PLEASE, HAMMER, DON’T HURT ‘EM: Dracula Returns! Over And Over! Part I

by Jake on October 26, 2012

The success of ‘Curse of Frankenstein‘ was a wake-up call to the powers that be at Hammer Films. They realized they were sitting on a gold mine and were quick to capitalize on the classic monster bit with a new Dracula.

Fortunately, they already had Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, which had worked for them so far. While Lee’s performance as the Frankenstein Monster required little more than size and mobility, it was obvious his height, commanding presence and magnificent speaking voice made him down for the Count, as it were, so he was cast as Dracula while Cushing portrayed Van Helsing.

The Horror of Dracula1958′s ‘The Horror of Dracula’ is pretty much the standard Dracula story. The setting was kept entirely in that weird, make-believe version of Europe Hammer seemed to favor, rather than England (more in this later) and as always, characters were shuffled around a bit, but in essence, it goes like this:

Dracula, blah, blah, blah, vampires, blah, Van Helsing, blah, blah, Dracula gets destroyed, the end.

So what made this version of the story so different? Several factors. Lee and Cushing, the Hammer Style (color, blood and gore, heaving bosoms) and pacing.

It may seem strange to modern audiences, but when ‘Horror of Dracula’ came out, it was a pretty action-packed, fast-paced movie! If it seems slow to you, watch it and the 1931 Lugosi film and you’ll understand.

Lee’s Count certainly LOOKED like what audiences expected: widow’s peak, black cape, etc. But he didn’t ACT the same. First off, no accent. And Dracula was now a force to be reckoned with, a being who moved quickly, didn’t waste time and had a tendency to act like a wild animal when he was upset. He snarled and hissed like a beast, with bloodshot eyes and bloody fangs – also a new twist, as the Universal vamps never had pointed teeth that you saw.

And the vampire attacks became much more sexual. The women under Dracula’s spell seemed to be REALLY enjoying it, and he seemed to, as well, kissing them before he killed them. It was pretty steamy stuff.

Hammer made a conscious decision with ‘Horror of Dracula’ to work within the confines of their budget – Van Helsing makes it clear that vampires turning into bats or mist and the like is just legend! This helped avoid cheesy, fake bats and expensive special effects. In some ways, it also grounded Dracula, made his threat seem more real and immediate.

‘Horror of Dracula’ was a hit. Christopher Lee was an instant sex symbol. In fact, the whole ‘sexy vampires’ bit really started picking up steam with the Hammer Horrors.

So a sequel was necessary. But wait – Dracula had been utterly destroyed by sunlight! He was nothing but a windblown bunch of ash. Hmm, what to do, what to do? Surprisingly, they did not simply resurrect the Count. Seemed a bit farfetched, after all, much like the later Universal films where you just pulled out the stake and Drac popped right back up again. So they came up with a sequel that allowed them to get around the problem.

Brides of Dracula‘Brides of Dracula’ (1960) does not have Dracula in it, nor any of his Brides. The title refers to, umm . . .

Well, there ARE vampires in it! And so is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, still on his mission to eradicate the “ancient cult of vampirism”.

In this case, Helsing is up against the Baron Meinster (seriously, ‘Meinster’) who, after being freed from years of captivity, is now working his way through the local girls’ school.

Now, while audiences certainly missed Christopher Lee’s Dracula, this was a great sequel. Van Helsing is great, the vampires are cool, the final confrontation at the windmill is epic, the bat scenes are okay – wait. The first movie established that vampires don’t turn into bats! Oh, well. Some do. Deal with it.

But the most memorable scene is when Van Helsing gets bitten(!) Fortunately, our hero knows just what to do. I’m not gonna spoil it for you, but Cushing’s Helsing is one tough hombre. Hugh Jackman would run away from HIM.

While the movie isn’t bad (it is my favorite of the series), it wasn’t Dracula. Hammer made a completely unrelated vamp flick next (‘Kiss of the Vampire’), but this just was not working. They HAD to bring Drac back. But how?

Dracula, Prince of Darkness‘Dracula, Prince of Darkness’ is probably the most well-liked of all the sequels. This 1966 release brought back Christopher Lee as the Count, although Van Helsing was absent. It also established the formula of the rest of the series, which is unfortunate, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The story is simple: after a quick recap of the ending of ‘Horror of Dracula’ we find two couples on holiday years later who end up at Castle Dracula through the magic of coincidence. While the Count is still dead, his manservant Klove – whom we’ve never seen before – can fix that. That night, Klove snatches one of the unlucky group, hoists him up over Dracula’s tomb (I don’t even want to THINK about how he managed to gather up all the Count’s ashes) and slits his throat. The blood pours onto the ashes and, yep, Dracula is back in action! People die, a vampire chick gets staked, there’s a final confrontation and Drac gets drowned. Because it’s running water. That’s actually a legitimate bit of folklore, so why not?

This movie is really good but, sadly, it’s the last really good one of the bunch. Lee never speaks in the film, so Dracula merely snarls and hisses, but strangely, that doesn’t hurt the movie at all. Also, the Count has upgraded his wardrobe, so now he has a black cape with a red lining. Lee’s Dracula also, from this film forward, wears a duplicate of the Dracula signet ring worn by Bela Lugosi.

The real tragedy is that from here on out, every Dracula movie starts with the Count being revived somehow, he causes trouble for a few days or so, then he’s dispatched AGAIN. And each time, they try to resurrect and destroy him a different way, so it reaches a point where it’s hard to take the Count seriously as a threat. I mean, it seems like one good sneeze will inevitably cause a roof beam to break loose or something and it will ALWAYS fall right into his chest. Add in the piles of spikes and such just strewn about the countryside and really, it gets to a point where you wonder how Dracula managed to survive for centuries when he’s so comically easy to kill! And sure, he always comes back, but it tends to get repetitive after a while. For several movies, nobody watching seemed to mind too awful much.

That’s enough for today – too much blood, too much gore, and too many heaving bosoms! We’ll pick up Monday with ’Dracula Has Risen From the Grave’…

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