Horror of Dracula
A long time ago I watched a horror movie on television. I had seen a few horrors before and was beginning to develop a preference for the genre. There seemed to be one on every Friday night and occasionally if you were really lucky a double bill. It wasn’t long before one such Friday Fight Feature on Night Time TV was Hammer’s production of Dracula starring Peter Cushing as a dashing, determined, younger Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as a full-blooded and sexually charged Count Dracula. It was directed by Terence Fisher who is now rightly regarded as an auteur. The only detraction to this stunning production it seems has been the passage of time. The colour fading, and dulling of light which can often hide the detail in a film recorded originally with an emphasis on set design and colour photography. As well as a deterioration of the sound quality through regular cinema screenings and copies of copies made for distribution around the world. General ageing and wear and tear have all played a part in lessening the impact of a once vibrant and visceral rendering.
The restored title card used on British prints of Dracula.
When Hammer decided to restore and re-master some of their classic titles and Dracula was mentioned as one of those titles. Cineastes the world over held their breath and waited impatiently for the release of the greatest horror movie made in England to be released again in a new medium of High Definition. The first thing that hits you when you press play is the power of the brilliant score by James Bernard. The simple syllabic expression of “Dra-cu-la” in orchestral form was in 1958 and is still today an epic clarion call of doom laden portent. A bass drum led theme that declares the arrival of a new and excitingly modern Dracula. The re-mastering of the audio has separated the mono scores individual elements and created a stunning platform for the composers masterwork. As the opening titles take a slow and purposeful pan and dissolve round the battlements of the castle to finally focus on the Counts crypt, the stunning silence underlines the magnificent pomposity of the score that lingers in your mind even after it has ended. As a mysterious dripping of blood lands on Dracula’s tomb we are invited to take this journey if we dare.
The journey begins with Jonathan Harker arriving at the castle amidst a gorgeous autumn scene. The camera is drawn to the trees like a moth to a flame. The leaves on the trees vie for our eyes attention in a veritable cornucopia of colour. The word for Jack Asher’s cinematography is undoubtedly “lush!” He picks up the immense qualities of the set design from Bernard Robinson beautifully. From the ornate spring on the grounds of the castle to the design of the coach taking Harker to his destination we are, within seconds of the opening titles, aware that we are watching artistry of the highest order. This is not the sugar coated and colour saturated world of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday (1963). This is celluloid artistry by industry veterans who care deeply about each detail that the viewer sees. As we step inside Castle Dracula the cold bluish hue of the stone architecture is returned to us again after years of poor quality DVD prints. A simple wine decanter filled with ruby red liquid next to Brandy and Crème De Menthe turns from mere props into objects of innate fascination and awe.
The years of Black and White cinematography have not been forgotten. The use of shadow and silhouette at the moment of Christopher Lee’s entrance at the top of the stairs at a doorway is dramatic and slightly disturbing. As he glides eerily down the stairs we are tempted to look down to make sure his feet are working. Removing Lee’s footsteps from the audio and the length of his cloak heighten this atmosphere. The power of Lee’s performance cannot be underestimated. At his second appearance the suave debonair count bursts into the library as a fully- fledged monstrously enraged vampire. An animalistic and demonic sight brought so much more to life in this restoration. His eyes flamed and blood red. There is evil and menace oozing from his tall and nimble gait. A performance so great the actor would be uncomfortably stereotyped in similarly sinister roles until he finally moved to America and received more cult status as a Bond baddie.
And then there is Peter Cushing, perhaps the finest actor who ever deigned to appear in the oft shunned horror genre. His performance is the dynamic driving force of the entire film. His clinical and zealous hunt for Dracula is a dramatic tour de force that has never been equalled. His Van Helsing is an amalgamation of several of the characters from the novel. He is both youthful and wise unlike the novel and the Universal Van Helsing. (In an era when youthful meant able and physically capable as opposed to boyish and innocent)Cushing is brought back to us in this re-mastered version. His impossibly blue eyes shine out at us and instantly inspire trust and honesty. His eyes would later display his immense sadness after the death of his beloved wife Helen in the Blu-ray version of The Vampire Lovers (1970). The scene in which he stakes Harker’s fiancée Lucy while her brother, played by Michael Gough, looks on contains some of the best acting ever filmed. Beautifully lit and with a musical theme that could be mistaken for a work by any classical composer, we are moved from horror to sublime release in seconds.
The reinstated face clawing sequence during Dracula's famed disintegration
I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t seen the film or indeed the Blu-ray restoration. But it would be remiss of me not to mention the addition of the cut parts of the final disintegration of Dracula. Baring in mind the film was made in 1958 this scene has always been a high point of and from a technical viewpoint revolutionary. The few seconds that have been put back in add greatly to the scene. The close-up of Dracula’s leg; his face as he cries in pain and the scraping of his face with his hand are shocking 55 years after they were filmed.
© David A. Skene 2013