Why Does Dracula Never Grow Old?

Books, Film

He’s the IP that never needs fresh blood. His fans still lap him up. What’s the appeal?

The thirst for new material from the old Hammer Films studio is extraordinary, and an entire industry built up around this esoteric corner of the entertainment industry. The above volumes have been republished with new sections bringing the Hammer story up to date.

The company was founded in the 1930s and found fame in the 1950s with a huge output of modest movies in which their arch staginess became part of their charm. When I was a child I looked back at the Universal horrors with disdain. But history repeats; now you can go and see teen comics on film like ‘The Suicide Squad’, in which a walking shark rips out a man’s spinal column. Back then, the British Board of Film Censors were arguing over whether a drop of blood on a nightgown suggested menstruation.

Hammer is why I wrote ‘Hell Train’, because I so admired its creative ethic, its working methods and the strange little cottage industry it created.

The above volumes are the official Hammer art books, as opposed to histories like ‘The Hammer Story’. They look back to Hammer’s glory days, when a film could be green-lit immediately because one of the stars was going on holiday soon.

Hammer famously prided itself on detail. Looking at the way in which the costumes and decor complemented one another you can tell it was a family working together, conferring and learning from film to film. We’d seen the gothic designs before, dressed slightly differently from one film to the next, and it didn’t matter. 

Titan have done a beautiful job with the artwork here, which looks far more sumptuous, glossy and blood-gorged on the page than it ever did in the high street. For anyone hitting sixty there are images that have survived in the mind for decades, even though they’ve long been superseded. The Hammer double bills were perfect date movie material, with much screaming and placing of the hands across the eyes. Seen now, they play out like courtly comedies of manners, with intelligent scripts and forgivably shoddy effects.

When Hammer branched out and tried making family adventures, it couldn’t find an audience for film franchises like the H Rider Haggard ‘She’ sequel. Instead, they stepped onto unsafe ground in their hunt for new audiences. They no longer had partnerships with much-needed US distributors who knew where they stood with Dracula and Frankenstein. 

I ended up working for Hammer several times over, not in the golden days, and always with new management in charge. Most of our projects ended in a tangled chaos caused by inexperienced producers and lost funding  – with the exception of ‘Hammer Chillers’, a set of high quality audiobook stories.

The newly updated art books have replaced my old copies. Those of us who lived through the painful collapse of the British film industry still have these to enjoy, at least. They were certainly more elegant than comic book carnage.


27 comments on “Why Does Dracula Never Grow Old?”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Of course you can’t talk about Hammer and Dracula, without recognizing the contribution of the studio’s head monster, Sir Christopher Lee, who not only played the legendary vampire, but Frankenstein’s monster and Kharis the mummy. He did seven Draculas for Hammer, most — following his acclaimed first, appropriately called ‘Dracula’— with him largely hissing his way through the films since either the dialogue was so bad he refused to speak it or, there wasn’t any, depending on who you believe. He has publicly claimed that Hammer ’emotionally blackmailed’ him to do the succeeding films by reminding him each time of how many people he would be personally responsible for putting out of work if he didn’t take the part.

  2. Helen+Martin says:

    Stu, I think that’s extortion, not blackmail but regardless, that is just plain nasty. You could make a horror film using that idea.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Hammer probably can trace a good deal of its success with horror films back to the Gorbals Vampire Affair in Glasgow in September of 1954. Over a span of three nights, hundreds of children under the age of 14 gathered at the sprawling Southern Necropolis cemetery located in the city’s Gorbals area. They were armed with makeshift weapons to defend themselves against an imaginary vampire who, according to the rumour, had already eaten two boys. That no children were missing, of course, was beside the point.

    Blame for the kids’ unshakeable fear of the vampire was quickly laid to American horror comics like ‘Tales From The Crypt’ and ‘The Vault of Horror’, with their terrifying (to adults) graphic images. This led not soon after in 1955 to the passage of the ‘Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act,’ which bans the sale of comics and magazines portraying ‘incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature.’ Technically, it is still in force today although largely ignored.

    As might be expected, the ban, together with widely expressed media distaste for the genre, caused interest in horror comics and films to skyrocket. The more horror films Hammer produced, the more it thrived on the bad publicity they received, and the larger its cult following became.

  4. Jan says:

    When you think on it all these Marvel films really really ARE just wot it says on the tin – animated comics they are pretty much cartoons with people actually inside them. All this advanced CGI has done in a sense is to replace cartoon animation. Sort of built a new bridge in and out of reality. I suppose that’s how they get away with such ramped up levels of violence.

    Now horror or adventure, whatever can look far more graphic terrifying and gory cos of the fantastic CGI and this has in a sense made it LESS real. I know that all sounds a bit cock eyed but it’s true. Like another version of computer game violence in a way.

    I was off work yesterday(As you might have guessed) and “Night of the Demon” was on ‘Horror channel’ in the early afternoon..I missed half of it but arrived in time for Dana Andrews breaking into the magicians house and his walk through the weird back lit forest.

    Nowadays the scary Demon monster looks almost pitiful and probably didn’t look all that clever to most back then but N of the D will always have more about it in the chills department than many more modern horror films. The hand that keeps appearing on the banister as the magician comes down stairs – little conventions of horror that as Chris says are almost like a “comedy of manners” motif when viewed against modern horror. Work though don’t they? Oldies but goodies.

    I know it’s probably me being old and grumpy but this Marvel stuff is like for kids not wanting to be bothered reading the words in the bubbles coming out of the characters’ mouths. It naffs me off a bit.

    Wot IS an I.P. then? Never heard of it.

    Hiya Helen good luck with the the liqueur. It’s Judgement Day on BHL monday the flower shows on again. The ruddy sweet peas have developed some sort of sodding green fly and I’m very tense.

    I also appear to have woken Snowy up. Thanks for all advice Snows. Yeah you’re right I bring this Xmas tree indoors every other Xmas to save £30 I’ll end up ruining ‘me living room carpet.

    It’s also 0241 despite wot Chris’s daft clock days and I’m on early tomorrow. Night night.

    PS. by the way Dracula is I reckon at end of the day a sexual fantasy. Christopher Lee in a very pre CGI way was ideal for the role. Attractive sexy and dangerous. When he was the baddy in a James Bond picture he got far more fan mail than James Bond. Mind you it was Roger Moore. Toodlepip

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin You may have come up with something: an actor who must play an evil or otherwise disreputable character over and over again for one reason or another, until they actually became that character in real life. I can’t imagine Rod Serling (‘The Twilight Zone’) or others (including CF) haven’t done something similar, although a quick search of my Memory Bank of Worthless Information didn’t immediately turn up anything. Perhaps if he hasn’t done something near thereto, it might form the basis of a CF ‘amuse-gueule’ or short story.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan ‘IP’ as used by CF refers to ‘Intellectual Property’ — a tuppenny-ha’penny term for something created (usually by humans, but not exclusively anymore…) that the law protects from unauthorized use by others.

  7. Helen+Martin says:

    That may be the thought behind those painting-showing-deterioration-of-the-soul things but having the person themselves deteriorate is different, not as effective though because you can see the rot and stay away whereas if it’s a painting that rots you don’t. Still, it would be interesting hearing bits of the dialogue turning up increasingly in the actor’s regular speech and his reactions being increasingly those of the character. Ooh, perhaps there is an idea there.

  8. Martin+Tolley says:

    This morning there’s a news story in the UK press that a notice has been put on the door of St Mary’s Church in Whitby asking visitors to stop asking the staff for directions to Dracula’s grave.

  9. Paul+C says:

    I loved the Hammer films in my teens (especially the less celebrated efforts like Kiss of the Vampire) but I find most of them hard to watch now sadly – perhaps the fault lies in my growing older

    Peter Cushing was a far finer actor than Christopher Lee ?

  10. Peter+Dixon says:

    Hammer movies always looked european, the trees and weak light worked well on exterior scenes while the Universal shots looked like they were from cowboy movies with the lens stopped-down. The Frankenstein castle staircase set was used for a Flash Gordon serial and other cheapies. I was amused by the Lugosi Dracula interior of Carfax Abbey where someone decided to add some extra authenticity by introducing live vermin, rats etc. Unfortunately no one seemed to understand european vermin because there are several armadillos crawling about; probably more unusual in a Whitby abbey than a vampire.
    I would probably rate Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as equals in the acting stakes were it not for their appearances as Sherlock Holmes – Cushing played the detective excellently on the small screen, but Lee failed miserably to impart any character in the few Holmes movies he made.

  11. admin says:

    I seem to recall that Peter Cushing was Osric the Water rat in Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’. He was in some terrific TV productions including ‘1984’ and was too much of a gentleman to call out Mr Lee (with whom I was stuck in a lift in Cannes once) for his one-note acting or his frankly awful King in ‘The King and I’. Someone should have told him that stentorian booming does not convey emotion.

    And yet…’Dracula, Prince of Darkness’, quietly watched from beginning to end without laughing, is strangely evil – all the lying in order to lure!

  12. admin says:

    Oh, and the old saw about Lee refusing to speak the lines is doubtful. He had very few lines to deliberately convey the sensation of evil. Too much talking kills the moment.

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Apparently he was able to sneak in a Bram Stoker line or two, according to an old interview.

  14. John Hudson says:

    I love Hammer and am a big fan of both Lee and Cushing. Cushing was probably more versatile than Lee, although fans’ comments that “he could do anything” are, I feel, wide of the mark. In his heyday he was great at portraying steely and supercilious characters and, particularly after the death of his wife, he could add a vulnerability that made him hugely empathetic. He couldn’t have played The Terminator and he evidently couldn’t do accents: his German in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors and his Yorkshire in From Beyond the Grave are both faulty. My favourites of his films are Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Twins of Evil and Asylum, in which he gives superb performances.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    What always intrigues me is the staying power of a popular fictional character like ‘Dracula.’ And that it can continue to spawn popular culture offspring in just about every medium and via almost every type of creative endeavour — more than a century after being introduced as a novel.

    Along with something like 200 related films, there are close to 40 (in counting) stage adaptations and musicals — one even performed on a Bouncy Castle at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — and assorted operas and ballets.

    Then, of course, there is the academic cottage industry that has grown up specifically around the themes of sexuality and seduction — and especially as related to the corruption of English womanhood. Other tangents explored include Victorian fears about racial pollution or ‘reverse colonization’ and anxieties about disease. Suffice it to say that it is unlikely, as with ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ for example, that every critical and interpretive stone has been unturned. And like ‘Alice,’ ‘Dracula’ is the character than just keeps giving.

  16. Andrew+Holme says:

    I think one of the main reasons for the continuing resonance, is that ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker is such a bloody good book. A once in a lifetime moment of inspiration. Let’s be honest, Stoker never came up with anything as impressive as the Count. Is ‘Dracula’ the ‘American Pie’ of novels? Remember when Don McLean was asked about the meaning of ‘American Pie’ he replied, ” it means I never have to work again.” I’m sure ‘Dracula’ meant old Bram never had to run around looking after Henry Irving again!

  17. Jonah says:

    From the comic lyric of “Look at That Face” from Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse’s musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd:
    As for your smile, spectacular!
    One that would frighten the birds away.
    You got a face like Dracula,
    And I mean that in the nicest way!
    Twenty or so years ago there was a flurry of vampire stage musicals. Elton John even composed one based on Anne Rice’s novels. I think the only success was the German one – Tanz der Vampire.

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    Then of course there is the never-made, supposedly ‘semi-autobiographical’ Ken Russell version of ‘Dracula,’ which exists in published screenplay form. It was said to have inspired two other similar, well-received films and did provide the foundation for a now internationally successful ballet, created originally for the Northern Ballet (Theater). This doubtless would have been an interpretation to remember by the master of excess and outrage. As it happens, Russell did write and direct the eminently forgettable ‘The Lair of the White Worm,’ with Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg and Peter Capaldi, based on Bram Stoker’s final novel (of 12) of the same name and based on the County Durham legend of the Lambton Worm.

  19. John Hudson says:

    I agree that Dracula is a great book but it’s probably now been “done to death” and should be buried in the cold earth. I have no doubt that Christopher Lee is the best Dracula, conveying both the menace and some of the pathos of the character. I used to think that the book wasn’t done properly because filmmakers couldn’t afford to: however, both the Badham and Coppola versions had money thrown at them and came across as misconceived at best, partly due to miscasting of the Count himself. Possibly the best *adaptation* of the book was the BBC TV one with Louis Jourdan although, in my opinion, Jourdan himself came over as too bland in the role.

  20. admin says:

    The crucial thing to me is that Dracula should possess a palpable sense of evil. The first part of Mark Gatiss’s ‘Dracula’ provided an excellent opening, only to be destroyed by the conclusion.

  21. Paul+C says:

    Conrad Veidt was apparently in contention for the Lugosi / Browning version. He would have been just perfect……

    Agree that the third episode of the Gatiss Dracula (set in the modern era) was disastrous – do it again Mark !

  22. Ian Luck says:

    I adore Hammer movies. Always have done. Always will. No, they aren’t particularly frightening nowadays, but they always looked wonderful, and featured character actors you liked to see, sometimes in WTF? action – the normally cuddly George Woodbridge’s vicious janitor, in ‘The Revenge Of Frankenstein’ comes to mind here. My late parents went to the movies a lot when I was a kid, and just seeing the name ‘Hammer’ in the listings in our local paper, was enough to convince them to go. I’m not sure that younger people realise just how big a deal Hammer pictures were. (It still galls me though, that their biggest earner was one of their ‘On The Buses’ movies).

  23. Wayne+Mook says:

    Hammer are adult fairy tales, and the do look lovely. As for Lee being cajoled into doing Hammer, it doesn’t explain the Amicus films, all the European horror films (some of them quite shoddy, he also did Dracula with Jess Franco at the helm.) and the rest. he didn’t appear in the sequel, Brides of Dracula.

    Hammer’s horror cycle began with TV remakes of Quatermass and this then emboldened them to do Dracula and Frankenstein, two icons of horror that keep on giving.

    Hammer though have always done radio and then later TV spin offs (Ian is right about on the buses) as well as crime, war, adventure, prehistoric and even SF.

    Dracula will always work as long as we have death, disease and sex plus the dreams of immortality. And sadly a fear of the other, can we blame him for Brexit, I’m sure there is a story in there.


  24. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Wayne + Mook A large part of Lee’s reluctance to do follow-on ‘Dracula’ films for Hammer was their inability/unwillingness to pay him his going rate. That he could be ‘blackmailed’ into doing them for the sake of the crews who would otherwise (possibly) be without work says more about him as person, than it does about the ethics of Hammer’s executives. In fact, in one such situation, Hammer pre-sold the film to its US distributor based on Lee reprising his role — before he had agreed to do it. That Lee did other Draculas had more to with remuneration than anything else, before he moved on to other, non-horror roles.

  25. Keith says:

    Leaving the Count in Transylvania for the moment, one of my favorite vampire tales is George Martin’s Fevre Dream. The time setting of the 1850’s with vampires riding the Mississippi waterways on a riverboat was wildly inventive. Vampires coupled with the history of the steamers and the slave trade that was going on in that time period was so unlike anything I’ve read before. George R.R. did a great job with the characterizations and I loved the character of Abner Marsh, who was the unlikeliest of heroes. More blood than anyone can ever need and a delight for fans of the undead.

  26. Helen+Martin says:

    Keith, that description was too much to let lie. A copy is awaiting me at the library.

  27. Helen+Martin says:

    Keith, thank you so much. The riverboats are fascinating and Martin didn’t (so far) give as much detail on the gore as he might have. This is a great read.

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