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Horror of Dracula knocked us dead as kids. I caught a 1964 double bill with The Curse of Frankenstein, a genuine formative experience. In college it invariably showed at one of the college dorms every Halloween, and the venue would be packed. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were unsung culture heroes, and Horror of Dracula was their first and best on-screen pairing. The film has been a touchstone ever since. Its reputation as the best of the best easily endured a slightly-censored 1991 laserdisc (which trimmed a bloody vampire staking) and a brightly colored but annoyingly misframed 2002 DVD.
The recently revived Hammer Films have just begun a series of new Blu-ray releases of the company's classics. Although Warners still controls this show in the States, a new BD of Dracula (the actual original title) has just been released in Region 2. It's been the subject of constant excitement and discussion for several years now. In 2007 the BFI restored the longer American cut of the film, that retained a number of little excisions originally snipped out in England. But on March 9 2009, film enthusiast Simon Rowson located something that has been rumored to exist for fifty years -- a Japanese cut of the film with a more explicit death scene for Christopher Lee. A miracle made in heaven for monster movie fans, this material has been restored to the show.
Does this Cushing-Lee classic no longer appeal to today's horror fans? Judging by the fashion-plate "Young Adult Romance Fiction" pretenders that pass for vampires today, selling kids on vintage Hammer may be difficult. 1 Before James Bond and before the Beatles, Hammer's Technicolor shockers were a big international success story for the British film industry. Directed by Terence Fisher in a style derived from racy English adventure melodramas of the 1940s, Hammer's Dracula is the Singin' in the Rain of fright films, a show that transcends its genre to sum up what's great about screen terror.
Jimmy Sangster's screenplay condenses and simplifies the Bram Stoker novel, but retains the book's imposing, ferocious main character. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) fails in his attempt to destroy Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) but before losing his life manages to stake the Count's vampire consort (Valerie Gaunt). Consoling the family of Harker's fiancee, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) finds more trouble when Dracula invades the Holmwood house. Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) is finally convinced of the reality of vampires, but can he and Van Helsing discover where Dracula's coffin is located, in time to save his wife, Mina? (Melissa Stribling)
The Curse of Frankenstein made waves with its bloody charnel house surgery; this thriller added an explicit sexual component to the classic vampire tale. The buzz centered on the Technicolored stakings, but Sangster's script and Fisher's direction communicate the full mystique of vampirism. But the real impact of Dracula was its daring interpretation of the vampire-victim relationship. There really weren't all that many vampire movies before Hammer's outing, and almost all were made under the American censor code that forbade the kind of heavy-breathing seductions seen here. The classic situation has Bela Lugosi waxing vampiric over swooned, unconscious ladies. Lugosi's attacks were always elided by cutaways to his staring eyes or timely fades to black, and in the three vampire films he made, his victims were invariably zonked out under hypnotic spells more effective than novocaine.
Hammer's Dracula made much more explicit the seduction-rape fantasy that underlies vampire mythology. Like Lugosi's Count, Christopher Lee is a decadent aristocrat, not a horrid ghoul like Murnau's Nosferatu. But Lee's Dracula isn't the type to attend operas -- he's more of a contemptuous brute, a rampaging hellion. Lugosi's ladies trembled in uncomprehending fear, and their men-folk gallantly did their best to protect them. The female victims in Fisher's Dracula experience an erotic delirium. Lucy awaits her master's visits by throwing wide her windows and reclining on her bed in anxious anticipation. Lucy and Mina conspire against their own brother and husband for the privilege of being savaged by the haughty, feral vampire king. The result is an artistic and commercial triumph over the censor: technically, all that's happening is that necks are being bitten, but what viewers experience are sensual, actively consensual rape scenes. 2 Christopher Lee embodies this dangerous masculinity to perfection. Still his greatest role, Dracula combines his knack for elitist hauteur with his excellent pantomime skills. After a decade of mostly inappropriate casting, Lee shows unmistakable star power, commanding the screen with his every appearance.
Dracula's conquests present contrasting portraits of eroticism that put later 'liberated' vampire films to shame. Valerie Gaunt was a token victim in The Curse of Frankenstein, but with just a few seconds of screen time her vampire bride etches a vibrant picture of duplicitous female wiles. The obsessive lust that comes over her eyes as she gets face-to-jugular with Jonathan Harker is unforgettable (top picture, above). Carol Marsh broke hearts ten years earlier starring opposite Richard Attenborough in the crime drama Brighton Rock; here her teen tragedy plays out in the Victorian era. To get her way, Lucy falls back on childish petulance, but we read her precocious sexuality loud and clear. When she throws the doors open, the midnight chill enters her bedroom with the falling leaves, which are beautiful, but dead. She doesn't care ... the all important HE is coming.
Melissa Stribling's Mina is even more interesting. She's first seen as a prim and conventional housewife, content to stand anonymously behind her bourgeois husband and too meek to question the incompetent Doctor Seward. But when Mina begins her affair with Dracula, the change is remarkable. She blooms to life, and her eyes and smile betray a satisfaction that doesn't come from keeping the silverware polished. When Mina receives Dracula in her bedroom, breathless and dumbstruck, the scene is pure domination and submission.
Peter Cushing's Van Helsing is his most iconic role as well. He carries the bulk of the picture with dignity, vitality and an acute sense of righteousness. He's the perfect authoritarian father, patient and gentle with little Tania (Janina Faye, later of The Day of the Triffids) yet sufficiently cool-headed to face off unarmed against the Prince of Darkness. Harker is aided by the script's reduction of Dracula's powers -- no shape-shifting or turning into a wisp of smoke here. Van Helsing's insistence on the existence of Dracula is greatly helped by his dismissal of that other, superstitious nonsense. The vampire killer must also endure skeptical dullards like Arthur Holmwood. Society would lock Van Helsing up if he brought his specialty out into the open, so he must operate in secret, at great risk. He's the original reactionary vigilante, fighting the Devil.
And that's exactly what we get, one of the best-matched battles between Good and Evil ever. Dracula threatens humanity and his defeat requires both luck and a talent for brilliant improvisation. The film ends with a very satisfying sense of justice and balance restored to the universe -- and Dracula's ring ends up lying on the Zodiac symbol for Aquarius.
Terence Fisher's overachievement in the 1958 Dracula truly brought the horror genre up to date. There's a balance between calm and action that contrasts what was best in the old Gothic style, with dynamic action that had never been seen in a horror film. Greatly helped by composer James Bernard's crashing chords, Dracula's every appearance is a physical jolt. The most powerful images belong to Chris Lee: pursing his bloody lips in the library, glaring up the stair at Mina, or his feral desperation when cornered by Van Helsing. The Count never makes a standard entrance, but instead simply appears, always 'already there' before his victims realize it. Fisher has the patience to build a slow-paced 1890's world of calm and order, which Dracula can interrupt with shocking violence. By placing Dracula's castle only a coach ride away from the Holmwood house, the film builds up its suspense until hero and villain finally come face to face. From then forward it's a chase to the finish.
Cinematographer Jack Asher's many nighttime and dusk scenes are richly colored, with deep blacks and dramatic rim lights. Interiors are not just lit, they are painted with light. The 'sensualized' Mina sits before her stained-glass window, and the lush lighting tells us she's a different woman, even though she's pretending to be absorbed in her needlepoint. Asher made the early color Hammer horrors things of beauty, but the studio soon dropped him in favor of cameramen that would work faster.
A disc set from last year provides the connection that shows where Terence Fisher's dynamic style came from: Eclipse's collection of Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures. Considered a kind of 'exploitation Ealing', Gainsborough made a series of hot-blooded period thrillers about brutish barons, wayward nobles, lady highwaymen and women leading racy double lives in low-cut gowns. As it turns out, director Terence Fisher received his training working at Gainsborough. The direction is old-fashioned, yet crisp, smartly-paced and visually very dynamic -- just like Fisher's early horror work. So Hammer Films' reputation was founded on a style from the 1940s, updated with color, gore, and sex!
Lionsgate's Blu-ray of Hammer Films' Dracula (Horror of Dracula) is a region B disc, so don't expect it to play on region-specific American machines. Will Warner Home Video put out a domestic Blu-ray release? As yet we do not know.
Let's get to the new material first. Via seamless branching, the disc is encoded with two cuts. The BFI's 2007 restoration of the standard American cut has Universal-International logos; the one addition is the original English title card.
The new 2012 edition incorporates the Japanese-sourced "uncensored" material, that until 2009 was just a rumor referenced in a couple of magazine articles (see 1950's article excerpt, below). The new scenes? Dracula's seduction of Mina finishes with an alternate shot in which the Count kisses her face and goes for her throat, while she swoons in ecstasy. The final disintegration of Dracula has at least three new angles and is edited differently. We're now more acutely aware that Dracula loses an entire leg when the sunlight hits his boot -- only now do we notice that in wide shots his boot is left on the floor with two feet of dust leading from it. When Dracula falls back, his head is resting on this pile of dust. Dracula then drags his hand down across his rapidly-disintegrating face, and we see his flesh tear in a new angle referencing 'famous' stills of the sequence. The original edit employs a different pattern of cutaways to Van Helsing, and another reverse shot of Dracula trying to slide clear of the sunlight.
What's the effect? Hammer fans will be blown away. The restored sequence is not any longer, but its basic continuity is more logical -- we get a clearer picture of what's happening. Imagine your favorite scene in your favorite movie, only edited slightly differently and made 100% better. 3 We understand that there may have been more "bits" of extended shots, etc., earlier in the film, but the Japanese reels of the beginning of the picture did not survive.. Marcus Hearn tells us that the vampire bride may have originally bitten Harker on screen, and the staking of Harker might have been extended as well.
The other controversial issue is the new transfer. The film is colder overall than Warners' earlier DVD, and night scenes are darker and bluer. But all look carefully timed and consistent. A spokesman in a featurette tells us that the timers didn't attempt to recreate the original Technicolor look -- where's the logic in that? I will admit that I miss the more saturated colors. Some of the explanations given for this are confusing, as when the restoration spokesman says that, "the color was timed from a check print from Warners." What sense does it make to base timings on a new print, from anybody? Only an IB Tech print from 1958 would have retained the exact hues. Technicolor prints shrink and warp, but the colors don't normally change. I'm very happy that the transfer looks as good as it does, and hasn't been subjected to a "creative" interpretation that desaturates the color, or turns everything monochromatic blue "for psychological reasons."
The happy punch line is that splitting hairs over color issues is unnecessary because the disc looks very good anyway. Some scenes are slanted on the bluish side, but not to any drastic extreme. Dracula's face is still a scary mask of pasty white and bloody red, skin tones are still attractive and Jack Asher's exquisite lighting is still a marvel. (DVD Beaver calls Hammer lighting 'garish', which it certainly is not.) I saw no real damage, no jumps at splices, etc. A playback bump may occur at the seamless branching joins, depending on your machine. Even the "new" original title card changes the film's tone -- it looks classier than the old Horror of Dracula title.
Lionsgate's extras are very well done, too. The experts on view are bona fide Hammer authors and scholars like Kim Newman, Denis Meikle, Christopher Frayling and Marcus Hearn, some of whom are old enough to have seen the picture when it was new. Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby deliver a thoughtful full length commentary. The main making-of featurette Dracula Reborn: The Making of a Hammer Classic is over a half-hour long and features interview material with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who passed away in 2011. Resurrecting Dracula covers the restoration process, including Simon Rowson's account of his discovery in the Japanese film archive. Sir Christopher Frayling anchors The Demon Lover: Frayling on Dracula, a long but rich lecture on Stoker's character and the Hammer phenomenon. Censoring Dracula presents the confusing story of Hammer's travails with the BBFC. All of the surviving Japanese reels are present, if one wishes an overdose of gross film damage. And actress Janina Faye recites a chapter from the novel Dracula. An old World of Hammer docu is present, along with a gallery of posters and stills from around the world.
Discs two and three are DVD discs, one with the 2007 and 2012 restorations, and one with the extras. (thanks for this correction to Don May.)
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dracula (Horror of Dracula) Blu-ray rates:
"Does this Cushing-Lee classic no longer appeal to today's horror fans?" As I've mentioned before, when I saw the film in college in a class on horror movies in the late '80s, it was practically hooted off the screen. There was non-stop laughter, much more than when the older and creakier Universals were shown. When I saw a screening at the Cinematheque in the early '90s there was laughter during the early scenes, until an angry fan told the laughers to shut up. I think today's audiences have a problem with the film's earnest tone and its bursts of breakneck pacing; all the college kids seemed to regard Van Helsing's frantic rushing about at the end as silly, like something out of Monty Python.
2. Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of the Horror Film occasionally gets its facts wrong but presents some of the best theorizing on the subject. The book flubs a reference to Dracula taking place 'entirely in England', but neatly explains other key Hammer concepts. Their Dracula movies are the thematic reverse of their Frankenstein films. The Baron is a rational scientist stuck in an age when superstition cramped his anarchic style; Van Helsing is a paternalistic reactionary, whose efforts to save society are thwarted by its own 'decadent' refusal to believe in his conservative truths.
The best idea in Hardy's entry relates to Hammer's Dracula being a proto-James Bond: a unique, un-killable man with a (supernatural) license to kill. He's a hedonist who can seduce any woman, brushing their husbands aside. The Hammer horror films were the first major English export movies to find favor the world over, and share many actors (including Christopher Lee) with the Bond films that followed. The Bond films successfully (sometimes appallingly) apply the simplistic Hammer battle between good and evil to the Cold War. The scene where John Van Eyssen is bitten by vampiress Valerie Gaunt (first image, above) is almost copied in the pre-credit opening of Goldfinger -- both are seduction scenes interrupted by shocking, positively shocking, violence.
3. Video Watchdog publisher and all-around sharp cookie Tim Lucas has spotted an irregularity in the restoration of the disintegration scene: the transfer of the Japanese source has an extra cut of Christopher Lee in mid-agony that is missing in the restored sequence. It's a sad thing, as the frame grabs posted on Lucas's Video Watchblog page reveal a new and telling expression on the Vampire King's face -- one of despair that encourages Sympathy for the Devil.
The restorers may indeed have overlooked the shot entirely, as Lucas theorizes. From my experience it is also very possible that the restorers discovered that the slightly longer Japanese sequence could not be made to synchronize with the soundtrack they had to work with. "Stretching" this sequence may have proved impossible without split audio elements. Unlike the slightly longer Mina-Dracula scene earlier in the film, the disintegration scene has many built-in, un-alterable sound effects.
Someone in authority may have discovered that the only thing to do was to drop a shot. As crazy and wrong as it sounds, things like this happen all the time. Having been around restorations, I've witnessed my share of "interesting" judgment calls. The difference in this case is that the evidence of the futzing is right out in the open for sharp-eyed observers like Mr. Lucas to find.
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