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“Try It, You’ll Like It” – Horror of Dracula (1958)

horror_of_dracula-1958-usa-posterHorror of Dracula is my contribution to the “Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently. The purpose of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon is to share films that can serve as a “gateway” to classic films for people who are either resistant to or unfamiliar with old movies.

Of course, not all movies will appeal to all people and the key is to know your audience. Male? Female? Teenager? Child? Adult? Sci-fi fan? Romantic comedy fan? Musicals? Action heroes?

My target audience for this film is the young superhero lover. Do you know a teenager or young adult who loves superhero and YA fantasy films, but says they are tired of the sameness of superhero and YA fantasy films? Even the recent Dracula Untold managed to look like a re-hash of a Marvel movie. If you’ve heard this complaint voiced, one film to suggest is Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It worked for my teenage cousin, who subsequently became interested in the early Universal Horror films. Not that you have to be a teenager to like this film…or even a fan of superhero films. You could be a Jane Austen miniseries and Fred Astaire musical enthusiast (ahem).

What makes this film so accessible is that though it has less action than most teenagers are used to, there is a lot they are familiar with. It’s in Technicolor, still retains its creepy vibe, weird powers, cool British accents (which always goes over well in the U.S, where college students love nothing more than to imitate a British accent) and has the benefit of starring two actors nearly everyone is familiar with today, thanks to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings: Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) and Christopher Lee (Saruman and Count Dooku). Grand Moff Tarkin vs. Count Dooku? Learning this is like a whole new world and most people are fascinated to discover that the two men appeared in 22 films together and were good friends.

Peter Cushing gets star billing, but we don’t actually meet him until twenty or so minutes into the film. The movie actually opens (after a thundering crash of music with garish red-orange letters streaking across the screen) with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), who has come to work as a librarian at Count Dracula’s castle (Christopher Lee)…or so he says. He soon reveals in his diary that he is really a vampire hunter and is there to destroy Dracula.

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Christopher Lee…making an entrance

But his plan is ruined when a woman at Dracula’s castle (Valerie Gaunt) begs him to save her from Count Dracula. He says he will, but unfortunately his neck looks too inviting and she can’t prevent herself from taking a bite, much to the rage of Count Dracula.

Christopher Lee’s appearance at his point is unforgettable. When Harker first meets him he looks and sounds like a reasonably polite, if brusque and physically imposing, English gentlemen…with a cool cape that swishes nicely when he walks up stairs. After Harker is bitten he emerges onto the scene transformed, with blood dripping from his fangs, red, wild eyes and an almost animalistic intensity…after which entrance we never hear him speak a line of dialogue again.

But before he is killed by Dracula, Harker manages to kill the woman – Dracula’s bride – by driving a stake through her heart. In revenge, Dracula goes to town (by shipping himself off in a coffin) so he can turn Harker’s fiance, Lucy Holmwood, into a replacement bride. And finally, Van Helsing appears (Peter Cushing). He is looking for his fellow vampire hunter and traces him to Dracula’s castle. He finds Harker’s body, but since Dracula is gone, he returns to inform Harker’s fiance and her family of his death.

The majority of the film consists of Dracula preying on the family: Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), her brother Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife, Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling). Van Helsing fails to save Lucy from becoming a vampire, but he does much better after he tells Arthur the truth about vampires and the two of them must fight to save Mina. One of their main troubles is that Dracula seems to have an uncanny ability to invade the house and find his way to the women’s bedroom without anyone realizing it.

Half the tension in the film is knowing that Dracula is about to appear and wondering when. We see an empty doorway and expect he’s going to come through at any moment. When he finally does, the affect is not disappointing. He has a habit of suddenly appearing, either standing still with all the power of his tremendous height (6′ 5″) and presence, or coming through the doorway. He walks through doorways very effectively.

Peter Cushing...wielding a cross

Peter Cushing…wielding a cross

But Peter Cushing makes a superb match for Lee. His Van Helsing is incisive and precise, but also with a will. He is every bit as capable of physical activity when called upon, which stands in marked contrast to the original Dracula of 1931, which resembles nothing so much as a drawing room horror story.

But in this film vampire hunting is not synonymous with superheroism. These vampire hunters (Van Helsing and Harker) are doctors and scholars, educated men who have devoted their lives to understanding and eradicating vampires. They are, admittedly, on the fringe of the scientific community, but are still able to pass themselves off as eminent men and not mere crackpots. Van Helsing is a modern man, who uses a phonograph to record his thoughts and is capable of administering blood transfusions, which was no easy thing in the 1800s (blood types were not then understood).

As a complete rabbit trail, my sister was wondering if vampires are subject to the same blood type concerns as mere humans. Could a vampire with blood type A drink the blood of someone with blood type B or would that be a problem? Someone really ought to look into that.

I was a little confused by the geography of the film. In the novel and 1931 film, Dracula’s home is Transylvania but he leaves to terrorize London. Here, Dracula’s castle appears to be near Klausenburg, a German village. Harker comes from somewhere not far off, only one night’s ride away, so presumably he lives in Germany, too. Everyone has a British sounding name and speak with British accents, but the setting is clearly Germany. Maybe British expatriates?

But Horror of Dracula is a British film produced by Hammer Film Productions in London, a studio best remembered for the horror films they began making in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein. Unlike Universal Studio’s horror films, Hammer horrors had blood, gore, low cut necklines and were altogether racier, more Gothic and more energetic…all in color, which made a distinct impression on audiences. The Curse of Frankenstein was so successful that the following year they paired Cushing and Lee again in Horror of Dracula.

Christopher Lee...making another entrance

Christopher Lee…making another entrance

The Curse of Frankenstein is really about Frankenstein – played excellently by Peter Cushing – and Christopher Lee has relatively little to do as the monster. But although Lee is only in Horror of Dracula less than 20 minutes and has scarcely any lines, the film made him a star and he would go on to play the role so often that he grew to dislike it. Peter Cushing also appears in a few Dracula sequels, but he was more noted for appearing in his own monster franchise: Frankenstein.

Both men are dynamic together, especially in Horror of Dracula, which is perhaps the best showcase for them as rivals. Along with The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula they made The Mummy (you can probably guess who plays the mummy) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (with Cushing as a delightfully zany, arrogant and eccentric Sherlock Holmes and Lee unexpectedly cast as the Baskerville heir Holmes must protect – it was the first time I had seen Lee in a regular suit; he always seems to be wearing tunics, cloaks, or robes). But as an introduction, you can’t beat Horror of Dracula.

I am extremely excited to be participating in the “Try It, You’ll Like It” Blogathon and am grateful to Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid for hosting! For the complete list of “gateway” films to the classics, please click here.

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Posted by on December 5, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Mummy (1959)

Themummy1959posterI am a big fan of the 1932 Universal The Mummy with Boris Karloff. It is a romance as much as a horror film, with an incredible performance by Karloff. But I had high hopes for Hammer Film’s The Mummy, especially because it starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, two actors who were completely awesome in Horror of Dracula. Hammer’s The Mummy is closer to the later Universal Mummy series, starting with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940, than it is to the original 1932 film, but it is still greatly entertaining. In fact, it definitely improves on The Mummy’s Hand.

Dr. Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) and his brother, Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley), are excavating in Egypt for the tomb of the Princess Ananka. His son, John Banning (Peter Cushing), is with them, but he has broken his leg and his uncle worries that unless he leaves the site and gets immediate medical attention, his leg will not heal properly. Before entering the tomb, Dr. Banning is warned by an Egyptian, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), not to enter. There is a terrible curse on it, he says.

But Dr. Banning enters anyway and finds an ancient Scroll of Life, which contains a spell that can bring back the dead. When his brother finds him a little later on, he has had a complete and unexplained breakdown and is taken back to England to a sanitarium. John Banning and his uncle finish up the dig, but John waited too long to fix his leg and now has a permanent limp.

Three years pass and Mehemet Bey has a large box shipped to England. He is a follower, it turns out, of the Egyptian god who Princess Ananka served, Karnak. He has brought a mummy with him, Kharis, who was once a high priest to Karnak, but who loved the Princess Ananka and was buried alive and cursed to watch over her as punishment for breaking his vows and trying to use the sacred Scroll of Life to bring Ananka back to life. Soon Mehemet Bey is controlling Kharis using the scroll (he took it from Dr. Banning) to wreak revenge on all those who desecrated the tomb of Ananka: Dr. Stephen Banning, Joseph Whemple and John Banning.

the-mummy-1959-dir-fisher-peter-cushing-christopher-leeOf course, the mummy gets sidetracked partway through his murder spree when he runs into John Banning’s wife, Isobel, (Yvonne Furneaux), who looks remarkably like the princess Ananka (the actress plays the princess in flashbacks).

What took me aback, initially, is how Peter Cushing plays the film’s protagonist, John Banning. He is mild-mannered, a bit buttoned-up, almost sounds like David Niven at times. He’s nothing like the Van Helsing of Horror of Dracula. He also has a limp, so he is not the most agile hero, either. He is nearly strangled by the mummy several times, though he is quite brave in facing him. He uses his brain, primarily (especially in taking on Mehemet Bey), and is only shaken into a real display of emotion when he fears for the life of his wife when she is carried off by the mummy, though he is never so terrified that he loses his wits.

Christopher Lee, on the other hand, is the saddest mummy I have ever seen. Even Boris Karloff has nothing on Lee’s mournful eyes, which stand out all the more for being the only part of him visible through all his mummy wrappings. Karloff’s mummy had hope for the future, for a reunion with his lost love, but Lee’s mummy knows there is no hope. When he sees John Banning’s wife it is like he is grasping at a straw, for the return of his lost love.

the-mummy-1959-lobby-card-1After the murder of Dr. Banning and Whemple, an inspector comes in from Scotland Yard to investigate, Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrnes), who is highly skeptical of John Banning’s story, at least until evidence begins mounting up. That is what I like about earlier films, especially Universal Horror films: people aren’t stupid. They aren’t implausibly eager to embrace a supernatural explanation, but aren’t backward in accepting one if the evidence is there. But the very English Scotland Yard inspector is just one part of a very English countryside for the second half of the film. This very Egyptian mummy is running about the English countryside, frightening poachers and giving people a lot to talk about in the pub.

Mehemet Bey is allowed to speak passionately against the despoiling of Egypt’s ancient tombs by the English, though his methods of revenge are somewhat extreme. But he is allowed to be an intelligent presence, if also a fanatical one. I did appreciate that this Hammer film kept him on topic regarding revenge. In the Universal series, all the priests of Karnak end up falling for the leading lady and using Kharis to steal her away while Lon Chaney, Jr. (who usually was playing the mummy) looked on long-sufferingly (I couldn’t figure out what the deal was; were these priests of Karnak too sheltered when they were young?).

I also appreciated what a calm leading lady Yvonne Furneaux made as Isobel (apart from fainting once, but she had to do that so the mummy could carry her draped over his arms artistically in true monster movie tradition). But she knows her power over Kharis. All she has to do is speak and he obeys, however reluctantly. When she tells him to put her down at the end, he looks heartbroken. Cursed, centuries old, controlled by other people (Bey and Isobel), he looks weary, which is not to take anything away from his scare power. At 6’5 and wrapped in moldering bandages, he’s an unnerving presence coming towards people, towering over all his victims.

1959, TERROR OF THE MUMMYAs I noted, the 1959 The Mummy has a lot in common with the Universal Mummy reboot, which began in 1940. In this series (which gets increasingly silly), the mummy is named Kharis, he was a high priest condemned to watch over the Princess Ananka’s tomb, the archaeologist’s name is Banning, the god’s name is Karnak, there is a priest controlling Kharis. The end of the 1944 The Mummy’s Ghost, which is the third of the later mummy films, is also familiar, except in the 1944 films, Kharis not only sinks into the bog, he takes the lady with him (which was at least original). But Hammer’s The Mummy does it better.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Fly (1958)

220px-TheflyposterAt the end of The Fly, I hardly knew whether to giggle or shudder. I tried a little of both. It’s that kind of movie. The concept is both chilling and silly.

The movie opens with a woman, Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens), in a warehouse who has just crushed a man’s head in a hydraulic press. She calls her brother-in-law, Francois Delambre (Vincent Price) and tells him she’s killed her husband, Andre (David Hedrison). Francois then calls the police. Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) thinks she must be insane. She’s obsessed with locating a certain house fly, one with a white head. Francois can’t imagine that she could do such a thing – he’s also always loved her, though he cared deeply for his brother, too. Finally, he gets her to tell him the truth, which is shown in a flashback, but is so incredible that Inspector Charas does not initially believe her. Not, he says, until they can show him the fly with the white head.

Most people coming into this film already know the plot, a scientist invents a teleportation device and when he tests himself in the device, a house fly gets mixed up in his DNA and he emerges part fly, with parts of his human self on the fly. But The Fly is framed as a mystery and I like how they build suspense, not because I am in the dark, but because the characters are in the dark. Inside the mystery framing is a flashback about Helene and Andre, their happy home, his ambition and his mistake that leads to tragedy.

The film really wants to deal with the theme of scientific hubris, the Frankenstein syndrome. A scientist is meddling with things he ought not to meddle with. Andre is all for progress and invention, but his wife is afraid at how fast things are changing. But it has occurred to me that the real problem with these kinds of scientists is not what they are trying to do. It is that they do it alone. It makes them prone to all sorts of silly errors, like putting an abnormal brain in their creation or not checking to make sure there is nothing else in the teleportation device except oneself. Really, such silly mistakes could easily be avoided by working with others.

Andre’s also unbelievably impetuous and reckless. He’s having some difficulty with his transporter, so what does he do? He tests it on the cat! I had a hard time forgiving him for that one (Griffin, in the novel The Invisible Man, also tests invisibility on the cat: the real message here seems to be that animal cruelty is always avenged with scientific catastrophe). And then Andre recklessly tests the device on himself.

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David Hedrison is hiding his fly head under a blanket while his wife reacts to his fly arm – the film is actually in lush color

The plot, to be honest, doesn’t make the most amount of sense. Why does Andre decide to destroy all his research, as if it was the research itself that was the problem? And perhaps if he’d enlisted aid outside of his wife, more could have been done and he could have been saved. And why does he retain his mind when he’s lost his head and acquired a fly head? Perhaps I’m over-analyzing this. If you can accept the basic premise of the film, it’s rather compelling.

What makes it compelling is partially the setting. It’s a normal, domestic setting for such a freak accident. The real heart of the story is actually not Andre, but his wife, Helene. We see everything in the flashback from her perspective, the horror of finding a fly head on her beloved husband. Andre keeps his fly head covered for much of the time and we only see it when she does and we come to realize as she does that the fly DNA is gradually taking over his instincts. We sense her sense of futility at the impossibility of trying to find a fly (Andre needs the fly with the white head so that he can put himself and the fly through the disintegrator-integrator device in the hope that it will unscramble their respective DNA). Imagine trying to locate one household fly, which could be anywhere. And then she freely admits to killing her husband, but then acts insane in an effort to shield her son, Phillipe (Charles Herbert), from what happened. She’d rather Phillipe have a mother who’s mad than hung.

Vincent Price has the rather unusual role of Andre’s brother. Unlike his brilliant, scientific brother, he is the boring, understanding and steady type who has always loved Helene, but is not jealous of his brother and is also a caring uncle. It’s a more understated role for him, but he’s still good. I think his mere presence serves to lend more credibility to the plot than it could otherwise have.

Herbert Marshall, Charles Herbert, and Vincent Price

Herbert Marshall, Charles Herbert, and Vincent Price

The role of Inspector Charas is played by Herbert Marshall, another veteran actor who I’ve always had a weak spot for. One of my favorite movies as a child was The Secret Garden with Margaret O’Brien and he played Mr. Craven. As Inspector Charas, he gives a sympathetic, but no-nonsense, performance. He is trying to handle the matter delicately – since he believes Helene to be insane – but no matter how much Francois begs him, he must issue a warrant for her arrest. I think his general no-nonsense performance also lends credibility, especially to an ending that  could have been laughable farce.

Apparently, Price and Marshall did have trouble filming the final scene because they were laughing so hard, though you wouldn’t know from watching the film. I laughed when I first heard the voice, “help me!” in a squeaky tone. It is the fly, with a man’s head and arm (since Andre has the fly’s head and arm), trapped in a spider’s-web, with a spider bearing down and about to eat it. Somehow, Charas’ utter horror sells it, as he crushes both the spider and the fly with a rock. But now that he’s killed a fly with a man’s head, he feel just as morally culpable as Helene, who killed a man with a fly’s head. He and Francois instead manage to come up with a story about how Andre committed suicide and Helene is not arrested. It’s certainly a memorable ending, even if I still can’t decide whether to laugh or shudder.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2015 in Movies

 

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