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/ DVD. Lionsgate
1958 Dracula – or Horror of Dracula
if you live in America – might not have been their first
full colour, full-blooded gothic horror (that would be The
Curse of Frankenstein) but it is really the moment
that Hammer Horror began. If we think of Curse...
as being a dry run, then Dracula is where everything
came together. It's the revolutionary moment that immediately
changed the shape of horror cinema. Horror's first Year Zero,
perhaps. Hammer's Never Mind the Bollocks.
It essentially set the template for what we would think of as
horror for the next ten years, until the next Year
Zero in 1968. It's importance cannot be overstated. Before Dracula,
horror was black and white, increasingly camp and on its last
legs, superseded by the more immediate thrills of science fiction.
Afterwards, it was gothic, sexy and gory.
Written by Jimmy Sangster, Hammer's version of the story doesn't
so much reject Bram Stoker as ruthlessly compress his cumbersome
and generally unfilmable tale, stripping out or combining side
characters and quickly getting to the meat of the matter. Here,
Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Castle Dracula
ostensibly as a librarian, but in fact as a vampire-hunting
apprentice of Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), where he is greeted
by Christopher Lee's urbane Count and then seduced by a vampire
bride (Valerie Gaunt). While Dracula takes an interest in Harker's
fiancee Lucy (Carol Marsh), there's no trip to England here
- everyone lives conveniently (for both the budget and the story)
close to Klausenberg.
Once Van Helsing is introduced to the story at the start of
the second act, he becomes the central figure of the film. As
with Stoker's novel and most subsequent Hammer films, Dracula
is more a sinister background presence than a front-and-centre
villain, his appearances rationed for maximum impact. Sangster's
screenplay also strips away many of the supernatural elements
of the character – no-one changes into a bat here –
and smartly equates vampirism to a mix of infection and addiction.
Dracula is a fast-paced, almost frantic film
that wastes little time, tearing through its compact story with
efficiency. Director Terence Fisher, suddenly finding himself
in his element, fills the screen with nice visual touches, while
the combination of Jack Asher's cinematography and Bernard Robinson's
sumptuous sets give the film an epic scale and a visual coolness,
the whole thing washed in blue tones. The ending, now restored
(of which more in a moment) may be the most dramatically exciting
climax to any horror film – it is breathlessly energetic
and powerful, the battle between Cushing and Lee once of the
high points of cinema.
are mistakes in the film – some of the light relief seems
misplaced (a comic moment slapped in the middle of the final
act is especially mistimed) and Michael Gough's dreadful, hammy,
disinterested performance as Arthur Holmwood would probably
bring a lesser film crashing down – it says a lot about
this movie that it survives him intact. In the end, these minor
points don't hurt the movie as much as they should, simply because
everything else is so damned good.
Whether Dracula is the best of the Hammer series
is open to debate – there are entries I prefer, but I'm
not sure they are actually better films. Certainly, this movie
remains powerful, dramatic and sometimes quite transgressive.
It's a stunningly good, straight-faced (if anyone refers to
Hammer films as 'camp', feel free to punch them in the face)
and visually arresting movie that has aged remarkably well.
It's one of the most essential films that the genre has produced.
This long-awaited new edition does not disappoint. The Blu-ray
/ DVD combo features both the 2007 BFI restoration and the 2012
Hammer edition that features the long-lost 'Japanese' version
scenes. You might question why we need both – it's hard
to imagine anyone choosing the shorter version over the 2012
cut – but there is sense in it, as one seduction scene
is not simply cut from the shorter version but replaced with
a different angle of the same sequence.
The newly discovered scenes are easy to spot, because the picture
quality changes significantly during them. This isn't a criticism
– look at the unrestored footage included here to see
how badly damaged this footage was to begin with. It's miraculous
that it was useable at all, and so a slight softening and loss
of colour vibrancy is hardly something to complain about. The
new scenes – Dracula's seduction of an all-too-willing
Mina (Melissa Stribling) and extended footage of the Count's
final disintegration – genuinely add to the film, the
former bringing the sexuality of the vampire (something that
was entirely a Hammer invention) to the fore, the latter giving
more drama and pace to the climax. Add to this the existing
restoration from the BFI, which include the return of the original
UK title card, and you have as close to a definitive version
as we'll probably see. At least one censored scene remains lost,
but I think we can live with that.
This new release also comes packed with the sort of supplementary
material that Hammer fans could have only dreamed of in the
past. Fans who have the assorted Studio Canal releases will
be familiar with the format of the excellent featurettes that
discuss the history of the film and the restoration, as well
as Christopher Frayling on the film and a piece on the censoring
of Dracula. We get the unrestored existing
reels from the Japanese cut (so damaged as to be virtually unwatchable,
but a nice addition anyway, a lively expert commentary from
Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby and much more.
If you still need encouraging to buy this, then I have to worry
about you. This seems a shoe-in for the archive release
of 2013 – an essential purchase.
IT NOW (UK)