Friday, January 22, 2010

Hammer Horror - Dracula and Brides of Dracula

Part of the aim of writing this blog and of taking more notice of what I watch, is to improve my general film knowledge and to encourage me to fill in some of the gaps - whole genres and famous names that I know little or nothing about.

Sometime of course, fishing about in new genres just isn't appealing and I'll settle back into the safety of the Spaghetti Western or a predictably nonsense 'horror' film - like Attack of the Killer Shrews. Recent viewing however has seen me beginning to get to grips with classic American Film Noir (about which I'm sure I'll write something soon) and, for this post, the wonderful world of Hammer Horror.

I'm not quite sure how on earth I'd gone for so long with very little awareness of Hammer's output. As a firm fan of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, with a fondness for slighly camp British horror of the last few decades, how had I never really become a Hammer fan?

Thankfully, I am now very much a Hammer fan. I bought A New Heritage of Horror by David Pirie (I.B.Tauris, £15) which, however much he tries to deny it in his introduction, is basically a history of Hammer's film output. And none the worse for it. Much as my love of Zombie films was gently lead and guided by Jamie Russell's Book of the Dead (Fab Press, £11), I found myself flicking through this book with a growing list of scribbled down "must-see" titles.

I started with X: The Unknown (radioactive slime crawls out from the centre of the planet and munches its way through some tasty radioactive things), Hound of the Baskevilles (Good fun adaptation) and The Devil Rides Out - which I enjoyed a lot and might have to re-watch and review)

My now fairly strong feeling that I was onto something rather wonderful was confirmed when I moved onto the Dracula series. So let's start at the begining shall we?

Hammer's 1958 version of Dracula is brilliant. THere are flaws a plenty but I think it'd be hard not to enjoy the film. It's well-paced, ever-so British and it has Christopher Lee draining the blood from those around him. What's not to like?

It was one of Hammer's first widescreen and colour production and really does look beautiful - although the colour of the blood is decidedly more akin to strawberry than it perhaps should be. Though obviously not being produced on a massive budget, the sets are wonderful, Dracula's Transylvanian castle is as real as you could hope for and the whole film carries its gothic mood wonderfully.

Budget constraints did force them to savage the plot somewhat (Johnathon Harker's family now live er... right near the castle) and many elelments are missing but this doesn't particularly hurt the film in itself. Whilst it might suffer in comparison to the novel, the story that remains is strong enough and moves along at a decent pace, aided no doubt by some brilliant acting. Christopher Lee is a perfect Dracula; just the right balance of menace, charm and pointy-teeth, whilst Cushing is brilliant in the somewhat more understated part of Van Helsing.

The film was one of Hammer's biggest successes and sold well the world over....

....So they made some more.

Needless to say, Hammer quickly realised that having Dracula destroyed at the end of the first film wasn't really the smartest move - they needed more vampire and they needed it now! Similarly awkward was Christopher Lee's absence; David Pirie writes that it's unknown whether he flat-out refused or asked for more money than Hammer could spend. Either way, he wasn't coming back. So neither was Dracula.

Infact, the follow-up to Dracula, 1960's The Brides of Dracula is pretty surprising as a Dracula film for er.... not having Dracula in it.

It's still pretty good fun; Cushing returns as Van Helsing who really does just happen to be in the right place at the right time all over again and is on hand to help stop the rise of the Baron Meinster who has escaped from his perpetual confinement and has gone on a bit of a rampage, sinking his teeth into the necks of the women he meets.

It's another good fun film, although there's decidedly less tension to it - despite the fact that I didn't already know the story, this Baron was so much less charismatic, so much less calm and cool, that I really did struggle to imagine him winning. Needless to say, he doesn't.

What it loses in tension and atmosphere -especially in the second half - however, it does mostly make up for by being generally a lot of fun. And we like fun films, right?

Of course we do.