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DRACULA
Blu-ray / DVD. Lionsgate

DraculaHammer's 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 Before Dracula, horror was black and white, increasingly camp and on its last legs, superseded by the more immediate thrills of science fiction.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.

DraculaThere 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.

BUY IT NOW (UK)


 

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