(1958) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Based on the novel by Bram Stoker; Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Melissa Stribling, Valerie Gaunt and Michael Gough; Available on DVD.
Rating: **** ½
Before delving into my featured review, I’d like to give special thanks to Annmarie Gatti at Classic Movie Hub and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen for hosting the Dynamic Duos in Classic Films Blogathon. I’m thrilled with this opportunity to participate by celebrating one of horror cinema’s greatest pairs: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, as Count Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula.
“…there were aspects of him with which I could readily identify – his extraordinary stillness, punctuated by bouts of manic energy…” – Christopher Lee (on Dracula, from his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome)
“He [Christopher Lee] is an enormously charming gentleman, but when he became that terrifying creature, even I jumped.” – Peter Cushing (from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema: A Filmography by Mark A. Miller)
In its effort to revitalize horror properties popularized by Universal in the 30s and 40s British upstart Hammer Film Productions delivered a one-two punch with The Curse of Frankenstein, followed by Horror of Dracula (or just Dracula in the U.K.). Horror of Dracula featured the same directing/writing team (Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster) as the previous project, and the results were equally impressive.
Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), Dr. Van Helsing’s protégé, arrives at Dracula’s castle, intent on ridding humanity of the vampire scourge. The plan doesn’t work out too well for Harker, who’s almost overtaken by one of Dracula’s female minions (played by Valerie Gaunt in a short but memorable role), and becomes the Count’s victim. Van Helsing attempts to re-trace Harker’s steps, but Dracula has already given him the slip, and relocated to England. Before you can say Vlad the Impaler, Harker’s nubile fiancé Lucy (Carol Marsh) and her sister, Mina (Melissa Stribling) are Dracula’s new targets.
Cushing and Lee frequently portrayed mortal enemies onscreen, but enjoyed a lifelong friendship offscreen, starting with their first collaboration on The Curse of Frankenstein. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, they would appear together in many Hammer and Amicus films, often as adversaries. In Horror of Dracula, Cushing’s genteel, erudite Van Helsing provided the perfect foil to Lee’s seductive, animalistic presence. It’s a classic battle of good and evil, which served as the template for the stars’ future roles, often with lesser results. Lee would eventually star in six Hammer sequels, with diminishing results, culminating in 1974’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Dracula and Van Helsing’s cat and mouse dynamics would continue to play out over the years, but would never again seem as fresh as the original production. Cushing appeared in several other Hammer vampire-themed productions, sans Lee, including The Brides of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil.
At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I prefer Hammer’s audacious interpretation of Dracula to Tod Browning’s stodgy version. Compared to Bela Lugosi’s formal, stagey performance, Lee’s Dracula is more visceral, suggesting a raw, unbridled sensuality. Lee’s relatively short screen time and paucity of dialogue (13 lines) belie his pervasive influence on the rest of the film. In contrast to the chaste scenes in the 1931 film, Hammer’s Dracula overtly invades his victims’ bedrooms and dines on their necks. Lee’s formidable predator is a thing of awe and erotic energy, with blood dribbling down his lips, and crimson eyes. His female prey invite him into their bedrooms with open windows and outstretched arms, suggesting that something is missing from their humdrum domestic lives.* Hammer’s updated Dracula reflected the evolving tastes of audiences, amidst the milieu of repressed Victorian society (embodied by Michael Gough as Mina’s uppity husband and Van Eyssen as Lucy’s milquetoast suitor).
* Fisher remarked, “Dracula preyed on the sexual frustrations of his women victims” (The Hammer Story by Marcus Hearne and Alan Barnes).
One of the hallmarks of Hammer films has always been doing more with less, and Horror of Dracula is no exception. Produced on a relatively tiny budget of £81,412, it looked like a lavish film, thanks to Bernard Robinson’s inspired production design. Dracula’s castle is suitably ostentatious, and the graveyard set appears fittingly gothic and forlorn.
Horror of Dracula was a hit with audiences, but it was initially reviled by most critics of the period. Many were quick to tout the film as vulgar and “revolting,” with some implying that its release was a sign of the demise of civilization. While tame by today’s standards, the film represented a paradigm shift in horror cinema, which The Curse of Frankenstein had initiated. For the first time, filmgoers could view what had only been suggested before. Many talented (and not so talented) filmmakers have attempted to re-interpret Hammer’s formula over the years, but few have succeeded (witness Francis Coppola’s overdone 1992 production). Recently, we’ve heard some rumblings from the revitalized Hammer about a possible remake. Although I’m not fond of the idea, I realize remakes are inevitable. And if they omit Lee from a potential cameo, they’d be missing a great opportunity. Horror of Dracula is one for the ages.