Friday, October 29, 2010

Horror of Dracula (1958) and Count Dracula (1970)

These days, we all know Christopher Lee as Count Dooku or Saruman, depending on whether you prefer your epics to occur in space or fantasy realms. But once upon a time, his name was known mostly among horror fans for his portrayal of Dracula.

Horror of Dracula

Technically titled just Dracula, the title was modified in the U.S. to prevent confusion between this and the 1931 film. These days of course, we just remake things and don't bother to rename them. Given that this stars a completely different cast, has a different storyline, and is in color I'm not sure how anyone could confuse this with the other, but I guess Universal wanted to protect their property.

The story of this one differs wildly from the book. It starts with narration of Jonathan's journal entry, even on the proper date as it began in the book, May 3rd. Jonathan has arrived at Castle Dracula offering to be a librarian and catalogue the Count's books. He's fully aware of exactly what Dracula is and is actually there to try to kill him. There is only one bride in the castle and she at first presents herself as someone in need of help, but of course she really just wants to drain him. Dracula does stop her from doing so.

Jonathan's fiancee this time around is Lucy. As he's locked in his room (which happens many times in the novel) he writes in his journal. He uses an old pen that requires him to dip in the ink to write. The narration pauses every time he does this. It started to drive me crazy and I was so thankful they only used it for two scenes.

Jonathan kills the bride, who turns old and ugly as he does so. This is something you see a lot in the movies, but was never shown in the books. The decay that should have occurred to the body does seem to catch up to them all at once, which is why we see so many vampires turn to dust, but I don't think that means they would automatically age. About the only way that could happen is if Dracula had turned his bride when she was an old woman, and it was only that feeding upon blood made her look youthful.

Dracula isn't too happy about the death of his bride so he decides to take matters into his own hands. He turns Jonathan into a vampire, then sets about finding Lucy to make her his new bride. Van Helsing, who was Jonathan's friend and apparently in on the whole "let's kill Dracula" plot, comes to the castle looking for him. He stakes Jonathan and then comes back to tell the bad news to Lucy and her brother Arthur (played by Michael Gough, better known these days as Batman's butler Alfred) and sister in law Mina.

I don't really understand why so many of these adaptations fowl up the relationships. I realize that there are similarities between what happens to Lucy and Mina, but wouldn't it make more sense to combine them into one character, rather than having one absorb all the duties and have the other just be a side line character? And why must the other characters be relatives? Is it that hard to just have friends around? The changes all fit within the frame of the story, but why are they necessary? The only thing I can think of is that this is an attempt by the adapters to get around that "everyone loves each other within five minutes of meeting them" oddity that happens in the books.

Van Helsing is played by Peter Cushing here and is just absolutely great. He's definitely the best character in the film. Lucy is ill and it doesn't take Van Helsing long to figure out from the signs why. While pondering over it all we see him record his thoughts into a phonograph, which is what John Seward often does in the novel. He compares being preyed upon by a vampire to drug addiction. Something you know is horrible for you, but you can't resist.

All of Van Helsing's efforts to save Lucy are ruined by a stupid maid, and she dies. In the book, Lucy's mother is alive but has a weak heart. Because they're all so scared of frightening her and giving her a heart attack, they leave her in the dark to what's happening. So one night Lucy's mother hears Lucy complaining about the stink of the garlic all around her and takes it all away and opens up the windows to let in some fresh air. For whatever reason, Lucy's mother has yet to appear in any adaptation I've ever seen, and so instead we usually get these ignorant maids/nurses instead.

Lucy, of course, does become a vampire and starts preying on small children. This is true to the novel, where there are news reports of children going out to play with "the bloofer lady" at night and returning weak with the bite marks on their neck. I wish I knew what "bloofer" meant, but it sounds pretty funny regardless. Van Helsing and Arthur manage to save a child and follow Lucy. Van Helsing wants to use her to follow Dracula, but Arthur refuses so they just stake her instead.

Arthur's refusal indirectly leads to Mina becoming Dracula's next victim. I wonder if this is an attempt to be like in the books, where they leave Mina out and she ends up getting bitten? We see Dracula and Mina together, and the effect is a much more sensual Dracula than the 1930s allowed us to see. Christopher Lee lacks Bela Lugosi's charm, but we see him kiss and caress Mina before biting her which adds much more sexual tension to the scene. Arthur attempts to save Mina by giving her a blood transfusion, mirroring the efforts to save Lucy in the books. Van Helsing tries to give her a cross necklace for her protection, but the cross burns a scar into her hand. This is inspired by the scene in the book where Van Helsing places a host to Mina's forehead and it leaves a scar. All their efforts to save Mina are in vain and she ends up captured by Dracula to bring back to his castle.

By the way, the entire movie seems to be set in Germany. So any ship scenes are completely taken out here. They do film at a real castle though, and the sets for the homes are also really gorgeous and Victorian looking.

Van Helsing and Arthur go talk to an undertaker to try to find out about Dracula's whereabouts. The guy has a very small part but it's absolutely hilarious. Meanwhile, Dracula reaches the castle and starts to bury Mina alive. He literally dumps her in a hole in the ground and starts putting dirt over her. Can she not become a vampire unless she's buried? We don't know because he gets interrupted by Van Helsing and Arthur's arrival. As far as the defeat of Dracula, I think my note describes it best: Van Helsing with the candlestick in the library. Dracula slowly turns to dust in an effect that is creepy if not a bit dated. The scar on Mina's hand disappears, just as the one on her forehead disappeared in the book.

As a movie, I would say this is a good one and the actors make it worth watching. As an adaptation, it's a bit too much of a jumble of facts, most of which I just find unnecessary.

Count Dracula

This film was made in 1970, and while it stars Christopher Lee it is not a Hammer film. It was an attempt to be a more accurate adaptation of the novel. Does it succeed?

The beginning is extremely faithful. There are only tiny details changed, such as no one in the villages hands Jonathan a cross, though they are all afraid for him. There's a mirror in Jonathan's room at the castle, though in the book he says there are no mirrors anywhere and he's forced to use his travel mirror which Dracula ends up breaking. They use many lines of dialogue from the book, and Dracula is an old man here with a mustache and will de-age as the movie goes on and he drinks more blood. The scenes with Jonathan and Dracula at the castle pass almost exactly as they do in the book, just shortened for time.

When Jonathan escapes however, he ends up in Van Helsing's asylum near Carfax Abbey, where Seward is only an assistant. Beyond that detail being all wrong, I also don't understand how a mad man leaves Transylvania and ends up in London almost overnight. Lucy and Mina come to visit Jonathan in the asylum, and Lucy is already sick when they arrive. Dracula calls to Lucy in the middle of the night, and he keeps repeating her name over and over again in a whisper. Like ten times before she even gets out of bed, and ten more as she slowly walks across the room to the window. It is so annoying. Lucy is engaged to Quincey rather than Arthur for some reason.

At the point that Van Helsing started explaining the whole vampire thing to everyone, I kind of started losing interest. The director, Jess Franco, apparently was in love with extreme close ups, because every character gets zoomed in on at a big emotional moment and it's bad. It was also just very dry overall. I ended up looking around on Facebook, which I don't even like doing, and when I reminded myself I was watching a movie, I found Lucy had been decapitated.

Renfield here is a much more understated madman. His origin story is explained that he used to have a daughter and one day she was found completely drained of blood and he had gone mad. He eats flies and spiders and does have a connection to Dracula. Mina asks to see him and at one point he tries to choke her for no good reason. Later, they find him dead. He's just sitting in his corner staring dead ahead, whereas in the novel he's severely beaten and bloodied by Dracula after he stands up to him in an attempt to save Mina's life.

Jonathan and Quincey go to Carfax Abbey alone to try to defeat Dracula. There are taxidermied animals all about the place. I couldn't figure if I was supposed to treat these like live animals that were attempting to attack them via a bad effect, or if it was just supposed to look creepy. Dracula preys on Mina and returns back to his castle, being taken there by gypsies. Jonathan and Quincey managed to intercept them and pry open the lid of Dracula's coffin, but they set him on fire rather than the dual decapitation stabbing. The death effect is similar to Horror of Dracula, where we see a time lapse as he decays more and more before crumbling to dust.

While Christopher Lee does a really great performance in this movie, even better than in Horror of Dracula, I just can't recommend the film. I'm perplexed by its strict adherence to some of the novel and complete deviation at other points. Either you're going to be faithful or not. Beyond that, it's just a very slow moving, very dry film that is poorly shot.

Tomorrow I'll be talking about Nosferatu and Werner Herzog's remake.

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