Saturday, November 6, 2010

Horror of Dracula (1958)

This weekend I'm doing a couple of films that screened at part of BAMcinématek Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever These are two of my favorite vampire films and it was a real treat to see both of them on the big screen for the first time. Today I'm looking at the first Hammer Dracula film, which made Christopher Lee a superstar. Tomorrow is the weird film Planet of Vampires, that was made on the cheap by a master cinematographer turned director Mario Bava.

I recently realized how easy it is to get to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Rose Cinema. While they run current films in three of their theaters they have a fourth screen that runs nothing but oldies and off beat stuff. Earlier this year they ran King Kong, they just finished a run of Cary Grant films and now one of their rotating programs are vampire films. In all honesty they are one of the best reportory theaters in all of New York, running a close second to the Film Forum and depending upon the program Lincoln Center. If BAM has a flaw, which is the reason I put it second, is that while its easy to get to, its a destination. In other words for me, if I'm going to a show or movie, I'm going to that show and movie and not doing it in conjunction with other errands. Its a minor thing, but for me it makes choosing to see a movie at BAM have a ticket price that includes the whole train fare.

For me the chance to see one of the classic Hammer Horror films as it should be seen, a big screen was worth the added cost.

Some times you've seen a movie so many times you stop seeing it until something happens and you see it again for the first time. For me one of those moments of epiphany was seeing the Horror of Dracula on a big screen. Sure its a great film. Sure its a classic. But seeing it at BAM I was forced to sit and watch the film for the first time in years and I never realized just how good it was.

The plot of the film mostly follows the basic Bram Stoker story but at the same time it changes things around.

Jonathan Harker goes to see Dracula to act as his librarian. Once he arrives there a woman tries to get him to help her out of the castle. However she flees when Dracula shows up. Dracula shows Harker his room and we quickly learn that Harker is there on a false pretense, he's there to kill Dracula and rid the world of his evil. Unfortunately things go wrong and Harker is found out. Dracula turns him into a vampire and flees just as Dr Van Helsing arrives. Van Helsing kills his friend and then heads home. Back home Van Helsing tells Harker's fiance's family that Harker is dead. Upset that Van Helsing is not forth coming with details they send him home saying that they would tell Lucy when she is better. Of course it soon is revealed that Dracula is behind the "illness" and that Van Helsing will have to stop the vampire. The film quickly becomes a race to save the afflicted and stop Dracula.

There are several changes from the novel. The most important are the changing of Harker from a real estate agent to essentially a vampire hunter which then refocuses the final two thirds of the film on Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, the other change is that the story is reset on to the continent of Europe in such away that it allows for a climatic chase across country to stop Dracula before he can find a place of rest for the night.

The first change I think is good because it gives us a way in to the story. That change is Harker's mission. We know from the novel and the Lugosi film what it should be, but by changing that, we're suddenly hooked. Once Harker is made a victim it changes the rules and sets us adrift because we can no longer be certain as to what is going to happen.

The second change, setting the film wholly on the continent instead of Translyvania and England works really well. Granted the change was done for purely monetary reasons, but at the same time it sets up the mad dash than ends the film. It really is exciting.

Filmed in color in order to compete with black and white television the film still has a muted color scheme, which is used to great effect to counter point the bright red blood that we see through out the film. Indeed we know were no longer in Hollywood when the film opens and we see blood dripping onto Dracula's crypt. (Sadly Lugosi had been pushing for a color remake of Dracula before he died but his words fell on deaf ears)

The performances by Cushing, Michael Gough and the rest of the cast are spot on. They add the right level of gravity to the proceedings.

Christopher Lee, who had been making movies for more than a decade when he made this shot to super stardom with this role. Yes he's a great actor, but at the same time I think the way his Dracula is a sensual force, watch how he takes his female victims, is what made him the star. I know that isn't all his doing, the seduction scenes were written before hand, but at the same time he managed to pull it off making him a vampire who is sexy but who at the same time is rather ordinary. (I can't tell you how much I hate the recent trend of making vampires sexy not because they radiate sex rather because they cast hunky stud muffins in the role. Its a cheat and a laziness. Then again it does kind of set up the unintentional subtext of the truly beautiful being dead inside or are monsters, but that's just over reading.)

Is the film scary today? I don't think so. However it does have a great deal of tension. The whole sequence with the young girl is creepy, the race to save Mina is exciting, and Lee's Dracula is such that you really don't know what he's going to do or what he's capable of.

(An aside: Lee wouldn't play the role of Dracula again for several years because he didn't want to get type cast. It would be 8 years before he donned the cape and fangs again for a Hammer film for Dracula Prince of Darkness. Interestingly Lee hated that script so much that he refused to speak his lines and he played the role silent. Its actually one of the best of the Hammer series since Dracula is now very much a force of nature and something truly to be feared)

This film is one of the classics. If you can you really need to see this because it simply a really good little thriller. Its one of the films that launched the horror boom of the late 1950's and early 1960's. It also really made Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing stars in more places than just England.

When I saw this film there were three guys in the mens room saying how they only see a movie once because that's all they deserve- except Bonnie and Clyde which they watched multiple times in a row because they didn't have to leave the theater. They had resisted seeing this film again but because the woman they were with wanted to see it they agreed to go see it again. They were kind of surprised that the film held up even though they thought it was kind of silly.

I know respected critic Pauline Kael felt the same way.

Personally don't know why you wouldn't want to see a good film again. To me seeing a film a second time often brings surpises and complexity that isn't apparent on the first viewing. Some times you need more than one viewing to know if it really is good.

Actually the best remark about multiple viewings was said by David Fincher at the director's Dialog at this years NYFF when he said you don't know if a movie is good or not until you know if it's being seen and reseen five years or more down the road.

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