Continuing our look at Hammer Horror with the classic, peerless first entry in their Dracula series.
When we talk about rock bands, we often talk about that ‘difficult second album’ – the one where all the best songs that the band had been putting together over a few years before being signed have already been recorded and all they have left are the leftovers, with just a few months to come up with new stuff. It’s definitely a thing, but we might also think about all the second albums where a band has grown, matured and ironed out the teething problems, booted out the members who just weren’t up to the move from pub gigs to professionalism and generally got it right. Hammer’s 1958 Dracula – or Horror of Dracula if you live in America or, increasingly, see the film on British TV – might not have been their first full colour, full-blooded gothic horror (that would be The Curse of Frankenstein) but it is really the moment that Hammer Horror began. If we think of Curse... as being a dry run, then Dracula is where everything came together. It’s the revolutionary moment that immediately changed the shape of horror cinema. Horror’s first Year Zero, perhaps. To return to the rock band analogy, it was Hammer’s Never Mind the Bollocks (I know that was a debut album, but just go with me on this will you…). It essentially set the template for what we would think of as horror for the next ten years, until the next Year Zero in 1968 when Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby and Witchfinder General all made the Hammer films suddenly look a bit safe and old-fashioned. Before Dracula, horror was black and white, increasingly camp and on its last legs, superseded by the more immediate thrills of science fiction. Afterwards, it was gothic, sexy and gory, and this film – not The Curse of Frankenstein, is the one that opened the global floodgates that brought up the films of Mario Bava, Roger Corman’s Poe series and all the British horror films that flooded forth for the next couple of decades. We cannot overstate just how important this film is and if it was anything else, its position as one of the most significant British films of all time would be unquestioned. That it still isn’t by many in the British film establishment says a lot about how, despite critical shifts in recent years, horror is still very much a marginalised genre that only gains respect by essentially disavowing what it is – hence the rise of ‘elevated horror’, because even the filmmakers – even some of the fans – think that the genre is beneath them, something to be embarrassed about liking.
Written by Jimmy Sangster, Hammer’s version of the Dracula story doesn’t so much reject Bram Stoker as ruthlessly compress his cumbersome and dense tale down to the bare essentials, stripping out or combining side characters and quickly getting to the meat of the matter. For all that Christopher Lee would continually huff about the films moving further and further away from Stoker, the truth – that even he had to acknowledge – is that the novel is practically unfilmable. Even those allegedly ‘faithful’ versions end up throwing chunks out and spicing others up because what works on the page as a slowly developing investigation where Dracula exists as a shadowy background figure for much of the story would be a crushingly dull affair on screen. We really need to drop the insistence on film adaptations being faithful to the source material because that’s rarely possible or desirable. Sure, it’s outrageous and annoying when movies completely bastardise a novel into something that it isn’t – but equally, let’s allow filmmakers to interpret a story sympathetically but in their own way.
Here, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Castle Dracula ostensibly as a librarian, but in fact as a vampire-hunting apprentice of Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), where he is greeted by Christopher Lee‘s urbane Count and then seduced by a vampire bride (Valerie Gaunt). This is all revolutionary stuff in vampire cinema and the only reason we don’t see it that way now is because Hammer established a whole new set of vampire clichés – including, most significantly, the fangs – that everyone, not least of all hammer themselves, ran with for the next two decades or more. The sexually seductive and voracious vampire bride, the Dracula who flips from coldly sophisticated to animalistic, the blood and the saturated colours – this was all very new at the time and it is no wonder that stuck-up British critics reacted with such revulsion.
Once Van Helsing is introduced to the story at the start of the second act, he becomes the central figure of the film. As with Stoker’s novel and most subsequent Hammer films, Dracula is more a sinister background presence than a front-and-centre villain, his appearances rationed for maximum impact. Sangster’s screenplay also strips away many of the supernatural elements of the character – no one changes into a bat here – and smartly equates vampirism to a mix of infection and addiction. Notably, while Dracula takes an interest in Harker’s fiancee Lucy (Carol Marsh), there’s no trip to England here – everyone lives conveniently (for both the budget and the story) close to Klausenberg. It’s a good way of reducing the scale of Stoker’s novel and making it a tighter story and the cliché of Dracula being a tortured soul driven by a yearning for lost love is thankfully still some time from becoming part of the mythology at this point – Lee’s Dracula is seductive and sexy, but he’s unquestionably a monster and all the more impressive because of it.
Dracula, of course, was the story that launched the Universal horror cycle in 1931 and some people – mostly American writers – just can’t get beyond that. For all its importance, the Bela Lugosi Dracula is a slow, primitive film that seemed old-fashioned and stilted even in the 1930s and is full of terrible acting but as late as 1979 you would still get American critics talking about how the only Dracula of note since Lugosi was Frank Langella, who wasn’t even the best Dracula of that year. Much of this is down to petty nationalism – the idea that the best Dracula film might have come from another country too much to bear – and part of it is that curious fear of the new that long affected horror critics. Lugosi’s film, they argued, was great because of what it didn’t show and Hammer’s films were just crass. In truth, quotable dialogue aside, there is nothing that the 1931 film has that isn’t bettered here and to suggest that the end – in which Lugosi is staked off-screen and dies with a groan more akin to a touch of indigestion than a violent death – is better than Hammer’s spectacular, action-packed finale is so hilariously defensive that it barely merits consideration as a serious claim. Hammer’s Dracula ending, now restored (of which more in a moment) may be the most dramatically exciting climax to any gothic horror film – it is breathlessly energetic and powerful, the battle between Cushing and Lee one of the high points of cinema.
It’s not just the ending, though. Dracula is a fast-paced, sometimes frantic film that wastes little time, tearing through its compact story with efficiency. Director Terence Fisher had done a decent job with The Curse of Frankenstein but here is absolutely in his element and fills the screen with nice visual touches, while the combination of Jack Asher’s cinematography and Bernard Robinson’s sumptuous sets give the film an epic scale and a visual coolness, the whole thing washed in blue tones. Even James Bernard’s score hits the mark, even though his three-note ‘DRA-CU-LA’ theme would feel increasingly predictable as it turned up in sequel after sequel.
There are certainly clumsy moments in the film – some of the light relief seems misplaced (a comic moment slapped right in the middle of the final act is especially mistimed) and Michael Gough’s dreadful, hammy, disinterested performance as Arthur Holmwood would probably bring a lesser film crashing down – it says a lot about this movie that it survives him intact. Gough clearly felt that this sort of thing was beneath him – though he may have felt differently a few years later when he found himself starring in the likes of Konga. Whatever his misguided reasoning, his lazy, sneering performance stands out like a sore thumb in a film where everyone else is thoroughly committed and doesn’t make him look big or clever. In the end, these moments are minor points that don’t hurt the movie as much as they should, simply because everything else is so damned good.
For many years, people talked about Hammer shooting ‘overseas versions’ with more violence or nudity, aimed at the Japanese market, where they wanted more blood or the Europeans where they liked more flesh. Hammer would routinely deny that such versions were ever made, brushing aside photographic evidence as either publicity images or scenes that were cut by the British censors, and the Hammer critics generally fell into line too by dismissing such footage as an urban myth. But of course, it was all true and for many years, the holy grail of this footage was the extended death of Dracula at the finale of this film, a scene that always felt a touch truncated in British and American prints. The footage was finally found in Japan and two missing scenes were inserted back into the film for a 2012 restoration. The newly discovered scenes are easy to spot because the picture quality changes significantly during them. This isn’t a criticism – it’s miraculous that it was useable at all and so a slight softening and loss of colour vibrancy is hardly something to complain about. The new scenes – Dracula’s seduction of an all-too-willing Mina (Melissa Stribling) and extended footage of the Count’s final disintegration, a scene that still holds up remarkably well as a gruesome moment – genuinely add to the film, the former bringing the sexuality of the vampire to the fore, the latter giving more drama and pace to the climax. At least one censored scene remains lost, but I think we can live with that.
Whether Dracula is the best of the Hammer series is open to debate – there are entries I personally prefer, but I’m not sure they are actually better films. Certainly, this movie remains powerful, dramatic and sometimes quite transgressive. It’s a stunningly good, straight-faced and visually arresting movie that has aged remarkably well – few films of the era still pack the same punch that they once had, but this still seems very fresh. It’s unquestionably one of the most essential films that the genre has produced and still the most significant Dracula movie – and there are a lot of them.
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