Posted by Richard Harland Smith on March 22, 2013
These are exciting times for nerdish types such as myself. Here in the States, the Universal classic monster canon has been remastered recently for Blu-ray, teasing out details in the art direction of these seminal horror films that have long been obscured by nth generation revival house prints and substandard video tape and DVD transfers. One of the perks of this wave of digital upgrading is that Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) has been the beneficiary of appreciative reassessment, after decades of having been condemned to the limbo of Not As Good As It Should Be. (Essential reading on the subject: Tim Lucas’ reviews of the Universal Classic Movie Monster Blu-ray re-releases in Video Watchdog issues 171 and 172.) Hot on the heels of those discs is the release just this week in the United Kingdom of a restored Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of Terence Fisher’s DRACULA (1958), or as it has been known here in the colonies for nearly half a century HORROR OF DRACULA. This release is being touted as definitive, the most complete version of DRACULA/HORROR OF DRACULA ever seen in this country. The Blu-ray will branch (seemlessly, of course, ever seemlessly) both the 2007 and 2012 restorations into one complete feature (which includes the much-discussed “Japanese footage”) and the roster of supplements is truly staggering, including “Dracula Reborn,” a 30 minute making-of featurette boasting the participation of such well-regarded genre aficionados as Kim Newman, Jonathan Rigby, and Mark Gattis, “Censoring Dracula,” an examination of the cuts made to the feature in England upon its premiere back in 1958, a 100 image stills gallery, an audio commentary by Rigby and Hammer expert Marcus Hearn, and the original shooting script in PDF format. (And more.) Even better, though, is the restoration of the film’s intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1, which corrects a pinchy injustice forced upon the film when framed at 1.78:1, as it has been in past DVD incarnations. All of this love wrapped like a Dracula cape around one of the greatest horror films of the 20th Century has me feeling like shouting…
I need to point out right now that this will not be a review of the new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release – it can’t be, because I don’t yet have it in hand (though I am told it is winging its way to me even as we speak). No, today I’m all about celebrating the occasion and reminding any of those fright film fans out there who may have forgotten just how important DRACULA/HORROR OF DRACULA is. Though vampire cinema was being addressed in both Mexico and Italy prior to the release of DRACULA from Hammer Films in Great Britain, it really was the success of the Terence Fisher film that revitalized the genre after a steep dropoff in the 1950s. Riccardo Freda’s I VAMPIRI (1956) and Fernando Méndez’s EL VAMPIRO broke ground first but it was the bottom line on DRACULA that changed the game. Hammer had already enjoyed success with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1956) but the studio might just as easily have let it go at that, as a one-off, as an experiment in the vein of the classy adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde produced by Paramount in 1931 and MGM in 1941. With DRACULA, Hammer was showing the world that they were serious, committed, and fully invested in becoming a Gothic fright factory. The ripple effect was seismic and the benefit to genre filmmaking unmeasurable. I can more readily imagine horror cinema continuing through the 20th Century without, say, Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) or William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) than I could had DRACULA/HORROR OF DRACULA never been made.
I honestly cannot tell you the first time I saw HORROR OF DRACULA (as I have known the film all my life — it takes an effort for me to refer to it as DRACULA) but I was not very young, I was not 10-12, the age range in which I first saw Browning’s DRACULA, James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), Karl Freund’s THE MUMMY (1933) and all their attendant follow-ups. I was able to see most of HOD‘s sequels at my local cinema, from DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965) on through TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969) and the SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) reboot. (The updated Dracula films, DRACULA AD 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA did not play my ‘burg.) I was able to catch up with the first sequel, BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), on television (and never missed a broadcast — I think I prided myself in my youth on having seen it 11 times), but HORROR OF DRACULA remained frustratingly, tantalizingly out of my reach, growing up as I did in the northeast corner of Connecticut, in a small, rural town full of shuttered mills and four-square, conservative values. (Cast in point: when the Vocational Agriculture teacher at my high school saw a volume of Tolkien sticking out of my pocket, he proclaimed “Whoever wrote that must’ve been sick.”) It was something of a mixed blessing that pictures from the movie were everywhere, from the cover of my favorite monster movie book as a child — Frank Manchel’s Terrors of the Screen – to the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. In FM, there were even photographs from a fan remake of HORROR OF DRACULA, which delighted me as much as it drove a stake of fire-hardened birchwood through my heart because I wanted to see it so bad! And then, at some point, I did… and my DNA was changed forever, making me something more than I was, something altogether different than what I might have been had the privilege been forever denied me.
Consider the decade leading up to DRACULA/HORROR OF DRACULA. In the States, horror had given way, largely if not unilaterally, to science fiction, though some sci-films did manage to work in a dose of Gothic horror — among them Herbert Strock’s BLOOD OF DRACULA (1956), Roger Corman’s NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957), and Paul Landres’ THE VAMPIRE (1957), in which vampirism arose, respectively, from hypnotism, alien invasion, and pharmacology gone off the rails. (In two of the three titles cited, the vampire and its human host coexist almost independently, in a Jekyll & Hyde relationship, where one is blissfully ignorant of the other until the bodies start piling up.) The tendency during the Cold War was to attribute monsterism to an atavistic element of our shared human psyche, something that could be exploited, teased out, turned against us and against humanity. It took HORROR OF DRACULA to bring us back to first principles, to affirm that monsters just exist, that the folktales were right, that nightmares can come true. Christopher Lee’s Undying Count represented cinema’s first wholly British Dracula, which makes more sense culturally, of course, than it does in the context of the source novel by Bram Stoker. The beauty of Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is that it telescopes the events of the novel, compressing the sprawling narrative like a concertina, so that events from Stoker happen via Fisher-Sangster sooner than you expect them to.
As such, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Castle Dracula knowing full well what his host is and what he is cable of; later, when we see Harker’s fiancee (Carol Marsh) lying in repose in her bedroom, we fear that Dracula will come to visit her… only to learn that he has been and gone and come again. Lee is perfectly matched in his casting by Peter Cushing, largely a TV and stage actor who nonetheless had acquitted himself extraordinarily well as Deborah Kerr’s cuckolded husband in Edward Dmytryk’s THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955). Lee offsets the ferocity of his vampire king with an almost improvised casualness in his early scenes — his line readings during Dracula’s initial encounter with Harker feel almost like rehearsal run-throughs, all of which sets up the viewer (especially the first-time viewer) to be blindsided by the reveal of his monstrousness later on. Cushing’s performance finds the quality missing in Lee’s — a clipped, functional, but not cold authority that allows him to be autocratic with adults and sympathetic to children. Lee and Cushing are both so great in this that many filmmakers inspired by HORROR OF DRACULA have made the mistake of lavishing too much time and backstory on their own antagonists and protagonists, missing the point that Dracula and Van Helsing do not represent individuals but rather opposing urges — the urge to manipulate, control, destroy and the urge to protect, to conserve, preserve. Dracula is aristocratic — Lee’s casting in the title role reinforces the association with the aristocracy, with parasitic feudal values — and Van Helsing profoundly middle class. Don’t let his academic mien and fussy manners fool you — that carpet bag he uses to tote his mallet and stakes around ties him to the merchant class, to purposefulness, service, fair trade and many other values vampires have not held in very high regard.
Helmed by a director not known specifically at the time for action/adventure, DRACULA/HORROR OF DRACULA nonetheless thrills. It’s got vigor and velocity and forward momentum. I won’t be the first critic to praise the way Terence Fisher develops scenes side-by-side, cutting back and forth between them, only to have the principals converge at the end. Add to that, James Bernard’s instantly iconic score, with its searing strings and urgent brass, and Jack Asher’s sumptuous cinematography, and the Technicolor printing of Eastmancolor stock, which results in burnished, Brothers Grimm chromatics that boost reality to an almost hysterical extreme. And it is at this juncture that I feel it behooves me to talk about controversy surrounding the restoration of DRACULA/HORROR OF DRACULA in relation to this Blu-ray/DVD release. Frame grabs released well ahead of the DVD’s street date have purists bemoaning the predominance of blue in the transfer, a perceived dialing down of the film’s (presumed) original look in favor of (what many feel is) a contemporary inclination for desaturation. As of last night, there were 57 pages of argument (by the time you click on this link, that number will surely have risen) at the Classic Horror Film Boards between those who feel the new release is an abomination and those who do not (for whatever reason) and who at least want to wait (as do I) to see the finished product before making the call. The discussion itself, whatever side you find yourself in sympathy with, makes for fascinating reading from a film preservationist perspective, going to the very heart of the question of what films do for us, or to us, and what we expect from that very strange, very wonderful symbiotic relationship.
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