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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.

Dracula 2

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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Dracula (1931) – A Comparison of The English and Spanish Language Versions

imagesWhen my cousin, sister and I went to see TCM Presents Dracula – Double Feature (which will also air this Wednesday, the 28th, at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm across the country at select theaters) we were the only people in the theater and when we first sat down, we were met with sound and a blank screen. I was obliged to run out and find somebody to look into it. Fortunately, we got visuals before Dracula started. I was quite excited. Although Dracula is far from my favorite Universal Monster film, I was looking forward to seeing the second feature of the afternoon, the Spanish Language Dracula, which I had heard was even better than the English one.

Dracula: Original English Version

The first half of the double feature was the original 1931 Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye and David Manners. The film was based on a highly successful play, which in turn was based on Bram Stoker’s novel, and it is extremely obvious it is based on a play. It is possibly the most talk-bound horror film I have ever seen and my impression of the film last year on a little screen was confirmed on the big screen. Dracula is slow. And it’s not just that people spend all their time talking, but they talk slowly and walk slowly and the camera moves slowly. Director Tod Browning made many excellent and highly expressionistic films with Lon Chaney during the silent era, but this film is curiously stage-bound. The camera-work is also remarkably straightforward. It pretty much just points straight ahead while the actors talk, with frequent close-ups of Bela Lugosi’s eyes, which are lit to look as frightening and mesmerizing as possible.

I call it a drawing room horror story (as opposed to a drawing room comedy). Everyone talks in the drawing room and if anything sensational occurs, it is related in conversation (for instance, Mina Seward relating how Dracula opened a vein in his arm and made her drink, or Jonathan Harker telling how he sees a giant wolf dart across the lawn). The film does start at Count Dracula’s castle and there is a brief foray into London and to a ballet, but the rest of the film occurs in Dr. Seward’s home, which is next to his asylum for the insane. The cast only ventures from the house at the end, pursing Dracula to his broken down residence. There’s not even any music (except for the Swan Lake Overture at the beginning, not to mention the reverberations from the theater next door to us that sounded like the beating of a heart).

Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi

So what makes the film such a classic? Bela Lugosi. Say what you will about his performance, he has a certain flair and 100% conviction in what he’s doing that makes him compelling. He plays the count with a great deal of stillness (he doesn’t make faces, but stares intensely) and completely dominates the film. Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing is suitably canny as the professor who’s on to Dracula and uses his knowledge to defeat him, but he’s not particularly charismatic. Helen Chandler as Mina Seward is downright anemic while David Manners as Jonathan Harker is stuck with a boring role where he does nothing but hold Mina’s hand and fret.

The only other person who really gets to shine in the film is Dwight Frye as Renfield, the lawyer who Dracula turns into his insane minion who craves flies and spiders. He has one of the best mad laughs ever; it’s creepy and he does the staring eyes without quite going over the top into manic and distracting activity. He also made me think of Gollum.

My cousin found the ending of the film to be a bit of a letdown. I know what he means. After all the talking and threatening in the living room and the neck biting and staring eyes, how does the film end? Van Helsing simply follows him to his ruined Abbey and drives a stake in his heart. So, that’s all there was too it? Now showdown? He’s really dead now? Well, okay. Suddenly Dracula’s fearful power seems deflated and he suddenly vulnerable. All he can do is lie there in his coffin during the day while someone walks up and kills him.

Dracula: Spanish Language Version

Alt1_dracula_spanish_bigFor a time, movie studios would make foreign-language versions of their English films. They would use the same sets, but have a different cast and rewrite the script a little. For the Spanish Language Dracula, the budget was smaller, the cast less known, the director (George Melford) didn’t speak Spanish and needed an interpreter, and they were obliged to shoot at night, but since they had the advantage of watching Tod Browning shoot his film first, they set out to make an ever better film. And with the exception of their Count Dracula, in many ways they did.

Clearly, they did not feel obliged to adhere slavishly to the script, since they add twenty minutes to the film’s running time. There are additions to conversations that more clearly explains what Van Helsing is doing or that fills in gaps in the story. In the English version, we see Renfield crawling towards a fainting maid as if he’s going to attack her, but we never find out what happens. The Spanish Language shows what happens (he’s really stalking a fly). And they explain why Van Helsing and Harker are out at night in time to follow Renfield, who leads them to Dracula’s Abbey (they are setting Lucy’s soul free – a friend of Mina who was turned into a vampire by Dracula).

They also expanded Renfield’s role. Pablo Arvarez Rubio as Renfield can’t quite match Dwight Frye in madness or evil laughter. When he’s playing mad, he seems a bit much, but he’s much more convincing in those added scenes that show him to be aware of what other people think of him. When he’s introduced to Van Helsing, he speaks and acts perfectly normally, until he sees a fly and begins to stalk it, only to look at the incredulous faces of those watching him and sink back in shame. In fact, there’s so much added with Renfield that at times it seems as if Count Dracula disappears from the story.

Carlos Villarias

Carlos Villarias

Which is just as well since the one glaring weakness in the film is Carlos Villarias. His expression seems to swing between one of dyspepsia, insanity and flat-out geniality (my cousin argued that he liked him better than Lugosi because he was nicer and that made him scarier). He widens his eyes crazily and grins constantly. It’s very distracting and he doesn’t nearly dominate his film the way Lugosi does.

Lupita Tovar is also a much more vivid Eva (changed from Mina). There’s still not much in the character of Juan Harker for Barry Norton to work with. Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing is warmer, a little gentler in how he deals with people and more aware of them as people, not just bent on defeating Dracula like he was a scientific problem to defeat. Van Sloan’s Van Helsing had a stronger will, but Arozamena’s was more humane. Even Eva’s (Mina) father gets to be a bit warmer and less clueless in the film than the English version father.

The film is also more fluid, both because of the things they added to more smoothly transition between story points, but also in the more interesting camera angles, crane shots, and cross-cutting, which makes the story move more swiftly despite being twenty-minutes longer. It is still an essentially slow-paced film, but it gains pep.

If it weren’t for Bela Lugosi (and Dwight Frye), I’d suggest sticking with the Spanish language version. But Lugosi made it a classic and since the Spanish language Dracula wasn’t rediscovered and restored until the 1970s, it was the original English Dracula that influenced how people would perceive Dracula for years to come.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2015 in Movies

 

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