Saturday, 6 March 2010

Dracula (1958)

Country: UK

Horror of Dracula

The commercial success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) established a number of vital ingredients that would go on to form the basis of much of Hammer’s gothic horror. The lurid use of primary colour, the opulent and lavish set decoration and design, the bombastic and strident musical scores, and the tongue in cheek black humour. The film firmly set the small British producer down the rutted and overgrown pathways into the sublime universe of the gothic and their 1958 production of Bram Stoker’s famous novel would arguably become their finest aesthetic and narrative achievement. For all of its stylistic innovation The Curse of Frankenstein now seems a bit stately and stiff. The Hammer artists had created a dandyish and talky world of drawing rooms and parlours. By contrast Dracula still ripples and crackles with energy. It has a tone and economy of pace and design that remains exhilarating and exciting. The elements of Hammer horror reach a remarkable state of synthesis (some might say the only time they all genuinely did) and the result is a landmark in British cinema.

The director was the criminally undervalued Terence Fisher. He was first and foremost an editor and he uses his skills in this area to create a number of sharp parallels and establishes with a marked degree of success the gothic trope of doubling. This exists at the level of composition and character, and a series of dualities and oppositions are explored through this trope. Aside from the obvious reflective doubles of Van Helsing and Count Dracula systems of opposition are created through gender, class, and culture. These contrasts would become a fundamental thematic aspect of Hammer horror and remain undiminished up until the mid 1970’s. Jack Asher’s beautiful photography drapes the film in sumptuous and radiant colour, leaving aside the drab and dreary world of post war social realism. The colour achieves its greatest dramatic impact when droplets of blood drip off screen onto a concrete surface bearing the legend Dracula. You cant get much more of a statement of intent than this. The lavish gothic sets give the impression of a production far more expensive than its £81,000 cost. Castle Dracula is no longer the clichéd cobweb strewn crypt of yesteryear, but instead a well appointed, clean, and spacious domain presided over by a charming and dashing Dracula who speaks perfect English.

The narrative hares along at breakneck speed and is only briefly halted by one or two pointless and mistimed comedy moments. This is thanks to a pared down screenplay by Jimmy Sangster (Sangster would be responsible for a number of the early gothic horror screenplays) who opted to excise much of extraneous baggage of the bloated and ponderous Stoker novel (for example Harker arrives at Castle Dracula not as an innocent lawyer, but well aware of the Count’s taste for blood). No doubt purists of the novel would take exception to some of Sangster’s inspired alterations, but the result is space and pace and a film wonderfully lacking in Stoker’s obvious symbolism.

If all of this is not enough we have the greatest close up in British horror history (a snarling and blood flecked Dracula) and the magnificent Peter Cushing leaping athletically onto a table, running its length and bringing the curtain down on Dracula. The film would make both Cushing (who received top billing) and Christopher Lee international stars. Future entries in Hammer’s Dracula series were never able to recapture the spirit and energy of this first film. There were however some interesting attempts - Brides of Dracula (1960) bravely went ahead without Lee in the title role, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) took Hammer’s critique of Victorian aristocratic hypocrisy to its logical extreme and Dracula AD 1972 (1972) attempted to place the gothic form in Swinging London. All of these films were hampered by the realisation that this first defining entry would never be matched. Dracula takes it place at the head of the pantheon of great British horror films.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

1 comment:

  1. I like Terence Fisher's work a lot, and I think it's a pity his other movies outside of the Dracula and Frankenstein cycles often get overlooked. Movies like The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll.


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