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Has there ever been a studio so wholly identified with a single genre as Hammer? Even though the studio in its day produced comedies, science fiction films and dramas, this English studio is so inextricably linked with its horror output that you’d have a hard time convincing the man on the street that there isn’t, and never has been, a film studio called “Hammer Horror”. You can’t fight alliteration, man.
Nowadays the Hammer canon is beloved as cosy, oh-so-British mid-century film-making. A pleasant, rainy bank holiday afternoon with Granny might easily be spent watching Christopher Lee sucking some poor unfortunate tavern wench’s claret through her jugular. But back in the day, these things were edgy. When The Curse of Frankenstein was released in 1957 critics rended their garments and proclaimed it the harbinger of the end of civilization, a disgusting affront to decency, nothing but violence, cleavage, blood and all kinds of unthinkable depravity by Jove.
Aaaaaaaand the British public responded by ensuring that the movie made its budget back seventy times over.
After that, Hammer’s fate was sealed. Hammer and the horror genre were wedded on the spot and the marriage has, with a few bumps along the way, continued all the way to the present day.
Unlike last time, this bout promises to be a much more closely fought affair, as we have The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee versus Dracula starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Both considered to be among the greatest horror films ever made, both featuring absolutely iconic performances. This is going to be a monster mash for the ages.
Both movies veer from their source material and veer hard. But whereas Curse of Frankenstein plays more or less like the screenwriter knew the basics of a story where a scientist called Frankenstein creates a monster out of body parts and then went off on his own adventure armed with those two facts, Dracula plays more like a deliberate attempt to take the elements of Stoker’s novel and move them around in new and interesting configurations.
Dracula gets off to a bad start by breaking what I feel should be a fairly cast-iron rule for any Dracula film; its first scene takes place in broad daylight. Like the novel, a young man named Harker arrives at a mysterious castle where he is welcomed by the imposing and courteous Count Dracula. But instead of being a hapless lawyer, this Harker is actually working for Abraham Van Helsing and has come to destroy Dracula. Harker fails and is killed by Dracula, which leads Van Helsing to pursue Dracula as he preys on Harker’s fianceé Lucy. Van Helsing, working with Lucy’s initially sceptical brother-in-law Arthur are unable to prevent Lucy becoming a vampire but are able to save Arthur’s wife Mina when Van Helsing kills Dracula by exposing him to sunlight.
Meanwhile, in an insane asylum, Baron Frankenstein desperately relates his story to a priest in the hopes of getting a stay of execution for the murder of his maid. He relates how, with the help of his friend and tutor Paul Krempe, they succeeded in bringing a dead puppy back to life. But Frankenstein insisted on trying to create the perfect man, and an increasingly disgusted Krempe refused to help him. Frankenstein murdered his old professor to steal his brain and in a struggle with Krempe the brain was damaged. This resulted in Frankestein’s creature becoming murderous, forcing Krempe to shoot it. Frankenstein then re-animated the monster and used it to kill his maid whom he had impregnated and was threatening to expose him to his fianceé, Elizabeth. Eventually, the monster broke free of Frankenstein’s control and burned down his castle. Imprisoned for the murder of the maid, Frankenstein begs Paul, who has come to visit him, to tell the police about the monster. But Paul, convinced that Frankenstein is irredeemably evil, refuses to help him and leaves him to face his fate.
Both versions do Trojan work in re-imagining their sources in new and interesting ways but I’m going to give this one to Bats. It resolves the Too Many Dudes problem by writing out Quincey Morris, making Doctor Seward an older character who’s Lucy’s doctor and nothing more, killing off Harker early on and leaving Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough, who would go on to have a long and profitable career in movies about bat men) as our main lead. I especially love the idea of Jonathan Harker being a vampire hunter working for Van Helsing. That’s just cool.
Precious little thought went into the casting of Hammer’s monster. Basically, the casting agencies were told “big guy, not too important whether he can act or not”. According to legend, Christopher Lee, at the time working steadily but relegated to bit parts and cameos, got the role of the monster because he was two pound an hour cheaper than the other actor in the running. As the monster Lee is certainly no slouch, and he brings a real pathos to the later scenes where the monster, now lobotomised, is forced to obey Frankenstein’s commands like an animal. That said, this is a considerably nastier monster than Karloff’s. When he’s born, his first act is to try and strangle Frankenstein (the fact that he’s got the brain of the guy the good Baron murdered probably explains that some). In most versions of the story, the monster’s encounter with the blind man demonstrates the monster’s inherent humanity and desire to be accepted. Here, Lee’s monster just murders him, seemingly for no reason at all. There’s plenty of interesting physicality going on with Lee’s monster, but fundamentally this version of the character just isn’t as interesting as Karloff’s for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. There’s a lot of debate as the makeup work too, which was more or less improvised on the day of shooting and which make up artist Phil Leakey was very disappointed with. Personally I think it’s…fine, but a little too close to the Karloff design for comfort.
But who are we kidding here, there is one part that Christopher Lee will forever be synonymous with and it ain’t the monster:
Lee appears in all of seven minutes of Dracula but his presence permeates the thing. The man, after all, was the son of a Contessa and a direct descendant of Charlemagne so channelling the Count’s regal European mien was hardly a challenge.
The biggest difference between Lee’s portrayal and Lugosi’s (apart from Lee playing the part like, y’know, an actor) is that whereas Lugosi’s Dracula is a villain with supernatural abilities, Lee’s Dracula is a monster. A predator, as adept at mimicking human behaviour as he is at speaking flawless English but nonetheless something utterly other and malign. I’ve also read that Lee’s Dracula is the first screen vampire to have fangs but I don’t think that can be true.
Regardless, Lee as the monster is great. But Lee as Dracula is iconic.
“Peter Cushing, what a bastard” said nobody ever and if anyone ever did you have my permission to sock the impudent churl in the mush. It’s always heartening when virtually every interview on the subject of one of your favourite actors begins with “Oh, he was such a lovely man”. Rare too. But yes, it seems that Peter Cushing joins the rarified Mr Rogers club of men who were in the entertainment industry who were also genuinely decent human beings. Which is why, perhaps, it’s a little shocking just how thoroughly evil his Baron Von Frankenstein really is. I doubt there’s a version of this story in existence where Frankenstein (either yer Victor or yer Henry) is a saint. He’s usually obsessive, arrogant, monomaniacal and shockingly indifferent to workplace safety regulations. But normally a Frankenstein (whether yer Henry or yer Victor) will have a moment after the monster’s been created where they realise the full enormity of their crimes and vow to protect their loved ones from this devil that they have unleashed by their damnable hubris. Cushing’s Frankenstein never shows an inch of remorse or concern for anything other than himself. He’s pure evil, a rolling avalanche of narcissism that destroys everyone in its path. It’s one of the reasons why Lee’s monster seems so small compared to Karloff’s, despite Lee being roughly as tall as a suburban home. Lee’s monster is not really a separate character, but simply a manifestation of Frankenstein’s all-encompassing bastardry. This actually carries over into the performance, Lee’s monster walks with a jerky motion like a marionette on strings, to suggest that he truly is just his master’s puppet. Most adaptations of Frankenstein stroke their chins and somberly asks “Ah, but who is the real monster? I mean, when you think about it?” Curse of Frankenstein, with admiral directness, points at Cushing and yells “THIS GUY. THIS GUY IS THE MONSTER”.
Most Frankensteins, when they realise the threat posed by the monster, try to kill it.
When Lee’s monster is killed, the first thing Cushing’s Frankenstein does is bring him back to life and then lobotomise him.
By contrast, Cushing’s Van Helsing allows him to be awesome in an entirely different way. Steely, urbane, compassionate and oh so very British he is quite simply the perfect Hammer hero. But it’s a truism that the villains have more fun, and much as Cushing is great at being good, he’s fantastic at being awful. He’s a hoot throughout Curse, and when he is at last betrayed by his former best friend and left to a certain death it’s immensely satisfying rather than grim. Nowadays, of course, the studios would have insisted on bringing him back for multiple sequels but back in the good old days they knew well enough to end a story on a…I’m sorry, what’s that? How many sequels?
Damn. Dude came back from the dead more times than the measles.
The Dashing Young Men
Hammer’s male leads were notoriously ropey (with the obvious exception of Cushing and Lee) but I was quite taken by Robert Urquhart as Paul Krempe, Frankenstein’s former tutor, later partner, later still arch-enemy. Krempe does an excellent job of conveying how even a decent man might be won over by the Baron’s charisma. Their first dabbling in scientific necromancy is, no lie, to bring a puppy back to life. I mean, honestly, who could object to bringing a puppy back to life? Would you rather the puppy was dead? Doesn’t that make YOU the monster?
In contrast, Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood is entertaining in seeing just how much Britishness it is possible to cram into a man who is, on paper at least, playing a German, but he lacks the charisma to avoid being blown offscreen every time Peter Cushing clears his throat.
The Perpetually Imperilled Ladies
A personal aside: in my acting days I was cast in a touring production of Dracula playing absolutely no one of importance. That production taught me two things:
1) There are no small parts, only small actors.
2) Ladies love, I mean, ladies FUCKING LOVE playing vampires.
I mean it. That shit is their jam. Cast the most reserved and sober actress as a vampire and within five seconds she will be crawling around the stage in a low cut white nightdress, hissing like a burst water main and staring at you with eyes so big you’d think she was a cat who’d just heard you open a can of tuna. Ladies love playing vampires. You can take that to the bank.
Which is why I feel the performances of Melissa Stribling as Mina, Carol Marsh as Lucy and Valerie Gaunt as an unnamed bride have to be assessed in two discrete phases, before they become vampires and after. Before they are turned none of the actresses are particularly raising the bar for the artform. But once they get turned, all bets are off. You can almost see them thinking “My last role was a worried girlfriend, my next role will be a worried wife, but TODAY, TODAY I AM PLAYING THE DEVIL’S OWN BOOTY CALL AND I SWEAR THAT WHEN THIS IS OVER THEY WILL HAVE TO PUMP THE SCENERY OUT OF MY STOMACH HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”
They are, you gather, having rather a good time.
On points, Hazel Court as Frankenstein’s fianceé Elizabeth and Valerie Gaunt (again) as his maid and baby-momma Justine are probably giving objectively better performances but are fatally hamstrung by the fact that they are not playing vampires.
Are either of these films actually, y’know, scary?
Full disclosure, when Dracula suddenly smash cuts to Lee with the fangs and the red contact lenses I had to be coaxed down from the chandelier.
As for Curse of Frankenstein, it’s hilarious, riveting, thrilling and mesmerising. But not scary. The closest it comes is a scene where Lee’s monsters is advancing with its jerky, spasming gait towards Krempe and the baron and Paul shoots him right in the face, causing a gout of of cherry-red blood to spring from his face. You gotta remember, this was the first horror film ever shot in colour. The mere sight of the red stuff was enough to tell the audience that a new era of horror had begun.
Dracula has this gem, proving that there’s nothing new under the sun:
Doctor Van Helsing: I’m sorry, Mr. Holmwood, but I really cannot tell you anything more about how he died.
Arthur: Cannot or will not?
Doctor Van Helsing: Whichever you wish.
Curse of Frankenstein, however, counters with:
Frankenstein: Pass the marmalade.
I realise, it may not look like much. But watch the movie and you’ll understand.
FINAL SCORE: BATS 4, BOLTS 3
NEXT UPDATE: 09 May 2019
NEXT TIME: Blue blistering barnacles!