Thursday, October 22, 2009
Hammering the Count
Thanks to the patience of my wife, aka the mater familias, we've celebrated the Halloween season by marathoning Hammer's Dracula series. Starting with Horror of Dracula, we've watched Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula has Risen from the Grave and most recently Taste the Blood of Dracula.
I've seen all these films before, but this is the first time I've watched them in sequence, and close together. And you know what?
Hammer seriously dropped the ball.
No, really. They got a lot of things right: atmosphere, suspense, music. But they blew it all in the story department.
How? By making a dozen successful Dracula movies, and making none of them about Dracula.
This is doubly sad since they had a definitive Dracula, Christopher Lee, in harness. Tall, good-looking, with a tremendous voice, he was an ace just waiting to be played. Yet he never was. He became simply a standard monster, who more often than not had little motivation for his actions. And that voice? Relegated to a few lines per film (hell, in Dracula: Prince of Darkness he doesn't say a word). In most of the series he never even has a conversation with another character. He stalks through the films, cape aswirl, beckoning young women to their doom. And that's about it.
It says something about Lee's onscreen presence that, despite these restrictions, you remember him so vividly. To see just how good an actor he was at this stage in his career, you have to track down films where he played secondary roles, such as The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll for Hammer, or his turn as Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. He could be charming, funny, relaxed and debonair. Yet his signature role took advantage of none of this.
As I said, this isn't news to anyone, especially Lee. He's gone on at length about how he struggled to get screenwriters (particularly John Elder, the pseudonym for Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) to do more with the character. But Hammer, one of the last "factory" studios, thought it knew what sold, and so kept using Dracula as a boogeyman in tedious stories about youth both Victorian and (in Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula) contemporary. Or, as the mater familias put it when the films would cut from Dracula to one of these nondescript period teens: "Oh, God, not more character development."
With the current vampire craze, as well as the seemingly unending cycle of horror sequels and remakes, it's interesting that no one's tried a new series with someone like Gerard Butler (who played the Count in Dracula 2000 but not its sequels). Hopefully if this happens, they'll let the actor do more than walk through musty sets sporting red contact lenses and melted-crayon blood.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.