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Horror of Dracula

by Glenn Erickson Dec 08, 2018

The best of all Hammer horror pictures finally comes to Region A Blu-ray, with a bright transfer made to look like original Technicolor prints. This is where Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing came into their own as international stars, as the undead Count Dracula and the no-nonsense vampire killer Van Helsing. It’s the bridge between old-school gothic horrors and the modern age of sex and gore, and it’s as exciting as a breakneck action serial.


Horror of Dracula (Dracula)
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1958 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 82 min. / Street Date December 18, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Janina Faye.
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Film Editor: Bill Lenny
Production Designer: Bernard Robinson
:Makeup Artist: Philip Leakey
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds, Anthony Nelson Keys
Directed by
Terence Fisher

 

The last we heard of the unimpeachable Hammer horror classic Horror of Dracula (in the U.K., just Dracula), was back in 2013 when Lionsgate UK released an exciting Region B Blu-ray. American fans not equipped with all-region players keenly listened to reports of what was described as a BFI restoration with a few seconds of new content miraculously recovered from a single (mangled, faded) print found in a Tokyo film archive. The only drawback was a compromised transfer, with colors graded to ignore the hues of original Technicolor prints. By the BFI, mind you. Never mind, we were thrilled to see Hammer’s new shots, including shots that couldn’t be included in the cut itself, that gave new character to Christopher Lee’s genre-bending performance. Tim Lucas spotted a new close-up in which Lee expressed an anguish that could be described as ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’

American fans have been waiting for a Region A release, here in America where Horror of Dracula is controlled by Warner Bros. A disc has finally arrived, with promising advance notice — the Warner Archive Collection announced a disc derived from the BFI/Hammer restoration, yet re-timed to match original I.B. Technicolor prints. What news could be better than that?

For better or for worse, Horror of Dracula is one of those films that incites territorial attitudes from older horror fans (like myself). Seeing a Technicolor print in a packed house of excited, screaming kids was an indelible childhood experience: I caught a 1964 double bill with The Curse of Frankenstein. In college it invariably showed every Halloween at one of the UCLA dorms, and the venue would be packed. In mainstream terms Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were unsung culture heroes, not really acknowledged until the 1970s and the arrival of Star Wars. Horror of Dracula was their first and best on-screen pairing, and it’s been a touchstone ever since. Its reputation as the best of the best easily endured a slightly-censored 1991 laserdisc (which trimmed a bloody vampire staking) and a brightly colored but annoyingly misframed 2002 DVD.

 

Before James Bond and before the Beatles, Hammer’s Technicolor shockers were a major international success story for the British film industry. Dracula ’58 is the Singin’ in the Rain of fright films, a show that transcends its genre to sum up what’s great about screen terror. It’s directed in a dynamic style derived from a 1940 film company called Gainsborough, where director Terence Fisher apprenticed, partly as an editor. In Gainsborough’s racy costume dramas about adventurers, highwaymen and shameless runaway women, it seemed that somebody was being poisoned or cuckolded in every other reel. The direction of Dracula takes many ideas from the Gainsborough films that Fisher worked on. The early Hammer horror formula is basically the Gainsborough style, plus bloody gore in Technicolor.

What do younger viewers object to in Horror of Dracula?  Some don’t like the comedy relief scenes, or a pace that slows down between action highlights. Some think the acting is too broad (when we ‘enlightened’ folk know that it’s inspired, even in the case of Michael Gough). Some think that James Bernard’s music is too emphatic, too obvious — when it is gloriously spooky. Bernard’s title cue ramps up a sense of dread as the camera descends into the dungeon of Castle Dracula, and trucks right up to the vampire’s crypt. If the film seemed shocking in 1964, in 1958 it must have been a ‘forbidden’ thrill ride, the kinds that kids would whisper about on the school playground.

Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay condenses and simplifies the Bram Stoker novel, but retains the book’s imposing, ferocious main character. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) fails in his attempt to destroy Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) but before losing his life manages to stake the Count’s vampire consort (Valerie Gaunt). Harker’s mentor Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) consoles the family of Harker’s fiancee, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), but finds more trouble when Dracula invades the Holmwood house. The doubting Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) is finally convinced of the reality of vampires, but can he and Van Helsing discover where Dracula’s coffin is located, in time to save his wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling)?

 

Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein made waves with its bloody charnel house surgery; this thriller added to the classic vampire tale an explicit sexual component. The buzz centered on the Technicolored stakings, but Sangster’s script and Fisher’s direction present a new and daring interpretation of the vampire-victim relationship. There really weren’t all that many vampire movies before Hammer’s outing, and almost all were made under the American censor code that forbade anything resembling the heavy-breathing seductions seen here. The classic situation has Bela Lugosi waxing vampiric over a swooned, unconscious lady. Lugosi’s attacks were always elided by cutaways to his staring eyes or timely fades to black. We never saw physical fangs. In his three vampire films, Lugosi’s victims were invariably zonked out by hypnotic spells more effective than novocaine. They missed everything!

Hammer’s Dracula made more explicit the seduction-rape fantasy that underlies vampire mythology. Like Lugosi’s Count, Christopher Lee is a decadent aristocrat, not a horrid ghoul like Murnau’s Nosferatu. Chris Lee’s Dracula isn’t the type to attend operas — he’s a brutal hellion, but most importantly, a seducer-rapist. Lugosi’s ladies trembled in uncomprehending fear, but Lee’s victims experience an erotic delirium. Lucy awaits her master’s visits by throwing wide her windows and reclining on her bed in anxious anticipation. Mina conspires against her own husband for the privilege of being savaged by the haughty, feral vampire king. The result is an artistic and commercial triumph over the censor: technically, all that’s happening is that necks are being bitten. But the viewer experiences sensual, actively consensual rape scenes.

After a decade of mostly inappropriate casting, Christopher Lee shows unmistakable star power, commanding the screen with his every appearance. Lee embodies this dangerous masculinity to perfection. Still his greatest role, Dracula combines the actor’s aptitude for elitist hauteur, with excellent pantomime skills.

Keen critics have also pegged Christopher Lee’s Dracula as something of a proto-James Bond: a unique, un-killable hedonist with a (supernatural) license to kill. He can seduce any woman, brushing their husbands aside. The Hammer horror films share many actors (including Christopher Lee) with the Bond films that followed. The Bond films apply the simplistic Hammer battle between good and evil to the Cold War. The scene where John Van Eyssen is bitten by a vampire bride is closely copied in the opening prologue of Goldfinger — both are seduction scenes interrupted by shocking, positively shocking, violence.

[Left: Valerie Gaunt, eyes focused on the jugular; Right: Nadja Regin, eyes focused on a thug sneaking up on 007.]

Horror of Dracula’s eroticism puts later ‘liberated’ vampire films to shame. With just a few seconds of screen time, Valerie Gaunt’s vampire bride etches a vibrant picture of Biblical-grade female duplicity. The look in her eyes when she gets face-to-jugular with Jonathan Harker expresses pure obsessive hunger. Lovely Carol Marsh broke hearts ten years earlier starring opposite Richard Attenborough in the crime drama Brighton Rock; her teen tragedy here plays out in the Victorian era. To get her way, Lucy falls back on childish petulance, but we read her precocious sexuality loud and clear. When Lucy throws the doors open, the midnight chill enters her bedroom with the falling leaves, which are beautiful, but dead. She doesn’t care … the all-important HE is coming.

Melissa Stribling’s hausfrau Mina is even more interesting. She’s first seen as reserved and conventional, content to hover anonymously behind her bourgeois husband and too meek to question the incompetent Doctor Seward. But everything changes the moment Mina begins her affair with Dracula. She blooms to life, and her eyes and smile betray a satisfaction that doesn’t come from keeping the silverware polished. It’s liberation and servitude, at the same time. When the breathless and dumbstruck Mina receives Dracula in her bedroom, the scene is pure domination and submission.

 

Van Helsing is Peter Cushing’s most iconic role as well. He carries the bulk of the picture with dignity, vitality and an acute sense of righteousness. He’s the perfect authoritarian father, patient and gentle with little Tania (Janina Faye, later of The Day of the Triffids) yet sufficiently cool-headed to face off unarmed against the Prince of Darkness. Harker is aided by the script’s curbing of Dracula’s powers — no shape-shifting or turning into a wisp of smoke here. Van Helsing’s authoritative credibility is greatly helped by his curt dismissal of that other, superstitious nonsense. The vampire killer must also endure skeptical dullards like Arthur Holmwood. Society would lock Van Helsing up if he brought his specialty out into the open, so he must operate in secret, at great risk. He’s the original reactionary vigilante, fighting the Devil.

And that’s exactly what we get, one of the best-matched battles between Good and Evil ever. Dracula’s defeat requires both luck and a talent for brilliant improvisation. The emotionally moving finale leaves us with a sense of justice and balance restored to the universe — and Dracula’s ring ends up marooned on the Zodiac symbol for Aquarius.

 

Terence Fisher’s overachievement in Dracula ’58 truly brought the horror genre up to date. The film balances what was best in the old Gothic style, against dynamic action that had never been seen in a horror film. The Count never makes a standard entrance, but instead simply appears, always ‘already there’ before his victims realize it. Backed by composer James Bernard’s crashing chords, Christopher Lee’s every appearance is a physical jolt. The most powerful images are his: pursing his bloody lips in the library, glaring up the stair at Mina, or his feral desperation when cornered by Van Helsing. Fisher has the patience to build a slow-paced 1890’s world of calm and order, which Dracula can interrupt with shocking violence. By placing Dracula’s castle only a coach ride away from the Holmwood house, the film builds up its suspense until hero and villain finally come face to face — and the death struggle begins.

Cinematographer Jack Asher’s many nighttime and dusk scenes are richly colored, with deep blacks and dramatic rim lights. Interiors are not just lit, they are painted with light. The ‘sensualized’ Mina sits before her stained-glass window pretending to be absorbed in her needlepoint, and the lush lighting tells us she’s now a very changed woman. Asher made the early color Hammer horrors things of beauty, but the studio soon dropped him in favor of cameramen that would work faster.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Horror of Dracula (Dracula) gives American fans a handsome, extras- challenged presentation of Hammer’s crown jewel. The 1:66 aspect ratio doesn’t cut off heads, as did the old DVD from sixteen years ago. And James Bernard’s up-front and bombastic music score sounds fine in the full HD range. And as promised, WB has addressed a problem that this reviewer has been wailing about for years — this new encoding is timed to better resemble the colorful look of original Technicolor prints.

The movie matches the standard cut of the film, but with the original U.K. title card from the BFI restoration, that reads simply ‘Dracula.’ The new WAC disc also retains the original Universal-International logos, that Hammer dropped for their ‘tweaked’ version. Five years ago the reconstituted Hammer company obtained some alternate shots for both Dracula’s assault on Mina and his disintegration at the finale, and fans hoped these would be interpolated into WB’s version. The answer is no — you’ll still have to invest in all-region capability to have those extra three or four seconds of alternate footage on disc.

In terms of image quality, what transfer is better, the 2013 Lionsgate UK disc or the WAC’s new release?  Choosing is not a simple matter of taste. The Warner Archive’s disc has much truer colors, but it’s also softer, more grainy, and far more contrasty. Blacks are indeed crushed, so there’s less detail in dark areas of the frame, or Dracula’s cape, for instance. It’s not a bad look, but faces in middle distance have less detail, and some reds seem to form into a solid block.

This is a guess: I think that WB was given a clone of the BFI’s transfer, and used (pretty powerful) digital tools to pull from it an approximate Technicolor look. They also mentioned using some additional clean-up.

 

The older Region B disc is visibly sharper, has more definition and a better gradient between things dark and things bright. But the colors are wonky: the BFI’s timer has made a concerted effort to defeat the old Technicolor look and go for a more contemporary dark ‘n’ clammy vibe. A bluish or greenish wash falls over neutral walls, etc, and the blacks aren’t as deep as they should be. I’ve discovered that some fans prefer the BFI look, and have a bloated email file to prove it.

I’m still not sold on either presentation as being the hands-down Winner. The WAC transfer is certainly Very Good. There’s no predicting what diehard Hammer fans will think — some were overjoyed by the WAC’s new Blu-rays of the final Chris Lee Dracula pictures Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula looking better than they ever have before. Can the much older Horror of Dracula, filmed on a less stabile film stock, be expected to look as good?

The question remains, why did the usually authoritative BFI second-guess the original color scheme in the first place? Nobody has said that original English prints differed from the ones we saw in America. I’ve seen the film projected in 35mm Technicolor several times, and its look is consistent with that of Hammer’s other Jack Asher- shot thrillers The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Hound of the Baskervilles — bright, saturated colors, no bluish or greenish bias.

By the way, the images for this review are just what could be found online, and don’t represent either transfer in any way.

The WAC’s one extra is an original trailer. Warners no longer generates new extras for most library titles. Were this a release from a ‘horror boutique’ company, it might be drowned in goodies, and it would also likely be more expensive. Fans won’t get to see the exotic bits added from the Japanese print, but what we’re looking at here is an authentic cut — Hammer cheated when they re-edited the finale. Recreating the slightly different continuity of the Japanese sequence was not possible, because it uses a different audio mix — the sound effects wouldn’t match. A YouTube comparison can be found that does allow one to study the differences. It’s just too bad that the alternate Japanese sequences weren’t retained in the vault, in better condition.

Is the new Archive release perfect?  No. Would I buy it?  Definitely yes, it’s a perfectly fine way to enjoy this most exciting of all Hammer horror pix.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



Horror of Dracula (Dracula)
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2018

(5881horr)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.