Dracula (1958)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 December (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

BBC Four are screening Dracula today, and The Curse of Frankenstein at 11.00 pm tomorrow, and while they are exhibited with reasonable frequency it’s always a pleasure to revisit these old Hammer classics, both responsible to a large extent for the studio’s success and a revolutionising of the entire horror genre. They may look old and slow now (someone I know who teaches A-Level Film Studies told me that her students groaned throughout Dracula), but at the time they were very big deals, cutting edge cinema, and they deserve our respect.

Despite the BBC’s scheduling, it’s worth pointing out that The Curse of Frankenstein came first of the pair, its quick success giving Hammer licence and funding to follow up with their adaptation of Dracula. On the sort of budget that must have made even contemporary producers weep with frustration, they nevertheless turned out a profitable picture, one that looked good and sustained Frankenstein’s use of colour, blood and cleavages. These were innovations within horror cinema at the time; compare Dracula with something like Night of the Demon, which came out the year before, and note the latter’s black and white photography, buttoned down characters and largely gore free thrills. Of course, Jacques Tourneur’s entry has since been hailed as a classic, and rightly so, but it’s important to see that at the time, Dracula looked like a real step forward.

For modern viewers, the good news is that this film plays like a reasonably close adaptation from Bram Stoker’s original novel. I don’t suppose any screen version has stayed entirely true, and this I believe is correct given the book can be a rather stuffy experience in places and never quite gets across the Count’s demonic power; in other words he’s a character made for the screen. Hammer chose Christopher Lee for their vampire, one of those casting decisions that goes down in history as a no-brainer, and yet it was a bit of a leap given the main use of Lee previously as taking advantage of his height to give him the ‘monster’ roles. Made up heavily as the creation in The Curse of Frankenstein, what Dracula brought out was his good looks, dark charisma and presence. His is a Count you can imagine seducing women with a stare, all those suggestive leers that verged on the scandalous in 1958 but from Lee seemed wholly credible. The actor famously attempted to distance himself from the role in later years, understandable as Hammer were churning out sequels of varying quality to order and Dracula became increasingly a classic screen bogeyman rather than a character with motivation, but in truth he was a victim of his own success. As soon as he appears in this film, shaded in subdued colours at the top of the castle staircase, hopelessly eclipsing John Van Eyssen’s Jonathan Harker who can do naught but stare up at him, he kills it. A legend was born.

Speaking of legends, Dracula’s main opponent in this version is Doctor Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing. I’ve made little secret of my admiration for ‘the Cush’ on these pages, and this performance is a very good reason why I feel that way. Bear in mind that Dracula cost £81,000 to make; it was a relatively small scale production, so it would have been understandable to watch actors going through the motions. Nothing of the kind. Cushing threw himself fully into the part, already capable of exuding great intelligence and authority from his work as Baron Frankenstein, but here adding a physical dimension that makes the climactic scenes between Van Helsing and the Count such an action-packed thrill. Requiring a crucifix to help him in the sequence, it was the actor himself who suggested forming a cross from two candlesticks, which the props department quickly whipped out of storage and onto the set for use in the film.

Cushing had nothing but praise for the professional spirit that turned Dracula into a success, belying its slim budget to produce a slick and racy horror experience. In charge was Terence Fisher, establishing himself as Hammer’s go-to director for its horror releases. The challenge was to make something that played differently to the 1931 Universal film, which Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster did in various ways. One was to transform the main characters, Dracula and Van Helsing, removing the latter’s stuffy, professorial air as essayed by Edward Van Sloan in the earlier movie, whilst having the Count put in a more physical and sensuous performance than Bela Lugosi’s cape swishing antics. Whereas Universal’s production owed much to Dracula’s run as a Broadway hit, actually filmed in many places as a stage play, this version is far more obviously cinematic, with its heavier emphasis on action and the sight of Lee shown biting his victims, a real shock at the time. The colour is used brilliantly, even if the blood is obviously fake, yet there’s still room for the castle’s gloomy shadows and dark corridors, adding to the place’s claustrophobic sense of foreboding. When Harker is the only human in Castle Dracula, aware that its other occupants are the Count and Valerie Gaunt’s sexy bride, both after what flows in his veins, the cloying air of doom that surrounds him is palpable.

It would be wrong to try and claim that this is the best version of Dracula out there. These days, it looks its age; try watching it after more recent vampire flicks like 30 Days of Night or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (I’m halfway through this one, it’s good!) and it plays like what it is, a mild horror made for prior generations. Arguably there have even been better Dracula offerings. I’m a fan of the John Badham adaptation from 1979, an altogether glossier affair, though for the sight of a cadaverous Jan Francis stumbling through the sewers rather than Frank Langella’s eponymous Count, who looks and acts like a Dracula for the Dynasty crowd. His vampire retains Lee’s smooth sexuality but fails to bring out the more dangerous side of his character. Gary Oldman tried both in his playing for the 1992 version, and modern effects made him appear as both the old man we first come across in Stoker’s novel and the powerful, apparently younger model when he arrives in England. Another film with lots of money spent on it, and sadly spoiled by an endless cavalcade of visual metaphors, along with heavily nuanced performances as though the actors are begging for attention in the middle of all those expensive special effects.

So whilst this might not be the best Dracula adaptation, something that’s surely up to each viewer to decide, it’s certainly my favourite and I would argue that it marks a milestone within horror cinema.

Dracula: ****

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 16 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

Blood aside (and that’s blood shown in lurid color, folks), what Hammer sold was sex, and the levels of flesh shown offer a neat mirror to what was permissive within a society getting steadily in touch with its sensual side. Lust for a Vampire was shown when I was the ideal age (14 or 15) to really enjoy it, and the reason I did was the copious serving of naked female flesh it offered up. These were vampires, but they were also women who abandoned any pretence of being anything other than what they were, highly sexual beings in touch with their femininity and what they possess that attracts others. For a teenager just beginning to come to terms with such business, Lust for a Vampire was the optimum viewing experience. When I got the opportunity a few years ago to buy it – on a double bill set with The Vampire Lovers – I didn’t hesitate, and for a little while I got to catch it again with the memory of those adolescent sensibilities in mind.

Let’s get one thing straight here and now – Lust for a Vampire isn’t a very good film. In fact it’s rubbish; even its director, Hammer’s über-writer Jimmy Sangster, said so, and no one was better placed to deliver such a scathing verdict. Of the ‘Karnstein Trilogy’, it’s routinely seen as the least placed and I think that’s about right. Peter Cushing, tending to his ailing wife wisely steered clear, which says it all.

And yet I have a lot of affection for it, largely because of my first viewing experience and the incomparable Yutte Stensgaard in various states of undress. Lovely Yutte. One of the apparently endless production line of Amazonian models from Scandinavia who made the obvious career step into Hammer productions, Stensgaard emerged at a time when on-screen nudity was very much the order of the day, something with which she had little trouble complying. I can’t imagine Stensgaard impressing anyone as Jutland’s answer to Helen Mirren, but even to try would be missing the point. She’s simply beautiful, sexy as hell, almost custom built to appeal to the film’s target audience and she never disappoints. Stensgaard can’t really act. That becomes apparent during the film’s lovemaking scenes, to which she brings unintentional comedy by mistaking crossing her eyes for being lost in ecstasy. But this never diminishes her smouldering presence, the way the camera loves her and allows her to shine even when she’s being filmed in a room filled with young women. There’s also a mysterious aspect to her character, whether this is teased out by the direction or her acting. Check out the scene where Ralph Bates’s would-be acolyte is pleading with her to convert him; she says nothing, just smiles, as though that’s all she needs to do in order to make men’s hearts melt over her sheer gorgeousness. The camera emphasises her effect by keeping its focus on her generous bosom.

It’s fortunate the film has Stensgaard to leer over because parts of it are jaw-droppingly awful. Sangster’s name may be a Holy Grail around these parts, but that’s for his writing talents. As a director, his work is at best pedestrian. There’s nothing very wrong with it, but neither does it make any attempt at cinematic flourishes, as if he told the camera where to point, let it shoot and held his head in his hands the rest of the time. He wasn’t helped by a leaden script by Tudor Gates that is almost driven by plot holes and stuffed with characters that aren’t especially likeable.

The film’s hero, writer Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson, a poor man’s Robert Powell), is actually a lecher who smarms his way into the posh girls’ finishing school so that he can be near to and woo Mircalla (Stensgaard). Even worse served is Bates, who strikes me as Hammer’s kicking dog by being available for all manner of degrading roles that did nothing for his natural charisma. He plays a stuffy History teacher whose job seems to be to perpetually lead the girls around the ruins of Karnstein Castle, with barely disguised lust that’s perhaps a single notch below the business that took place in an average episode of Benny Hill. Suzanna Leigh has the thankless task of being the film’s good girl, the school’s physical fitness instructor who’s secretly in love with Lestrange.

The nadir is yet to come. Step forward Mike Raven, Radio 1 DJ who was attempting a move back into his first love of acting. Raven is as much ill done to as he is terrible. He channels the spirit of Christopher Lee as a kind of mentor/guardian for Mircalla, his voice dubbed over with something approaching the great man’s solemn overtones, and there’s even a moment when the film uses stock footage of Lee’s eyes in a scene where Raven’s own clearly weren’t sinister enough. Elsewhere, swirling his cape and half smiling over his evil derring-do sums up his turn. All that’s missing is the top hat and waxed moustache.

And yet it just about works when Stensgaard is lighting up the screen. A bit like Victoria Vetri in the similarly exploitative When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, there’s no escaping her presence in the film as adding up to anything more artistic than pure decoration, but what a decoration she is! It almost makes it possible to get over the truly horrible ‘Strange Love’ pop song that plays over her lovemaking scene, even though the tune is intended to tease out the film’s one interesting dimension, that a vampire can fall for a human. This is hardly a plotting feat of staggering imagination to current viewers, indeed these days you can only think there’s something wrong with a vampire that doesn’t long for a mortal’s affection. But it was quite a stirring hook for the time, even if Mircalla’s choices are the odious Bates character or Lestrange, who to me comes across as quite charmless and not a little creepy. It shouldn’t work, and indeed it doesn’t as the villagers, tired of their virgin daughters being defiled, finally take their torches and pitchforks to Castle Karnstein for the film’s obvious, though dramatically staged climax.

Made towards the end of Hammer’s remarkable run of horrors produced on a shoestring, Lust for a Vampire has the feel of a film that’s scrabbling desperately for ideas and inspiration. It’s cheap; that’s clear enough as the recycled sets make it a spotter’s guide for fans wondering where they’ve seen that castle wall before. It’s most certainly exploitative, throwing tits on the screen at every possible opportunity, the girls’ school setting allowing for several bedroom scenes and making the audience complicit in its uncomfortable, On the Buses sensibility (incidentally, Hammer was also churning out the first of its ‘Buses’ movies at the same time as this, and – as an indicator of British audience’s tastes – it became a big UK box office hit). It’s a fairly shoddily made exercise, all told, Sangster famously rubbishing his own efforts and Ingrid Pitt equally notoriously turning down the chance to star in it, leading to Carmilla’s unlikely metamorphosis into Stensgaard. That it’s not down there with the very, very worst of Hammer (which for me includes such nonsense as The Viking Queen and the surprisingly dull Vengeance of She) is purely wrapped up in its nubile star, built for a young male viewer to go nuts over and doing everything to make it work.

Lust for a Vampire: **

PS. This piece originally appeared on Scream of Fear, a blog I was writing a couple of years ago. The aim of the site was to collate every film article I’d written into one place and throw in the occasional Goodreads book review. It didn’t last, mainly because I lost heart whilst transferring old Film Journal stuff, but I do like the Spun WordPress theme chosen at the time.