Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula), 1958.
Directed by Terence Fisher.
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, and Carol Marsh.
After his friend Jonathan Harker goes missing, vampire hunter Dr Van Helsing finds himself locked into a battle against his murderer, the centuries-old vampire known as Count Dracula.
To say that Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula has been adapted to the screen a few times would be a very grave understatement, with a with an estimated 217 films featuring the Count among its cast and with hundreds of actors taking on the role often to forgettable effect (although George Hamilton as a disco-era Dracula in Love at First Bite is a fun novelty).
Of course, it is Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal in Universal’s 1931 adaptation that still lingers as the definitive version of the bloodsucker and while Lugosi is iconic he’s not the only man to master the Count. For my money, one of the best versions of Count Dracula was brought to life by the late great Sir Christopher Lee in the colourful Hammer Horror classic Dracula – or Horror of Dracula as it was known in the US.
From the opening minute, Hammer’s Dracula does everything possible to throw off the shackles of its creaky and gloomy Universal predecessor and take a stand as its own distinct entity, with the opening credits greeting us with a thunderous musical score that lets us know we’re in something different. Gone are the foggy black and white sets and in comes the use of blood-dripping colour with some rather impressive looking Gothic sets to boot – especially impressive given the film’s rather tight budget. The changes even extend to the depiction of the Count himself, with the film adopting changes that have since become familiar parts of vampire lore. Out goes Lugosi’s hypnotic stares and in comes the bloodshot red demonic eyes and blood-stained fangs. A terrifying image that banishes the vision of the slow-talking charmer of old and reveals Dracula for the true monster of the night he is.
Heading the cast is Christopher Lee as my as one of my favourite versions of Count Dracula. With limited screen time (he appears on-screen for less than ten minutes), only 13 lines of dialogue and not even attempting to adopt a weird accent, Lee still manages to create an ominous and memorable character that you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley. The actor’s towering and imposing physical frame more than makes up for his lack of deep characterisation, with the mere sight of his shadowy shape is more than enough to get the scares going.
Up against the Count is Lee’s usual Hammer sparring partner Peter Cushing (one of my favourite actors) in the role of Abraham Van Helsing, the vampire hunter who makes it his mission to stick the old bloodsucker back in his coffin for good. Cushing is phenomenal in the part and steals the entire film with his charismatic and engaging performance. Commanding, inquisitive, charming and brilliant, Cushing plays Van Helsing akin to a vampire hunting Sherlock Holmes, a man who takes charge of the situation and one who’s not afraid to literally throw himself into a fight with the Count.
Cushing also injects an intoxicating level of quintessential English charm into his performance with his every utterance feeling like you’re having a lovely warm cup of tea with your grandfather. Cushing is simply great and it’s always a joy to watch him and Lee battling against each other.
Now is this film perfect? No, it isn’t. It’s a tad slow in places and given the obvious budget constraints it can sometimes mirror the old Universal version in the sense that it feels like you’re watching a stage play, albeit one with a distinct lack of action and urgency for long stretches. And while Cushing and Lee are great, the supporting cast sometimes has a slight tendency to overact just a tad, but they make it work for the most part and it’s hardly as overblown as the Universal version’s cast was.
Perhaps the most irritating part of the film, for me at least, is the film’s musical score. While the music is largely excellent and used to great effect, it has a tendency to get a just a bit too loud and overly excited, especially in scenes where silence would make for a more effective impact. For instance, in one scene Van Helsing is forced to kill a friend who has been turned into a vampire. It’s a scene that should have a strong impact and Cushing performs the scene well but it’s dramatic impact is slightly overdone by the rather heavy-handed musical score that batters you over the head like it’s asking “THIS IS DRAMATIC ISN’T IT!?”
It’s unfair to nitpick this aspect I know and I understand that this was what film music was like back in the 1950s, but even still the music is so overly dramatic and gets so loud that you’d think that whole bloody world is seconds away from exploding.
Despite my petty nitpicks, Hammer’s Dracula is arguably a superior film to the more iconic Universal version. It’s better than it’s predecessor due largely to the pairing of Lee and Cushing whose performances always manage shine even during the slower moments and stupidly loud music.
It’s a fine effort from the good people at Hammer and easily one of my personal favourite cinematic depictions of the legendary count. It’s not the best Dracula film though but we’ll get to that one later.
Scare Rating: ? ?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★