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Posts Tagged ‘Denholm Elliott’

You have to admire the nerve shown by the producers of Mystery and Imagination in doing adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula in the same year, especially when the year in question was 1968. If that wasn’t quite the point of peak Hammer Horror, it was certainly thereabouts: the company released Dracula Has Risen From the Grave that year, while it was also the off-year between Frankenstein Created Woman and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Beyond the marquee value of the names of these two most well-known Gothic novels, one wonders if there was any further motivation for doing them – some puritanical impulse to strip them of their Hammer trappings and restore them to their place as Classic Literature, perhaps?

There have been a fearful number of Frankensteins and a dreadful number of Draculas down the years, so the same question applies to the Mystery version of Dracula as to their Frankenstein – how to justify it? What makes it a worthwhile addition to the canon? Doing it as a largely studio-bound, black-and-white video-taped production also brings with it a set of additional challenges. Perhaps because of this, this hardly qualifies as an attempt at doing the novel faithfully – but there is a certain fidelity to Stoker, as we shall see.

The play (directed by Patrick Dromgoole) opens in an asylum somewhere in the Whitby area, where a mysterious inmate (the actor Corin Redgrave in a fright wig) is pleading for water from the attendants. But this is just a ruse, and the madman breaks free from his straitjacket and crashes a party being held upstairs by the proprietor, Dr Seward (James Maxwell). Present are local grande dame Mrs Weston (Joan Hickson) and her strikingly nubile daughter Lucy (Susan George). Less nubile and more noble is another guest, an exiled Eastern European aristocrat who has recently arrived in the area – Count Dracula!

Dracula is played by Denholm Elliott, who would normally seem to be cast against type, were it not that Dracula here is to some extent written against type. Eloquent, bearded, and occasionally wearing dark glasses, such is Elliott’s charisma that his sway over weaker-willed locals seems entirely understandable. The madman is packed off to his cell and Dracula continues to charm his hosts, especially Lucy. Seward remains somewhat sceptical about this new figure on the local scene.

However, the mystery of the lunatic deepens with the appearance of Mina Harker (Suzanne Neve), whose husband Jonathan has disappeared while on a business trip to Transylvania to visit Castle Dracula. Seward has called in his old mentor Doctor Van Helsing (Bernard Archard) to consult, and it transpires that the madman in the asylum is indeed Harker, left unhinged by his experiences abroad (there is a brief, filmed flashback to the goings-on at the castle, and very evocative it is too). But why does Harker call Dracula ‘Master’? Why does Dracula profess not to know who the inmate is? And could it all have anything to do with Lucy suddenly coming down with a bad case of anaemia?

As you can perhaps surmise, Charles Graham’s adaptation performs brisk, reasonable surgery on the sprawling source novel, limiting the setting almost entirely to Whitby and the time period to a few nights. (You do miss the London scenes a bit, to say nothing of Transylvania, but the budget is clearly demandingly limited.) The roles of Renfield and Harker are combined, which makes a certain sense as Harker rarely gets anything interesting to do, while Quincey and Arthur are dropped from the story entirely; I have to confess I didn’t miss them at all.

So it’s a cut-down Dracula but still a surprisingly effective one. What we are left with is a potent brew of graveyards, sex, and outraged Victorian sensibilities, so you could certainly argue that the essentials of the story have certainly survived. This could never have been as lavishly lurid as one of the Christopher Lee movies Hammer were doing at the time, but then for all their definite pleasures those films are so often a kind of schlock pantomime. Bereft of eye-catching production values, this version of Dracula is obliged to dig down into the text and actually engage with it in order to work.

But does it succeed? It is certainly a strikingly different version of this much-told fable. Elliott is certainly a very distinctive Dracula, employing his legendary scene-stealing abilities to full effect. You can imagine Christopher Lee grinding his fake teeth in fury as Dracula is actually given dialogue drawn from Stoker’s novel to deliver, which Elliott does with predictable aplomb. Whether the decision to give him rat-like incisor teeth rather than the traditional canine fangs is justified is probably a question of personal taste; the way that Dracula summons up his mesmeric powers by basically just screwing up his eyes and squinting at people is the only real element of Elliott’s performance which definitely feels a bit dud.

You would expect him to have a formidable opponent in the form of Bernard Archard: an actor capable of being mesmeric himself, given the right script and direction. Here, though, Van Helsing’s fake beard is the least of his problems. Rather than the smooth, unflappable savant that Peter Cushing invariably played, Archard’s Van Helsing is a bit rough around the edges and eminently flappable. The play decides to stick with Van Helsing being Dutch, but the good doctor’s battle against the undead is nothing compared to Archard’s struggle to get the accent right. We end up with another one of those vocal Grand Tours: Van Helsing may start off coming from Amsterdam, but at various points in the play he seems to be a native of Pontypool before finally settling on being from somewhere near Karachi. But on the whole Archard is quite acceptable despite this.

The play is mostly well-performed, anyway, especially by Susan George and Suzanne Neve. It is they in particular who make you realise just how bland and inappropriately bloodless most of the sex in the Hammer Dracula movies feels: the women tend to do a lot of limp sighing before quietly yielding to Christopher Lee. Here, there is a genuine erotic charge to the scenes between Dracula and his victims: in this sense at least, the play is a lot more explicit about the nature of the metaphor, for all that it contains no nudity and relatively little gore. The women are given real agency, too: Lucy is clearly dead keen on having a fling with their new neighbour, while Mina likewise seems almost to be an active participant, consciously choosing to become undead.

It all builds up to a final semi-twist in the tale – I say semi-twist because it is so understated, or perhaps just slightly fluffed by the script and direction, that it’s not entirely clear whether this is an intentional thing or not. It’s certainly not enough to spoil one of the better adaptations of Dracula that I have seen. Most attempts just take the premise and ditch as much of the plot as they feel they can get away with, but this one does seem to be making a genuine effort. It keeps enough of the traditional trappings to be recognisable and familiar, but isn’t afraid to try new and different things – even when being new and different means going back to the original book. A worthwhile piece of vampirology.

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Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

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