CINEMA CLASSICS: Dracula (Horror of Dracula, 1958)

Oscar says goodbye to Christopher Lee with a little help from a certain vampire…

Who made it?: Terence Fisher (Director), Jimmy Sangster (Writer), Anthony Hinds (Producer), Hammer Films.

Who’s in it?: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen.

Tagline: “The terrifying lover who died – yet lived!”

IMDb rating: 7.5/10.

This is arriving late but it needed to be done. The recently-passed Christopher Lee was renowned for his performance in Dracula (also known as Horror of Dracula), even overshadowing his turns in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, and here you see him in his first iconic role. But does this, the most famous Hammer horror film of the 50s, hold up as well as its central villain? Let’s find out.

The film opens with the journal readings of Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), as he enters the castle of Count Dracula, but the Count is nowhere to be seen. Eventually, the charming Dracula (Lee) arrives and escorts Harker to his accommodation, spies a picture of Harker’s fiance, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), and locks Harker inside the dorm. Despite this, Jonathan prepares himself for his mission to kill Dracula. Harker encounters a desperate woman (Valerie Gaunt) begging for his help, claiming to be Dracula’s prisoner, only to be lured in by her pleas and bitten on the neck, but not before seeing Dracula enter, his fangs bared and lips bloody. When he awakens, Harker finds the bite mark. Before night falls, he descends into the crypt, where he finds Dracula and the vampire woman resting in their coffins. Armed with a stake, he impales the woman who suddenly ages rapidly from young to old. Whilst he does this, the sun sets, and Harker finds Dracula’s coffin empty. Looking up, Harker is in time to see the Count shut the door and they are both plunged into darkness…

A few days later, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives in Klausenburg looking for Harker. An innkeeper’s daughter gives him Harker’s journal that was hidden outside Dracula’s castle. When he arrives, it is deserted; a hearse carriage speeds by with a coffin inside. In the crypt, Van Helsing is horrified to discover Harker lying in a coffin as a vampire. Staking Harker, he leaves to deliver the veiled news of his death in person to a wary Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling), brother and sister-in-law of Harker’s fiance Lucy Holmwood. Lucy is ill, so the news is kept from her and her little niece, Tania. But, when night falls, Lucy removes the crucifix from around her neck, opens the doors to her terrace, and lays bare her neck – already, it bears the mark of a vampire bite. Dracula continues to stalk and wreak havoc on the Holmwood family, all the while eluding Van Helsing.

Lee lives up to his reputation as Dracula, and while he rarely speaks with a paltry thirteen lines, he remains imposing. One might be taken aback by Christopher’s more youthful voice as Dracula, yet I found it held a surprisingly hypnotic quality. He’s not theatrical, in fact he was quite terse at times, but it made him seem more human and therefore more suspicious and threatening when he revealed his true nature, grinning sadistically. Cushing admirably carries the film as Dr. Van Helsing. Gough is appropriately aristocratic as Arthur Holmwood, and makes for a classy and empathetic partner to Cushing’s Helsing.

Hammer Films are certainly famous for their copious displays of blood, yet this one is unusually restrained in that regard. It still provides plenty of body horror and impressive effects, especially the death sequences for vampires, the best of which is saved for the climax. Blood spurts when the undead are staked, crosses burn into their flesh, and bites leave realistic oozing wounds in the flesh of victims. While Van Helsing does state that vampires lack the ability to turn into wolves or bats as common in vamp lore, the film does hint that the Count retains such powers in some subtle capacity, as a wolf howls in the distance on the night when he torments Mina and Arthur who are patrolling the grounds. These supernatural elements are never outright stated, but hinted at just enough to maintain one’s suspension of disbelief in an otherwise grounded and personal interpretation of the Dracula story. The picture doesn’t faithfully adhere to Bram Stoker’s novel, but merely draws inspiration from it, despite being set in the 1880s like the book. Director Terence Fisher was able to balance lashings of claret and lust with quieter moments of vampire mythology and heavy dialogue to keep the whole affair smart and well-balanced.

The score by James Bernard is especially chilling, especially the opening overture which instills terror from the start. When Dracula appears, the orchestra swells and you know that something wicked is about to be wrought. The quality and scope of the production is very admirable, both for its time and even today; the matte painting for the Count’s castle looks convincing enough, and I love the oppressive and Gothic look of the sets, creating an almost claustrophobic feel to them. The cold lighting and cinematography puts Lee’s tall and imposing frame to good use, as all the light in the room seems to fade wherever he’s onscreen. Of course, the vibrant blood stands out in the bleak house settings, and Dracula’s flashing red eyes practically burn. The film accumulates suspense and a sense of fear and darkness, as the castle seems to almost close in on Harker. It relies more on the power of suggestion, leaving the audience’s imagination to make the implied horror more unnerving.

For me, it’s a toss-up between who plays the better Count, Gary Oldman or Christopher Lee. They are both arguably the best at portraying the character, and Lee makes for a physically-daunting and seductive Dracula, while Oldman’s vampire is more steeped in the arcane. It’s similarly impossible to impeach on Cushing’s performance as Dr. Van Helsing, considered the best iteration of the character to a great many Dracula fans.

As one of the earliest horror films to be shot in Technicolour, it caused an uproar with censors at the time because of the then-excessive amount of bloodshed. Nowadays, we tend to see far more blood, guts and other gruesome moments in our horror films, but few capitalise on their usage quite as well as Dracula. The film is well-paced at under eighty-minutes, and the story is relatively simple and slim on exposition, but that gives it a unique charm whilst also retaining that essential element of fear, as well as jumping into the action with vim and verve. At the core of the film is that notion of good vs. evil on a primal level, with Dracula being clearly aligned by Harker with the powers of Hell. While good triumphs, it does so at a great cost, and if all the Hammer Dracula sequels are any indication, evil is never bested forever.

Ultimately, Terence Fisher’s Dracula is the movie that made Christopher Lee a world-class star. In a way, despite having relatively limited screen-time, Lee was able to challenge the longstanding Bela Lugosi as an equally-iconic Dracula, even topping him in some people’s eyes. He would, of course, go on to perform many great villainous roles and perhaps became more celebrated and loved for those performances. For many, though, his breakout role will remain his finest, and he will remain forever entombed in our memory…

Best Scene

Grand Moff Tarkin vs. Count Dooku.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • According to Christopher Lee’s autobiography, he received only £750 for his portrayal of Dracula. He also states that the film eventually grossed $25 million in the US.
  • Apart from assorted snarls and hisses, Count Dracula never actually speaks to anyone other than Jonathan Harker throughout the entire film.
  • Top billed Peter Cushing turns up 25-minutes into the film.
  • In 2007, the film was selected for preservation by the BFI, but it wasn’t until 2011 that an extended print, including a longer version of the disintegration sequence, was discovered at the National Film center in Tokyo.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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