When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

It’s time for me to  ’fess up:   until this week, I’d never seen the the original Hammer Dracula movie, the one that made Christopher Lee a star.

I’d never acquired a taste for Hammer horror; Universal Studios’ three-decade output (from 1924’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME to 1954’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) supplied all I’d ever needed in the horror genre.  The two studios, despite their mutual motivation to create a lucrative series of horror genre films by borrowing from literary characters such as Dracula and Frankenstein, constructed significantly different end products.  By the late 1930s, Universal horror movies were aiming for the Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee crowd, and veered away from disturbing content and more towards a Wow / Gee Whiz aesthetic.  UK-based Hammer, who got their horror factory going in the 1950s, had more adult (or at least adolescent) imagery:  more sex, more gore.  [I think that Hammer generated more shots of lusty wenches in push-up bras than any other film studio on the globe.]  Due to advancing technology, color film had become affordable to second-tier producers by the mid-1950s, and Hammer developed a strong, unique use of color:  HORROR OF DRACULA‘s art direction optimized the brassy quality of the newer, cheaper color film by saturating the frame with ochres, golds and reds, and then intelligently and sparsely painting parts of the frame with blue.

I can’t diss the work of Universal’s horror directors, though their product (even from shot to shot) could be hit-or-miss; but in HORROR OF DRACULA, it’s easy to see director Terence Fisher’s strengths and weaknesses:  as a visual artist he was more a designer than a stager. His composition skills were great, but his visual skills in blocking of actors in a scene — especially fight scenes — were not as good.  There were many times a camera movement would have created better effect than having actors use broad gestures in a shot.  However, his composition in static shots of actors or objects was sublime.

I don’t know who had the brilliant idea of imbuing Dracula with darting, animal-like, predatory qualities, so different from the debonair Lugosi-type Dracula of Universal, but it worked and delineated a new, disturbing image of Dracula (just as Hammer’s THE MUMMY was the opposite of Universal’s:  fierce and overpowering instead of trudging and sinister).  Fisher gave Christopher Lee a hell of an entrance as Dracula, with strong, direct (and therefore, threatening) movements throughout.

With both Hammer and Universal, there’s a geo-inspecificy that can drive you nuts:  as the Frankenstein cycle continued at Universal, the Europe that was represented became more vague and generic, especially as World War 2 spread through the continent.  With Hammer, you have Transylvanian barmaids named Inga delivering lines with a Cockney accent.  The one benefit from this transcontinental melange is having the great British character actor (and Hitchcock collaborator, both as screenwriter and actor) Miles Malleson cast as a German undertaker, delivering his lines with the wit he displayed in Ealing comedies with Alec Guinness just a few years earlier. His performance was just one of the great touches that helped me understand the popularity of the Hammer horror series.
Doug / PoMo Joan

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