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Showcase Presents the Universal Dracula Legacy

It’s Halloween once again, and the Showcase crew assembles for their (mostly) annual monster movie marathon. This year the gang tackles the six films that make up the legacy of the king of the vampires: Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

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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 Smashwords.com 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!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 1: John Carradine in House of Dracula (1945)

House of DraculaDirector: Erle C. Kenton

Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Cast: John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stossel, Glenn Strange, Skeleton Knaggs

Plot: Count Dracula (John Carradine) approaches a scientist, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), and asks him to discover a cure for his immortal curse. Edelmann and his hunchbacked assistant, Nina (Jane Adams) study Dracula’s blood and discover an unknown parasite. As Edelmann begins his experiments on Dracula a new patient arrives – Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who seeks a cure for his own curse. When told the doctor is unavailable, an upset Talbot flees to the police station and demands to be locked up. The police summon Edelmann to examine him, and he arrives just in time to witness the rising full moon and Talbot’s transformation into the Wolfman.

Edelmann believes he can cultivate a mold that will allow him to reshape Talbot’s skull, which will relieve the pressure on his cranium and prevent his transformation. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the movie either.) Unwilling to wait for enough mold to be cultivated, Talbot flings himself from a nearby cliff. That night, as Edelmann searches for Talbot, the Wolfman attacks him. Talbot changes back before Edelmann can die, and the doctor discovers he’s hiding in a cave perfectly suited to grow the spores he needs. As they search the cavern, they find something totally unexpected: the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Because what the hell. They bring the monster to the hospital, hook him up to machines that can bring him back to life, then decide not to do it. This should end well.

Dracula, remembering that his name is in the title of the movie, stops by and sees Edelmann’s assistant Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) playing the piano. For no discernible reason, he uses his power to mesmerize her. Wary, Edelmann tells Dracula he will require another transfusion to test his theory, and Dracula agrees. Edleman falls asleep during the experiment, though, and Dracula reverses the transfusion, placing his own blood into the doctor’s veins before fleeing. Edelmann follows Dracula to his coffin, which he drags into the sunlight and opens, reducing the vampire to a skeleton and laughing at the fact that there’s still a third of the movie left to go.

The transfusion begins to affect Edelmann, darkening his eyes, causing his reflection to vanish. He is becoming a vampire. This conveniently leads to him having a dream sequence largely made up of clips of earlier Frankenstein movies, which tempts him to resurrect the monster. The good in him forces back the evil, and he decides to use the spores to operate on Nina while he’s still himself. She convinces him to use his time to operate on Talbot instead, and he does so, knowing it will not be until the next full moon that they can be certain he was successful.

Edelmann, meanwhile, begins to succumb to the vampire, killing a villager and fleeing the same crowd of angry townspeople who spent most of the 1930s and 40s waiting for Universal to make another monster movie so they could find work. The police come to Edelmann’s hospital, believing Talbot responsible for the murder. Talbot realizes Edelmann is the real killer, and he pledges to help him stay sane long enough to help Nina, then destroy the evil within him. As the next full moon approaches, Talbot is astonished to find he does not transform: the operation was a success. The Wolfman is no more. As Nina tries to tell Edelmann, she finds him resurrecting the Frankenstein Monster, having given in to the evil within him. He kills Nina and has the monster attack the police. Talbot retrieves a police weapon and guns down Edelmann as the mob arrives for their scheduled appointment. The lab catches on fire, because 1945, and the monster is destroyed as the mob, Talbot and Milizia flee.

Thoughts: By 1945 the Universal Monster franchise had largely evolved into a bizarre mishmash where the monsters – particularly the three heavyweights – appeared in each other’s films indiscriminately and with little to no regard to continuity. Just the year before, in House of Frankenstein, audiences saw Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster each meet their demise, but here they are without any attempt at an explanation. Today we’d just call it a “reboot” and pretend the earlier movies never happened, but nobody wants to ignore the Universal Classics… nobody in their right mind, anyway.

If there’s one thing this movie proves, it’s that trying to come up with a scientific explanation for what has always been supernatural in-canon is usually a bad idea. The parasites in Dracula’s blood are bad enough, but the explanation for Larry Talbot’s transformation Wolfman is close enough to “it’s all in your head” as to almost be insulting to fans of the character. One can easily believe George Lucas watched this movie just before he whipped up the concept of Midi-Chlorians.

The good news is, no matter how crappy the plot of a movie, it was always a treat to watch Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange in their legendary forms. Chaney’s Wolfman has always been the saddest and most tragic of the Universal monsters, a creature that wishes for nothing but peace but is utterly unable to find it. When Stan Lee created the Hulk, he always credited inspiration coming from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’ve often thought the sad case of Bruce Banner had more in common with Lawrence Talbot. And with that in mind, it’s nice to see him sort of get a happy ending for a change. Sure, by the time he met Abbott and Costello three years later he was the Wolfman again, but so what? Frankenstein wasn’t burned anymore and Dracula had regenerated from a skeleton back into Bela Lugosi somehow. Who cares? It’s the 40’s! Party!

Anyway, on to Dracula himself. John Carradine as the legendary nosferatu has surprisingly little to do in this movie, even though he’s the title character. (In truth, at this point Universal’s naming convention was practically random: grab the name of any monster that appears in the movie and add a few other words. This film could just as easily have been titled Curse of the Wolfman or Return of Frankenstein or Dr. Edelmann’s Wonder Emporium and it would have been equally – if not more – accurate.) To Carradine’s credit, in the time he’s on screen he puts forth a solid performance. There’s a charm and a menace to him, and one can believe a woman would allow herself to be in his presence long enough to be affected by his hypnotic powers, which is convenient, because that’s exactly what the alleged plot calls for.

That said, the Dracula in this film is written in a terrible fashion. He begins the story by seeking a cure for his vampirism (something he never showed any particular interest in before), then starts going right back to his old “hypnotize ‘em and suck their blood” routine as if he wasn’t tired of that crap at all. He falls for Edelmann’s transfusion trick entirely too easily, then sabotages the very experiment he asked for in the first place. I spent half the film watching Carradine and shouting: “WHY ARE YOU DOING THINGS? STOP. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A HOUSE.”

The real star of this movie is Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edelmann, who starts out as a well-meaning scientist skeptic before becoming a creature of cartoonish evil. The dream sequence he has is nearly laughable, as his “good” and “evil” selves seem to argue over whether or not to resurrect the Frankenstein Monster… as if there could be any doubt that he would. Stevens does a great job with what he’s given, he’s just not given A material.

This is not a very good movie, to be blunt. But even the worst of the Universal Monster pictures had a strange sort of charm to them… the fun of seeing these characters overcame the cheesy effects or the ludicrous storylines. While this should never be anyone’s first choice of a monster movie to watch, if it’s available or if you’re doing a marathon of the classics, it has its place.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com 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!