‘The Terrifying Lover – who died – yet lived!’
Dracula is a 1958 British supernatural horror film. It is the first in the series of Hammer Horror films inspired by the Bram Stoker novel Dracula. It was directed by Terence Fisher from a screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. It stars Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, and Melissa Stribling. In the United States, the film was retitled Horror of Dracula to avoid confusion with the Universal’s Dracula (1931).
In May 1885, Jonathan Harker arrives at the castle of Count Dracula near Klausenberg, posing as a librarian for hire. He is startled inside the castle by a young woman begging for help, claiming to be a prisoner. Dracula then greets Harker and guides him to his room, where he locks him in. Jonathan starts to write in his diary, and his true intentions are revealed: he has come to kill Dracula.
Freed sometime later, Harker again is confronted by the desperate woman. She begs him for help but then bites his neck. Just as she does, Dracula – fangs bared and lips bloody – arrives and yanks her away. When he awakens in daylight, Harker finds the bite mark. He hides his journal in a Virgin Mary grotto outside the castle and descends into the crypts, where he finds Dracula and the unnamed vampire woman resting in their coffins. Armed with a stake, he impales the woman. As he looks on, the woman’s corpse immediately ages from young to old. Harker turns to Dracula’s crypt with the intention of killing the vampire only to find it empty. Looking up, Harker is in time to see the Count shut the door and they are both plunged into darkness…
Doctor Van Helsing then arrives in Klausenberg, looking for Harker. An inn keeper’s daughter gives him Harker’s journal. When he arrives at the castle, it is deserted; a hearse carriage speeds by with a coffin in it. In the crypt, Van Helsing is horrified to discover Harker lying in a coffin as a vampire…
Review of British Blu-ray:
The 2013 UK Blu-ray Disc release of Hammer’s 1958 Dracula took a long time coming – the film was first restored by the British Film Institute in 2007 for a theatrical re-release, but failed to emerge for home viewing. Frustrating as that was at the time, it’s proved to be a blessing in disguise. While this version was remastered and restored, with cut scenes replaced from the US version and the original title once again in use, it still missed the legendary – and, many thought, mythical – extra scenes from the Japanese edit.
‘Stronger Japanese cuts’ were the stuff of legend for horror fans growing up in the 1970s and beyond, with rumours of extra gore scenes shot by Hammer for the bloodthirsty “Japs” seeming to be as much a racist stereotype as anything authentic. Certainly, no such scenes had emerged… until 2012, when a battered print of Dracula was found in Tokyo. Incredibly, this did include extra footage – though the reality of the situation seems to be that the film was cut by censors for the prudish Brits more than expanded for the Japanese market.
This new footage was painstakingly restored (the Blu-ray includes the unrestored footage, which is possibly the most damaged film print I’ve ever seen) and added to the BFI edit. It’s two scenes – an alternative version of Dracula’s seduction of Mina (replaced in the UK release by the same shot from a less salacious angle) and more of the Count’s disintegration at the film’s climax. To placate completists (and possibly learning from the backlash over the Blu-ray of The Devil Rides Out and the digitally altered effects), the 2007 BFI cut with the alternative seduction scene is also included (neither scene is exactly sexy, but we are talking about 1958 British morality here). These new additions can be easily spotted – while the restoration is remarkable, the footage is still softer than the rest of the film.
As for the movie as a whole – it looks stunning. Complaining about Hammer Blu-rays seems to be some sort of national sport these days, and some people have claimed that the colour palate of this version is ‘too blue’. Given that none of these people were around to see it when it played cinemas in 1958 (and if they were, their memory of a viewing 55 years ago might not be reliable), we should ignore these complaints and be willing to accept that this is the palate as originally intended.
The restoration has been done with reference to original materials and notes after all, so I think Hammer probably do know better than someone making a comparison to the version they saw on TV or VHS tape.
The film itself remains an obvious early high point in the Hammer oeuvre. While The Curse of Frankenstein was the first of their full-blooded gothics, that film feels like a dry run – this is where it really begins. A fast-paced, dramatic, exciting and serious work that immediately nails the lie that Hammer films were somehow ‘camp’.
Memories of Bela Lugosi’s stilted performance in the equally stilted Universal Dracula are swept away by Christopher Lee’s Count, switching from urbane gentleman to snarling animal in the blink of an eye, and he’s more than matched by Peter Cushing as cinema’s most dynamic Van Helsing. It’s a film that rattles along and ends with what is still one of the most breathlessly exciting climactic battles ever seen in a horror movie.
The Blu-ray pulls out all the stops in terms of extras too. As well as the two versions of the film, there is an entertaining and informative commentary from Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby that avoids the dry lecturing found in most ‘expert commentaries’ – these chaps know the film well and have a lively conversation about it.
Watch the ‘Censoring Dracula’ featurette:
There’s also thirty-minute featurette about the film, a twenty-minute piece about the restoration and a 10 minute documentary about the censoring of the film.
On top of that, there’s the thirty minute The Demon Lover: Christopher Frayling on Dracula, the afore-mentioned unrestored Japanese reels, a World of Hammer episode, the film’s former child star Janina Faye reading a chapter of the original novel, an image gallery and the original screenplay on PDF.
All in all then, an essential edition of one of the genre’s most important films.
David Flint, HORRORPEDIA
Production began at Bray Studios in Berkshire on 17 November 1957 with an investment of £81,000.