It was only yesterday that I was waxing enthusiastic about the restored conclusion of HORROR OF DRACULA, available on a Region 2 Blu-ray disc that incorporates previously missing footage rediscovered on an old Japanese print in an archival vault in Tokyo. Now, I am starting to have reservations, thanks to a YouTube post showing the last reel of the film as it appears in the Japanese print – revealing that the Blu-ray restoration is not complete. One or two of the effects shots seems slightly longer, but that is not the tragic omission. That would be the alternate take of Christopher Lee (as the Count) with tears of defeat welling in his eyes as Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) forces him inexorably into the sunlight that will disintegrate him.
Why was this shot omitted? I cannot say. It was certainly well known that the restoration would not use the complete reels from the Japanese print, which was heavily damaged (as you can see from the video). Instead, the restoration used a previously available print and inserted only a few seconds of missing footage from the Japanese version, the image of which had to be carefully tweaked. This led to timing issues: the sequence had to remain the exact same length so that the picture would stay in synch with the musical cue on the soundtrack.
Still, this hardly explains the omission. The sequence of cuts remains the same; there is a reaction shot of Lee in the place where the missing footage could have been inserted as a replacement. Something similar happened with Cushing: one of his reaction shots from the censored version (which, strangely, was a repeat of a shot seen a few seconds before) was replaced with a restored reaction shot that better displayed Van Helsing’s revulsion at the sight of Dracula’s destruction. Why a similar service was not performed to restore Lee’s performance is a mystery.
And a sad one, too. Lee has always been vocal about trying to retain a faithful concept of the character as written by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel, which ends with Dracula displaying an expression of peace on his face just before his body dissolves into dust. The condensed story-telling of HORROR OF DRACULA allows little leeway for subtle characterization, but in this one shot we see Lee inject a startling moment of humanity into the Count. The grizzly special effects lose their “ain’t-it-cool” visual abstraction as Lee turns the scene into a credible depiction of a sentient being’s horrifying death.
And it hurts! Not just Dracula – it hurts the viewer as well. For a brief moment, Lee (an actor too often dismissed one-dimensional) engenders a little sympathy for the devil. Update: The YouTube video referenced in this article appears to have been deleted, presumably for copyright reasons.
At last, fright fans – here it: the restored ending of HORROR OF DRACULA! The sequence was eviscerated by the British film censor back in 1958, when the film came out, but the recent Region 2 Blu-ray disc has finally restored the missing footage. No word yet on when a Region 1 Blu-ray will come out in America (hey, Warner Brothers – get on the ball!), but you can see the scene courtesy of this YouTube post.
The footage looks a bit blue-ish (a complaint among some who have seen the disc) and also a bit dark (which I assume is a matter of YouTube compression and/or whatever process was used to rip the footage from the Blu-ray disc). I’m sure the photography will look much better when (if?) WB gets around to release a disc for U.S. consumption.
Tim Lucas discusses the Region 2 Blu-ray disc in the CFQ Laserblast podcast here. You can read about the history of the censored footage and its rediscovery here. And check out a sequence of frame grabs here.
Cinefantastique’s Laserblast Podcast returns with a very special episode, featuring guest Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog, along with regulars Lawrence French, Dan Persons, and Steve Biodrowski. The podcast of horror, fantasy, and science fiction on home video unearths a crypt-full of recent releases: the new horror thriller COME OUT AND PLAY, in limited theatrical engagements and simultaneously available via Video on Demand; HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), now out in a restored Blu-ray disc from Britain, containing footage not seen in decades; THE FURY (1978) and CHRISTINE (1983), on limited edition Blu-ray discs from Twilight Time; and CHERRY TREE LANE and TOYS IN THE ATTIC, the latter a piece of feature-length stop-motion from the Czech Republic.
The Holy Grail of horror cinema – the censored shot of the Count’s destruction from HORROR OF DRACULA – will soon be in the hands of faithful fans when the British Blu-ray of the restored version arrives on March 13. U.S. fans without a region-free player are not so lucky (no mention of a Region 1 release yet), but at least you can enjoy this glimpse of the previously missing footage, thanks to a still posted by David J. Skal on his Facebook page.
The censored shot is similar to but nonetheless radically different from the publicity still of the missing scene, which has been reproduced endlessly since HORROR OF DRACULA was released back in 1958. The version in the publicity still – possibly an early makeup test – suggests burns or scars, and although it is difficult to see clearly, I get the impression that you can see Christopher Lee’s unblemished skin showing through around the edges. The version as seen in the newly reinstated footage suggests melting flesh, which completely covers Lee’s face.*
I gave a rundown of the history of the missing footage and its rediscovery last November, so I will not reopen that coffin. Instead, I will provide a sequence of images portraying the disintegration of Dracula (Christopher Lee), as he is forced back into the sunlight by Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). The sequence ranks as one of the great climaxes in horror cinema, and it’s exciting to think that the scene will soon be augmented, making it even more gruesomely delightful than ever before. FOOTNOTE:
In fact, the restored makeup reminds me of Herbert Lom’s visage in Hammer Films’ version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962). At first, this seems to make sense, since both HORROR OF DRACULA and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA were produced at Hammer Films. However, they featured the work of different makeup men: Phil Leaky provided Dracula’s destruction; Roy Ashton had taken over the department by the time that Herbert Lom played the Phantom. (UPDATE: Ted Newsom suggests that Roy Ashton may have provided uncredited assistance to Phil Leaky on HORROR OF DRACULA before becoming head of the makeup department around the time of THE MUMMY in 1959.)
Cinefantastique podcasters Lawrence French, Dan Persons, and Steve Biodrowski discuss news and events related to horror, fantasy, and science fiction films, including the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the restoration of HORROR OF DRACULA, and their favorite (or least favorite) restorations.
The Hammer Films Facebook page made an announcement this morning that should excite fans of of the studios’ classic Gothic horror films: the restored version of HORROR OF DRACULA (known simply as DRACULA in its native England) has been scheduled for U.K. release on March 13, 2013. The restoration includes snippets of footage that were removed by censors when the film was originally released, way back in 1958 – in particular, a shot from the climactic disintegration scene, long known to fans only through a publicity still.
The full story behind the restoration is much longer than the actual footage, which lasts only a few seconds. When HORROR OF DRACULA came out, film censorship was prevalent around the globe, particularly in England, where films had to submitted before being approved for release. Hammer Films was pushing the envelope with their new color horror films, first CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957, then HORROR OF DRACULA a year later. The company typically submitted scripts for prior approval but then would test the limits, shooting unapproved shots in the hope that the censorship board could be persuaded to change its mind.
This occasionally resulted in footage being shot that was scrapped for U.K. release, although it might sometimes survive in prints intended for export. This is what happened in the case of HORROR OF DRACULA: a complete print was sent to Japan, containing footage never seen in English-speaking countries (or most of the rest of the world). However, publicity stills of the missing footage were available, making appearances in fan magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland. However, these stills did not necessarily prove the existence of a complete version of the film, nor even that the footage in question had actually been shot; there was always the chance that these were posed publicity stills or images of scenes that had been tested or shot and deleted by the filmmakers without interference from the censor. This seems to be the case regarding another “missing scene” from HORROR OF DRACULA, the decomposed body of Jonathan Harker after being staked by Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). The problem here is that, in the film’s storyline, Harker has only very recently become a vampire, so that advanced state of decay seems inappropriate. The shot never made it into the final cut.
Whether any additional footage did indeed make it into a surviving print of HORROR OF DRACULA was long a subject of debate among fans and scholars. The issue was not much helped by Hammer Films themselves, which drummed up publicity by suggesting that they frequently shot multiple versions of their horror films: a tame one for the U.K., a slightly stronger one for Europe and possibly the U.S., and a really bloody one for Asian territories. In reality, alternate footage was shot in only a few cases for so-called “Continental” versions; most often, alternate version were the de facto result of the different censorship standards in territories around the world.
Was Dracula’s disintegration another piece of ephemera – simply a publicity still or an abandoned makeup test? Film editor and former Cinefantastique writer Ted Newsom pursued the missing footage like Van Helsing tracking down the Count’s hidden coffins, finding compelling evidence that the footage did exist, even while being ultimately unable to lay his hands on it:
“I’ve never seen the destruction scene in the climax, but it did clearly exist. Over on Latarnia, on the Hammer thread, I posted a frame blow-up of the scene, showing the same make-up from the standard 8×10 still, but from a camera angle which matches the rest of the shots [in the film]. It was published in some Japanese magazine in the ’90s, reprinted in a Hammer book in 1995 or 96. Seeing the proof of the existence of the scene in the Asian version sent me off on a 2 year back and forth thing with the Tokyo Archive. On the verge of getting the material telecine’d for posterity, they hired a new archivist, who went back to the party line and said ‘We don;t have it.’ It was bullshit, but I’d had enough.”
Fortunately, the story did not end there. Simon Rowson, a Hammer horror fan, discovered the footage early in 2011, as he described in this thread on the Christopher Lee Official Website:
My wife and I live permanently in Japan and, following a year long process of painstaking negotiation, we were actually able to view the final two reels of the sole remaining Japanese copy of DRACULA at the Japanese National Film Center on March the 9th – only two days before the earthquake that destroyed most of the North East coast of Japan.
In a nutshell, the long debated extra footage DOES exist – including the extended disintegration scene at the film’s climax – and I am liasing with Hammer about how to proceed at the moment.
Posting under the pseudonym Richard LeStrange, Rowson gave a fuller account of the discovery process on a thread in the Classic Horror Film Board, in which he noted that any attempt to use the Japanese print as a basis for a restoration project would have to take a back seat in the wake of the devastating earthquake that rocked Japan shortly after his discovery. He also provided more details regarding what he had seen while watching the final two reels of the Japanese print:
Not only is the much-debated complete facial disintegration – where Dracula claws at his face with his left hand, pulling away lumps of facial skin – present (complete with extra groaning from him and extra grimacing by Van Helsing) but Dracula’s attack on Mina – while Van Helsing and Holmwood stand guard outside – is also longer and more explicit than any other extant version. When Dracula enters the bedroom we see an additional close-up of Mina where she appears to be mouthing something to Dracula (I couldn’t hear exactly what on the small monitor) and, after he virtually kisses her full on the lips, the scene ends on a completely new, open-mouthed/ bared fang shot as he closes in on the left side of Mina’s neck before cutting to the screeching owl.
From there, Rowson goes on to speculate that even more missing footage may be available in some of the other surviving reels,* including a scene of Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) throwing up while seeing his sister staked by Van Helsing. However, this scene appears not to have survived (we have only the actor’s account to suggest that it ever existed).
Since Hammer Films was still the official copyright holder, Rowson got the company interested in his discovery, which was acknowledged on the official website back in September, in an article penned by Marcus Hearn (author of several fine books on the Hammer horror legacy). Eventually, a restoration was completed, and a world premiere took place earlier this year at the Vault Cinema underneath London’s Waterloo Station. Not all of the footage described by Rowson made it into the final cut; only two additions were described by one fan lucky enough to see the result:
When Dracula attacks Mina Holmwood, there is an alternate take of the vampire nuzzling her face and kissing her lip. This is not the shot of Dracula exposing his fangs that Rowson had described, and there is no extra close-up of Mina at the beginning of the scene mouthing something to the Count.
When Van Helsing forces Dracula into the sunlight, you now see the shot of actor Christopher Lee in disintegration makeup, his face peeling away. (The censored version showed only shots of a prop skull with glass eyes, covered in dust to represent flesh that had dried and flaked away.)
No official reason has been given for the discrepancy between Rowson’s description and the restoration that eventually emerged, although Rowson has since noted that he was mistaken about the shot of Mina mouthing something to Dracula. Presumably, the footage from the Japanese print of Dracula baring his fangs was too far deteriorated to be restored. Also, it appears that the restored footage was substituted, rather than added, in order to maintain the running time and synchronization with the existing English-language soundtrack; in other words, for every new frame that was included, an old frame had to be deleted. Holding on the shot of Dracula nuzzling Mina until he bared his fangs might have over-extended the shot and required the deletion of the subsequent shot, a screeching owl, which has already been shorted in the current restoration. Advance word is that the U.K. Blu-ray release will include the final four surviving reels of the Japanese print of HORROR OF DRACULA, so that fans may compare and contrast with the restoration.
In any case, the essential bit is the famous disintegration scene, which always felt a bet truncated in existing prints. The transition – from Dracula screaming in pain while being pushed in the sunlight, to a reaction shot of Van Helsing, to the lifeless skull covered in dust – clearly omitted a transitional state of some sort, which has now been reinstated. Hopefully, this addition enhances one of the great moments in the history of horror films. As nice as it would be to have a fully restored HORROR OF DRACULA, this one moment makes the current restoration worthwhile.
No word yet on when or whether this version may be available on U.S. shores. Warner Bothers, which holds U.S. home video rights for the title, had only this to say when informed of the discovery of the missing footage over a year ago:
“There have been plans for some time to revisit the key Hammer titles for Blu-ray, especially DRACULA. It is likely our archivists will be investigating the issue of extended scenes for that purpose.”
HORROR OF DRACULA remains one of the high-water marks in the horror genre. It deserves at least a restored Blu-ray release in America – or, better year, an art house re-release. Time to get on the case, WB. FOOTNOTE:
Unfortunately, reels 1-5 of the Japanese print were damaged beyond repair.
Jimmy Sangster (James Henry Kimmel Sangster), one of the major creative shapers of Hammer Studios’ horror output and the 1950’s-60’s British horror boom, passed away August 19th. He was 83.
Starting as a teenager in WWII England the Welsh-born Sangster worked on the production end of the film business before becoming a screenwriter.
At Hammer Studios he moved from Producer’s Assistant to Assistant Director before taking up screenwriting. Challenged to create a “Quatermass-style” sci-fi horror script after Nigel Kneale declined, James Sangster came up with X: THE UNKNOWN, which proved quite effective.
He was also given the screenwriting assignment on a script by Milton Subotsky (later to co-found Hammer competitor Amicus Productions) for a new version of Frankenstein. Jettisoning much of the rough screenplay, Sangster delivered a sly and decadent take on the old story, which director Terrence Fisher turned into a full-color tour-de-force, starring television star Peter Cushing and a little-known actor named Christopher Lee. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) changed the little studio into a major player in the field of home-grown UK productions, and helped kick off a second life for horror films as main features world-wide.
Soon to follow for Hammer and other independents were HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), THE CRAWLING EYE (1958) ,adapted from the television serial THE TROLLENBERG TERROR, JACK THE RIPPER, THE MUMMY (1959), BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), and the Bulldog Drummond spy mystery DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967).
Jimmy Sangster also took a few turns in the directors’ chair, helming THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970), a misguided attempt to re-make CURSE as a sexy horror-comedy (with future Darth Vader David Prowse as a bald, semi-traditional flat-headed version of the monster). Sangster fared better as a director with LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971) and the thriller FEAR IN THE NIGHT.
Jimmy Sangster also directed a few American television shows, after leaving for a stint in Hollywood.
Genre shows he wrote for included CIRCLE OF FEAR / GHOST STORY (1972-73), THE MAGICIAN, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, and THE NEW ADVENTURES OF WONDER WOMAN.
The episode of KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER that he penned, Horror In The Heights, is perhaps the best episode of that short-lived but beloved series.
Sangster wrote the TV movie GOOD AGAINST EVIL (1977), feature film THE LEGACY (1978), and the story for the Bill Cosby and Elliot Gould starring Disney comedy, THE DEVIL AND MAX DEVLIN (1981).
Jimmy Sangster essentially retired from the movie/TV industry in the 1980’s. His autobiography “Do You Want It Good or Tuesday?” was published in 1997.
The rubber hits the road in this episode of the Cinefantastique Round Table, the Podcast with a Sense of Wonder. Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski offer commentary on the week’s news (Stan Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger team up to make THE GOVERNATOR; the uncut ending of HORROR OF DRACULA has been unearthed) and provide capsule reviews of two horror films that opened this weekend: INSIDIOUS, the supernatural thriller from the SAW team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell; and RUBBER, an indie horror-comedy about – believe it or not – a homicidal tire with SCANNERS-like telekinetic ability. Plus, the usual rundown of upcoming theatrical events and home video releases, followed by a Black Hole Ultra-Lounge discussion of the Greatest Cinematic Cheats in Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Films.
Michael Gough, most famous for playing butler/aide-de-camp Alfred Pennyworth in the first Warner Brothers BATMAN series, passed away today, March 17th. He was 94.
He appeared as the kindly and resourceful Alfred in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989), amd BATMAN RETURNS, and in Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN. He also appeared in character for a series of OnStar commercials.
However, Michael Gough was a versatile actor, often playing flinty authority figures and deep-dyed villains with a sadistic streak, in films such as HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959), KONGA (1961), THE BLACK ZOO (1963), and TROG (1970). Some of his genre films include: the proto-science fiction comedy THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951), the ground-breaking HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), an alien in THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE (1967), as well as many other roles in THE SKULL, CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (THE CRIMSON CULT, 1968), CRUCIBLE OF HORRROR, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978), VENOM, (1981), TOP SECRET! (1984), A CRISTMAS CAROL (1984), ARTHUR THE KING, (1987), THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988), NOSTRADAMUS (1994), THE HAUNTING OF HELEN WALKER (1995), and SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) .
On UK television, he was also a familiar face. His genre credits include SHERLOCK HOLMES (1955), ROBIN HOOD, THE AVENGERS (first in 1965, as the inventor of the Cybernauts) DOCTOR WHO (playing both the Celestial Toymaker [pictured ]and the in the `80’s Time Lord Councilor Hedin), THE SAINT, THE CHAMPIONS, MOONBASE 3, BLAKES 7, THE LITTLE VAMPIRE (1986), and the ADVENTURES OF YOUNG INDIANNA JONES.
Michael Gough had been retired from on-screen work, but did voice acting for THE CORPSE BRIDE, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and the soon to be released ALL-STAR SUPERMAN.
This full-blooded vampire film (you should pardon the expression) reinvented the image of Count Dracula for a generation of filmgoers, eschewing cobwebby castles and black-and-white atmosphere in favor of a bold, colorful approach, filled with lovely cinematography and lavish sets that belie the modest budget. The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster jettisons the creepy clichés and gets down to basics, jumping directly into the action while wasting little time on superfluous exposition; it is a model for how to write a remake of a well-known subject. Director Terence Fisher stages the action with all the gusto you could bleed for: the film feels almost like an action-adventure movie, exciting and lively. Composer James Bernard provides a memorably exciting score, dominated by the famous three-note title theme (just imagine the orchestra saying “DRA-cu-la,” and you get the idea). Peter Cushing turns Professor Van Helsing into a variation on his Frankenstein characterization: a vampire hunter as obsessive in his quest to destroy vampires as the Baron was in his quest to create life. Perhaps most important, Christopher Lee remakes the vampire king into his own image: aloof, condescending, attractive – in a domineering, overpowering kind of way guaranteed to provoke ambivalent responses in viewers, male and female alike, who both fear and admire the Count.
HORROR OF DRACULA (known simply as DRACULA in its native England) was designed by Hammer Films to capitalize on the success of their previous effort, 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was the first Gothic horror film shot in color. Energized with a fresh approach and a modern sensibility, CURSE became a hit at home and abroad. As filmmakers who have tackled one half of horror’s dynamic duo almost always do, Hammer inevitably followed up Frankenstein with Dracula, taking all the elements that worked the first time and improving upon them the second time out.
The essential elements of the Hammer approach to horror, as established by CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, were color, action, eroticism, and gore, with a sometimes quirky British sensibility lurking around the edges. Although mild by the standards of later horror films, the impact was quite shocking during its day, causing howls of outrage from disgusted critics who accused the films of abandoning atmosphere and subtlety in favor of crude violence and bloodshed. Fortunately, neither CURSE nor HORROR is as crude as the critics would have had us believe, and now that the shock has worn off we can see perhaps more clearly just how good the films are: energetic and involving, with a crisp, fast-paced approach to narrative that somehow makes the incredible events seem like a completely believable component of the world being portrayed.
In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.
While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders. The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.
Lee’s costume retains the familiar black cloak but omits the red lining (favoring Stoker’s description of Dracula’s attire being “without a speck of color anywhere”). Rather than Lugosi’s melodic cadences, Lee opts for a fast-paced, authoritarian tone of voice. Like Stoker’s character, he speaks “excellent English,” though without the “strange intonation” captured by Lugosi. By dropping Lugosi’s Hungarian accent, Lee erases the Count’s Continental aura, instead emphasizing the physical strength that underlies vampire’s aristocratic mien. Unlike Lugosi, one can imagine Lee leading troops in warlike fury against the enemy invader.
Without being overtly Freudian, the film is certainly more obviously aware of the sexual undertones in Dracula’s attacks on helpless women, who seem to enjoy being ravished by the rapacious vampire. His approach to his female victims, who now consciously await his caresses (rather than sinking into a hypnotic stupor), emphasizes the erotic as never before. The fact that Dracula is less subtly seductive and more physically overpowering in these non-verbal attacks (we never see him talk to the women whose bedrooms he invades) lends an almost sado-masochistic air to his nighttime predations.
Like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the script for HORROR OF DRACULA offers a severely condensed version of the source material that erases the globe-trotting elements of the original story. While omitting the details, this telescoped version at least captures more of the essence of the novel’s structure (retaining more of Stoker than CURSE retained of Mary Shelly’s novel).
Stoker’s story was loaded with characters and took place over the course of several months. Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to help the Count purchase property in London, only to discover that his client is a vampire. Back home, Harker’s fiancée Mina has a friend named Lucy who becomes Dracula’s first English victim. Dr. Seward, one of Lucy’s three suitors, calls in Professor Van Helsing for consultation; unable to recognize the disease, the professor eventually realizes the cause is vampirism, which eventually claims Lucy’s life. Van Helsing teaches Seward and Lucy’s two other suitors, including her fiancé Arthur Holmwood, how to destroy her after she returns from the grave as a vampire. When Jonathan Harker returns to England (having escaped the clutches of Dracula’s three vampire brides), the details of the journal he kept lead Van Helsing to realize that Dracula is the vampire that attacked Lucy. Meanwhile, Dr. Seward has been noticing that one of his psychiatric patients, Renfield, has been acting in a way that seems to be an index to the comings and goings of the Count. Renfield, who wants to extend his life by devouring the lives of living things, worships Dracula as a sort of Antichrist, but the Count kills him when Renfield rebels and tries to prevent the vampire from claiming Mina as his next victim. Eventually, Van Helsing leads Mina and the young men on a trek back to Transylvania, where Harker and the Texan Quincy Morris manage to stab Dracula in the heart and behead him.
Sangster’s script jettisons Renfield and Morris, and reduces Seward to a walk-on as a family physician. Harker still comes to Castle Dracula, but he arrives on false pretenses, intending to destroy Dracula; instead, he falls prey to the Count after staking his vampire bride in her tomb. Van Helsing is no longer a kindly old bumbler who comes to believe in vampires only after studying Lucy’s condition; he is a full-fledge vampire hunter, dedicated to wiping the plague off the face of the Earth, with the same zeal as a doctor eradicating smallpox. This twist on the Van Helsing character, embodied by Peter Cushing (who brings the same zest and precision that he displayed as the Baron in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) lends HORROR OF DRACULA its peculiar thematic underpinnings. Despite occasional flashes of warmth, Cushing’s Van Helsing embodies a cold ruthlessness in his quest that is very similar to Frankenstein’s monomaniacal obsession to create life, no matter what the cost. If Lee’s Dracula represents the eruption of carnal desire, of physical lust overwhelming the mind and sense, then Cushing’s Van Helsing is the intellect divorced from feeling, who will stop at nothing to subjugate the flesh to the mind.
In effect, HORROR OF DRACULA espouses a very conservative morality, in which unbridled sexuality is equated with spiritual Evil, and sexual repression is allied with Good. What prevents this old-fashioned concept from descending into camp is the very secular way it plays out. We are clearly seeing a film in which the characters can be interpreted as embodying the abstract metaphysical concepts of Good and Evil, yet the religious iconography is expressed in purely practical terms. In other words, the film’s Van Helsing (unlike the novel’s) seems hardly devout or spiritual; he uses crosses like weapons because they are effective, in the same way that an exterminator uses poison or traps.
The benefit of this approach is that it dissipates the cornball melodrama associated with too many bad horror movies, creating a film that seems fresh and modern even after the passing of decades. The potential pitfall is that it could downscale the story, mitigating the mythic undertones that make great horror films resonate in the mind like half-forgotten dreams suddenly recollected. Somehow, HORROR OF DRACULA walks this razor’s edge with the skill of a tight-rope acrobat. Thanks to the robut staging of director Terence Fisher, the final battle between the forces of Darkness and Light, embodied by Dracula and Van Helsing, is as exciting as an World Wrestling Federation bout, culminating in Van Helsing’s Errol Flynn-style leap through the air to yank down a massive set of curtains, leading to the Count’s disintegration in the rays of the sun, his ashes blowing away in the wind — a remarkably poetic image to cap a remarkably well-made movie. At a clipped eight-two minutes, this is one of the most effective and tightly structured horror films ever made; in fact, some have gone so far as to call it the greatest horror film of all time.
In truth, the short running time robs the film of the scope that would have made it a full-blown, multi-level masterpiece. It works on its own terms, rather like the cinematic equivalent of a novella rather than a full-length novel, but there are other horror classics that have displayed more depth and sophistication.
HORROR OF DRACULA also falls prey to occasional melodramtic excess. In the role of Arthur Holmwood, Michael Gough’s horrorified reactions to the horrible events sometimes go a tad overboard (as when he desperately asks Van Helsing “Is there no other way?” – besides a stake in the heart – to release his sister from the curse of vampirism). And the flow of the story sometimes seems interrupted by old-fashioned fadeouts, not to mention the questionable cinematic device of showing Jonathan Harker sitting down to write in his diary. (Thankfully, the filmmakers eventually figure out that it is enough just to hear his words in voice-over on the soundtrack, while showing him perform some other action.)
But these quibbles do nothing to undermine the many strengths of HORROR OF DRACULA, which manifest themselves in numerable, memorable scenes. The first glimpse of Dracula at the top of the stairs is a wonderful fake-out – an ominous introduction followed by the Count’s perfectly civil greeting to Harker. The Count’s vampire bride (Valerie Gaunt) is wonderfully seductive, and her fight with her master, who stops her from making a victim of Harker, is wonderfully done, including Dracula’s athletic leap over a table. The staking of the vampirized Lucy (including a close-up of the stake sinking her white grave clothes, red blood welling up around it) is still sharp enough to make an audience squirm.
Apart from the mis-steps mentioned above, Gough does an excellent job in a relatively thankless role; embodying audience incredulity, he serves as the skeptic who must be convinced by Van Helsing, hopefully helping the audience to believe what they are seeing on screen. Also, Melissa Stribling deserves mention: the character of Mina has never come across on screen as well as Stoker imagined her; although Stribling’s version lacks most of the attributes of the literary version, the actress deserves credit for imbuing some life into her underwritten screen version. Her sly smile after her first encounter with Dracula, followed by her ambivalent reactions while anticipating a return visit, perfectly capture the mixture of attraction and repulsion inherent in the vampire mythology.
In short, HORROR OF DRACULA may not be the greatest horror film ever made, but it easily ranks in the pantheon of genre classics, and despite it’s considerably liberties with the source material (Sangster’s adaptation is in some ways almost an original screenplay), the film remains the best big-screen version ever made of Stoker’s novel. The decades may have given us far bloodier vampires, realized with bigger budgets and better effects; however, HORROR OF DRACULA (thanks in part to luminous Technicolor cinematography that defies the passing of years) is every bit as vibrant as the day it was released, living on from one generation to the next, rather like the undying Vampire Count himself.
The film was influenced by NOSFERATU, the silent German adaptation of DRACULA, in at least two ways:(1) Dracula can be destroyed by sunlight, whereas in the book he simply loses his powers and requires rest in his coffin. (2) Taking up residence in Castle Dracula, Jonathan Harker displays a photograph of his fiance, which attracts the attention of the Count, who later seeks her out.
One element retained from the novel is a rather pronounced class consciousness. The servants in the film are never taken into the confidence of Van Helsing and the upper-class Holmwood, even in the case of the maid Gerta, whose daughter nearly becomes a victim of the vampirized Lucy. And the various working class characters that Van Helsing and Holmwood interrogate in their search for Dracula’s resting place are inevitably played for comic relief. Fortunately, the humor goes a long way toward balancing out the film’s more horrific scenes.
For decades, rumors abounded that Hammer Films created multiple versions of their movies for different markets, supposedly even shooting different versions of some scenes: a tame one for England, a slightly rougher version for the U.S., and an outright bloody one for the Far East. Although Hammer executives propagated these stories to generate publicity, they appear to have been more mythical than real. There is no doubt that censorship in different territories resulted in different versions of the films being released, due to the trimming of violence, gore, or sexual innuendo, but there is little evidence that alternate versions of scenes were ever shot.
In the case of HORROR OF DRACULA, there does seem to have been more explicit footage that has never seen the light of day, not even on DVD.
In the course of the film, three vampires are staked, but only one, late in the film, is shown explicitly; the other two are suggested with shadows or fade-outs. Supposedly, these earlier scenes were shot to be more explicit; however, this seems unlikely, because of the obvious problem: two graphic stakings early in the film would undermine the impact of the later one, which would seem repetitious. However, there is a publicity still of Jonathan Harker, lying in a coffin after Dracula has turned him into a vampire, that suggests more footage may have been shot of Van Helsing staking his colleague and seeing his body decay after the vampire’s curse has been lifted.
Even more interesting, there is an oft-published still of Christopher Lee wearing a hideous, pock-marked makeup that was clearly intended to show the vampire’s face decaying in the sunlight. In the cut of the film shown theatrically and on home video, Dracula’s destruction takes place mostly off-camera: we see Van Helsing fashion two candlesticks into a cross and force the Count back into the sunlight; there are brief shots of his hand and his foot disintegrating, followed by a reaction shot of the professor reacting to the vampire’s demise. Then we see a prop skull covered with dust and, after another reaction shot, a pile of dust on the floor. We never see the makeup meant to show Dracula’s face beginning to decay, but the editing of the sequence clearly leaves room for another transitional moment to bridge the gap between Lee’s normal features and the prop skeleton that replaces him.
Film editor and horror fan Ted Newsom has seen a version of this image that reveals it to be a strip of 35mm movie film, which would indicate that the shot was filmed for the movie, not just as a publicity still:
“I’ve never seen the destruction scene in the climax, but it did clearly exist. Over on Latarnia, on the Hammer thread, I posted a frame blow-up of the scene, showing the same make-up from the standard 8×10 still, but from a camera angle which matches the rest of the shots. It was published in some Japanese magazine in the ’90s, reprinted in a Hammer book in 1995 or 96. Seeing the proof of the existence of the scene in the Asian version sent me off on a 2 year back and forth thing with the Tokyo Archive. On the verge of getting the material telecine’d for posterity, they hired a new archivist, who went back to the party line and said ‘We don;t have it.’ It was bullshit, but I’d had enough.”
We can only hope that some archivist finds the footage, either in a vault at Hammer or in a print in the Far East, so that a restored version of HORROR OF DRACULA can be made available to fans.