When Hammer Films reinvented Dracula in 1958, courtesy of Terence Fisher's masterpiece Dracula (US title: Horror of Dracula), they added something to the mix that Universal Pictures had never really explored in the thirties and forties: sex. Bela Lugosi's Dracula had a certain continental charm, of course, but he was 49 years old when he first played the role onscreen. Christopher Lee was only in his mid-thirties when he first essayed the role, and he exuded a kind of commanding sex appeal in the part. Lugosi's 'brides' in 1931 were waif-like, pasty-faced, Gothic wraiths. Hammer would have none of that. The women in their Dracula films were full-bodied, red-blooded and beautiful… and sometimes they were deadlier than the male.
Lee and Peter Cushing give iconic portrayals in Hammer's first Dracula film, of course, but it is the ladies who make the most significant break from the old black and white Universal classics. In Jimmy Sangster's streamlined version of Stoker's novel, Dracula has only one vampire bride living in his castle, but she's a doozy: Valerie Gaunt is a voluptuous, raven-haired mystery woman, who pleads with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) to help her escape from her evil master - but she really only wants to bite Harker's neck. Gaunt reveals her fangs even before Lee does in the infamous 'library scene,' one of the watershed sequences in British horror films. The voluptuous vampire bride has ruby red lips that suggest not only a lust for blood, but a hunger for the pleasures of the flesh.
When Harker later makes the mistake of staking the woman before destroying Dracula - a fatal error in judgment, as Dracula is awakened by the sound of the hammer hitting the stake and the subsequent scream - she immediately turns into an old crone, played by an elderly actress upon whom no special make-up was required. These two sequences established the Hammer vampire film in a nutshell: Stoker's novel had finally been adapted by filmmakers who understood the novel's subtext was about sex, death and the 'attraction' of both. Gaunt also summed up Fisher's auteur theory of 'the attraction of evil' in transforming female vampires from the cadaverous phantoms of the Lugosi version into seductive, ravenous women of the night.
Carol Marsh remains my favorite Lucy in any version of the tale to this day. She gave me a host of nightmares when I first saw the film at the tender age of five. But there was more to her performance than projecting the dark bloodlust of the vampire; as the pre-vampiric Lucy, she has a delicate, childlike quality that no other actress who ever played the role possessed. It made her ideal for the role of the doomed Lucy. The scene in which she is 'seduced' by Dracula as she lies awake in her virgin's bed is a masterpiece of sexual suggestion. There is the hint of an enigmatic smile on her face as she awaits Dracula like a young bride on her wedding night.
Again departing from Tod Browning's 1931 version, Fisher's Dracula, like the novel, makes the scenes with the vampiric Lucy the centrepiece of the tale. The young Lucy, once so childlike herself, now seeks out little Tania (Janina Faye) to feast upon her blood. The scenes of the enshrouded Lucy swooping through the graveyard while autumnal leaves flitter about in the wind are some of the most haunting and atmospheric Hammer ever filmed
Her eventual staking by Van Helsing is one of the great shock sequences of the film. In a series of quick cuts punctuated by the sounds of metal hitting wood and agonised screams, Lucy is put to 'rest.' Vampire films would never be the same again; no longer would these creatures of the night be staked offscreen, with a half-hearted groan on the soundtrack, as Lugosi was dispatched in the 1931 version. With one fell swoop, Hammer virtually invented the modern vampire film.
As played by Melissa Stribling, Mina is perhaps the least interesting character in the film; but then, she was in the book as well, a sort of swooning Victorian lady who only loosened her corset when Dracula 'forced' her to. This is true in the Hammer version to an extent; if Lucy is 'seduced' by Dracula, then Mina is 'raped.' In an oft-quoted interview, Fisher said of Stribling's Mina: 'The (Holmwood) marriage was one in which she was not sexually satisfied and that was her weakness as far as Dracula's approach to her was concerned. When she arrived back after having been away all night she said it all in one close-up at the door. She'd been done the whole night through, please! I remember Melissa saying, 'Terry, how should I play this scene?' So I told her, 'Listen, you should imagine you had one whale of a sexual night, the one of your whole experience.' And, of course...she did.'
COMING SOON PART TWO: THE SWINGING 60'S AND SHELLEY AND FARMER BRING SOMETHING NEW...