Horror of Dracula

Release Year: 1958
Country: United Kingdom
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Janina Faye, Barbara Archer, Charles Lloyd Pac
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Director: Terence Fisher

Hammer Studio’s Horror of Dracula is one of the finest examples of proper Gothic horror that’s ever been filmed. It was a busy couple of years for Britain’s Hammer Studio. In 1955, their sci-fi/horror thriller based on the popular TV character Quatermass became a smash hit, and the studio soon learned it was because audiences were hungry for shocking, boundary-pushing films of the fantastic and horrible that still handled themselves with a degree of wit, intelligence, and dignity as would befit a rousing British tale of terror. Inspired by that film’s success, execs turned to studio director Terence Fisher to rework Mary Shelley’s classic tale of Gothic horror, Frankenstein. It was a risky move for any number of obvious reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Universal’s Boris Karloff version of the monster was practically a global icon. Hammer had to come up with a completely new approach to the monster’s appearance, since the Universal version was copyrighted, and they figured that while doing so, they might as well ratchet up the sex and violence and see just how much they’d be able to get away with in a horror movie.

The film was a huge hit for the growing British studio. It turned TV-star Peter Cushing and relative unknown Christopher Lee into bona fide sensations, and it inspired Hammer Studio to try its hand at another Gothic masterpiece turned Universal Pictures horror film, Count Dracula. Even with the initial ground broken by Frankenstein, Dracula would be no less of a challenge, and Bela Lugosi’s performance as the blood-sucking count was no less iconic and cherished than Karloff’s as The Monster. Fisher was once again the director, and Lee and Cushing were signed again as the stars. Hammer basically repeated the same formula with a different monster, turning up the blood and sex as much as an X rating would allow them, and then seeing if they couldn’t turn it up just a little more. Critics were aghast at the results, and many condemned the film as perverse, disgusting, vile, and any number of the usual adjectives applied to such a film. A few critics responded more favorably, thanks largely to the wonderful sets, direction, and acting, but ultimately, none of the critics opinions amounted to a hill o’ beans. Audiences turned out for the film in droves, perhaps even encouraged by the reviews that didn’t so much say the film was bad as much as they just vilified it for being so bloody and dangerous and evil. Nothing drives patrons to the theater quite like the promise of shattered taboos. Years after the fact, as taboos have been pushed far further than Hammer could have done in 1958, the film is easier to evaluate on its merits as a film than as a sensation.

Christopher Lee stars as Dracula, Eastern European count, dweller in a big creepy castle, as you should well know by now. Lee’s interpretation of the count, based as fast and loose on the book as every other cinematic adaptation, has an air of sophistication about him, but it is quick to dissolve as Dracula acts more on his animalistic impulses. Here he is a monster, through and through, ferocious and terrifying. He does not woo the women; he simply takes them. He does not dazzle salon audiences with his wit and intelligence. He is a beast, a stalker, a predator without remorse or pity. Lee isn’t a man or a monster so much as he is a barely contained forced that overpowers anything with which it comes into contact. He is strong, towering, and above all, menacing. When Christopher Lee as Dracula shows up, you believe with every inch of your soul that’s he going to put the hurt on you. When this Dracula looks at you, he sees nothing but food. That Lee’s performance is so mesmerizing, so memorable, is testament to how good it truly is; he is on screen a total of less than ten minutes, and only has a handful of lines at the very beginning.

His foil in this tale is the actor who would appear alongside Lee in more films than a sane man would care to count, the man who made a career out of lines like, “But surely you can’t be serious, man! I saw him die myself!” and finally the man who was born 45 years old, Peter Cushing. Cushing stars here as Van Helsing, fearless vampire killer and all-around enemy of the undead. Just as previous and later films enjoy giving us a Dracula who is suave and debonair and practically a Victorian era Rat Packer, these same films enjoy turning Van Helsing into a tortured soul, an alcoholic or drug addict. You know, a man who enjoys the occasional shot of absinthe. It’s because we so often like to make our heroes into villains and our villains into heroes. But here, Cushing plays Van Helsing straight, a determined vampire hunter and caring doctor. Cushing sinks his teeth into the role (because it was far too easy to use that line about Christopher Lee) with the utmost conviction; you believe him when he says something, no matter how fantastical.

Horror of Dracula does almost everything right, and its few missteps are forgivable if not unnoticeable. Most obvious of the foibles comes when Johnathan Harker confronts a slumbering Dracula and his bride. Harker has traveled far and risked much, including being bitten himself, to destroy Dracula. The day is waning. Completion of his task is within his grasp, so what does he do? Walk over and stake the woman first instead of doing what everyone else in the world would have done, which is take care of the six-foot four lord of the undead first, then worry about the lady. Sometimes I think horror movies do this sort of thing intentionally, just to get people worked up and shouting at the characters. The film’s other misstep is debatable, and that would be how much screen time is devoted to Dracula. A fair number of people complain that he’s so scarce in this film, show up mostly to either walk in on or choke Van Helsing. While I agree that I’d like to see him do a little more than just step through a doorway, then run off or run over and throw someone, I think Dracula’s limited screen time keeps him as an ominous shadow looming over everything, present even when he’s not actually onscreen, especially since almost everything that happens in the movie revolves around him or having conversations about him. He remains mysterious and savage and does not get overexposed. This leaves the pace of the film up to Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, and he is more than up to the task. Horror of Dracula is not a long film, and it rarely stops for a breath. Even during scenes in which there’s nothing more going on than Van Helsing dictating notes to himself, the film doesn’t slow down. It shows that you needn’t jettison the plot or character development in order to have a briskly paced film.

The success of this film cemented Hammer’s position as the preeminent producer of quality horror for the next ten years. Considering that most American horror films at the time were bargain basement cheapies, the vivid color and lurid content and promise of a daring time set the country on fire and opened the way for Roger Corman and AIP to ape the style of Hammer in a series of horror films revolving around the tales of Edgar Allen Poe. But no one could match Hammer for the sheer force of atmosphere. Horror of Dracula crawls with Gothic eeriness. It clings to the film like a graveyard mist. Costumes and sets are rich and lavish even here at the relative beginning of the horror arc. They would grow more so as the films got bigger, and the look and style of a Hammer film would become as much a trademark as the blood, the buxom beauties bursting out of their bodices, and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing chasing after one another and wearing those Victorian overcoats.