I decided that maybe it was time to skip around a bit on the timeline. Not everything is about the good ol’ days of black and white, after all. It’s time for a bit of Technicolor, assuming you can ever truly have a “bit” of Technicolor. And so last night I revisited the days of Hammer Horror, and specifically to the first in their series of Dracula films, Horror of Dracula.
I know, I know. Around the world it’s simply Dracula. It even says so on the movie poster (which I display at the bottom as I always do on these posts). Here in the United States it was released as Horror of Dracula, and that’s how every copy of it I’ve ever seen is billed. The title card on screen even says as much. Why fight it? After 30+ years of watching this movie, that’s what it is to me.
Following the tried-and-true formula of using the names of Stoker’s characters, but changing the identities of which character is whom, it turns out that you really don’t need to know any of it, and you don’t need to care. Here’s all you need to know: Dracula vs. Van Helsing. Anything else is extra material designed to show you why that fight matters, as if you needed any justification for it. Hammer knows it too. This is where the Hammer formula is put on display, having been established in their first creature feature, Curse of Frankenstein, the year before. That formula consists of large and impressively detailed sets, some splattered blood, the liberal use of top-heavy women, and monsters who launch themselves into the action and toss people around. Essentially, in order to get out from under the shadow of Universal’s successes the generation before, Hammer had to do everything bigger. Technicolor proved to be something of a mood killer, so mood was sacrificed for the idea of “forget the story and just show us the monster already.”
Released in 1958, Horror of Dracula was a critical and commercial success for all of the reasons you can imagine, not least of which were the elements of the formula and the fact that there were no bug-eyed aliens from outer space or giant-sized monsters leveling cities. It bucked the trends of the time, and it won as a result.
I’m going to say something that will ruffle some feathers. This is a terrible movie. No, really… it’s absolutely craptastic.
I love it.
Part of this is pure nostalgia for having grown up with Hammer as the “consolation prize” for when I couldn’t get the Universal versions, and part of it is my undying devotion to the careers of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who feature here in their legendary adversarial roles as Dracula and Van Helsing respectively. The two featured prominently in Curse of Frankenstein as creature and creator, so it seemed natural that the two friends and colleagues should reunite for this one under director Terence Fisher, who previously helmed Curse. The result was that it established them as the faces of Hammer Horror for an entire generation. Of course, by the time I discovered these movies, Peter Cushing was already fixed in my mind Grand Moff Tarkin, the commander of the Death Star, so this is where my young mind started putting together the idea of actors in roles, helped along by just how cheap and cheesy everything looked in these films. Between learning about how Star Wars was put together little by little thanks to the fan club newsletter Bantha Tracks and applying that knowledge to these kinds of films, I devoured films like this on Saturday afternoons like a religion. I couldn’t get enough of them. I learned a great deal of respect for how films came to be, complete with an understanding of story, production, costume, makeup, technical effects, and, of course, acting. So in a lot of ways, Lee and Cushing are for me the ones who taught me what acting is all about. Say what you will about the roles they’re in or the movies that surround them, they are typically wonderful in them, which is a big selling point for the early Hammer Horrors that feature them.
As with the names of the characters, Hammer tended to play fast and loose with the mythos of the story as well, but it did honor past outings. For example, we know that Dracula is a daywalker in the original novel, but on film he mostly tends to be destroyed by sunlight, a point put in place by 1922’s Nosferatu. This film goes out of its way to spotlight that destruction as the grand finale, which doesn’t hold up by modern standards by any stretch of imagination, but it’s certainly a lot of fun.
I’ve seen this movie a thousand times, and I still have problems thinking of either one of these guys as action stars, all evidence to the contrary. lol. But that’s really the point of what Hammer brought to the table with these. Many of the Universal productions were based on stage plays. They feel like stage plays. There’s only so much room for people to move. Hammer gave their performers a world to inhabit. They run up and down stairs, jump over tables, leave the castle, walk around the village, bury people in the front yard, move caskets from place to place in rapid succession, run down people in the streets with coaches… It’s the kind of thing that makes people want to believe even when they can’t. To my mind a large part of what sells any of it is Lee and Cushing playing this straight and professionally. Unlike Lugosi before him, Lee is anything but charming in this role. Charismatic, yes, but not charming. He’s physically imposing and feral, which is a side of Dracula that needed to be explored. A more dangerous Dracula means a more desperate Van Helsing. He needs to move with a sense of urgency. It’s man vs. monster, kill or be killed.
It’s important to note that times were different too. These films were not created in the age of the Depression or in the shadow of the second world war. These were post-war attractions, where the people of the world understand that your enemy is a monster, and he’s on the other side of the world, which is getting smaller all the time. It’s sometimes difficult to wrap my head around this, but Sputnik was launched only months before this film’s released. Is there any kind of subtext to monster movies of this era? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’m not inclined to see it, to be quite honest. That’s what the sci-fi films of the age are all about, which are mostly invasion and distaster movies thanks to the likes of Godzilla and The War of the Worlds. Subtext is out the window in such films. For Hammer’s monster films, I think it’s more about simply having fun and escaping such subtexts. It trades real horror that’ll be there regardless for an hour or two of fantasy horror that you can smile about. It’s pure escapism.
As with the Universal era, I’m beyond incapable of expressing just how giddy I am to be exploring the Hammer films again. To me, they mark the second great era of monster films. The first, of course, is Universal’s endeavors, and the third is the age of the slasher, kickstarted by John Carpenter’s Halloween. I grew up in this third age, and I’m not a fan of most of it (some of it, yes, but not most), which is probably why I keep retreating to movies like this one. There’s a larger than life aspect to Hammer, where it’s like the sets and settings were finally able to keep up with the charisma of the monsters and their adversaries in this age. The monsters inhabited the world rather than dominated it, but it didn’t make them any less iconic. I say that knowing that I’ll forever see the Universal versions in my head when I think about Dracula or Frankenstein, but what Cushing and Lee brought to these films is iconic in a completely different way. It makes for a more visceral experience, which adds to the escapism level. I’m on the fence as to whether or not this is “better,” but it did give way to the endeavors that we have now where verisimilitude is an important factor, so I admire it for what it is.