Wednesday, December 14, 2011
HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*
Though like most horror-fans I've always had a special regard for this film just for its pairing of actor Chris Lee with the role of Dracula, I've also been puzzled by many of the changes that writer Jimmy Sangster wrought upon the Bram Stoker novel. Even knowing the nature of the cinematic beast-- that it cannot possibly translate a long novel accurately into a commerical-length film without changes-- some of Sangster's changes seem peculiar, almost capricious.
The change in setting is probably the simplest to explain. Thanks to assorted fan-writings on Hammer Studios' practices, we know that the studio had relatively few sets on which to shoot, and depended on essentially redressing many of the same sets they used over and over in their horror films. It seems likely that Sangster's most glaring change from the novel-- that this Dracula never invades England, but sticks pretty close to either his castle or the neighboring German city of Klausenberg-- was made so that the production would have fewer sets with which to cope.
Changes in the names of the protagonists are harder to figure. Jonathan Harker and Doctor Van Helsing still approximate the roles they hold in the novel, even if HORROR's plot takes them in different directions. But in the novel Jonathan is engaged to Mina Murray, whose best friend Lucy is courted by three men, two of whom are Arthur Holmwood and Doctor Seward. In HORROR Seward is demoted to an incidental character, while Holmwood is married to Mina and Lucy, Arthur's sister, is engaged to Jonathan. I assume that Sangster's main concern was to condense Bram Stoker's plot as much as possible for the film's 82-minute length, so he must have figured it didn't matter much who was called what. In further evidence of cost-cutting, Dracula's three vampire brides, who make such a strong impression in both the novel and the 1931 Bela Lugosi adaptation, are reduced to one bride.
As HORROR opens, Dracula is clearly a menace still feared by the German locals, but he seems to be making no plans to go anywhere in search of new blood. The long novel-sequence in which Harker travels to Castle Dracula and gradually realizes the nature of his host is simplified by the notion that Harker already knows Dracula's nature when he arrives at the castle. He's ostensibly there not to help Dracula emigrate to England, as in the novel, but to serve as the castle-lord's librarian-- though the script never specifies how Harker found out that the Lord of Vampires was such a bibliophile. Harker's reasons for "going undercover" to destroy the vampire are never specified. Van Helsing is nowhere in the neighborhood when Harker fails to destroy Dracula and so loses his life, but the eminent doctor does manage to show up in time to claim Harker's body and issue a cover story to Harker's loved ones, who apparently live full-time in Klausenberg. In the course of the cover story, Van Helsing describes himself as a "colleague" of Harker, so one assumes that somewhere along the way the doctor gave Harker the idea to infilrate the vampire's lair, but one never knows why the doctor wasn't around to provide back-up. Certainly later in the story Van Helsing, as famously essayed by Peter Cushing, shows no lack of courage opposing the vampire and his new converts.
Harker's "secret agent" mission to destroy Dracula actually makes him the aggressor in the situation as given. His first action upon entering the castle-- which seems deserted, with no one prepared for his advent-- is to meet the unnamed bride, who pleads with him to help her escape Dracula. At this point Sangster alters the novel's setup into a fantasy with minor Freudian overtones, suggesting a scenario in which a young man intrudes on an older man's domain with the goal of stealing away his bride.
The bride flees before the castle-lord shows up. Since the audience does not yet know Harker's plans at that point, the natural assumption is that Dracula's charming personality causes Harker to disregard the bride's strange action. Only after the bride shows her fangs and attacks Harker-- provoking Dracula to appear and restrain the bride while knocking out Harker-- does Harker's true purpose manifest. Near the setting of the sun Harker manages to escape his prison and make his way to the vampiric crypt. Because the script can't afford to have Harker stake Dracula just yet, the hero wastes time impaling the female-- giving the villain the chance to rise and snuff out his opponent. Interestingly, while the three brides of the novel turn to dust when staked-- indicating their centuries-long age-range-- the one bride turns into an old female corpse when she's killed. This alteration brings her closer to the age-range one would expect for an actual mother-figure for an adult Harker's age.
Van Helsing's cover story to Harker's loved ones serves largely to introduce the audience to the vampire's more upper-class victims, who seem to know nothing of the area's vampire traditions. Perhaps they're supposed to have moved recently to Klausenberg? Sangster also effaces any real difference between the female characters. Whereas Lucy and Mina are very distinct in the novel-- one being a mild flirt while the other is a comparative schoolmarm-- they're interchangeable victims here. Lucy seems to be a sickly woman even before Dracula starts showing up at her window, much as the novel's Renfield is insane before the vampire arrives to make the madman his cat's-paw. (There is no Renfield as such in HORROR.) When Lucy rises from the dead, Sangster's script again invokes incestuous tones very briefly, as Lucy offers to give her horrified brother Arthur a "kiss." However, while in the novel Arthur forces himself to stake his revivified fiancee, in an act some academics view as a "rape," here Arthur stands to one side while Van Helsing finishes off the persistent female corpse.
While Arthur and Van Helsing run about trying to figure out the vampire's current location in Klausenberg, Dracula seduces Mina. As in the novel, Mina is saved where Lucy is not, but the narrative puts little emphasis on Mina's struggle, preferring to focus on the actions of the good doctor and his new assistant vampire-hunter. In the end, it comes down an epic clash between the noble doctor and his fiendish opponent. This end-battle proved so strong that Hammer's scriptrs seemed hard-pressed to equal it in later outings of Dracula and other vampires, with a result that most other vamp-flicks peter out rather disappointingly at the climax.
Though the plot does suffer somewhat from many of the condensations of the original story, overall HORROR OF DRACULA still remains one of the few films to translate the essence of the novel's appeal, far more so than many of the more technically accurate productions, particularly Jess Franco's unbearably tedious 1970 adaptation.