Horror Of Dracula

Horror Of Dracula (1958)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling
Extras: Trailer, Production Notes

It seems like an eternity has passed since the inception of DVD and since those first days, fans have eagerly been anticipating the release of the 1958 Hammer horror classic, "Horror Of Dracula." The rights for Hammer films are spread across many studios, and while Anchor Bay has been extremely eager to release the films that are part of their library as a continuous flow, Warner Brothers on the other hand simply refused to release any of their Hammer films on DVD. Until now that is, and one can only hope that more will be on the way soon.

"Horror Of Dracula" is the film that established Christopher Lee as the most recognized Dracula actor of the time and Peter Cushing as the ultimate Van Helsing character. For good reason. The collaboration of the two brought forth a good number of memorable movies and their on-screen chemistry always worked like a charm. Their personal friendship certainly played a big part in this, as they both take in the screen with their presence to bring to life some of the most atmospheric horror films ever made, creating some of the most memorable performances brought forth by the horror genre.

Out of all the Hammer Dracula films, "Horror Of Dracula" is the one that follows Bram Stoker’s original novel the closest. Still, a lot of liberties have been taken to adapt the story. Locations and characters have been changed to varying degrees and much of the story has been condensed, but for the most part we are presented with the classic story of Jonathan Harker traveling to Count Dracula’s castle where he is turned into a vampire and Dracula escapes to London. There, he begins to haunt Harker’s family, trying to turn them all into his vampire slaves, too, until Dr. Van Helsing, a specialist on the subject matter, realizes the danger and sets out to destroy Dracula.

Based on a script by Jimmy Sangster and brought to the screen by the great Terence Fisher, " Horror Of Dracula" is full of great, memorable moments and images. In a sense, " Horror Of Dracula" is Fisher’s masterpiece from my point of view. He always knows exactly where to place the camera for best effect and his smooth tracking shots are extremely effective in this film, to the point that he uses them as a very natural dramatic device that adds immensely to the film. The lighting of the film is also remarkable creating a stylized atmosphere of stylish horror that we rarely find these days. Watching it you would never assume that you are observing a low budget production as Fisher always knew how to get the most out of any shot – something he never really got enough credit for and which makes him one of the most underrated directors of his time for me.

Evidently there are different versions of " Horror Of Dracula" in existence. Apparently the American version of the film is slightly different from the European version in minor details. I am not sure which version we get to see on this DVD. While some elements of the European cut are found on this disc – such as the explicit staking scene and the longer-lasting decaying in the end – there are moments in the film where the European version was different as well, indicating that elements were taken from the Amercian version as well. Dracula’s great entrance when the female vampire tries to lure Harker is one such example. Sadly, the amazing tracking shot that Fisher originally used in this scene as Dracula swirls around the giant globe has been edited and remains only as a hint. Also the coloring in certain scenes is different. When Dracula awakes in his coffin from the screams of the female vampire, the European version tinges the image in blue and green tones for the next few shots as the sun sets, giving it an extremely gloomy atmosphere that is so adequate for the scene. None of that is found on the DVD, the colors remain natural throughout. I am not sure if this was intentional or if someone did too good a job during the color correction of the transfer for this DVD, accidentally removing these intentional tints.
There are other subtleties that define the cut on this DVD as neither true European or true American, which should make it exciting to see for all fans – though more information on the subject and potentially access to the different versions would have been a highly appreciated addition to the DVD.

Warner Home Video is presenting "Horror Of Dracula" in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio on this DVD in a transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TV sets. The transfer has been cleaned up and the presentation is free of any mars or speckles. The print is also surprisingly free of grain and noise, making for a very stable and clean presentation. Colors are very natural-looking and don’t have the oversaturation found in many other incarnations of the film. Blacks are deep, firmly rooting the image, with well-defined shadows that never lose any detail. Given the ominous cinematography of this film, these fine shadow details are very important and it is great to see them reproduced so flawlessly. Only on a handful of occasions some slight edge-enhancement is evident, but for the most part the transfer has a very smooth, film-like look. The compression is absolutely flawless and you won’t find a hint of a compression artifact on this disc.

The DVD contains the movie’s original mono audio track, presented in 2-channel <$DD,Dolby Digital>. Like the video transfer, the audio has evidently been cleaned up, as it is entirely free of defects or background hiss. The dynamics also seem improved and although dialogues and the score sound a bit harsh at times as a result of their technical limitations, they never appear overly so, and once again, this DVD is shoulders above its other home video incarnations.

While the feature presentation certainly pleases the eyes and ears, sadly Warner Home Video lets fans down seriously in the supplemental department. The DVD contains the movie’s theatrical trailer – in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> no less, with the bluish tinted coffin scene intact, as described above. Also some brief production notes about Hammer’s Dracula films in general can be found here as well as a cast and crew list – without biographies or filmographies – but that is it.

Considering the importance of "Horror Of Dracula" and Christopher Lee’s readiness to record <$commentary,commentary track>s – as evidenced by Anchor Bay’s Hammer DVD releases featuring the actor in new commentaries and interviews – it is very disappointing that Warner has once again let an opportunity slip by to not only add value to this release, but to preserve personal and intimate memories about the film for the future. The same goes for a retrospective documentary. Though many of the principal cast and crew members have passed away, Christopher Lee, Jimmy Sangster, Carol Marsh and others are still among us and would certainly welcome the opportunity to immortalize their views and memories on a film that has become such a horror classic.
The same lack of attention and appreciation can be found on the back of the packaging of the DVD where you can see a picture of actress Stephanie Beacham. The sad thing about it is that she’s not in the film. It is a still picture of the 1972 film "Dracula A.D." that has been plastered on the packaging for "Horror Of Dracula." (Incidentally a somewhat simliar error can be found on Warenr’s release of "Curse of Frankenstein" where the production notes say that the film would be closer to Mary Shelley’s novel than the 1930 James Whale film. Whoever wrote this has certainly never read the novel as "Curse" has next to nothing in common with it.)

This DVD brings us the best-looking version of "Horror Of Dracula" to date and fans should eat this release up without second thoughts. However, the lack of sensitivity on Warner Home Video’s behalf in terms of supplemental materials is truly disappointing. I wonder when studios will begin to realize that even if they don’t feel an obligation to the fanbase of their movies, they do have an obligation to the people who made these films. Any new supplement that would have been created for this milestone horror movie would have helped to preserve what little is left of the true legacy of the movie. Add to that the unacceptable factual errors and oversights in the production and you begin to get the unsatisfying feeling that the studio may have hired a gopher to put these Hammer DVDs together for them just to get them out the door.

Well, at least they made sure the film looks as good as possible.