Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dracula [dir. Terence Fisher]

This is going to be rather embarrassing, but I will first paste in an old review I had done for Hammer Studio's version of Dracula aka Horror of Dracula. The review was written in 2004 for an informal online film discussion group, and going through this you would not think I liked the film as much as I do now. Here goes:
My only earlier experience of the Hammer horrors being the slow-paced and unrewarding Countess Dracula, I thought I would, before dismissing them entirely, give a try to their much praised (among the genre fans) first Dracula film. Well, it's a lot better than Countess Dracula, better paced with the thrills coming along fairly frequently but it remains in most part a clunky, garish effort that doesn't very well stand the test of time.
Jimmy Sangster's script is a very `free adaptation' of [Bram] Stoker's book, cheerfully fooling about with the characters and relationships (Lucy, engaged to Jonathan Harker, is the sister of Arthur Holmwood, who is married to Mina???) and doing away with major chunks of the original plot to fit Hammer's limited means. The film bears a lot of B-movie trademarks – stagey sets, cacophonous music, horrible dialog, and with few exceptions, prosaic visuals. Christopher Lee's Dracula is decent if not too effective in the scares department, and way ahead of his predecessor [Bela] Lugosi's stodgy turn.
The best parts of the movie though are the solid performances of Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. A word about Cushing: He plays Van Helsing more as a vampire hunting Sherlock Holmes and quite rightly since he has such a startling resemblance in his looks and gestures to the beloved sleuth - only the lack of a proper baritone puts him a couple paces behind Jeremy Brett. He and Gough gamely manage to imbue their roles with some dignity in the face of all the ridiculous lines they have to mouth. So in total, this movie won't having tearing your hair out over it but is also nowhere near the must-sees for the current-day horror fan.
Even then I had begun to have second thoughts, since just a few hours after the initial writeup I added a post-scriptum:
I feel that I may have come cross as being a bit too harsh on the film. To be sure, it would have had some powerful shock moments in it's time, when the only Dracula film to reference was the turgid 1931 Lugosi version. It's mainly that the shock value doesn't translate too well today, since it's not accompanied by a strong aesthetic. The sets are not bad in themselves but, unlike Mario Bava's Black Sunday, unimaginative lighting reveals their prop-like quality all too obviously. The performances in general would have made a much better impression if the actors hadn't had to grapple with mostly inept dialog. 
Well, given that nearly a decade later I still enjoy watching the film, enough to drop 18 quid on a blu-ray release, I guess I can shove the "doesn't very well stand the test of time" remark where it came from. Dracula is still not a frightening film unless you're extremely young or extremely simple-minded, but it is a rousing adventure with generous lashings of the sensational. My remarks about the turns by Lee and Michael Gough are also reversed in this span of time. Lee does the best he can with the material at hand (although his absolute lack of dialog after the initial scenes does dampen the impact of the character as anything more than ravening animal), and Gough seems to have a hard time finding a steady tone for his performance, some of his delivery almost amateur drama level.
But one of the big things this new home video release of Dracula based on a 2007 BFI restoration of the film (with some additional work to incorporate previously censored footage found only on a Japanese print) does is, make me reconsider my views on the technical merits and visual aesthetic of the film. Now I was not even born when the film was released in 1958 and have no grounds to speculate on how faithful the new look of the film is to the intentions of its makers. But to mine eye, the film now looks amazing, in a way that it can finally be taken seriously as a product of fine craft. The previous reference for me was the Warner DVD, where the brightness seemed uniform throughout the film and the level was so high it flattened the image, stripping it of visual drama and exposed the budgetary limitations. One of the major changes here is that the brightness and colors are carefully graded to correctly represent the time of day in the scenes. Just this simple act of cohering the script and the visuals instantly boosts the dramatic strength of the scenes. The new restoration is also not afraid of darkening the screen as necessary, even if it means obscuration of previously visible detail. Thus scenes like when Jonathan Harker invades the crypt in Dracula's castle near twilight in the hope of destroying the master look atmospheric instead of stagey. With the readjusted color timing, several scenes have an almost painterly quality to them. If true to the original look of the film, it reveals Terence Fisher to be a far more skilled and careful craftsman than I previously gave him credit for. While I will not say James Bernard's score is equally revelatory this time around,  the several Hammer films I have seen in the interim have made me more comfortable with his style and appreciative of the unique identifying stamp it brought to the studio's output.

So yes, I will gladly eat my erstwhile words regarding  this wonderfully entertaining film. A few additional words for those interested in the blu-ray (which also comes with DVD versions of the new restoration and sundry bonus features, so it's well worth your money even if you aren't yet on the high-def wagon):
Like I have described above, visually the presentation is quite lovely and beyond anything previously seen on home video. It is however soft in appearance, detail is decent but not eye-popping and print damage is still apparent in some scenes. There are however no digital anomalies, and it is unlikely that there will be any better presentation of the film in the near future. The dual-mono lossless audio track faithfully presents the original sound mix, which again means that it's a little on the hollow side, especially when the brass booms in background, but works as intended.
There's a good smattering of extras: A making of featuring interviews with several people including Jimmy Sangster, a documentary on the restoration process and the incorporation of the Japanese footage, and another on the censorship of the film in the UK. This is all good stuff. There is also a commentary track I have not yet sampled, which thankfully doesn't include Christopher Lee. What annoys me is that this premium priced package does not have even a liner note insert but a PDF booklet (which is located in the DVD containing bonus features, but not the blu-ray). It's a minor quibble, but considering that companies like Eureka offer significantly better packaging for their Masters of Cinema releases which incidentally are cheaper than this, it is annoying.

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