We’ve been talking about the cinematic Dracula for a while now, and if there is anything that every version has in common, from Prana Film’s Nosferatu to Universal’s Lugosi starring classic, it is that second act dip. Every filmed version starts out like gangbusters, with poor Renfield’s adventures in the decaying castle, dodging Dracula and eventually falling prey to his hemoglobin hankerin’ wives.
But in Act 2, after Dracula arrives in England, the action switches to a series of static, hushed, handwringing conversations in a series of drawing rooms. Yes! Hushed conversations! Worry! Concern! Snore! Act 3 picks up steam again as the story finally, mercifully, cuts to the chase and Van Helsing and company pursue Dracula back to his castle.
In the end, the fault lies in the source material. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a classic story to be sure, but it’s also quite a wordburger. It is told from various viewpoints through various mediums. The novel is a jumble of news reports, letters and journal entries. It is a legendary book and deservedly so, but two words that don’t describe it are “brisk” and “cinematic.”
CUT TO: 1958. Hammer Films is embarking on its own version of Stoker’s novel. Hammer was a British film company founded in 1934. A scrappy little endeavor without a lot of money, it could not afford big stars. To get around that, they made movies with big titles. Hammer made deals to create cinematic versions of popular British radio and television shows, like Dick Barton: Special Agent.
In 1955, Hammer made a filmed adaption of the popular BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment, which told the story of the first manned flight into outer space, thanks to the scientific genius of Professor Bernard Quatermass. When the ship returns to Earth with two of the astronauts missing and the third acting crazier than a shithouse rat, Prof. Quatermass realizes that the surviving astronaut is an alien imposter bent on destroying the Earth, and away we go. The Quatermass Experiment television series was hugely successful in Britain and is directly responsible for later British sci-fi series like Dr. Who and Space: 1999.
Hammer films feature film version, with its title cleverly tightened to The Quatermass Xperiment, was a huge, surprise hit. You can see it, but know that in America, its title was changed to The Creeping Unknown. With the cash register still ringing from Quatermass, Hammer did what any self-respecting movie studio would do and followed the money. Next up was X - The Unknown, another science fiction story about a radiation-eating creature from outer space that has crash-landed dangerously close to London. X – The Unknown was written by a sharp, clever, young screenwriter named Jimmy Sangster. X - The Unknown was also a hit.
By now the dye was cast and Hammer was enthusiastically in the spooky movie business. In 1957, Jimmy Sangster teamed up with director Terrence Fisher to take a whack at Frankenstein. The film starred a soft-spoken, kind-hearted British actor named Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein and imposing, 6’5” former RAF intelligence officer named Christopher Lee (a distant relative of James Bond creator Ian Fleming) as the monster.
The Curse Of Frankenstein, as it was titled upon release, was, you’ll pardon the pun, a monster hit, earning back nearly 70 times its production cost and cementing Hammer’s reputation as Britain’s cinematic house of horror. It also established the studio’s signature style. The films were shot in gorgeous, rich, color, the music was bombastic and exciting, and, initially due to budget restrictions but later a definite style, the stories were told without an ounce of fat. They were lean and mean and, oh yeah, full of boobs. In Hammer films, the cleavage is ubiquitous (there’s your mission statement). Hammer’s horror films were big, bright, loud, exciting, blood drenched and perfect. And nowhere did this formula work better than in their follow up to the Curse Of Frankenstein….
The Horror Of Dracula.