February 12, 2009

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) - bloody good

(1958, UK, Dracula)

A compact classic Hammer Horror film, that's still working

Previously, Dracula was gothic, black and white, with a thick Eastern European accent, and no fangs. Hammer's Dracula starts with bright red Technicolor blood dripping over the titles, to signal that a new era had arrived, with a far scarier vampire. Out came the fangs, in went the stakes, and down went the necklines. The producers were fighting the censor along the way, especially after the savage critical reaction to Curse of Frankenstein which first teamed Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. What they offered was a little more sex and violence.

Lee's performance is still startling today. One minute he's a charming aristocrat, the next a wild-eyed animal - swift, strong, and single-mindedly hungry for blood. With no prosthetic make-up, his Dracula is scary because of the blood dripping from his lips, his bloodshot eyes and his demonic performance. When a crucifix comes out, he reacts like a cornered snake, and hisses in disgust. Here is a villain from Hell, clever, dangerous and evil. There's no moral dilemma - Dracula must be destroyed.

Although the film is fifty years old, Christopher Lee is still with us, still acting. While he's found a new fanbase as Sar
uman in Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in the Star Wars franchise, he landed both roles because of the lasting impression of his Dracula films.

Lower down the cast, but also still with us is Geoffrey Bayldon. This actor often played far older characters. Here's he's a grey-haired porter, even though he was only 34! You may have seen him as the tour guide in Tales From The Crypt, creepy Max in Asylum and Theo the cloak-seller in The House that Dripped Blood. Like Lee, he's still working!

Likewise, the lovely Janina Faye as the little girl being pursued by the undead. Her scene with Van Helsing, as he protects her from the night's chill, is a lovely moment of calm amidst the horror. It's not easy finding talented child actors who act their age. I also enjoyed her roles in two Janette Scott movies The Day of the Triffids and The Beauty Jungle.

Christopher Lee starred as Dracula in six more Hammer films. They'd have used him more - but he was substituted by other actors when he put his foot down and avoided Brides of Dracula and The Legend of Seven Golden Vampires.

Horror of Dracula (as it was released in the USA) moved the character of Van Helsing into the spotlight, a character who's as virtuous as Dracula is evil. On the face of it, Van Helsing is an anti-hero, a man who digs up the dead and mutilates them, but played by Peter Cushing, he's not only pure, he's a polite and considerate gentleman as well. You couldn't find a better role model... who stakes vampires. It's a shame that modern audiences only know Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars, because it was such an atypical role for a versatile and compassionate actor - my very favourite in the horror genre.

After the prologue, where the unlucky Jonathan Harker arrives at Dracula's castle, the rest of the film is spent in the company of Lee or Cushing. If that wasn't enough of a treat, there's also the distinctive Michael Gough, temporarily upgraded from his schlocky (though very enjoyable) b-movie horrors.

The story is a heavily abridged version of the rambling book, omitting most of the supernatural elements. like Dracula's shape-shifting abilities, and instead focusing on blood-drinking and the transmission of evil, as his victims become other vampires. Jimmy sangster's best script for a Dracula film fast-forwards through much of the story and loses many characters, even Renfield. Gone are the sea crossings - Dracula's castle is now a short horseride across the border from a mythical English-speaking town in central Europe. This leaves a taut, tight story, unlike the other movie versions.

After fifty years, this is still a great introduction to the crux of a classic horror tale. The period setting, combined with the film's age make it almost look like it was filmed at the turn of the century when it was supposed to take place. The only annoyances are the brief but lame comedy relief.

A newly-restored print was shown recently in London and has reportedly been remastered in high-definition. But there's no blu-ray release in sight, which could also be the film's uncensored debut in digital. I watched my region 1 DVD (pictured at top), which crops the action fairly tightly into a 16:9 frame. It's a watchable transfer for now, and is only missing a little close-up staking, as far as I know.

Here's the original trailer


  1. I was at the restored screening at The Vault cinema in early 2012 to see this in the company of the lovely Janina Faye.
    It does look fabulous now, and there are two brief extra scenes restored from the only known surviving Japanese print, that show a more sensual seduction of Mina, and also the famous bit where Christopher Lee drags his hand over his face as it crumbles away, not seen in the UK ever before.
    Great stuff.
    There will be a Blu-Ray apparently, but not until the end of 2012 at the earliest.

  2. I show several clips of this film in my film class when we do the Dracula/Universal Monsters lecture. I show it to illustrate the difference in characterization as well as production design etc...Very popular with students and often chosen as an out of class film screening. In comparison, the Langella Dracula is favored somewhat less by them. What a classic!