Monday, 13 January 2014

Dracula (1958)


Having previously been disappointed with Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) I was very keen to see Terence Fisher's vision starring a young Christopher Lee and a slightly less young Peter Cushing.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Where Lugosi's Prince of Darkness has designs on moving to London (and Mina's "beautiful neck"), writer Jimmy Sangster shuns Stoker's source material to a degree and crafts a story similar to Nosferatu in that all the action takes place in Germany (Karlstadt, only a few hours coach drive from Castle Dracula).  The familiar names are all there, but the relationships have often changed. Jonathan Harker is engaged to Lucy, who is Arthur's sister and Mina is Arthur's wife!  Dracula and Van Helsing are of course the same, but despite all these changes they do not grate the same way it did in Frankenstein (1931).

It goes without saying that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are fantastic.  Despite Dracula being one of the roles most synonymous with Lee, this is actually his 33rd film (I think) which is fairly incredible!  Where Lugosi was enigmatic and stilted, Lee is charismatic and full of energy; his Dracula is very active and physical which leads to a very dynamic movie as he desperately tries to stop Van Helsing.  Lee actually says very little.  Beyond welcoming Jonathan Harker to his castle and getting him settled in, he doesn’t actually say anything.  Which surprises me more that apparently he refused to say any lines in the script for Dracula: Prince of Darkness, as his Dracula is hardly verbose anyway.

Of course, where Lee is very physical, Cushing can match it.  Despite him looking not too far off Grand Moff Tarkin age, he is able to mix it with Lee in running around the excellent Gothic sets and fighting him off for a dramatic climax.  That’s not to say he is just “knees-bent running around”, most of the time he is the perfect Van Helsing using brain rather than brawn and displaying the same cold logic that he portrayed so well in Frankenstein Created Woman.  An honourable mention should go to Michael Gough (will later be Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman films) who plays Arthur; he fits his story arc perfectly as a grieving family man who comes to realise the horror (slowly) of the situation and is then determined to protect those he loves.

I've already mentioned the Gothic sets, which are brilliantly created by production designer Bernard Robinson, who will become a Hammer Horror regular, working on the classics as well as Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Plague of Zombies, The Reptile and Rasputin: The Mad Monk to name a few.  Actually some of those were filmed back to back on the same sets; so he knew how to save some pennies too!  Terence Fisher’s direction is smooth and accomplished.  He seems to favour fluid tracking shots across a room, moving past pillars, columns and such like.  This way he shows off the great sets and creates a sense of scale that a static camera wouldn’t do; as well as mirroring the dynamic performances from the two main leads.

One of the happiest improvements over 1931 Dracula, is the moment Van Helsing explains that Dracula's ability to change into a bat or a wolf is a myth.  So no stupid rubber bats, or even armadillos (I'm still not sure why there were armadillos!) which instantly enhances the film’s credibility.  Great performances, smooth direction, smart story and wonderful sets.  I really enjoyed Dracula.  Now I’m looking forward to Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.