Official Hammer historian Marcus Hearn discusses the restored Blu-ray and DVD release of the studio’s 1958 adaptation of Dracula, considered one of the most important British horror movies of all time.
Released by Lionsgate, the film is in shops now.
This is a very exciting release for horror fans isn’t it?
It’s an exciting release for Hammer fans and, as you say, anybody interested in classic horror films. And if you’re a beginner this is a great place to start.
Dracula is one of the most portrayed characters in film. Why is Christopher Lee’s the one that is perhaps best remembered?
I think his interpretation is definitive. Lee transformed our perceptions of the character, suggesting the character’s danger and cruelty in a far more subtle way than had ever been suggested before. He quite rightly interprets Hammer’s Dracula as an urbane sexual predator, and I think every subsequent portrayal owes something to his performance here. He dominates this film with remarkably little screen time.
Why is this such an important version of the classic story?
This was the film where the formula for classic Hammer horror was perfected. Everything came together with Dracula, both on screen and behind the scenes. Its creative and commercial impact inspired almost 20 years of Gothic horror films from Hammer. It’s possibly even more important for the way it influenced cinematic interpretations of Bram Stoker’s novel. Here is Dracula presented as a story about sex. The influence of that decision is still felt today in modern films and TV series about vampirism.
What is your favourite thing about this film?
Its production values are modest but flawless. The lighting is beautiful; the performances – especially from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – are detailed and sincere. It’s eerie, erotic and surprisingly savage in the final act. This is not an explicit film by modern standards, but it’s a horror film for grown-ups.
You have to take into account the film’s age, or rather the conservative era in which was made. But I think that’s pretty much the only concession you have to make. Anyone expecting torture porn, explicit sex or a bloodbath is going to be disappointed. It’s carefully paced, erotic, unsettling, occasionally shocking and even thought-provoking. The restorations on these discs – especially the Blu-ray – really enable us to fully appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the making of Dracula.
It’s pretty incredible that the additional footage was found in Japan. What can you say about the footage that has been reinstated into the film?
It’s nothing short of a miracle that it survived and that it’s been so brilliantly restored and integrated. The classic formula for Hammer horror basically comprises sex and death, and the reinstated footage provides more of both. The original version of the sequence where Dracula seduces Mina can now be seen for the first time outside Japan. The unspoken interaction between Christopher Lee and Melissa Stribling carries a powerful erotic charge which alarmed British censors in 1958.
The extra death comes in a now complete version of Dracula’s disintegration at the end of the film. This is a remarkable special effect by the standards of the day (no CGI in 1958!) and is not only startling but also restores the original rhythm of the editing in that sequence. This is surely one of the most iconic moments in post-war cinema and now we can finally see it as director Terence Fisher intended.
The film is notable for its beautiful colours, presented here for the first time in accurate, High Definition. What is your favourite thing about the restoration?
It’s not been discussed much, but this is the first time the film has been released in any home entertainment format in its correct aspect ratio of 1:66.1. I think that’s a cause for celebration. The picture is incredibly sharp for a film of this age, and the colour palette is just as lush as you would expect from a Hammer horror. These films weren’t supposed to look realistic – they were nightmarish fairy tales.
You have provided a commentary for the film with Jonathan Rigby. What was this experience like for you and why would you urge fans to listen to it?
The commentary was great fun. Jonathan Rigby (writer and film critic) and I were principally there to provide behind the scenes information, but quite often we lapsed into ‘fan mode’ and simply discussed our favourite scenes as they appeared! This was the first time Jonathan had seen the 2012 restoration and you can hear how surprised and impressed he is on the commentary. Or rather commentaries, because at the appropriate moments you’ll hear us say different things about the 2007 and 2012 restorations.
With Twilight, TV’s True Blood and Hammer’s own Let Me In, Vampires have had a boom in pop-culture in recent years. What do you think it is about the mythology of the vampire which is continually attractive to audiences?
Vampirism is a metaphorical vehicle to portray so many of the ideas that we find disturbing, such as the loss of humanity and sexual violation. The films and series you mentioned present this in a seductive way, and I think that continues the reinvention that began with Hammer’s Dracula. This seductive quality is partly what the censors objected to in 1958, and this is what has been reinstated to the film now. Dracula may be 55 years old, but in that respect it’s now more relevant than ever.