Sunday, July 06, 2008

Fifty Years ago....
I actually missed the date: May 8, 1958, when Hammer's classic version of Dracula was released in the US (as Horror of Dracula).




The film made Christopher Lee a star overnight. (It almost type-cast him to death as well.) But the effect it had on cinema is hard to appreciate now. Martin Scorcese has spoken often about the impression the baroque and bloody Hammer films made on him as a teenage movie-goer in New York. Gone forever were the days of grainy blank and white farces featuring Abbott & Costello as they confronted campy versions of the wolf man, Frankenstein's monster and a decrepit Bela Lugosi.

The above scene for me remains one of the all-time greatest endings in film.

According to Lee, to this day Hammer remains Britain's most successful independent film company. They came up with a formula they knew no one else could duplicate. Great locations, classy actors with stage experience (Peter Cushing was a protege of Laurence Olivier--and note Tim Burton's favorite Michael Gough), a signature film composer (the magnificent James Bernard, a protege of Benjamen Britten) and a blunt refusal to play it for laughs.

Virtually none of these movies are still scary in this day and age--but the best ones, like Dracula, remain classy.

Happy 50th.

3 comments:

Deuce said...

Unfortunately, as one who read Bram Stoker's Dracula in high school and really liked it, I have a hatred of all Dracula movies, on account of the heretical departures from the book that they all make. And I don't mean non-vital departures like "James Bond drives a Bentley in the books, not an Aston Martin". I mean major structural changes in the plot, the conclusion, the characters, and everything else.

I mean, in Horror of Dracula, they kill him with sunlight inside his castle! In the books, Dracula is fine with sunlight, and routinely walks around in it during the day, and the circumstances of his death were entirely different (He tries to ship himself back to Transylvania inside his casket, but the delivery is waylaid by Harker and company, who stake and behead him before he wakes up).

And don't even get me started on that Keanu Reeves monstrosity, where the moral of the story at the end is that everybody but Dracula is the bad guy. Oh, and Dr. Seward is a meth addict, for no apparent reason.

*sigh*... If I were a director, we'd have the first faithful adaptation of Dracula... and also a bunch of James Bond movies set in the 50's with Bentleys.

John Farrell said...

I love the book and agree with you especially about Francis Ford Coppola's monstrosity.

Having said that, and having loved the book since I first read it--the more I learned about filmmaking, etc, the more I realized that trying to do justice to the entire novel, given how it is laid out with letters, journal entries and telegrams, was basically impossible.

What I liked about Hammer was their tacit admission of this fact. They didn't try to adapt the novel (gheir script was more a take off of the Balderson played that was the basis for the Lugosi film)--they stripped Dracula down to his essence--and I thought Lee really captured it. He also has the virtue of actually looking like the real historical Dracula.

(Granted it's been a while, but I don't recall the Count having no problem walking around in the daylight--otherwise the whole chase scene in the novel makes no sense: why does he have to ship himself in a coffin if he can travel abroad by day, and don't forget the wonderful trip on the Czarina Catherine, as told by the ship's captain, where he only appears at night).

Deuce said...

The way sunlight worked in the book was kind of funny. It didn't hurt Dracula, but it did limit him. He couldn't change forms during the day (to a bat/wolf/mist/etc), but had to stay in his human form. But, he still had his superhuman strength and agility.

Also, if he was sleeping during the day, he couldn't wake up until night, though apparently he didn't necessarily have to sleep during the day every time, since he walked around in daylight at least once in the book. Maybe he just had a strong urge to sleep, or got weaker if he kept not sleeping over several days, or something. It doesn't really explain.

Another reason for him to ship himself home in a casket could've been because he couldn't cross running water on his own.