Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Hammer Time - Revisiting Hammer's (Horror Of) Dracula

I could mention that I haven't written anything to my blog for a year again. After not writing anything to it for a year again.

I've decided the best thing to do is just ignore that fact and carry on.

For some reason a few weeks ago I watched the Hammer Horror original version of Dracula (or Horror Of Dracula as it is in the U.S.) - the BBC had been running a Gothic season, I saw it was available to view on the iPlayer in HD and decided to have a watch.

I'll admit my knowledge of Hammer film is very very scant, more that I think by the time I was getting into horror they weren't showing them as often late night on TV anymore, or I perceived them as very dated.

As a teenager I picked up a book, one of those "Best 50 Horror film" type things - I've no idea who wrote it, or where my copy of it is now, I'm pretty sure I probably picked it up from the old Virgin Megastore or Another World in Nottingham. This particular book chose one horror film from each year from around the mid 50s up until around the late 80s - there was definitely some Hammer in there with their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, perhaps Plague Of Zombies, quite a bit of Ken Russell with Lair of the White Worm taking the spot from '88 or whenever that was released. So in my typical unquestioning teenage manner I presumed that these were GREAT horror films.

But both the Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein films were barren and completely lacking in thrills to me, so I couldn't quite see why they were seen as so great and that's probably tarnished my view of Hammer for all these years.

I have to also admit that I don't know the source material that well - I've never read Dracula, I recently went to see a fun theatre performance of it in Worthing which I think was quite authentic in covering a lot of the aspects - Renfield and the asylum etc. Many years ago I did see the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation, but perhaps sullied by The Dark Side's dismissal of it being "Mills and Boon horror" I had huffily low expectations of it. I think I found it a bit of a confusing mess, I didn't understand Tom Waits as Renfield, I didn't understand the transformations of Dracula...I just didn't get it.

But with that recent theatre production in my mind, the Hammer one feels like an abridged, simplified cut to the chase adaptation, which really took me by surprise. It seems to move swiftly along, bumping off Harker and taking quite a few liberties with it all. I was also quite shocked by the first stake seen hammering into a body - I guess in my head I thought the film was pretty bloodless, but the first bleeding stake came as quite a shock, Harker's actions seemed genuinely shocking as he desperately hammered away - it just felt much more visceral then I saw it as a teenager.

I undoubtedly didn't appreciate Peter Cushing's performance as Van Helsing as a teenager, but watching it with adult eyes it was a genuine delight to watch. He seems really on the cusp on madness, a real twinkle in his performance, a joy and determination to complete the task of Dracula's annihilation. Again, this took me by surprise, he seemed so spritely and it didn't feel dry in the slightest.

Much has been made that Hammer were the ones were brought the erotic to Dracula with Christopher Lee's seductive charms and again, with adult eyes, I can see why many feel that way. There's a sexual implication to so much of his performance which is charming and dashing, which makes his appeal to the women so believable. There was also a great moment where Mina returns home having gone missing overnight and looks so knocked for six from a night of pleasure that it's like she's just been done the walk of shame home. (After watching the film I read on imdb that Terence Fisher actually told the actress to pretend she's had the best sex all night long - she certainly gives that idea!)

The most shocking moment had to be the finale - I'd seen clips of it many times over the years, of Peter Cushing pulling the drapes and trapping Dracula between two beams of sunlight - but I hadn't seen the build up, the pursuit, the chase...again with Cushing's spritelyness, bounding on to the table, jumping up at the drapes to pull them down. It was exciting to watch, though nowadays it would have probably been drawn out much longer - here it felt very quick, abrupt but action packed. Then the meltdown and destruction of Dracula happens - first his foot melts away, nothing too graphic but the implication still seemed quite grisly to me now, then his hand similarly peeling apart....but then I watched as Dracula clawed his own flesh off his with shriveled hands until he turned to dust which really had my eyes wide open. I certainly didn't remember anything as primitively graphic as that as a teenager, it's like the flesh peeling sequence from Poltergeist 25 years earlier (which ironically also looks primitive now in the modern light.)

Here's the sequence...

For once my memory wasn't deceiving me - the graphic flesh peeling wasn't in the version I would have seen as a teenager as this was a sequence previously thought lost but only just restored in 2012. But with this sequence, along with an admiration for the performances from Cushing and Lee, gave me a new appreciation on this film and why it holds such a strong reputation. It may take big liberties with the source material, but it holds up as a great 50s horror film.

I'm curious to see how other Hammer films hold up now looking at them from an adult - I never managed to get through Plague Of The Zombies, struggling with the Cornish tin mine setting especially being so used to and fond of zombies in Romero and Fulci films, but I'd like to check that out. I'd like to see some of the other Frankenstein and Dracula entries...however, I've got an indelible memory of seeing Dennis Waterman in period authentic red briefs dashing out of bed from Scars Of Dracula, which I can't imagine any passing of time has made any more appealing.