WORDS James Gracey
Having already scored critical accolades and controversy in equal measure with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Hammer turned to that other classic 19th century gothic horror, Dracula, for their next cinematic outing, stamping it with their soon-to-be inimitable style and flare. Boasting a creepy gothic atmosphere, opulent production design, gaudy viscera, strange sensuality, shocking (for the time) violence and unnervingly bombastic score, Dracula perfectly epitomises the brand of lurid horror Hammer is now famed for. Indeed, the opening shot — in which the camera glides wraithlike through a cobweb-strewn crypt towards a coffin bearing the name ‘Dracula’, pausing only to admire the shockingly red blood which begins to spatter upon it — works as a neat encapsulation of their entire output.
Despite a rather meagre budget, Dracula exudes a sumptuous feel enhanced by innovative production design and camerawork — courtesy of Bernard Robinson and Jack Asher respectively — which set the standard for Hammer’s subsequent gothic horror titles. Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay streamlines the meandering narrative of Bram Stoker’s novel, omitting everything but the bare bones and rendering the story much more concise, with a pronounced sense of immediacy. While much of this was due to said budgetary constraints, the impact of the pared down approach is undeniable. Terence Fisher’s agile direction ensures the story is also a swiftly paced one. Less stagey than Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation, Fisher’s take features a number of surprisingly action-packed scenes in which Dracula and Van Helsing are not averse to bounding up staircases or leaping over tables, lending certain moments a disarming physicality. Sangster’s accentuation of the underlying sexual themes evident throughout Stoker’s text also adds to the deliciously macabre atmosphere. Dracula emerges as a sexual predator, stealthily corrupting the morals of those he encounters, and with animal ferocity he pierces the heart of polite Victorian society, unveiling repressed desires and creating lustful, hideously grinning she-demons in his wake.
The presence of Christopher Lee as the predatory count dominates proceedings; his full-blooded incarnation is now, rightly, iconic. Delivering the very little dialogue he has with forthright haughtiness, Lee utilises his commanding stature in an increasingly physical performance; whether he’s forcefully rebuking his vampiric bride, snarling in a wide-eyed, bloody frenzy, or advancing upon a breathlessly yearning victim, his presence throughout the film is a wholly imposing one. Ably matching him as the genteel though fiercely intellectual Doctor Van Helsing, is the ever-reliable and quietly charismatic Peter Cushing, whose carefully nuanced performance provides events with much needed warmth and a reliable anchor.
This new cut of the film includes previously excised moments such as Dracula’s bloody seduction of Mina and his decomposition in a shaft of sunlight at the film’s riveting denouement, while the top-drawer special features are worth the retail price alone. The best of the bunch are undoubtedly “Dracula Reborn”, an exploration of the film’s genesis and subsequent legacy, featuring interviews with, among others, Sangster, film critic Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss, Jonathan Rigby and actress Janina Faye, and “Resurrecting Dracula”, a featurette about the film’s restoration, from the BFI’s initial 2007 restoration through to the integration of ‘lost’ footage.
Also worth mentioning is “The Demon Lover: Christopher Frayling on Dracula”, a feature in which the author of Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula discusses the influence of folklore on Bram Stoker and his influential characterisation of the Count as a Byronic ‘demon lover’. Fascinating stuff. As well as the rather brief “Censoring Dracula”, which looks at the original cuts imposed on the film by the British Board of Film Censors, there’s also an insightful and compelling commentary track courtesy of Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and Rigby, a booklet by Hammer archivist Robert J. E. Simpson, and The World Of Hammer episode “Dracula and the Undead”. The other features, while arguably less crucial but just as entertaining, include all four surviving ‘Japanese reels’, Faye reading a chapter of Stoker’s novel at the VAULT festival, a stills gallery of over 100 fully-restored and rare images, and the original shooting script (PDF).
Dracula is available on three-disc double play from 18 March