Hammer Films Retrospective (Part III) Dracula

Hammer Films Retrospective (Part III) Dracula

Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was first and foremost a gentleman.  If not necessarily a gentle man.  His father was a Colonel in the King’s 60th Rifles and his mother was an Italian Contessa.  His parents separated at a young age and he and his sister lived with their mother when she moved to Switzerland.  

He took an early interest in acting at school when his mother remarried, he returned to Britain.   He was Stepcousins with Ian Fleming and was introduced to Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Pavlovich, kind of ironic considering he would eventually play Rasputin.  He continued performing in school plays at Summer Field, although he would consistently lose out on the best roles to Patrick MacNee.  When he was seventeen he had to drop out due to his stepfather going bankrupt.  He spent a little time in France but the year was 1939.  He went to Finland with other young men to fight the Soviets but since he couldn’t ski, he was kept in the rear.

When Lee returned home, he joined the RAF and bounced around a bit until he landed in intel due to the number of languages he spoke.  He eventually ended up in Special Operations but he never talked about what he did there, with the possible exception of his performance as Saruman in Return of the King when he insisted that if when you stabbed a man in the lung, a cough is the only sound he’d be capable of. 

After the war, he decided to get into acting professionally.  His Italian cousins helped him there. For the next decade, he trudged around various studios playing minor roles in major productions and major roles in minor productions.  He would later say that this was a great training ground.  While handsome, he looked like he was an Italian and that was something that was NOT in demand in British cinema.  At six-five he was also viewed as inconveniently tall. According to Lee, these were “the first two nails in my coffin.”

Eventually, he answered a casting call for a film company that was known for Quota-Quickies but had recently had some major success with the Quatermass Xperiment. From what I can tell it wasn’t much of an audition.  His height was measured, and he was offered the job on the spot. It was his first title role. The fact that the Creature was mute was actually a plus, anyone can speak a few lines but a physical role is where real skill shows itself. 

Director Terrence Fisher certainly liked what he saw, and decided that the tall, handsome actor with a commanding presence and the foreign looks were just what he needed for Hammer’s next project.  


And after a threatening letter from Universal: Horror of Dracula. 

Again, Hammer had the problem of all manner of legal ravaging being threatened by Universal Studios.  The Curse of Frankenstein hadn’t come out yet. Consequently, this version of Dracula didn’t resemble either the novel or the Lugosi movie. 

Like, Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula would benefit from this greatly.   The film starts with Jonathon Harker arriving at Castle Dracula to do some business, just as the book does.  But then we get a voice-over as Harker writes in his diary.  In this version, he’s not a rabbit caught in the trap.  This Harker is already a vampire hunter and came to the castle specifically to kill the Count.

This is interesting in terms of pacing.  Stoker did a slow reveal with his Dracula, you got a lot of hints that there was something wrong and eventually it built up to the grand reveal that Dracula is a vampire.  Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster decided that they could just skip the “origin story.” Anybody who bought a ticket already knew what Count Dracula was.  He felt he was free to drastically accelerate the pace.  Dracula is gentlemanly when we meet him although when walking next to Harker you only hear one set of footsteps.

The first act functions as a micro-horror movie and it’s one where the good guy loses.  Harker dispatches the Bride but took too much time doing it and the sun went down before he could finish Dracula.  Harker collapses as the Count approaches him.

The guy we thought was the protagonist is dead.  

Act II starts with the arrival of Peter Cushing playing the best *Van Helsing ever.   Peter Cushing portrays a drastically different character from Baron Frankenstein, this Doctor Van Helsing is caring and paternal.   He goes to Castle Dracula and finds that his young protégé Jonathon Harker has now joined the other side.  The scene ends with the broken-hearted good doctor preparing to perform some crude surgery with a stake and hammer.

The voyage of the Demeter was originally planned but had to be cut out of the script due to budget constraints, so now, for whatever reasons the English Holmwood family resides in Carlstadt, an evening’s convenient carriage ride from Castle Dracula. 

So, we arrive in Carlstadt and it becomes obvious what this film will be bringing to the table that Bela Lugosi’s version couldn’t. Raw sexuality. In previous iterations, there was always a bit of seductive undertones but in Horror of Dracula, it was in overtones.  In another switch, Lucy was Harker’s fiancé and Arthur Holmwood’s sister. And Mina was Holmwood’s devoted if frustrated wife.

The first scene of Dracula and Lucy shows her excitedly unlocking and opening the garden doors of her bedroom, then she gracefully reclines back on the bed.  The very picture of a virgin who in her excited fear is awaiting the man who will be her first lover.

The bedroom scene of the happily (if perhaps frustratedly) married Mina Holmwood and Dracula was too hot for English censors who demanded the scene be cut or there would be no release at all.  

For her morning-after scene actress, Mellissa Stribling’s instructions from the director were simple and to the point.  “I want you to look like last night you had the absolute best sex of your life.”

Infidelity on Mina’s part was played up as much as possible.  It turned out that the reason they couldn’t find Dracula was because Mina was keeping him hidden in the cellar. In her closing scene, we see the palm of Mina’s left hand.  There was a 3rd-degree cross burn on her palm but then it fades as Dracula perishes and the camera is centered on her wedding ring. 

Then there was the gore.  Lucy’s staking was the most graphic vampire execution of its day.  In the Lugosi version, all of the Lucy action takes place off camera but in this one you see Vampirism wasting away a poor girl who did nothing to deserve her fate. Then she dies and comes back as a child devouring monster. Just to up the stakes in this version, she attempts the seduction of her own brother before Van Helsing intervenes and in one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, burns her forehead with the mere touch of a cross.  Van Helsing tries to persuade Holmwood to use Lucy to hunt down Dracula.  Arthur won’t have it and insists that her suffering be ended.  In previous versions, you might have a silhouette of a stake being pounded into a coffin, in this version, you see a stake being pounded into Lucy.  Very explicitly with a lot of blood and Carol Marsh giving a prolonged blood-curdling scream throughout the whole process.  Audience members were literally fainting in the aisles during this scene when Horror of Dracula was first released.

The final showdown between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee was extremely action (as opposed to tension) oriented. Props Pete was the one who came up with the idea of using a field expedient cross to drive Dracula into the sunlight. Where Lucy had had a look of serene contentment on her face after her staking, Lee made Dracula’s death that of an animal.

The film was released to universal critical revulsion.

As was the style at the time.

But the box office receipts were gigantic for their day.  Their American distributor had been tottering on the verge of bankruptcy and told Christopher Lee that Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula had saved the studio. 

What it didn’t save was Christopher Lee’s career.  Where his lifelong friend Peter Cushing seemed happy enough to be typecast and employed.  Lee regarded it as “the third nail in my coffin.”  He was trapped in B-movie hell for decades and was frequently stuck playing Dracula. 

It’s a shame he was so dead set against the character that made him a household name.  Bela Lugosi’s count was a Svengali-like manipulator.  More of a tempter.  Christopher Lee on the other hand made his Dracula a figure of menacing power unstoppable by men and desired deeply by women.

Actress Caroline Munro claims that when she was starring in Dracula 1972, she actually swooned when Christopher bit her.

NEXT: Hammer Films Retrospective: The Golden Age

Previous: Hammer Films Curse of Frankenstein

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*Hugh Jackman fans will violently disagree.

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