It seems somewhat ironic that a country so set on suppression would help instil and depict the inextricable link between sex, horror and death and yet long after the rise of German Expressionist and Universal horror in the States – in which the heimlich and unheimlich were visually portrayed amid ideologies of repression and scepticism – British horror cinema only really emerged in the 1950s following decades of censorship. Among those banned were The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ( 1920, dir. Robert Wiene), Nosferatu (1922, dir. F.W. Murnau) and Freaks (1932, dir. Tod Browning) and significant cuts were made to Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Browning’s Dracula (1931). The British censors appeared to completely overlook the cathartic effect of the horror film until the birth of Hammer (so named after co-founder William Hinds’ stage name). These films were defined by a number of factors including a restrained style and the use of colour, their settings were often historical (cleverly to avoid censorship), with themes of patriarchal authority, class divide and the notion of ‘maleness’ prevalent. These male characters were often given priority within the ideological diegesis and fought emasculation in one form or other. The films, more often than not, also included the inimitable partnership of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and for a time Hammer revelled in its elusive quality, screen splendor, and success but by the 1970s the lauded films became a distant memory as each new movie lost vigour, became more derivative and relied upon overt eroticism to maintain its popularity, in a series of films I like to refer to as Carry On…Hammer.
Thankfully Dracula (1958, dir. Terence Fisher) was one made within Hammer’s ‘Golden Age’ (1957-1964) and, since its 2007 restoration by the BFI, is released on 3-disc DVD and Blu-ray on the 18th March 2013 replete with scenes that have been unavailable for decades and a great deal of extras: including a variety of featurettes, commentaries, and interviews with cast members, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and fans of the film like Sir Christopher Grayling, Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss. The actual print is glorious and beautifully restored showcasing the film’s palette of colour and lush, decadent sets comprising of inviting heavy drapes, dark wood and blazing fires. While audiences are familiar with Stoker’s 1897 tale, there are liberties taken, by Sangster, with the story. Dr. van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives at Castle Dracula to investigate the disappearance of his colleague and protégé Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen). Jonathan became the librarian to The Count (Christopher Lee) as a cover, while his true intention is “to end Dracula’s reign of terror.” This reign includes the seduction of both his fiancée Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh) and her older, married sister, Mina (Melissa Stribling) which builds to a fantastic finale accompanied by James Bernard’s terrifying and haunting score.
If Schreck’s rat-like Nosferatu was a subtext for plague and a ‘fear-of the foreigner’ and Lugosi’s thick Hungarian accent and histrionics made an attempt to aid the supernatural elements of a walking corpse, specifically in his slow pacing and deliberate enunciation of broken English. There was/is an eerie charm to his Count, however, it was not until Christopher Lee’s portrayal was sex so obviously aligned with Dracula and he became the ‘lover’; a sexual and provocative nuance to the role has continued with Frank Langella (1979), Gary Oldman (1992) and, dare I say, Gerard Butler (2000). Lee brings the virile, exotic ‘other’ to sex up the Victorian bourgeoisie; a formidable task given his thirteen lines of dialogue and lots of hissing. Make no mistake, despite its roots within the British stiff-upper lipped realm where evil is pronounced with a hard ‘e’ and ending in ‘ville’, this is a film about sex, marriage, adultery and seduction and well worth a re-visit in its original uncut, splendiferous, form.