which don't relate to their own world (leading to things like Dracula 2000, for example), but when I look back at the greatest moments in horror history, Horror of Dracula stands tall.  We don't always notice the impact that this film - which seemed to just be a remake of a classic property at the time - has had on the landscape of horror, but we should.  Horror of Dracula is as relevant (and also as fantastic) as a horror film can be.
And that, my good Midnight Warriors, is exactly where I want Hammer Films Month at FMWL to end.  It's been a heck of a journey, and I wish I could cover more, but there's no better place to stop then at the top.  Fear not, because I have a couple of special posts lined up for the weekend that will surely give you some Halloween treats, and I'm sure our friends at Hammer will be back on FMWL from time to time.  Until then, it's been an honor to share some of their work with you all, and I hope you've enjoyed!

1 comment:

stonerphonic said...

We, the Midnite Warriors, salute you.

Awesome way to finish your Hammer "legacy" series.

The Mike delivers the goods once again.

The crowds go crazy.......