Man, there are a lot of vampire movies around! It seems to be an inexhaustible theme, at least for producers. For me I have a long time ago found my saturation point. The List also has its share of bloodsucking vampire movies. Including today’s movie I count four so far, where three of them are telling the same story. At least Dreyer’s movie had an entirely different angle.
For this reason I am going into this movie on a weary note. How many times do you need to watch this story?
This time round it is the British Hammer studio who are taking a crack at the story. Until recently I knew nothing of this studio, but thanks to Bea at “Flickers in Time” I am now if not familiar then at least aware of their movies and their penchant for the macabre.
The story itself hardly needs a summary. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Castle Dracula as a librarian, but with the secret objective to get rid of the count. Before he gets this far he is turned into a vampire himself. Alarmed by Harker’s reports Dr. van Helsing (Peter Cushing) rushes to Castle Dracula, too late to save his friend and to stop Dracula (Christopher Lee) from leaving.
Dracula has set his eyes of Harker’s fiancée, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh) and soon she is also turning into a vampire. Lucy’s brother Arthur (Michael Gough) is pretty upset about Harker’s death and blames van Helsing, but with Lucy’s illness and (un)death he is reluctantly coming around. Dracula really seems to have a grudge on him for his next victim is Arthur wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling).
Although van Helsing always seems to be two steps behind the count he is a professional vampire killer who knows all the tricks. Will he eventually catch up with his prey?
Because it is a retelling it is impossible not to compare the 1958 version with Murnau’s and Browning’s versions. There is no doubt that the Hammer version (directed by Terence Fisher) is technically more eloquent than the two former versions. Anything else would be strange given the intervening years. This especially counts for the special effects that now mostly works as opposed to the helpless effects Browning relied on. The 58 version also keeps a very nice pace with a story that actually moves and provides a reasonable amount of suspense.
But a number of things are not working so well here. Dracula for one. I had so much been looking forward to see Christopher Lee give it as the count. Come on, this is Saruman, one of the vilest and most crazy characters in cinema. But 58 is a long time ago and Lee in his youth did not possess that venom that later made him such an excellent villain. Bela Lugosi had more of that exotic charm and suave that makes Dracula dangerous AND sexy and Max Schreck was an infinitely more menacing actor. It is not that Lee is outright bad, he is just trying to wear some very big shoes.
Another element that annoyed me tremendously was that although this was clearly presented as a very gothic story taking place in Germany, each and every character, even the innkeeper in the unnamed eastern European country Dracula lives in, are very, very British. Accent, attitude, mentality, everything exudes Victorian Britain and that crashes completely with the setting. Van Helsing sounds, acts and looks more like Sherlock Holmes than a German or Dutch vampire hunter.
What this movie ultimately suffers from however is that it feels generic. It lacks something to make it stand out and it feels like a good, but alas a run of the mill rendition of the Dracula tale and in that sea of Dracula movies that is available that is just not good enough. I am not a fan of Browning’s Dracula, but at least it had Lugosi. Murnau’s version however was uniquely creepy and is still for me the one I would watch again.
Am I the only one who found Michael Gough’s Athur Holmwood totally annoying? If he was supposed to be he did a marvelous job.