MAY 8, 2009
In my review for Dracula a few days ago, I joked about how many of Dracula movies I had seen. Apparently, Netflix thought it would be funny to bestow on me another within a few days, so here we are again with Horror Of Dracula, which was Hammer's first take on the legend, Lee's first appearance in the role, and I believe the first to take so many liberties with the story, laying the groundwork for future bastardizations like Dracula 3000.
Renfield? Gone. Carfax Abbey? Gone. Dr. Seward? One brief scene, a glorified extra. Plus there's an inordinate number of full blown changes. Harker is no longer there to engage in some real estate business, but rather to kill Dracula, as he is a vampire hunter. He also dies in the first 20 minutes or so, leaving Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in charge, while Lucy's brother, whoever he is, takes over for Harker as Helsing's sort of partner. And so on. And I'm not faulting the movie for these changes; again, if every version was faithful to the novel, I wouldn't even be able to get through them anymore. But some of the changes, while perhaps good intentioned, don't quite work.
For starters, the structure keeps Dracula out of the film for far too long. It's only 81 minutes long, and Drac disappears for at least 30 after Harker is taken care of. Lee is one of the best ever Counts, and I would have liked to see him get to do more (he barely even speaks in the role). As we all know, there are several hundred other movies with Lee in the role, which I am sure makes up for it, but still. Another issue is that it loses a lot of the romance - all of a sudden Lucy is bitten, and she dies shortly thereafter as well. Dracula doesn't really have any scenes with Mina either, and again, this sort of robs the story of its appeal, and the changes put in its place aren't quite as compelling.
Also, the ending is somewhat botched, as it was clearly filmed during the day and made to look (slightly) darker. Van Helsing yells "It's getting light!" and it appears to be 9AM. Don't they have sets for this type of thing? Where the light can be controlled and realistically depict whatever time of night the movie requires? If there's one movie monster that can't screw up in this area, it's Dracula. Well, him and Wolf Man.
There is a lot to like though. In many ways this is sort of the ultimate Hammer movie. You have Lee vs. Cushing, Terence Fisher calling the shots, the usual lush photography and sets, and what has to be a record amount of blood (in TECHNOCOLOR!) for a 1950's horror movie. And again, it's only 81 minutes long, so it hardly drags or wears out its welcome. In fact, it could easily have been 80 minutes, but this is the rare Hammer film to offer an epilogue! After Dracula is dispatched, we get a shot of Mina and her husband (Lucy's brother) breathing a sigh of relief, Van Helsing walking about, seemingly satisfied at a job well done, and another shot of Drac's dusty corpse disintegrating. For a Hammer movie, that's on a Return Of The King level of extra endings.
Also, for once (or at least, for once in a while), Harker's diary factors into the plot. The novel is a bunch of letters and diary entries, but few of the films ever use this framing device. After Harker dies, the diary finds its way to Van Helsing, in one of my favorite scenes. Helsing goes to a little pub and orders "a meal" (anything will do, I guess), and the kindly waitress slips him the book. The pub owner figures out that Helsing is there to start trouble, and wants him to leave. But the guy demands that Helsing eats his vague meal first! "Get out!!! ...once you're sufficiently nourished." And apparently Hammer liked the scene as well, they even put it in the trailer.
The trailer is one of the scant extras on the disc. Like most trailers of the era, it's pretty laughable (on-screen text reads: "from the creative team who brought you THAT OTHER thriller, Curse of Frankenstein"), and spoils most of the movie, but I always love seeing them on the disc. There is also a brief rundown of the other films in the series, which does little more than spoil the endings for them ("in this one, Dracula is killed by fire."), but as I was not aware that there were so many, I am thankful for the little checklist. Plus some cast and crew bios, for those who are unfamiliar with this Christopher Lee guy.
Overall, I'll give it a pass. Maybe if I hadn't just watched the well above average 1979 Dracula, I'd be more excited about it. I've also already been introduced to Lee as the Count (in the Jess Franco version), and Cushing as Van Helsing (in Brides of Dracula), so the movie didn't really give me anything new. But it's well made, carries that unmistakable Hammer appeal, and was short enough to allow me to watch some Tivo afterwards before heading out, so that's good.
What say you?