Going Back To Castle Dracula

Film

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Bram Stoker supposedly had the idea for ‘Dracula’ after seeing a Victoria family enjoying a picnic inside a crypt in Highgate Cemetery. And so the most exotic fantasy was born of a very English obsession, the taking of high tea with relatives, albeit ones that were dead.

I had that thought in mind as I downloaded the BBC’s Hammer season, which mixed its earliest successes with documentaries about Christopher Lee et al. I had not seen the 1958 version of ‘Dracula’ for many years, mainly because I assumed it would feel over-familiar. Watching it now, I’m struck by what the film takes for granted rather than what it shows.

Although there are moments which capture the feral energy of the book, it is filled with scenes of courtly politeness sandwiched between soft ellipses. Jonathan Harker is summarily despatched and you think the action has shifted to Whitby, but no – it seems the whole of England has decamped to Europe – certainly not to Transylvania but to Germany, given those town names. The maid is German, but the house appears late Victorian English. And on their return from staking one Harker sister – and knowing their mother to be at risk – they don’t race against the setting of the sun but stop to have tea.

Nor does Dr Van Helsing seem to be a very efficient doctor. He checks his patient’s eyes, and prescribes garlic flowers and open windows while everyone, including the patient, thanks him for visiting. Helsing ridicules Dracula’s connection with bats, and an air of sensible calm settles over the procedures. The values of Victorian England have been transplanted wholesale to mittel-Europe, such is the power of Empire eliding the two.

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It’s an extremely odd experience to watch with fresh eyes, but perfectly fitting with my theory that the Hammer films, set in far-flung corners of Central and Eastern Europe, were only ever about the Home Counties.

What’s surprising is that this large body of work, which in its thirty-year span reflects the distortion of England from august Victorian values to a point of drifting uncertainty, has never been issued in anything like a definitive collection.

The new Hammer Films set out with commendable energy, determined to release final versions on Blu-Ray, but appears to have stalled, and lacks any logical order. Rather than remastering its main ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ strands first it has jumped about with odd releases from minority interest films, presumably because they were easier to locate elements from. But I can’t imagine sales have been high – it’s impossible to appreciate the strangeness of Hammer by seeing their output in this random order.

Perhaps one day, all of the key films will be made available, and Hammer will be revealed in all its very English strangeness.

4 comments on “Going Back To Castle Dracula”

  1. Mim says:

    I got a Hammer box set that includes *none* of the classic films… good job I got it in a sale or I’d be terribly miffed. You expect one or two classics when you get a box of twenty or so movies. I do love Hammer films…

  2. Gaz says:

    All Hammer films take place in ‘Hammerland’ where all the place names are German, all of the main characters speak with the voice of the West End stage, and all of the peasants are either Cockneys, or else from Somerset. Even my mum, who was no film theorist, said to me “It says Klausenberg, but it’s really Surrey!” The whole story was re-set in Middle-Europe for reasons of time and money. At 80 or so minutes there was not time for a trip abroad, and Hammer were never going to cough up for the shipwreck at Whitby.

    I’m still trying to make sense of some of your comments. ‘And on their return from staking one Harker sister-and knowing their mother to be at risk-they don’t race against the setting sun but stop to have tea.’ Well, for a start, in this version Lucy is Arthur’s sister (Harker is engaged to her), whilst Mina is Holmwood’s wife. Lucy has been staked at dawn, and Van Helsing and Holmwood are taking a drink a few hours later. Neither of them knows that Mina has been bitten at this point. Who is the mother and why is she in danger?

    A lot of the difficulties in releasing all of the Hammer movies on Blu-ray comes from the fact that they did deals with various different studios. Some of the movies are Universal, some are Warner, some are Columbia… It must be a rights nightmare. That said, they’re doing pretty well—Five of the Dracula series, four of the Frankenstein, The Mummy, some well regarded stuff like Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. The Blu-ray of the first Dracula is breathtaking. The picture is so clear and colourful that you can see in the pub that Cushing visits early in the movie that the favourite drink of Transylanian peasants is obviously Gordon’s Gin.

  3. Julie Turner says:

    Hammer stories all seemed to happen in the same piece of scrubland, the same woodland, the same castle or mansion. It all made perfect sense to me when I watched them in the first half of the 1970’s. Late night telly (half-past tennish) was the highlight of my week. I’m blah-blah years old now. When I sit watching them, there’s the sense that an era has definitely gone for good. Personally, I’d rather see a heaving bosom and suggested hanky-panky than the tits and grunts of horror films now. Anything too obvious detracts from what little story there is. Do I sound old at all? That’s because I’m old enough to know fear in the mind is more powerful than anything seen. Ask anyone who is waiting on a tax bill.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Right on, Julie. As someone who never saw Hammer films (they were shown here but I hadn’t got past the they’re just silly stories meant to give you a fright stage) I appreciate hints that help the viewer understand things such as the Midsummer Murder episode about the actress returning to attend a festival of her horror films. (Hmm, I think there were two, with the other being about the filming of a horror film in a local house and… hmm indeed.)

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