Friday, February 15, 2019

Review: Horror of Dracula from Warner Archive

There's no other studio quite like Hammer. Often imitated, never duplicated, Hammer dominated genre films from the late fifties all the way through the seventies with a unique English style and a stable of regular actors who would become household names to monster kids of multiple generations. They breathed new life (and fresh blood) into monster movies that had become relatively tame, and by putting their own decidedly-adult spin on the classics, they presented old favorites like Frankenstein, The Mummy, and yes, Dracula himself, in a way that not only felt fresh, but more explicitly scary than arguably ever before.
Revisiting 1958's Horror of Dracula is like connecting with an old friend, and even offers a few surprises. In fact, it's remarkable to see how restrained the first film in Hammer's Dracula series actually is. There is some gore, mostly when a vampire has a stake hammered through their heart, and Hammer does everything they can to make the staking scenes as gruesome as possible; yet, these elements aren't as over-the-top as they would appear in future installments. The movie is often very quiet and mannered; even the running time itself is restrained at a mere 82 minutes.

The film's length isn't the only thing that's spare. Dracula himself, played with quiet authority by the imposingly-tall Christopher Lee, doesn't have very much screen time in this film that bears his name. The focus is largely on Dracula's victims (or would-be victims) and the exploits of Dr. Van Helsing, played masterfully by Peter Cushing, who provides the other half of the Hammer Films formula. Also making notable appearances in the film are Michael Gough, who would achieve even bigger notoriety later in life as Alfred in Tim Burton's Batman and its sequels, as well as Melissa Stribling (Sydney Newman's The Avengers) and Carol Marsh (Brighton Rock). The story is actually moderately faithful to the classic Bram Stoker novel, and even to the 1932 Bela Lugosi film from Universal. Hammer's attempt to partner with Universal to remake the classic monster films is a story unto itself.
When one thinks of Hammer, certain elements immediately spring to mind: lavish Gothic style set amidst lush English forests. Masterful performances from skilled actors--often playing the material without the slightest wink. Beautiful and buxom women. And of course, red, red blood. All of these key elements are present in Horror of Dracula, to varying degrees, and this film remains one of the most important of Hammer's entire filmography. In my mind, Horror of Dracula solidified the approach that the studio had been developing in past movies like 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein. 

Hammer films were often shot inside Bray Studios, yet their output retains a sense of English authenticity that is absolutely unique to their cinematic output. Universal's monster films exist in this weird and wonderful halfway dimension where science and technology coexist with fairy tale environments that are uniquely their own. Likewise, Hammer films occupy their own rare real estate, and look like absolutely nothing else. This is, in some part, due to the fact these films often feature the same writers, directors, cast, and filming locations. Horror of Dracula is written by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Terence Fisher, both whom are largely responsible for creating and maintaining Hammer's unique style.
Some have said that Horror of Dracula is dull, especially compared to the wild and exploitative films that would follow throughout the sixties and seventies, as Hammer threw outrageous elements at audiences in an attempt to capture an audience that had, by that point, seen it all. I don't find this to be the case; both Lee and Cushing are absolute masters of their craft regardless of whether the story has them opposing one another or working together, as seen in a film like Horror Express. Because the violence and gore isn't persistent throughout the entire film, it makes the viewer take notice when it finally does come. And to be clear, no prior movie version of Dracula had ever shown what this one did so explicitly. It may be tame by today's standards, but it wasn't in 1958.

The transfer of the film presented on Warner Archive's Blu-ray is the source of some controversy. The disc features a 2007 restoration that was created by the British Film Institute, and there are a few differences from previous/other versions of this film. First and most obviously, the original "Dracula" title screen has been restored and is presented here, instead of "Horror of Dracula." Also new to American viewers is the 2007 revisionist color grading that has been the source of much debate. The saturation is higher than before, but so are the shadowy blacks, meaning that there is a constant war going on between color and darkness. To this viewer's eyes, the 2007 restoration offers a very theatrical, film-like presentation that I suspect was the original intention of the cinematographer. Often, the picture is framed with black edges, forcing the eye to particular elements on the screen. I like it, and I think it looks appropriately moody, but buyers should be aware that this is a departure from previous DVD versions of this classic film. For me, it's an improvement, but viewer mileage may vary.
Horror of Dracula is a landmark horror film that somehow manages to be both gruesome and tasteful in a way that is unique to Hammer movies of this era. It reflects a studio, a cast, and a crew on the rise, with long, productive careers in store for Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Jimmy Sangster, and Terence Fisher. Most importantly, like Dracula himself, it also retains all of the power, mystery, and authority over audiences that it first displayed some sixty years ago.


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