Sunday Matinee: ”Horror of Dracula” Revisited

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It had been two years since I last sat down to watch the Hammer classic Horror of Dracula (1958).  It is a film I owned on VHS and never upgraded — not because I didn’t like the movie.  Rather, because it was a film I always considered to be “just good enough.”  It was “just good enough” to replay at Halloween every year or so, “just good enough” to enjoy as a time-filler.  In other words, it never made my essential viewing list, quite unlike the original Dracula (1931) or Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).  Upon re-watching it, I am unsure why.  The film itself is rather well done.  It takes the main story of the novel, condenses it, and creates an enjoyable product that has some truly memorable moments —  to name one: the best Dracula death sequence in the history of film!

But there’s something about it that causes me to take pause, to not fully love it as many fans of the genre do.  Part of the problem is I had always viewed the title character in this version as little more than a glorified prop.  By now, some of you are shocked and ready to delete this site from your bookmarks.  But, allow me to explain.  I love Christopher Lee, and I love his interpretation of Count Dracula.  He is menacing, strong, powerful, and downright evil.  But, in this film, he has very little screen-time.  And while the main action revolves around him, we don’t see him that much.  This film is very much a Peter Cushing movie — and I love Cushing, especially as Van Helsing; but there’s just something about the uneven screentime given the Count that doesn’t sit well with my Dracula-loving heart.

After really thinking about it, the lack of Dracula actually makes this film closer to the novel than it would otherwise appear.  Bram Stoker never featured his main character all that much, so why should this second film adaptation be any different?  And I suppose that is why so many people give it a pass and automatically relegate it to “must see” status.  Don’t misunderstand.  Dracula is extremely effective the few minutes he is on screen – his fangs, his fierce expressions, the blood.  The whole characterization marked a new chapter in the monster’s history.  But with so little of him and so much of the rather bland Arthur Holmwood, the film had always been relegated to my stack of lesser-viewed films.

Another reason I disliked the film was because of its rather claustrophobic settings.  Nothing is grand or luxurious about this movie’s sets.  Nothing convinces me that this demon Count is at all wealthy or that he lives in a castle.  (The exterior shot of Dracula’s home doesn’t help change my mind.)  It’s as if the director, Terence Fisher, never wanted his audience to experience a delusion of the Count’s grandeur.  Nearly every scene has a very confined feel, and it is not to the film’s benefit.  Unlike Universal’s rather grand approach  to the material, complete with sweeping staircases and vast catacombs, Hammer’s version is small-scale in every sense of the word.  And while this sometimes works well in the visual medium (think TV’s Dark Shadows), the close quarters here detract more than they add.

So what made me change my mind about Horror of Dracula?  Two things:  First, the fact that this is virtually the first and  last truly decent picture where Lee and Cushing face off  in their most iconic Horror roles.  Second: the iconography the film helped to create.  This is the film in which Dracula sprouted his first real pair of fangs.  This is the film that added a whole new level of Horror to the vampire legend.  This is where blood and red eyes got their start.  Despite all of its drawbacks, this is the one vampire film since Bela Lugosi’s original Dracula that actually helped redefine the genre.  And so while my preference in the Hammer realm will always fall towards Dracula: Prince of Darkness (More on this in a week), Horror of Dracula has finally earned its rightful place on my “must-see” Halloween viewing list.

4.5 bats out of 5.

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Halloween Home Entertainment Preview: Halloween II and III

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Welcome guys and ghouls to another week of thrills, chills, and spills on The Big Scare.  This week, we have a complete lineup of the “must-have” home entertainment releases of the season.

The News:

Don Post Studios Halloween III Silver Shamrock Masks 3 SkullCertainly two of the biggest releases this year are the second and third installments of John Carpenter’s Halloween series.  While both titles have been out on DVD for years, and Halloween II had a bare-bones Blu-Ray release last year, Scream! Factory, a new division of Shout! Factory, will unveil its treatment of these classics tomorrow, September 18.

Not only has Shout! Factory produced some of the finest artwork ever created for a home video release, but both titles come with extras, including audio commentaries, “making of” specials, trailers, and more!

The Views:

So just how good are these movies anyway?

If you haven’t had a chance to see Halloween II, you need to.  It’s a sequel that is definitely worthy of the “Halloween” name, quite unlike later installments which shall not be named here.  While II is not as good as Halloween, and lacks a lot of its predecessor’s subtlety and substance, it manages to evoke many of the same feelings and allows for further commentary on the concept of “evil.”   But what makes it exceptionally memorable is the fact that Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis get to share some screen-time.  This is the last film in the series in which both original stars appear.  And neither talent is wasted.  But it is Pleasance’s character, Sam Loomis, that manages to steal the show.  Halloween II gives the Loomis character the opportunities to achieve depths impossible in the original film, and Pleasance pulls it off brilliantly.  This film gets 3 1/2 skull pumpkins out of 5.

As for Halloween III?  You’ve probably heard some negative things about it, mostly from the biggest fans of Michael Myers.  While the film does lack the illustrious villain, it makes up for his absence with its strong Halloweentime imagery.  Case in point:  The masks.  Need I say more?  Those Don Post masks symbolize this time of year as much as Jack-O’-Lanterns and Candy Buckets.  In addition, there are plenty of other opportunities to spot signs of the season throughout the movie. It’s worth a watch, if only for this reason.  All in all, while the plot is a little far-out, it’s still stronger than a lot of the stories that came out of  1980s Horror.  Halloween III: The Season of the Witch gets 2.5 Don Post Masks out of 5.

If we have managed to pique you interest, you can pick up copies of both films tomorrow or rent them from your favorite video rental service.

Underrated Classics | Dracula’s Daughter

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It seems as if, in the world of Universal Studios Classic Horror, there is one sequel which gets all of the attention – The Bride of Frankenstein.  Granted, it deserves all of the admiration it receives – and more!  But, there are other follow-up films in the Universal canon that are wonderfully-made which also are owed a great deal of respect.  Perhaps the most under-appreciated is Dracula’s Daughter.

A direct sequel to Dracula, the movie begins just moments after the original ends.  Two bumbling policemen stumble upon the body of Renfield in the basement of Carfax Abbey, where they also meet a very much alive Professor Van Helsing (credited as “Von Helsing”).  Admitting to driving a stake through the heart of the evil Count, Van Helsing is arrested for murder and seeks the aid of a trusted friend, Jeffrey Garth.  Garth, a psychiatrist and former student of Van Helsing, must help the professor prove that Van Helsing did not murder anyone, that Dracula was indeed already dead for 500 years – a seemingly impossible task.  But, when the body goes missing and London is once again rife with bloodless corpses, proving Van Helsing’s innocence becomes a tad bit easier.

The film stars Gloria Holden in the title role.  Playing Countess Marya Zaleska, Holden definitely holds a candle to Bela Lugosi’s performance in the previous film, channeling his eerie presence in nearly every scene.  It’s hard to imagine any actress but Holden being able to utter, in such genuinely distant fashion, the famous line, “I never drink… wine.”  Like Lugosi, Holden commands the screen.  Everything about her is eerie, foreign, intriguing, seductive, and just plain creepy.  Her motivations are also the most complex of any early Horror character.  A reluctant vampire who loathes the control Dracula still exerts over her, even from the grave, Countess Zaleska seeks psychiatric “release” from the curse of the vampire, yet still embraces her father’s evil ways.

The film is very much in keeping with the style of the original, using the same sets for Dracula’s Castle, carrying over Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, referring frequently to characters and situations in the original, and even lifting lines (and a camera shot) from the 1931 classic.  Dracula’s Daughter really is a terrific sequel.  The intended parallels between this film and the original work wonderfully.  The only thing that drags the film down is its uneven pacing and its tendency to dwell too much on the comedic relationship between Dr. Garth and his secretary.

But, for every fault in the film, there are ten positive things which work to its advantage.  In addition to the great performances by Holden and Van Sloan, the film’s music is atmospheric, moody, and chilling.  The theme, used in the opening and during the climax, is one of the best, if not the best, in the Universal Horror repertoire, rivaling the main theme of The Wolf Man as the most sweepingly tragic, dark and elaborate piece of music in the early history of Horror.

While the sequel could have taken any number of directions, and it almost took a very weird one with James Whale helming the first efforts, this film is very enjoyable for what it is.  It could have starred Bela Lugosi.  It could have had Van Helsing be the main hero.  It didn’t.  And, as such, it should be judged on its own merits – and it has plenty.  Perhaps, one day, fans of the genre will come to realize this and bolster Dracula’s Daughter to its rightful place in the Universal library – not being nearly as good as The Bride of Frankenstein, but deserving a lot more credit than some of the later Dracula and Frankenstein sequels.  Overall, the film earns a solid  4 out of 5 stars.