Friday, September 19, 2014

Hammer Dracula: Horror Of Dracula (1958)

Horror Of Dracula aka Dracula
Director: Terence Fisher
Starring:  Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt
Rated:  Approved

Sleep well, Mr. Harker.
      ~Count Dracula

I've wanted to get to some more classical horror stuff for a retrospective and with a new Dracula movie coming out (Dracula Untold - October 10), the door seemed open to cover the infamous blood sucker.  And when it comes to Count Dracula, we know Bela Legosi's performance in the 1931 Universal depiction is the most iconic, and nobody will forget the haunting appearance of Max Schreck in 1922's Nosferatu.  But, when it comes down to doing a franchise of Dracula, its hard not think of the Hammer run of film with Christopher Lee as the Prince of Darkness.  From 1958-1974 this series ran through 9 entries.  Mounting up that many sequels in such a short span, Hammer Dracula was pretty much the Friday The 13th or Saw of its era.  I'm extremely excited to revisit this classic franchise and monster and I hope you are too.
Bram Stoker's Dracula may be one of the most adapted books and remade movies we've ever had.  Its been adapted in film and television since 1922 with the illegally adapted Nosferatu (same story, character names changed).  And I can't tell you why, but I am always fascinated to see another rendition of it.  There's something to be said about this story and then seeing many different directors' and writers' vision of it.  Taking new twists, new turns.  You could watch the Spanish 1931 Dracula (which is actually a better film than its Legosi counterpart, believe it or not) followed by Werner Herzog's Nosferatu The Vampyre and not get the slightest bit bored or feel like you are watching the same thing back to back.  Its a character and story that we go to back to the well on time and time again.  So many people are fans of the novel, the movies, the character that everyone knows who he is.  Dracula went from people's nightmares to a lovable animated figure on cereal boxes (along with the rest of his Universal Monsters gang).  It just makes me wonder if we'll ever seen Jason, Michael, Freddy or Leatherface get to those reaches.
Let's talk about Hammer Horror for a second.  Their basic function was to remake horror classics from Hollywood's yesteryear with modern production values, performances, scriptwork and effects.  The year prior to Horror Of Dracula they did The Curse Of Frankenstein.  They were reintroducing a new generation to Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, etc while giving a spruced up treat and new cinematic adventures for the fans of the originals.  Sound familiar?  That's EXACTLY what Platinum Dunes has been doing for the 70s and 80s generations for horror since 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Luckily for Hammer though, the internet was far away from them and audiences could go and enjoy and appreciate what they were being given.  People accepted Hammer in a way that went quite the opposite for Platinum Dunes with the old school fans.  Nobody was complaining about liberties being taken with the adaptation or a character acting a certain way, plot points or characters changing.  They just sat and enjoyed the damn movie and judged as a film itself, not based on what came before.  Both Bela Legosi's Dracula and Christopher Lee's Dracula were allowed to exist and one didn't tarnish the other or ruin another movie.  Gosh things in cinema seem more peaceful back then.
Which brings us to Horror Of Dracula.  While the film is based off of Bram Stoker's novel, it takes many liberties with it and the 1931 film.  Its a tighter, faster paced film that surprises you by flipping your expectations of what's to come.  At this point, Dracula was so ingrained in theater going audience's brains, Hammer seemed to know that and twisted and turned things.  This film doesn't have Renfield and Dr. Seward plays the most minimal of parts.  They decided for this that they would take the two most notable characters from the story and have them pitted against each other, having Van Helsing be the star of the film and Dracula the scene stealing menace.  This film really cuts the chase and moves along quite quickly.  
To open, this is like a zombie movie that decides that people know what the hell they are and ditches all the scenes that explain them and go through the motions of discovering how to kill them and such.  Jonathan Harker has been altered so that he is actually part of a vampire hunting duo with Van Helsing hunting down Dracula under the guise that he's applying to be his personal librarian.  The twist this time isn't that Dracula is a vampire, its that Harker has come to him damn well knowing what he is and is there to go for the kill.  Unfortunately Harker makes a giant movie mistake and goes to kill the female vampire before staking Dracula.  Obviously audiences were more forgiving of something like this back then, and you'll get over his stupidity quite quickly.  Just know that this Jonathan Harker is doomed not to return in and further reel of this film.
Christopher Lee dons the cape for the role that would help him make a name for himself.  He's a very tall and imposing figure.  I love the first shot we see him.  It kinda makes you stir in your seat because its so abrupt.  One of the big achievements from Lee is that the guy has 13 lines in the entire movie and only spoken to one character.  After the 25 minute mark, he never speaks again.  Its also incredible the 180 turn he takes as well.  Dracula starts as this astute statesmen, very proper and professional toward Harker.  Once you seen this film multiple times, however, there's another level to this performance where I have this feeling that Dracula is on to Harker before he even arrives and the two are sort of playing a game with each other to "play along with the scenario" and see which one bites (I couldn't resist) on their agenda first.  Then, Lee makes a drastic turn in the middle of the night showcases his monster side and its shear pandemonium as he's go bloodshot eyes and a bloody fanged mouth (i think this is the first time on film, Dracula has sported the fangs, too.  I could be wrong though).  For the rest of the film he becomes a vicious imposing beast.  But, Lee prestigiously tones it down and is able to become quite the seducer later on.  While Dracula seems to be more in a goon role for this tighter version of the story, its Lee who makes it more than it had any right being and gives one of the greatest monster performances of all time.
Peter Cushing as Doctor Van Helsing is a thing of beauty.  The guy brings such prestige and gravitas to the role that sort of ropes all this fantastical vampire stuff in and makes it feel real and immediate.  Cushing plays everything straight and with great conviction.  Because of him, there is a looming suspense and doom.  Every word that comes out his mouth is pure greatness and damn serious no matter how silly something might sound.  Because Cushing is saying it, you damn well better listen or you'll pay.  He's my personal favorite rendition of Van Helsing and he and Lee being in a movie is one thing, but in the Dracula series its at a whole other level.  Their battle at the end is one for the ages.  Its intense, destruction, and tell me its not just bad ass when Van Helsing runs off the table and leaps off to pull down the drapes.  That's just great cinema right there.  While Frankenstein may have been the official launching point for the Hammer Horror films, it really was Horror Of Dracula that broke out and got things fired away.
One of the most lauded aspects of these Hammer films is their set design, and Dracula is right up there.  The sets and costumes are pretty authentic looking, but are marvelous to sit and look at.  The exteriors even look and feel real.  Dracula's castle isn't some monstrous piece of architecture, it looks believable and almost as if you could imagine what it feels like.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that this word looks really plausible.  We also get some of that great, super red paint-like blood that Hammer is known for.  While its not real looking the slightest, there's still a disgusting, yet artful flavor to it.  Factor in, too a bit of nostalgia.  The staking of Lucy though, still can get you squeamish, I don't care what anyone says.  The way that is shot, edited and foley'd is some real masterwork.  Impressive, too, is Dracula's demise.  Yeah, its old school, but man if him withering away to ashes doesn't look cool.  Apparently there's some more graphic footage for it that recently resurfaced and is on a Japanese Blu-ray edition now, but I've still not seen it.
Horror Of Dracula is a nice, tighter, more action-oriented version of Bram Stoker's classic tale, yet still maintains a lot of its mythology.  You won't have to worry about being bored or "sitting through this story again" because this sucker just moves.  Within moments Harkness arriving at Dracula's home, he's staring down the shaft of a wooden stake ready to take down the dark prince.  Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are an absolute treat to watch go head to head.  And I didn't even mention that its also fun to see Alfred (Michael Gough) as a young man in the film tag along with Van Helsing.  This is a very interesting and fun twist on the Dracula story and I think still has a few chills left in it today, but all in all its actually a really fun time for a horror film.  

NEXT TIME:  Here comes the Brides

No comments:

Post a Comment