Friday, October 14, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Horror of Dracula

Sometimes I'm in the mood for a particular type of horror movie. Giant bugs, slasher flicks, found footage, Italian gialos, etc. Whatever it is, anything else just won't do. I've tried to watch other types of horror films when I'm in that mood and it's inevitably a bad time. I don't enjoy myself and whatever film I'm watching gets short shrift as a result (I'm thinking of Kill Baby, Kill last year in particular). It's harder when you're working from a set list (I swear I'll stop complaining about that soon), as the odds of scratching that particular itch are stacked against you.

Not Megaphython vs Gataroid! Anything but that!

Happily when the urge to watch some Hammer Films Dracula hit me, I saw there were not just one but TWO films on the recommended list (from 2014).

Hammer Dracula part one: Horror of Dracula
Hammer films weren't as much a feature of my childhood as the classic Universal monster films were, but I did see them from time to time. Quatermass and the Pit remains a favorite and The Mummy (with Lee in the title role) was a particular standout, in part because of my profound disappointment with the Universal title. I know I saw the Dracula and Frankenstein films, but I'm ashamed to say they often got mixed up in my head the Poe film cycle of Roger Corman. They had the same lush colors, set design, and period costuming.

Now that I'm an experienced horror film enthusiast I can totally tell when I'm when I'm watching a Corman film instead of a Hammer one. Especially if Vincent Price is in it...

The Medium
Purchased on Amazon. The streaming quality was... serviceable. I really need to pick up some of the Hammer films on DVD or preferably blu-ray, but I don't even know if they're currently available!

The Movie
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Peter Lee and Christopher Cushing... wait, no, strike that last pair. I love seeing either of those actors on screen and any movie in which they both appear is instantly a much better film for it. This is, of course, their classic pairing - with Christopher Lee playing the Count and Peter Cushing his constant foe, Abraham Van Helsing.

Was this in the Special Editions? Stop screwing with them, Lucas!

But first, we must contend with Jonathan Harker, played with smirking smarminess by John Van Eyssen. I know he's supposed to be heroic, but I've always found this character to be totally deserving of his fate. I like the twist - instead of an unknowing victim, Harker is a hunter and has accepted an appointment as Count Dracula's Librarian solely to get close enough to kill the vampire. Unfortunately he's not that bright and wastes precious time taking out one of Dracula's brides. When his mentor Abraham Van Helsing arrives to help, he's far too late.

The thing about Christopher Lee's Dracula that made him so indelible, to me anyway, was how vicious and almost feral he could appear. He was gracious and erudite and cultured - until it was time to suck some blood. And then he was suddenly all fangs, wild hair and bloodshot eyes. I could totally buy him as a monster vindictive enough to head out and try to destroy Harker's family.

Will also totally send his steak back if it's not cooked perfectly.

The names are all familiar - Jonathan, Lucy, Mina, Arthur - but the details are different, which can take a moment to get used to if you're a fan of the novel. Harker's fiancé in this film is actually Lucy (Holmwood - Lord Godalming's sister in this imaging), Mina is married to Arthur Holmwood. The changes quickly fade into the background as Van Helsing arrives, Lucy falls prey to Dracula, and the Holmwoods are forced to fight for their existence against the lord of the undead.

"No, you don't look anything like Bruce Wayne's butler, dear."

There's just something about Peter Cushing that makes you like and trust him, and his Van Helsing is one of his most likeable and enduring characters. He's so charming I found myself annoyed at Michael Gough's Arthur, who has a (completely understandable) dislike of Van Helsing, being involved as he is in both Harker and - later - Lucy's deaths.

Disfiguring her before staking her DOES seem like a dick move, though.

So much good stuff here. This was Hammer in their heyday, with gorgeous production and excellent mood, music and, of course, some amazing stars. It would be decades before the bodices became optional and the blood more plentiful. I do wish there had been more of an opportunity for the two main stars to interact with each other - I'm not even sure Van Helsing and Dracula exhange a single word - but just seeing them on screen at the same time is a bit of a thrill. The final confrontation is still quite good, special effects wise, though it's over too quickly.

Though probably not quickly enough for Dracula.

The Bottom Line
Horror of Dracula is probably the most recognizable of the Hammer Classic Monster films. I think there were better installments in the series, and my heart will always belong to the more esoteric productions like Quatermass and even Vampire Circus, but sometimes only the classics will do. Do you have to be in a particular mood to enjoy them? I don't think so - but it doesn't hurt!

Tomorrow: Van Helsing vs Gilderoy Lockhart... er, Bride of Dracula

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