4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.
For Hammer, this is the big one. After their huge success in reviving a classic film monster with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, the studio decided to bring in the other big name classic monster…and so our favorite Count was reborn yet again…
The remarkable thing about all the Hammer productions is their commitment to quality and intelligence despite low budgets and limited productions. This Horror does particularly well. What becomes immediately noticeable to even the Dracula novice is the degree to which Jimmy Sangster’s script deviates from both Stoker’s novel and the 1931 Universal film. The problem with the Lugosi film has always been it’s extreme ties to the stage version of the story. In fact, it becomes so tedious at times that one asks, “Why even bother?” If it were not for Lugosi’s performance and several other famous bits, only the simultaneously filmed Spanish version would receive any acclaim.
Horror of Dracula runs at an alarmingly brisk 81 minutes. The film opens with the arrival of Johnathan Harker at Dracula’s castle in daylight. Gone is the long introduction of the original and this only gives the first glimpse at how wonderfully streamlined this version is. Dracula’s introduction into the film is marvelously simple. This Count is a mortal presence, a powerful man who just happens to be the leader of the Undead. Harker has not arrived to work for Dracula, but is there to destroy him. Already we have the primary conflict open and laid bare and it hasn’t even been fifteen minutes.
What this brisk pace does is add a sense of adventure to the proceedings that is so badly needed in the vast majority of vampire films. Horror is not only one of the films that redefined the horror genre, but is also one of the few Gothic adventure films.
This can be seen most in the Hammer version of Professor Van Helsing. Forget the atrocious 2004 film that made the Doctor into little more than another monosyllabic action hero. Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is one of the great cinematic heroes. Instead of the stodgy Edward Van Sloan of the Universal original, this Doctor is brilliant and not afraid to get his hands a bit…bloody.
Van Helsing carries such a sense of purpose that you can’t help but admire the man’s conviction and thus further cheer him on in attempting to destroy the cult of vampirism. Not to mention the fact that Cushing is flung around like a rag doll in fights due to the reckless abandon in which he throws himself into the role.
The Count is also very, shall we say, hands-on in this film. What Christopher Lee did as Dracula is simply bring him back down to Earth. He swoons, swaggers, snarls and makes small talk like the best of noblemen. When he goes to give the “kiss of the vampire” to one of the obligatory ladies (there’s not much fun in seeing Dracula stalking our male leads is there?) it truly seems as if it is a kiss instead of a bite. This Dracula fully embraces the sexual tension and desire of Stoker’s novel instead of subverting it to be read only by the most observant critic. (Whistles…)
Besides the lurid promise of sex, the early Hammers are famous for their dripping technicolor usage. Never before could a vampire drip red blood from its fangs. This deep color further sets apart the Hammer standard from the imitators as instead of being able to hide behind the obvious construction of B&W the color brings the fantasy right smack into our faces.
Terrence Fisher is really the grand Hammer director. The studio had a revolving list of good and competent directors who could simply be assigned to a new production, but it is Fisher who really nailed down the structure and form for all of the films to follow. His first three horrors form a sort of Initial trilogy, The Curse of Frankenstein-Horror of Dracula-The Mummy (1959), that combined make a fully fledged balance between the action filled and thinking man’s horror. This implied intelligence is what really first attracted me to the Hammer films as opposed to others, because they seemed to honestly believe in the material as opposed to simply making it as C-grade schlock. (Sadly, this is what the later Hammers and inevitable sequels fell into.)
And of course…Horror has that ending. Legendary to horror fans, Dracula is rushing to hide away in his castle before the sun rises and Van Helsing is tearing after him through the deserted maze of castle rooms. Dracula attempts to get through a trapdoor but Van Helsing surprises him and they begin an almost ritualistic dance of death. Fought to a standstill, Van Helsing seems desperate. Then he takes one glance to the side and runs down the long ancient dining table to leap at the window curtains…in one of those simple unrefined moments that reminds one why we watch films. In 53 years, Dracula’s demise has not lost any of its power. I’ve seen people cheer it to this day.
When attempting to name the definitive vampire film, it is regularly a contest between the Universal film and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). While both are true classics, Horror is a film more for a mass audience. Like it’s strikingly different Count and brilliant color, the Hammer film has a real physical presence that neither of the other films can lay claim to.
Warner’s DVD is a disappointment on all fronts. It’s an old single layer transfer (from 2002) that manages to drain the famed Technicolor and hideously crop the composed 1.66:1 image improperly. This was a snapper case released with five other Hammer titles simultaneously, all receiving similar fates on disc. (Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy have the exact same issues.) The film has been cropped to heavily on top (leading to some lopped of heads and faces.) and all one needs to do is look at the included trailer to see better framing.
The color is all but nonexistent. For a film to be so famously dripping with color, the fact that this is even an issue is an absolute shame.
Here is the DVD image:
And here is the same image with an extremely slight saturation and contrast increase:
Not much better, but an improvement nonetheless.Here are some shots I found of an original Technicolor IB print. These are obviously taken with a camera facing the screen, but do give some idea of the color depth that should be present and proper framing. (Note: the last shot is faded Eastmancolor.)
For such an important and famed title, Warner really needs to step up its game and release the Special Edition it’s talked about for years. In 2007, the British Film Institute restored Dracula and reissued it to theaters. This version has not been seen since. I hope that Warner licenses this restoration for the basis of a new Blu-ray edition, but something has occurred to stop all that dead in its tracks.
The legendary lost Japanese uncut version of the film has been found. At least part of it.
Now we may finally see the uncut ending and other little goodies that were snipped to gain the censor’s approval. This includes the famed shot during Dracula’s demise of Christopher raking his face off with his hand. This is truly a lost treasure.
For some reason, I’ve finally decided to go through every Hammer Dracula film in order of their release. I’m not really sure why, but I’m actually going to watch AD 1972 again. Oh dear. What am I doing to myself?