'Dracula' - the Hammer Horror Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Dracula' - the Hammer Horror Film

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In 1958, the British company Hammer adapted the classic Gothic novel Dracula for the big screen. Having already enjoyed some success with the similarly bloodthirsty Curse of Frankenstein, their 52nd film, Dracula, consolidated Hammer's reputation as Britain's leading film production company as well as ensuring that they would forever be linked to the horror genre.

Background

The traditional look of Count Dracula, dressed in evening-wear and opera cloak, comes from the very first stage production of Dracula, produced by Hamilton Deane in 1924. Deane had been trying to think his way round the way the Count is described in the novel, and realised that the opera cloak would not only have the desired effect, it would be much more dramatic on-stage; the cloak could swirl about and be used to disguise trap-doors as the actor sank into the stage. When the show transferred to the American stage, the eponymous villain was played by a Hungarian actor by the name of Bela Lugosi. Lugosi would later be regarded as the definitive portrayal of the character (until, of course, Christopher Lee took on the role) when he appeared in the first of many Dracula films for Universal Studios. Lugosi decided to retain his costume from the stage, and the opera-cloak became the traditional attire for the best-dressed vampire in town.

An attempt by Associated-Redifusion to make Bram Stoker's novel into a TV series had fallen at the first post in the early 1950s. Finding the legal problems insurmountable, they eventually passed their paperwork onto Hammer, who subsequently made an agreement with Universal Pictures that granted the American company distribution rights in turn for allowing Hammer to use 'their' property. Ironically, had Hammer waited just four years, Universal's rights would have expired; being 100 years after Stoker's death it would have entered into the public domain and be free for anyone to use.

Hammer's Dracula was released in the USA (where it was known as Horror of Dracula) on 8 May, 1958, and in the UK a few weeks later, on 16 June, 1958, with an 'X' certificate, signifying 'For adults only'1.

Summary

Jonathan Harker arrives at the ancestral home of Count Dracula, posing as the new librarian. Unbeknownst to the Count, Harker is in fact working alongside fellow vampire-hunter Dr Van Helsing, and is intent on ridding the world of this evil menace. Harker almost falls prey to a seductive vampire woman, but after staking the beautiful monster, is cornered by the evil Dracula...

Van Helsing tracks down his missing colleague to Castle Dracula, where he discovers Harker's vampirised body. Van Helsing stakes Jonathan through the heart, but the Count appears to have eluded him. Van Helsing travels to the town of Karlsbad to pass on the news of Jonathan's death to his fiancée Lucy Holmwood. Lucy is unwell, so Van Helsing is introduced to Lucy's brother Arthur. Lucy's health deteriorates rapidly and inevitably she dies. Even after Lucy's death, Arthur refuses to accept Van Helsing's explanation for events - that she was a victim of Count Dracula and that he drained her of her blood. Van Helsing is compelled to show Arthur the ghastly truth. Late one night, the pair bear witness to the walking, vampirised corpse of Lucy in the act of kidnapping a child. Van Helsing and Arthur stake Lucy, and plan to track Dracula down until it becomes clear that he has already turned his attentions to Arthur's wife, Mina.

Mounting an all-night guard on Mina, Van Helsing and Arthur are horrified to discover that Dracula's coffin had been hidden in the basement of the Holmwoods' house. Dracula kidnaps Mina, intent on making her his new 'bride'. He heads back towards Castle Dracula, hoping to reach there before daybreak. Arthur and Van Helsing are hot on his heels, and arrive at the Castle just in time to stop Mina being buried alive. Van Helsing chases the Count into the castle just as dawn breaks. Dracula attacks Van Helsing, and during the struggle, Van Helsing manages to tear down a huge, heavy curtain, flooding the room with sunlight. Grabbing two candlesticks and holding them in the shape of a cross, he drives the Count back into the sunlight. Unable to escape, Dracula crumbles into a heap of ashes.

Production

  • A Hammer Films / Seven-Arts Production
  • Directed by Terence Fisher
  • Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Bram Stoker
  • Produced by Anthony Hinds
  • Associate Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
  • Music: Composed by James Bernard, Conducted by John Hollingsworth
  • Director of Photography: Jack Asher
  • Production Designer: Bernard Robinson
  • Supervising Editor: James Needs
  • Makeup: Phil Leakey
  • Special Effects: Sydney Pearson

Cast

  • Peter Cushing - Doctor Van Helsing
  • Christopher Lee - Count Dracula
  • Michael Gough - Arthur Holmwood
  • Melissa Stribling - Mina Holmwood
  • Carol Marsh - Lucy
  • Olga Dickie - Gerda
  • John Van Eyssen - Jonathan Harker
  • Valerie Gaunt - Vampire Woman
  • Janina Faye - Tania
  • Barbara Archer - Inga
  • Charles Lloyd Pack - Dr Seward
  • George Merritt - Policeman
  • George Woodbridge - Landlord
  • George Benson - Frontier Official
  • Miles Malleson - Undertaker
  • Geoffrey Bayldon - Porter
  • Paul Cole - Lad

The Myths and Legends Behind Dracula

Jimmy Sangster's script for Dracula is very selective as to which of the many vampire legends it gives credence to. Vampires are, as we'd expect, 'undead' creatures - they have died, but continue to exist by draining the blood of the living. They can be killed by driving a wooden stake through their heart, and the sight of a crucifix - or even just a cross shape - makes vampires recoil in fear, being a symbol of the power of good over evil. If a crucifix makes contact with a vampire's flesh, it brands the creature, thus revealing the vampire or its victim. Vampires are destroyed by exposure to direct sunlight. For this reason, they are nocturnal creatures who spend the daylight hours in a comatose state. The most traditional resting-place is in their coffin. Vampires also recoil away from garlic and garlic flowers, and the smell of garlic can even affect the breathing of a recovering vampire victim. This faith in the power of crucifixes and stakes stems from Slavic legends that date back as far as the 9th Century. The use of garlic appears in Romanian variants of the same legends.

A vampire can feed from a victim many times - they do not automatically die after a single attack. If a vampire feeds on a victim once, however, the victim is infected with a virus or contagion that, on death, will lead to the final transformation into a member of the 'Undead'. Following a victim's infection by the vampiric contagion, they become almost like drug addicts. They are aware that their condition will cause their eventual destruction, but find that they are almost powerless to resist its siren call (Jonathan Harker realises on the morning after he has been bitten that he has very little time to stake Dracula and save himself, whereas both Lucy and Mina seem almost to crave the visits from Dracula that will spell their doom). Death can be delayed by use of a blood transfusion, but the victim can only be completely cured if, before their final transformation, the vampire that attacked them is destroyed.

Finally, Van Helsing explains to Arthur that, despite their many supernatural powers, vampires cannot change themselves into bats, wolves or other creatures of the night - this is merely a common fallacy. This point would be contradicted in Hammer's next vampire film, Brides of Dracula.

What the Censor Saw

One month prior to the commencement of filming, Producer Anthony Hinds submitted the draft script to the British Board of Film Censors for approval. The Board Reader's report contained complains about 'the uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster' and noted wryly: 'Why do vampires need to be messier feeders than anyone else?'.

The points of objection were summarised by John Nicholls, Board Secretary for the British Board of Film Censors. They requested that all women should be 'decently clad' and reminded Hammer that sex should not be emphasised in a horror movie. Additionally, the Board demanded that vampires' teeth should never be seen to sink into the neck, that Dracula should not fling the vampire woman across the room by her hair, and that stakes should be used 'out of frame' - shots of the vampires after staking or their screams during the act should be omitted. On viewing a black and white rough cut of the movie, the Board requested that the staking of Lucy, Dracula's seduction of Mina and the final disintegration of Dracula had to be either omitted entirely or significantly edited.

Managing Director of Hammer Studios, James Carreras wrote to the Board, asking for a compromise over certain shots, reminding them that the X certificate they were seeking would automatically prevent anyone under the age of 16 from seeing the film, that the dedicated audience would expect a certain amount of 'horror' and that the cuts the Board had requested would remove the very thrills the audience wanted to see. By the time the final colour edit was ready, the Board had been worn down to the point where they found only two shots objectionable; the gushing of blood during Lucy's staking, and a shot in the final scene of Dracula clawing his face off. These scenes were removed and Dracula was finally granted a BBFC 'X' Certificate in April 1958, but with a stern warning from John Nicholls to Anthony Hinds that he should never attempt to get similar material passed by the Board in the future.

The Special Japanese Edition?

These two final shots have, however, been the cause of some confusion. Anthony Hinds was quoted in the British Press as having sanctioned a special edit for the Japanese market that contained 'more blood'. But director Terrance Fisher dismisses the possibility of additional gore for Japan as a 'load of nonsense'. Certainly the version despatched to Japan containing the offending scenes were longer than the British, and even the American versions - up to 20 seconds of extra footage - and the reels in question match with the scenes that were cut from the British edit, specifically the final reel, which contained Dracula's disintegration. After the initial theatrical run, the Japanese distributor for Dracula handed the reels over to the National Film Library of Japan. Unfortunately, the Library refuses to allow people to view or rent their films and so, for the moment at least, it's impossible to check whether the two 'missing' scenes still exist.

Selling the Film

The theatrical poster announced the arrival of: 'The terrifying lover who died - yet lived!' Hammer's Dracula played heavily on the sexual side of vampirism for the first time; the awnings and billboards used for the premiere at the Gaumont Haymarket theatre in London warned:

Every night he rises from his coffin-bed to seek the soft flesh, the warm blood he needs to keep himself alive! Who will be his bride to-night? Don't dare see it alone!

The movie's trailer for American release asks:

How do you destroy a fiend who so far has proven himself indestructible? Those who come to end his reign of terror stay to become his victim.... DRACULA, the bedevilled monster of all that is evil!

Trivia

  • A sequence was deleted from the very start of the film, where Jonathan Harker is travelling in a coach towards Castle Dracula. His travelling companions - a man, a woman, a priest and a fat merchant - plead with him not to go to the castle, but he ignores them.

  • The man playing the driver of the hearse, seen fleeing the Castle with Dracula's coffin aboard, was George Mossman, whose coach-hire company provided the hearse.

  • The inspiration for Van Helsing to grab the two candlesticks to form a cross comes from a 1933 film Berkeley Square, starring Leslie Howard.

  • During the final climactic battle, Dracula's body crumbles into dust on top of the astrological symbol of Aquarius - the Water Carrier.

  • Valerie Gaunt holds the sublime distinction of being the first vampire to be seen to bare its fangs on film (previously this minor detail was thought too horrific for sensitive audiences).

  • This film would appear to be set at around the same time as the publication of Stoker's novel (1897). The phonograph that Van Helsing uses supports this (Thomas Edison patented the first cylinder-based phonograph back in 1880).

  • Dracula was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1959 for 'Best Dramatic Presentation'.

What the Critics Saw

Unsurprisingly, many critics were vitriolic in the extreme towards Dracula. CA Lejeune, writing for The Observer. was particularly damning:

I regret to hear that it is being shown in America with emphasis laid on its British origin, and feel inclined to apologise to all decent Americans for sending them a work in such sickening bad taste.

She added that although the poster advises you 'Don't Dare See It Alone!', she would 'prefer not to expose a companion to what seems to me a singularly repulsive piece of nonsense'.

Similarly, the Daily Telegraph's critic believed that Dracula was too nasty a film, even for adults:

This British film has an 'X' Certificate. This is too good for it. There should be a new certificate - 'S' for sadistic or just 'D' for disgusting.

However, despite the largely negative press the movie received, there were a few critics who saw the merit in Hammer's production. Dudley Carew in The Times extolled:

Mr Christopher Lee makes a saturnine and malignant Count... and the part is played straight, as melodramatic parts should be played. Altogether this is a horrific film, and sometimes a crude film, but by no means an unimpressive piece of dramatic storytelling.

Killer Lines

We don't get many travellers in these parts; not that stop anyway.
- The cagey, unhelpful landlord at the Inn plays to stereotype.
I am Dracula, welcome to my house.
- Christopher Lee's sublime introduction.

In our first indication that Jonathan is not the innocent he appears to be, he writes in his diary:

It only remains for me now to await the daylight hours when, with God's help I will forever end this man's reign of terror...

Van Helsing asks Arthur if he can use Lucy to track down the location of Dracula. A horrified Arthur refuses:

How can you suggest such a thing - that she should be possessed by this evil for another second? And what about Gerda's child out there and the others she will defile? No - I couldn't. I couldn't!

Epitaph

Christopher Lee's first appearance, gliding silently down the staircase to welcome his new 'librarian', is so urbane and gentle as to completely undermine the audience's expectations. This, of course, makes his later snarling attack on the vampire woman all the more shocking. Perhaps relishing the only one of Hammer's Draculas to have any bearing on the original novel, Lee's characterisation of the vampire is as much in contrast to Bela Lugosi as it would be to his own, largely mimed performances in later productions. Seductive and savage in one, this is the closest anyone came to combining Hammer's limitations with the sentiment of the source material.

Reviled by contemporary critics (as shown above) for its bloodletting and simplified storyline, in hindsight it's far easier to appreciate the film's undoubted strengths. Jimmy Sangster does a magnificent job of paring down Stoker's lengthy novel, condensing several characters and losing some plotlines entirely (such as Dracula's journey to England and his lunatic disciple Renfield). Although much of the pruning was a necessity brought about through Hammer's notoriously meagre budgets, the picture seems to be fairly well-paced at its concise length. However, there are a few flaws; as a consequence of some sharp editing, a few of the expositions seem a little rushed, and though the little girl, Tania is the daughter of the Harker's housekeeper, Gerda, this isn't altogether clear. But for people who already know the novel, the screenplay manages to provide us with some genuine shocks and surprises - notably Jonathan Harker's motivation for visiting Castle Dracula, and the discovery of where Dracula had been hiding in the latter part of the film.

Terence Fisher's direction plays a major role in setting the format for the next 15 years of blood-soaked Hammer horror. Building on his earlier success with The Curse of Frankenstein, Fisher revels in the period setting, creating a feeling of opulence and wealth that belies the limited resources he was able to work with. Following on from the first ever horror picture made in full colour, Fisher utilises the glorious Technicolor process to maximum effect, with the scenes featuring the undead Lucy being particularly well staged.

Of the cast, John Van Eyssen's stagey performance is a little distracting, especially in the scenes when he pretends to be updating his diary and keeps looking up as if straining to pay attention to his own voice-over. It's nevertheless encouraging that the epistolary form of the novel is retained in some small part for these opening sequences. The Holmwood couple appear to be playing at odds with each other; Michael Gough, as Arthur, appears to be bored throughout, as if the part were beneath him, but Melissa Stribling's Mina seems positively overjoyed that she's working on a 'serious' production. The two approaches are not incompatible, however, as Gough's lack of conviction only makes Mina's seduction at the hands of Dracula all the more believable.

Although Christopher Lee plays the eponymous character, he has barely a dozen lines of dialogue. It's therefore Cushing's Van Helsing that must carry our interest and loyalty throughout the movie - and it's marvellous to see that we aren't disappointed. Cushing proves his versatility as an actor, even within a limited genre like period horror films, by giving us a performance that's a million miles away from the cold and embittered Baron Frankenstein. Van Helsing is a warm, charming individual who is forced to deal with the evil he faces with an air of dignity and resigned melancholy. Affable and charismatic, it's possible to see that Van Helsing and Dracula may have a great deal more in common than they would ever like to admit.

If You're Feeling Sinister...

While censors and newspapers alike blanched at the Hammer film, it was fortunate that the historical 'Count Dracula' - the lovely Vlad The Impaler - died several centuries earlier. An evening with him wouldn't have been much of a giggle, either.

1In fact, anyone over the age of 16 could see the film. The restriction to '18 and over' didn't apply until the revision of the cinema certification system in 1970.

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