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Last night projected at the British Museum, as part of the BFI Gothic opening weekend, the first ever showing of the complete uncensored 1959 Dracula in the UK.
For those who like the busty lusty slaughterhouse panto of Hammer, their version of Dracula is a stone cold classic
"but what if a horror film were actually scary?" says Helen Mirren as Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife, during the prep of Psycho in this years HITCHCOCK biopic. We can only assume Alma Reville was too well spoken and middle aged to have stumbled into a heaving cinema in Croydon or Salford to see Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula in 1959 with an excited and inebriated partner.
After, austerity, rationing and 30 years of black and white universal horror pictures (the Karloff/Lugosi era) in which violence and sex was only suggested and blood is never shown on screen,seeing a Hammer film in full Eastman colour must have been like party night with Vlad The Impaler.
A warning for the curious though, in true Hammer style it is the cheapest, least epic movie Dracula you'll ever see. There are never more then five people on screen.... In comparison the last adaptation with Gary Oldman is Lawrence of Arabia with fangs....
Worth putting in a bit of British social context from the time. All Hammer films are of course drawn completely from British sexual repression, dark colonial deeds of the past and Victorian fetishism. But I feel this one particularly draws on World War II. The UK was still barely crawling from the wreckage in 1959 (rationing only ended in 1954) and the Hammers were probably very cathartic in allowing those traumatised by the experience to live it out in a controlled environment. Anyone who has ever noticed the similarity between a Dalek and Panzer knows what I'm talking about here.
(Interestingly from 1960, Micheal Powell's PEEPING TOM, now regarded as the British PSYCHO, with its German child abusing serial killer and much more contemporary setting, was banned for decades prompting the end of Micheal Powell's career)
What you have with this Dracula, with Cushing and Lee, is one of the great clashes in movie history. Lee and Cushing seem so cosmically opposed they seem destined by fate to clash. It is interesting that it is only in this Dracula series that generations of Van Helsings and regenerations of Dracula's seek each other out for revenge.
Lee and Cushing both lived through the Second World War though only Lee served (in intelligence, at one point he served in the Long Range Desert Group, one of the precursors of the SAS)
Very significantly for 1959, Lee's Dracula could almost be wearing a Nazi uniform. Cool and impossibly evil, there is no romance, arguing, diplomacy or sympathy to be had with this vampire. Where Bela Lugosi is the exotic alien devil, Frank Langella is the calculating gentleman, and Gary Oldman is Dracul as the cursed warrior, Lee's Dracula is Reynard Heydrich, Herman Bornman, Joseph Mengle, a hundred SS Panzer Divisions and Hitler himself, with all the horrifying hypnotic allure of that apparently supernatural swatiska.
Cushing's Van Helsing is not the Swedish academic of the book, but the cold eyed determination of everyone who stood up to the Nazis and their allies in the 1930-40s. His clipped British officer delivery could easily be laying out the plot to Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone or even Inglorious Basterds. That impossible, implacable confidence in that face of apparently limitless evil you can see in every survivor of that generation.
We know its going to be tough. But we can win. We WILL win.
They didn't finish the evil all by themselves - but they let the light in.
Given more chance to think about this Hammer's Dracula and Nazi's idea I'm reminded of how fluid the idea of nationality is in this film. Nearly all the British characters seem to be actually German or living in Germany and commuting to Transylvania (?) Obviously this is a budget issue to cut out the parts of the book involving journeys to Britian but it means this is a strangely trans-national movie at a time of real European reconciliation.
Again, probably accidental, but we actually see a border crossing in a brief comic scene, and it is a farcical joke. The film appears to teach us that national boundaries are nothing compared to the real threats to humanity.
There are no Englishmen, Germans or Transylvanians in this film though the names and places suggest their should be. There are only human beings, some sophisticated, some rural - and against them "vile cult of the vampire". Vampires mentioned more than once (throughout Hammers vampire cycle) as a cult, rather than a supernatural force, every time evoking Nazism. Within this version of Dracula Peter Cushing's Van Helsing sounds more Churchillian with every viewing and though he might be talking overtly about bloodsuckers this is tone and content that would be very familiar to the House of Commons in the 1940s.
Perhaps I've watched this movie far too much - but is also worth noting that Cushing would go onto portray a pretty convincing Nazi himself in a little movie called Star Wars.