Monday, October 27, 2014

Third Annual October Scares, Week Four: Hammer's Count Dracula Rises Again

The 3rd annual Eclectic Avenue October Scares-fest concludes with a double dose of Dracula. In the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer Films began reviving many of the classic monsters that were a staple of Universal’s horror films of the 1930s & 40s. The difference with Hammer’s versions is that they were in color, and more graphic & suggestive than their earlier counterparts. The company’s first major hit was The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) starring Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his monstrous creation. That movie's success led to a host of other fright film releases thru the 1970s, including Lee’s striking portrayal of Count Dracula, beginning with:

Horror of Dracula (1958) – When Jonathan Harker, the new librarian & archivist at Castle Dracula, disappears, his colleague Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) investigates, and finds that Harker has met a terrifying fate at Dracula’s hands. What follows is a battle of wits & wills between Van Helsing & Dracula (Christopher Lee) as the powerful vampire stalks Harker’s fiancé Lucy and her family. Can Van Helsing stop the undead Count in time? Hammer veteran Terence Fisher directed this dark & terrifying take on Bram Stoker’s classic. The movie features Lee’s commanding performance as Dracula, along with Cushing’s fine take on the steadfast, unflappable vampire hunter Van Helsing. Their classic confrontation in the finale is one of the most memorable sequences in the Hammer canon. Horror of Dracula stands out as one of the best versions of this classic tale; it's considered by many fans to be Hammer’s definitive horror film.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965) – Cushing reprised his role as Van Helsing for 1960’s The Brides of Dracula, featuring a disciple of Dracula stalking victims at a girl’s school. However, Lee did not appear in that film. Lee did return in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, as the Count terrorizes two vacationing couples that stay in his castle, not realizing the identity of their host. Dracula doesn’t speak in the film (according to some reports, Lee hated the dialogue written for him and refused to utter it) but that works in the character’s favor, as he’s literally a silent force of evil that tries to consume or destroy anyone in his path, especially the lovely ladies in the film, played by Barbara Shelley & Suzan Farmer. Since Cushing doesn’t appear as Van Helsing here, it’s up to Father Sandor (the excellent Andrew Keir, also featured in Hammer’s Quatermass & The Pit) an unorthodox priest, to rescue the unlucky travelers from Dracula. Also directed by Terence Fisher, Dracula, Prince of Darkness led to even more vampire-themed films from Hammer, and Lee returned to the role five more times.

The Curse of Frankenstein & Horror of Dracula began the Hammer horror cycle, but in many ways Dracula, Prince of Darkness solidified it, just as Goldfinger (1964) became the template for all the 007 films that followed. It features all the elements that Hammer fans remember: a touch of gore, lovely ladies threatened by an evil monster or dark force, thrilling music & great Gothic atmosphere & sets. It may not be the best film in the Hammer Dracula series, but it’s one of the most exciting & well-produced entries. It's tough to beat Hammer's 50s & 60s films when you're looking for some old school thrills, chills & fun. Horror of Dracula is available on DVD in various collections, and Dracula: Prince of Darkness is available on Blu-ray in a gorgeous HD transfer. That disc includes several extras, including a commentary by Lee & some of the other stars of the film. Here are links to trailers for Horror of Dracula: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkAnAqB70Ag and Dracula, Prince of Darkness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udqm1gw28xo.

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