Sunday, August 14, 2011

Wendigo Meets HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

My friend Wendigo estimates that he's seen Terence Fisher's landmark vampire film more times than any other "Dracula" movie, unless you count Nosferatu. Despite that, he was still able to look at it with fresh eyes to mark our return from an unintended hiatus following Wendigo's discovery of the Encore Westerns channel. Someday we might start doing "Wendigo's Wild West," but for now we've taken the latest title off the top of his to-do pile and asked ourselves where Horror of Dracula's real significance lies.

Released in the U.K. as just plain Dracula -- Warner Bros., the U.S. distributor, was more deferential toward Universal's implicit claim to the Dracula title even though Universal itself distributed Hammer's film in some markets without fuss -- Fisher's film is a natural follow-up to his Curse of Frankenstein from the previous year, bringing back Peter Cushing as the protagonist and Christopher Lee as the monster. Like Curse, it was something new as a Technicolor horror movie. What was new and lastingly distinctive, in Wendigo's opinion, is the paring down of Bram Stoker's source story and the increased prominence of Van Helsing as a more energetic vampire hunter. Renfield is perhaps the most conspicuous absence, and as is almost always the case, Quincey Morris is nowhere to be found. Dracula himself is strangely monogamous, having but one bride when Jonathan Harker visits him, but Wendigo suspects that the master vampire may have had to live on a budget. Most impressive and probably most influential is the physicality of the combat between vampire and hunter. Cushing has to do more than brandish a cross to get the upper hand on Lee -- crossing candlesticks is really more a coup de grace than the decisive blow. Cross damage, however, plays a more important role here than in previous vampire films; Fisher makes much of how they burn a vampire's thrall on contact. That's typical of a greater use of effects to portray supernatural damage, as in Lee's protracted destruction.

Above and below: the power of the cross.

As a new kind of Dracula, Lee makes a strong early impression, but there are already signs of trouble for his later career in the role. In his first appearance he is casually conversational, articulate and businesslike, and Lee handles these scenes with ease. But after he leaves Harker in his room, Lee never gets another line of dialogue, setting the tone for his reappearance in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, when he has no dialogue at all.

Christopher Lee: shadow and substance.

Why silence Lee so soon? I suspect that Hammer may not have been too confident in an un-accented, un-foreign Dracula, but Wendigo makes the more pragmatic point that, in billing and practically every other detail, this is Cushing's movie, not Lee's, and it wasn't Lee's job to upstage the star by grabbing the best lines. Cushing at this point was perhaps the most popular star on British television while Lee was still paying his dues, and the roles are proportioned accordingly.

Wendigo readily allows that Horror of Dracula -- or Dracula, if you prefer -- is a movie about Van Helsing. That may reflect Cushing's stardom, but it also reflects a new sense of what Van Helsing is about that continues into a sequel that also has Dracula in the title, but features Van Helsing instead of Dracula. The scholar and vampire hunter is the initiator of the action rather than an expert called in for help in the middle. Jonathan Harker is only his helper and spy, sent by the good doctor to take the job Dracula was offering (in the want ads???) as the castle librarian. He is one of who-knows-how-many agents Van Helsing employs in his crusade against the "insidious cult" of vampires, and as such, the protagonist of Stoker's novel is no more than cannon fodder. That means, we must note, that Harker has to be stupid. He could have ended this movie after two reels if he had thought to stake a still-helpless Dracula first when he discovers the vampire's sleeping quarters. Instead, the idiot decides to stake the contentious Mrs. Dracula first. What was that, practice? Anyway, for that Harker deserves his fate, and that clears the stage for Van Helsing to take over. Our hero is a man of science as well as fate; in a scene Hammer would come to regret, he tells Arthur Holmwood (the late Michael Gough) that vampires turning into bats is just a myth. Wendigo thinks this bit of debunking was another case of Hammer knowing its limitations. In his opinion, given the studio's history of bat effects, they shouldn't have forgotten them. But he thinks Van Helsing's lecture may have had an influence beyond Hammer, as many modern vampires lack the panoply of powers that the doctor denies.

But for all that's new in Hammer's Dracula, Horror is in some ways reminiscent of Universal's vampire films. The most notable similarity is tied to writer Jimmy Sangster's most significant departure from Stoker -- the fact that Dracula never leaves Europe. The way some people write about how Stoker's Dracula stands for the general threat of the foreigner polluting England, it might seem that Sangster loses the point of the story if the Count doesn't invade the island kingdom. But he sets the story in a landscape much like what we call "preoccupied Europe," the timeless setting of Universal's monster rallies. Casting Lee as Dracula and having him speak without a Transylvanian accent is reminiscent of Universal's use of Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine in its later Dracula movies. By comparison, when an American studio revived Dracula around the same time, they made a point of casting an obvious foreigner, Francis Lederer, in an echo of Bela Lugosi. As for the period, the most we can say is that, whether Sangster meant it or not, the film can take place no earlier than 1903, thanks to Van Helsing's comparison of a little girl to a Teddy bear. But the landscape of Klaussenberg, Ingolstadt, etc., strongly resembles Universal's Visaria more than anyplace else -- with an important bit of difference. Dracula's territory seems to be getting colonized by Englishmen.

Horror of Dracula competed against William Castle's Macabre in some North American markets. At least one enterprising exhibitor thought the film could use a gimmick to compete more effectively.

Jonathan Harker is just an interloper, but Arthur Holmwood appears to be a permanent residence, and another Englishman, Dr. Seward, practices there. Wendigo notes that Hammer's mitteleuropa is really a barely-disguised rural England, given how few actors attempt foreign accents. He suggests that Hammer's Europe may symbolize English nostalgia for a disappearing past and its rustic traditions. I can agree with that, but I'd like to go further out on a limb and suggest that Horror of Dracula is a "postcolonial" film for the dying days of the British Empire. My description of Holmwood and Seward as "colonists" probably tipped my hand already on that point. In that context, it may not be as important for Dracula to invade England as it is for him to be a kind of native insurgent, representing the danger of the "dark" tides engulfing the handful of English whose efforts to civilize the world are apparently failing. Read that way, the "horror" film Dracula is not so different from such Hammer "adventure" films as Stranglers of Bombay and Terror of the Tongs, which also highlight Englishmen in peril abroad among secretive hostile natives with strange powers over the mind, thanks to drugs or fanatic religion. The "cult of the vampires" thus becomes an analogue for the Thugee cult and other terrifying phenomena of imperial history that Hammer would later confront directly. Wendigo sees some merit in this reading, but he thinks it was more likely a subconscious approach by Sangster, the conscious motive being to save money by re-using as many Curse of Frankenstein sets as possible.

Lee lacks a certain grace in his flight from Cushing, but those stairs probably did neither man many favors.

Horror of Dracula's place in movie history is indisputable, but Wendigo finds the Hammer Dracula series to be less than meets the eye. The studio never really gives the vampire enough to do, or at least enough to make him an interesting character. Most of his favorite Hammer vampire films have nothing to do with Dracula; those do more with vampire concepts than the Dracula movies ever dared. Brides of Dracula is arguably an exception, but mainly because it had no Dracula. Had a Van Helsing series continued from that point, instead of being feebly resumed with Dracula A.D. 1972, Hammer may have changed the face of horror cinema in an even more profound way. Christopher Lee may not be a truly great Dracula, but Peter Cushing is nearly the definitive cinematic Van Helsing, with Edward Van Sloan from the Universal Dracula as his only serious competition. For introducing Cushing's vampire hunter, the model for generations of paranormal warriors to come, Horror's place in history remains secure.

It's harder than I expected to find a 1958 "Dracula" (as opposed to "Horror") trailer online -- so this U.S. trailer uploaded to YouTube by hermankatnip will have to do.


Sam Juliano said...

Well, I'd say I've seen THE HORROR OF DRACULA just about as often as Wendigo, when one considers I'm in my mid 50's and this film was my childhood favorite in the genre. I first saw it as a child in a local movie palace (long since converted to a Jehovah Witness Hall) and I became hooked, re-visiting the theatre several times, and eventually connecting with the film on endless television re-runs. It's still the most celebrated Hammer film and in quality stands with the likes of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, BRIDES OF DRACULA and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES.

It's short and filled with color and acute shocks and the disintegration scene at the end is a hoot. Lee makes a terrific Dracula, and Cushing is a hero I really related to in those long ago days. Yes, of course the book is plundered and re-arranged, and the film is more Van Helsing than Dracula. Sangster's script is a wholly new creation.

Terrific essay and trip down Memory Lane. I agree that as a whole teh Hammer vampire series went nowhere after this film.

swords said...

Realy enjoyed this horror sword movie.Swords

venoms5 said...

A beautifully written write up on this film, Sam. Especially the point you make regarding Van Helsing owning the movie more than Dracula does. This brings to mind Hammer's inability to do anything with the character as each succeeding film has less and less for him to do. Which is probably why I enjoy SCARS OF DRACULA as much as I do. Lee gets more screen time and dialog than probably all his Dracula's combined.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for all the comments. I just wanted to add the sad news that Horror screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, one of the key creative people at Hammer, has just passed away. RIP.