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15. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher

This was the first film of a double-bill which I went to see a couple of weekends ago in Manchester with ms_siobhan and planet_andy. Since I have watched it in some form or another about a gazillion times, including seeing the BFI's restored print on the big screen in 2008, and watching the newly-released version complete with once-censored footage on DVD only this May, I blithely assumed in the car on the way across the Pennines that this one would be a bit of a formality. You know, the pretty-enjoyable-but-not-that-exciting film which I would sit through while we waited for the second half of the screening: Night of the Demon, which I hadn't seen before but had always wanted to.

WRONG! Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Honestly, how had I managed to forget just how blown away I was by the restored big-screen experience of this film at Bradford only five years ago? Or how iconic just about every single scene within the darned film is; or how beautifully it is shot; or how powerful and atmospheric the music is; or how utterly amazing Christopher Lee is as at once the most dignified, intelligent, enigmatic, dangerous, darkly sexual, frighteningly otherworldly and yet still somehow strangely sympathy-inducing Count Dracula ever to grace our screens? Oh, foolish child I was that ever I could err so.

Besides, this screening was not just of the restored print which I already saw on the big screen in 2008. It included the newly-replaced censored scenes as well, so it had something to offer me which I had seen only once before in any form, and never at all on the big screen. Only a few precious seconds of footage, but as I said in relation to the DVD version in May, they do make quite a difference to the film. In fact, of course, they constitute a small but significant increase in the proportion of screen-time which Christopher Lee gets, since it was inevitably his most Draculaesque scenes which attracted the censor's attentions in the first place. Given that, if I could make one complaint about this film, it would be that Dracula doesn't get enough screen-time (even though I appreciate he would quickly lose his mystique if he did), that's quite an important factor for me.

Meanwhile, because I have seen this film so many times, I have flagrantly over-thought almost every possible aspect of its plot, characterisation and world-building, so that every time I watch it now, a familiar list of nagging questions present themselves in my mind. Last time, the one that nagged the loudest was "who the actual fuck is Tania?" (real-world answer, probably scripted at one point as Arthur and Mina's child and at another point as Gerda's, without the clash between the two ever being entirely resolved; in-story answer, either Gerda's child but treated like part of Arthur and Mina's family or perhaps someone's secret love-child whose status genuinely is as ambiguous as the script suggests). This time, it was "What is Dracula's real motive in inviting Jonathan Harker to his castle?"

In the book, Dracula's motives are pretty clear. He genuinely does want to move to London, and invites Harker (a solicitor / estate agent) to his castle to fix up the paperwork and improve his spoken English before he moves. Once the property business had been satisfactorily concluded, it was probably Dracula's intention all along that Harker should die. In fact, he plans for this in advance, forcing Harker to write a series of letters home saying first that he is about to leave, and then has left the castle. Presumably this is an elaborate ruse designed to ensure that Harker's friends will assume that he met his doom on the journey home, not in the castle itself, thus saving Dracula the trouble of dealing with inconvenient police enquiries. But even this is probably more about disposing of someone who has served their useful purpose but in the process come to know rather too much about the Count's true nature. Harker is never simply intended as a nice snack, either for the Count or for his vampire brides.

In the Hammer film version, the set-up is quite different. This Dracula has no plans to move anywhere, and so doesn't need an estate agent. Instead, Harker is a librarian. Or at least he pretends to be. Unlike in the book, it is Harker this time who is engaged in deception, as it gradually emerges that he is a friend of Van Helsing's, and has blagged his way into the castle not to work amongst Dracula's books, but to destroy him. OK, fine - that makes sense within the terms of the plot from Harker's point of view, but what about Dracula's? Does he really want a librarian? Why? How did he go about securing a 'distinguished scholar' (which is what he calls Harker) willing to take on the role? Did he advertise in all the best magazines, or what?

I can't answer all of those questions from what is in the film (though I certainly can from my imagination), but I think that there is just about enough on screen to tell us that the answer to the "Does he really want a librarian?" question at least is "Yes." I say this because after Dracula has shown Harker to his room on the first evening, Harker hears the door lock behind him. We never see who did this, but from what happens later it is fairly safe to assume that Dracula does it in order to keep Harker safe from his own (unnamed) female vampire companion. She, though, later unlocks the door, tempting Harker to venture out of his room, and giving her the opportunity to bite him - much to Dracula's fiery rage. Afterwards, Harker finds himself in the room again, and once more locked in - presumably something which Dracula did after dealing with his wayward female companion. All of this seems to suggest that Dracula genuinely wants Harker alive and indexing his volumes (for all that that sounds like a euphemism), and that his plan was to lock Harker in his room each night for his own protection. He only ends up biting him due to a combination of a) the female vampire wrecking Dracula's attempt to pretend to Harker that he is a normal human being and then b) Harker provoking Dracula's ire by staking his girlfriend.

Does any of this matter? Not really - as I say, it is basically just me radically over-thinking a film which (as the inconsistency over Tania suggests) was never really intended to stand up to this level of scrutiny. But for me, working through this sort of question is basically a way of squeezing every last possible drop of plot and character out of a film which I deeply, deeply love. What's on screen is great, but I want more, so I begin to lift up loose flaps and peer around untrimmed edges. That is, of course, more or less the definition of 'fannish' behaviour - we love a film, TV show, book or whatever so much that the thing in itself cannot satisfy our passion for the story and the world which it is showing us. And so earnest and feverish analysis begins, searching for the small clues which might give away more than what is shown to us directly, and of course building onwards from there into fan art, fiction and role-playing in which we extend the stories ourselves.

In the case of Dracula and his librarian, figuring out the Count's motivation from the on-screen clues gives me the satisfaction of new insights into his character. In almost all of the later films, Dracula is motivated by precisely two things - blood-lust and vengeance - and people are only ever lured to his castle in order to satisfy one or other of those desires. But it's important to notice that in this first film, that isn't the case. The Dracula of the first film certainly is both blood-thirsty and vengeful, as he abundantly demonstrates once he starts going after Lucy and Mina. But at the beginning of the film we get a glimpse of another side to him. Much as, in the book, Dracula wishes to move to London because he is tired of his lonely and remote castle, and wants to experience the urbane sophistication of a modern capital city, so film!Dracula must have some kind of intellectual reason for hiring a first-rate librarian. Quite what it is, we don't know. Improving his mind? Conducting some research? Getting to grips with his own personal history? But it is more than simple melodramatic monsterishness - and, set alongside his charming politeness when Harker first arrives, it is precisely this dignified and almost human side of Hammer's Dracula which sets off his moments of predatory sexuality and feral rage to such good effect, and makes the character so fascinating.

As for those other questions regarding why he wants his library sorted out, and how he went about hiring Harker, those go beyond what the film as screened can tell us, and I would have to start writing back-story type fanfiction if I really wanted to answer them. Though I have dabbled with drabble in the past, long-form fanfiction belongs on my list of things which are doubtless pleasant but which life is too short to do (though I'll often while away the time on bus journeys or while drifting off to sleep telling similar stories to myself, which provides the requisite satisfaction without the tedious trouble of having to write anything down). I have found the time since watching this film, though, to indulge over the course of a few evenings in front of the telly in another fannish activity - the making of new livejournal icons. One, taken directly from this film, makes its first appearance at the head of this post. The others will follow as I review some of the sequels which watching this film has prompted me to revisit since.

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Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
ms_siobhan
Nov. 10th, 2013 11:34 pm (UTC)
It was so fabulous to see this on the big screen and in such a busy but well behaved screening too. My heart pounded when the oh so dashing Van Helsing played so wonderfully by the ever delectable Peter Cushing came on screen. Wonderful stuff.

One thing I hadn't noticed before is the fact that Dracula's feet make no noise when he leads Harker up the stairs to his room when Harkers' feet make a very loud noise on the stairs.

Am going to have to watch it again and the key bits of the soundtrack kept going round my head when we walked round Castle Mulgrave last week.
strange_complex
Nov. 11th, 2013 09:19 am (UTC)
I feel bad about Peter Cushing, actually, as I notice that I haven't mentioned him at all in my review above. It's just Dracula, Dracula, Dracula all the way with me. But like I said in the car on the way over, this is why our friendship works so well. ;-)

On Dracula's footsteps, you are absolutely right, and it's something I hadn't noticed consciously myself before you said it. I think I sort of had subconsciously, as I had always thought of Dracula as gliding about the place in a slightly supernatural way, but I hadn't recognised how it was achieved before. Now you've said it, though, I was flicking through some of my books about Christopher Lee's film career after watching this, and spotted a comment in one of them saying that apparently his footsteps were actually edited off the soundtrack to achieve exactly that effect. I think it's a real testimony to the lengths they went to on this film to create the right atmosphere, that even things which most people (including me!) wouldn't notice consciously were carefully set up to build an effective overall experience.

It must have been ace walking round that castle with the soundtrack swirling around your head. I have been singing it to myself for most of the last fortnight, but obviously it doesn't work quite as well in a brightly-lit Art Deco house!
ms_siobhan
Nov. 11th, 2013 02:52 pm (UTC)
Castle Mulgrave was beautiful - quite isolated but easy to get to (if you're in Sandsends that is) though the paths are only open certain days of the week.

As for our friendship - I thought that was because of my dashing wit ;-)
matgb
Nov. 11th, 2013 09:04 am (UTC)
I always seem to get the plot of the various films and the original book mixed up so that Harker's a librarian in this and not the original is something I tend to forget, I think of him as a librarian pretty much always. Don't know if you've read it, but Kostova's The Historian is based on the Dracula novel and myths, and in that he's always after librarians, both to catalogue his book collection and keep his secrets, I've got the book somewhere but didn't actually like it much, found it a bit dull and dry which, given the source material, is surprising.
strange_complex
Nov. 11th, 2013 09:24 am (UTC)
Ooh, no, I haven't read that, but it sounds cool! I appreciate you're saying that you didn't think it lived up to its promise, but I like the sound of all the stuff about the nature of history which the Wikipedia page talks about. I think I will give it a whirl, anyway.
ms_siobhan
Nov. 11th, 2013 02:53 pm (UTC)
I've got a copy of it somewhere I think - but I only got so far with it as I found it a bit too ponderous and dull. If I can find it you are welcome to borrow it.
strange_complex
Nov. 11th, 2013 03:10 pm (UTC)
That would certainly be very kind - especially as that makes two people now telling me I probably don't really want to waste any money on buying it myself!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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