Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Horror of Dracula
Across the pond lies another movie studio that made an impact on the horror industry. They were known as the Hammer Horror Films. Unlike Universal where the shock was in black and white, theses movies from the UK didn’t hold back. They were in color, increased the violence, cranked up the sex appeal and not to mention adding an element the Universal Monster franchise was missing; blood. And each film relished in showing it. Back then, this was fairly new and shocking to see such edgy material for the late 1950s.
While Curse of Frankenstein was the first one to kick off this wave of gruesome infamy, Horror of Dracula (or Dracula if you live in the UK) perfected this choice of entertaining terror. Even right from the opening shot with blood dripping on Dracula’s coffin, you know what your in for. These movies were free of censorship (sort of) and sought to make their own iconic footprints. Rather than clone the classic Jack Pierce make-up or follow the story, Hammer Films made their horror movies with fresh and different takes even if did mean sacrificing certain liberties.
A good example is the story and how it adapts the original Dracula story. Those who are huge on “sticking to the source” might be disappointed as it takes elements from the Bram Stoker novel while twisting them into a different story altogether. John Harker (John Van Eyssen) still visits the Count but this time ends up getting turned into a vampire and sending out notes of his demise to Van Helsing. To me, this follows something like Pyscho did where the main character gets killed off after the first half of the feature. It plays with your expectations but again, some can be sticklers on sticking to the source. And personally, I think veering from the novel works here.
I know I have been deep on how an adaptation should stick close to the source but there is a right way and wrong way to do that. In some cases, one can take elements or ideas while utilizing them into something completely new and fresh. Phantom of the Paradise is a great example taking the story of Phantom of the Opera and giving it a rock musical quality with some Faust tossed in. Why make another film adaptation of a story that we already know when you can play with expectations? Heck, the 1931 Dracula was actually sourced from a Broadway play and less of the Bram Stoker novel. The Dracula mythos is so embedded deep into the public conscious that changing up really works here.
While Bela Lugosi left an impact, so does Christopher Lee. When we see him as Dracula, Christopher channels a lot of the gentleman traits while feeling hypnotic. He’s very inviting and you almost want to take in his hospitality. But when the sun goes down, a different personality emerges. Now, Dracula becomes brutal and animalistic with blood dripping from his fangs and giving a predatory stare. Surprisingly, I found a lot more terror from Christopher Lee’s portrayal than I did with Lugosi’s take. On the downside, he doesn’t get much speaking parts and his appearance is downplayed. But his visual expression and appearance still leave a huge impact. When he kills his victims, he doesn’t say a word and jumps right to his satisfaction.
Peter Cushing also gives a great performance as Van Helsing who seeks to destroy Dracula while convincing Arthur Holmwood (Micheal Gough) that his sister and lover are the vampire’s next entrees. Peter will always be chilling and engaging no matter what role he will be in. His take of Helsing is intimidating and doesn’t mess about. He knows what monster he is going against and tries to remain one step ahead while remembering the fanged fiend’s weaknesses. Even more ironic how previously, Cushing was Dr. Frankenstein and yet Christopher Lee was his monstrous creation. Interesting to see how the roles are similar yet different.
Again, the positive is how faithful it remains to the novel while adding some new material to keep it fresh. Harker is very much a minor character that keeps the story going while Lucy gets the first to be a vampire. In the novel, her character as sweet tooth hunger for younger kids and the movie manages to keep it in without being blunt about it. Its creepy and unsettling while never forcing the aspect too much. Sadly, the only major cut is the character of Renfield, Dracula’s demented servant. It would have been nice to have at least a little nod to the crazy assistant but the movie still works fine without him. Its a deletion that I do miss but what can you do?
The ending is another huge highlight as it builds and builds. Even if its a short climax, it feels really engaging as Helsing and Dracula square off against each other. But perhaps iconic about this finale is that we get to see a vampire decay under the sunlight. And I mean really decay! No fades into a skeleton. Dracula decomposes and gets cooked to a cindering crisp. Its not nasty as you think but its a very cool yet haunting special effect and a testament to how great practical effects can be. But as it turns out, some extra limb decay and a shot of Dracula clawing at his rotted face was considered too gross for 1958 and was cut. These shots were deemed missing until 2012 when they were restored into the movie thanks to an uncut print found in Japan. The good news is that a copy of this cut exists but the bad news is that the Blu-Ray is Region B, meaning you have to live in the UK or own a universal Blu-ray player that can read international DVDs and Blu-Rays. Regardless, its nice to hear some lost history finally rediscovered.
Bottom line, Horror of Dracula doesn’t trump the power of any other incarnation but offers its own take. And that is a good thing. I would rather have another Dracula movie try new things out than rather be a straight telling of the novel. This is a perfect fit that not only respects the source but also gives a new representation of the Count that is new and scary. Its well shot, has great performances and grabs your attention from beginning to end. I do wish Christopher Lee was given a bit more to do or at least play around with his “gentleman” personality. But he still gives an edgy take that is iconic, memorable and its easy to see why.
Posted on October 3, 2015, in Horror-Wood 2015 and tagged Bram Stoker, Christopher Lee, Color, Dracula 1958, Halloween, Hammer Films, Hammer Horror, Horror, Horror of Dracula, Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon, Michael Gough, Peter Cushing, UK, United Kingdom, vampire. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.