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Posts Tagged ‘Dracula’

If you knew where to look, over the Christmas and New Year just gone there was something of an embarrassment of riches in terms of adaptations of Dracula: the (unfairly obscure, if you ask me) 1968 ITV version with Denholm Elliott turned up on Talking Pictures TV just before the holidays properly got going, the original Hammer Dracula from 1958 materialised on the Horror Channel late on Christmas night itself, while forming one of the main planks of the BBC’s New Year scheduling was a brand new take on the story, from the team behind Sherlock. You can see why this would seem like a logical and even obvious fit: another one of the most famous characters to come out of popular Victorian literature, the subject of many previous adaptations, yet one which has not been the subject of major attention in quite a few years. This is before we even consider co-writer Mark Gatiss’ well-documented love of the macabre and morbid.

Recently, here or hereabouts, I have devoted some attention to the question of just how faithful literary adaptations should try to be, with the conclusions that you should at least try to bring the essence of the original to the screen, but still be wary of slavish faithfulness. When it comes to Dracula, however, things are more complicated: there is the Dracula everyone knows and expects, and then there is Stoker’s actual novel, which is a distinctly different beast. The former is derived from the latter, but as it has found its way into each new medium – theatre, cinema, TV – it has shifted, changed, acquired new imagery and resonances. Which is the ‘real’ Dracula? The well-known, iconic one, familiar to the point of contemptibility, or the actual source novel, something much odder and more surprising?

Moffat and Gatiss’ Dracula very nearly starts out looking like they’re going to do the novel ‘straight’, with young Englishman Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) turning up at Castle Dracula in 1897, intent on concluding some business with the reclusive count who occupies it. I would imagine that those in the viewing audience not familiar with Stoker (almost certainly the majority) were probably somewhat thrown by the initial conceit that Dracula first appears as an old man, who gradually rejuvenates himself by gorging on human blood (Harker’s, in this case). But it is the audience as well as Harker who may be being lulled into a false sense of security, for soon enough the story departs from the novel and becomes a Contemporary BBC Drama rather than a Prestige Costume Production.

You know the sort of thing I mean, I suspect: 19th century Budapest is required to be as diverse as 21st century London, because for some reason an adaptation of a book first published in 1897 has to be representative of the present day. Given the track record of these writers, I suppose we must be grateful that they decided to leave Dracula himself as a man – it’s got to the point where I accept the presence of a female Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) as just one of those inevitable modern things.

Then again, where does the boundary lie between making creative choices in adapting the book and simply messing it about in order to satisfy the omnipresent modern sensibility? In this case it is genuinely a little difficult to tell. Certainly they soon abandon the narrative of the novel in all but the broadest sense, resulting in something instantly recognisable as a Steven Moffat script: conjurer’s performance and sketch show in equal measure, all about the big set piece and the clever reveal, with things like logic and cohesion only of a secondary importance (and maybe not even that). The result is a series that varies hugely from episode to episode, and even within them – the final third of the first installment abruptly departs from the book and becomes about Dracula attempting to get into a convent. The second episode riffs on events left implied by Stoker himself, turning into a very odd inversion of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, while the third…

I understand the third episode has proved controversial and even a touch divisive, mainly because of the way it uproots the story so dramatically from its origins. Personally I saw it coming, although this may be because I was keeping tabs on this production and heard rumours to the effect that the writers considered the entire canon of Dracula movies and so on fair game as source material: even the early 70s Hammer films, which are a curious mixed bag, and which certainly seem to be the main inspiration here.

Personally I found it was only in the third episode that the new Dracula found its feet as something more than an extended series of winks at the camera from the writers. There is something genuinely intriguing and exciting about unleashing a character from Victorian fiction into such a modern milieu: there are certainly many more possibilities than the series managed to explore in the not much more than an hour available to handle the ‘Dracula in the present day’ section of the story. Dracula is a lens through which you can find a new perspective on many things: attitudes to sex, to death, to race and immigration, and so on. Using it to present a five-hundred-year-old warlord’s responses to modern society is in the best traditions of adapting Dracula. It honestly felt like a genuine shame that all the present-day material was crammed into the final third of the series; I would rather have seen much more of it in modern dress (Stoker chose to set his novel in the present day (as he saw it), so it does make sense for adaptations to do the same – though there is a problem with this, which we shall come to).

So I found this Dracula to be a bit of a curate’s egg, perhaps a bit too knowing to really satisfy. It notably dodged addressing the issue affecting any present-day Dracula – our whole conception of the vampire as an archetype is informed and perhaps defined by the popular image of Dracula (the caped aristocrat, vulnerable to crucifixes and sunlight). Had Stoker not written the book, that concept would be hugely different, if it even existed. Or, to give a more specific example: at one point in the final episode, Dracula sends someone a text including the vampire emoji, which is based on the image of Bela Lugosi-as-Dracula. But where did that emoji come from, in a world where Dracula is a real person?

But onto the good things, not least of which is the sheer fact that this was the BBC spending millions of poinds on a genuine piece of prime-time horror. Obviously this was a lavish production, with capable direction and some good supporting performances. I particularly enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ typically droll turn as Renfield, as you might expect, and also Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula himself (a very shrewd piece of casting: an experienced, mature actor with obvious charisma, but also essentially unknown to Anglophone audiences). Bang managed to find the menace and horror in the character even when the script required not much more than glib flippancy. One preview suggested that Bang was channelling Roger Moore’s James Bond, which was not unfair but overlooks the real similarities between Dracula and Bond: both are homicidal ladykillers (sometimes literally) who enjoy the finer things in life, and seem able to turn their hands to just about anything with remarkable success. Hardly anyone apart from Christopher Lee has played Dracula more than once (which may be why Lee remains so connected with the role), but it would be good to see Claes Bang given another outing.

Of course, it may be that Moffat and Gatiss feel that they’ve given their version of the story now. Certainly the ending, while possibly a little anticlimactic, had a sense of finality about it, resolving Dracula as a character. Perhaps in the end this is the most distinctive thing about their take: they attempt to dig into Dracula and find out what makes him work as a genuine character, rather than simply treating him as a monolithic icon of evil surrounded by various arcane traditions and ‘rules’. Whatever you may make of the results, I think the attempt is worthy of credit, even if whatever praise it receives must be somewhat qualified.

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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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Werner Herzog is such a distinctive and idiosyncratic figure that it’s easy to sometimes lose track of everything that he’s done. Certainly, his is a CV of dizzying variety as an actor and director – documentary about cave art? Check! Role as villain in a Tom Cruise thriller? Check! Drama about a man dragging a steamboat over a mountain? Check! Studio Ghibli US dub voice role? Check! It almost comes as a shock to recall he ever did anything as straightforward as a serious adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

Then again, to describe the genesis of Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre as ‘straightforward’ is probably somewhat disingenuous. Nosferatu isn’t just an adaptation of Dracula, but a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Here things begin to get a little more tangled, as the Stoker estate refused Murnau permission to adapt Dracula for the big screen. Murnau went ahead and made his movie anyway, changing some of the character names in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what he was up to – Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Harker became Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this fooled no-one and Florence Stoker attempted to have Symphonie des Grauens destroyed (luckily, this did not happen, as it is a superb movie).

By 1979, Dracula was out of copyright and so Herzog was able to use the ‘proper’ names for the characters, but still retained Murnau’s version of the plot and the title Nosferatu (an etymologically problematic word which has effectively become a synonym for vampire; Nosferatu the Vampyre is rather tautologous). The movie is openly another take on the much-told story of Dracula; however, it is just as distinctive and idiosyncratic as its director.

As noted, Herzog sticks with Murnau and dispenses with the English-set portion of the story; instead, the tale opens in Wismar, in north-eastern Germany, where estate-agent’s wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) is troubled by disturbing, bat-filled dreams. Maybe she is right to be concerned, for her husband Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) is given the unexpected assignment of going to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious and reclusive Count Dracula.

It soon turns out that the only people wanting Harker to go are his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) and possibly Dracula himself; Lucy doesn’t want him to go, the Transylvanian gypsies he encounters don’t want him going anywhere near Castle Dracula, and neither do the local peasants. Harker ends up having to walk most of the last stretch of his journey, mist-wrapped mountains rising around him and the half-ruined castle creeping into view. (The journey from the ‘normal world’ to the place of horror is obviously something of a staple in movies of this genre, but Nosferatu handles it unusually well.) Soon enough he arrives at the castle and meets his host.

Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is delighted to meet him. Actually, delighted may not be the right word, as Dracula seems to exist in a permanent state of existential anguish, bordering on actual despair. Chalk-skinned, with rat teeth and ears like a bat, one wonders just how badly Harker needs his commission if he’s willing to contemplate staying at this guy’s castle. This is before Dracula starts musing on the horrors of eternal existence and how there are far worse things than death.

Well, eventually Harker puts zwei and zwei together and figures out that there’s something not quite right about his host. The sight of Dracula loading coffins onto a wagon preparatory to taking up residence in his new property may have something to do with this, to say nothing of Dracula’s nocturnal visits to Harker’s room, when the estate agent discovers that the price of staying at Castle Dracula really can be a pain in the neck.

Dracula eventually departs for Wismar, leaving Harker a prisoner in the castle. He escapes, weak and feverish, desperate to get home and warn everyone of the terror soon to be in their midst – but is it already too late…?

This wasn’t the only Dracula of 1979, of course: the same year saw John Badham’s version, with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. Both are recognisably adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a few character names and the basics of the plot. Badham’s Dracula is set entirely in England, dispensing with the Transylvanian section of the plot (the two films almost mirror each other in this way), and Langella’s Count is a suave, romantic anti-hero. The American film is a vivid one about passion and desire. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, opens with a series of shots depicting mummified human corpses, establishing from the start that this is to be a much bleaker and more morbid film about the boundaries between life and death.

Romantic is the last word you would choose to describe Kinski’s Dracula: quite apart from the fact he is physically hideous, he seems to exist in a state of existential torment. He is cursed as much as he is a curse, much given to doleful complaints about the terrible loneliness of immortality; Lucy Harker may dream about bats and the film may mention the vampire’s affinity with wolves, but for most of the movie Dracula is associated most closely with rats, which swarm around his various resting places and provide a visual symbol for the Black Death which he propagates wherever he goes. (Animal-lovers may wish to steer clear of behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of this movie, as the rats were apparently very poorly treated indeed.)

Kinski actually manages to find the pathos in this conception of Dracula as a miserable, rodent-like parasite, and he is never entirely unsympathetic at any point in the film – then again, most of the characters manage to retain a degree of sympathy, not least because they are all trapped in such an obviously bleak and horrible world. My researches have not revealed whether Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration on this occasion resulted in one of the director’s various attempts to murder his troublesome star, but it is an eerily powerful performance and easily one of the most striking screen Draculas. Herzog and Murnau’s amendments to the story also produce some interesting effects – Harker is never normally a plum role in Dracula, but Bruno Ganz ends up with some interesting things to do as the film goes on, not least during the twist at the end of the story. Likewise, Lucy is not just a passive, ornamental victim of the vampire’s lust, but a character with real agency and strength; Isabelle Adjani’s performance is as eye-catching as her ethereal beauty. Most of this comes, however, at the expense of Van Helsing, who normally gets all the best lines in any version of Dracula. Here, Van Helsing is a closed-minded, sceptical materialist, played by Walter Ladengast – his contributions to the story are minimal. The same can probably be said for Renfield – Roland Topor isn’t afraid to go way out there with his performance as a giggling madman, but one wonders what the character really adds to this version of the story.

You can tell this isn’t a movie which has been made on the biggest of budgets, and some of the scenes do lack the kind of atmosphere you get in the better Hammer horrors. It must also be said that this is not a film in which the plot moves along like a bat out of hell (or from anywhere else, for that matter). However, the pervasive atmosphere which Herzog generates has considerable power, especially as the film goes on and the scenes of a plague-stricken Wismar acquire a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality. At one point the soundtrack seems to include an excerpt from a Kate Bush album that would not be made until six years after the film’s release, and this does not feel entirely surprising (Herzog and Bush both decided to employ a snatch of the same Georgian folk song, apparently).

As I mentioned, this is not the most lavish Dracula, and it may lack some of the set-piece moments some may be expecting. But the strength and consistency of the film’s vision of the story is considerable, and matched by its execution. It is a bleak and morbid version of the story, entirely bereft of most of the comforting moments and touches found in other retellings of the novel. Nevertheless, Nosferatu the Vampyre is hugely impressive for its atmosphere and for Kinski’s performance; this is definitely one of the best versions of Dracula on film, and a worthy updating of Murnau.

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Alan Gibson’s 1973 film The Satanic Rites of Dracula is another of those late-period Hammer horrors that doesn’t hang around in getting to the point. No sooner have the opening credits (featuring a rather awkwardly-posed shadow puppet superimposed over various London landmarks) concluded than we are in the midst of some proper Satanic rites in full swing: sweaty acolytes gawp, ethnic actresses hired to impart a touch of low-budget exoticism declaim dodgy dialogue about Hell, young actresses who needed the money try to avoid showing too much flesh to the camera, and chickens look nervous.

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This sequence really isn’t all that great, but the film-makers clearly felt otherwise, as for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film they keep cutting back to it, often in defiance of chronology or logic. The Satanic rites are taking place in a stately house outside London, guarded by sinister goons whose uniform appears to be sheepskin tank-tops, which at least makes them distinctive.

It turns out this set-up has been infiltrated by the security services, and their man makes his escape at the start of the film. There is some political delicacy to this situation, as one of the Satanic acolytes is in fact the minister responsible for security affairs, with the power to shut down the department if he discovers the cult to which he belongs is being investigated. (The movie zips very smartly indeed past the question of what MI5 – which is what this very much looks like – is doing taking an interest in suburban occultism, even if it does involve senior establishment figures.)

Torrence (William Franklyn), leading the investigation, decides to bring in a detective from Special Branch as he is technically not under the command of the suspected minister: his choice is Murray (Michael Coles), previously seen in Gibson’s Dracula AD 1972. Learning of the occult angle, Murray in turn brings in an anthropologist and expert on such matters who he has worked with before – namely, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, of course).

Well, investigations by the trio, along with Van Helsing’s grand-daughter (Joanna Lumley, who makes less of an impression than you might expect), uncover that the basement of the stately house is infested with vampires. This is not really a surprise, as we have already seen Torrence’s secretary kidnapped by the tank-tops and molested by Dracula himself (Christopher Lee, of course) in a subplot that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. However, there is also the revelation that Dracula’s cult has recruited a Nobel-winning virologist (Freddie Jones), who has been tasked with creating a new super-virulent strain of the Black Death, supposedly to wipe out everyone on the planet. Van Helsing’s conclusion is that Dracula has grown weary of immortality (or possibly just being brought back every couple of years for another movie) and just wants to take everyone into oblivion with him. In any case, given that the new virus appears to spread only by touch and spectacularly and very nearly instantly kills anyone who comes into contact with it, I am not sure it has the potential to be quite the agent of genocide Van Helsing is worried about.

With all the exposition concluded (Cushing does his best to cover it with some business involving him ladling soup for all the other characters), we’re heading for the climax. Can our heroes uncover Dracula’s lair? Can the release of the killer virus be averted? And is Christopher Lee actually going to show up for more than a couple of minutes at a time?

Well, he does, but the impact of Lee’s main dialogue scene with Cushing is somewhat affected by his decision to affect a bizarre Lugosi-esque accent quite unlike his usual Dracula voice, which is especially confusing considering that Dracula is passing himself off as a British tycoon (living in Centre Point). I suppose one should be grateful that Lee showed up at all – in another one of those moments that would never happen nowadays, Lee showed up for the press launch of the movie, announced he was only doing it under protest, and declared he thought it was a fatuous joke.

This was partly a reference to the original title of the film, Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London, which was duly changed. Possibly as a result, this is one of those films which has popped up under a variety of different names at different times, said names ranging from the somewhat bland (Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride) to the peculiar (simply Dracula is Dead, not to mention Dracula is Still Living in London).

This isn’t usually a sign of a particularly strong movie, and it almost goes without saying that the main point of interest of Satanic Rites is that it was the final Hammer film to feature both Cushing and Lee, both of whom go through the motions with the usual commendable professionalism. It’s doesn’t have the gimmicky novelty of the previous movie’s conceit of bringing Dracula into a contemporary setting, but on the other hand this does seem to have made screenwriter Don Houghton work a bit harder: many of the trappings of the rest of the Hammer Dracula series are dropped, most notably the laborious structure where they spend the first half of the film contriving Dracula’s resurrection and the second half arranging his demise.

In its place, Houghton comes up with a script that feels more like a hard-edged contemporary thriller than a traditional horror movie, complete with the apocalyptic germ-warfare angle. (Am I the only one who would quite like to have seen the version of this film where the viral outbreak actually gets started, with our heroes fending off crazed plague-zombies while society collapses and the vampire cult takes over the world?) All this stuff is relatively good and interesting; it’s only when the movie gets into its Gothic horror drag that it starts to feel dull and a bit chintzy.

I suppose you could argue that if the best bits of a Dracula movie are the ones which feel least like they belong in a conventional Dracula movie, then something has gone wrong somewhere, and I can’t really disagree with you on that. The sense of what these days we’d call franchise fatigue is almost overwhelming – it may be the main reason that this film is so stylistically different is because they literally couldn’t think of anything else to do. Certainly, having had Dracula blasted to ashes by sunlight, frozen into a lake, impaled on a crucifix, struck down by the power of God, struck by lightning, impaled on a broken cartwheel, and impaled in a pit of stakes in previous films, coming up with a new way of getting rid of him at the climax must have been a problem, and the solution – he walks into a particularly prickly bush and gets tangled up in the thorns – is not really a great one (that barely counts as a spoiler: it’s in the poster for the movie).

The only positive things you can say about The Satanic Rites of Dracula are that it is a bit more interesting than Dracula AD 1972, and it still has Christopher Lee in it (Lee positively and absolutely refused to come back for Hammer’s final Dracula film, the kung-fu-tastic Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires). There’s a sense in which this is still cheesy, energetic fun, but if you compare it to one of the really great Hammer horrors like Dracula – Prince of Darkness or Taste the Blood of Dracula, it’s very obvious that this is an inferior and rather weak movie in every respect.

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There are easy targets, and then there are easy targets, and then there are people who call their movie Dracula Untold. Untold? Really? After dozens of various adaptations and sequels, with Dracula himself portrayed by actors ranging from Frank Langella to Adam Sandler, what exactly is there left to tell? Plus, given this is another one of those CGI-heavy mid-budget genre movies that never really get well-reviewed, the potential for people to be snippily punful is almost irresistible. Dracula Untold? I’ll see that and give you Dracula Uninspired, Dracula Unnecessary, and Dracula Unwatchable, just for starters.

Cheap shots like this are only available if Gary Shore’s new movie isn’t any good, of course. It might very well be good: you’ve got to keep an open mind, after all. But you must admit that the omens are not promising. The Lord of the Undead is played by Luke Evans, one of those actors hugely dependent on the quality of the script he’s given (and, by the way, the fact it’s all too easy to accidentally describe Untold as ‘the new Dracula movie with Lee Evans’ is another mark against it), while the rest of the film promises a lot of heftless CGI and lazy pop-culture steals.

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Anyway, proceedings get underway with an expository flashback of dubious historicity, describing the life of the young man known in his lifetime as Vlad Tepes, prince of Transylvania, but more noted nowadays as the Vlad the Impaler. As this is only a 15-rated movie, of course, Vlad’s impaling days are behind him and he is more concerned with being a good leader of his people and a good husband and father. (At this point we pause to deal with incipient nausea.) To be honest, it’s a bit unclear who our hero was impaling in his younger days – the historical Dracula’s victims, if indeed he’s not just the victim of propaganda, were Turks, but as the film opens he is effectively a client king of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (represented here by Dominic Cooper’s one-dimensionally sadistic Mehmed II).

Relations between Transylvania and Turkey take a turn for the worse when Mehmed decrees a thousand Transylvanian children will be conscripted into the Turkish Janissary corps, along with Vlad’s own son. Needless to say, our hero can’t bring himself to comply with this order, triggering a war with his much more powerful neighbour. Things look bleak for the Transylvanians, but Vlad embarks on a desperate search for help from an unlikely source: at the top of the movie he discovered an ancient and powerful supernatural evil was in residence in one of the remote mountains of his land, and so off he pops to see if it will help out.

Needless to say, this turns out to be an elder vampire (left nameless on screen, but according to some publicity it’s supposed to be the emperor Caligula), played by Charles Dance (who’s really quite good in the part). The vampire grants Vlad immense speed, strength, and some other useful tricks, but also an insatiable thirst for human blood. If he can resist the temptation to guzzle down some of the red for three days, he will return to his normal state – but if he fails, not only may the kingdom be lost, but he will be damned to eternity as a bloodsucking monster…

Or so it says here, anyway. I’ll be honest and say that while Dracula Untold isn’t utterly worthless, it does have serious problems, and – for me – one of them is the choice of story structure. This is ‘the tragedy of a man whose utter dedication to doing the right thing results in the destruction of everything he holds dear’, and the thing about this is that for it to be a tragedy, the protagonist has to retain his conscience and remain broadly sympathetic throughout: he has to realise just what a big mistake he has made.

The result is that we never really get Dracula as a relentless, terrifying predator, never as a genuine force of evil – he’s just a nice guy with a bit of a past who makes some mistakes, for the best of reasons. Luke Evans is by no means the least impressive Dracula in cinema history, but even he can’t really make much of an impression with material like this. The producers might well argue that this is an attempt at a revisionist Dracula, to put more of a human face on the fiend, but why would you bother? Who looks at a proper Dracula movie and thinks ‘Hmm, okay, but it would be better if he was a bit nicer’? This guy was born to be bad. Needless to say, it looks likely that any future outings with Evans as Dracula will see him as a brooding, romantic anti-hero rather than an unstoppable monster.

This is all the more ironic given that Dracula Untold has apparently been retrofitted to launch a potential franchise based on Universal’s stable of famous supernatural heavies, in which they will all cross over with each other, at least as long as the box office stays healthy. Yes, everyone wants a slice of Avengers-style pie, don’t they? Personally I hope the rest of the monsters are a bit more, um, monstrous.

But this isn’t even really a proper horror movie, just a fantasy action film with a debt to things like 300 and Lord of the Rings. The 300-ish stylings are particularly pertinent given just how much of the historical subtext this movie actively ducks – the historical Dracula was, if anything, a Christian hero, famous for helping to keep the Muslim Turks out of Europe. Exploring the ramifications of this in any kind of systematic way would be far too provocative (and possibly demand too much thoughtfulness from the audience), and so we get simple good guys and bad guys and barely any mention of religion.

The best you can say about Dracula Untold, really, is that it chooses a fairly solid story and tells it competently. It’s just not a good Dracula story or even a particularly good vampire tale. Moments with potential – Dracula taking on an entire army single-handed, for instance – are just fumbled, possibly due to the director’s lack of experience, while too many others lack even that – too often Dracula is reduced to a banal, pedestrian figure. Sex, death, blood, and style are the essentials of vampire cinema, and Dracula Untold comes up short in every department. It’s sort of vaguely enjoyable while you’re watching it, but in a week’s time you’ll have forgotten most of the details. I’ve just thought of another one: Dracula Underwhelming.

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Words like ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ get thrown around rather easily these days, but when one is talking about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appearing together in Hammer’s first Dracula movie, they are surely justified. This is Terence Fisher’s Dracula (known in the US as Horror of Dracula), released in 1958, and – for me – where the idea of Hammer horror as a brand really got started. Perhaps I’m being unfair to The Curse of Frankenstein, a movie I haven’t seen in many years, but it seems to me that Dracula is a more polished and confident piece of work from a company that’s quickly learning how to do this sort of thing.

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One of the notable quirks about Dracula is that it seems well aware of how familiar this story will be to most of the audience – this isn’t to say that it plays games or tries to confound expectations, but it does include a few plot surprises, and – tellingly – seems to assume the audience is already quite familiar with who and what Dracula is. It doesn’t try very hard to stick to the plot of Stoker’s novel, presumably for budgetary reasons – some characters are dropped, along with the English setting of much of the story, while others really only appear in name only.

We open with Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen), in this version a noted scholar, who has just secured the position of the new librarian at Castle Dracula. He receives the traditional warm welcome from the master of the establishment (Lee) and does not appear overly bemused by the odd hours the count keeps or the strange behaviour of his live-in girlfriend.

The reason for this some becomes clear – in the first of the film’s twists (one which rather speeds up the plot, if we’re honest) it’s revealed that Harker is really a vampire hunter who is here to put an end to the scourge of Dracula. As we are only about ten minutes into the movie it is quite clear his success in this venture will be extremely limited.

However, soon on the scene is Harker’s associate and fellow persecutor of the undead, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). After dealing with Harker, Dracula has vanished, and all Van Helsing can do is break the sad news of Harker’s fate to his family. Unfortunately Harker’s fiancee is too ill to be told – she appears to have developed a bad case of anaemia, which may or may not be connected to her new habit of sleeping with her bedroom window open…

I’ve seen this movie quite a number of times, but not for a long while, and watching it again now I’m struck by how much it isn’t the film you might be expecting – and yet, at the same time, it really does create the mould for so many of the studio’s subsequent films It’s a Cushing-Lee vehicle, for one thing, but what’s striking and perhaps surprising is how little Christopher Lee is actually in it – he’s fourth-billed, with an ‘and’, and while he gets a dozen or so lines in the opening section of the film, after this he barely appears until the climax, and has no dialogue when he is on screen – a lot gets made of the largely non-speaking performances Lee gives in movies like Dracula – Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula, but they’re just following the precedent established here. On balance, the real oddity is the articulate, rational Dracula we glimpse at the start of this film, someone capable of carrying on a conversation and (it would appear) interested in having his library catalogued – quite at odds with the hissing, slavering, atavistic fiend that seems to be, if not Lee’s, then certainly Hammer’s default take on the character.

Needless to say Peter Cushing gives it everything he’s got as Van Helsing – no matter how dubious or contrived a movie’s script (and this one has some peachy moments of duff plotting and ill-considered comic relief) you can lose yourself in the limitless conviction, grace, and charm of a Peter Cushing performance. One thing you don’t necessarily notice the first time you watch this film is that Lee and Cushing have no screen time together before the climax, and when they do it’s just a lot of running around and fighting. A real shame, because a verbal clash between Van Helsing and the rational Dracula from the opening of the movie would be a mouth-watering prospect given the performers involved.

That said, we do get a terrific and surely genuinely iconic climax, surely the finest of the many physical confrontations between Lee and Cushing that these two great friends would play out over the course of many years. That they are both in their prime here helps, as does a memorably frantic music cue from James Bernard – Bernard’s score here is less strong on lush delicacy than many of his others, much more interested in booming stridency, but you can see why it was recycled in so many other Hammer movies.

You can see the Hammer formula coming together in this film – you don’t turn up to a Hammer movie just for the horror, but the production values, the atmosphere, the performances, the sensuality of it, and all of these are here. That said, this feels like a better-behaved Hammer movie than most – all the men wear ties and are very civil to each other, the Kensington Gore is barely in evidence, and the eroticism, though still quite obvious, is much more implicit. I saw the 2012 restoration of this film, featuring more explicit material recovered from a print found in Tokyo (of all places), and I barely noticed the changes from the expurgated version I’d always previously seen. This still isn’t a film you’d really want to show a small child, but no sensible person would describe it as worse than tasteless.

Does Dracula still work as a horror film? 55 years on, I have to say it probably doesn’t, being rather too quaint and dated  and restrained. But that doesn’t make it a bad film and it doesn’t lessen the quality of its performances, direction, or production design. And, if nothing else, its status as one of the fountainheads of Hammer horror, one of the most influential series of films in the history of the genre, gives it a massive significance. One to cherish, savour, and come back to repeatedly.

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Oh, my friends, I feel a terrible sense of encroaching doom and rising dread. A dismal shadow is on the horizon, for I have inadvertantly made what feels like a deal with the Devil. The full details of this will become ineluctibly apparent in the fullness of time. For now, let me bolster myself and reaffirm my dedication to the right sort of genre movie, with a proper look at Freddie Francis’ 1968 Hammer offering, the arguably badly-titled Dracula Has Risen From The Grave.

Groovy psychadelic titles out of the way, we find ourselves in a familiar mittel-European setting, some time round about 1905. In a decent sequence, included mainly to establish the tone, a young altar boy discovers a buxom maiden stuffed into the local church bell – if there are bats in the belfrey, they are clearly of the vampiric persuasion. (This presumably happened off-screen at some point during Dracula, Prince of Darkness – not that inter-film continuity was ever Hammer’s strong point.)

One year later, the local Monsignor (Rupert Davies) visits the village to find the local priest (Ewan Hooper) is a boozer and church attendance has fallen virtually to nil: everyone is still living in fear of the King of the Undead, despite him having fallen into the lethal waters of the moat of Castle Dracula at the end of the previous film. Instantly winning himself a place on the all-time Counter-productive Stupid Ideas List, the Monsignor drags the priest off to the castle in order to exorcise it and plonk a crucifix in the doorway to stop Dracula’s spirit ever emerging.

Of course, what he is failing to take into account is that Dracula isn’t in the castle anyway: he’s frozen into the moat. The exorcism provokes a terrible thunderstorm (this is another quite well put-together sequence), during which the priest gets separated from his boss, falls onto the ice, and cuts his head: the blood conveniently trickling through the ice into Dracula’s mouth. (At this point Christopher Lee is dragged kicking and screaming onto the set to reprise his signature role.) Dracula is very annoyed to find himself effectively locked out of his own castle and, as usual, declares a terrible revenge on his enemies.

Completely unaware of what a total balls-up he’s made of his pastoral visit, the Monsignor heads home to the charming town of Kleinenberg: notable citizens thereof include his beautiful niece Maria (Veronica Carlson), her boyfriend Paul (Barry Andrews) and nice-but-trampy barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing). But Dracula is coming to town as well, and where he’s concerned beautiful nieces are always on the menu…

Well, as you can probably tell, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is not an especially accurate title, though it does score points for being evocative. Dracula Has Been Defrosted From A Moat would not look nearly so good on the poster. For a long time I was inclined to dismiss this film, coming as it does between the quintessential Hammer horror Dracula, Prince of Darkness and the fascinatingly different Taste the Blood of Dracula – and, to be fair, it’s not close to being as good as either of those.

The opening and closing sections around Castle Dracula itself are quite nicely done, even if the climax telegraphs its resolution in a painfully obvious way (my 13-year-old sister came across me watching this film, many years ago, and was able to accurately predict the denouement despite being a complete Hammer ingenue). However, all the stuff in town is bit ho-hum. This is not to say the film looks bad: the production values are strong and there is always James Bernard’s score to savour. And the script negotiates the stock characters and set-pieces of a Hammer Dracula with reasonable dexterity, helped by decent performances from nearly everyone in the cast. It just doesn’t have a single strong idea or really great piece of acting to make itself distinctive.

At least, not in what you’d call a good way. Barbara Ewing does sterling work making the Bad Girl something other than a total cipher, and the central young lovers are a bit less insipid than usual – but, by a cruel quirk of fate, Barry Andrews – both physically and in his performance – is astoundingly like Hugh Grant around the time of his rise to stardom. Hugh Grant Vs Dracula is a memorable idea for a movie, but not a memorably good one. And yet this is what Dracula Has Risen From The Grave turns into, for modern audiences at least.

Oh well – set against this we have a film which is doing interesting things with the concept of faith. The Church itself does not exactly emerge covered in glory – of the two ecclesiastical characters, one is an alcoholic thrall to the villain, while the other one is inadvertantly responsible for all the trouble in the movie – but, on the other hand, Hugh Grant Paul is an atheist and thus incapable of dealing with Dracula unassisted. The film’s most contentious scene has Paul staking Dracula, who is able to shrug it off and pull out the stake due to Paul’s lack of belief. An interesting idea – some people suggest that the climax shows Paul regaining his belief in God as Dracula is vanquished; personally I don’t think it’s that explicit. In any case it reminded me again of the irony that the only film genre which routinely accepts the existence of God is Horror – which, of course, is the genre actual believers are least likely to watch. Some moving in mysterious ways going on here, perhaps.

Anyway, this is not the greatest Hammer horror, nor even a particularly good Dracula film – but at least Christopher Lee has some dialogue. What the film doesn’t have is any new ideas about Dracula or new things for him to get up to. Later films would fix this, to considerable effect. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is really just marking time, but it does it in an atmospheric and very enjoyable fashion.

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