Going Back To Castle Dracula
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.
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.