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Dracula (1958)
Director: Terence Fisher

review by Andrew Darlington

Torrential rain during January 2013 resulted in a serious landslip beneath St Mary's 12th century church perched high above the Whitby cliffs, exposing human skeletal remains from ancient graves. Such a macabre occurrence won't do tourism any harm here. In fact, it can only enhance its eerie attractions, because this North Yorkshire harbour town was, of course, visited by Bram Stoker during the 1890s and figures in his seminal Dracula (1897) novel.

It has subsequently become a place of pilgrimage for all manner of goths and 21st century ghouls with 'Dracula experience' tours and an annual 'Drac-fest goth weekender' attracting respectable weirdo turnouts. And vampires are pretty-much everywhere at the moment. Romantically-doomed Stephenie Meyer designer teen-vampires as immaculately coiffed and cosmetically-pale as some boy-band, and more attuned to hanging out at American campuses and shopping malls than the Carpathian mountains. Buffy's got a lot to answer for. Not that all of that's got a lot to do with Hammer horror, except to highlight the remarkable continuity of the persistent myth.

This film begins in a tomb, by focusing on the 'Dracula' name-plate on a coffin, which then spatters with bright blood. It was The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) which launched the Hammer genre on its way to becoming Britain's biggest movie franchise, and the film that first united the winning combination of Peter Cushing with Christopher Lee. But, as the lumbering monster in the lab, Lee had been bandaged and largely mute, so it was Dracula (aka: Horror Of Dracula, 1958) that most emphatically established his mesmerising screen-presence as the bloodsucking centre-stage Count.

Shot at Bray Studios, it was intended as a low-budget fast-turnaround remake of Bela Lugosi's 1931 film, directed for Universal by Tod Browning. In pretty much the same way as its Frankenstein predecessor had reactivated the Boris Karloff and James Whale classic - adding the novelty of colour. It meant there was still the awkward necessity of navigating around potential copyright infringement litigation, forcing Hammer to a little more inventive ingenuity than perhaps they'd initially intended.

Dublin-born Stoker was more familiar with Whitby than he ever was with Transylvania. He never went there, and knew little about that distant isolated European backwater. But then, neither did his contemporary audience. It's fair to say that, thanks to 'Spirit', 'Endeavour' and 'Opportunity', we now know far more about the surface of Mars than they knew about remote near-mythical Transylvania.

He did delve into European folklore, focusing on Romanian tales, and derived the name 'Dracul' from that of Vlad III of Walachia. Although most of the accumulated details associating the legacy with Vlad the impaler and his atrocities against marauding Turks have been subsequent add-ons. A connection screened most exhaustively by Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), with Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder.

But it's not as if Hammer director Terence Fisher stays true to Stoker. Because he doesn't, he plays fast and loose with the tale. Although the Stoker novel gets a credit, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay ducks and dives around its elements with scant regard for veracity. In the film, Peter Cushing's Van Helsing has a cylinder recording-machine that recites to him the rules of 'the vile contagion' of 'the undead, as we call them', which is 'similar to addiction to drugs'. But this audio-document dismisses the fallacy - explicit in Stoker's book, that vampires can shape-shift into bats or wolves.

It starts with librarian Jonathan Harker's (John Van Eyssen) voiceover as he travels towards his new position at Castle Dracula. It's 3rd May 1885, and his diary-entry records how no birds sing, and how it seems suddenly colder as he crosses the wooden bridge to the castle itself. Finding himself alone in the great hall with only the log-fire blazing, there's a note from his host apologising for his absence.

Then a lovely girl (Valerie Gaunt) appears who pleads for his help in escaping this foul place in which she's being held prisoner - "I could not, dare not, leave alone." She flees as Lee appears darkly at the head of the staircase. Suave and courteous, the Count greets him with "I'm Dracula, and I welcome you to my house," then shows him to his room, where Harker discovers he's been locked in.

In the Stoker novel, Harker is a solicitor here to provide legal advice on a transfer of property. Now he is a librarian here to catalogue the Count's extensive book collection, although the novel does consist of letters to his devoted far away fiancée, providing the film's excuse for his narrative comments. But this Harker seems a little savvier, he knows the score, and has come prepared. He sits down and writes to Lucy, about the successful subterfuge which has inveigled him into the castle, and of his intention to "end forever this man's reign of terror." Are we to assume there have been previous encounters? That this Harker is some kind of student of vampirism? It's not adequately explained. But he seems well-versed in the lore of the undead, and how to off them.

As he drowses, he hears movement at the door. Finding it unlocked, he follows glimpses of movement, and finds the mystery girl again. This time he takes her in his arms and pledges to help her, assuring her soothingly "please don't distress yourself." But her eyes gleam in a predatory fashion, and just as her fangs go for his throat, Dracula appears with bloodied fangs and they tussle. Leaving Harker stunned, Dracula carries her off. The following morning Harker discovers the puncture-wounds on his throat. "It may be I am doomed," he notes, grimly.

But first, he must do what he set out to do. He leaves his diary-record in a shrine outside the castle, and then enters the vaults beneath. Finding the sleeping undead bodies, he unwisely hammers the stake through her bosom first. As she withers into an aged crone Dracula is alerted by her death-shriek, his eyes open. Harker cringes away from the reanimated risen vampire Count...

Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives at the garlic-strewn tavern in nearby Klausenberg, seeking his friend Harker. "We don't get many travellers in these parts," warns the truculent tavern-keeper (George Woodbridge), "not that stop, anyway." Reiterating what must already have been a cine-cliché by warning him off "interfering in things that are beyond our powers." Serving-wench Inga (Barbara Archer) is less cowed, she has retrieved Harker's diary from the shrine, and smuggles it to the doctor. Van Helsing visits the castle, but finding it empty he locates the tomb with the dead crone, adjacent to one containing his now-undead friend. Carrying out Harker's wishes, as expressed in the diary, he stakes him, releasing his soul. But Van Helsing also finds the photo of Harker's lovely Lucy shattered, and realises where Dracula has gone.

It's notable that, where the cascade of Hammer sequels that followed become increasingly camp, more tongue-in-cheek than fang-in-flesh, this film is largely played straight. There are comic interludes - jovial chuckling undertaker Marx (Miles Malleson), and the border-guard frustrated by his barrier being repeatedly smashed by fleeing carriages, but this is not played primarily for laughs, this is intended to be a scary movie, this is 'Hammer horror'. And behind Lee's smooth aristocratic sophistication, there's a genuinely bestial quality about his vampire Count that's seldom been equalled. To further complicate matters, for no discernible reason, the character names have been switched around.

In the novel, Harker's devoted fiancée is Wilhelmina 'Mina' Murray, and Lucy Westenra is her friend. In the Coppola version of the story, Dracula recognises Mina from Harker's cherished photo, and believes her to be a reincarnation of his long-dead wife Elisabeta, whose suicide in 1462 drove him to seek vampiric damnation. Whereas, in this Hammer incarnation it seems merely that because Harker has deprived him of his in-house vampette, he will seek revenge by replacing her with Lucy. Not that it matters, they all get that sado-erotic neck-piercing anyway. Van Helsing carries the sad tidings of Harker's demise to Lucy's brother Arthur Holmwood and his wife Mina, in Karlstadt.

While alone in her bedroom in diaphanous blue, Lucy herself opens her casements wide, removes the cross from around her neck, and waits in an agony of sensual expectation. She's already been vamped. In the sequence of events that follow Dracula runs rings around the hapless heroes. Determined that "this unholy cult must he wiped out," Van Helsing recruits an initially sceptical Arthur. Although Lucy is treated by Doctor Seward (Charles Lloyd Pack) for anaemia, Van Helsing identifies the neck-bites, and knows better. Although he prescribes huge mounds of garlic, Lucy gets a servant to remove them, and un-catches the casement again. Next scene, she's dead, with the doctor drawing the sheet up over her face.

But she returns as the walking-dead to lure cute little niece Tania (Janine Faye) away to a graveyard assignation. Van Helsing intervenes, brandishing a cross. Reassuring a shocked Arthur that this is not the living girl he had known, "it's only a shell, possessed and corrupted by the evils of Dracula." Dracula turns his blood-lusting attentions to Mina, conniving to bring her to him at the morticians at 49 Frederickstrasse, where his coffin-lid slides open and sinister fingers emerge. Arthur realises the truth only when he later passes her a protective cross, and she faints away.

So, they wait in the garden for Dracula's next visit, as Mina waits tremulously for his arrival. His lips part, she reclines back, baring her tender neck for him to puncture in about as explicit a sexual metaphor as the censor would allow. Too late, they discover her bloodied body sprawled across the bed. Van Helsing sets up a life-saving blood-transfusion from Arthur to Mina. But how had Dracula got past their vigilance into her room? His white coffin has been beneath them, in the cellar, all the time! Now he's abducted her, and galloped her off through the night towards his castle. They pursue him...

Dracula is one of film-history's most persistently recurring characters. All the way from F.W. Murnau's 'Count Orlok' in Nosferatu (1922), through to the narcotic tedium of Andy Warhol's dreadful Blood For Dracula (1974), with Udo Kier hunting virgins in Italy and finding them scarce. From the lavish Dracula (1979), with a seductive Frank Langella in the title role, Lawrence Olivier (as Van Helsing), and Donald Pleasance (as Dr Seward), through to Mel Brook's informed gag-tastic Dracula, Dead And Loving It (1995), with Leslie Nielsen slipping on bat-shit and spoofing Bela Lugosi's "Children of the night... what a mess they make!"

While, probably, Philip Saville's BBC-TV mini-series Count Dracula (1977) stands as its most faithful adaptation, with Frank Finlay adding gravity to his role of Abraham van Helsing, and Susan Penhaligon as a beguiling Lucy. But even here there are inconsistencies - Mina and Lucy are sisters, rather than friends. Not that it strictly matters. Although Stoker's novel is usually acknowledged as source-material, and the book has remained in print ever since on the strength of such regular reinventions, it is through the medium of film - rather than text, that the Count is most perfectly realised.

This package, billed as 'remastered and restored in full high definition', is a double blu-ray and DVD set, with BFI national archive restoration at the YCM laboratories, through the Lottery-funded UK film foundation. And it's an immaculate crystal-sharp restoration. Better quality than it must have been in all those flea-pit locals first time around. It also seamlessly reintegrates 'lost' footage originally cut from the UK print, and unearthed in the vaults of the Japanese film library in Tokyo, thanks to the efforts of Hammer fan Simon Rowson. And, since Warner no longer hold the distribution rights for the UK, this edition of the prince of the undead's latest return comes through the good graces of Icon Entertainment and Lions Gate.

The iconic final confrontation between Cushing's Van Helsing and Lee's Dracula, in the hall of his great Carpathian castle, is shown and re-shown in every history-of-horror TV-compilation and documentary. Yet despite its flawed familiarity it still carries something of the charge that must have hit its original generation of 1950s movie-goers. Lee, with his slicked-back hair disarrayed, possesses a genuine animal menace. Cushing overpowered by his adversary's supernatural strength, leaps to the heavy drapes and rips them open. The shaft of sunlight stuns the vampire. Then Cushing uses the two candlesticks to form a cross. Dracula cringes away, and crumbles to dust, which blows away.

The effects now seem more comically inept than genuinely stomach-churning, we've seen too much CGI visceral blood-and-guts spatter since to take it seriously. And even the musty gothic impedimenta of its Transylvanian never-neverland seems hopelessly archaic now. But re-viewing the film now in its new digital clarity, the edge is undeniably still there. Unlike the Stoker novel it's supposedly based on, this Dracula never reaches Whitby. But that won't stop the goths, 21st century ghouls and weirdoes from visiting the Whitby 'Dracula experience'. And this classic movie is a vital instalment in that on-going mythos.

The film's central duo went on to feature in some of the century's biggest franchises. Peter Cushing became 'Doctor Who' in two spin-off cinema films. Christopher Lee appears in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Both Cushing and Lee are in separate episodes of the Star Wars epic. But they will both be best remembered for Dracula.

Dracula




Further reading...

Foreign Undead: a Top 10 Vampire Movies by Michael McCarty

Blood Frenzy: a Top 10 Vampire Flicks by Ian Shutter



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