Hammer Blogathon – Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher)

This post is part of the Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget and Cinematic Catharsis.

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“I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sort of queer dreams.” 

p8 Harker’s Diary, Dracula 

Hammer and Amicus films were regular fixtures on late night television when I was growing up in the 80s’ and early 90s’. Dracula: Prince of Darkness stood out as being the best of Hammer’s Dracula movies but I honestly can’t remember much about the others. They have all merged into the landscape of my childhood TV memories, a place where Steed and Mrs Peel are forever visiting small  countryside villages only to find there’s something wrong with the locals, and Sid James is getting endless bollockings from Joan Sims in a caravan. I can’t tell you which Frankenstein movie scared me so much as a child  I couldn’t sleep because I thought the monster was roaming the countryside looking for me, but I still feel that way if I’m sober and awake at 3 in the morning.

Bram Stoker’s novel I’ve read a few times. Once as a child and several times at university while studying a course on Scottish/Irish novels as part of an English degree. Thematically it’s fascinating because there’s so much going on in there and I found these elements (fear of female sexuality, immigration, drug addiction, sickness, mental illness, and death) far more interesting than the story itself. Stoker’s overly moralistic approach is undercut by his clearly erotic fascination with the idea of vampirism especially during a sequence in which middle-class lawyer Jonathan Harker is fed on by three of Dracula’s brides. It’s meant to horrify, but Stoker gets carried away and ends up writing four pages of Victorian erotica. Like Dracula’s victims Stoker’s drawn to the darkness without quite knowing why.

Horror of Dracula is a pared down adaptation of the novel. Hammer would have the backing of Warner Bros for later films but here resources are obviously limited. Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay removes the ship’s journey to Whitby, Renfield’s treatment at the asylum, and some of the supporting characters. Hammer did bring a more explicitly sexual approach to the horror film but we’re not quite there yet. There’s a 50s’ era strain of conservatism running through this and any eroticism in the movie is seen as a threat. An act decent people must be protected from by the stern patrician Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Despite these drawbacks Horror of Dracula has Terence Fisher’s flair for the Gothic. It looks wonderful and the opening image of bright red blood dripping on Dracula’s tombstone sets the tone. Unlike Universal’s monster movies there’s colour and gore here. 

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The opening section of the book is written in diary form and is essentially a travelogue. Harker recounting his journey through the Carpathian mountains and the sights he sees, the food he eats (“get the recipe for Mina”), and the people he encounters. Most of all Harker is struck by the superstitions of the locals which to an urbane Londoner seem archaic and absurd. This is always my favourite part of any adaptation. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu does it best I think but the Hammer films are good at this too albeit in a much campier way. There is no “don’t go up to the castle” moment until the beginning of the second act when Van Helsing irritates the owner of a tavern by asking for directions. Instead we meet Harker as he arrives at the castle by coach in broad daylight. There’s no real suspense at this point despite their being nobody there to greet him. There’s a gracious note from his host and food left on the table as well as a description of the amenities available to him. Harker looks like a tourist checking into an Airbnb and being pleasantly surprised by the size of the apartment he’s rented.

Stoker’s Harker is an innocent abroad, a young legal clerk sent out on his first big work trip to help facilitate the purchase of property in London by Count Dracula. The Count is an old man, a bit eccentric, overly proud, but seemingly nothing out of the ordinary. He’s polite, articulate, and afflicted by melancholy. 

“I am no longer young; and my heart, through many years of mourning over the dead, is not attuned to mirth. Moreover the walls of my castle are broken, the shadows are many, and the wind breathes cold through the broken battlements and casements. I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.”

It’s only gradually Harker begins to realise he’s trapped in the castle with something inhuman. Little tell tale signs like a woman crying for her lost child outside the castle, or the Count casting no reflection, or being more than a little freaked out when Harker accidentally cuts himself shaving and blood drips from the wound.

In Horror of Dracula Harker is played by John Van Essen as being officer class. This Harker is older, more assured, and has a reason for being there. Rather than being an innocent abroad he knows all about Dracula and vampires and intends to kill the Count. In the book he represents the corruption of innocence, but here he’s an onward Christian soldier type of guy.

“It only remains for me now to await the daylight hours, when with God’s help I will forever end this man’s reign of terror”

The good guys in Stoker’s novel are thinly drawn representations of various archetypes of Victorian society. They represent order. Doctors, professors, lawyers, ladies. Because they are all perfect none of them are that interesting and Van Helsing apart (mostly thanks to Cushing) it’s the same in the movie. Dracula holds the attention right from the moment the 6’5″ Lee appears at the top of a staircase, his profile hidden in shadow. Harker feels his presence before he sees him and Fisher holds the close-up on Van Essyen  for long enough to build suspense.

Then Lee bounds down the stairs (he was light on his feet for such a big man) and greets Harker like an English gentleman meeting another belonging to the same social class. Their exchange of pleasantries is the only time there’s any sense Dracula is anything other than a monster in the movie. In the novel Dracula attempts to manoeuvre his way into British society by purchasing property and using his aristocratic heritage to move among them. Here Harker has been employed to work in Dracula’s library (I want to see how that job was advertised) but quickly finds himself being locked in his room at night. This turns out to be partly for his own safety as there is another vampire roaming the castle. A young lady who suckers Harker into thinking she needs his help to escape then sinks her fangs into his neck.

The make-up is interesting here. The marks are swollen, more like insect bites than lacerations made by fangs. I can’t work out if there’s only one bride due to budgetary constraints or 1950s’ mores which meant even Count Dracula had to be monogamous. Either way Harker is undone by his own sense of chivalry. Then his own foolishness when given a chance to destroy Dracula as he sleeps in his coffin he inexplicably decides to kill the bride first. That goes on my list of top 5 moments in horror films where I’ve shouted what are you doing at the protagonist as they’ve  unwittingly brought about their own demise.

Van Helsing then takes over as the film’s protagonist and we get what for me is the most important scene in a Dracula movie. The passive-aggressive behaviour of the peasantry towards some rich fool who wants directions to Dracula’s castle. Or in this case a second rich fool who’s searching for the first rich fool who went up to the castle and for some reason never came back. Van Helsing enters the tavern and the clientele immediately goes quiet, as if this is were a western and a stranger in town has just pushed open the swing doors to a saloon. The innkeeper claims to have no knowledge of Harker’s stopping there, but his good work is ruined by the waitress who’s clearly new and hasn’t learnt the house rules about treating tourists with suspicion.

Van Helsing does find his way to Castle Dracula, but he’s too late. Harker has turned into one of the undead and Dracula has moved out. Seeing a picture of Lucy (Carol Marsh) Van Helsing realises she’s his next target and returns to England to meet Lucy and her brother Arthur (Michael Gough). Sangster has rejigged the the relationships from the book. In the novel Harker and Mina are together, while Lucy has three suitors, Holmwood, Dr Seward (here an ageing doctor treating Lucy), and tough-talking Yank Quincy Morris who’s been written out completely.

 

But it turns out Lucy is sick and nobody knows why. Arthur and his fiancé Mina (Melissa Stribling) are furious at Van Helsing for his refusal to elaborate further on the cause of Harker’s death and the whereabouts of the body so they can give some peace of mind to Lucy. They’re a tiresome pair. Arthur’s wound tighter than his wife’s corset, and we’re stuck with them for the rest of the movie.

I generally find Fisher’s work a little staid, particularly in dramatic scenes, but his use of imagery is always effective. The most evocative scenes in the movie involve Lucy who is of course under Dracula’s spell. After receiving treatment from a Dr Seward her family bid her good night and she pretends to go to sleep. As soon as they’re out of the room Marsh gives a look so raunchy I’m amazed the censors allowed it back in 1958 and sprints out of the bed to fling open the doors wide and invite her new master in. After she succumbs to Dracula’s attentions she haunts the forest near the graveyard trying to lure her niece back to her tomb until Van Helsing convinces Arthur to hep him hunt her down in an effort to prove vampirism is real.

 

Horror of Dracula breezes through the novel in 80 minutes. Dracula turns his attention to Mina but Van Helsing is able to break the spell and pursue the Count back to his castle leading to one of the most memorable confrontations in cinema. At 45 Cushing still has a touch of athleticism about him which is handy because Christopher Lee throws him about like a rag doll. It ends with the gory sequence promised in the opening titles with Dracula melting in sunlight, which doesn’t quite have the same effect today but must have shocked audiences back in 58′.

 

It was interesting watching Horror of Dracula again after all these years.  As a straightforward retelling of the novel it’s fine. I personally prefer versions that take the source material and do something new as with Penny Dreadful. I watched some of the other Hammer sequels after this and thought Lee’s striking presence was wasted in them. I can see why he preferred his work in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula which gave him more screen time and a character to play rather than a monster. I just wish he’d done Roy Ward Baker’s kung-fu Dracula movie Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires though. That film badly needed a decent antagonist.

 

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