Written by: Bram Stoker (novel) and Jimmy Sangster (screenplay)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"I must find the resting place of Dracula, and there end his existence forever."
While Universal dominated the horror scene of the 1930s and 40s, the British-based Hammer Studios took over the reigns in the late 1950s. Appropriately enough, Hammer achieved this by employing several of the same characters used by Universal in the decades previous: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and Dracula, the undead fiend that started it all back in 1931. Released in 1958 around the world as Horror of Dracula (except in the United Kingdom where it was simply known as Dracula), this was the first in a series a films starring Bram Stoker’s immortal creation. Starring film legends and Hammer mainstays Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Van Helsing and Count Dracula, respectively, Horror of Dracula transports Dracula from the black and white gothic trappings of the Universal films and transplants him into a fantastically realized world bursting with energy and color.
Many of the familiar elements and characters from both the novel and the 1931 film are found here, but many are also drastically rearranged. The film begins predictably enough with Jonathan Harker arriving at the count’s castle; however, instead of being an unassuming solicitor, he is a vampire hunter posting as a librarian. Within minutes, the character reveals his intentions to destroy Dracula. Despite these well-laid plans, Harker’s attempt to kill Dracula fails, as he falls by the fangs of the count himself, but not before killing Dracula’s bride. Such a twist had to be shocking for viewers familiar with the Universal classic, as it would seem that our hero has been killed before he gets started.
Shortly after these events, however, we are introduced to our true hero of this film: Dr. Van Helsing, who is in town searching for his friend Harker. Upon arriving at the castle, Van Helsing is horrified to find Harker in a vampiric state and is forced to kill him. All of this sets off a chain of events that soon finds Dracula terrorizing Harker’s fiancée, Lucy Holmwood, and her family as revenge for his lost bride. The film soon becomes a duel between Dracula and Van Helsing, as the latter desperately attempts to find the location of the count before he kills the entire clan.
Anyone familiar with the Universal Dracula notices several differences here. Gone is the trip from Transylvania to England, as the Holmwood family and Dracula’s castle are only separated by driving distance. Furthermore, there is no Renfield, and Dr. Seward only makes a cameo appearance to deliver grim news about Lucy’s condition. Despite these drastic changes, Horror of Dracula is a more tightly focused and fully realized take on the Dracula mythos. By essentially boiling the story down to a revenge plot, it allows for the true stars of the story to take center stage: Van Helsing and Dracula. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy the Universal classic, however, because I adore it. However, Horror of Dracula is an incredibly efficient story that never fails to entertain, and it’s been one of my favorite horror films since I was a kid.
Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t feel like a horror film because it drops the gothic atmosphere of the 1931 film. Instead, the world here is much more rich, colorful, and fantastic. Most of this is no doubt due to the technological advances between the two films, and Horror of Dracula makes the transition work. It’s hard to imagine a Dracula film that’s so bright and energetic, but this one is. This doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t set out to scare you because it does; however, it doesn’t exactly ooze a particularly creepy atmosphere to do so (although some of the nighttime sequences—especially the one featuring an undead Lucy—are nicely done). Instead, this film sets out to thrill you with a tightly constructed plot that finds Van Helsing and Holmwood in constant pursuit of the Count before leading up to the thrilling final confrontation.
Of course, something has to be said for the title character himself, as he is the glue that holds this entire thing together. Simply put, Christopher Lee is Dracula for this reviewer, and, while I enjoy Lugosi’s performance, Lee just always brought a coolness to the character that could never be replicated. Despite only having a few lines and a few minutes of screen time, Lee dominates the film, as his terrifying visage and graceful movements as Dracula just ooze menace. When Dracula is on the screen, you know it, and when he’s not around, you know that he could burst into the frame and strike at any moment. In many ways, Lee’s Dracula seems to be more of an undead predator than other interpretations of the characters. Whereas many film versions will go out of their way to humanize Dracula, Horror of Dracula doesn’t do this because he’s a character to be feared. Instead of being a charming and disarming count, Lee’s Dracula is a vengeful and seductive predator whose only motivation is destruction. Without the character ever saying so, one gets the idea that Dracula truly enjoys toying with Holmwood and Van Helsing by operating right under their collective noses.
Peter Cushing’s turn as the maniacally obsessed, yet sympathetic Van Helsing makes for a perfect adversary. It can be argued that such a performance laid the groundwork for this type of character in a horror film. Donald Pleasence would come to inhabit such a role as Dr. Loomis in the Halloween series (a part that was incidentally offered to Christopher Lee). Horror of Dracula is a landmark film in the genre for other reasons as well. While tame by today’s standards, the film’s sexual undertones and graphic violence were shocking at the time of its release. It’s no coincidence that the most sinister and animalistic Dracula is also the most sexually charged, as the contamination of the innocent was one of the era’s greatest fears. The film’s special effects (especially the destruction of Dracula) were also very innovative at the time.
If you’re a horror fan, you should own this film, no questions asked. It’s easily one of the genre’s greatest films, and it features the definitive take of one of its most popular characters. Sure, the film may feel a bit dated to the modern viewer, and no one is likely to be scared by it; however, the thrilling plot and excellent performances more than make up for this. In America, Warner Brothers holds the rights to the film and have released it both as a separate DVD and in a box set with five other Hammer productions. Huge Hammer fans will of course want the set; however, if you’re new to this material, you’ll probably want to check out the single disc release. One thing that purists might want to know is that the film seems to be a bit over-matted, as they’ll find that characters’ heads are very tightly cropped in the frame. This isn’t a deal-breaker, however, as the presentation is fine otherwise. It could probably be a bit more colorful to fully reflect its glorious Technicolor origins, and I suppose a re-release might address this issue. A newly restored version was screened last year, but Warners has announced nothing in the way of a new DVD. At any rate, no horror fan should be without this title, and the single disc release goes for around 5 or 6 bucks these days, so go ahead and pick it up now because this title is Essential!
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