Monday, April 01, 2013

Film Review: 'Dracula' (1958) Blu-ray

By Richard Cosgrove
8 March 2013


The Hammer movie that made vampires sexy gets the Blu-ray treatment...

dracula 1958 montage

When you think about vampires the images that spring readily to mind are of tall, dark handsome strangers, of the seduction of the innocent, of smouldering looks and sexual frission, of low cut gowns and bare, bloody breasts. Well they do to my mind, anyway, having been brought up on Hammer films and then graduating to the likes of Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987), and Francis Ford Coppola’sDracula (1992), all of which propagate the dark and sexy image of Transylvania’s least favourite cold caller.
It wasn’t always this way, though. When vampires first appeared on the silver screen they were awkward, ugly things that anybody in their right mind would run from rather than to. Some of them had bald heads, big ears and too many teeth like Max Schreck’s timeless portrayal of Nosferatu (1922), a look borrowed heavily by Tobe Hooper for his underrated 1979 television take on Stephen King’sSalem’s Lot, while others were stilted and just plain creepy, with bad accents and worse social skills like Bela Lugosi’s take on the famed Count in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula.
Now don’t get me wrong, both Nosferatu and Lugosi’s Dracula are classics in their own right, and the performances are perfect for their purpose, but it wasn’t until Terence Fisher directed Sir Christopher Lee in the title role of his own Dracula in 1958 that vampires suddenly became, well, sexy.

dracula 1958 christopher lee fangs
Enter Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, a tall, dark and devilishly handsome man with an air of confidence and an eloquent turn of phrase. Even the way his cape billows around him is appealing. For the first time it became apparent why young ladies would be drawn towards this bloodsucking monster, and Hammer knew very well that they were pushing the envelope (for the late 1950s anyway) in taking their new interpretation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel in this more seductive direction.

Scripted by the late Jimmy Sangster, who had single handedly reinvigorated the fortunes of Hammer with his screenplay for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) the previous year, Dracula eschews much of the globetrotting nature of Stoker’s novel and instead delivers a taut, economical tale based in a handful of locations and clocking in at a little under 85 minutes. Sangster also creates the mould for the now archetypal heroic nemesis by beefing up Dr Van Helsing’s role into that of committed, cold and calculating vampire hunter and having Peter Cushing take on the role. Cushing’s dedication and driven Van Helsing is the perfect foil to Lee’s suave and somewhat aloof Count, and the echoes of this character can subsequently be felt down through celluloid history in roles such as fellow Hammer legend Donald Pleasance’s Dr Sam Loomis inHalloween (1978).
Playing sidekick to Cushing is British character actor Michael Gough, perhaps best known as Bruce Wayne’s erstwhile butler Alfred in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman movies (1989 - 1997) as Arthur Holmwood, brother of Dracula’s latest victim Lucy (Carol Marsh) and wife of Mina (Melissa Stribling), whose own seduction by the Prince of Darkness proved to be too hot for British censors at the time, and was thought lost forever until a recent discover of some legendary missing footage in Japan two days before the devastating tsunami rocked the country, and the world, in 2011.
The twenty minute featurette telling the story of the unearthing of this footage and its subsequent restoration and reinsertion in the new Blu-ray release of Dracula is one of the more fascinating extras on the disc, which also features a ten minute look at the censoring of Dracula, a half hour featurette about the making of the film, a World of Hammer episode about the Count, a reading from Stoker’s novel by actress Janina Faye, and most interestingly for my money, a half hour discourse by critic Christopher Frayling who offers up some fascinating insights into the movie. The extras are rounded out with the four surviving unrestored Japanese reels (6 to 9), a stills gallery, a commentary by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and critic Jonathan Rigby, and the 2007 BFI restored version of the film.
dracula 1958 disintegration
As for the feature itself, much like last year’s release of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), which I reviewed for Shadowlocked here, the picture quality of the transfer is stunning and presents the film’s colour palette beautifully. The sound, too, is impressive, giving James Bernard’s score a clarity and resonance that adds to the atmosphere in spades.

The acting is well up to the usual Hammer standard (and yes, you can take that a number of ways), but the dynamic duo of Cushing and Lee are particularly wonderful to watch, each of them a master of their art and able to play their larger than life characters with utter conviction. Carol Marsh and Melissa Stribling are both delightful as the film’s scream queens, particularly Stribling who embodies the essence of the prim Victorian woman yearning to escape the confines of her stiff upper lip marriage and does so with a knowing, faux reluctant willingness that is wickedly captured on her face as she returns home after a night with the Count.
The restoration of the previously lost Japanese scenes into the film are flawless, and give for the first time the most complete cut of the movie that we’re ever likely to see. Though adding barely half a minute of additional footage, the seduction of Mina becomes dangerously sexual rather than breathtakingly sensual, and Dracula’s disintegration at the climax embodies the graphic horror as he claws at his face that Hammer subsequently became famous for.
For fans of classic horror films, this version of the greatest Dracula of them all is essential viewing and a worthy addition to their Blu-ray collections. In reality, though, any lover of horror movies should see this movie, and particularly this restored cut, because it really did create the mould for the heady mix of sex and horror that became synonymous with not only Hammer, but virtually every other genre flick since.

Dracula is released on Blu-ray on 18th March 2013
5 stars


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