This piece was originally published (as a review of DVD releases of Dracula – under its US title The Horror of Dracula – and The Curse of Frankenstein) in Video Watchdog. It was written before the discovery of the Japanese version that has allowed for a more thorough restoration on BluRay.
We last looked at these cornerstones of Hammer horror (VW 20: 67, 21:69) as Japanese laserdiscs. Both have, of course, been available on homevideo and laser in various versions in America, Britain and around the world, and are doubtless familiar to anyone reading this from theatrical revivals, frequent television screenings and an entire library of critical interpretation and historical scholarship. These are films you don’t have a position on, but a relationship with: in reviewing the FRANKENSTEIN laser, Tim Lucas states that his fondness for the film had ‘dissipated considerably over the last decade or so’ but was restored by that edition.
One’s feelings for Terence Fisher’s reinventions of the key texts of the horror film are affected by the specifics of each new re-release, but are also influenced by other factors – the familiarity not only of the films themselves but of their sequels and imitations, the way that elements of the genre which originate here have become so prevalent that innovations seem old hat. Few horror films are as beloved as this pair and few were more eagerly awaited on DVD. Given the the existence of extras-packed Anchor Bay discs of their worst sequels SCARS OF DRACULA and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, there has understandably been disappointment that Warner Home Video should opt for frill-free packages along the lines of their disc of THE MUMMY. Symptomatic of the lack of care taken with these titles is the lame tagline (Christopher Lee’s fang-tastic, first-ever performance as the Lord of the Undead’) and a misplaced still of Stephanie Beacham in DRACULA AD 1972 on the DRACULA keepcase (FRANKENSTEIN has a still of Peter Cushing and Yvonne Furneaux from THE MUMMY!).
Even the ubiquitous Christopher Lee, who contributes a featurette interview and a reading to the MGM disc of Hammer and Fisher’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, is absent – though one of the surprises of rewatching the films is how brief his appearances are in both the films that sealed his reputation as a horror star. Lee gets more onscreen time as a stooge in BASKERVILLES than as the monster macguffin brought to life fifty minutes into FRANKENSTEIN or the title Count who has no dialogue after the first reel of DRACULA. It is fruitless to complain about what these discs are not, when there is still much to be said about what they are.
Paradoxically, the differences between the Warner Hammer and the Anchor Bay Hammer indicates the difference in status between the titles the companies are releasing: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA have cachet enough to stand alone as mainstream titles, obviously essential to any broad-based movie library, while the copy-of-a-copy sequels can only cling to cultishness and need the accoutrements of pitched-to-the-fans special editions to attract any interest. To play to a non-specialist viewer, the Warner releases need only the qualities and extras expected of the DVD medium. Both titles boast probably the best-looking (if not framed) transfers the films have had since their original theatrical engagements.
The major beneficiaries of presentation of these films in DVD format are director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, production designer Bernard Robinson, stars Cushing and Lee, make-up man Phil Leakey and a handful of very valuable comedy bit-players. Those whose reputations are liable to slide a notch include screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (the immediate sequels, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, where Sangster’s work is augmented by others credited and uncredited, feel a lot less like ‘first drafts’ than his efforts here), stuffy leading men Robert Urquhart and Michael Gough and whichever nameless functionary decided HORROR OF DRACULA needed to be overmatted for 16×9 (the last Warner UK video release more sensibly opted for 14:9).
Because overly tight-framing irritatingly slices off the tops of many heads like breakfast eggs, DRACULA is the less-pleasing of the discs. In an unscientific experiment, I looked at a random five minutes of the film and found thirteen shots where the misframing severely or mildly compromised the compositions as opposed to seven which seemed okay. FRANKENSTEIN is also presented in 16×9 but the framing is never a problem, suggesting the film was composed for more severe theatrical matting or that Robinson allowed more headroom and Asher didn’t get quite as close to the actors – it may also be that many shots in FRANKENSTEIN are more obviously suited to horizontals as two scientists stand over a creature laid out on a table.
Robinson and Asher give the films different design and colour schemes, though both contrast chintzy, cosy domestic spaces with more bizarre environments (the laboratory, the castle) associated with the title menaces. FRANKENSTEIN looks so good on DVD that for the first time in any home entertainment medium it is possible to see that the titles play against swirling red smoke rather than solid background.
Throughout, one is almost distracted from the storyline by details highlighted in the transfer: the nap on Urquhart’s burnt orange top hat, the distressing of Cushing’s lab-clothes (his famous gesture of wiping bloody fingers on his lapel is emphasised by the fact that there’s already a stain there, suggesting this is a habit not a one-off), pinkish or turquoise solutions bubbling away in laboratory retorts, Hazel Court’s powdered shoulders and decolletage, the trickling damp on the wall of the prison cell. Hammer’s first horror in colour, FRANKENSTEIN relishes the chance to show off many shades of Eastmancolor, but DRACULA has a more considered palette, as displayed by its startling opening – blood-red titles over grey-blue castle and crypt views, with scarlet gore splashing on the nameplate on Dracula’s catafalque as a punchline without narrative excuse. The castle scenes are aptly chill and desolate, but the warmer spaces later invaded by the Count suggest Asher was taking a cue from the title of an earlier Fisher Hammer film, BLOOD ORANGE.
To avoid legal entanglements with Universal (whose American copyright on one-word title versions of these stories prompted the transatlantic retitling of DRACULA), THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN prominently bills itself as ‘based on the classic story by Mary W. Shelley’. The brief for these films was to establish clear blue water between their takes and those of the Universal cycle, though elements from the earlier movie versions filter through in disguise: the criminal brain slipped in by a clumsy minion in James Whale’s film becomes a genius brain ruined by a recalcitrant minion (the novel has no truck with brains).
Sangster adopts something very much like Universal’s approach: taking key plot elements from the books and essentially developing a fresh story, reinterpreting the main characters to suit the cast and the approach. In both films, Cushing plays a ruthless and single-minded protagonist, the evil Baron Victor Frankenstein and the good Dr Van Helsing, hindered and nagged throughout by characters supposed to be the films’ conventional heroes. Paul Krempe (Urquhart) and Arthur Holmwood (Gough) come across as dreary wet blankets and are constantly bungling situations to make things worse, as when Paul struggles with Victor over the genius brain obtained by murder and smashes it thus ensuring the monstrousness of the monster or Arthur refuses to let Van Helsing use his vampirised sister Lucy (Carol Marsh) to track the Count to his lair and thus endangers his own wife Mina (Melissa Stribling). It doesn’t help that both actors are well off form, with Gough in particular giving murderously bad line readings that seem to make Cushing visibly impatient.
The trick of building a story around Cushing’s often-frustrated desires works so well in FRANKENSTEIN that it is repeated in DRACULA, where it makes for a radical and somewhat odd rethink of the material. Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN is the story of Victor’s quest to make a creature and then improve his results, becoming more unethical as he fixates on his goal and then more desperate as the project falls apart. Likewise, Hammer’s DRACULA is the story of Van Helsing’s determination to end the monster’s reign of terror despite the unreliability of everyone he enlists in his crusade.
In most versions of Stoker, the plot motor is the lust for blood which leads Dracula to leave his castle in search of fresh prey; here, Lee’s Count is someone who wants his library catalogued, though no reason is ever given why the vampire would even be interested. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) comes to the castle as an agent of Van Helsing, plotting to assassinate his host (though he seems ill-prepared and blunders swiftly to his death).
The Count’s actions in the remainder of the film are motivated by revenge, not for the temerity of Van Helsing but for Harker’s staking of his vampire companion (Valerie Gaunt), which is why he goes after Harker’s fiancee and sister-in-law. The approach puts the Count on the back-foot as a villain: undoubtedly evil, he is also someone whose open hospitality is sorely abused by an employee treated as a guest who is actually out to kill him. Only the warmth Cushing shows in scenes with victims makes Van Helsing a hero, just as Victor’s whiny petulance when thwarted or terrified makes him a villain.
Sometimes, Sangster’s plotting or dialogue is just plain sloppy. The structure of FRANKENSTEIN is that Victor is trying to talk his way out of the guillotine to which he has been condemned for the monster’s murders, but in the course of his confession he freely admits to complicity in one of the deaths (Valerie Gaunt’s blackmailing pregnant maid Justine) and coldly committing a murder (of the genius brain donor) he has otherwise got away with. DRACULA has many implausibilities like the preponderance of British names in a middle European community and the uppercrust Holmwoods treating a housekeeper’s child as an equal, not to mention simple flubs like characters addressing the vampire-hunter as ‘Doctor Helsing’ or (in what was almost certainly a Cushing-improvised line) Van Helsing cheering up a child by telling her she looks like a teddy bear (in 1885, well before Teddy Roosevelt gave rise to the term).
Consistently, the films overcome limitations through Fisher’s staging of both action and dialogue scenes and through strong lead or cameo performances. A rarely-mentioned moment for which director, writer and actor deserve credit comes late in FRANKENSTEIN as Victor reveals his lately operated-on Creature to the appalled Paul, and Lee’s hideous monster shows a pathetic flinch of vanity, turning his head to conceal a fresh scar and shaven patch of scalp. This is the heart of the Hammer approach – shocking grue, made human by a surprising touch.