It's Hammer time again - but can they still nail it in the 21st century?
I’m a huge fan of Hammer Horror, and need no excuse to heap praise upon the many films which always enlivened my childhood Sunday Horror sessions. In the early 1980s, TV2 ran a horror film late every Sunday night under that banner. Friends would generally gather at my house and we’d watch anything from Hammer and Universal classics, to Hitchcock, to the Omen trilogy. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what TVNZ might conjure up for us, and we loved them for it. Especially me whenever they raided the Hammer vaults.
But if I’m going to write about some of these films, it’s really only fair that I put away the rose-tinted monocle and watch them again first. I’ve owned Dracula (AKA Horror of Dracula in the US), the 1958 Hammer original, on DVD for several years now, and just recently picked up the first of the seven sequels: Dracula - Prince of Darkness. So, an occasional ‘Count down’ through the various Hammer Dracula films seems in order. I’ll work through the all of the follow-ups eventually, but for now, we’re journeying back to a time when Lee still enjoyed (or at least felt grateful to) the role, and the wonderful Peter Cushing needed make-up to look gaunt.
The major selling point of Hammer’s first horror adaptations was colour, and this is abundantly clear in their first Dracula film. A full-blooded palette bursts off the screen – sometimes distractingly so, (the ‘fluoro blood’ dripping onto the coffin in the opening titles, for example), but it’s mostly sumptuous to look at. And refreshing, particularly after having recently re-watched the second Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes film, which seems entirely composed from a palette of orange and murky turquoise.
Another surprising analogy with contemporary cinema is Jack Asher’s roving camera work, with foreground set dressing occasionally appearing to track past the central action in a way which screams 3-D.
Cushing and Lee are instantly commanding. Even though he has more lines than in any of the following films, Lee’s Count is already more of a presence than a character – but an all-pervading and powerful one. Something I hadn’t noticed before is the fact that his footsteps make no sound – unlike everyone else who clatters on that staircase he flits up and down it like a silent, malevolent shadow. And yet, the hallmark of Lee’s portrayal is its physicality, evident in his sudden reappearance as a hissing, red-eyed demon, all previous urbanity and humanity torn away as he flings his vampiress consort and Jonathan Harker around like dolls.
Similarly, Cushing’s impeccably-mannered, but steely, man of science quickly becomes a man of action, and his much-lauded final confrontation with the Count is still startling in its desperate energy. An extremely disciplined actor, Cushing’s own practise of ensuring he was comfortable with his costume and props before appearing on camera is evident here; his Van Helsing is equally at home using an antique phonograph or administering an emergency blood transfusion.
James Bernard’s ominous three-note Dracula theme – intoning the syllables of the character’s name, is his equivalent of John William’s Jaws motif. Elsewhere, his score might occasionally intrude in a dated sort of way, but it also perfectly enhances the surprising eroticism and dread of a lengthy sequence involving an enthralled Lucy opening her bedroom windows and lying back on her bed to await another dark visitation.
Dracula is a 55 year old film which deserves the much-overused label of classic. When re-released in 1996 as part of a Hammer retrospective, London’s Evening Standard called it “Unimpeachable and unsurpassed”. With some relief I can only agree.