Hammer’s Dracula

Dracula Hammer posterSo for the second night in a row I’m setting myself the challenge of reviewing as close to an undisputed classic as exists in cinema with Hammer’s 1958 take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

As with every take on the 19th Century novel this movie is very much an adaptation of the original text and adds yet another spin on it. Coming in third in the list I can see of big productions of the story (after Murnau’s Nosferatu and the Universal Dracula) it once again messes the story around to make it fit the cinema of its time, and in this case pioneer the style of cinema that was to come.

Unlike the earlier versions of the story we are launched right into the heart of darkness here as Jonathan Harker, in this case a vampire hunter posing as a librarian, arrives at the surprisingly un-sinister Castle Dracula.

Inside Castle DraculaOnce Harker enters the castle something struck me to do with the set design. What we get is what looks like a “very 1960s” design, however, being made in 1957 this pre-figured that by some years and goes to show how Hammer’s Dracula is such a touch stone for cinema, both horror and otherwise, for the decade that was to follow.

Following Harker’s arrival and sinister but civil introduction to Christopher Lee’s instantly charismatic count, the horror begins in earnest as we meet Dracula and his ‘bride’, by night.

Peter Cushing as Van HelsingAs the film goes on we meet the defacto star, Peter Cushing as Doctor Van Helsing, and, along with Lee, he owns the screen.

Both men own it in different ways though. Cushing is the consummate leading actor, telling the story to the bewildered Arthur (Michael Gough) and delivering lines of exposition that in the hands of lesser performers would totally disengage the audience, but Cushing imbues it with a sense of urgency and the fact that this is truly vitally important in such a way as to keep us gripped while Gough’s Arthur goes along for the ride as his family are slowly tortured and abused by the undead.

Christopher Lee as DraculaLee has a very different method of owning the screen here as, while he is undeniably a fantastic actor, it is his presence as Dracula that is his strength here. Simply standing in the same sets as the other performers his size, and the choice of shots, lighting and costume, imbue his Dracula with an otherworldly nature unlike any other representation of the character.

It is Lee’s performance that adds the biggest new element to Hammer’s telling of Dracula as the film deals, as much as a film made in 1957 might, with the sexual and erotic element of the story and the vampire myth. So, we see Dracula as an attractive younger man rather than Lugosi’s creepy but restrained foreigner or Schreck’s rat-like literal physical monster.

This again hints at what was to come with horror after and continues to this day, showing how Hammer really set the stage for the ‘third wave’ of horror and even what came after.

Dracula climaxThe film culminates, as one would expect (and I don’t think this can count as spoilers over 50 years on), with Van Helsing and Dracula facing off and Cushing and Lee both delivering a short, but highly effective action scene excellently as they face off back at Castle Dracula.

This leads to probably the films most graphic sequence with the destruction of the Count which has a couple of shots that still are effective as creeping body horror shots and, while it is only a matter of seconds of screen time, again it lays the groundwork for much of what was to come that has escalated to what we get today.

DraculaThe Blu-ray version of the movie I have just watched is about as good as the film itself, cleaning up the image and sound and reinserting several shots cut from the original release giving us, for the first time at home, the original Hammer version of the film.

Hammer’s Dracula is another classic movie that laid the groundwork for the development of a whole genre of films that was to come, and is still going, and showcases two genuine legends of cinema in Cushing and Lee as well as solidifying the style of one of Britian’s most well-known film studios.

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