Films, like music, belong to a certain time and place, and those that are immediately successful, as opposed to finding success gradually in aging like fine wine, tend to come out at the perfect time, when audiences are ready for them. I’m thinking of Psycho and Star Wars. And, on a smaller scale, Hammer’s first two big monster films—The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and Dracula (1958), which emerged when post-WWII audiences were hungry for a more visceral form of entertainment.
American studios (Warner Bros and Universal, respectively) were amazed at how cheaply Hammer was able to make such lavish-looking films, with comparatively sophisticated acting. Although distinctly low-budget, the studio had at its disposal some of Britain’s finest artisans working in cinema during that period. Thanks to production designer Bernard Robinson and composer James Bernard, as well as director Terence Fisher, and cinematographer Jack Asher, the early films, especially, looked gorgeous in full color, and, especially in Dracula, the bright red blood flowed freely. This kickstarted the great Gothic horror revival that lasted into the late 70s.
Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula were both important for another reason; it was the first instance of British filmmakers tackling these two homegrown literary warhorses, thus placing Hammer in direct lineage with Britain’s Gothic storytelling tradition.
Bram Stoker’s original novel, Dracula, has been adapted for the screen many times, but never in a literal way. This is only partially due to budget limitations; the book includes a whole array of expensive setpieces such as ocean voyages, the vast English countryside, etc. The other reason, I believe, is the constantly shifting point of view. After meeting Dracula in his Transylvanian castle, the action moves to England where the whole structure of the book turns puzzle-like. We learn of Dracula’s activities through a series of diary entries and testimonies of various people. Thus almost every chapter is a shift in point of view. Coppola in his 1992 version of Dracula perhaps came closest to realizing the complexity of this structure, but even he wasn’t very strict about it. Hitchcock managed to tell the aforementioned Psycho from four strict points of view (five, if you count the mother at the end), but, I think, most filmmakers would find it too daunting to adapt Dracula as Stoker wrote it.
Jimmy Sangster, Hammer’s screenwriter, had even more immediate problems to worry about. Hammer’s tiny budget would not allow for any of Stoker’s setpieces. And so Harker’s initial journey to the castle is cut down to one shot of a carriage riding along a country road. Similarly, Dracula’s ocean journey between Transylvania and England is cut down to a carriage ride to a neighboring town, somewhere in Central Europe. Hammer couldn’t afford to turn Dracula into a bat or wolf either, so this limitation was written into the script as “a common fallacy.”
Considering the logistical limitations that Hammer faced, it’s remarkable just how much of the novel’s atmosphere they manage to convey in their streamlined adaptation. This is largely due to the artists listed above, but also, in no small measure, to the magnetic presence of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing plays Prof. Van Helsing in much the same way Brian Donlevy played Quatermass two years earlier for Hammer; a man of science with a streak of ruthlessness. Christopher Lee appears in the film for a total of 9 minutes and 35 seconds, approximately, yet his presence haunts the entire film in exactly the same way Stoker’s vampire did. The whole emphasis of the narrative is shifted from a creeping sense of menace and evil to kinetic action–nowhere better exemplified than in the library scene where Lee’s full animal savagery is on display. This emphasis on action goes a long way toward mitigating a relative lack of dread, and particularly the absence of a buildup at the start of the film, before we get to the castle and meet its host.
In 2007, the BFI did a full restoration of the film which was re-released in UK cinemas. There was some controversy due to the film’s new color timing veering more toward colder tones than people were used to, but the overall effect still looked quite pleasing. In 2012, Hammer Films added to the BFI restoration, by inserting some additional shots, (hitherto cut), from a newly discovered Japanese version of the film. The added footage includes a longer shot of Lee biting Melissa Stribling in bed—originally cut by censors for being too overtly sexual—and an extended disintegration scene at the end, showing Dracula scraping rotted flesh from his face, among other things. The added footage looks rather more faded than the rest of the film, which distracts from full enjoyment, but is certainly interesting to watch. My one complaint about Hammer’s restoration is that whoever re-edited the sound, badly messed up the music track during the disintegration. James Bernard’s very clear and menacing descending scale now sounds like a bit of a mess. Interestingly, the original Japanese print sounds much better in that section.
In 2013, both the BFI theatrical cut and Hammer’s restored cut were released on blu-ray in the UK by Lionsgate Films, which also boasted some impressive extras. Then, at the end of 2017, German company, Anolis Entertainment released their own blu-ray addition, using the same master as Lionsgate, but adding a further 3 seconds to the disintegration scene. Technically, this is now the longest version in existence.
Now, Warner Bros. themselves have released the first American blu-ray edition of the film, which brings both pluses and minuses. Most notably, while using BFI’s 2007 restoration as its foundation, Warner Bros. has abandoned Hammer’s Japanese footage restoration, and present only BFI’s original theatrical version, which is just as well with me, because, at least. the music during Dracula’s demise now sounds right. The other important change is the color timing, which now restores some of the film’s warmth; all to the good. This is much closer to the way the film looked in a US theater where I saw it projected a long time ago. The only drawback is that a certain amount of black crush has been introduced in shadow areas, which wasn’t there in previous blu-ray releases. This is apparent mostly in Dracula’s cape and in other dark clothing, but also in some of the shadowy sets.
There are no issues with the vintage sound that I can detect.
The only extra feature is the original Universal trailer (presented in 1080p), which is different from the Warner trailer we usually see, and is very welcome.
A recommended release, from Warner Bros., of a groundbreaking and very entertaining film, if with hardly any extra features.