Screened December 4, 2009 on Warner Brothers DVD in Brooklyn NY
TSPDT rank #995 IMDbWiki
For this film I felt less interested in my own thoughts than in those of two of my earliest friends in the world of online cinephilia. Back when I was a regular on the IMDb Classic Film board, Lee Price (Lee-109) and Christianne Benedict (Chris-435) were among the most knowledgeable and engaging peers, especially on the subject of horror films. In fact they were contributors to the anthology Horror 101. (Some of you may also know Christianne from our wonderful video essay on The World According to Garp; and Lee was behind the 100 Directors of Animated Shorts). So I thought to call them up and ask them what they thought of this film. What follows is 25 minutes of awesomeness. You can listen to the .mp3 here or right-click to download. Here’s an index of topics for easy reference:
0:00 – Setting template of Hammer horror and post-’50s horror movies
6:24 – What do Hammer’s Dracula and James Bond have in common?
8:20 – What Christopher Lee brought to Dracula
11:35 – Sex, vmpires and Victorian women
14:15 – Bram Stoker’s paranoia
16:00 – Favorite Dracula films, and why no movie yet has gotten Dracula right
18:00 – What Hammer introduced to the Dracula myth and to the movies
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Dracula among They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:
Evelyn Caron-Lowins, Positif (1991)
Tomas Fernandez Valenti, Dirigido Por (1992)
All-Time Movie Favourites (Book)
Independents and Others: British Prestige (1975)
Chicago Film Critics Association, The 100 Scariest Movies of All Time (2006)
Cinescape The Top 100 Sci-Fi, Horror & Fantasy Films (2000)
Danny Peary Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
Empire The 50 Greatest Horror Movies Ever (2000)
Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
Taschen Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007)
The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007)
Total Film 50 Greatest British Movies Ever (2004)
Various Critics Book – 501 Must-See Movies (2004)
Various Critics Book – 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
One month prior to the commencement of filming, Producer Anthony Hinds submitted the draft script to the British Board of Film Censors for approval. The Board Reader’s report contained complains about ‘the uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster’ and noted wryly: ‘Why do vampires need to be messier feeders than anyone else?’.
The points of objection were summarised by John Nicholls, Board Secretary for the British Board of Film Censors. They requested that all women should be ‘decently clad’ and reminded Hammer that sex should not be emphasised in a horror movie. Additionally, the Board demanded that vampires’ teeth should never be seen to sink into the neck, that Dracula should not fling the vampire woman across the room by her hair, and that stakes should be used ‘out of frame’ – shots of the vampires after staking or their screams during the act should be omitted. On viewing a black and white rough cut of the movie, the Board requested that the staking of Lucy, Dracula’s seduction of Mina and the final disintegration of Dracula had to be either omitted entirely or significantly edited.
Managing Director of Hammer Studios, James Carreras wrote to the Board, asking for a compromise over certain shots, reminding them that the X certificate they were seeking would automatically prevent anyone under the age of 16 from seeing the film, that the dedicated audience would expect a certain amount of ‘horror’ and that the cuts the Board had requested would remove the very thrills the audience wanted to see. By the time the final colour edit was ready, the Board had been worn down to the point where they found only two shots objectionable; the gushing of blood during Lucy’s staking, and a shot in the final scene of Dracula clawing his face off. These scenes were removed and Dracula was finally granted a BBFC ‘X’ Certificate in April 1958, but with a stern warning from John Nicholls to Anthony Hinds that he should never attempt to get similar material passed by the Board in the future.
Unsurprisingly, many critics were vitriolic in the extreme towards Dracula. CA Lejeune, writing for The Observer, was particularly damning:
I regret to hear that it is being shown in America with emphasis laid on its British origin, and feel inclined to apologise to all decent Americans for sending them a work in such sickening bad taste.
She added that although the poster advises you ‘Don’t Dare See It Alone!’, she would ‘prefer not to expose a companion to what seems to me a singularly repulsive piece of nonsense’.
Similarly, the Daily Telegraph’s critic believed that Dracula was too nasty a film, even for adults:
This British film has an ‘X’ Certificate. This is too good for it. There should be a new certificate – ‘S’ for sadistic or just ‘D’ for disgusting.
However, despite the largely negative press the movie received, there were a few critics who saw the merit in Hammer’s production. Dudley Carew in The Times extolled:
Mr Christopher Lee makes a saturnine and malignant Count… and the part is played straight, as melodramatic parts should be played. Altogether this is a horrific film, and sometimes a crude film, but by no means an unimpressive piece of dramatic storytelling.
- BBC h2g2
Yesterday, sporting a somewhat redundant title, “Horror of Dracula,” the durable old boy himself arrived from England to take up residence at the Mayfair. Perhaps the constant hunt for hemoglobin is slowing our villain down, for this time there are strong indications that the once gory plot is showing definite signs of anemia.
Say this for “Horror of Dracula,” however, it does have its exotic aspects. It was filmed in vivid color, which makes its “undead” all the more lurid. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that all of its principals speak with impeccable Oxonian accents, even though they appear to be citizens of some unnamed Transylvanian community.
For the record, the ominous Count’s king-sized canines put their fatal trade marks on three luckless victims: John Van Eyssen and Carol Marsh and Valerie Gaunt, a pair of damsels who look delectable enough in diaphanous shifts to turn the head of a red-blooded observer. Christopher Lee is grim but not nearly so chilling as Bela Lugosi in the title role, and Peter Cushing is proper and precise as the meticulous researcher who finally turns our monster into dust.
This can’t be the end, however. We bet the price of admission to the Mayfair against a sprig of garlic flowers (vampires hate ‘em) that some moonlit night Count Dracula will rise again with the aid of another intrepid producer.
- A. H. Weiler, The New York Times, May 29 1958
EXCERPTS FROM TOP CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS
Dracula – usually better known under its American retitling, The Horror of Dracula – is the cornerstone of the Hammer Films legend. Although The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) the year before was beginning of Hammer’s success, The Horror of Dracula was the one that set Hammer on the map and marked the beginning of Hammer’s domination over the horror scene for the next fifteen years. The Horror of Dracula’s status, certainly in Anglo-horror fandom, is sacrosanct and its importance near-mythic. The essence of what the Hammer film was all about is here – the darkly magnetic presence and aristocratic haughtiness of Christopher Lee; the commanding, straight-arrow rationalism of Peter Cushing; the florid shock hand of director Terence Fisher; the essential British repressions of sexuality and convention that Anglo-horror would pierce a stake right through; and the laughably dated shocked critical outcry.
Where then to view The Horror of Dracula today? Hammer films, particularly the early ones, have regrettably not dated well. Today their pace seems slow; the shocks that caused such a critical outcry (and then quickly transformed into the expected mainstay of this particular genre) seem absurdly mannered, even laughable. The rich and floridly colourful sets seem flat and stagebound and James Bernard’s celebrated scores loud and unsubtle. Yet The Horror of Dracula holds undeniable effect. One must understand exactly what it represented to audiences back then. To an audience that had been raised on the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) and the cardboard, melodramatic figure that Dracula became among the Universal monsters lineup in the 1940s,The Horror of Dracula must have had an incredible shock value. For one it was in colour – which meant that one could see the blood in its rich, overripe scarlet detail – and that alone made it an immediately different film to the Bela Lugosi version. For another it was not as stagebound as the Lugosi version – within the rather static sets, Terence Fisher’s camera is kinetic and alive, always on the move.
As an attempt at adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), The Horror of Dracula isn’t any better or worse than any other version. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster liberally sacrifices parts here and there for the economy of plot and budget – out go Renfield and the asylum (although these later appeared in Hammer’s Dracula – Prince of Darkness ). Gone too is the magnificently ambient opening journey to Castle Dracula, the pursuit climax and set-pieces like the crashing of the Demeter. Gone too is Dracula as a supernatural being – “It is a common fallacy,” says Van Helsing, “that vampires can change into bats and wolves,” which conveniently does away with having to create costly effects sequences. (Although said fallacy seemed to have been disproven by later films). Despite the liberties he takes with Bram Stoker, Jimmy Sangster nevertheless preserves the essence of the book.
Britain’s Hammer Studios was the first to bring Count Dracula to the screen in living, blood-red color. Reteaming Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the stars of Hammer’s 1957 hit Curse of Frankenstein, director Terence Fisher created what is arguably the best Dracula film out of the legion that have been made in the past 70 years. Lee, as had Bela Lugosi almost three decades before, fashioned a horror icon from Stoker’s vampire for a whole new generation of international movie audiences.
While Horror of Dracula is seminal in the character’s film canon, it’s hardly faithful to the literary source. Only a bare outline of the original novel serves as the basis for Jimmy Sangster’s economical script. Most of the characters have been jettisoned, notably Renfield, and the entire story takes place in Eastern Europe rather than shifting the main action to England. No sea voyage for Drac here, no lunatic asylum. Vampire hunter Van Helsing (Cushing) is nothing at all like the character in the book. Rather than an eccentric, thickly-accented Dutchman, Cushing plays the character as a younger man of action, quick-thinking and resolute, more scientist than mystic. Even with Lee’s charismatic turn as Dracula, it is Cushing — one of the finest, most underrated actors in English language cinema — who carries the film with his intelligent, energetic portrayal of the Count’s great nemesis.
Hammer detractors often chide the studio’s films for their leisurely narrative. Horror of Dracula, clocking in at a compact 82 minutes, is briskly — at times even breathlessly — paced, especially when compared to the slow-as-molasses 1931 Lugosi version. The caliber of acting, handsome set design and marvelous use of color belie the movie’s relatively low budget. Because of budgetary constraints, in fact, many classic elements of the Dracula story had to be dropped; the real reason the Count never turns into a mist or a bat in this version is because it was simply cheaper for him not to have these powers. (The script has Van Helsing dismissing such transmogrifications as a “common fallacy” about vampires.) Interestingly enough, it’s because this Dracula cannot shapeshift that he comes across more as a terrifying, flesh-and-blood monster — to be grappled with at close quarters only at great peril to the hunters — than some ethereal, blood-drinking ghost in formal wear. The two moments that stand out in this regard are the confrontation at the castle, wherein the Count is first revealed as the undead creature he truly is, and the exciting battle between Van Helsing and Dracula at the climax. (The latter was used as a pre-titles sequence for 1966′s Dracula — Prince of Darkness.) Any “monster kid” who grew up watching horror movies on TV in the ’60s and ’70s has these sequences emblazoned in their memory forever. It’s primarily due to them that for many, (including me) the name “Dracula” immediately evokes an image of a feral, snarling Christopher Lee — not Bela Lugosi in a tux.
- Brian Lindsey, Eccentric Cinema
In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.
While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.
The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.
- Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique Online
It is difficult to overemphasize how integral Technicolor is to the identity ofHorror Of Dracula. Murnau and Browning engaged the spiritual elements of the Dracula story, and black and white stressed the Victorian character of these films. This is an oversimplification, especially in the case of Nosferatu, in which the supposedly helpless woman acts in a way that is both enigmatic and heroic. Still, it is valid up to a point, and helpful in discussing Hammer’s astonishing series of horror films. Preposterous and impossible to dislike, these films reveled in the sheer gaudiness of Technicolor, and it is fitting that the first shot after the opening titles features dripping red blood. And I’m not sure if blood has ever been so suggestively red.
Because, really, everything in this picture is terribly suggestive. Consider Dracula. We have moved from Schreck’s compelling repulsiveness to Lugosi’s eccentric whatever-it-is to the very handsome and very tall Christopher Lee. That is, Horror Of Dracula is a very sexy movie. Sex certainly existed in Browning’s picture (remember Mina’s attempt at seducing Jonathan), and the finale of Nosferatu can be viewed sexually (although it would be blasphemously reductive). Here, however, Dracula and his victims are eroticized so blatantly that they almost jump off the screen. The subtext (that if you have weird sex with tall handsome strange men your soul is damned) is so obvious that it doesn’t really qualify as subtext, and it is subverted by the constant British camp of the film. The players are unquestionably having a hard time keeping a straight face, and there is real, clear artistic joy in their attempts to make something this absurd work. There is nothing conservative or cautionary about this film; for these filmmakers blood is clearly as arousing as the low necklines.
This extends to Peter Cushing’s iconic and truly brilliant performance. As Van Helsing, Cushing both embodies the stereotypical English gentleman (he is as effeminate as the best of them) and transforms it, giving the character an assertiveness that goes beyond the merely intellectual. He has real physical presence, and no one doubts that he would thrust a stake through Lucy’s or Jonathan’s heart. Lee’s physicality is even more impressive, and although he has few lines, he seems to rush through them, as if he’s more comfortable dominating the scenes through presence alone, or outrageously smearing his face with blood.
- Doniphon, The Long Voyage Home
Most shocking – and successful – of all, however, is ‘Horror of Dracula’’s handling of the original novel’s latent eroticism. What was once sub-textual is here foregrounded, and there is now no doubt that the film’s women enjoy Dracula’s advances. Indeed, in preparation for his nocturnal visits, the “victims” even open doors, remove crosses from their necks and arrange themselves artfully on their beds! This complicity highlights the fact that film’s menfolk are mere cuckolds, and paints their frantic efforts to stop Dracula as the laughable last stand of injured male pride. This is ‘Dracula’ as projected through the prism of Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’.
Yet these designs have much more serious undertones. Take, for example, the scene in which Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling) speaks to her husband, Arthur (Michael Gough), on the morning after her first encounter with Dracula. Gone is the dour housewife of previous scenes to be replaced by a more vivacious, sensual and – if her smiles are any indication – happier woman. This sparkling transformation indicates that the true enemy of the piece is the stifling Victorianism which has previously crushed Mina’s femininity and squandered her well-being. This interpretation is bolstered by Peter Cushing’s wolfish and ambiguous turn as Van Helsing. Obsessed by his pursuit of Dracula and unmoved by the numerous stakings that he has to perform, Van Helsing is one of the screen’s most brutal and efficient reactionaries.
In contrast to all previous portrayals, then, Dracula actually catalyses life, and it is Arthur, Van Helsing and their fellows who preside over the true realm of the undead; a realm contoured by the same stuffy mannerisms and values that sadly prevailed in post-War Britain, at the time when the film was made.
In the end, the overall transaction isn’t bloodless for the viewer, and this is what may explain ‘Horror of Dracula”s timeless appeal as a fright picture. Indeed, the film sets out to vandalize all preconceptions, conventions and comforts, particularly those that must have been held by contemporary audiences. Rather than portray Van Helsing’s battles with Dracula as a straightforward tale of good versus evil, Fisher recasts the monster as a counter-cultural hero, and one whose values would soon make furtive progress during the upheaval and sexual revolution of the Sixties. However, that the changes of those years were to be largely undone by the forces of conservatism demonstrates that Fisher was right on yet another count: Van Helsing always wins in the end.
- Pete Hoskin, DVD Beaver
Horror of Dracula appeared at a pivotal time in British culture when it began to move away from the repressive world of the early 1950s – depicted in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake (2004) – and towards a different type of life (an era aptly evoked and encapsulated by the subsequent mantra of British Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan; “You never had it so good”). During this period, Britain experienced a more consumerist lifestyle, a youth culture influenced by Hollywood cinema and rock-and-roll, the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, and the “Angry Young Man” movement in British theatre. Horror of Dracula can be understood as horror’s response to this turbulent social change. But, as an early example of Hammer horror, it contains conflicting cultural values.
Like the often critically despised films of The Archers and Gainsborough melodrama, Horror of Dracula offered contemporary viewers the taboo cinematic elements of spectacle and excess that offended establishment definitions of the proper “realist” nature of British cinema. In his pioneering study A Heritage of Horror, David Pirie recognised that Hammer horror represented the return of a repressed Romantic British literary tradition, with Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula reincarnating Byron’s Fatal Nobleman as a Vampire . When Lee speaks his first lines, he not only extinguishes the Universal Studios legacy of Bela Lugosi, but also returns the Count to his rightful place in British culture. But unlike Lugosi, Lee is definitely one of “us”. As in Bram Stoker’s original novel, the Count speaks perfect English and does not need to struggle with his vowels. Lee’s Dracula also evokes hidden desires within his victims, collapsing those British ideological barriers of repressive sexuality and “good taste”.
- Tony Williams, Senses of Cinema
Having hit the jackpot with The Curse of Frankenstein, Britain’s Hammer Films updated another monster classic with this 1958 Dracula remake, which distinguished itself from earlier efforts with its dripping blood, bared fangs, women’s cleavage, and compulsive gong banging on the soundtrack. This Grand Guignol treatment bowled people over in the 50s, and it still yields some potent shocks—the sudden cut to a rabid Christopher Lee in tight close-up during Dracula’s first attack is particularly hair-raising. Peter Cushing carries most of the ho-hum script as Dr. Van Helsing, though the well-lit color photography, central to the Hammer formula, can’t compare with the shadowy magnificence of Nosferatu (1922) or Dracula (1931).
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
From the late ‘50s through the ‘70s, no one did horror like England’s Hammer studios, and the crown jewels in their terrifying oeuvre were the gothic Dracula pictures starring the incomparable Christopher Lee as the blood-sucking prince of darkness. Horror of Dracula (also known simply as Dracula) marks Lee’s first turn as the Count, as well as Peter Cushing’s initial performance as the indefatigable vampire hunter Van Helsing, and it’s likely the most tantalizingly creepy entry in this series of cinematic nightmares.
- Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness
Much of the film’s power lies in the haunting images presented, many of which have gone on to become the best-known and most definitive cinematic images of vampirism of all time: The opening of Dracula’s eyes as nighttime falls; the flowing cape as Dracula strides down the walkway from the castle; the swirling leaves that announce the Count’s arrival on the veranda outside Lucy’s bedroom; and of course Dracula’s unforgettable demise at the film’s climax. While much of the atmosphere is due to Fisher’s direction, it is important not to underestimate the contribution of other key elements of the Hammer ensemble. Jack Asher’s eerie lighting combines brilliantly with Bernard Robinson’s sets, and James Bernard’s score superbly heightens the sense of terror, sexuality and fairy-tale fantasy that is at the centre of Fisher’s vision.
- David Rattigan, Dictionary of Hammer Horror
Fisher is an extremely detail-orientated director and is the master of lighting and makeup. As Chris Lee was still quite young for the role of dead-since-before-Columbus-set-sail vampire, Terence used lighting and makeup to focus on Chris Lee’s more pronounced physical features while effectively hiding his more youthful attributes. Also, he is one of the few directors who effectively uses Chris Lee’s Sasquatchian height as an advantage. The audience is treated to several “towering” camera angles of the vampiric menace throughout the film which could possibly be some of the creepiest moments captured on celluloid.
- Jenn Dlugos, Classic-Horror.com
The Germanic eagle that fills the screen in the first moments of Fisher’s remake of Todd Browning’s 1931 “Dracula” resets the cultural barometer. No longer toying solely with the idea of outsiders and cultural subversion, “Horror of Dracula” is almost explicitly a post-World War II film, and it deals with Nazism.
Among Fisher’s characters, the debate is not so much over belief in the supernatural, but more importantly over the need to act in the face of evil. Van Helsing spends little time trying to scientifically justify vampires – a la Browning’s incarnation of the character — Cushing’s Van Helsing outright asks Holmwood what he is prepared to do in the face of the Count’s onslaught. He describes the wider-reaching consequences of inertia. The equation is simpler and more imperative.
While “Horror of Dracula” absolutely represents a bloodied and visceral entry in the genre – Fisher’s use of fluid and effects is pronounced for the time – it poses a more challenging addition to canon in that it is a political “Dracula.” With blunt and uncomfortable words and pictures, Fisher opens the annals of recent history to his audience and asks if the vampire myth can any longer be about strangers creeping into bedchambers. He recommends, it seems, that Dracula is now the aggressor crossing national and moral borders.
- James O’Brien, Cinescare
Hammer’s Dracula made much more explicit the seduction-rape fantasy that underlies vampire mythology. Christopher Lee is not a horrid ghoul like Nosferatu. He’s an aristocrat like Lugosi, but more of a contemptous brute than someone who’d attend the opera. Lugosi’s ladies trembled in uncomprehending fear, and their menfolk gallantly did their best to protect them. In Horror of Dracula, the female victims openly enjoy their master’s visits, throwing wide their windows and lying back on their beds in anxious anticipation. They conspire with Dracula against their own fathers and husbands for the privilege of being savaged by the haughty, feral vampire king. The result is an artistic and commercial triumph over the censor: technically, all that’s happening is that necks are being bitten, but what viewers experienced were sensual, mostly consentual rape scenes. This is still Christopher Lee’s greatest performance, combining his knack for elitist hauteur, with his excellent pantomime skills. After a decade of mostly inappropriate casting, he shows unmistakable star power, commanding the screen with every appearance.
For victims, Horror of Dracula provides a trio of actresses who create portraits of eroticism rarely attempted by later ‘liberated’ vampire films. Valerie Gaunt was a token victim in The Curse of Frankenstein, but with just a few seconds of screen time as Dracula’s bride, she etches a vibrant picture of duplicitous female wiles. The obsessive lust that comes over her eyes as she gets face-to-jugular with Jonathan Harker is unforgettable. Carol Marsh made film history starring with Richard Attenborough ten years earlier in the crime drama Brighton Rock; here her teen tragedy is played out in the Victorian era. To get her way, she falls back on childish petulance, but we read her precocious sexuality loud and clear. When she throws the doors open, the midnight chill enters her bedroom with the falling leaves (beautiful, but dead), yet she doesn’t care … the all important HE is coming. She awaits Dracula as if he were a teenaged lover – only sexier.
Melissa Stribling’s Mina is even more interesting. She’s first seen as a prim and conventional housewife, content to stand anonymously behind her bourgeois husband. But when Mina starts her affair with Dracula, the change is remarkable. She blooms to life, and her eyes and smile betray a satisfaction that doesn’t come from keeping the silverware polished, or lighting Arthur’s cigars. When she receives Dracula in her bedroom, breathless and dumbstruck, the scene is pure domination and submission.
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
There was more to Hammer’s version of Dracula than sexual innuendo and graphic violence. In addition to the extra shadings given the character of Dracula and the nature of his menace, Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay,Terence Fisher’s direction, and, especially, Peter Cushing’s performance as Van Helsing, Dracula’s obsessive nemesis, brought out heretofore untapped resonances in that character as well. In most screen versions of Stoker’s book (indeed, in the book itself), Van Helsing is portrayed as an aging, kindly Dutch physician whose knowledge of the undead comes in very handy when the time arrives to bring the story to a close. In Horror of Dracula however, Van Helsing assumes a dominant role–and an unsettling one. Terence Fisher later said of the character: “An individual who never goes out without his hammer and stake is hardly a sensitive soul.”
It is Van Helsing, much like Dr. Frankenstein, who comes of as the real villain of the piece. The Count, like Frankenstein’s creature, has no free will and acts mainly out of instinct. In most versions of the story (as in the book), Dracula leaves Transylvania in search of new victims. In Horror of Dracula he leaves only after his domain has been intruded upon and his “bride” destroyed by Van Heising’s surrogate, Jonathan Harker. He then seeks out Lucy to replace her and, when she too is destroyed (by Van Helsing) turns his teeth on Mina, sealing his own doom.
–from Horror of Dracula DVD supplementary material, Warner Bros., 2002. Posted by Eric B. Olsen on A History of Horror
The first scene in the library, when Dracula enters with a leering, blood-smeared face, is one of the greatest and most influential shock scenes in movie history. Audiences leaped when he hissed his challenge, but the challenge was really to moviemakers: let’s see you jokers top THIS. “The Curse of Frankenstein” opened a door; “Horror of Dracula” went through the door with a confrontational confidence. There had never been a vampire movie remotely like this before, and audiences the world over were ready for it.
Horror movies changed direction after “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Horror of Dracula” the next year. Not only were now both Cushing AND Lee established as horror stars and Hammer as a pre-eminent horror studio, but the Grand Guignol horror elements of both films were an affront and a challenge. As writer David Pirie has pointed out, sometimes more IS more; classically, not showing the horrifying elements in horror movies was the way to go, and horror movies were made in the visual style of German cinema of the 1920s. But Hammer movies were emphatically mid-twentieth century, vividly gruesome, packed with energy and sex, and altogether something different. The changes they began have never faded away; horror movies today would not be what they are without the impact of Hammer.
- Bill Warren, Audio Video Revolution
Fisher, as much as any single person, is the reason that Hammer became known for the remarkable quality of its Gothic horror. Now, we can argue whether Gothic horror is quite as exciting as the stylistic magnificence of German Expressionism, and stylistically, the Hammer Dracula simply can’t compete with Nosferatu or Vampyr (or even Universal’s Dracula, which is otherwise an exemplar of everything wrong with early sound filmmaking) for the title of “most visually exceptional vampire movie”. We’ll take that as given. Still, the Hammer Gothic style, at is best, is essentially without peer, and it was never better than in Fisher’s hands. Despite a tendency towards being overlit, Dracula is a visual feast of rich production design, shot to its fullest effect in a series of unassuming but inevitably correct camera angles (which tend to be just slightly wider than you’d think, and so we’re constantly aware of the space of the film), and a nearly breakneck pace that allows not a single moment of flabby excess.
As long as I’ve got this marvelous love-in happening, let’s wrap it up with the final member of the Hammer horror dream team: Jimmy Sangster. Responsible for basically all of Hammer’s best scripts, Sangster’s work in Dracula isn’t quite as good as his screenplay for Curse of Frankenstein; it’s at least somewhat of a liability that Dracula is offscreen so much, and that when he appears at the end he’s dispatched so quickly, and Holmwood and Harker are nothing but ciphers, no matter how well-acted. But the core of Dracula is pure genius; to the best of my knowledge, it’s the first example anywhere of vampirism as a scientific problem, and as a result the story’s Victorian setting has never been exploited quite the same way. In Sangster’s hands, Van Helsing reaches his apotheosis as a character, devoted to the scientific method and as intelligent and competent as he could ever be. He’s the great vampire hunter, because he represents the forces of modernity and the Enlightenment marching against superstition and fear, and if the nugget for that metaphor was already present in Stoker’s novel, it never came close to being so beautifully expressed as it was in this film, as opposed to Van Helsing’s traditional representation as a crackpot mystic with a proclivity towards leg-humping.
ABOUT THE WARNER BROTHERS DVD
This Warner release’s anamorphic transfer is – like the disc’s Dolby Digital mono soundtrack – serviceable enough. The print is clean; colours are rewardingly vibrant; and detail is sufficient, if perhaps a little hazy. The prime disappointment is that the 1.78:1 framing crops the film’s original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
Extras are limited to the film’s theatrical trailer and a couple of text features (cast/crew biographies and ‘Dracula Lives Again!’, which chronicles the production’s history).
There has been talk that Warner are to revisit their Hammer properties and release them in more lavish editions. Whilst this would certainly be welcome in the case of ‘Horror of Dracula’ – if only to afford the film an OAR presentation – this disc’s faults are not so great as to prevent it from being a worthy stop-gap.
For such a crucial horror title, Horror of Dracula has not fared very well on home video. Much of its original luster has been dulled by muted and cropped video transfers, as well as a notorious laserdisc pressing which omitted part of a gruesome staking at the 55-minute mark. (For the record, all three stake hits and the blood-spewing are here on the DVD, though upon close analysis the reinstated footage appears to be lifted from a different and slightly more degraded print.) Though the film still betrays its age at times, Warner’s anamorphic transfer looks comparatively polished and boasts some wonderfully striking colors; reds are appropriately saturated and balance nicely with director Terence Fisher’s skillful incorporation of blue and gold into the set design. Flesh tones are also noticeably improved, and the graininess which has become part of the film’s video fabric has been thankfully decreased. Resolution looks impressive on a standard monitor but when blown up to home theater size, detail can be quite soft in numerous shots, particularly the studio-bound exteriors. As with the theatrical prints, facial details sometimes appear blurred and overall the film will still look dated to those expected a crisp, megabudget Warner restoration on the order of North by Northwest. The film elements look clean and free from wear. As with their release of The Mummy, the decision to letterbox the film at 1.78:1 will no doubt ruffle a few feathers; the framing lops off as much on the top and bottom as it adds to the sides, but the compositions look more spacious and evenly composed than the claustrophobic full frame version. However, viewers with 16:9 capability may find the headroom awfully tight if their set overscans to 1.85:1, which shears off too much headroom for comfort. The mono audio is limited by the dated materials but sounds robust enough, with James Bernard’s thunderous score coming through passably if lacking the stomach-rumbling bass that characterizes his theme on the CD soundtrack. Considering the past track record of Hammer titles on DVD it wouldn’t be outrageous to expect a special edition treatment for a title this important, but alas the only extras are the familiar theatrical trailer (in much better shape than on previous compilations) and a few cursory text supplements hopping through the Hammer-Dracula history. Given Lee’s fluctuating opinion on discussing his Dracula appearances, his absence here isn’t too surprising, but a few goodies to put the film in context (or even a simple gallery) would have been a welcome gesture.
ABOUT HAMMER HORROR
Dictionary of Hammer Horror by David Rattigan – invaluable resource with dozens of Hammer-related entries
The Hammer Horror Crypt – Site boasting synopses and hundreds of photos for each Hammer production
AMC.tv has an interactive feature to allow people to vote up or down their favorite Hammer horror films.
Hammer Horror Posters – NSFW
More useful sites can be found on Hammer House of Horrors
Notwithstanding the works of Satyajit Ray and Sergei Eisenstein, few foreign independent influences have had as broad an effect on American cinema as England’s Hammer Films Limited. Some might find that a far-reaching proclamation, but I’m confident that there’s ample evidence to bear this out.
Having gone into television production in the 80s before closing its doors for good, Hammer nonetheless remains the most successful British film studio ever, producing more than 200 features over five decades. The studio is best remembered for its thrillers, particularly gothic and singularly British retellings of Universal Studios classic monster franchises – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Werewolf. Martin Scorsese,Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are just some of the more apparent filmmakers to have borrowed a few of their more lurid tones (and actors) from Hammer’s colourbox. Hammer produced far more than horror films over their long run, but here I will focus on their more exploitive, though no less artful, genre pictures.
- Jeremy Wheat, Hammer House of Horror
Be sure to read “What I Owe to Hammer Horror” by John Potts in Senses of Cinema