Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Horror of Dracula (a.k.a. Dracula) (1958)

The Horror of Dracula (a.k.a. Dracula): adapted by Jimmy Sangster from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Peter Cushing  (Doctor Van Helsing), Christopher Lee (Count Dracula), Michael Gough (Arthur Holmwood), Melissa Stribling (Mina), Carol Marsh (Lucy), John Van Eyssen (Jonathan Harker), and Olga Dickie (Gerda) (1958): Deft hyper-condensation of Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel introduced the horrors of England's Hammer Studios to the world -- along with actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Their appearances in Star Wars and (for Lee alone) the Lord of the Rings movies can be traced directly to their beloved work in movies such as Horror of Dracula.

Or just Dracula. Hammer changed the title for the 1958 American release because the Bela Lugosi 1930's Dracula still made the rounds of movie theatres at the time, though it would soon be sold in a package to television and mostly vanish from conventional theatre chains.

Did Stanley Kubrick watch a lot of Hammer horror movies? Because Horror of Dracula is a horror movie with very little darkness in its scenes of horror -- instead, we've got colourful sets and colourful cinematography that anticipate The Shining's super-saturated palette. Castle Dracula is very brightly lit. Especially given that it's 1888.

I'll leave a dissection of alterations to the original text to the viewer. They mostly work. And they're pretty necessary, given that the market of the late 1950's pretty much required that Horror of Dracula clock in at 90 minutes or less. So the movie hits the ground running.

Lee is terrific as Dracula, far and away his defining genre role (sorry, Count Dooku and Saruman). The film-makers use his height to good effect. Smooth and charming in the opening scenes set at Castle Dracula, Lee's Dracula becomes a mute monster once the action shifts to nemesis Van Helsing's home-town. Once Dracula's status as a vampire has been confirmed, he no longer has the need for social niceties. Or dialogue.

Peter Cushing is also terrific as vampire-fighter Van Helsing, investing this version of the character with a sort of Holmesian stature. His final battle with the bloody Count now seems iconic and much-imitated. A young Michael Gough does solid work as Arthur Holmwood, and Melissa Stribling is suitably conflicted as Dracula's final object of exsanguination, Mina. Terence Fisher keeps things moving at a rapid pace. Probably the best official adaptation of Stoker's novel, for all its changes to the text. Did I mention it's 82 minutes long? Highly recommended.

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