"I am Dracula, and I welcome you to my house."
Hammer's reclaiming of its once hallowed Horror throne has been gathering steam over the last year or so with a slew of extremely welcome and hugely satisfying Blu-ray releases from the likes of StudioCanal and Lionsgate in the UK, and Synapse in the US. Although their venerated debut into colour gothic, 1957's excellent The Curse of Frankenstein met with some criticism over its transfer and aspect ratio, the overall package was a supreme delight, especially as fans now benefited from a gory eyeball shot that had long been thought lost. Detectives from the reinvigorated Hammer had been conducting worldwide searches for other such fabled material in the valiant and commendable quest to restore these classic films to their most complete incarnations, as well as painstakingly restoring them to their former glory in terms of picture and sound quality. But, as every devoted Hammerite knows, the studio's second colour foray into gaudy, gory gothique, 1958's seminal Dracula, was the veritable Holy Grail.
Censored shots of the first blood-spurting ramming of a wooden stake into a vampiric heart had always been available in the US version, though not in the UK – and they feature here in stupendous detail and violence – but the image of a sunlight-ensnared Dracula clawing away his own face as his flesh withers and dissolves had been granted almost mythical status. And, better still, the supremely erotic charge to the infamous sequence when the Count seduces Mina Holmwood (and not Mina Harker in this Jimmy Sangster adaptation) is the real coup that will have fans and fiends salivating over.
After the full uncut version of The Curse of the Werewolf made such an impact (BD puh-leeeeze!), really upping the ante, we know that there are still plenty of juicy snippets awaiting rebirth. Personally, I still long for the full version of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, though! Some choice shots of surgery and throat violation are still out there somewhere.
After the BFI restored Terence Fisher’s film back in 2007, finally recognising its true value and importance in the evolution of British Cinema, some of this lost footage was found languishing in celluloid vaults in Japan, miraculously surviving a fire that contrived to destroy lots of other material that had been preserved there. Those notorious scenes and shots that had been cut out of British and American prints, and since been seen only as provocative stills in magazines and books, lurked in tantalising cans, whose hidden treasures then revealed flickering, scratched, pitted and dug-in reels of well-worn prints. Whilst some reels were completely unwatchable and sadly irreparable, the most important elements that devotees and aficionados sought were still intact and, best of all, available to be restored and then reintegrated into the film, enabling a genre classic to finally regain its original provocative allure for adoring acolytes and newcomers alike.
Has the wait been worth it?
But with tastes and styles having gone to extremes that would have been unthinkable back when Hammer produced Dracula, does the film still hold up today?
You betcha. In fact, even despite a couple of dated performances, the film seems remarkably vital and sexually potent. The story that Sangster wrestled from Stoker’s admittedly clumsy and helter-skelter prose is vastly streamlined and shorn of the Victorian stance of multiple characters and locations and the tedious device of variable viewpoints from letters, diaries and journals. It has a strict three-act structure, a fabulously quirky sense of gallows humour, some shocking imagery and disturbing themes, a thunderous score and a full-blooded approach to vampirism, making the undead scary once again. And sexy.
Watching Peter Cushing (who is, beyond any doubts, my absolute favourite genre actor of all time) and his regular dueling-partner Christopher Lee cavorting around those elaborate sets at Bray Studios and charging through the redoubtable and ever autumnal Black Wood to the rollicking music of James Bernard is as comfortable and familiar as a pair of old slippers. I don’t actually posses any slippers … but you know what I mean. I think the most amazing thing is that even people coming totally fresh to these films seem to instinctively get this, as well. This unique double-act, liberally gracing many a lavish and eerily theatrical production, has a peculiar alchemy that drips class and lurid iconography. The look, the style and the image of these two stalwart battlers is like a chemical memory. Here’s proof for you. My son recently celebrated his twelfth birthday. After he and his buddies had the dubious pleasure of watching Bryan Singer’s lamentable Jack the Giant Slayer in 3D and then playing footie in the park, they all piled back to Mad Mac Mansion (or home) to raise some hell of their own. What was playing on the big screen? Why, Dracula, of course. My son knows the score. He’s seen plenty of vintage fare, whether he wanted to or not, and he stemmed his mates’ raucous cackling at the dated nature of the movie by telling them that this was a classic. Did they all then sit down to savour its influential redolence and learn the artistry of gothic chills? Of course they didn’t. Don’t be daft. BUT, and this is the crucial thing … this band of Xboxers name-checked both Cushing and Lee and the fact that this was a Hammer Film. And, even as they moved off to ransack the fridge and go and play videogames upstairs, they lingered and only one by one left the room, unmistakably intrigued by the imagery and affected by the mood spilling forth from the screen, and their initial ridicule swiftly dissipated. My son even told me later that a couple of them were asking if we had more of these “old films” and whether or not he’d seen them, and if they were any good?
Even my six year old daughter, Lucy (aye, eat your heart out, Bram), has seen the film and relished it. She tries to perfect the same sinister smile that the vampirised Lucy Harker displays when luring little Tania away to the graveyard. By the way, I don’t specifically “endorse” allowing youngsters to watch films like this – not because of any moral standpoint you understand, but because of all the bloody endless questions that you get both during and afterwards. “Why do vampires bite the neck? What’s so scary about a cross? Why do they sleep in coffins? Can I be a vampire, Dad? Anyway, I think werewolves are better. Don’t you?”
That is the enduring potency and appeal of the studio. Even its naff releases – The Evil of Frankenstein and the comedic Ralph Bates instalment (Horror of Frankenstein) that is so bad it almost defies belief – have a visual zest and dramatic opulence that draws the viewer in, smitten by, and in the thrall of such giddy phantasmagorical flair. They are fast and atmospheric, and loaded with subtext and metaphor if you want to look for such things. Just great gothic fun if you don’t.
But the always inspiring thing about the best of Hammer’s horrors is that they still have the power to thrill, shock and fascinate. Some people will always think of them as being B-movie quickies that were just churned-out on a meager budget, on the same sets and starring the same actors over and over again. But even if this is fundamentally accurate, it neglects to embrace the wonderful performances, frequently clever and richly layered screenplays, fabulous production design and sheer delight in supreme atmospherics and groundbreaking, taboo-busting themes and imagery. And after the bold statements made with The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2, as well as the subtle brilliance of The Abominable Snowman and the audacious, moral-baiting excess of The Curse of Frankenstein, it was a cinch that Jimmy Sangster’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s immortal novel would be a sensational, censor-goading poke in the eye of the establishment.
Having passed though the hands of various filmmakers already – Murnau’s outstanding and unofficial Nosferatu, Browning’s celebrated but overly theatrical version for Universal – it seemed only right that the property be returned to the land of its origin and a British take then went for the throat. Although nothing could overshadow Max Shreck’s foul Count Orloff (a name-change and an alien rat-countenance could not throw any literary vampire-hunter off the scent as to where his genesis lay) or Bela Lugosi’s suave vowel-mangling Hungarian, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, director Fisher and studio head, James Carreras, understood implicitly that their version would have to be radically different if it were to wow modern audiences. The book still continued to sell, and stage versions were still regularly attended – and Browning’s 1931 original was still delighting crowds in American theatres – but Hammer had already proved that they could take a classic of literary horror and inject new blood into its dead veins and astonish crowds and critics alike. The runaway success of The Curse of Frankenstein naturally emboldened Sangster and Fisher, informing them that their bloodier, more voluptuous brand was definitely marketable, but they also suspected – and accurately so – that their notoriety, even more graphically eye-popping given the lurid colour that now dripped from their films, was apt to cause problems with the British Censor.
Nosferatu’s Orloff was an odious and monstrous figure and Lugosi’s Count was a decadent and leering lothario who rolled his tongue with arch melodrama, so Lee’s searingly intense portrayal of a nobleman turned rapist from the beyond the grave was a severe jolt to the system. Ditching the old age and the white moustache that Stoker bedecked him with, Lee assumes the virile and instinctively athletic poise of an elementally energised sexual predator, one minute a sophisticated and mesmerising aristocrat with an unstoppably seductive zeal, and the next a red-eyed, fang-flared monster of ferocious intent. His early introduction – composed, dignified, yet quietly strong and fast – shelters a coiled serpent that can suddenly, explosively leap into sadistic action. Lee’s height is lent greater intimidation by that simple black cape and the aquiline profile, the piercing eyes glaring with cold malevolence even before those red contacts are inserted.
As well as the profound sexual qualities that he imbues his vampire lord with, Lee adds something else to the character’s stew. And that is rage. Just look at that monstrous expression of the utmost hatred and raw contempt for Harker and the nefarious bride when he discovers them in necto bitus, and then for Van Helsing during the final showdown. God knows what secret pool of actorly motivation Lee dipped his hands into, but he came up with the sort of anger that would make Satan, himself, blanche.
And if Lee did the unthinkable and gave the Count a feral, animalistic spin, then Cushing’s take on Stoker’s old Swiss vampire-hunter is perhaps even more dynamically charged, fresh and excitingly obsessive. Starkly demonstrative, frighteningly determined and resolutely ominous, he is a veritable monster, too. Thank God that he’s on our side. Unashamedly academic, this coffin-busting boffin is like a Victorian Indiana Jones, furiously knowledgeable and ever-hungry to learn more, but equally at home when dispatching the undead and rampaging across Europe as he is with his books, diaries and voice recordings. Edward Van Sloan could talk the dead back into their graves in the Browning film. We can forget Hugh Jackman’s incarnation, as well as the outrageously hammy one from Laurence Olivier in John Badham’s otherwise impressive take on the novel, and although I really enjoyed how Anthony Hopkins handled the role for Coppola, there really is only one Van Helsing. And he had a crucifix in every pocket, a nicotine-stained pointing finger of total authority, and he looked exactly like Peter Cushing.
In many ways, it is a shame that the incredible English actor is mostly known for his performances as both the vampire-slayer and the monster-make, Baron Frankenstein, because he was simply outstanding in every damn role he ever undertook. Yet his dedication and skill was just as unerring for Hammer as it was for the BBC, Amicus, the West End or George Lucas. And he is as mesmerising to see here as Christopher Lee.
Just watch how Cushing treats little Janina Fay after rescuing her from the desperately demonic clutches of the vampirised Lucy. His tenderness towards the child is genuinely heartwarming and his reassurances (“If you look over there, you’ll see the sun come up.”) tangibly soothing, yet totally in-character at the same time. It is clear, even from this first incarnation of Hammer’s Helsing, that the bane of the undead will never know the love of a woman, nor even pursue it. A learned and well-travelled man, he is as devout as a monk in his war against vampires, and as doggedly instinctive as Sherlock Holmes. That Cushing would also play the formidable Baker Street sleuth is hardly surprising. He even portrayed the character for Hammer in their awesome adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, alongside Lee only a year later. But given that his crusade is so all-consuming, it is surely comforting to witness these little vignettes of warmth and kindness. We know that, as the series went on, Van Helsing would become as single-minded as his quarry – an asexual champion pitted against the metaphorical debaucher – and that, in many ways, he would become just as dangerous. Blade without the wisecracks. He is also the perfect flipside to the dastardly machinations of the Baron Frankenstein who is the truest monster in Hammer’s other celebrated franchise – a grave-robber, a murderer, a rapist and an all-round scoundrel – though also a far richer and better written character, overall.
Many commentators and writers – several of whom crop up to contribute on this stellar release – pour scorn upon poor Michael Gough for this rather fey performance as Arthur Holmwood, but I find this more than a touch unjust. Certainly, his delivery is tonally poles-apart from Cushing’s. But he is coming at his character from a vastly different end of the spectrum, his style and personification decidedly twee and vintage English upper-class, whilst Cushing is full of conviction, seriousness and devout mannerisms. He is a man of tradition and respect, positively embalmed with fine manners and etiquette. The things he encounters once Dracula enters his life are so preposterous and horrifying that the fragile grasp he has upon his own inherited gentry shatters to reveal the repressed core of a man who has never even read about cruelty, let alone witnessed it. Whilst Gough overplays his emotions and yet barely alters his expression through any number of wild predicaments, laboring his responses with theatrical gesticulations and gasps, Cushing dilutes Sangster’s verbiage, pruning away the dramatics and inhabiting his character with grave conviction and, when called for, ruthless élan. Now whether or not Gough did indeed believe that the material was beneath him, as has been suggested, and treated his performance with disdain, I actually think that the differences in style and on-screen personality work just fine. We are supposed to find Holmwood ineffectual, effete and a bit of a pompous twit. This is precisely how his own wife comes to be chosen as a potential mate by Dracula. The Count is exploiting the cracks in the Holmwoods’ relationship, savouring the fact that Mina is not getting what she craves from her starched husband and delivering the very excitement that has been so sorely lacking from their prim and proper boudoir.
Gough would go on to perfect his own unique footnote in the genre with a peculiar penchant for playing dangerously unhinged doctors and surgeons in many British oddities, like Konga, Trog, Horror Hospital and in TV’s The Avengers. He would give Bruce Wayne’s eccentric butler and loyal confidante, Albert Pennyworth, a marvelous sense of dignity and character in Tim Burton’s Batman series. Here, he does exaggerate things, but I think this theatricality works and serves to promote Cushing’s vigorous, no-nonsense approach for Van Helsing even more.
Fisher should also be praised for allowing Melissa Stribling to shine so well as the initially straight-laced Mina Holmwood, the sweetly chaste wife led down a very dark road indeed by her malevolent midnight lover. That look of exhilaration and post-coital bliss on her face when she returns after her first wicked liaison with Dracula is priceless. She exudes a brazen decadence and liberation that would have left audiences under no illusion about the power of undead temptation, and its breathlessly erotic spell. Then there is the intoxicating combination of fear and lust in her eyes when she allows him a second bite of the cherry. It is very daring stuff. Her instinctive loathing of the crucifix as Arthur unwittingly draws it nearer is also highly effective. You have to laugh, however, when Dracula, for all his desires, simply tosses her into a hastily dug grave like he has dropped a couple of bags of shopping. Carol Marsh nails the tragedy and the chilling transformation of Lucy Harker, delivering one of the most spectacularly creepy grins in the entire vampirical pantheon. Yep – the one my own Lucy seems hellbent on mastering. Olga Dickie, who plays Gerda, the Holmwood housemaid, gets a severe wallop from Cushing at one stage to quell her hysterics, and you can really see the shock that it gives her. Still, she is the main reason that Dracula is able to cause so much distress to the good guys. But my favourite of the ladies in this outing is Valerie Gaunt, whose sultry, manipulative vampire vixen leads the oafish Jonathan Harker up the garden path in the first act. If Lee’s snarl is serpentine, then her own is decidedly lupine. Just look at that incredible shot of her on the floor, hissing up at her enraged master, fangs out, hair a gorgon-cascade and a wildly arched eyebrow confirming her as one creature of the night not to be messed with. Gaunt played the doomed Justine in Curse of Frankenstein, falling afoul of both Cushing and Lee on that occasion, but her time with Hammer would sadly end with this picture.
Ever economical, Fisher handles the action with garrulous conviction. The sudden thrusting of a crucifix between Arthur Holmwood and the sadistically advancing Lucy is a marvelous barrage of editing and knee-jerk gut-reaction. Her subsequent staking is a rapturous delight for vintage gorehounds and suitably wince-inducing, with Arthur’s operatic collapse against the wall really adding an extra dimension to the shocking demise of what was once his sister. Dracula’s skirmishing with Jonathan Harker and the treacherous bride is fast and violent and, of course, his final duel with Van Helsing is a rollicking frenzy of tousled locks and Victorian acrobatics. I’d always thought that Peter Cushing performed that desperate table-run and sunlight-revealing leap at the window himself – I have certainly read that he did – but the commentary on this disc says otherwise. Whatever may be the case, it is a wonderfully impulsive image of devil-may-care derring-do, and certainly something that Cushing sought to expand upon in his breathtaking scuffle with Baron Meinster in the dazzling Brides of Dracula. Lee’s recoiling from the crossed candlesticks – even when he’s run out of crucifixes, Van Helsing can improvise - and his horrific reaction to the sudden shaft of sunlight are truly galvanizing moments. The eerie final shot of the Count’s dust drifting across the marble-floor in a purifying breeze and resting beside his regal ring is neatly recalled at the conclusion of Flash Gordon, when Max Von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless, perhaps nodding to the fact that baddies such he and Dracula are never truly defeated, reaches down to retrieve his ring after apparently having been slain.
After Curse, it became apparent that high production values and art direction would be as essential to Hammer as boobs and blood. Bray was dressed and redressed and dressed some more, the main stage becoming halls, dining rooms, parlours, graveyards and crypts in an endless cycle of lavishly mounted design. If you are a fan, then you can spot every time. And the score from James Bernard, with its totemic 3-note motif for the Count pre-empting John Williams’ main anthem for Superman by actually saying the character’s name in musical syllables – Drac-u-la! – with furiously demonic stridor. He would repeat this definitive theme throughout all the films in the Dracula series that he would be called-upon to score. His bombastic style was far more cleverly constructed than many give him credit for. He elaborated upon the characters and the drama, of course, but he also reflected and augmented the environment – what with storms and such like – as well as the erotic and violent ingredients. Even without the imagery, you could visualise what was going on by the turbulent moods his music created.
While Dracula’s status as a bonafide classic is hardly up for debate, nor the fact that it remains one of the most influential horror movies of the last century, there are still many faults and missteps that deny it the full sobriquet of masterpiece. I am not about to argue with the likes of Sir Christopher Frayling, Marcus Hearn, Jonathan Rigby or Mark Gatiss (although I would dearly relish the opportunity to sit down and chew the filmic fat with these guys), but I think they can be a bit forgiving of certain aspects. It is easy to pick narrative blunders and thematic errors in any film, and I don’t usually fall prey to putting the boot in – especially when it comes to such a personally cherished production as this – but with Dracula I do notice them, and they do conspire to bother me every time.
I can’t quite fathom why Dracula is only allowed those thirteen lines of dialogue, all of which occur during his introduction to Harker. How can someone who is obviously very intelligent and devious and resolutely aristocratic then simply regress into little more than a snarling, lustful beast throughout the rest of the film? Lee plays the Count superbly, of course, but if we are to lambast the many sequels that reduced the character still further, then I’m afraid that, in this regard, the rot set in right from the get-go. It is certainly true that he does not need to appear in any more scenes than the surprisingly mere ten minutes of screentime that he is allotted, for the character’s presence and threat permeates almost every frame of Fisher’s film, replicating his unseen but sinister aura in Stoker’s novel. But to portray him as initially articulate and blessed with layers of personality and an undoubtedly malign wisdom makes the Count’s collapse into shock-scene bogeyman all the more unfortunate. With a learned antagonist in Cushing’s devout Van Helsing to play off, there really ought to have been some verbal sparring to add some spice to their confrontations.
Perhaps Sangster was enjoying his own bit of class humiliation, reducing the urbane aristocrat to the status of a simple thug and home-wrecker. If so, this playful barb of distrust and dislike for the gentrified would become a running gag in many of Hammer’s films – The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, for examples – but I still think it is not only a missed opportunity but a rug-pull from beneath their new poster-boy.
Why would such a “monster” even desire that his collection of books be catalogued in the first place? Does he take a tome to his coffin for some light reading come bedtime? And just what is his grand scheme? If it is simple revenge for the destruction of his bride, then so be it … but the Count is initially portrayed as being somewhat deeper than that. Stoker didn’t really know what to do with his vampire either, but then this ominous cloud of dark depravity and villainous usurping of Empirical mores fits in with the gothic Victorian romance of his globe-trotting miasmic prose. Coppola’s elegant version allowed Gary Oldman to inject a tortured and sympathetic soul within a more tragic Dracula, a hunger for life and love in their modern, vibrant guises and a motivation for escaping the vast tomb of Transylvania. Sangster and Lee commence with their fiend apparently high up on the social ladder, yet then topple him to mute menace scurrying about the shadows and plotting home-invasions. If this is such a classic of British genre, just what is its titular character and cultural figurehead hoping to achieve?
There is really no coherence to the conflict.
Why does the obviously more experienced Van Helsing leave Jonathan Harker to lead his assassination attempt alone? The opening chapter may be a clever twist on Stoker’s story, but it makes very little sense. One man, posing as a librarian, gains entry into the arch-fiend’s castle and, consequently, his confidence, but without any essential backup. And how come his own family and fiancé know absolutely nothing of this rather odd, but doubtlessly time-consuming career path that he has undertaken? I’m afraid that none of this actually holds up to even the most superficial scrutiny. The vampire-hunting duo’s research into the Count is incredibly poor, as well. Jonathan enters the castle without even having conducted a recce of the place first. Had he and Van Helsing done so they would have known of the presence of an equally vampiric concubine and, thus, been prepared for the devious advances of the bride and not been suckered-in to her honey-trap ... as the witless Harker so deftly is.
On a more immediately obvious front, one facet of the screenplay that really bugs me is that Van Helsing knows the danger that Lucy is in. He has deduced that a vampire has been visiting her nightly and he takes steps to protect her from another such liaison by instructing Mina to maintain that garlic flowers surround the girl, and to keep the windows locked. But the promise that he will return in the morning seems completely at-odds with such a defensive maneuver. I mean, if he believes that a vampire is going to attack her in the night, why not stay there alongside her … protect her and slay the monster there and then? Why go off at all? It is not as if he needs to brush up on his vampire vanquishing tactics. He practically wrote the manual in the first place. Instead, he leaves an incredulous household vulnerable without even warning them that something considerably more dangerous than they can imagine has intentions of invading their sanctuary.
Sangster’s original premise was to be far more faithful to the source novel – with the fateful voyage of the Demeter and a location change to England’s Whitby and London – but the budget threw such components out. Yet, the finished movie only heaves a few more irks at us as a result. The Holmwoods now reside in a neighbouring state just a short hop away from Castle Dracula, with only a mediocre border checkpoint populated by a solitary official and a simple wooden barrier. The Holmwoods remain steadfastly English and the script now makes absolutely no reference as to why these anglophiles happen to be living in rural Eastern Europe. Even the local copper speaks with an absurdly over-the-top upper class Brit accent. It leads you to suspect that these elements were in-place before Carreras axed the sea-crossing and were then just left un-altered in the hopes that nobody would notice. Of course, you could just as easily argue that this makes the final pell-mell chase as Arthur and Van Helsing pursue Dracula back to his castle much more credible and believably imperative. And you would be right. But the set-up still feels a little too convenient and also decidedly slapdash for my liking.
These elements, as acceptable as they are in the grand scheme of a ribald and racy fantasy, still escalate until they ensure that the film is kept off the shining top pedestal that I would so long to place it upon.
Something else that comes in for some garlic-scented stick is the comedy mugging of the bumbling border official when he discovers, firstly, that Dracula has just sheared-off his wooden barrier by thundering his stolen carriage through it and then, secondly, that Van Helsing and Holmwood have then torn his hasty repair job equally apart. However, I love this little mid-chase sequence of almost Benny Hill lampoonery. Not only is it beautifully amusing, but it also helps to convey the passage of time between the two racing parties. Hammer certainly had a sense of humour, and in some ways this tension-alleviating stopgap is very akin to what would become a regular fixture of the James Bond franchise.
Count Dracula would go on to become one of the most iconic figures in Hammer’s illustrious canon, making Christopher Lee a household name and absolutely synonymous with the aristocratic bloodsucker. But the character would prove to be a millstone around his neck in the years to come and something of a thorn in the studio’s side. With increasingly disappointing results, Hammer would return to the Count only to find themselves at a loss as to what to actually do with him. Lee would be sidelined to the periphery of each story, and left to merely snarl and hiss at his victims and his adversaries, having personally jettisoned the element of dialogue from the first picture onwards, pointedly because it was always so badly written, and rendered him a virtual mute as a result. Whilst there is much of merit to Dracula Prince of Darkness and some enjoyably concerted viciousness to The Scars of Dracula, the series would go from bad to worse, to downright risible. A couple of missteps notwithstanding – aforementioned The Evil of and The Horror of Frankenstein - the studio’s run of films featuring the monster-making Baron would be far superior. Hammer would explore the realm of the undead many times without its Lord and Master, and with often terrific results – The Vampire Lovers, Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter all being excellent and inspired movies in their own right – but their own immediate follow-up to 1958’s sensation was the Lee-less Brides of Dracula, which proved to be one of the most beautiful horror films ever made and was a massive, though unsung influence upon the themes and visual finesse of the burgeoning Italian genre cinema, itself. I long to see how resplendent Brides will look after the restorative hi-def treatment.
After breaking the rules with The Quatermass Xperiment, The Camp on Blood Island and, naturally, The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer realised the full potential of their own style and material they were working from. Sex and violence were to become their hallmark. Bela Lugosi was a dapper nobleman, but it was Christopher Lee’s ruthless sex appeal that made the ladies swoon and so easy to dominate. Vampirism had always held a subtext about sex – brilliantly teased with, but nullified by the bloodsucker’s apparent seductions ending way before any actual sexual act is committed. The blood and the bite are the metaphors for it all - penetration and bodily fluid exchange - before Lee’s regal molester began nuzzling the ladies, nobody really thought about the naughtiness at the root of the deed. Once Hammer added fake fangs and heaving cleavage to the mix, it was practically all that audiences and filmmakers then thought of.
The scenes when little Tania, brilliantly played by Janina Faye, is lured away by the undead Lucy are justifiably troubling, and it is pertinent to recall that Faye would also be seen in the provocative and socially rattling Never Take Sweets From A Stranger, a stark warning from Hammer to a staid and other-cheek-turning British establishment about the real-life horror of child molestation and murder. Nowadays, these moments still conjure up terrible feelings of sickening dread, and it perfectly illustrates the risks that Hammer was prepared to take.
Dracula is a hugely important film in the genre, and even if it seems quite innocent, tame and restrained nowadays, it pulses with erotic energy and challenges morals left and right. Peter Cushing is typically outstanding as the single-minded champion and Christopher Lee brings a raw savagery and lusty allure to the Count. The shocking moments still have impact and the production design and art direction remain a constant delight. Looking back on these classic Hammer groundbreakers it is possible to imagine the stark and abject emotional reactions they incited. You can feel something mischievous and goading at work in their very fabric. A British institution was founded in blood and lurid Eastman Colour in the late fifties that brought the classic monsters back to life and held a new generation spellbound and horrified.
And, just like their earlier Universal counterparts, they will never die.
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