Saturday, June 13, 2015

Cult Classic Movie Review: Horror of Dracula

In honor of the late Christopher Lee, whose June 7 death was reported yesterday, I took a first look at the first of his series of iconic career-defining roles as Dracula. Lee is best known to modern audiences as the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies or as the Sith Lord Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. But in the 50s and 60s, he starred in many of Hammer Films’ British horror films.

His first turn as the vampire was in Dracula, which was re-titled Horror of Dracula in the United States to avoid confusion with the Tod Browning-directed version from 1931 starring Bela Lugosi. The Hammer Films series was the second big iteration of attempts to bring Bram Stoker’s novel to the screen. Universal had made the Lugosi film and a few follow-ups, but Lee became a new generation’s face of Count Dracula for several years. Since the late 70s pop culture has been inundated with vampire stories ranging from the grotesqueries of John Carpenter and Stephen King to the comedy of Once Bitten starring Jim Carrey and then finally landing at teenage soap opera thanks to Stephanie Meyer by way of Anne Rice.

From a modern perspective, Horror of Dracula doesn’t look like much. It plays now as campy and spare, even more so than the Universal version. But it occurred to me while watching it that in 1958 this was probably one of the first films to be as explicit as it was with blood, violence, and the subtext of sexual predation. It’s tame by any standard we have now, but in the 50s there was violence in westerns, war films, and noir thrillers, none o which really showed blood or any penetration of flesh by bullets or knives. Horror of Dracula gets down and dirty and into the visceral with stakes to the chest, burns from crucifixes, and the screams of pain. And then there’s the big effects scene at the end as Dracula burn up in the sunlight, defeated by Van Helsing.

It’s pretty clear the film didn’t really have an effects budget. The blood is even less convincing than the color used by westerns of the time. And there’s no attempt to give Dracula any of those other-worldly uncanny styles of movement. He doesn’t float, glide, levitate, or transmute. He doesn’t even appear to have the super strength that many cinematic vampires have been imbued with. He seems quite human. But Lee’s performance sells it. In an early scene after meeting Jonathan Harker, played by John Van Eyssen, (in this version Harker is a vampire hunter and partner of Van Helsing as opposed to a real estate broker), he ascends a staircase two steps at a time using his tall frame to make the movement as smooth as possible. Lee doesn’t have but more than a dozen or so lines in the movie, all of them within the first ten minutes. His entire performance is expressed through the hard gaunt features of his face and the long fingers that jut from his hands at angles suggesting the craggy roots of a dead tree.

At eighty minutes, Horror of Dracula doesn’t have the luxury to develop much or even to be a faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel. The characters have the same names, but the journey at sea is elided. In this version Dracula’s castle as well as the village of Harker, Lucy, Mina, and Van Helsing seems to be in Germany. Terence Fisher directed the film and the screenplay was written by Jimmy Sangster, both of whom worked for most of their careers on Hammer films, mainly in the horror genre. Hammer Films functioned like the old Hollywood studios with contracted artists and technicians who worked on whatever was assigned to them. Authorship was apparently secondary to creating entertainment.

Of course Peter Cushing is Van Helsing. He has softer tones to his voice, but his hawk-like facial features suggest to me perhaps a more likely casting choice for the Count, which is part of what makes the film interesting. Cushing and Lee became good friends and appeared together in twenty films. Michael Gough, who became a mainstay in Tim Burton’s films late in his career, plays Arthur and Carol Marsh is Lucy.

In 1931, Lugosi gave the more theatrical and technical performance of Dracula. Max Schreck, in the great silent classic Nosferatu, was chilling. Lee is more pragmatic, imposing, and athletic. It was a new style of vampire at the time. The scares don’t come easily now that the film has aged more than a half century, but you can see that they were there at the time. This version advanced the notion for the first time on film the underlying theme of Dracula as sexual predator, as rapist, and his female victims as aroused by the attacks that come in their bedrooms in the middle of the night. Later vampire films have not shied away from this, but the Browning version completely elided it.

Making the film in Technicolor was a huge departure for the genre. Horror films were always low budget and black-and-white. Here the terror and the gothic nightmare are rendered brightly and even without the darkness and shadows that characterized earlier horror films. Horror of Dracula is obviously low budget – the sets (production design by Bernard Robinson) are sparsely filled out with decoration and props and a lot of the walls, columns, and arches look like cardboard, but the color photography by Jack Asher was a great development for the genre.

It may not look like much today, but this film had as much influence on vampire lore and horror films as Browning’s original version did. And Lee set a new bar in the performance of the most famous bloodsucker in the history of fiction.

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