Monday, June 21, 2010

Dracula (1958)

After an introduction that splatters a little blood onto a coffin, Jonathan Harker arrives at Count Dracula's castle in Klausenberg to begin his employment as a librarian. He is met first by a young woman who begs for his help and claims that Dracula is holding her prisoner, but then the genial Count himself arrives and gives Harker a warm welcome. After showing him around Dracula tells Harker to treat the house as if it were his own, but he has an unusual idea of what this means because he promptly locks Harker inside his bedroom.

Harker, who until now has seemed like the ultimate patsy, then sits down and starts writing in his diary that Dracula seems to have fallen for his ploy and that soon he will be able to bring his reign of terror to an end. He manages to escape from his room and encounters the young woman again, who pleads for his help once more but then bites him on the neck. In a moment that must have embarassed people with weak bladders in 1958, Dracula suddenly reappears.

Dude, I am so stoned right now.

Harker now finds himself in dire straits. Having been knocked unconscious and slept through most of the day, he heads downstairs shortly before sunset to deal to the Count and makes the mistake of staking the woman who has bitten him first. By the time Van Helsing arrives on the scene, Harker is already a vampire and has to be dealt with most harshly...

This entire opening sequence seems specifically designed to confound expectations. Instead of Jonathan Harker slowly coming to realise that Dracula is a vampire, he already knows this and is actually there to kill him. Instead of Harker barely escaping with his life, he is actually vampirised himself. And instead of this all being a slow build-up to horror, the entire sequence takes less than ten minutes and features a sudden appearance of Dracula looking as fearsome as he ever has in a movie.

Jimmy Sangster's script often doesn't make sense (e.g. why exactly does Dracula tell Harker to make himself at home if he's going to blatantly lock him up five seconds later? And why does Harker leave himself wide open to being bitten by someone he must already know is a vampire?) but director Terence Fisher keeps the pace brisk and the proceedings energetic. Christopher Lee plays Dracula first as informal and charming, and then as animalistic and terrifying. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, far from the fussy old professor of earlier versions, is immediately presented as a no-nonsense man of action. And the movie's just getting started.

The rest of the story mixes and matches the characters from the novel in fairly random fashion. Now it is Lucy who is Harker's fiance; in this version Mina is Lucy's sister, and is married to Arthur Holmwood. Dr. Seward has only a small walk-on as Lucy's physician. The story is presented as a battle between Dracula and Van Helsing.

That opening sequence probably plays rather differently now than it did when the movie premiered 52 years ago. When Dracula bounds into the fray all red-eyes and snarls, it seemed to me that he was pissed off that his girlfriend was fooling around with the hired help. When he deals to Harker, it doesn't seem too unreasonable - after all Harker had just murdered that same girlfriend. There is no real hint that Dracula wanted anything more sinister from Harker than someone to organise his books.

Anyway, having staked Harker but failed to find Dracula, Van Helsing visits Harker's fiance Lucy to find that she is mysteriously ill. Although she seems too weak to stand, the moment she is alone in her bedroom Lucy leaps up, disposes of her crucifix, opens her bedroom windows, and lays back on her pillow where she starts panting in anticipation.

Do you think that she could be waiting for someone?

The rest of the movie features some familiar scenes as Lucy dies and is staked, at which turn Dracula sets his sights on Mina. She proves to be just as receptive as Lucy; soon she is clutching a fur collar tight around her neck and smiling like the cat that got the cream. Given that Arthur Holmwood is portrayed as being about as dynamic and sexy as a tin of spaghetti, it's little wonder that Dracula is able to charm his way into her affections.

On reflection, I think the spaghetti has the edge.

It's interesting that the battle in this movie is between the sensual and seductive Dracula and the dynamic but almost asexual Van Helsing. This being a British movie made in 1958, of course it's the the stiff upper lip that gets the upper hand. When Dracula is vanquished (in an exciting scene that's surely the first incarnation of Van Helsing as action hero) the status quo is restored, but I doubt that Mina was entirely happy with the situation; she would probabyl have preferred to keep Dracula in the basement in perpetuity. (Yes, in the basement. All anyone needed to do was open the door and there was his coffin, not even hidden. I guess it didn't fit in the wardrobe.)

The story is simplified even more than usual. Despite appearances (and accents) the Holmwoods seem to live not too far from Castle Dracula, so the journey to England (and the race back to Transylvania) is completely omitted along with all trace of Dracula being an unwholesome foreign influence. Renfield is completely missing, along with Quincey Morris and any trace of Lucy being courted.

Lee is a magnetic presence, and though he bears no relationship here to the character as written by Stoker, it doesn't matter in the slightest. His comparatively short screen time is all put to excellent use, and every time he appears the movie catches fire. Cushing matches him as Van Helsing, and it's a shame that they would not play these characters together again for another fourteen years. More on that next week, when I get to the end of my Hammer Dracula marathon.

Tomorrow, Brides of Dracula. I almost considered leaving that one out as Dracula does not actually appear, but he's in the title so what the hell.


  1. Aw man, that movie sounds awesome. I want to see it!

  2. Fantastic film, and great review! We sometimes forget how thrilling it must have been to see Dracula for the first time in Technicolor. A film you can never get tired of. If anything 'Brides' is even better, even without Dracula.

  3. Jenni: And so you shall! *waves magic wand*

    Watching Hammer: Thanks Bob! I actually enjoyed it more this second time around. I'm adding your blog to my blogroll, hope that's OK.

  4. Magical! I know have a copy of the film in my house!

    Interactive blogging is the best!