Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review - Dracula (1958)

June 25, 2015

Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) – UK, 1958

Dracula has always seemed to me to be a remnant of an earlier time, a time when theories about good blood and bad blood existed, and people created cult-like followings and spread fear through the adoption of less than humane methods. At this time, the Church was seen as mankind’s salvation, and it therefore makes perfect sense that many of the objects that can harm Dracula- specifically, the cross and sunlight - have religious significance. Times have changed of course, and modern day films are less likely to stick to the established rules of vampire films and novels of old. However, somehow the legend of Dracula still piques audience’s interests, so much so that Dracula has become romanticized – instead of simply being a ruthless predator, he’s often portrayed as a lonely figure simply looking for eternal love and companionship in the most awkward of ways.

It should come as no surprise that an individual viewed this way should become a lead character, one whose origins are explored and whose many exploits are portrayed in sequels or prequels, and herein lies the problem with a character such as Dracula. For a Dracula movie to seem complete to audiences, Dracula must die, for if he does not, there would be no sense of closure for the audience and nothing that could explain why the story – and Dracula’s reign of terror - would suddenly stop. Essentially, every Dracula movie is a reboot.

In Terence Fisher’s 1958 version of Dracula, Dracula is a supporting character, making brief appearances, talking quickly, and then scurrying off. Instead of following him, which could be a bit monotonous, the film focuses on a series of other male characters. The first of these is Jonathan Harker, a man recently hired as the count’s personal librarian. Why he would need one and just how he would advertise for one are anyone’s guess. Later, we are introduced to Doctor Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), an associate of Harker’s, and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), the brother of one of Dracula’s victims.

The first part of the film is told from the perspective of young Harker, who writes daily in a diary of his mission to kill Dracula because if you were in the home of a vampire, you would naturally write down your intentions in a book that could clearly be distinguished as a diary. And if one if going to do that, it seems perfectly natural that you would also hang a picture of the woman you love for said vampire to see and pick as his next victim/mate-for-eternity.  

The late Christopher Lee plays the cursed count, and those wishing to see just what made Mr. Lee such a legend may wish to look elsewhere. Here, he’s not given much to do beyond looking menacing and mysterious. In several scenes, he appears at the top of the stairs in his black cape while shadows obscure the view of his possible victims. Sometimes this is a prelude to a physical conflict; at other time, he simply locks someone in a basement and leaves. In fact, this incarnation of Dracula is very much limited to the rules of the physical world. He cannot turn into a bat, and in one scene, he even seizes the ropes of a carriage and drives it himself.

Because the film was made in 1958, it has little overt reference to sex or lust. In fact, the only hint of it is the attire of Dracula’s fellow vampire, a woman clad in white who upon seeing Harker for the first time begs him to help her escape. From her wardrobe, it would seem that this Dracula is a bit of a breast man. Why she wants to escape and where she would actually go is a mystery, seeing how every other woman we see Dracula influence develops an eerie acceptance and enjoyment of the prospects of becoming a vampire. That is, until he starts burying one alive outside his castle – an illogical action for a vampire trying to make it back to safety before day breaks.

At a brisk 82 minutes, the film is an otherwise fine adaptation. It moves along nicely, and only a few moments of unnecessary explanation slow the film down. These are intended to make what we see more believable, but I suspect that people paying to see a Dracula movie know all about vampires already. Later Dracula films ran 120 minutes, and it is clear just how much has to be added – unnecessarily, in my opinion - to hit that mark.

Peter Cushing’s performance is decent, yet never overwhelming. Van Helsing is too matter-of-fact in this version of the story, and, like Lee, Cushing isn’t given much opportunity to display his acting chops. In fact, much of the film’s dramatic work is done by the film’s supporting actresses, in particular Carol Marsh as Lucy, Melissa Stribling as Mina Holmwood, and Olga Dickie, who plays the Holmwood’s maid. Gerda. Marsh and Stribling make Dracula’s appeal very real.

There are many versions of Dracula out there. Some say the 1932 Spanish version is the best, but you can’t truly go wrong with this one. It tells the story well, and it’s visually stunning, with its gothic structures and wide empty spaces. I particularly enjoyed the contrasts in color and darkness and the way that Dracula’s lair created such a cold, unwelcoming impression. The gore is thankfully kept to a minimum. In fact, if I have one major complaint, it is that Dracula never seems truly menacing enough. He just seems angry, yet what he does with his anger is small compared to what he could do, and in choosing to limit the depth of his revenge, it turns him from a potential monster to an overzealous and wronged lover. For a vampire, that just seems petty. (on DVD and on Blu-ray in Region B)

3 and a half stars

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