Restored Hammer classic boasts extra bite

Hard to credit now the shrieks of outrage, the shudders of refined critical distaste, that greeted the House of Hammer’s first reworking of the greatest of all vampire myths.

Today, Terence Fisher’s rendition of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel is a much-loved classic, one of the twin pillars - along with the previous year’s The Curse Of Frankenstein - on which Hammer built its near 20-year reign as the world’s premier purveyor of horror movies.

A film that once proudly brandished its X certificate - “Don’t Dare See It Alone!” hissed the posters - now reappears as an innocuous 12.

It must be admitted that, compared to today’s slew of vampiric offerings (yes, even the teen-friendly Twilight franchise), Fisher’s movie looks pretty staid - even, whisper it, a little tame.

But at the time of its release, it brought something new and disconcerting to the story.

First off, colour.

Universal’s Dracula series of the ’30s and ’40s  had all been in black and white,and in any case featured very little blood.

Hammer went for full, vivid colour. Making the most of Fisher’s instinct for lush Victoriana, it was clearly lit (in contrast with Universal’s noirish shadows) and let the blood flow free.

Even more crucially, by going back to Stoker’s original novel (Universal’s 1931 version was drawn from a much-adapted stage play), Hammer reintroduced a key element: sex.

Stoker’s Count is an urbane patrician seducer, undermining complacent Victorian society by exerting his fatal, sensual charm on its innocent maidens and virtuous wives.

Here the casting of Christopher Lee, the first British actor to play the role, was beyond ideal. Commandingly tall (6ft5) with dark good looks hinting at something exotic (Italian on his mother’s side) and a richly melodious baritone voice, Lee exuded a dangerous sexuality that neither of his main predecessors (Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s chilling Stoker rip-off Nosferatu, Universal’s Hungarian-hammy Bela Lugosi) could come within a mile of.

Lee went on to play dracula six more times for Hammer, but nothing beat his first appearance here as a sinister silhouette at the top of the stairs, gazing down silently at John Van eyssen’s hapless Jonathan Harker.

He has barely a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole film, but his eyes speak volumes. True, few of the supporting players are up to much, though Miles Malleson’s chortling undertaker adds a divertingly farcical note.

Van Eyssen is bland, Michael Gough appears disengaged as Arthur Holmwood, while Melissa Stribling and Carol Marsh as Drac’s victims are eyelash-batting dolly birds straight out of Vogue.

Luckily there’s the wonderfully cool, incisive Professor Van Helsing of Peter Cushing, a worthy opponent for the count. In real life Lee and Cushing were close friends with great mutual regard; they play off each other impeccably.

For this triple-disc re-release - DVD, Blu-ray and a munificent stack of extras - Lionsgate has been able to draw on painstaking, frame-by-frame restoration work by the BFI, Molinare and Deluxe 142. The results? Nothing short of superb.

The film’s original ratio of 1.66:1, mangled on most DVD releases, is restored and the colour has been regraded, regaining the overall blue-tinged palette intended by DoP Jack Asher and doing full justice to Bernard Robinson’s scrupulously detailed set design. (A master of economy, Robinson recycled the same basic set for four different venues within Dracula’s castle. See if you can spot them all!)

Even better, some of the material deleted at the BBFC’s behest has been replaced in context. The British censor, predictably dismayed at the eroticism on display, had demanded multiple cuts.

However, an uncut print was preserved in a Japanese archive. A fire destroyed the first five reels, but reels six to nine survived.

Though badly damaged by water, this material has supplied two episodes - the count’s seduction of Mina and his final disintegration - that have been restored to pristine condition and re-integrated.

A detailed account of the restoration work and all four of the surviving Japanese reels are among the lavish extras in this three-disc set.

We also get a featurette about the making that includes interviews with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and cast member Janina Faye (aka Tania, the small girl lured away by the undead Mina); a talk by professorial movie buff Sir Christopher Frayling (“after 1958, everybody writes about sex in Dracula”); a dual voiceover commentary; a TV programme on Hammer, narrated by Oliver Reed; a reading from the novel by Faye to an audience at the Vault Festival; a substantial booklet and the shooting script (both on PDF); and an account of the film’s censorship battles. (Phew!)

The latter includes some strikingly revealing quotes from the censorship board. One member objected strongly to “the uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster,” adding that “of course, some of the stake-work is prohibitive”.

Equally entertaining are Sangster’s own recollections of fashioning the script in the teeth of Hammer’s notoriously frugal approach: no sea voyage, no transformation of Drac into wolves or bats and only one Bride of Dracula in place of three.

Thanks to this penny-pinching, the movie was brought in for £81,400. Bloody impressive, eh?

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