Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dracula [The Horror of Dracula] (Fisher 1958)


Dracula (known as The Horror of Dracula in North America) (Fisher 1958) is not an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel in a traditional sense. Rather, the Hammer Films' production is a total subversion of Stoker’s novel, parodying the underlining paranoia found in the novel about “uncontrolled” female sexuality, the loss of Western male agency, and the supposed threat of the racial “Other.” This subversion results in Dracula being less a horror film than it is a black comedy of cuckold husbands and lovers trying to secure their own feeling of sexual prowess, and in the process, explores the dysfunctional nature of heterosexual relationships within Western society.

This parody of Stoker’s concerns starts immediately as the film begins, with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arriving at Dracula’s (Christopher Lee) castle to act as a librarian. In the first of many major shifts from Stoker’s text, Jonathan has arrived at Castle Dracula with the full intent of killing the Count, a complete inversion from the usual opening of Harker arriving to help the Count move to London, with Dracula posing the threat to the Western world by bringing his evil into London. The Dracula of this film shows no such signs of leaving his home anytime soon, or that he wants anything from Jonathan other than for him to look after his books. This Dracula is, oddly enough, a rather domestic individual, with a single female companion as opposed to several brides, and a rather warm and friendly décor (for a castle) in the central hall. He shows no special interest in Jonathan, and seems content to just let Jonathan settle in and get to work. The worst that can be said of Dracula is that he is a little perfunctory as a host, but that is hardly a crime.

As such, Jonathan is the invading monster, not Dracula. Jonathan’s particular threat is the domestic, heterosexual home which Dracula has established, and to the phallic power of Dracula as Jonathan attempts to give Dracula‘s companion the “help“ she begs for, help which turns out to be Jonathan’s blood. The scene in which she partly succeeds is rather remarkable, shot in a manner that is not unlike a seduction, giving the scene a rich subtext, which explodes as Dracula catches this act, resulting in the first shot of Dracula in “vampire mode.” Vampirism as a metaphor for sex and sexuality has a well documented history, but with this scene director Terrance Fisher underlines it in a fairly explicit manner, as Dracula attempts to reassert his phallic power over his companion, taking her out of the room and leaving Jonathan alone.

In fact, Harker finds himself the next morning back in his bed, seemingly treated with care. So naturally, Jonathan decides the logical thing to do is to make his way into the lower levels of the home, to the tomb of Dracula and his companion, and then kill the companion. The murder is a fairly loaded moment, as Jonathan attempts to reassert his own phallic power, brought into question by falling for the companion’s charms, and is the final violation of Dracula’s own heterosexual power as Jonathan “cuckolds” him.

The visual importance of Harker’s decent into the tomb, to the castle’s very foundations adds further complexities to the already complex opening act of the film. As noted, Dracula’s home is a rather domestic site in this film, and the placement of Dracula’s tomb/bedroom at the foundation of the home, shared with his companion, acts a visual metaphor for how heterosexual coupling is the foundation for the traditional Western family structure, and by extension the social/cultural structures that flow from this foundation. Yet clearly the relationship between Dracula and his companion is a strained one, a strain where the mere presence of Jonathan is enough to break the relationship down.

It is this strain and anxiety within the heterosexual relationship that becomes the central point of the rest of the film, and the weak point which Dracula strikes at in achieving his revenge against Jonathan (as well as shoring up his wounded phallic power). Dracula’s targets are the Holmwood family, which include Harker’s fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh), her sister-in-law Mina (Melissa Stribling), and most importantly, Mina’s husband Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough). It is at this point that the film becomes almost a bedroom farce, as Dracula sneaks into the Holmwood home and attacks/sleeps with Arthur’s sister and wife to the near obliviousness of Arthur and Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), the seeming protector of the heterosexual relationship. But more on Van Helsing further on.

Long time Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Fisher construct the Dracula “attack” sequences in a manner that plays off of the audience’s familiarity with the Dracula legend, and furthers their probe into heterosexual anxiety. In the past, Dracula has been given the ability to hypnotize his victims, and one could assume that is what is happening in this film. Yet at no point is it suggested that Lee’s power-reduced Dracula even has the ability to hypnotise his “victims.” Instead, it is more than likely that Mina and Lucy willingly (and with great pleasure) go alone with Dracula and his escapades. Consider the looks on the women’s faces as they are confronted by Dracula: is it terror in their eye, or excitement? Why is it that Mina seems so happy after her encounters with Dracula? The brilliance of the film is that it allows the audience to take either possibility as being the case, while never actually giving any real evidence to suggest the hypnotic power of Dracula is to blame. As such, Arthur and Van Helsing’s conviction that Dracula is to solely blame comes across as them being in denial to the women’s dissatisfaction with their intended lovers, a denial likely to be shared by some of the audience.

One of the sharpest choices made in the film is how Arthur is set up as a mirror to Dracula and his failed relationship with his companion. It is not merely that Arthur’s marriage comes under threat from the sexual dynamo that is Dracula, but how the strength of Arthur’s agency and relationship with Mina is brought into question before Dracula’s arrival through one little detail: the absence of children. Mina and Arthur are a slightly older couple, and the implication is that they have been married for some time. Yet, if the point of marriage, both at the time the film was made and within the time frame the narrative takes place, the key point of marriage was for the act of procreation. We are never given a reason for the lack of children. In fact, it is easy to miss, given that Arthur and Mina spend their time looking after Arthur’s younger sister Lucy. Yet the absence of children is a striking omission, and in the absence of other answers, begins to lay the ground work for Arthur’s later impotency in the face of Dracula.

Of course, there is still the question of where Van Helsing fits into these issues of sexuality and agency. More than any other figure in the narrative, Cushing’s Van Helsing complicates and subverts Stoker’s attempts at shoring up the power of male heterosexuality. While Stoker’s Van Helsing was an elderly male helping to guide the young, virile men in the protection of “their” women, and thus maintain the “normalcy” of white, male heterosexual privilege in sexual relations, the Van Helsing of Hammer's Dracula is a powerful foe to Dracula because he is asexual. At no point are we given any indication that Van Helsing holds any interest in sex or sexual relations: he resists the female vampires that Arthur cowers from, and whom Jonathan is seduced by with ease. More importantly, we see Van Helsing living out of a well kept bachelor pad, with no sign of their ever having been a lover of any gender in his life. He is still fairly young, is highly intelligent, and as the conclusion of the film makes clear, he is a physical match for Dracula. Yet Van Helsing’s life is seemingly dedicated only to his work, and the somewhat predictable path of Van Helsing substituting for Jonathan in Lucy‘s life is never even hinted at as a possibility. Given all of this, Van Helsing is a figure who sits outside the heterosexual family dynamic, a point made clear early on when he is distrusted and ignored by the sneering Arthur: he just does not seem to belong.

Yet, like the cowboy figures who could bring civilization to the west, yet not be part of it, Van Helsing is a protector of the heterosexual lifestyle while living apart from it. Given that vampirism is connected to heterosexual desires in the film, Van Helsing’s clinical study of vampirism can be read as an understanding of human sexuality, a study which like so many others necessitates a level of detachment from the subject. Interestingly, and somewhat contradictory, if read in this manner, Van Helsing is not merely the protector of heterosexuality and male privilege, but also its destroyer as he hunts Dracula. What is more, given that Van Helsing sent Jonathan ahead to take care of Dracula at the start of the film, he is the instigator or the whole chain of events!

Given this, is it possible to read Van Helsing as the true site of horror, and thus ascribe a conservative reading of the film where the “aberrant” sexuality is the “problem” in the film? Possible, yes, but I do not believe that is what is quite going on here. Remember, the cracks in the heterosexual relationships were present before the start of the film for these characters: Van Helsing’s actions merely brought the problems to the surface, and did not cause them. In this context, Van Helsing is the bringer or light, both figuratively and, at the conclusion of the film, literally, exposing the problems at the very heart of Western social structures such as the family, upon which the rest of society is built.

He is not, however, the individual designated to solve these problems. No one is. As Dracula comes to a conclusion, we are left on an ambiguous note, with Mina “returning” both to humanity and Arthur, yet no attempt is made to resolve the complex issues raised in the film. There is no final child born, as in the Stoker novel, to suggest a supposed return to “normalcy.” Stoker’s traditional conceptions of good and evil are instead tossed out the window, and the audience is left to sort out the pieces that remain. It is this refusal to contain these issues that not only transforms Hammer’s Dracula into a subversion of Stoker’s classic work, but allows it to be a superior work to its source as well.

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