Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review - "Dracula" (1958)

"Who will be his bride tonight"? "The terrifying lover who died - yet lived." Though extremely lurid in nature, Hammer Studios certainly knew how to attract attention to the next horror film following the commercial success of The Curse of Frankenstein. It seemed like an obvious choice to follow up Mary Shelly's Gothic masterpiece with the epitome of horror novels, Bram Stoker's Dracula. Today, more than fifty years since its first release, Hammer's Dracula is an engaging and entertaining bit of horror cinema, and one of the finest horror films ever made. Today we continue with Peter Cushing Month by looking at 1958's Dracula!

Before I take a look at the film itself, I think it would be best to look at the history of Dracula. Published in 1897, Bram Stoker's novel had held audience's attention in many forms. Almost as soon as Stoker's book was published he attempted to adapt it to the stage, trying to cajole the great actor (and his boss) Sir Henry Irving to play the part. Irving, apparently so disgusted with the part, refused to appear. However, Dracula's many stage incarnations was still in its infancy. In the 1920's Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane decided to bring the horror novel to the stage and set about writing a play with the help of John L. Balderston. What eventually transpired changed the history of Dracula forever as a little-known Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi stepped into the role of the vampire, instantly mesmorising audiences. The screen adaptation which followed in 1931 was the catalyst for the Golden Age of horror films which followed.

Interestingly Hammer's Dracula does not follow the plot of Stoker's book, nor does it seek inspiration from the famed play. Instead, Jimmy Sangster (who had also scripted The Curse of Frankenstein) streamlines the plot, cutting out many characters, but heightening the suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse bewteen good and evil. Jonathon Harker (John Van Eyssen) has traveled to Castle Dracula on the pretense of acting as Count Dracula's new librarian. However, Jonathon's true mission is to kill Dracula (Christopher Lee) who is a vampire. Dracula traps Jonathon in the castle and turns the tables on his would-be assassin. After Jonathon's abrupt disappearance, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who had employed Jonathon in his task, journeys to Castle Dracula, only to find that Dracula has vanished. When Jonathon's sister Lucy falls victim to the vampire, Van Helsing swears that he shall stop Dracula, no matter what the cost.

Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing
Dracula was really the movie which put Hammer on the map as the new leader in horror films. Everything about the film is brilliant - its atmosphere, its acting, its plot. Everything comes together so well to make a truly engaging movie-going experience. In my mind, the film's greatest asset is its script, which thought streamlining the Dracula story considerably manages to generate great suspense, and unlike some moments in The Curse of Frankenstein, there is never a dull moment. The hunt for Dracula's resting place becomes a frantic race-against-the-clock which makes for real edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

Peter Cushing is simply unmatched in his performance as Van Helsing, vampire hunter extraordinaire. Though Van Helsing is described in Stoker's novel as an older Dutch professor, Cushing's portrayal is much more akin to Sherlock Holmes. This Van Helsing is a young man of action who isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with the villains of the piece, and come the blood-and-thunder finale, exhibits some athletic prowess which would make a swashbuckler surprised. Cushing's Van Helsing is also slightly aloof and at times condescending, but he is nevertheless an agent of good, and despite a somewhat prickly exterior, you cannot help but be instilled with the knowledge that good with triumph. Interestingly, Hammer was banking on Cushing's name for the film - his name appears above the film's title in the opening credits, but as the Dracula series progressed, Christopher Lee's count would take centre stage. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing would not cross paths with Lee's vampire again until 1972's Dracula A.D. 1972.

So, what of Christopher Lee's Dracula? It would be unfair to compare Lee's Dracula with Lugosi's as the two men's performances couldn't be more dissimilar. Lee's Dracula is a monster - there is very little humanity left in him, and Lee's red-eyed, fanged vampire is pretty nightmarish. Interestingly, Lee's Dracula has only 16 lines of dialogue throughout the film and speaks to no other characters other than Jonathon Harker.

The rest of the cast is equally fine. Michael Gough runs the gambit of emotions throughout the film as the once stiff and upper-crust Arthur Holmwood. Melissa Stribling plays his wife Mina who becomes the object of Dracula's reign of terror, and Stribling's performance adds an unnerving note of sensuality to the film. In the unforgettable scene in which Dracula corners Mina in her room, Stribling seems to greatly anticipate the vampire's bite - almost biting her lower lip "as if she were a school girl with a crush." Dracula also boasts some fine black comedy performances including George Benson as a n easily-bribed border crossing guard and Miles Malleson as a comedic undertaker.

Dracula is released in 1958, and when released in America, the name was changed to Horror of Dracula in an effort not to confuse the film with the 1931 original which was being re-released at the time. Since its release, there have been countless other Dracula films - the vampire count is the second most adapted literary character of all time (Sherlock Holmes being the first). Though some subsequent films may have eclipsed Hammer's film, I still hold Dracula in very high regard. I therefore give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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