Saturday, May 25, 2013

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher                            Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Film Score: James Bernard                       Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling

For all of its reputation as the second greatest horror film studio next to Universal, Hammer films also made quite a few second-rate horror films. Part of the reason for the high esteem that fans hold the studio, is that they solidified that reputation early, just as Universal did, with bold, new versions of Dracula and Frankenstein. In the States, those characters had been relegated to drive-in exploitation pictures that were pale imitations of the once mighty monsters at Universal. One only has to look at the opening of Hammer's Horror of Dracula to understand the new direction these films envisioned.

First of all, the film opens on the image of a very Germanic eagle sculpture, no doubt drawing on subconscious fears from World War II, accompanied by James Bernard’s percussion-heavy film score. That, along with the brilliant Technicolor titles, auger a new beginning. But the story itself is what really grabs the reader’s attention. The camera pans across the front of a castle, down the steps to a basement, almost identical to the one in Nosferatu, and inside to the blood-spattered coffin of Dracula himself. When Jonathan Harker begins his journal you can almost hear the audience thinking, here we go again. But instead, Jimmy Sangster does something great when we eventually hear Harker say, after meeting Dracula, “it only remains for me now, to await the daylight hours when, with God’s help, I will forever end this man’s reign of terror.”

There is no more suspense to be had in the revelation of the vampire himself, so Sangster wisely skips that. Also, the ineffectual resistance due to disbelief is also jettisoned and instead we have a battle of wills with Harker who has the advantage of surprise this time. It’s a brilliant revision of the original story and one that still holds up well today. When the action heads back to England the story becomes fairly conventional, but the return to Dracula’s castle at the end, and the battle with Van Helsing is still one of the great horror film climaxes of all time. The only misstep in Sangster’s script is the fact that he gives Dracula almost no dialogue. It’s a shame. Here they had Christopher Lee, with this wonderfully deep and cultured voice to work with and they leave him mute. Lee was perfectly justified in not revisiting the character until years later.

Peter Cushing, as Van Helsing, is one of the greatest vampire hunters of all time. His supreme confidence, along with his youthful vitality, make him a worthy adversary for the prince of darkness. Michael Gough is not particularly a good choice as Harker’s future brother in law, but he’s palatable enough, and the Hammer girls are, of course, a titillating addition to the formula. But it’s Cushing’s picture, and he is commanding from his first appearance to the last. His confidence and fearlessness in the face of the supernatural are so refreshing it’s easy to see why the series was so popular and continued for so long. Terence Fisher’s directing is taut and quickly paced, the music is bold and gothic, and the results were something new and refreshing. Horror of Dracula, one of the first of Hammer’s new vision of the horror film, is still one of the finest examples of their revolutionary work.

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