Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Red Eye Report's 2010 October Horrorthon #9: "Horror of Dracula"

Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella had similar debuts as the king of all vampires, but leave it to Christopher Lee to change things up a bit. Horror of Dracula starts off as Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at the Count's humble abode not to sell him Carfax Abbey but to send his bloodsucking ass to the great beyond. When Harker's hunt hits a snag, good ol' Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) picks up the trail, only to find that his partner has met an unfortunate end. What's worse is that Dracula, driven by revenge, has targeted Harker's fiance Lucy (Carol Marsh) for assimilation into his undead fold. Van Helsing is prepared to combat Dracula with all his might, but in a society that's shunned old myths like that of the vampire, stopping the Count's evil influence from spreading is easier said than accomplished.

Though I pride myself on being a classic horror nerd, the Hammer pictures are ones that I've spent embarrassingly scant time exploring. I guess I've been on bended knee at Universal's altar too long to catch much beyond 1959's atmospheric but dull take on The Mummy and the blood-soaked gender politics of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. But I can get why Horror of Dracula came to be; the titans of horror needed to retrieve their lost luster, and if Universal wasn't going to answer the call, then dammit, Hammer would. For its time, Horror of Dracula probably was a little intense, even with but a fraction of the violence and titillation the Hammer flicks would become famous for. But nowadays, the film is harmless and borderline quaint at times, which would be fine, had it not embraced the brisk pacing of a molasses avalanche. It clocks in at a little over 80 minutes but feels eternal, especially when Van Helsing and crew painstakingly track down Dracula in scenes better left to line the Count's parakeet cages.

This brings me to what is arguably Horror of Dracula's greatest flaw: Dracula himself. The man is one of the most-performed characters in the history of the arts, a figure recognized by millions, and, as far as the horror genre is concerned, a freaking rock star. So outside of having Omar Epps in the cast, how can you possibly ruin a Dracula movie? Well, as Horror of Dracula demonstrates, barely including the guy is a good start. You could say Lee chose to make Dracula more animal than man, only emerging to strike fast and vanish just as quickly, and you'd be right. The Count is a straight-up monster here, making no effort to feign nobility, but feeling truly threatened is difficult when he's mainly seen dashing off to his coffin. This leaves us to follow Van Helsing, and bless Cushing's droll heart, but without being featured less so than Dracula or at least depicted on equal terms, Van Helsing's pious monologues fall on deaf ears and weary eyes. If anything, this flick goes to show you why Dracula is nobody's opening act.

Horror of Dracula has its place in fright film history, and I'm inclined to forgive it certain flaws. The set design is really fantastic, and compared to other versions of the Bram Stoker tale, be they Coppola or Browning, this one has an identity all its own. Lee's Dracula left an impression on monster fans, and I look forward to catching his other outings behind the cape, but it's unfortunate that the one to start it all holds up about as well as the Count would in sunny San Diego.

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