Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula), 1958.
Directed by Terence Fisher.
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, John Van Eyssen and Carol Marsh.
After the death of his friend Jonathan Harker at the hands Dracula, Dr. Van Helsing pursues the evil Count to London, where the vampire intends to make Harker’s fiancée Lucy Holmwood his bride.
This is it. This is when vampires got sexy. This is when the British could finally tell the tale of Count Dracula the way it was meant to be told. American and German film-makers had portrayed the Count as a calculating aristocrat and as a spindly, rattish freak; now Hammer wanted the world to see the side of Dracula that Bram Stoker only dared hint at – the tall, dark, sexual predator.
There are a great many new aspects to Hammer’s treatment of Stoker’s original novel. Surprisingly enough, they all seem to work. Jimmy Sangster’s script gets to the meat of the matter very quickly, sticking to one location and one leading man. You need only see Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘90s adaptation to realise how being too faithful to a novel can bog down a film with a bloated cast and a bum-numbing runtime.
Hammer have no such problems with Dracula; the cast is streamlined down to a handful of principal actors. There are no stagey hams to let the side down, no Sesame Street accents for the vampires, and no pretentious prologues to drag out the runtime. Terence Fisher proves himself a master of pacing, and so his cast step up, rounding out their characters with serious and imaginative performances.
Where we originally have various doctors and hunters and adventurers banding together to hunt Dracula, Sangster combines them all into one man – the bold, mercurial Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). He is spurred into action by the death of his fellow vampire hunter – none other than Mr Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen). Where adaptations before and after have left the impression of a wimpish, wet blanket of a man, Hammer do him the justice of a reinvention. Now Harker gets to be a cunning vampire hunter, disguised as a shy librarian, hoping to infiltrate Dracula’s residence and stake him in his sleep.
The plan fails and he only stakes one vampire, the buxom, devious bride of Dracula (Valerie Gaunt). And so it is that Dracula takes his revenge on the family of Harker’s fiancée, the Holmwoods. He starts visiting Lucy Holmwood in the small hours, slowly draining her lifeblood away, until she is all but doing his work for him, opening the windows and waiting for him, night after night.
Dr Seward, an ordinary MD, can’t work out what he’s doing wrong. As far as he’s concerned, she’s got an infection and the bite marks on her neck are from a very large and coincidental insect. Mina Holmwood can’t bear to see her sister waste away, so when Van Helsing arrives with news of Harker’s death, he finds himself hired to treat Lucy.
Van Helsing has a very different slant on the situation. Rather than a disease, it is a kind of drug cult Lucy has fallen into, with Count Dracula as the potent, charismatic leader. Women cannot resist him in the least, even though their minds rebel and distort at the thought of his touch.
This angle is perfect for Christopher Lee’s Count; you simply cannot ignore his sheer power of presence. At a tremendous 6’5”, he towers over the rest of the cast, cutting a cat-like figure as he strides and pounces across sets with terrifying velocity, trailing that magnificent cloak out behind him.
Such boldly gothic images are commonplace in a production of this calibre. The Blu-ray format presents Dracula in such lush, vivid colours, made all the more striking for the largely grey/brown palette. Bernard Robinson (the “real hero of Hammer” as Sangster calls him) dresses and redresses a single set from decadent to decrepid and back again, so that every shot becomes like stepping into a romantic Victorian painting.
Jack Asher’s cinematography streaks these scenes with the deepest blues and blood reds, often using a cold, ghostly grey-blue palette to signal Dracula’s presence or imminent entrance. It’s all about mood, and there’s no doubt that Robinson and Asher were the masters and originators of the inimitable Hammer look.
Dracula is just about the perfect vampire film. I could list you a hundred thousand reasons; one for every individual shot, and one for each succeeding moment that makes your blood race with the incredible mastery and tension of it all. Not only do we have the scariest and the sexiest Dracula in Christopher Lee, we have his perfectly matched opponent in Cushing’s ultimate Van Helsing.
Before Peter Cushing’s portrayal, Van Helsing was a purely mentor-ish figure, shrouded in vagueness and doctoral titles. Cushing breathes life and vigour into the character. His Van Helsing faces down his foe with those merciless blue eyes; with a will of iron and nerves of steel, and without a moment’s thought for his own safety, so long as it means the world’s deadliest vampire cannot hurt another innocent.
It’s because Lee and Cushing treat the material with due seriousness and grace that their final confrontation is so endlessly thrilling and climactic. Even better, with previously unseen footage donated by the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, we get to see the full scene depicting Dracula’s horrible, chilling death. Slowly disintregrated bit by bit, Dracula even starts clawing his own face off in agony. All that remains is his signet ring. It’s a promise to return. A promise that changed horror cinema forever.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.