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17 May, 2008

Dracula Reborn: HORROR OF DRACULA and the Rise of Hammer*

The mid 1940’s to mid 1950’s was a period of decline for Classic Horror. Monsters were no longer tuxedo-clad vampires or shambling, cloth-wrapped mummies. Monsters were now gigantic insects, radioactive mutants, and alien invaders. What vampires and werewolves were to be found were products of science tampering with nature, not the ancient undead or supernatural curses.

Two prime examples of this are a pair of films released in 1957: THE VAMPIRE, and I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF.

THE VAMPIRE, directed by Paul Landres, was a nondescript programmer from Gramercy Pictures, distributed by United Artists; not a terrible film, but hardly memorable. A doctor, while on a quest to improve his mind, tries an extract of vampire bat blood, with predictable results.

Gene Fowler Jr.’s I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF on the other hand, became something of a cult-classic, primarily because of the screen debut of a youthful Michael Landon rather than the film’s inherent quality. Landon plays Tony Rivers, a juvenile delinquent placed under the care of a psychologist (Whit Bissell).

The psychologist performs some unauthorized experiments on the young man, using hypnosis to regress him to a point in man’s development where he is a savage, feral beast. Here too, the results are entirely predictable and, for the junior wolf-man, unfortunate.

Such was the state of our classic creatures of horror through most of the decade of the 1950’s. But the pendulum was beginning to swing back towards the classics, and two unrelated events provided the impetus for that change of fortune. The first was the release, in June of 1957, of Hammer Films THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, launching the British studio to the forefront of the horror genre. Introducing Hammer’s Dynamic Duo of Horror, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, along with the studio’s star director, Terence Fisher, this film sparked a resurgence of interest in the classics, as well as changed the look of Horror Films.

Hammer Film Productions had been around, in its then-current form, since shortly after the end of World War II. A child of Col. James Carreras, Hammer was very much a small family business in the mid-1950’s, known primarily for crime, adventure, and war pictures. Ensconced at Bray Studios, Down Place, in Berkshire, a small, tightly-knit group of artists and craftsmen would create some of the greatest Horror Films ever produced, working on budgets that were fractions of what was typical in a Hollywood production.

They accomplished these miracles, at least in the beginning, through the efforts of a few very talented people, the people who created the “Hammer Look”… people such as Michael Carreras, the son of James, Tony Nelson-Keyes, Tony Hinds, and Jimmy Sangster. Jack Asher’s superb photography brought the Hammer horrors to life, painted in brilliant colors across a canvas laid before the viewer by Bernard Robinson’s perfect production and art designs.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the film that established the pattern for the “Hammer Look”… bold, vibrant colors, lush period sets and costumes, and, at least at this point in time, quality acting, writing, and directing. Peter Cushing, as the mad genius Dr. Victor Frankenstein, carries the film, creating a character at once evil yet complex, someone the viewer is unable to see completely as a villain. Lee’s Monster, by comparison, is simply cruel and brutish, lacking any of the pathos and humanity of Karloff’s creation.

Philip Leakey’s make-up, constrained as it was by threat of legal action from Universal if it too closely resembled Jack Pierce’s trademarked conception, was generic and unimpressive, doing nothing to convey the monster’s origins the way Pierce’s did for Karloff. Karloff looked like a patchwork, a being stitched together from rotting cadavers into a less than perfect whole; Lee, on the other hand, looked like nothing more than the common zombie that would populate Horror Films beginning little more than a decade later. It was not an effective look.

While the film was much closer in plot to Shelley’s original tale, it was all gloss and glitter; beautiful to look at, but lacking the heart and soul of James Whale’s landmark film, and wholly inferior to it. This movie, like Hammer Films itself, was a gorgeous façade, with very little of substance supporting it.

The second major development in the restoration of classic horror occurred in the fall of 1957, when Universal, through an arrangement with Screen Gems, released their Shock Theater package to Television stations around the country. Composed of some of their greatest Horror Films, including FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF-MAN, and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, this led to an explosion of Hosted Horror programs on Friday and Saturday nights. Though Horror Hosts had existed prior to the Shock Theater release, it was the flood of high-quality movies and the success of hosts such as Zacherley in New York and Vampira in Los Angeles that spurred stations from Atlanta to Minneapolis to develop their own late-night Horror shows.

These trends continued into 1958, and on the 22nd of May of that year, at the Gaumont Theater in London, Hammer’s second blockbuster premiered. HORROR OF DRACULA, once again directed by Fisher and starring Cushing and Lee, took the basic blueprint laid down by the previous film and set it in concrete, defining for the next twelve years the look and texture of classic horror. Not until DRACULA A.D. 1972 was there anything more than a qualitative change in Hammer’s Dracula franchise, and decidedly not for the better.

This time however there would be a clear choice between good and evil, as Cushing was cast as Dr. Van Helsing, the bloody Count’s nemesis. Though he ably demonstrated that he could play evil convincingly in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, it’s as the heroic Van Helsing that he found his greatest role.

Where, in 1931’s DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan had essayed an elderly, superstitious professor (for all his scientific training, Van Sloan’s character was little more than a village wise woman…), Cushing portrayed Van Helsing as a young, strong, active combatant against evil, seeking scientific explanations for the vampire’s existence, and scientific means to destroy him. Universal’s Van Helsing was a teacher; Hammer’s was a warrior, and a worthy foe for the Prince of Darkness.

And what a Prince of Darkness he faced.

For more than a quarter of a century previously, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the eponymous Count from Bram Stoker’s novel had been the model that moviemakers followed, and moviegoers wanted. The image of Dracula as an urbane, sophisticated gentleman, clad in black-tie formality, had become ingrained into the consciousness of Horror fans through multiple iterations of the Count and his clones.

Whether portrayed by Lugosi himself, Lon Chaney Jr., or John Carradine, the American image of the Vampire was that of Bela, in tie and tails, top hat and cape. His Dracula had a slow, languid quality, almost hypnotic to watch. It took no stretch of the imagination to picture a beautiful young woman falling victim to his spell. Dracula, as created by Lugosi, was first and foremost a seducer, a debaucher. He was, at heart, a lecherous old man.

Christopher Lee’s reinvention of the Count cast aside this “Undead Man-about-Town…” image of Dracula. While the wardrobe was little changed, the vampire inside underwent a radical transformation.

Lee’s Dracula exuded youth, power, strength, vitality. Lugosi was polished, refined; Lee was a barely concealed savage, like a wolf masquerading as a dog. Lee’s Dracula was no seducer of women; he was a rapist, in spirit if not in fact; taking his women by force, not by guile. However, in a typically post-Victorian British Male Freudian manner, his victims were all too willing accomplices to their own debasement, eager to offer up their throats for his hungry kisses.

Dracula, as rendered by Christopher Lee, was an animalistic creature of the night, savage, brutal… and just like the studio that spawned him, new and exciting.

That phrase also serves well to describe the film itself. Though no more faithful to the source material than Browning’s 1931 film had been, this script, by Jimmy Sangster, possesses an energy totally lacking in the original. Where John L. Balderston’s script for the ’31 version had been stiff and stagey, betraying its origins, Sangster, with some alterations by Fisher, crafted a script that fairly flew from plot-point to plot-point, dispensing with everything that failed to advance the story.

Gone was the slow moving, talky introductory scene of the Browning film. Here we meet Jonathan Harker (not the extraneous character of Renfield…) already arrived at Castle Dracula. In a brief voice-over, taken from the pages of his diary, we are told all we need to know: Harker, played ably by John Van Eyssen, is a friend and colleague of a Dr. Van Helsing, and is there to find and kill Count Dracula, and end his “…reign of terror.”

Harker is found out, however, and infected by a vampire’s bite. Racing against time before he too becomes one of the undead, he finds the daytime resting place of Dracula and his consort. In typical Horror movie style, he makes a monumental blunder and, as the sun is setting, decides to stake the female vampire first. This he does successfully, only to find the sun has set and Dracula has awakened.

The scene shifts to a small village Gasthaus, decked out with wreaths of garlic, where we first meet Dr. Van Helsing. He’s in search of his friend Harker, and the inn was his last reported address. The innkeeper is less than forthcoming with Van Helsing, but Inga, the serving girl, gives him Harker’s diary, found at the crossroads near the Castle.

The book leads him to the castle, now abandoned by Dracula. As he nears the castle, Van Helsing is nearly run down by a fast moving hearse, bearing a white casket inside it. Entering the castle, Van Helsing finds the body of his now undead friend, and releases his soul from its torment.

He then travels to the home of Arthur and Mina Holmwood (Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling) to inform them, and Miss Lucy Holmwood, Arthur’s sister and the fiancée of Harker, of his death. He provides no details, but simply tells them that Harker had died ten days before. Holmwood treats him coldly, and, as soon as his news is delivered, asks him to leave. The Holmwoods decide to keep the information from Lucy, whose health is fragile. However, she is already aware of her fiancé’s death, and seems strangely unaffected by this knowledge. As her brother bends to kiss her goodnight, he fails to notice the two puncture wounds in her neck, over her jugular vein.

Once she is alone, she removes a silver crucifix from her neck and opens a door leading out onto the grounds. As she lies back on the bed, anticipation on her face, Dracula appears in the doorway, and shadows and darkness engulf the young woman.

The next morning, the Holmwoods are shocked and dismayed by the deterioration in Lucy’s condition, as is Dr. Seward, the attending physician. He suggests a second opinion, and Mina decides to seek help from Van Helsing. He immediately recognizes the symptoms for what they are, and issues strict orders for the household to follow: All doors and windows in Lucy’s room are to remain tightly closed and locked between sunset and sunrise; and her room is to be filled with boughs of garlic flowers. Any deviation from these instructions, he adds ominously, would result in her death.

Lucy, however, convinces a maid to remove the flowers and open the doors, allowing her bloodthirsty lover into her bedroom. The next morning, she is found dead, drained of blood.

Holmwood is devastated by his sister’s death, and asks Van Helsing to leave them to their grief. The doctor apologizes, but informs them of the true nature of Harker’s, and now Lucy’s, deaths. He leaves Harker’s diary with Holmwood, with the admonition that if he could not believe Van Helsing, then certainly he could trust his late friend’s own words.

The diary doesn’t fully convince Holmwood, but when the little daughter of the maid is nearly attacked by someone she recognizes as “Aunt Lucy”, he goes to the family mausoleum, and finds her coffin empty. He waits for her return, and is shocked to see her walking towards him, leading the young girl by the hand. He calls to her, and she releases the girl. She approaches her brother, reaching out her arms to embrace him, mouth opening to reveal the elongated canines of the vampire.

Suddenly, there is a cross thrust into view… Van Helsing has arrived just in time to save Holmwood from his sister’s bloodlust. He presses the cross against the flesh of her forehead, burning the image of the icon into her skin. She breaks away, rushing back into the mausoleum, and back to her coffin. They follow her in, and Holmwood is shocked to see the evil that is manifested in Lucy’s face; her formerly beautiful, innocent features now twisted into a vulpine grimace. He asks Van Helsing what can be done to release her from this vile curse. The answer is simple, though horrifying: They must drive a wooden stake into her heart, finally ending her existence, and releasing her spirit.

But, before they take that step, they should consider one thing: Lucy can be used to lead them to her master. They can follow her straight to Dracula’s lair. Holmwood, however, balks at this. He wants his sister freed from her curse now, before she can defile others as she has been defiled, spreading Dracula’s corruption like a virus. Van Helsing regrets his decision, but cannot in good conscience deny the grieving man. With a sigh of resignation, he drives the stake into Lucy’s chest.

With the deed done, he leads Holmwood over to his sister’s coffin. Once again, innocence and peace have returned to her visage… Lucy Holmwood is finally at rest.

The pair returns to Holmwood’s home, and begin to lay plans for an assault on Dracula himself. Holmwood still is in disbelief, despite the evidence of his own experiences. He questions Van Helsing on the legendary aspects of vampires, their ability to transform themselves, for instance. A common fallacy, he is told. Vampires have no such power. Van Helsing has devoted his life to the study of these creatures, and even his knowledge barely scratches the surface.

The first priority they have is to locate his resting place. Dracula must reside in his native soil by day, and Van Helsing believes he has a clue. The hearse that nearly ran him down that day at the castle must have been carrying Dracula in his box of earth, and to get to Karlstadt, it had to pass through the border crossing. There they might find records of the crossing, and a destination for Dracula’s coffin.

However, the border official is less than cooperative with the duo, even after Van Helsing presents his medical credentials. Holmwood, however, has better credentials… cash. A bribe reveals that the coffin was consigned to an undertaker in Karlstadt, and gives them the address of the establishment.

At that moment, Mina is receiving a message from a street urchin, informing her that Mr. Arthur Holmwood wishes her to meet him after sundown at 49 Freidrichstrasse… the same address that now holds Dracula’s coffin. She goes, oblivious to the danger, and as she enters the storeroom of the undertaker’s shop, the camera shifts to a single white casket… as the lid slowly slides open.

The next morning, Van Helsing and Holmwood have returned, though only temporarily. They have yet to visit the undertaker, hopefully to find Dracula helpless in his coffin. As they head out, they encounter Mina, returning from a night with the object of their hunt. She explains that she had taken an early morning stroll in the garden. There is an odd look of contentment, even satisfaction, on her face, and it’s perhaps a poor reflection on her husband that he does not recognize it for what it is, instead inquiring as to her health. She reassures him, and the pair leaves on their mission. At the undertaker’s, the situation is worse than they had expected. Not only is Dracula not there, but his coffin has been relocated. They’ve lost their only clue to his whereabouts.

Back at the Holmwood house, they quietly discuss their options over maps of the area. Holmwood remembers a small, neglected graveyard in the vicinity; with no other logical place to start, they decide to begin their hunt there. He turns to say good-bye to his wife, and asks her to wear, as a personal favor to him, a small silver cross. She resists, but he places it in her hand. Instantly she screams, and falls unconscious to the floor. As Van Helsing rushes to her aid, he opens her clenched fist, to reveal the shape of the cross, burned into the palm.

Holmwood is angry with himself for not following Van Helsing’s suggestion to use Lucy to lead them to Dracula, but Van Helsing tells him not to worry; there is still time to save Mina, and she can serve the same purpose he had in mind for Lucy. They will keep watch over the house later that night, and catch Dracula when he attempts to reach her.

That night, the two men patrol the grounds, keeping a watchful eye on the house. Mina watches them from her window, then turns to open her bedroom door. Below, in the foyer of the house, stands Dracula. With desire on her face, she watches him approach her. He closes the door as he enters her bedroom, and as she falls back onto the bed, he throws himself on her.

As dawn breaks, the men end their vigil. Van Helsing decides to stay there and rest, and Holmwood heads up to bed. A sudden cry brings the doctor running to find a scene of horror: Mina, apparently lifeless, rivulets of dried blood tracing paths down her pale throat.

Van Helsing hastily gives the woman a transfusion, using her husband as a donor. This saves her life, though she remains under Dracula’s control. He sends Holmwood down to rest, with an admonition to drink some wine to fortify his strength, then turns his attention to caring for his patient.

Later, he joins Holmwood in the parlor. The shaken man has taken his advice, finishing off a bottle of wine. He asks the maid to bring up another bottle from the cellar, but she demurs, saying that Mrs. Holmwood had forbidden her to go into the cellar. That sends a jolt through Van Helsing, who rushes down to the cellar. There he finds Dracula’s coffin, empty. At that moment, the cellar door opens, and just for a moment hunter and hunted stand face-to-face. Dracula runs out, pulling the door shut behind him. After Van Helsing insures that Dracula will not return to his coffin by placing a silver cross on the bed of earth, he and Holmwood give chase, and a scream leads them upstairs. Gerda, the maid, has been attacked by Dracula, though not harmed. But Dracula has taken Mina with him as he fled the house.

There is only one place he can go for shelter before the sun rises, and that is back home to his castle. They find a dead coachman; Dracula has killed the man and stolen his vehicle, and is racing to get home before dawn. They must catch up to him before he can hide himself in the basements and catacombs of his home, or they might be searching for him for years.

And for Mina.

Dracula arrives at the castle with mere moments to spare, and he must first open a grave for Mina. Rapidly he digs a shallow trench, drops her in, and begins shoveling earth in over her unconscious form. She awakens with a scream just as Van Helsing and her husband pull up in their carriage.

Holmwood leaps to his wife’s aid, as Van Helsing pursues Dracula into the castle. Cornered, Dracula fights with Van Helsing, gaining the upper hand, and slowly drawing near the doctor’s exposed throat. Van Helsing breaks the vampire’s grip, however, and notices a thin shaft of sunlight stabbing through closed curtains. He rips the curtains down, flooding the hall with light. With a pair of crossed candlesticks he forces Dracula into the sunlight, where he crumbles into dust. The threat is over, Mina is freed, and Dracula is finally dead.

This was perhaps Hammer’s best production, with the possible exception of the following year’s THE MUMMY. All the important elements were in place… Sangster’s script, Asher’s photography, the performances of Cushing and Lee, all tied together by Fisher’s competent, workmanlike direction. Together, these artisans equaled more than the sum of their individual talents, and for the brief period of time that they were all together at Bray, they produced some of the best Horror Films the genre has ever seen.

The story of the rise of Hammer Films is very much the story of a few gifted individuals in precisely the right place at precisely the right time. It wasn’t due to the inherent strengths of Hammer; there were none, as events unfolding less than two decades later would pointedly demonstrate.

When this group began to dissolve within five years, Hammer Films would take a hit, in terms of quality, from which it would never recover. The Hammer look would soon degenerate into an assembly-line, mass-produced commodity, churned out as rapidly as possible, sold lock, stock, and residual rights to the highest bidder.

Hammer, for most of its existence, lived in a perpetual cycle of brief periods of plenty broken by long stretches of lean; living from paycheck to paycheck, always trying to catch onto the latest trend. For the most part, they succeeded, at least until the fragile house of cards that was the company’s financial structure came crashing down around the head of Michael Carreras.

But in 1958, that was still twenty years away. In 1958, they weren’t trying to follow the trends, they were creating them.

In 1958, Hammer Films released HORROR OF DRACULA… and the renaissance of classic horror began.

* Primary reference for this article was the excellent book from Denis Meikle, The History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

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