Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Terrifying Lover Who Died-Yet Lived!

Horror of Dracula(1958)
Director: Terrence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Valerie Gaunt

Developed as a follow-up the immensely lucrative, The Curse of Frankenstein(1957), Hammer films thought it time that the Dracula story be "re-vamped" for a modern day audience. Utlizing the same dark and cynical atmosphere that made the Frankenstein adaption so effective and re-uniting Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Horror of Dracula was destined to become not just Hammer's finest horror contribution, but also one of the finest horror films ever made. The brilliant screenplay by Jimmy Sangster took key elements from Stoker's novel, while altering the story for a quicker pace, simplifying and at the same time, magnifying several aspects of the classic to full potential. Future films in the series would add details from the Stoker novel bit by bit, but would unfortunately stray too far from the text as the series came to a conclusion in the 1970s.

The film's plot appears at first, very much like the novel with Johnathan Harker(John Van Eyssen) visiting Count Dracula(Christopher Lee). The twist in this version is that instead of being a real estate agent, he is actually sent as an assassin to eliminate the vampire! However, he is seduced and duped by Dracula's beautiful bride(Valerie Gaunt) who bites him on the neck. Determined to stop both of them before he succumbs to his impending vampiric state, he goes and stakes the vampire woman, reducing her to a hideous crone. However, the sun has set and Dracula rises from his coffin and kills the unfortunate man. In some ways, the opening in reminiscent of Hitchcock's Psycho(1960) with the main protagonist being killed off about a half hour into the film, though this was at least two years before that celebrated shocker. Lee handles the role of Dracula very differently than Bela Lugosi, introducing himself with a hurried clipped speech and virtually no emotion. He barely speaks for the remainder of the picture, focusing rather on the character's physical and animalistic traits that in effect, make him appear more human and therefore, more real and menacing. When he appears in the library, after Johnathan is bitten by the vampire woman, his sudden close up of blood shot eyes and gory mouth is still one of the great horror moments.

Van Helsing(Peter Cushing) arrives at a local inn, trying to find the whereabouts of his lost friend, Harker, whom he had sent out to stop Dracula. No one wants to reveal anything, but he is given Johnanthan's journal and this causes him to go to Dracula's castle, where he discovers Johnathan lying in a casket, now a vampire. Dracula has fled and left him in his place, leaving Van Helsing to stake his friend. He reports Johnathan's death to his friends and family, Arthur and Mina Holmwood(Melissa Stribling and Michael Gough) who have to report the terrible news to Johnathan's ailing fiance, Lucy(Carol Marsh), who is already under the spell of Dracula. Eventually, she succumbs to the vampire and is ressurected and attempts to prey on her own young niece(Janina Faye), before being interupted by Arthur, her brother, whom she also wishes to victimize. Van Helsing arrives in time with a crucifix and stops the vampire, burning her head with the cross and staking her in her coffin.


Both men are now set on hunting down and destroying Dracula and try to find where he is hiding. Tracking him through customs, Dracula eludes them by moving his coffin into the Holmwood house and preying on Mina. He almost kills her one night, but luckily, Van Helsing is able to perform a blood transfusion. Discovering that the Count's coffin is in the basement, Van Helsing tosses a crucifix into the casket and chases after the fiend, who has kidnapped Mina and is now racing by carriage to his castle, with Arthur and Van Helsing in pursuit. The duo arrive in the nick of time, as Dracula attempts to burial the girl alive and Van Helsing chases the vampire into the castle, engaging in mortal combat with the Count. The sun has risen and finding an opportunity, Van Helsing races and flings open a curtain and burns the vampire, who attempts to scuttle away, before Van Helsing creates a makeshift cross with two candlesticks and forces the Count to perish in the sunlight.

What stands out the most about Horror of Dracula is the pace of the picture. Few films have the near lightning pace that director Terrence Fisher is able to achieve with this picture. There's no wasted time as the plot goes from point a to point b with nary a breather. It's particularly brutal when compared to the glacial pace of Tod Browning's celebrated version of Dracula(1931) with Bela Lugosi! Fisher's film is much more livelier, disposing of the more supernatural terrors of the Universal film for more realistic and physical action with an emphasis on sensuality and gore, that would become the studio's trademark. Sangster's script shortens the Stoker narrative, much like the previous film, but tightens it and adds some dimensions that strengthen and elaborate on the Van Helsing character. Peter Cushing is absolute perfection in the part of the vampire hunter, bringing an athletic grace and steely eyes determination to the part that borders on insanity. His Van Helsing is part Sherlock Holmes(a part Cushing would play the same year in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles) and part swashbuckler, leaping across tables and bannisters with ease. Never has the screen had a finer vampire hunter and it remains Cushing's most beloved role, besides his Dr. Victor Frankenstein and may be the horror performance of the decade.

Christopher Lee lacks the eloquence and classic line readings of Lugosi, but makes up for it with sheer animal magnetism and ferocity. His Dracula is like a feral creature, snarling and bloodthirsty, truly a threatening character. By playing up the physical characteristics, it makes the final battle, that much more engaging and a reason why it is often cited as one of the top ten conclusions in horror history. Lee's suave sensuality was also on hand and adds immeasurably to the film's mood, particularly as he seduces Melissa Stribling or stalks into Carol Marsh's bedchamber. He does not have many scenes in the film, but his force dominates the picture and leaves a menacing shadow throughout.

The supporting cast are all uniformly good in the roles they play. Van Eyssen's doomed Harker, a tragic misguided figure who gains audience sympathy and his fiance, Marsh, a decidely fetching vampire as is Valerie Gaunt, whose appearance would influence many a future sexy vampire. Gough would become a genre regular, best known as the Alfred the butler in the Batman films. He was actually a minor horror star, often playing lunatics, some very memorably, like in b-classics such as Horrors of the Black Museum(1959) and Black Zoo(1962). Another part of the film's success has to lie in the truly awesome bombastic score provided by James Bernard, whose crushing title music sets the tone for the rest of the movie, fast paced, dramatic and larger than life. It's easily his most recognizeable Hammer score and one of the finest horror scores of all time.

Horror of Dracula is the best of the Hammer horror films and ranks among my top ten horror classics. It's one of the most entertaining and cleverly concocted versions of Dracula ever attempted and is considered by various aficionados as the best one made. Dripping with beautiful gothic flavor from it's gorgeous technicolor photography and effective low budget sets and stellar casting, Horror of Dracula is an absolute essential for the horror hound and an important part of the genre's evolution into more adult territory.

Note: It is with much sadness that I have to report the passing of screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, who passed away at age 83. A true legend and an inspiration to filmgoers worlwide, my heart goes out to the mand and his family. I dedicate this blog entry in his memory. Thank you, for the wonderful nightmares, Mr. Sangster.

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