I just finished revisiting an old cinematic friend that had immense influence on me as a writer in the horror genre. I watched Horror of Dracula, the debut flick in Hammer’s classic, long-running Dracula film series, for the first time in a long time, and ostensibly for research connected with a new publishing project I recently began. That project is in tribute to the recent passing–just two days past at this writing–of one of the greatest thespians in the history of international cinema, Sir Christopher Lee. Released in 1958, the movie was titled simply Dracula in Hammer’s native Britain, but had the “Horror of…” tacked onto the American release to distinguish it from Universal’s classic 1931 movie, which was still being released to certain theatrical venues at the time (this was just before it was released as a TV package to Shock Theater along with many of the other Universal horror gems). The American release of this film also had strict competition from another Dracula flick released at roughly the same time, Gramercy Pictures’ The Return of Dracula, which featured Francis Lederer in the role of the Count (a role Lederer would reprise over a decade later in the filmed version of Manly Wade Wellman’s short story “The Devil is Not Mocked,” which was featured in an episode of the early 1970s American horror anthology TV series Night Gallery).
Now don’t get me wrong, this movie isn’t perfect by any means, and nit-picky reviewers can and have had a field day tearing it apart. And yes, its plot did deviate strongly from Bram Stoker’s all-important classic 1897 novel. The names and relationships of several key human protagonists in Stoker’s novel were liberally altered in various ways… e.g., Mina Murray/Harker became Mina Holmwood, the wife of Arthur Holmwood; Mina’s BFF Lucy Westenra became her sister-in-law, set to marry Jonathan Harker, who was Mina’s fiancee and later husband in the novel… who went from an unwitting solicitor to sell English property to Count Dracula, only to escape from his clutches and become part of Abraham Van Helsing’s vampire hunting crew that put paid to the Vampire Lord by the end of the novel… to the Vampire Lord’s librarian who attempted to infiltrate his home… only to most definitely not escape from his clutches and become a casualty early on in this film; Dr Seward being not the director of an asylum as in the novel, but a regular visiting physician and a minor character in the movie (!); and no Quincy Morris (who likely would have ended up named “Quincy Seward” and depicted as the mischievous kid nephew of the doc had he been incorporated) or Renfield to speak of (!!). And in this movie the setting for Castle Dracula was a town called Klausenberg, apparently located somewhere in Germany, rather than the darkly atmospheric Transylvania locale of the novel before the action shifted to London, England, and then back again to Transylvania for the climax.
However, despite these imperfections, I believe it stands out as an excellent horror film that continues to hold up very well today. Not only did it do justice to the basic conception of Dracula, but in many ways it influenced subsequent Western tropes of the Vampire Lord, along with vampire cinema and literature in general, as much as the 1931 Universal film did. The Hammer image of Dracula brought to the screen by Christopher Lee did borrow some elements from the Universal film depictions of the Count, which had itself incorporated them from the popular, long-running stage play that was only loosely based on the novel. This included the distinctive black cape, along with the dispensing of the novel’s caveats that Dracula aged if he went too long without blood (only to instantly return to some point between his late 30s and mid-40s upon imbibing more of the precious crimson fluid), or that he could move about in the sunlight (albeit at the expense of most of his power). Of course, these two caveats had been largely expiated from the Dracula mythos long before Horror of Dracula was released, going all the way back to the stage play.
Perhaps most notably, this movie series had to make a concession to Hammer’s limited budget and eliminate certain powers attributed to vampires since Stoker’s novel, and cemented in the public consciousness by the Universal films. Though the power of mesmerism could obviously be retained with no fuss or muss, Dracula and his fangy brethren had to be divested of their power to shape-shift into bats and wolves, not to mention the option of intangible mist. These powers were explained away in one scene when Dr. Van Helsing told Holmwood that vampires having such metamorphic powers were “a common fallacy.” This version of Dracula still worked well without these powers, and his natural cunning and stealth seemed to more than make up for such a lack of powers. In fact, it could well be argued that this portrayal of vampires sans their shape-shifting powers may have inspired many subsequent variations on the theme, including the vampire types later introduced by Anne Rice (Interview With the Vampire), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), and Stephanie Meyers (Twilight).
This film, and the movie franchise that it spawned, did add a lot of unique flavor to the multi-cultural Dracula parable, however. Lee’s version of Dracula lacked the suave and charming persona of his Universal predecessor, limiting this characteristic merely to the veneer of common civility and hospitality he displayed to Harker (played by John Van Eyssen) during the early scenes of the movie. In fact, these early exchanges between Dracula and Harker in the former’s castle were the only lines of dialogue actually spoken by the Count on screen. They amounted to a mere 13 lines granted to Lee for his portrayal. This was only a minor improvement over the zero lines of dialogue he was given as the Monstrous Creation of Baron Victor Frankenstein a year previous in the first of Hammer’s wildly successful classic horror films, The Curse of Frankenstein. That movie, btw, also spawned an equally long-running franchise, but Lee was to appear in it no more, as that film series was to belong (mostly) to his good friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing, leaving the Dracula franchise to Lee (save for the second and very last film in the series, The Brides of Dracula and The 7 Brothers vs. Dracula [British release title: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires], respectively).
To be one of his vampire brides! Muah-hah-hah!!
However, Lee was still to share billing with Cushing in this first film and two others (i.e., Lee’s last two Dracula flicks for Hammer, Dracula, A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula; Cushing got to reprise his Van Helsing role without Lee in The Brides of Dracula and The 7 Brothers vs. Dracula). As noted above, Cushing had the important role of Dr. Van Helsing (his first name was never given in the movie), the medical doctor who was a crusading expert and hunter of vampires. Though he was younger in this movie than his counterpart in the novel, Van Helsing’s character portrayal was left much intact for this film, and Cushing shined like a super nova in the role as anyone familiar with his oeuvre would well expect.
Nevertheless, though Cushing got most of the movie’s good dialogue, and Lee got none following his initial scene with Harker in the castle, it was a testament to Lee’s great acting range and skill that he still pulled off the role via facial expressions, body language, and the sheer aura of menace he exuded every single second he was on screen. His version of Dracula was utterly relentless and vindictive in the pursuit of his mostly female victims to add to his harem. The charms of the Universal Dracula as portrayed quite memorably by Bela Lugosi to get past the guard of his prospective lady victims and her friends and family alike were replaced by something equally effective and much more chilling by Hammer’s Dracula: the sheer psychic power he wielded over these women upon first biting them, turning them into organic putty in his taloned hands so that they themselves would sabotage every effort attempted by their protectors to keep the Vampire Lord from getting to them. Stealth of action, not trickery of word, was used in tandem with psychic domination to get close enough to menace them. The determined Van Helsing had his work cut out for him against this version of the Prince of Darkness.
Though Holmwood (also well played by Michael Gough) participated in this battle much as his counterpart in the novel did, it was Van Helsing who had a solo battle with Dracula in the end, which was very unlike the group effort that took down the Count in the novel. The death sequence of exposing Dracula to sunlight with a simple but tactically effective pull of the curtains was spectacular and utterly grotesque even by today’s standards. Don’t think you’re too jaded by modern horror films to avoid receiving shudders from viewing it. Despite having quite a limited budget to work with, Hammer made good use of the talents and resources it did have at its disposal in this debut film of the studio’s Dracula series, and director Terrence Fisher got the most out of a talented ensemble of thespians, particularly Lee and Cushing. The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster had but minimal fealty to Stoker’s novel, and was full of holes, but that didn’t detract from the performances provided by the acting crew and the other type of holes left in the necks of the Count’s human victims.
This movie and the rest of Hammer’s horror studio product may not compare in the gore factor department with modern franchises like the Saw and Hostel series, or anything like the grotesque nastiness of the Human Centipede films, but it was pretty damn heavy for the time period. It certainly didn’t limit the worst violence to the viewer’s imagination as the Universal films did (with effectiveness, in case anyone mistakes this for criticism of those early horror movies and their masterful use of suspense). Hammer did things much differently than Universal, and catered to changing tastes of both viewer expectations and what the evolving cinematic genres would allow to appear on screen by the late 20th century. This movie played up the sexual aspects of vampirism that were always implicit in the concept but had to be kept more subtle in the past, and for all his terrifying mien Lee’s Dracula used the handsome appearance of the actor with the malevolent “bad boy” menace he projected so well to be as much a turn-on to female viewers as a nightmare to fear. I’m sure many female viewers considered Lee’s Dracula, as much as Lugosi’s and (later) Frank Langella’s and Gary Oldman’s, to be a horror figure they thought about hiding with under the covers of their bed rather than hiding from.
In fact, Lee’s Dracula personified the ultimate challenge to the male rival. His fantasy mesmerism symbolized the dark traits of the “bad boy” that enthrall so many women, and which push so many noble men to the wayside in favor of. Cushing and Holmwood represented exemplars of the noble and well-intentioned if a bit stodgy male fighting against the powerful dark rivalry embodied by Dracula’s “bad boy” archetype, and triumphed in the end. Even though we all know that in reality, the “nice” guys often ultimately lose the war rather than just several battles along the way, but it’s nice to see them win in our dreams, and to see these dreams transcribed metaphorically to the big screen in such a visceral manner! This is something that films in the horror/fantasy genres do so well, along with action cinema in a general manner.
As for the women in this movie, the only two really major female characters were Lucy Holmwood (played by the stunning Carol Marsh) and Mina Holmwood (played by the less stunning but venerable Melissa Stribling). They both gave good performances, though mostly as typical damsel in distress/victim characters, or as a concerned surrogate big sister/mother figure (in Stribling’s case), who needed the male saviors to rescue them. Lucy Westenra was portrayed much the same way in the novel, but Mina Murray (later Harker) had much more spunk and character to her in the book. She still ended up playing the damsel in distress, though, and only by the later hands of other authors–notably Elaine Bergstrom and Alan Moore–did she rise above that less-than-exalted trope to become a respected force to be reckoned with. Of course, Hammer’s films were produced long before the era where we could see the likes of Rachel Van Helsing from Marvel Comics’ successful comic book series The Tomb of Dracula a decade and a half later, let alone Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Zenescope’s Liesel Van Helsing from their Grimm Fairy Tales line of comics two and four decades after that, respectively.
Valeria Gaunt (strangely not listed anywhere on this film’s entry in the Internet Movie Database) put in a memorable performance as the raven-haired female vampire who menaced Jonathan Harker during the early sequences in Dracula’s castle, but she later found herself easily put out of her misery by the business end of Van Helsing’s stake while slumbering in her coffin. Marsh did a fantastic job for the still chilling scene when, after being vamped, she almost put the bite on a little girl and her brother. That was a sequence which duplicated the “Bloofer Lady” that Lucy Westenra became in the novel after being vamped in a fairly faithful manner. It should be mentioned that the bloody scene of Lucy Holmwood getting the stake while counting sheep in her own coffin was directly imitated by the sfx crew of The Return of Dracula for a surprise color insert in the otherwise black and white flick.
“PEEK-A-BOO! You’re dead! Bwah-hah-hah!”
To sum it all up, this movie has not lost its ability to send chills down the spine of its viewers, and to do this every bit as much as it did when we die hard monster fans first watched it on TV in our childhood. It would be later in the series before Hammer began adding nudity, more overt sexuality, and put a increase on the blood and gore factors, but this movie and its first few sequels stand above these later efforts. Though we didn’t get a Stoker-friendly version of Dracula here, we did get yet another iconic portrayal of the Count that had and continues to have a major effect on every depiction of Dracula and vampire characters in general since that first Hammer film saw the light of day (if you pardon the irony there). Lee would go on to take the role of the Count in more movies than any other actor, and this includes a cameo in one movie outside the horror genre entirely (the Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford farce fest One More Time), and two Dracula films outside the Hammer roster (i.e., Jess Franco’s Spanish flick Count Dracula; and a French comedy-horror mishmash, Dracula and Son). The Hammer horror films, particularly the Dracula series, continues to be a major influence on horror cinema today, and this debut flick in the series makes it quite clear why this is the case.
You can purchase this movie on an excellent high-quality 3-disc Blu-ray version released by Lionsgate, or a much more affordable 1-disc DVD version released by Warner Home Video. You can also purchase it even more affordably in digital HD format from Amazon Instant Video.