Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hammer Rewatch: Horror of Dracula (1958)

            A look at Hammer’s Dracula series, Part 1…

            Most horror film fans follow a specific path. Many begin with the original Universal Horror films - a wonderful place to start, as those sacred films contain enough atmospheric dread and macabre detail (without getting too scary) to enrapture and invigorate each new generation of horror enthusiasts as they spring up through the years. But, as with everything else, horror fans grow older and crave a little more from the genre, and as much as we love those black and white treasures of our youths, there comes a time when we hunger for something a little sexier. A little more dangerous. There comes a time when you need the world displayed in brilliant, vivid Technicolor…

            Which is where Hammer Films comes in. Everything you need to know about Hammer Films is displayed during the opening credits of Horror of Dracula (just plain Dracula to everyone but s heathen Yanks): the opening title is hit with a splash of blood, where it then drips down slowly as the camera lingers on it for an uncomfortable period of time. Fairly chaste by today’s standards, but it might as well have been a slap in the face in 1958. Hammer had already blown through the Hayes code censorships with what’s considered the first of the Hammer Horror cycle, The Curse of Frankenstein, which pushed the levels of violence that were cabaple of being shown in horror films (or any films) at the time, and Horror of Dracula continues the tradition; reuniting all of the key figures of the previous film for another revamping of a classic film monster. Taking possibly even more liberties with the source material than the Lugosi version, Hammer’s Dracula still weaves a creepy and atmospheric tale utilizing everyone’s favorite bloodthirsty Count.

            What’s most surprising watching the film now is how little Dracula is actually seen on screen. Much hullabaloo has been made about the later entries and how reluctant Christopher Lee was to return each time - in the case of Dracula: Prince of Darkness, not even uttering a single line of dialogue for the entire run-time - but here, after the opening where the Count introduces himself to Jonathan Harker, he pretty much fades into the background to become a snarling, hissing monster for the remainder of the film - and that’s when he actually bothers to show up. So it’s entirely to Christopher Lee’s credit that he leaves such an indelible impression in the role - and not just due to the unforgettable images of him red-eyed and blood dripping from his fanged mouth. Lee is physically imposing in the role, but he also gets across the dark romanticism of the character; wholly believable when he slips into the rooms of young women and hypnotizes them into doing his bidding.

            One of the joys of so many of the Hammer Films was the pairing of Lee with his good friend Peter Cushing. The two obviously got a charge out of working with each other, and that spark shines through even the worst of their offerings form Hammer and otherwise. Cushing plays the heroic Dr. Van Helsing as the complete 180 from Victor Frankenstein - a hero so indelible, he was brought back for all but one of the subsequent eight sequels. Rounding out the Hammer repertoire is Michael Gough as the distraught brother to one of Dracula’s victims, and while Gough never reached the heights of popularity Cushing or Lee did, the actor was still enormously talented, as his role here and in other Hammer films will attest.

            Getting the most improved award would certainly have to be director Terence Fisher - the filmmaker continues the style he curated so well on The Curse of Frankenstein and takes a notch or two further, making the difference between Horror of Dracula and his earlier work not unlike that of Citizen Kane to classical silent cinema. Dracula is at once more assured, more modern than the previous film, and the look Fisher achieves here would define the Hammer brand for literally decades to come.

            Acting as a stepping stone from the  innocent to the lurid, Horror of Dracula is not only a perfect introduction to the world of Hammer horror, but horror in general.

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