Sunday, May 30, 2010


The worldwide success that Hammer Films reaped with its widescreen, Technicolor release of director Terence Fisher's “Curse of Frankenstein” prompted the small independent British film company to plunder another sacred Universal monster franchise “Dracula.” Peter Cushing, who had impersonated the insane Baron in “Curse of Frankenstein,” played Doctor Van Helsing, the good guy, opposite his monstrous “Curse of Frankenstein” co-star Christopher Lee who bared his incisors as the undead Count. Remakes and sequels are often damned for altering or updating the original narrative. Indeed, “The Curse of Frankenstein” scenarist Jimmy Sangster tampered with the legendary Stoker novel, but his changes provide a greater sense of momentum and chills. Christopher Lee is cast as an aristocratic vampire who wears evening apparel beneath a long, black, flowing cape that he sports with a flourish. Unlike Lugosi who stood six foot one, Lee imposed his presence on others with this six foot five statue. He is quite a civil fellow in the early scenes, but his civility vanishes for the remainder of this brisk 82-minute melodrama after an expendable supporting character deprives him of his voluptuous vampire companion. The shot of Harker hammering a stake into the heart of the vampire woman looks really cool because Fisher shoots the reflection of Harker's shadow on a wall.

Most of the story survives in “Horror of Dracula” (***1/2 out of ****), but Sangster and director Terence Fisher have eliminated the sea voyage that appeared in “Nosferatu” to a Germanic port and in “Dracula” to Whitby Harbor. Meaning, there is no ship’s captain who ties himself to the wheel and dies in route to dock. Mind you, Harker (John Van Eyssen of “Murder in the Cathedral “) still travels to Transylvania by horse-drawn carriage, but he doesn’t arrive at the inn at sunset. Since he cannot convince a coachman to convey him to Castle Dracula, he hikes to the castle during daylight, so the scene with an incognito Dracula perched atop a stagecoach ready to conduct him to his castle has been eliminated. Harker feels a change in temperature as he crosses a stream in front of Castle Dracula. In this version, Harker finds a handwritten message awaiting him instead of Dracula; his gracious host has left him some food and an explanation that he will not be there to greet him on his arrival. Furthermore, Harker doesn’t present himself in the capacity of a real estate agent as his predecessors. Instead, he is a librarian. Harker finishes his meal and prepares to peruse some papers when he knocks a plate of bread onto the floor. As he retrieves the bread, cutlery, and plate from the floor, somebody slips up behind him. Dracula’s nymphomanical bride approaches him. She begs him to help her escape from Dracula. Dracula appears and she flees. Eventually, she attacks him and Dracula doesn’t intervene in time save Harker. Consequently, the scene where the visitor cuts himself in front of Dracula as well as the voyage to a major city has been omitted. Furthermore, Dr. Seward's importance has been reduced to two scenes, and there is no sanitarium.

Altogether, three major changes have occurred in “Horror of Dracula” that differentiate it from Tod Browning’s “Dracula.” These changes are (1) Jack Asher’s brilliant Technicolor cinematography, (2) composer James Bernard’s sensational atmospheric score, (3) Sangster’s unbridled screenplay brimming with lurid action, sexy female vampires, and Christopher Lee’s disintegration scene. In other words, unlike Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Lee could actually bare his fangs and the blood flows in bright red colors. The scene where Harker is bitten presents Dracula in his full glory with bloodshot eyes and blood on his jowls. Meantime, none of Lugosi’s wives displayed cleavage, but Dracula’s wife in "Horror of Dracula" literally thrusts her breasts at us. Christopher Lee makes a fantastic Dracula, and Peter Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing is a good rival who gets quite athletic before everything concludes. Future “Batman” butler Michael Gough co-stars as Arthur, Lucy’s brother, with Lee and Cushing. Arthur participates more in the action during the latter half of the narrative when he assists Van Helsing. Sangster doesn’t dawdle like most vampire movies. He cranks up the action rather quickly when we learn that Harker is only posing as a librarian so that he can kill Dracula. Unfortunately, Dracula’s lusty wife thwarts his efforts, infects him, and he winds up killing her first when he had a splendid opportunity to stake the count. Of course, the filmmakers could not let Dracula perish too early in the action. Dracula gets Harker and remembers the beautiful pictures that Harker brought with him of his girlfriend Lucy. Later, when Van Helsing arrives at Castle Dracula, he is nearly run over by a rampaging hearse tearing off the premises with a white coffin in the back. Van Helsing discovers the dead vampire siren and his old friend Harker.

Fisher doesn’t let the action slow down and exposition is inserted palatalably into the dialogue scene. One difference here is that Van Helsing refutes the theory that vampires can shape-shift into either bats or wolves. Indeed, Fisher and Sangster have put a small scene where Van Helsing goes over vampire essentials. This scene lays down the rules. Van Helsing plays back his finds on a primitive recording device that relies on a tube as a recording device. "Research on vampires. There are certain basic facts established. One: light. The vampire is allegic to light. Never ventures forth in the daytime. Sunlight fatal. Repeat, fatal. It would destroy them. (Obviously, this serves to foreshadow the final showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula.) Two: garlic. Three: crucifix. Symbolizes the power of good over evil. The power of the crucifix in these cases is two-fold. It protects the normal human being but reveals the vampire or victim of this vile contagion whenin advanced stages. It is established that the victim consciously detest being dominated by vampirism, but are unable to relinquish the practice similar to addiction to drugs. Ultimately death results from loss of blood. But unlike normal death, no peace manifests itself for they enter into the fearful state of the undead." The Hammer Films franchise sticks rather closely to this dictum.

In a later scene, after Arthur Holmwood has perused Jonathan's diary, he discusses the incredible attributes of a vampire with Van Helsing. "Vampires are known to have gone on from century to century. Records show that Dracula could be 500 to 600 years old," Van Helsing assures Holmwood. When Arthur brings up the issue of shape-shifting into bats and wolves, Van Helsing dismisses this out of hand. "That's a common fallacy. The study of these creatures has been my life's work. I carried out research with some of the greatest authorities in Europe. And yet we've only just scratched the surface. You see, a great deal is known about the vampire bat. But details of these re-animated bodies of the dead, the "undead," as we call them ... are so obscure that many biologists will not believe they exist." Van Helsing convinces Holmwood to agree to help him. He adds, "We also know that during the day the vampire must rest in his native soil."

Lee’s Dracula remains as he is through the action. The two women, Lucy and Mina, constitute a major part of the story. Lucy (Carol Marsh of the 1951 “Scrooge”) is Harker’s girlfriend who has been stricken by illness. After Van Helsing discovers Harker’s body, he refrains from sharing his gruesome knowledge with both Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling of “Ghost Ship”) because he fears that they won’t believe him. Meanwhile, Dr. Seward (Charles Lloyd Pack of “The Safecracker”) suggests to Mina to get a second opinion about Lucy, and Mina consults with Dr. Van Helsing. Van Helsing examines Lucy and stipulates that the windows to Lucy’s room must remain closed and garlic must be placed in her room. Van Helsing is quite emphatic that he can save Lucy’s life, but he reminds Mina that she must abide by his orders. No sooner does Lucy have a bad reaction to the garlic than she convinces Mina’s servant Gerda (Olga Dickie of “The Kiss of the Vampire “) to disobey Mina’s strict orders and remove not only the objectionable garlic but also throw open the doors.

Predictably, Lucy perishes, but then Arthur hears strange stories, the strangest from Gerda’s daughter that she has seen Lucy walking. Finally, Arthur learns the awful truth about Harker’s demise and peruses Harker’s diary that reveals the quest to kill Dracula. Dracula doesn’t waste time after he dispatches Lucy to go after Mina. Meanwhile, Van Helsing puts Lucy to the stake and her corpse doesn’t disintegrate or grow old as Dracula’s wife’s body. When Arthur and Van Helsing realize that Mina is now Dracula’s new target, they maintain surveillance over the house, but Dracula strikes anyway and nearly kills Mina. Van Helsing discovers the Dracula has placed his coffin in the basement. By this time, Dracula knows his game is up and flees back to Transylvania with Mina in the back of a hearse. Dracula breaks down the barrier at the border and the border official turns into a comic character that reacts with a combination of outrage and anxiety when Van Helsing and Arthur appear not long after Dracula.

The ending of “Horror of Dracula” is very athletic. Van Helsing confronts Dracula and the count nearly defeats him, but Van Helsing fools him and tears down a curtain over a window to let in enough sunlight to turn Dracula into dust. Of course, Dracula would not remain inert for long because Hammer cranked out six sequels to the “Horror of Dracula.”