Saturday, 21 July 2012


Peter Cushing: Dr Van Helsing, Christopher Lee: Count Dracula, Michael Gough: Arthur Holmwood, John Van Eyssen: Jonathan Harker, Melissa Stribling: Mina Holmwood, Carol Marsh: Lucy Holmwood, Valerie Gaunt: Vampire Woman.

Director: Terence Fisher, Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, Based on the Novel by Bram Stoker, Producer: Anthony Hinds, Photography: Jack Asher, Music: James Bernard, Special Effects: Syd Pearson, Makeup: Phil Leaky, Art Direction: Bernard Robinson. Production Company: Hammer.

If The Curse Of Frankenstein lay the foundations of Chez Cushing, Dracula (Horror Of Dracula in the US) finished the job in glorious red brick, a red as vivid and commanding as those huge letters that proclaim the Good Word: this is a Hammer Film, starring Peter Cushing, about the baddest daddy of them all: DRACULA.

Combined with James Bernard’s three notes of doom, the opening credits for Dracula take on an identity all their own, with that huge Gothic script draped in Technicolur crimson as the usual slew of names role by – John Asher filming Bernard Robinson's sets under the watchful eye of Terence Fisher. Even as the camera moves from the great grey eagle of Castle Drac around the corner to the grave one’s crypt a sense of dread builds, prompted only by a choice of font and score you’ll never forget. As the camera looms long on the coffin (adorned, simply, “Dracula”), a spatter of blood announces the end of the credits long enough for the spell to break and the business of watching the film begin.

Now, that may seem like a lot of time to devote to the opening credits of a horror movie, but I feel it’s merited for not only setting up a great film but a largely great series of films in which Lee’s fanged menace would charm and charge his way through the denizens of countless Germanic towns before making his way to England in the swinging, er, seventies. Beyond presenting the talent involved in the inspiration for your latest nightmares, it exists for a sole purpose, and one for which Hammer can claim great pride and total success: to scare the total shit out of you. A statement of intention, and a sanguine taste of things to come. That blood splashed across the Count’s coffin: where does it come from, or more importantly, to whom does it belong? Questions unresolved throughout the film’s lean 80-minute frame.

Now, given the nature of this blog and why I’m writing it, the first thing I’m inclined to notice within those credits is that Peter Cushing’s name appears before the film’s does and more notably, before its star’s. For his best efforts, Cushing cannot claim ownership of this movie: it belongs to Lee, best here as the Count before the silence or savagery of later outings. It’s curious that even after The Curse Of Frankenstein, Christopher Lee, whose success before that brilliant picture was strictly relative, could not attract star billing for a film in which he bears the title role. Certainly that was to change (and it was, curiously enough, Cushing who would elect to star in a sequel while Lee opted for a single film’s break) but it says something about Cushing’s (what I guess you have to call) star power in the late 1950s that his is the first name we see on screen.

Let’s get into the thick of things though. This film, I think, deserves a lot more consideration than the last few I’ve reviewed on here because as a feast for the senses it is truly sumptuous. Fisher lingers on elaborate décor from candelabra to chessboard like they were going out of fashion. Also, the film’s set in the 1880s, so I guess that’s pretty accurate. But anyway, even though it’s the case that it’s a little harder to be flippant about, I’ll give it my damndest.

We open with the narration of one Jonathan Harker who in this picture (and Herzog’s Nosferatu, fact fans) ends up on a slightly different path than Stoker originally paved. IN THAT HE’S A VAMPIRE HUNTER. Sure, it takes a little while before we find out, but soon enough he reveals his intentions to murder the Count where he sleeps, rather than simply sell him some prime real estate as originally intended.

Hold up a minute though. I’m getting waaaaay ahead of myself. This all comes a little after Harker  has a chance to encounter Hammer’s then-waif-in-residence Valerie Gaunt who asks him for help just before Dracula makes his entrance atop a gorgeous staircase in his gorgeous castle before not mentionably gorgeously bobbing down the stairs (some people’ll have you believe it’s a float, but for me it’s a  bob or it’s nothin’) and greeting our man Hark with the sort of civility and Englishness you’d normally expect of a centuries-old bloodsucker from the dark heart of Europe. A lot of what he says and how he behaves is a dead (geddit?) giveaway but I suppose it’s irrelevant as Harker knows anyway, and I think Dracula knows why he’s there and sets about his night’s hunt, walking off towards the local village at a pace that makes him look a wee bit silly. Don’t tell him I said that though, OK?

Soon enough Ms. Gaunt (who is anything but ) approaches Harker for help again but this time she’s for making a meal of it and Dracula catches her and begins just sort of flinging everybody about a bit. It’s very restrained in terms of Hammer violence (compared especially to the stabbings, face meltings and hangings in later Draculas) but seems all the more powerful for it: he’s like a great white lion, pawing at his prey with the whites of his eyes furiously fit to burst. Harker gets a rough touch to the bonce and falls asleep, awaking in his room but locked in. He heads down to Dracula’s crypt and it dawns on me that the Count’s a little careless and not at all worried about, you know, leaving his sworn enemy in a position where he could easily sneak down and try and murder him, but then he’s made, what, like six or seven successful bids at reanimation over the course of the series so it’s probably something he takes in his not-inconsiderable (as we discussed) stride. Whatever way it goes, Harker bites the dust and we cut to a familiar face.

Twenty Two Minutes To Cushing, may be a more appropriate title for those of us waiting for his first appearance in this film but as soon as he does there’s nothing but gravy to work with. His coat, for a start, is fantastic. Sure, I feel sorry for whatever critter bit the dust, but damn if it don’t make his neck look right and toasty. Now, as far as I’m concerned, it’s alllll just a prelude to Cushing’s last act of awesome action during the film’s climax, but we’ll take everything else as a welcome distraction, and that’s everything from his pronunciation of the word “syooperstition” to his truly spectacular red velvet blazer he wears while listening to recordings of his own voice. Hey, he has the best voice in the history of English cinema: who can blame him?

(Note that this week’s edition of the Peter Cushing fashionwatch is hereby concluded.)

A very stiff and very brown Alfred (sorry, Michael Caine: Mr. Gough is Alfred now and forever) appears and he and Cushing set about their Holmes and Watsonian business good and quick,  but for all their business Dracula’s up to twice as much badness, already paying his nightly visits to one Lucy Holmwood (what is it with these Dracula films’ absolute lack of regard for source material?!) and, well, I’m sure you can guess how that all ends up. He soon turns his attention to Gough’s wife and from hence is the remainder of the film’s largely cat-and-mouse plot played out. It turns quickly into a succession of chases and evasions before the great big caper at the castle which sees Cushing not only leap over a banister but also, in my absolute favourite Peter Cushing Arms Up Moment EVER, run along a dining room table and dive onto a pair of curtains to douse the dastardly count in the morning sun before he crumbles to dust in a technique that lost its appeal with each subsequent (ab)use and really looked at its best here.

If I have one criticism of the film it’s that there’s a little too much time without Lee on screen and given the exquisite gentlemanry of Van Helsing’s and Holmwood’s shenanigans it gets a little stuffy at points but at no point does it not look and feel spectacular. Plus Van Helsing tries that old trick where he pretends to die when being strangled which I’ve always thought seemed like the best policy in those life or death situations. Here’s one to recommend to all your friends, essential viewing for all Cushettes and fans of carefully crafted movies, full stop.


REVIEW: Paul McNamee
Images: Marcus Brooks

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