Memorable films are aplenty, but few films have changed the course of legend as did…
Universal Studios gave the world an unforgettable face to ascribe to Bram Stoker’s legendary character when it released Tod Browning’s, Dracula in 1931. Playing Count Dracula in that film is Bela Lugosi whose stylized portrayal and image would become the standard for generations.
Following the success of the 1931 film, Universal released many subsequent versions of Dracula. Some films featured stories starring the Count while others had him play a supporting role alongside other popular Universal monsters. None of those films had the impact of the original, however – not financially, not artistically and not in the realm of popular culture. Lugosi’s original Dracula reigned supreme. That is, until 1958 when Universal-International released the Hammer Films presentation of Dracula directed by Terence Fisher, a film that reinvigorated The Lord of the Undead – in glorious Technicolor. The title of that film was changed to Horror of Dracula for the U.S. release to avoid confusion with Browning’s film, which was still being booked into theaters.
Horror of Dracula
As Horror of Dracula opens we hear the voice of Jonathan Harker (John Van Eysson) reading from his diary. We see him arriving at Castle Dracula, stepping into the vast foyer/dining room to find a note on a table. The note is from Dracula who offers his regrets for being unable to greet his guest, but urges him to eat well and make himself comfortable. Harker obliges his host. As he finishes his dinner a woman appears out of nowhere. She approaches and asks Harker to save her, saying she’s being held hostage by him. Harker remains impassive, but then suddenly the woman runs off and then we see him as the loud, shrill music plays. Atop a grand staircase, the dark, tall figure of a man draped in a black cape stands immobile. It’s an unforgettable sight.
As this Dracula descends the stairs toward his guest – and us – we are reminded of Lugosi’s entrance in Browning’s film. Except, we can tell immediately this is a much more fearsome being, a much more menacing creature – growing ever more so as he nears. Yet, he’s also extremely handsome and classy – an aristocrat. It’s Christopher Lee.
After welcoming Harker, Dracula leads the man to the room he will use during his stay. As the two make their way through the castle one hears only one set of footsteps echo through the chambers. Is Dracula walked or floating? A hint of the supernatural, perhaps, that I am ever-fascinated by. Harker again recounts the details as entered in the diary. This is when we learn he has been hired as the Count’s librarian, which is a ruse to disguise his real motive for being there – to destroy Dracula. This is, by the way, a different depiction of the Jonathan Harker character compared to previous film adaptations of the Dracula story. In this film Harker knows Dracula’s true identity from the onset and plans to destroy him that very night. No time is wasted. Horror of Dracula doesn’t make the viewer wait long before anxiety sets in.
Unfortunately, Mr. Harker doesn’t make it through the next twenty-four hours without encountering the horror of Dracula first-hand.
Now…about that horror…
In stark contrast to the well-groomed, cultured gentleman we met at the beginning, the first time we see the count with his fangs out is a shocker! In a sudden cut to his face as he finds his vampire lady friend trying to bite Jonathan Harker, we see a fiend with blood-shot eyes, a wide open mouth with blood dripping down the sides – and piercing fangs. And, he hisses! This is why this Dracula is so scary – he’s dreamy one minute and a nightmare the next. I can only imagine how shocking Lee’s portrayal must have been to audiences in 1958.
Possibly another Dracula “first” that should be ascribed to this Hammer production, by the way, is the image of a fanged beast. I don’t remember ever seeing a depiction of Dracula in any of the Universal classics where the Count had actual fangs. Lugosi’s Dracula doesn’t feature them. In fact, the Lugosi version is eery because he looks toothless relying solely on his affecting accent and dramatics to bring the horror point across. Lee’s Dracula is a monster through and through.
Back to the story – After Jonathan Harker is not heard from for days, his colleague and friend, Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) sets out to find him. Van Helsing is an expert on the horrors of Dracula whose knowledge is reinforced by the notes left behind by Harker. Interestingly, the top-billed Cushing doesn’t make an appearance in the film until about 25 minutes in.
As Van Helsing hunts Dracula by setting traps, the fiend continues his reign of terror. Longing to replace the lady companion that Harker had destroyed, Dracula sets his sights on both Harker’s fiance, Lucy (Carol Marsh) and Mina (Melissa Stribling), Lucy’s sister-in-law by her marriage to Arthur (Michael Gough), who tries to help Van Helsing in his pursuit of Dracula.
On the night of Dracula’s final attack on Mina, just as she’s primed to become one of the undead, Van Helsing realizes Dracula has moved his coffin to the cellar of the Holmwood estate where he’s been attacking Mina for several nights – literally right under the Doctor’s nose. Dracula returns to the Holmwood cellar just as Van Helsing discovers his coffin so the monster runs off, taking Mina with him, but Van Helsing is in hot pursuit. Dracula must make it back to the castle to bury Mina and lose himself in the safety of darkness before the sun rises.
Van Helsing arrives at Castle Dracula just as the vampire digs Mina’s grave. Seeing Van Helsing approach, Count Dracula runs into the castle and the two go at it in a fearsome battle. Dracula chokes the Doctor and as he sees Van Helsing go limp, he closes in for the bite, but the Doctor has plenty of life left in him and pushes the monster off, gaining enough energy to leap toward the massive windows to allow the sun’s rays into the huge parlor. As the rays hit Dracula, he is incapacitated, burnt alive until only ashes, clothing and wayward hair are seen strewn where once a great force of evil took shape.
As far as horror movies go Horror of Dracula is still quite effective, moving away from a few of the “traditional” Dracula story elements some of us may be used to. For instance, missing here is the familiar scene where the Count would say “I never drink…wine” or some variation thereof. In fact, Lee doesn’t have much dialogue at all – he speaks only thirteen lines in the film and only to Jonathan Harker. There is also no dinner party where he’s invited into his future victim’s house. In this case, as noted above, everyone knows who he is from the beginning. There’s no “reflection in the mirror” scene either and Van Helsing states that Dracula’s ability to turn into a bat or wolf are but a fallacy. All of those pieces of tradition are replaced in Horror of Dracula by a distinct style and look that render it unforgettable – different than anything else anyone has ever seen. And I can say that even to this day. For that credit must be given to cinematographer Jack Asher who brings the sets to life with brilliant color, whether they surround the dead or undead. And never will we see the color red in a film as we do in these Hammer offerings. I can’t describe it.
Oh, and the music! This film offers plenty of scary music (by James Bernard) in just the right spots in case you don’t know when the doom is actually coming. When Dracula is approaching, the music begins to swell – eerily. When he appears, often suddenly – the music matches, a sudden beat to jolt. And jolt I always do.
And finally a mention to the tight script of Horror of Dracula written by Jimmy Sangster. Sangster’s script is economical, leaving not a moment of wasted time to tell his story. Although the film doesn’t stay faithful to Bram Stoker’s source material and, as mentioned above, removes some traditional Dracula elements it adds some interesting new aspects to the story, most significantly the new and improved sensuality of Dracula to mix in with the horror. In this film, Dracula is sensual, sexual, forceful. To emphasize the power of Dracula’s sexuality in Horror of Dracula, the film’s director turned to the women who are seduced (as well as bitten), illustrating in no uncertain terms how they change from fearful and helpless to women who long for his attentions. And they look mighty satisfied after they’ve been “attacked.” According to IMBD, Terence Fisher actually told Melissa Stribling to “just imagine you’ve had the best sex of your life, all night long!” after a few botched takes in a scene where she (as Mina) is supposed to exit her bedroom after having been bitten by Dracula. Providing just the right motivation, Fisher wrapped the scene on the first take.
Hammer Studios had preceded Horror of Dracula with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, which was the first in a series of loose remakes of Universal’s 1930s classics. The success of The Curse of Frankenstein was what led Hammer to make Horror, the first film in which Christopher Lee played the baddest vampire of them all, a role that – not unlike Lugosi – would define his career and make him a star. One has only to watch Horror of Dracula to see why that’s the case – I mention many of the reasons above. Lee would reprise the role in six more Hammer productions and many Dracula aficionados consider his depiction the best.
I’d be remiss not to mention how great Peter Cushing is in this film as well. As Van Helsing he adds gravitas and believability to the story. Lee’s monstrous portrayal is perfectly matched by Cushing’s power for good as the no-nonsense, fearless, greatest vampire slayer of them all. If I may lose myself for a moment – he’s just so damned classy I can barely stand it. It’s no wonder the Cushing-Lee pairing is legendary, one of the greatest film collaborations in filmdom. They made nearly two dozen films together. Horror of Dracula is the second Hammer horror film in which the two co-starred, the first in which they are top-billed (1-2), with the last being The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).
Horror of Dracula reshaped the face of horror forever becoming a landmark film not only in the realm of Dracula, but in the realm of horror. It remains an impressive film that built upon lore to become legend.
This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Go to www.classicfilmtvcafe.com to view the complete blogathon schedule. Fantastic entries will be featured all week. I bloody dare you to miss it!