Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Draculas

Recently I bought a DVD set of the ABC/Thames Television series Mystery and Imagination. Although this dates from the late 1960s, I'm (just) old enough to remember it. I particularly recall being scared out of my wits as a child by a scene in which a long-dead man was discovered preserved in a locked room, with cobwebs over his eyes! I now find that this was a tale called The Tractate Middoth from an M R James story, and that this programme was sadly lost (or thrown out) from the archives years ago. The surviving episodes were released this year on DVD, and watching Dracula (the remaining one I was most keen to see) got me reminiscing on its various versions.

Probably the scariest was the original Nosferatu (1922). Full of German Expressionism, this virtually invented a lot of horror film conventions such as long shadows, stark lighting and grotesque variations on the human form. Being a silent film, it's less accessible than one with a soundtrack and doesn't hold up too well with the short attention spans of today's audiences. The version with a score by Hammer Films' great composer James Bernard seems to me the best one.

I have distinctly mixed feelings about the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) and wonder if everyone who cites it as their favourite version is really prepared to sit through the whole thing more than once or twice. Admittedly, the opening scenes are atmospheric, but only the first twenty minutes or so are watchable before the film becomes unbearably slow and stagey. Lugosi's performance is certainly iconic and created the image of Dracula that still persists in the public consciousness - but was it any good? Again, it's a stage performance rather than a film one, and he's so determined to sound menacing that his heavy accent and laboured delivery of dialogue often become ridiculous. The line "We will be leaving. Tomorrow! Ee-ven-ing!" is probably more likely to elicit laughter than chills in anyone under about 60 these days unless they're a horror "geek". Don't get me wrong - I don't think Lugosi was a bad actor, but he really hadn't developed his craft by this time, and actually gave better performances in silly Ed Wood films like Bride of the Monster.

Hammer Films took the world by storm in the late 1950s with their then-shocking horror films in (never before seen) colour. These were faster paced and slightly more realistic, and Hammer's unflinching treatment means they work perfectly in 2009 as "adult fairy tales". Their 1958 Dracula condensed Bram Stoker's novel very effectively to work within its low budget and, of course, it had two of the most appropriate performers ever to work in this field in Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.

By 1968 it could be argued that the story of Dracula should already be permanently in the cold ground – done to death by repetition. However, the Thames TV production was quite different from the Hammer film series (that would soon go into a rapid decline).

Talky and slightly theatrical, it is – despite this – more interesting than either the 1979 John Badham version or the more recent Coppola one. Like other low budget versions, this one "scales down" the novel, omitting its more epic scenes but concentrating effectively on the middle part of the book. Denholm Elliott is no substitute for Christopher Lee as The Count (then, who is?) but he gives a competent performance. Colin Redgrave as Harker and Susan George as Lucy are both fascinating to watch, but Bernard Archard as Van Helsing sadly continues the tradition of silly voices in Dracula adaptations with a very distracting accent more redolent of Calcutta than Amsterdam.

Some scenes (such as the meeting with Dracula’s brides) are very eerily done, while Dracula’s final defeat is a strange mixture of clumsy staging and convincing effects work. The slight twist at the end is a nice touch, too. A minor version, but worth seeing.