Saturday, August 20, 2011

Great Screen Draculas: Christopher Lee, Conqueror by Moonlight

Christopher Lee, Merciless Dracula

Hammer Films’ Dracula (produced Britain in 1957 and released in the United States as The Horror of Dracula) stars an actor I believe is the last great screen Dracula in that curiously small assemblage: Sir ChristopherLee.

Along with Bela Lugosi, Lee comes closest to the Dracula that wheels about my moonlit mind. Bela Lugosi captures my Dracula’s fierce deadly magic and parasitic otherness. Christopher Lee embodies his icy ruthlessness and thundering drive, his single-minded self-absorption, his arrogant determination to dominate. The screen splits apart, light and air gather around him, as he militantly strides along like a spearing conqueror, heedless of the terror, blood, and misery in his wake. As much as Lugosi, Christopher Lee makes the idea of being the Superman of Evil perilously appealing, a morally fatal male avatar.

I’d seen a few Hammer films during my boyhood, but this Dracula only flickered about the corner of my eye until I was as a college freshman watching late-night TV in a dorm basement in Platteville, Wisconsin in 1972. I’ve revisited the film often over the years. Repeated viewings have actually improved it.

Horror of Dracula booms with vitality from its first frame, the image of a fascistic stone eagle perched on a pedestal. From there, under crimson Cloisterblack-font titles and a hammering martial score by James Bernard, the camera sails away, cranes and tracks across the façade of Castle Dracula before slowly zooming down to the basement door, the Count’s sleeping chamber. Dissolve to a close-up of his stone coffin (stone lays heavy everywhere) into which his name has been proudly carved. Bright red drops of blood spatter on the lid.

We first see Dracula staring down from the top of a staircase, back-lit, faceless. He lives in an oddly ornate, but I gather real-life, mansion decorated with snake-wrapped columns, lush furniture, elaborate tile floors. It has a cleanliness that mirrors Dracula’s sterile heart (which, of course, beats only for him). It may be more English Edwardian than Mittel Europa, but it’s pleasing to see a Dracula with such ambitious taste.

In the simplest of black cloaks, Lee’s Dracula is a hungry wolf, on an eternal prowl, much like an especially capable serial killer, a confident monster of few words, the ultimate individualist run rampant.

The Transylvania sequence is a delight (though the village sequence was clearly shot in an over-lit soundstage, an approach Hammer Studios never forsook). It ends on a chilling homo-erotic note when Dracula finally, fatally, corners Jonathan Harker. Especially disturbing are the iron slaps that hammers and stakes make as the stakes are pounded into human hearts. The effect serves as both an effective motif and perhaps a statement of Hammer’s corporate identity.

Familiar problems arise when we are yanked by the collar back to “England” (though it seems we really go only as far as Germany—for one, the ship sequence is gone). The Renfield Problem is solved by simply writing him out, a certainly acceptable move. Still, we’re stuck with the usual dull, sappy pallid maidens and stiff-lipped stalwarts . . .

. . . with one notable exception and that is the presence of Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.

Peter Cushing is far away the best Dr. Van Helsing Dracula ever fought in the movies (even better than Anthony Hopkins in Francis Ford Coppola’s muddled Macy’s-display-window version). This is not because of the flat clichéd writing, but because of how Cushing hurls himself into the role with dash, conviction, and color. Cushing creates a scrappy and dashing Van Helsing, on equal footing to his black-clad nemesis.

Director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, composer Bernard, and editor Bill Kenny conjure the best of all final showdowns between Dracula and Van Helsing, as Lee and Cushing dash like demons up long stairs, down long gleaming tables with springs on their heels, conjuring happy memories Flynn versus Rathbone. Clearly both actors were having a great time; it’s a joy to watch them clash.

Still, Horror of Dracula, for me, falls short of horror-movie greatness. Dracula is grossly underwritten, with startlingly few lines (something Lee found frustrating, especially in the sequels that followed). The expressive intelligence in Lee’s face is never put to use, leaving him a character without self-awareness or vision. With any other actor but Lee in the part, we would have been left with a weak villain, always fatal to a genre picture.

Crucially, almost all glimmers of the supernatural are doused: no shape-shifting or other outré powers. Some find a non-supernatural Dracula more credible, but without that magic, that ability to cheerfully, but coldly, toy with physical reality, Dracula risks becoming lead-footed, a common Snidely Whiplash, instead of an enchanting, but vile and threatening, trickster. 

When he attacks his vampire bride in one sequence, he laboriously flings her across the room like a sack of lead, whereas the Dracula dancing in my mind would have brushed her away like cotton ball with a simple red-eyed stare, or better, immolated her on the spot with a cheerful snort. This naturalism makes the movie more of a bloody suspense-action picture—and a good one—than a genuine horror film.

I’m also no fan of the Hammer house style. Hammer horror films were the first to defenestrate the rules on what could be shown on the screen in terms of blood and gore. Their Dracula received an X rating in Britain. Their snook-cocking was certainly fresh and called for, but this determination to be explicit, to show everything, was applied to all their movies.

My favorite horror films are poems of shadows, the elusive unseen we’re all afraid of. Producers such as Universal Pictures and Val Lewton grasped this well (even though budget also factored into their calculations). The shadows are what ooze and slip through our minds as we leave the theater or slip trembling into our lonely beds in the darkness, where dreams wait to surprise, confound, and terrify.

At its best, Hammer horror is more fun than scary. Real darkness seldom clouds the frames. No secrets lurk in shadows. The lights are always full on, every corner colorfully but plainly illuminated. The monster stands exposed completely, their costume's stitching nearly visible. Mystery, awe, enchantment—essential qualities of horror—are diminished. Things sometimes look cheaper than they need be. I always sense the crew and Klieg lights hovering nearby. My disbelief stays unsuspended: Yep, that’s only a movie. I don’t even have to repeat it.

Hammer Films faded away in the mid-1980s (though it seems to be making a comeback). Christopher Lee, we’re happy to say, has had a much more fortunate career, beyond his place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific movie actor ever. Still active at 89, he’s been featured in such classics of our time as The Wicker Man, The Lord of the Ring saga and Star Wars.

After Nosferatu, Max Schreck remained a character actor and Bela Lugosi’s cape became a straitjacket, but Sir Christopher Lee has much to be proud of and, we hope, much left to bring to the movies. It’s hard to imagine them without him.

(Re-edited 8/26/11)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo of Christopher Lee as Dracula from the Christopher Lee Official website.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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