It’s a lost art, perhaps one of the lesser known signs of the true gentleman, but Peter Cushing is able to do up a double-breasted suit while holding a lit cigarette, later holding a nicotine stained figure up in emphasis. It’s a detail you’d be hard pressed to pick out in any of the more naturalistic, and arguably more realistic and relatable, horror movies of the Sixties and Seventies.
It’s easy to focus on the all-new special features, the luscious HD transfer, and of course the deleted scenes, restoring the crucial original edit of Hammer‘s definitive movie some 55 years after it was viciously attacked by the somewhat prudish censors of Fifties Britain, but the truth is that every time you watch or rewatch 1958’s Dracula (known in the US as The Horror Of Dracula), you notice something new.
Most of the something new comes from three camps, the incredible performances from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the decadent cinematography and set design, and the wonderfully tight and reductive screenplay that trimmed much of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel. Rather tell a cheap and short story well, than a long and expensive story badly seemed to be the philosophy, thus eliminating wolves, bats, ships, asylums, gypsies and a chase across half of Europe in favour of a carraige dash across an Austro-Hungarian border, complete with comedy, face-slapping customs official on loan from an Ealing caper.
Cushing, here at the height of his formidable powers, exudes the timeless class and steely precision that once ruled British cinema, while Lee, at the beginning of his career as a leading man looms and glowers, punching a black hole in the light and life of each scene with his flinty glare. Unable to show (or afford) the Count’s otherworldly nature in all its wall-crawling, transmogrifying majesty, Lee is instead called upon to project it through presence alone, drifting from almost elemental inscrutability as to irresistible force as he effortlessly escapes the clunky machinations of would be vampire slayer John Harker, and ensnares the women of the Holmwood house in his animalistic thrall.
Though Lee came to resist the role and fear the fluttering bat-wings of typecasting, his appearance in later efforts becoming all the more begrudging and embittered, here there’s no denying how definitive a performance it is for his career, to which the vast majority of his future roles are indebted.
While Sangster‘s script treats the original novel as a children’s home toy box of scuffed characters and battered ideas (and the liberties taken are still jarring for fans of Bram Stoker’s inconsistent masterwork), Lee’s Dracula is a far more commanding and physical presence than the carrion Count Orlock, or Bela Lugosi’s sexless methuselah, and through that more true to Bram Stoker’s conservative paranoia, his fear of swathy foreigners, alien cultures and sexual predators seeking to hollow out the moral Camelot of Victorian England.
Modest ambition on a miniscule budget was clearly what Hammer did best, and using a minimum of sets, mere seconds of locations and barely double figure supporting cast allows the production team to emphasise what they do have, decking out baroque splendour for Castle Dracula and floral cosiness for the Holmwood house, and equally atmospheric streets, subterranean undertakers and a fog-caked graveyard.
The sad reality of the film’s age leaves the extras largely in the hands of fans and academics – the former camp featuring Mark Gatiss and Kim Newman – and what must be one of the last interviews from the fantastic Jimmy Sangster. What they lack in eyewitnesses, they make up for with thoroughness, with an incredible piece on Hammer’s long running battle with the British Board of Film Censors of particular interest given those recently restored deleted scenes.
Doubtless you ever really thought of Dracula as incomplete. But after watching the all new restoration – there is a slight dip in quality food the new scenes, which have been restored from a fire-damaged, water-logged Japanese print, but not to the extent you’d have though – it’s inconceivable you’d go back, the original theatrical climax seeming now strangely abrupt. The option is available though, should you wish to watch the 1958 theatrical release in its 2007 HD transfer, but to finally see Hammer’s true vision tells a more complete story about the sex and the violence that made the studio’s name, the astonishing physical effects that would need another two decades to better, and the terrible lover who would not die.
More than just an aspic preservation or white glove restoration of one of the most important genre films ever as some sort of museum piece, this is a celebration, that brings Dracula to life over and over again, and without upsetting Christopher Lee in the process…