HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
***/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Christopher Lee
screenplay by Jimmy Sangster
directed by Terence Fisher
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)
***/**** Image B+ Sound B
starring Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, Veronica Carlson, Barry Andrews
screenplay by John Elder
directed by Freddie Francis
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)
***½/**** Image C- Sound B
starring Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Christopher Lee
screenplay by Jimmy Sangster
directed by Terence Fisher
FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)
***/**** Image B Sound C+
starring Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward
screenplay by Bert Batt
directed by Terence Fisher
by Jefferson Robbins As one of the twin stars of the original Hammer Films horror canon, the precise and skilful Peter Cushing had the task of portraying both villain (Dr. Frankenstein) and vanquisher (Dr. Van Helsing). His co-star Christopher Lee, on the other hand, seldom got to be the good guy: when he wasn't baring plastic fangs or crusted over with dried-prune makeup, he usually embodied a more human evil. Lee's unmasked performances were assertions of will--his Dracula, for instance, overwhelms with force of presence and a hungry smoulder in his eyes. Cushing could not disguise his native gentility and bladed intelligence, but he could turn those qualities towards sinister or humanitarian ends as needed.
Warner showcases Cushing's range and Lee's indomitability with a "Hammer Horror" edition of the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection. The two-DVD set packages Cushing and Lee's first and best-known pairings, TheCurse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, with later franchise instalments (Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) that feature the actors independently. The first-wave Hammer shockers are old-fashioned constructs at heart--stagy directing and unconvincing bloodshed remain the norm as late as 1969, but the films seek to talk about sex, faith, revenge, and civil decay by packaging them in B-horror. They'd be far less effective if they weren't interested in tough ideas.
Lee first appears at the top of the stairs in Horror of Dracula, greeting Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) in the foyer of his Transylvanian castle. It's an echo of Tod Browning's iconic shot from the 1931 version, but it carries little of the same foreboding today--maybe because he's Dracula; we know what he's all about. Lee's contribution to the vampire mythos is to make Dracula a more overtly sexual predator, erotically nuzzling his female prey (always mind-controlled into semi-willingness) before penetration. Visually speaking, his costume, too, references Bela Lugosi's, but in certain long shots Lee appears to be just a black cloak with a human head. It's a clever wardrobe trick that calls his overall humanity into question--we wonder what's really under there.
Cushing's erudite Dr. Van Helsing gets the superior introduction. Walking into a central European alehouse, he's initially seen only from the rear, and stills the conversation like a gunslinger entering a saloon. His Holmesian mind is bent entirely to the preservation of humankind, as he and the skeptical Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) plumb crypts and ransack shipping manifests for clues to Dracula's resting place. They must know the Count's mind before they can put a stake through his heart. In the midst of this race against time, Van Helsing proves himself a crusader for the future, showing extraordinary kindness to an endangered child. He wants a better world for our descendants. A shame that after all that build-up, Dracula himself is pretty easily overcome with some theatrical grappling and an improvised crucifix.
OR IS HE?!? Six sequels from 1960 to 1973 would argue not. The third of these, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, has the Count revived by the shed blood of a weak-willed parish priest (Ewan Hooper), who's then subverted into his latest Renfield. When Dracula finds his castle sealed off by an exorcism, he sets out for revenge against the Monsignor (Rupert Davies) responsible. Released the same year as Rosemary's Baby and two years after TIME asked "Is God Dead?," this fright flick inquires whether alienation from religion--embodied by an empty church and a hero who denies its teachings--means the ultimate evil represented by Dracula has already won. He's resurrected by a faithless act, even as faith is invoked to banish him forever.
It's a loaded movie. Hooper's broken priest has a hard time climbing stairs, hillsides--he's lost his faith, you see, and cannot ascend. The Monsignor is strong in faith but must turn to atheist baker-scholar Paul (Barry Andrews, a dead ringer for Roger Daltrey) to defend his vampire-bitten niece, Maria (Veronica Carlson), arming the unbeliever with church trappings to combat the darkness. It's an argument for a happy mean--for a muscular, inquiring Reason that can make allowances for mystery when wrestling with shadows.
At times like these, I'd place my faith in Van Helsing. Cushing, however, is nowhere to be seen. We catch up with him playing a different breed of scientist on the second disc, where the two Frankenstein movies each take up a side. Terence Fisher's five films involving the brilliant Baron eschewed his presentation by Universal (and Mary Shelley) as an obsessive neurasthenic. Instead, Cushing portrays a genius of will and fortitude whose only handicap is the lesser men surrounding him. On blogger Chris Braak's taxonomy of monsters--and Frankenstein is the real monster, make no mistake--his motivation falls somewhere between ego and superego. Fired with the drive to supersede mankind where Van Helsing is compelled to save it, Cushing's Frankenstein is neither cackling-mad nor tormented-mad; he's beyond classification.
The Curse of Frankenstein is psychosexually fraught, a fascinating study in gay self-loathing. The story launches with a frightfully mature young Victor Frankenstein (Melvyn Hayes) recruiting scholar Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) to be his in-home tutor. The two engage in a years-long, passionate pursuit of knowledge...during which time, Victor ages into Cushing. Krempe is delighted when they're able to reanimate a dead puppy, but for the Promethean Victor, creating human life--reproduction--is the goal. His partnership with Krempe won't be complete until there's an offspring. Krempe, the victim of an intellectual seduction by a much younger man, plays along.
The fruit of their union is the deformed and violent Creature (Lee), a monstrosity to be caged, shunned, and, if Krempe has his way, exterminated. Frankenstein will hear none of it. He constantly lures Krempe back into his experiments, reminding him all the while of his complicity in the original misbegetting. He ignores his betrothed, Elizabeth (Hazel Court), in favour of his Creature's care and feeding, even on their wedding night. Whelped by two men behind locked doors, the Creature (puckered and one-eyed, in case we missed the metaphor) threatens the social order of its sires by being alive.
The sexuality of Curse is a repressive and frightened kind, a mesh of the Victorianism of its setting and the post-Freudianism of the '50s. It hates itself for wanting what it wants, and fears the results of getting it. The push-pull of the male leads so dominates the film that the final fracture is not the requisite destruction of the Creature, but Krempe's fatal break with Frankenstein, as he sashays off with his friend's long-suffering wife. She, by the by, is swaddled for this scene in a furry, symbolically rich garment best described as "labial." It's tempting to call The Curse of Frankenstein revolutionary, yet only insofar as it allowed its self-despising subtext to swim so close to the surface in 1957. This was not art raging against the closet--this was the closet, packed full to bursting with the monsters we'd made.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Hammer's fifth Frankenstein film and the fourth to be directed by Fisher, mostly forgoes questions of sexuality. Cushing's antihero is still a sexual transgressor, but it's sort of lumped in with his general blackmail, theft, murder, graverobbing, and overall God's-domain-tampering. Fleeing his latest lab disaster, Frankenstein falls in with young asylum physician Karl Holst (Simon Ward), who's in over his head trying to provide for fiancée Anna (Veronica Carlson again). The frustrated Baron hopes to freeze the brains of dying geniuses to plug them into new hardware later, like moist flash drives. A disabled scientist in Holst's care holds the key.
To secure his grip on Holst, Frankenstein rapes Anna--a scene characterized today as a last-minute addition to the film, one that Cushing and Carlson allegedly played under protest but that works in context. Everyone who falls into Frankenstein's orbit becomes a victim--especially the damaged scientist, whose brain Frankenstein cures only to transplant it into the body of Freddie Jones. Jones affectingly plays two different characters, and his "Creature" is hardly a creature at all, but a good man deeply wronged, seizing on the monster's traditional nemesis--fire--as the instrument of his revenge.
There's not much splatter here--unlike the concluding film in the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, with its gooey eyeball-squishings and crowning bloody dismemberment.* But it's concerned with the way that wrongdoing radiates to poison the most distant innocents. Note how the addled scientist's wife (Maxine Audley) suffers at three different removes from her husband: first alienated by his madness, then speaking to him through a dressing screen while he converses via a dead man's mouth. Crying out for the comeuppance of the title, Baron Frankenstein blights the lives of people he's never met.
The Hammer horror cycles deserve much better curation than they've ever gotten on DVD. The Dracula disc contained herein is the same flipper included in a previous Lee-centric collection that came out in 2007. The two Frankenstein movies are welded into one disc for the first time that I'm aware of, although both are indistinguishable from the earlier releases in terms of menu, sound, and extra features. While all films in the set ring with Hammer's trademark attention to colour process, offering bloody reds and fleshy fleshtones, Horror of Dracula's 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen image (recropped from its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio) is sadly jumping with grain so dense it's at times almost misty. Also presented anamorphically at 1.77:1, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave easily betrays its more recent vintage with a comparatively sparkling transfer, though the flat, harsh '60s lighting was bound to translate well to the small screen.
The Curse of Frankenstein, likewise blown up to 1.77:1 and badly marred by edge enhancement, is the worst of the lot--it looks like it was shot through an aquarium. Some cleanup is evident in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, whose 2004 disc release was beset by a persistent lens fleck in the lower-left area of the 1.77:1, 16x9-enhanced frame. That's gone now, replaced by a new top-of-frame lens fleck visible only during the middle reels. I've written before about how comforting I find the mono sound in these productions, nostalgic as I am for the afternoon-TV creaturefests where I first encountered them as a kid. That holds true here, and the audio, Dolby 1.0 across the board, consistently grants equal room for scores and screams. (With some fearsome tape hiss, the later Frankenstein film has the worst signal-to-noise ratio.) Extras are thin, mostly limited to the original (I presume U.S.) trailers; The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula additionally feature text-only cast bios and production histories. Originally published: December 14, 2010.
*Part of the extratextual geek joy of ...Monster from Hell is watching the guy who played Grand Moff Tarkin take a piggyback ride on the guy who played Darth Vader. return