Friday, June 12, 2015

"Horror of Dracula" (1958)

With the news of Christopher Lee’s passing yesterday, I am reminded of his role that was always my favorite, Dracula. Here is an excerpt of a much longer piece in which I take a look at the film where he played that role for the first time:

Audiences were introduced to a new era of vampire films when Horror of Dracula opened in 1958. (It opened in England simply as Dracula in 1957.) The opening sequence had two additions to the genre, color and blood, both of which had not been seen before in the horror film of the previous decades. Horror of Dracula, directed by Terence Fisher, brought to film for the first time the elements of evil depicted in the novel. It is both violent and seductive at the same time. The women preyed upon by Dracula exhibit a desire for him, for the evil that he offers, that had until then been avoided in the vampire film.

Once again, much of the novel is changed. It takes place not in England, but somewhere on the continent. Characters have been through the obligatory changes as well. Jonathan, the first character seen, is on his voyage to Castle Dracula. He is an older man as opposed to the young lawyer in the novel. His purpose in going to the castle has changed as well. Posing as a librarian, he is really aware of Dracula’s nature and intends to destroy him. At the castle, however, he underestimates the threat of evil, and falls victim to the vampire, although he manages to kill his bride.

These scenes are an interesting departure from the usual myth in many ways. First, Jonathan is no victim of chance. He is going to the castle fully aware of the danger and because of it. He intends to destroy the evil from the very beginning. He is also not a "Modern" man. He has opened himself up to possibilities and to the existence of things the world does not believe and can not necessarily prove. Unfortunately, he goes to face the evil unprepared. It appears he was to wait for Van Helsing, but in impatience and out of a desire to rid the world of the evil as soon as possible he did not. At first this might seem to support the need for a community of believers to act against the evil. We will see in fact that this idea has developed some since the movies of the thirties and forties, but not much.

Van Helsing is introduced next. He is Jonathan’s associate, also determined to rid the world of Dracula, and arrives in Transilvania days after Jonathan. Armed by his own knowledge and Jonathan’s diary, he approaches Dracula’s castle. He is too late however, as Dracula is leaving just as he arrives. He does find Jonathan who is now one of the undead, and destroys him.

Jonathan’s fiancée is not Mina, but Lucy in this version of the story. Dracula preys upon her after Jonathan is disposed of, and Dracula’s motive in Horror of Dracula seems to be that of replacing his bride. Only two other characters from the book are present, although changed. Lucy’s brother is Arthur Holmwood, and here he is married to Mina.

The idea of a community of faith has grown in the film, but is still weak in comparison to the novel. Van Helsing is again Dracula’s sole worthy opponent, perhaps even more so than in Browning’s Dracula. However, there is an initiation of another believer, when Holmwood is forced to kill his sister with Van Helsing's Help. In the end though it is all up to Van Helsing.

Even so, there are other themes from the novel that are treated well in this film, some for the first time. The seductive nature of evil has already been mentioned. The sexual nature of the vampire and its appeal is explored as it has never been thus far. Lucy is completely drawn to Dracula and his evil. She awaits him impatiently in her bed at night. The evil is not simply enticing in and of itself, there is a defiant sexual aspect to it.

The supernatural aspect of evil at first seems to be downplayed in Hammer’s film. Dracula does not seem to have any special powers other than to seduce. He cannot transform into a bat or a wolf. However, the element of faith and its importance in combating the evil is shown. Van Helsing expresses a need for help from God in defeating Dracula. In the end when he uses a makeshift cross to force Dracula into the light of the sun, he gets it. In the film, religious elements are used repeatedly to combat the evil. This supernatural aspect of the myth will remain the same throughout the Hammer approach to the story. In all the vampire films revolving around Dracula, the count will remain more human and yet be defeated by God's forces.

In the end, the evil is defeated as in the novel. Good triumphs over evil. This fact is perhaps brought into question later, when Hammer films repeatedly bring Dracula back in sequel after sequel. However, in each movie good keeps beating evil back and Dracula is repeatedly destroyed. The themes of Horror of Dracula, are expanded as each film focuses on the seductive nature of evil, and on the element of faith needed to destroy it.

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