Insomniac Cult Movie Theater: Horror of Dracula

GhostAndy

Happy Halloween Everyone! It’s the spooktacular host of the only comic book related podcast that is Halloween approved given it’s got the word “Ghost” in its title.

Yeah, I’m trademarking that. Don’t even bother fighting with us over it! We are the best at delivering the comic book goods at this season…as well as Christmas too. Yeah, Ghosts and Christmas go along well, thanks in large part to the Christmas Carol. So yep, that’s two holidays down! I’m sure we can corner Thanksgiving too, given the fact that my co hosts, Chad & Stew, can be a pair of turkeys sometimes.

Anyways, for today’s blog, I’m going to be finishing my month long trek through classic horror/sci fi movies with a particular one that’s been a long time coming. Not so much because of the actual movie per say, but because it was made by a production company that’s one of the gold standards when it comes to the genre: Hammer Films.

 

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Now for those of you that follow this blog, you’ll probably cry foul at the fact that I already technically covered a Hammer Film several months ago with my review of Quatermass & The Pit. However, with today’s entry I really go after one of the big fish in their tank of terrific gothic style horror films.

Despite some cries of outrage from some Hammer purists, I decided not to go with The Curse of Frankenstein for this article. Mainly that’s because I have already seen the greatest Frankenstein movie of all time in “The Bride of Frankenstein” which I also recently finished our annual rewatching of just the other evening.

Instead I went with a retelling of another Universal Monster Movie character that unlike Frankenstein’s Monster I honestly wasn’t too impressed with when I saw the original: Dracula.

As I’ll go into more detail in my initial thoughts second, although Bela Lugosi is an absolute fantastic actor, and I’ve enjoyed him in other movies like “White Zombie” and “The Black Cat”, I am not a huge fan of Todd Browning’s Universal Studios Dracula movie. Therefore I was ready to sink my teeth into what I hoped would be a better interpretation of that famous vampire tale first penned by Bram Stoker so many years ago.


Horror of Dracula

 

Dracula_(1958)

Background:

Horror of Dracula aka Dracula aka Christopher Lee’s Bloodsucking English Vacation was first released in 1958 and features a who’s who of Hammer Film royalty both in front of and behind the scenes.

First off, it was directed by Terence Fisher who is often referred to as “The Godfather of Hammer Films”, sitting behind the camera for some studio’s most famous movies including the aforementioned Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Curse of the Werewolf, and interesting enough the horror adaptation of the famous Sherlock Holmes story,  The Hound of the Baskervilles. (I gotta see if I can snag that one for next year’s October movie fest).

It was also written by Jimmy Sangster, another accomplished Hammer Film director who penned many films for the studio such as The Brides of Dracula, The Mummy, and Maniac.

 

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In front of the camera, you’ve got the incredible Christopher Lee first as the Count himself. Modern day movie fans will immediately know Mr. Lee from his appearances as Count Dooku in The Star Wars Prequels and as Saruman in the LotR movies. However, I’ve actually known him for a lot longer mainly because he played the part of Scaramanga, in the Roger Moore 007 movie “The Man with the Golden Gun”, which is probably my favorite outing Roger Moore has in the James Bond series.

In any case, a lot of critics cite Christopher Lee’s performance in this movie as Dracula in being the origins of the “sexy, dark brooding” vampire. The kind of dangerous bad boy that the ladies wouldn’t mind having biting their necks as they lay in their beds at night. And it’s very true, in that the movie, does indirectly sexualize the encounters between Lee’s Dracula and his female victims to a degree that it’s really hard not to view Dracula with at least a little bit of “respect” over his prowess with the fairer sex. Don’t hate the player if he’s game is that good.

 

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Of course, playing Dracula’s arch nemesis, Van Helsing, we get another well known British character actor in the indomitable Peter Cushing. In fact, he would return to this role 4 more times over the course of the remainder of the Dracula films made by Hammer, helping define the character more than any other actor in my opinion.

Yes, most American fans will immediately know him as playing Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars, the fella who killed a gallion people either on the planet Alderian or through his own hubris in not evacuating the Death Star before it exploded. However, I’ve actually seen a good deal of other Peter Cushing films including his insanely good performance in the BBC adaption of “1984” as well as playing The Doctor in the movie adaption of the first Dalek story from the world famous Doctor Who series.

Speaking of Doctor Who, I gotta say that Peter Cushing looked a lot like one of my favorite Doctors in this particular film at times, in Paul McGann. Although there isn’t much in terms of TV appearances of the 8th Doctor, thanks in large part to the Big Finish audio series, he became the definite audio Doctor for me.

Anyways, yeah, look at the above picture and tell me that Cushing and McGann don’t have similar faces at least…

 

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Finally, we get Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood, the husband of Mina, the object of Dracula’s both affection/revenge for Van Helsing’s associate killing his first wife. I won’t lie that I found his character pretty insufferable in this movie, as he switched back in forth between overtly rude skeptic to idiot sidekick, and I found myself understanding why Mina might enjoy Dracula’s visits given this dolt of a husband.

However, what I wanted to point out for our comic book fans is although you might not recognize the name of Michael Gough immediately as you would Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, you will definitely recognize the face even more so.

Yup, Michael Gough is Alfred the Butler from the original series of Batman movies that started in 1989 with Michael Keaton through Val Kilmer and George Clooney. It’s really too bad that Michael Caine came along in the Christopher Nolan movies and made an even better Alfred in my opinion, because Michael Gough’s interpretation was my definite version of Alfred Pennyworth for so many years that I almost shed a tear when he was supplanted in my mind.

Eh…let’s watch the Diet Coke ad anyways folks! He’s still one of the best!

 

 


2am Thoughts and Reflections:

As I mentioned above, I somewhat hated the original Universal Pictures version of Dracula. Mainly because it’s not so much a movie, as a recording of a stage play. And although I get that Dracula started out as a stage play, once you make it a motion picture, the audience expects a little bit more.

In fact, no other scene in the original 1931 Dracula makes me cringe more than this one where all the actors are in a study and they watch the Bela Lugosi version of the Count leave, and someone yells “LOOK! He just turned into a WOLF!“…completely and totally off screen. We never see it at all and we just have to watch 4 people stare off “stage” for a few agonizing minutes. It’s just the pits.

As a result, for years I felt like the definite classic Dracula was actually the silent film adaption of the character that they disguised as “Count Olaf” in the genuinely creepy movie, Nosferatu. I mean that guys look is downright disturbing and there’s absolutely nothing charming or sexy about him. He’s a straight up monster ready to rip open your chest walls and eat your heart whole.

 

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Now, I won’t say that this particular picture changes my opinion of that original Nosferatu as being the most unnerving of the original Dracula film adaptions, this Hammer Films one at least redeems the franchise a lot after the stink burger that is Dracula 1931.

It’s genuinely gripping, while adding a suave sophisticated air to the proceedings, which is hard to deny. I mean, as I mentioned before, the women in this movie want nothing else but to get another nibble by the Count as they writhe in their bed chambers, throwing open their balcony windows and wait panting in expectation in the moonlight for their date with their vampire lord. It’s as titillating as it can get for the late 1950s, and as I said in previous posts, help marry the concepts of sex/death in a way which is crucial for good horror films.

 

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Another great thing this movie has going for it is it’s focus on realism despite the notion of dealing with obviously fictional creatures such as vampires. Dracula in this story doesn’t really have any extraordinary powers. He can’t shape shift, cast spells, exhibit superhuman strength, or even fly for that matter. He’s immortal, sure, but he’s also weighed down with a large number of weaknesses, such as the obvious ones like crosses, garlic, and sunlight, but even by the need of being near the dirt of his native home.

All of these things add up to Christopher Lee’s Dracula being more “human” than most insanely powerful killing machines that modern day vampires have been made out to be. It also means that Van Helsing has more of a fair fight on his hands which helps turn this from a monster film into more of a Victorian age crime drama, with Van Helsing being more of a detective on the trail of a cold blooded serial killer that then unholy king of darkness.

Plus with the inclusion of Dracula’s main reason for seeking out Mina in the first place is one of revenge for the killing of his first bride by Van Helsing’s partner, Harker, in the opening segment, it makes the stakes (pardon the pun) simple. This is a street level story despite its more lofty aristocratic window dressing. It’s about crimes of passions, of jealousy, adultery, and murder.

It’s not about Dracula terrorizing the countryside or wanting to enslave the human race with an army of demons. It’s small potatoes actually, and in the face of other interpretations of this tale, I found it refreshing.

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Final Grade: B-

Okay,  I know that I just said that I preferred this version of Dracula over the 1931 version. But that doesn’t mean I thought it was the best. It’s like getting a glass of grape juice over getting a glass of mud water. Grape Juice does taste good, a heck of a lot better than mud, but it’s not like a fine wine or something. I can appreciate this movie’s importance from a historical perspective, I enjoyed the acting and overall presentation. It was a worthwhile use of an hour and a half of my time.

But there were still problems with it. As I mentioned above, Michael Gough’s character in the movie is just the absolute worst. He manages to suck the air out of the room every time he’s on the screen, and I’m almost rooting for Dracula to take his poor wife from him as a just desserts for his insufferable smug attitude.

Speaking of Dracula, that’s another knock against it in that he’s actually not in the film very much. It’s why although I do love Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, I preferred the opening segment with Harker more because it had more supremely interesting Christopher Lee scenery chewing in it, with all that brooding somber atmosphere. But the moment Van Helsing shows up, there’s almost a tonal shift in that the story becomes more about him than Dracula, and again although he’s super great too, he’s partnered with Gough most times and…yuck…just yuck.

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Still though, there is a enough here to make for a decent Halloween monster picture. The final showdown between Dracula and Van Helsing is magnificent even if most modern audiences will probably find it subdued compared to the bigger budget slug fests they see nowadays. It’s still tense and has terrific practical special effects, which for me, is so much more important.

So my final word is if you haven’t watched this gem of British horror cinema, there’s still time to find it at your local library or on any number of streaming services. As I said, it’s not that long, so even if it’s not your particular cup of tea, you can see the wonderful roots of so many vampire movies and media that have come since. That’s definite worthy of being called a treat in your goody bag of life!

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