Dracula: Interview: Marcus Hearn

drac_blu_2dHammer historian Marcus Hearn has been instrumental in the release of the new blu-ray edition of the company’s definitive 1958 version of Dracula. But what makes this version stand out? He explains to Paul Simpson…

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What’s the big deal about this new release?

From the point of view of a major fan, there are a number of big deals. It’s the first time we’ve seen Dracula in high definition; it’s the first time the British Film Institute’s 2007 high definition restoration has been released in any form, high definition or otherwise. But if you are in any way interested in Dracula, or post-war British cinema in general, this version also contains the 2012 Hammer restoration, which reinstates/restores two crucial scenes.

Both scenes amount to around twenty seconds, which may not sound like an awful lot, but this was the film where the formula for Hammer horror was perfected in 1958. It was said that you could reduce the formula for Hammer horror down to two key factors: sex and death. These two scenes which have been restored are the ones that deal with sex and death most explicitly: sex in the seduction of Mina scene, and death in the sunlight disintegration scene.

These were the essence of Hammer horror as it was formulated across three films: in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) they introduced the horror; The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) they introduced the colour; Dracula introduced the sex. The poster makes it explicit: “the terrifying lover that died – yet lived!” That immediately differentiates it from any previous versions of the film. This is a film about sex and death, and it’s that which has been restored to this print.

Where did the material come from?

Hammer scholars and aficionados had long suspected there had been a longer version of Dracula for two reasons: there was a very poor quality picture which had appeared in fanzines over the years which was little better than a photocopy, but was very interesting because it did appear to show Christopher Lee as Dracula appearing to claw the decaying flesh from his face. And there was a better quality publicity still which appeared to show that scene before it was shot. We always thought, “Why would they issue publicity stills for something that isn’t actually in the film?”

Dracula publicityThe other thing was an interview that Anthony Hinds, the executive producer, and Christopher Lee gave to the press back in 1958 where they actually referred to a version of the film that was too strong for British audiences and could only be seen in Japan. They made reference in this interview that Hammer had created this version for the Japanese.

This was, it turned out, something of a red herring. We now know definitively that Hammer did create a longer version of Dracula; I personally believe that they did not create this version for the Japanese. This version was created for British audiences; when the original cut of the film was rejected by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), Hammer decided that they wouldn’t waste all that work, so they sent it to Japan, and basically made out that they had created it for there. It was created for British audiences, and rejected by the British censors. It’s taken all this time for British audiences to actually see it.

We knew from that press interview and the stills that there was something going on. It took a very enterprising English Hammer fan called Simon Rowson, who appears on the disc. He lives in Tokyo and is married to a Japanese girl. Because his wife helped him to observe all the correct protocols and translated for him, he was able to succeed where everyone else over the decades has failed. He went to the National Film Centre (NFC) in Tokyo, and happened to be lucky enough to be there on the day, when they were re-spooling their archive copy of Dracula, which they do every year or two to help preserve the film. He asked if he could sit in on the process, and watched it on a tiny screen while it was being re-spooled. He saw the seduction of Mina and the disintegration scene: he was the first English person to see that since it left the BBFC in 1958.

He got in touch with me about September 2011, and I got in touch with Hammer and impressed on Simon Oakes, the managing director, the importance of this, not only from a cultural point of view, but from a commercial point of view as well. Fortunately he immediately saw my point and Hammer started negotiating with the NFC to have the film scanned and the scan brought back to London. Then began the very long process of restoring it and sympathetically integrating it. As you can see on the disc, the footage is what can only be described as appalling condition. It’s been a year’s work across two post-production houses: Molinare and Deluxe142.

Seduction seceneBecause we wanted to retain as much of the BFI’s original restoration as possible, we’ve reverse-engineered as complete a version of this film as possible, as I have access to the BBFC’s papers. We’re now only a second away – or two seconds at the most – from what Terence Fisher actually signed off on.

What bits are still missing?

There is a scene quite near the beginning of the film where Harker is approached by the vampire woman. She says, “You will help me, won’t you?” He says, of course, and they embrace, then she bares her fangs and goes to bite him – and then Dracula appears through the library door, snarls and then tears her away. From what we gather, looking at the censor papers, we would have actually seen her fangs go into his neck and I’m guessing that would have lasted about a second, maybe two.

It’s very skilfully edited in the version we have, but unfortunately the NFC in Tokyo didn’t have that reel because it was lost in a fire in 1984. I strongly suspect that that would have been there. Interestingly we have the length of the original reels, and the length of the surviving reels, and they are the same for that portion of the film – maybe the creative editing gave us an extra second. We don’t know.

What Fisher did with the seduction of Mina was show us a different take or a different angle on that scene; he covered up that cut very well. I think the editing on the disintegration of Dracula was rather less successful: it’s only when you see the restored version do you realise we have the original sound and the original pictures back, but it’s a restoration, in my view, of the original rhythm of that scene.

I think after people see the 2012 version, particularly the disintegration scene, it will be very difficult to go back to the version that we saw before. These films from the Golden Age of Hammer horror were very well crafted: they didn’t have high budgets, everyone accepts that, but they were created by craftsmen who took real care in what they did – from the high quality of the acting, and the production design, to the lighting. It also applies to the editing as well: if you edit a film in a particular way, then you have another editor come along and carry out someone else’s wishes to restructure a scene, it’s going to do damage.

frank-and-monster-from-hell-posterWe’ve had Frankenstein and now Dracula restored; what’s next?

It’s part of a much wider restoration program that I’m very pleased to say that Hammer have been pursuing now for over a year. The next one we’ll see is Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, so we’re jumping forward to 1972! This was another film which I believe has only ever been seen in its home entertainment versions in a  ensored form, so we have been able to find extra material for that, which by this era – 1972 – was actually quite gory. We’re going to premiere the restoration of that in May at the NFT to mark the Peter Cushing centenary, and launch Peter Cushing: The Complete Memoirs, which I published.

I think Hammer are to be congratulated for the effort and the expense that they’ve put into this whole program. They’ve been doing some remarkable work and taking such care with their own legacy. And also the fan support: it’s only through the fans’ support and the fans buying the discs that the program can continue. It is very tricky and very expensive work.

We’re hoping The Mummy will come later this year, which is obviously the third of the foundation of gothic Hammer horror, and the hunt is on for the missing footage of that. We are looking at Quatermass 2: there is a high definition version of The Quatermass Xperiment available from America, and the existing blu-ray of Quatermass and the Pit is all the more remarkable because, I believe, it’s taken from a print! However 2 is only available in standard definition, which I’m thrilled about because it’s my favourite Hammer film.

Quiet OnesWhat about new Hammer?

My department is legacy, but I do know this year we will be seeing The Quiet Ones, Hammer’s next ghost story. They didn’t do ghost stories originally, but they’ve just started in a big way with The Woman in Black which was a complete success. What’s intriguing about that is that it is a ghost story, which Hammer didn’t traditionally make, but nevertheless it completely  feels like a Hammer film, and manages to do something new without betraying the legacy at all, which is a neat trick.

It’s difficult, because Hammer has been going so long – since 1934, and made over 200 films – so Simon has a valuable brand, but the weight of expectation of what Hammer should or shouldn’t do must also weigh very heavily on his shoulders. It’s a difficult balancing act: he can’t go and make a torture porn film because I think many people would consider that a betrayal of the legacy – and that’s not what he’s about at all, I hasten to add. Let Me In was another example of a film that was utterly different from anything Hammer had done before, but didn’t betray the legacy. If they continue making films of that quality, then it’ll be great.

Click here to order Dracula (Blu-ray + DVD) from Amazon.co.uk

Thanks to Marek Steven for his help in arranging this interview.

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