Cine-East Film Club Presents #65: 1958, Dracula (Terence Fisher)

by George_East on June 14, 2015

Count Dracula: ‘Sleep well, Mr Harker’

Christopher Lee was the Count Dracula I first knew and the one I grew up with. In fact so far as I was concerned as a kid he was Count Dracula. His portrayal of Bram Stoker’s blood-sucking creature of the night is still the one that I judge others by. As I’ve written before back in the late-1970s/early 1980s there was a time when BBC2 showed horror film double bills on a Sunday night. I usually stayed up for the first, watching it with my Mum. If I was lucky I would persuade her to let me stay up for both.

The staple fare of these double bills were the British Hammer classics, though occasionally American films would also be shown – either the Universal studio stalwarts of the 1930s and 1940s or the nuclear paranoia creature films of the 1950s (like Them, The Creature From the Black Lagoon or the great original version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Don Siegel).

I am sure that at some point the Tod Browning Universal studios version of Dracula from 1931 must have been shown, but I don’t remember seeing it then. Indeed as far as I recall I had heard the Bauhaus Bela Lugosi single before I had seen its titular subject play Dracula in the first of the talking picture incarnations. Or maybe I did see it and it didn’t stick in my young mind.   This wouldn’t have been wholly surprising as it is not a great film, even if it is well worth checking out. Certainly as far as Universal Studios output goes it is a pale shadow of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein which are both out and out masterpieces, or films like the great The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man (Cine-East Film Club #29).

But equally the explanation may  be that it was just too hard for my 10 year old brain to conceive of anyone else (even the iconic Bela Lugosi) in the role of Dracula than Christopher Lee.   In what seemed like an endless series of films made between 1958 and 1974, Lee had made the role his own. He had become in my mind at least what Dracula was.

Even now all of these years later and having seen so many different takes on Dracula and the vampire movie in the interim, Lee’s remains I think the definitive version of the character. And although it cannot be said that Hammer’s Dracula franchise ever reached the dizzy artistic heights of FW Murnau’s German expressionist silent classic from 1922 Nosferatu (a film I didn’t see until I was in my 20s), the original film in the Hammer cycle, at least, is a film of great merit and even more fun. It is this week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation in dedication to Christopher Lee who sadly passed away last weekend at the ripe old age of 93.

Hammer films were always exercises in economy as their budgets were miniscule. The 1931 Tod Browning Universal Studios version of the film had cost $350,000 to make. Nearly 30 years later Hammer would make Dracula for £81,000.   The extremely limited budget meant that much of the supernatural element of the Dracula story was simply removed by director Terence Fisher and Hammer screenwriting stalwart Jimmy Sangster.   Although they would appear in some of the later films in the Hammer Dracula cycle, there are in Dracula no bats or wolves or other creatures of the night (bizarrely there is even an Armadillo in Castle Dracula in the Browning film!).   Better than that Van Helsing (played brilliantly by Peter Cushing) explains at one point that the very idea that vampires can turn into bats, rats or wolves is a ‘common misconception’: ie it is not that it isn’t being shown, it’s that vampires don’t do it at all.   Dracula has one bride, not three. The sets in the film are re-used and if you pay attention closely pretty obviously so: with the interior of the Castle Dracula also doubling as part of the exterior of both Castle Dracula and the home of Arthur and Lucy Holmwood.

The most expensive elements of the novel to film are simply dispensed with and reimagined. Thus there is no Whitby, no rat-infested boat travelling through the night carrying Dracula to England (a scene so memorably and terrifyingly rendered in Nosferatu). Instead of having the film set in two countries many hundreds of miles and a sea apart, Hammer’s version re-sets it so that Castle Dracula and the Holmwood residence are a short trip on a carriage away from each other, though still in two countries (as marked by a border post across a road).

But all this need for economy if anything enhances the film by ensuring that it is character rather than special effects driven and that unlike the godawful Francis Ford Coppola version of the early 1990s (for my money on the shortlist of the worst films ever made) it is short and without any extraneous flab. The release print ran to a taut 82 minutes.  But it was a also the first vampire film in colour and Hammer (then seeking to consolidate its reputation for X-rated fare after the sensation of Curse of Frankenstein) fully exploited the opportunity to show blood in all its filmic hyper-redness.

Lee’s portrayal of the Count was influenced by the Lugosi take on the role. Unlike Max Schreck’s monstrous and rat-like Count Orlock in Nosfertatu (the name ‘Dracula’ had not been used for copyright reasons, though the film parallels the novel so closely that this did not save them from a law suit), Lugosi had turned Dracula into a mittel-European aristocrat in bearing and diction – complete with black cape, slicked back hair and formal manners.   Lee’s version took the Lugosi model and anglicised it.   His Dracula was essentially a sex-crazed English aristocrat.

Lee’s height and presence (but grace of movement – something John Wayne also possessed in a very different context) meant that he dominates every scene he appears in. His first appearance when Jonathan Harker (re-invented as a vampire slayer disguised as a librarian from the estate agent in the book) arrives at Castle Dracula sees him appear at the top of the balcony in the Castle in his long black cape and practically floats down the curved staircase to introduce himself to the unfortunate Harker.   The next scene we see him in is one of the most famous and most effective in all horror cinema, as he appears at the back of the library with blood dripping from his teeth, while his vampire bride bites Harker’s neck. On a big screen in 1958 this must have been truly shocking, as Terence Fisher moves to a close up of Dracula’s face and blood red teeth, with James Bernard’s hysterical score ratcheted up to 11. It took someone of Lee’s bearing to make it as effective as it was.

Lee’s Dracula in fact only has 11 lines in the entirety of the film. In this sense Lee’s role in Dracula is a bit like Arnie Schwarzenegger in The Terminator – an utterly iconic role which is largely about physical presence rather than words.   His seduction of Lucy and later Mina (one of the most powerfully sexual scenes in the whole of 1950s cinema) and his final face-melting fight with Van Helsing are all wordless but Lee’s skills as an actor make them real. (Having said that the 11 lines he had was considerably more than he had been permitted in the first of the Hammer horror cycle and his first pairing with Peter Cushing, the year before’s Curse of Frankenstein in which Lee played the monster without any words at all).

Lee, of course, played far more wordy roles than Dracula and was completely comfortable with them and often brilliant (even in the Hammer canon his portrayal of Sir Henry Baskerville, a rare outing for Lee as a romantic lead, in Hound of the Baskervilles is superbly realised. His own favourite of his own films (and who can blame him) was, of course, The Wicker Man (Cine-East Presentation #23) in which he memorably played Lord Summerisle and for which film he was long an advocate and supporter of the restoration.

Yet despite Lord Summerisle and Scaramanga and Saruman and Count Dooku, and the Mummy and so so many others, for me I will always associate Christopher Lee with Count Dracula. I will always associate him (as in Dracula) as half of one of the greatest of all screen partnerships, with the incomparable Peter Cushing (who is truly outstanding in Dracula).   It was part of my growing up but is also part of my now. The Hammer films can sometimes feel a bit camp and a bit creeky – but at their best (as Dracula surely is) they can stand without embarrassment alongside the finest British films made in their era.

Christoper Lee 1922-2015 RIP.

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