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DRACULA WEEK DAY 2: Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958)

Horror of DraculaDirector: Terence Fisher

Writer: Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Charles Lloyd Pack, Barbara Archer, Janina Faye

Plot: Librarian Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is called to Castle Dracula by its mysterious count (Christopher Lee). He encounters a strange woman (Valerie Gaunt) who begs him to help her escape, but she flees as Dracula makes his appearance. Dracula has summoned Harker to index his enormous collection of books, and encourages him to make the castle his home as he works. As Dracula leaves him, Harker pens a journal entry that reveals his true intention – to end the Count’s reign of terror forever. That night, he again encounters the strange woman from before, and she again begs his help, only to bite him on the neck. As she does so Dracula appears, blood on his mouth, and he attacks the woman. Harker grapples with the Count, but is defeated, and Dracula takes the woman away. Harker wakes up in his bedroom the next morning, a pair of fang-marks on his neck, and decides he must exterminate Dracula before sundown. He finds the crypt and drives a stake through the vampire woman’s heart, awakening Dracula just as the sun goes down. Dracula seals Harker in the tomb.

Some time later Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) stops at a tavern, seeking word of the missing Harker. A tavern girl gives the Doctor a book she found – Harker’s journal. He finds Castle Dracula and the bodies of both the vampire woman and Harker. Van Helsing returns to Harker’s bedridden fiancé, Lucy (Carol Marsh) to tell her of Harker’s death, but her brother Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) hide the truth from Lucy, unaware that she is already being visited by Dracula in the night. He is biting her, draining her slowly, preparing her to become his new thrall.

As Lucy is treated for what her doctors believe to be anemia, Van Helsing recognizes the symptoms of a vampire attack. He orders the windows in her room shut at night and the room filled with garlic cloves. At Lucy’s behest, though, her housekeeper (Olga Dickie) opens the windows and removes the garlic. In the morning, Lucy is found dead. Later, the housekeeper’s daughter Tania (Janina Faye) claims to have encountered her dead “Aunt Lucy.” Arthur goes to her tomb that night and finds it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, summons the child to her and they encounter Arthur. Van Helsing saves him and stakes Lucy, sending her to a true rest. Arthur gives Mina a cross to wear, but upon touching it she shouts and collapses, the cross burned into her flesh. She, too, has been touched by the vampire.

That night, Dracula comes for Mina again, draining her so completely Van Helsing has to give her a transfusion of blood from Arthur. Van Helsing finds Dracula’s coffin in the cellar, but the Count takes the moment of distraction to take Mina and flee. They chase him back to Castle Dracula, where Van Helsing exposes him to the light of the sun. Dracula shrivels and turns to dust, his reign of terror ending… until the sequel.

Thoughts: It is utterly unforgivable that I’ve been conducting these movie studies for three consecutive Octobers now, and this is the first time I’ve touched upon the storied Hammer Films catalogue of horror. While Hammer may not have the immediately recognizable icons of Universal (although they in no small way owe their fame to remaking the characters Universal made famous), it’s no less an important chapter in the universe of terror, and I should have delved into it a long time ago.

That said, I picked a great film to begin my Hammer Horror education. Horror of Dracula was Christopher Lee’s first time portraying Count Dracula, and he did a fantastic job in the role. Although largely absent from the middle section of the movie, his presence is compelling and powerful, a real menacing figure worthy of the Dracula name. In the final confrontation with Van Helsing, he momentarily devolves into a mad, snarling beast, and it’s a great moment. You’re terrified of him, you think he’ll rip Peter Cushing’s throat right out. He’s a monster in the best sense of the word.

He’s also the subject of some pretty impressive special effects. When the sunlight kills him at the end, the way he wilts away into nothing is really remarkable for a 1958 film. Hammer truly was on the top of its game.

As Van Helsing, Peter Cushing makes for a great hero. There’s an authoritative sense to him – he’s a man you want to trust in the middle of a terrible ordeal. He carries a gravity and a power that makes the situation seem just as serious as a horror film should seem. Even now, over 50 years later, this really works as a horror classic.

The structure of this film is odd. It’s based on the original Dracula novel, at least in part, but both the plot and the characters presume a great deal of familiarity with the Dracula concept even before the film begins. Harker knows who and what Dracula is and has a plan to destroy him from the very outset, although Dracula seems at least initially fooled by his façade of being a simple librarian. It’s almost as if the film’s heroes had read the novel and decided they wanted to cut off the monster at the pass. Of course, that sort of genre awareness seems to evaporate when Harker reaches Dracula’s crypt and stakes the woman first. Seriously, man? You always kill the boss first, if you’ve got the chance. It’s like this 19th century character from a 1950s movie had never played a video game or something.

Although clearly inspired by Bram Stoker, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster took some unusual and rather inexplicable liberties – changing Harker’s love interest from Mina to Lucy, making the two sisters-in-law, making Arthur Mina’s husband and so on. All in all, the film succeeds in telling a perfectly coherent story, but it’s not exactly the same story as the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is a… thing. That happened. And I find it curious enough to point it out. The film also attempts to distance itself from the novel, accepting the by-then common conceit that the vampire cannot venture out in the daylight (absent from the novel) and dismissing the idea of the vampire changing its shape as “pure fallacy” (this idea was present in the Stoker original). I’m truly not sure what to make of it. The writer really seems to be struggling to buy in to the existing Dracula mythology, while picking and choosing the parts he likes and bringing in other elements pretty much at will. I don’t know how a storyteller reconciles those two impulses, but Sangster at least manages to turn out an entertaining story in the mix.

If nothing else, the movie is plenty of fun and a great film to throw on during your Halloween party… or any other time you’re looking to have a creepy good time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 9: The Fly (1958)

theflyDirector: Kurt Neumann
Writer: James Clavell, based on the short story by George Langelaan
Cast: Vincent Price, David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Charles Hebert, Herbert Marshall

Plot: A scientist (David Hedison) is found dead, his head and arm crushed into an unrecognizable mess. His wife (Patricia Owens) confesses to the crime, but refuses to provide details, although she seems obsessed with finding a strange white-headed fly. As the investigation begins they find she actually crushed him in a hydraulic press twice… something the victim’s brother (Vincent Price) cannot fathom, as they had a loving marriage. Owens begins to come unraveled, going berserk when a nurse crushes a fly on the wall. Finally, Price coaxes the truth from her: his brother was destroyed by his own invention – a disintegrator-integrator – which horribly mingled his body with that of a housefly, turning him from man to beast. As they attempted to find the fly that now had his arm and head, his mind became more and more frayed, until he finally begged her to kill him. Price keeps the story to himself, allowing the court to believe her insane, and sparing her from a murder charge.

Thoughts: I wish I could have found other films between the last one (1942’s Cat People) and this 1958 classic, but as I tried compiling my list, I was stunned at the utter dearth of memorable horror films from the late 1940s and early 1950s. This isn’t to say there weren’t scary movies, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the right choice for my little project here. It actually gets back to what I said about horror at the very beginning – horror is subjective. Each person, and in a larger sense, each culture determines for itself what it considers terrifying, and in the late 40s and 50s the fears of the American public weren’t running along the lines of vampires and witches and monsters. In the wake of the atom bomb, we were afraid of science gone wrong. With the rise of the Soviet Union, we feared the threat of international communism. The result is that the best, most iconic scary movies of this era don’t necessarily fall into the category of horror, but belong more appropriately on the science fiction list (which I hope to use for this same sort of project in the future). The truly disquieting films of the time were things like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – both excellent films worth discussing, but I feel like they belong more in the realm of sci-fi than true horror.

So that brings us to 1958 and The Fly, which still straddles the line between science fiction and horror, but falls with enough of its bulk on this side of the line to make it on the list. While not exactly built on hard science, the movie attempts more of a feeling of realism than most other sci-fi shockers of the area, which often dealt with the likes of insects and other animals mutating into giant beasts thanks to radiation exposure, eventually leading to their death by missile and their ridicule at the hands of a guy in a satellite and his two little robot pals. In The Fly, director Kurt Neumann does make an effort to help the science seem plausible, at least to an audience without deep understanding of such things. (At one point, while trying to guess the nature of his brother’s experiment, Price even suggests a flatscreen television.)

Vincent Price, of course, gets top billing for this movie, but for my money that really should have belonged to Patricia Owens as Helene. Price is in the framing sequence – the 30-minute buildup to the flashback and the 10-minute denouement at the end – but Owens really carries the film. We see her at the beginning as the shellshocked, borderline deranged woman who has just witnessed her husband’s death, then go to the backstory where she’s a kind, devoted wife. She’s really magnificent in the part, going from the heights of joy for her husband’s success to a slow spiral into despair when his experiment falls apart. Finally, at the end we get pain and resignation from her. Genre pictures are rarely recognized for the performances of their actors when award season rolls around, but I would put Owens’s performance in this film right up there with any great actress of the era.

The film follows a fairly standard format for horror films of the era, where the truly terrifying stuff happens largely off-screen. This is to the good, because when the blanket comes off David Hedison and we finally see his transformation… well… just as Owens is as fine an actress as any of the day, his creature costume is as goofy as any of the day. It’s a silly-looking monster helmet with a some device to make the pincers twitch a little bit. I find the final scene far more chilling – Price and the inspector (Herbert Marshall) manage to track down the white-headed fly to a spider’s web where it’s been captured and about to be consumed. The effect of a tiny little David Hedison caught in the spider’s web, superimposed against film of a real spider, is impressive by 1958 standards, and the effect of his miniscule voice pleading for help as the predator advances upon him is creepy even today. It’s probably the most memorable scene of terror from the film, far more so than the human-size fly.

The film plays upon the fear of unchecked science, questions of insanity, and a good dose of body horror (which, no doubt, is why David Cronenberg was the man tapped for the 1986 remake). All of these elements add up to one of the best films of the era.

From the end of the age of monsters, we’re about to step into the world of more psychological terror. Next on my list is the film many consider the first slasher movie, the 1960 film Peeping Tom.