AKA Horror of Dracula
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Janina Faye, Barbara Archer
Directed by Terence Fisher
Expectations: High. Love Dracula, loved the first Hammer movie I saw.
Based on the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer decided to make more movies in a similar vein and Dracula was next in line. It seems like a natural fit for the studio, with intense characters and gothic visuals bursting forth from the source material. While I don’t think it’s as good of a film as The Curse of Frankenstein was, Hammer’s Dracula (Horror of Dracula in America) is an engrossing, enjoyable slice of celluloid cake. As with all of these standard horror monsters, the stories are all part of our culture. From a young age, we teach our children about vampires and their weakness to garlic and sunlight. All of these vampire bullet points show themselves here, but what makes Dracula interesting is the slightly varied take on the events of Bram Stoker’s classic novel and the wonderful performances from the entire cast, just like in The Curse of Frankenstein.
Peter Cushing is absolutely phenomenal as Dr. Van Helsing, playing the cool, collected vampire hunter with an ease rarely seen on-screen. He’s all hero here, tracking Dracula’s movements and staking vampire hearts. The difference in the character from Baron Frankenstein, and Cushing’s ability to make Van Helsing his own, shows just how good of an actor he is. Perhaps this shouldn’t be worth mentioning, but in this day and age when we have people like Tom Cruise and Will Smith that literally bring the exact same style and cadence to nearly every role they are given, I think it warrants a quick aside. And let’s not forget Christopher Lee as Dracula! Lee played Frankenstein’s monster as well, and his ability to inhabit both characters so flawlessly is impressive. After seeing Dracula, it’s clear to me that the success of Hammer Studios wasn’t simply due to the filmmaking or the enhanced violence for the time. It is thanks in large part to the wonderful work of their cast, of which Cushing and Lee were the stalwart anchors.
The story here is quite shifted from the novel and other adaptations of the work. Here Jonathan Harker is a man knowledgeable of Count Dracula’s supernatural nighttime activities, and has come to his castle to kill him with a stake to the heart. Normally such a major shift in the story would be preposterous and laughable, but it’s handled with such grace and deft skill by longtime Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster that it’s instantly believable and accepted. I could go on with the major changes, but a list of redone story points excites no one. Suffice it to say that the overall story is essentially the same, but a lot of stuff along the way is different. This was one of my favorite aspects of The Curse of Frankenstein, and the formula doesn’t disappoint in Dracula either.
My main issue with this film is that it’s a little slow. It tells its tale very well and it does its best, but I couldn’t help but fading into random brain wanderings while watching the middle section of the film. I’ll admit that I’m very familiar with the Dracula storyline though, and have recently watched Dracula: Dead and Loving It which takes many of its story points directly from this version of Dracula. That being said, the climax of the film is outstanding. It is exciting, it is gross, it’s everything I could ever want in a vampire film finale from 1958. Maybe it was the building tension of the entire film finally released that excited me so, but I couldn’t help myself from yelling out at the screen and being thoroughly engrossed in the proceedings.
On the filmmaking front, Dracula is another incredibly well-made, low-budget horror film. It’s incredible to consider the small amount of money that went into these and the resulting final product. Dracula features some gorgeous set design, especially Dracula’s castle with its spiral pillars and colorful, marble floor with an inlaid zodiac wheel. Quality production design coupled with a confident director makes for a visually impressive, gothic horror film that is sure to delight. Director Terence Fisher again shows his skill in moving the camera around the well-dressed sets and his editing is second-to-none. Many sections of the film play out without dialogue, existing solely as pieces of visual filmmaking with each cut intensifying the emotions and the tension in the scene.
Dracula might not have wowed me in the same way that The Curse of Frankenstein did, but I loved it just the same. From the very good, if melodramatic, acting, to the tension building use of editing, to the scene-stealing sets, Dracula has all the elements in place. If you’re a fan of classic films, definitely give this one a go. And non-horror fans, don’t let the Horror label stop you! I wouldn’t be surprised if this film or The Curse of Frankenstein were good enough to make a genre fan out of a non-believer. They both combine classic film aesthetics with the budding, bloody horror genre to great effect, resulting in satisfying, wonderful films for all to enjoy.
Come back tomorrow as I take a look at the next episode from Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, the Stuart Gordon directed H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch-House! What is it with this series and long titles? And next Thursday will bring the luminous full moon as I take on Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf!