- David Thompson

Welcome to the blog for FROM OUT OF THE SHADOWS a season of films celebrating the Gothic on film. Below you'll find more information on the films themselves, and why we think they're worth your attention. Click on the titles in the 'WHAT'S ON' section to see write-ups on each of the films that we're showing, while if you look back in the Archive Section, you'll find a little more about the Gothic in relation to the city where we're screening and the odd extra tidbit that we couldn't quite fit in anywhere else. Have a good look around. We hope you find it interesting. With any luck we'll see you there... it's going to be a lot of fun.

Monday, 21 September 2009


DIR: Terence Fisher
UK 1958 82mins (12A)

It’s still my favourite film of Stoker’s novel.

Ever since I saw the end tacked onto the beginning of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (Hammer’s second sequel, though the first to feature the return of Christopher Lee as the definitive screen Count). I think that I was nine years old when I first saw it – taped off the telly late one night by my dad.

Then, it was just about the most thrilling, exciting film I’d ever seen. Even at that early age I was predisposed to like it: I had a taste for the Gothic and the Macabre, but was too sensitive a child to enjoy contemporary set horror films. The gore and the closeness to the world I knew and lived in made it all too frightening. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) left me leaping into bed from six feet away in order that I didn’t let my feet get within range of anything that might be lurking in the shadows underneath.

But DRACULA (none of your American HORROR OF... thank you very much) was incredible. Much that affected me so deeply, I don’t think I recognised/understood until much later. Seeing it again as an adult I realise that so many of the things I respond to today can be traced back to my first viewing of Terence Fisher’s masterpiece: to the acting of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, to the cinematography of Jack Asher, the script by Jimmy Sangster, to the careful, precise and entirely committed direction of Terence Fisher.

The fact that it also gave me a fondness for women in Victorian attire is quite beside the point...

I didn’t see the Universal DRACULA (1931) until many years later, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi in the role that he made a caricature long before Sesame Street got hold of it. I’ve never liked that version. Almost nothing about it works for me. I don’t like Lugosi in the film. I think it’s probably the worst film Tod Browning ever made (based on the few that I have seen and which can still be seen). If you want to see what the man was capable of check out FREAKS (1932). A truly remarkable film guaranteed to give you goose bumps to this day.

Only Dwight Frye as Renfield makes any impact in the Lugosi film. He is the saving grace of it. The only thing that is creepy, disturbing, transcendent of the dull drawing room drama that he’s imprisoned in: the only aspect that comes close to the mood and power of Stoker’s still brilliant novel.

That film has its supporters. But they are wrong. Hammer’s DRACULA is better. It is also one of the best, and most influential British films ever made. But Hammer’s reputation has fallen so that it is thought of now in the mocking - if warmly so - terms of the kind of cheap campery that began to creep into its output in the seventies as it began to lose its decade long grip on the zeitgeist. THE EXORCIST (1973), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASACRE (1974), HALLOWEEN (1978), these films made the period set stories of Hammer almost cosy, quaint, despite a few last gasp attempts at something stronger near the end (DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972) was particularly promising, as were parts of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976)).

Though THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) had really put them on the map - and made the world sit up and take note when it made a fortune - it was DRACULA that really defined Hammer Horror as a style unto itself.

Classy; rich (some might say over ripe); lurid; sensual; melodramatic; quivering with barely repressed sexual tension, and presented by all concerned with a sense of pride and professionalism. These were no simple cheap shockers pumped out to make quick cash. Though that was undoubtedly on Hammer’s mind as a company, its repertory cast and crew were solid professionals who believed in what they were doing and believed in doing their best. Non more so than Terence Fisher, who came to directing comparatively late in life, and who found in this particular brand of lurid Gothicism – he always said his films were ‘Fairy tales for adults’ a phrase that hits the nail right on the head – something that brought out the very best in him.

So, why is it so good?

Well, for a start, it solves ‘The Problem Of Dracula’ efficiently and dramatically. And while it may continue to take enormous liberties with its literary source, it nonetheless keeps in mind its point and tone. It is – as Stokers novel was in its day and remains still – thrilling, and scary, and in many ways erotic. Not that the censors of the day would let it get away with anything too overt. There is no naked flesh on display, and yet the sexual undertow, lifted straight out of the novel, is palpable. Because he can’t show too much – and quite frankly Terence Fisher was a man of too much taste to want or need to anyway – Fisher concentrates on the moments leading up to a sexual encounter and the moments after. The scenes in which Lucy and Mina both wait in anticipation of Count Dracula, knowing what they do is somehow wrong, are incredibly well wrought, Fishers teasing use of camera and editing in perfect sync with James Bernard’s tremulous score to bring us to the very height of erotic dread.

Any suggestion that one is reading too much into things with regards to the films overt sexuality, need only see the look on Mina’s face as she returns just after dawn from the night in which she has first encountered Dracula. If it is not the very definition of ‘the cat who got the cream’, I don’t know what is. Indeed having played her prior scenes as uptight, and buttoned down, the playful moue and hungry eyes of Mina in this scene is quite a revelation.

‘The Problem Of Dracula’ is that we know too much. The very name displaces so much cultural water that t is impossible to enter a film called DRACULA and not know already that the man is the villain. He is evil personified in Bram Stoker’s novel. And though he would in later days come to be portrayed more in the tragic/Byronic mode, Hammer sticks to the book. He is a figure of fear. Evil personified. Appetite incarnate.

But in adapting the book, it becomes difficult to then portray the scenes of Jonathan Harker’s innocent arrival and later imprisonment in Castle Dracula, the slow revelation of the Count’s monstrous nature, without the audience losing interest, refusing to suspend their disbelief.

How do Hammer solve the problem? They make Harker just as knowledgeable as we are. They make him a man coming to Castle Dracula as a kind of undercover agent. A man intent on killing the fiend. If we know the novel, we’re pulled up short, surprised by this sudden revelation. If we don’t, we’re at least not looking at Harker as a fool to be walking into such an ominous castle and not suspecting anything.

Actually, here Bernard Robinson’s set design pulls a quite brilliant coo. Castle Dracula (in part due to budgetary consideration I’m sure, but also due to Robinson’s brilliance at his job) is not the Production designer’s Gothic wet dream that so many Hollywood productions make it. It seems nonsensical that anyone would walk into a place that screams doom at them, without the slightest hint of nervousness.

Hammer’s film is different. It is quiet, no birds sing in the vicinity of the Castle, and there are no servants. The place seems deserted. But is more conceivably the home of a Count/nobleman fallen on hard times, than a place that proclaims itself the very seat of Satan on this earth. Is it sinister? Yes, especially as night falls. Is it unsettling? Certainly. It is also believable, while being strangely unreal. The details are unusual; not quite right. It is, as Fisher would have it, a kind of fairy tale... but a fairy tale of the very darkest kind.

This sense of a ‘dark fairytale’ is at its height in the cinematography. Cold greys, deep blacks, calm browns, the bright vibrant red of blood, but also sickly greens and highlights of lavender and blue.

The concision of the storytelling is a thing of beauty. Fisher tells his tale directly, moves his camera for a reason - emotional or narrative. His framing is impeccable, and his work with cinematographer Jack Asher assured.

Just look at the scene in which Jonathan Harker awakes from an encounter with Dracula and one of his brides. He awakes in his room bathed in warm orange light. The fire is barely flickering, almost out, like the candles, wisps of blue-grey smoke rise from both. Everything within the frame is pertinent. By the light coming through the window, we already know that the day is almost over. Harker has been unconscious for quite some time; whatever happened to him was serious. At the same time, it pre-empts later scenes, lays groundwork for suspense: we know that night is coming, and by now we know that means the Count is coming. Danger is coming. At the same time, a sense of doom is building. We don’t believe that Harker is safe in any way. We’re not sure he will survive. The dying candle, the last flickering flame in the grate, the setting of the sun, all reflect Harker’s (and by extension at this point our) position, the waning light (and thus the gathering dark), the flickering flame of his life, the dying embers of our hope.

The following sequence, as Harker sets out to find and finally destroy Count Dracula in his lair, is so impeccably put together, so well executed, and so powerful that its impact has made it a cliché. Every horror film that followed in the wake of DRACULA’s success used this kind of scene. And yet, to see the original, on a large screen, in a good print, is to appreciate the impact it must have made at the time. Not only is it a thrilling sequence in its own right... NOTHING like this had ever been seen before. The biting, the staking, the blood, the horror, had all been off screen before. In this film they were front and centre. And in very full colour.

When you’re watching pay particular attention to details – the placement of skulls near Dracula’s tomb – as carefully placed in the frame as anything in a painting by Caravaggio; the shadows that ensnare and imprison poor Harker at the crucial moment.

Details like these are apparent in every scene, and damn near every frame... it is an astonishingly well made film. A film that should be up there near the top of any list of Greatest British Films. Britain lead the way with this kind of stylish, adult treatment of a genre thought of in Hollywood as ‘Kids Stuff’.

The French were quick to see Terence Fisher’s talent for what it was and lauded him. We should do the same.

We have a rich history of fantastic literature that was once disreputable, but of which we are now, quite rightly proud. Has it not been long enough that we can accept these – at the time - hugely popular films in to the ranks of Classics? Treat them with the respect that they deserve? As much respect as is afforded to their literary forebears?

This film... indeed these films, when at their best, are glorious. We should be proud.

Text by Neil Snowdon

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