Saturday 11 May 2013

Horror... from beyond the grave!

Faced with the mythic stature of Hammer Film Productions in British pop culture, it's amusing to consider how little the company's rise had to do with stodgy English reserve. Hammer's first real horror film, 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment, was so named to cash in on the X certificate, and that was a sign of things to come: for the next two decades Hammer churned out lurid low-budget films that aimed to titillate as well as terrify. The closest analogue is the Italian film industry of the same period, which has a similar track record of sleazy horror films made quickly using the same actors again and again, to tremendous profits.

But where the Italian horror industry - at least in retrospect - was centred on directors, Hammer Horror is most firmly associated with its stars: and no stars more famous than Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, first working together in 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein (as Victor Frankenstein and the creature, respectively) and teamed up again in the following year's Dracula, because that's how Hammer did things.

That intro may not sound like Dracula is a great work of art, but it is: as a B-movie and as a film qua films it runs laps around the tedious and overpraised Lugosi film, which it absolutely refuses to be shackled by. As such, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay adapts Bram Stoker even more freely than the reworked-for-the-stage approach behind the 1931 film, into something that shares some names with Stoker's novel but little in the way of locale or plot.

Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at the castle of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) in Transylvania. Ostensibly tasked with reorganising the count's library, Harker is on a secret mission to destroy the vampires. He succeeds in staking Dracula's bride (Valerie Gaunt) but is overpowered and turned by the count. Anxious about the fate of his confederate, Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) just walks into Castle Dracula during the daytime (in this film, everybody hangs out at Castle Dracula like it's a popular stop for a picnic during a Sunday afternoon stroll) and dispatches the newly vampiric Harker, but finds Dracula himself gone.

Meanwhile in Germany (or, you know, somewhere: see below), Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) worry about the worsening health of Arthur's sister Lucy (Carol Marsh). The well-meaning but inept Doctor Seward (Charles Lloyd Pack) is unable to determine the cause of her ailment. Van Helsing arrives to tell the family of the death of Lucy's fiancé Jonathan Harker, but stays to look after Lucy. When his cryptic instructions are ignored, Lucy dies and is buried, but it isn't long before the revenant begins preying on her niece Tania (Janina Faye).

Having been told what's going on, Arthur joins Van Helsing in hunting Lucy down, but rejects the professor's suggestion of using his sister to find Dracula. (Arthur's conflict - let his sister's wretched undeath go on and endanger others in the hope of catching Dracula, or put her to rest at once? - is played to the hilt; it's a terrific plot element invented wholecloth by Sangster.) Instead, Lucy is staked. But it isn't long before the count has selected his next victim - Mina - and Arthur and Van Helsing are engaged in a desperate race against time to track down the count and take him out once and for all.

That's quite a lot of changes: some characters disappear (poor Quincey Morris, forever cut out until Francis Ford Coppola had a heart in Bram Stoker's Dracula). Others are changed radically and relationships restructured (Seward as a GP, Harker as a vampire hunter, Arthur Holmwood as Mina's husband rather than Lucy's fiancé). The geography of the film is likewise different; none of it takes place in England, but where it is set is not quite clear. Given all the border business the Holmwoods presumably live somewhere in southern Germany; but it's best to assume that the whole story takes place somewhere in the composite Europe of the British imagination, a land full of medieval castles and superstitious peasants. Certainly, considering all the locals speak in clipped British stage accents despite being (a) peasants and (b) German, it's not easy to pin down.

Cushing, too, doesn't bother pretending to be Dutch. But it's a great performance: driven and professional, he is far more scientist than crazed medicine man. And if his talk of biology (it's an exposition-heavy film, with Cushing's scenes doing the heavy lifting of explaining the series mythology) weren't enough, there's hardly a clearer indication of Van Helsing as the champion of scientific modernism than the fact that the film assigns him Dr Seward's phonograph. Carol Marsh's Lucy is another very good performance, but Lee of course is the standout, despite the fact that he doesn't even appear very much. But director Terence Fisher makes his scenes count. From an iconic gallery entrance quoted by George Lucas in Revenge of the Sith to a latex-heavy disintegration scene, he's an all-round terrific villain: a real monster only incidentally inhabiting a human body, instead of Lugosi's aristocratic twit.

Dracula isn't perfect. The relatively grounded production design can't keep up with the terrific matte paintings and surreal castle interior of the 1931 film: all things considered, the film looks a little bit too much like a 1950s postcard of rustic holidays on the continent. If those holidays occasionally ended in a bloodbath, that is: Dracula thoroughly earns its notoriety with fairly gut-churning violence. Ultimately, what Fisher does with the limited resources at his disposal is impressive. Fifties horror films, let's be honest, tend not to be all that scary to us enlightened moderns. But the combination of Lee's animal menace, Fisher's fantastic horror direction and James Bernard's awe-inspiring score turns Dracula into a genuinely terrifying experience.

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