What Is British Cinema?: "Dracula" (1958)

The golden age of Hammer Horror—the hugely successful horror franchise launched by Britain’s Hammer Film Productions—ran from the late 1950s through the 1960s, and revived many of the screen monsters from the 1930s Universal catalog.  Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula, dir. Terence Fisher, 1958) marked the first appearance by the great Christopher Lee in the title role, starring opposite Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.  As far as adaptations of the Bram Stoker novel go, it’s fairly loose stuff.  Jonathan Harker dies during his initial visit to Castle Dracula, whereupon Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood become our heroes.  There’s also some general shuffling-around of Lucy and Mina; these are basically a set of stock characters who have been given names out of Stoker.  Come to think of it, has there ever been a completely faithful adaptation of that damned book?  (In spite of its title, Bram Stoker’s Dracula [dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1992] certainly takes its liberties with the source material.) 

As charming and fun as Hammer’s Dracula is, it’s a revealing example of how much horror cinema was changed by what Pauline Kael called the “Gothic horror comedies” of the 1960s (PsychoRosemary’s BabyNight of the Living Dead).  The modern (i.e., post-Psycho) horror film not only sports more graphic sex and violence, but also sports a savvier, more deliciously ironic sensibility toward its subject matter that makes almost everything that came before look square by comparison.  In the Dracula of 1958, made just before the turn into modern horror, we’re still stuck in the dreary tropes of the classical period:  cobwebs, creaking vaults.  Movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho—to say nothing of later masterpieces like Carrie and The Shining—brushed aside the cobwebs and moved horror out of the graveyard and into the living room, the bedroom, the apartment building, the high school, the suburb, out of old-world Europe and into modern-day America.  If Christopher Lee’s Dracula is still iconic, he looks sadly quaint next to the likes of Norman Bates and Michael Myers.

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