This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.
Christopher Lee, as Dracula, greets John Van Eyssan’s Jonathan Harker and basically says, “Welcome, glad to have you as my librarian. That picture of your fiancee is lovely. I have to leave now, good bye.” After that, Dracula never speaks another word in the Horror of Dracula (1958). End to end, his footage probably runs less than fifteen minutes.
Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster present Bram Stoker’s vampire as a feeding predator. To his victims, he is attractive and desirable. Throughout his Hammer films, Terence Fisher clearly presents evil as erotic temptation. Seen in this light, Dracula’s silent, predatory portrayal in the first “true” sequel—Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—makes perfect sense. This is what sets Fisher apart from his predecessors who told the same story, and the successors who imitated (and exaggerated) his style in increasingly inferior sequels.
In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the vampire is loathsome and repulsive. In Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) the vampire has far more static dialogue, and more charisma, albeit in a silent film stylized theatricality. With Fisher’s take on the subject, the erotic quality of the antagonist is pronounced, fleshy, and unmistakable. Yet, Fisher and Sangster also expertly balanced that sensuality with the narrative, never allowing the eroticism to become a caricature the way successors did (thus robbing the series of its freshness).
Compare Fisher’s direction of Dracula’s seduction scene to Freddie Francis’ in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968). In the former, Dracula seduces Mina (Melissa Stribling). The scene is shot in a series of extreme close-ups. Mina expresses dread (with a quivering lip) and breathy anticipation. Dracula enters her room and descends upon her bed-ridden form. As he draws towards her, his lips part. The next sight of Mina is unconsciously collapsed on her bed, violated, blood lightly splattered on her throat and gown. It is the blood of her husband (in a transfusion) that saves her life.
In Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the vampire approaches Zena (Barbara Ewing) in the forest. Zena nearly spills out of her top and the vampire removes one extra snap for increased spillage. The attention is so drawn to the stripping that the narrative is second thought. Later, when Veronica Carlson is seduced by Dracula, her Victorian doll falls from her bed, awkwardly symbolizing the loss of innocence.
As superb as Christopher Lee is in his role as the Count, Peter Cushing is the quintessential Van Helsing. He is suave (no one, not even Bogart, can make smoking a cigarette seem so natural), benevolent (i.e. when he drapes a coat around a child’s shoulder, hands her a crucifix, tells her, “there, isn’t that pretty?” and gently instructs her to watch for the sunrise in the distance), empathetic (displaying caution and wise, reserved patience), educated, scientific (but a man of action), determinedly faithful, and in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave he relentlessly pursues his goal to achieve one of the best endings in the genre’s history.
Van Helsing and Dracula engage in a vivacious struggle. Van Helsing leaps over a table to a grand window, pulling down the curtain to allow the beam of morning light in. The vampire is caught in the ray of light, burning his foot. Van Helsing finishes off his nemesis by thrusting a cross, made from two candles, in the face of evil. Dracula retreats fully into the ray of light, burned to ashes. The ending is classically religious without being obvious, without blatant chest-beating, the way a Stephen Sommers or Cecil B. DeMille might have filmed it.
Freddie Francis in Risen, throws in DeMille’s kitchen sink. The Vampire is staked, pouring out gallons of blood, while Ewan Hooper’s disgraced Priest tells atheist Paul (Barry Andrews) that he must pray in order for the stake to take effect. Of course, Paul can’t, and leave it to the priest (after having assisted in the killing of two people, including his superior) to have a born again experience. The priest prays the vampire, now impaled on a large crucifix, into oblivion (until the next sequel, of course). The sight of the vampire destroyed prompts Paul to make the sign of the cross over himself. Atheist Paul also has had a born again experience. It’s as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles and, frankly, imitative of Fisher’s style in a clumsy way.
However, Risen has good points along the way. The relationship between the Monsignor (Rupert Davies) and his priest, who is under Dracula’s control, is a tense development. The Monsignor’s ordeal and eventual demise is dramatic and unexpected. However, the revival of Dracula , imprisoned under the ice, is hackneyed and rushed compared to the conveyed, purple dread that Fisher cast with Philip Latham in the immediate and highly underrated prequel, Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966). In that film, Dracula is entirely a beast, whose only motive is survival through sustenance (hence, Fisher’s focus on the other principals, such as Helen, Klove, and Ludwig).
In Risen the Count’s motive is revenge, which seems somewhat feeble. This would be Dracula’s motive in each of the successive films. There would still be good moments in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and even less (but still a few) in Scars of Dracula (1970). However, the remaining films in the Dracula series would see the vampire reduced to a tenth rate Fu Manchu; a long descent from Fisher’s initial Horror of Dracula.
Fisher’s efforts in the Frankenstein series made it increasingly experimental and less predictable. All but two of the films in that series (the weaker two) were directed by Fisher, and that ensured an avoidance of the pedestrian formula that befell the Hammer Dracula franchise in the last entries. Of course, the Baron always had more interesting motives (plural) and goals than did Count Dracula, or any of the Baron’s creations.
While Terence Fisher certainly belongs among the rank of the great horror auteurs, he was not able to project his best qualities in the films he did outside of Hammer. Yes, Fisher was an assignment director (as was James Whale, Tod Browning, and Jacques Tourneur) but the marriage between Fisher and Hammer was perfectly matched. Unfortunately, the studio never realized that to its full potential. Although all of Hammer’s films were, by today’s standards, economically budgeted, lush set design, brilliant color and convincing actors elevated their output. However, lacking the foresight to take even greater advantage of their best talents, the studio was unable to sustain solid direction and retain the level of quality that Fisher and their best visionary, innovative writers gave them.
Despite the slow slide downward, Hammer’s Dracula series started off with three superb films in a row. For many years, it was their introductory The Horror of Dracula (1958) that was ranked, by many, as the greatest of all horror films and, by some, it still is.