Peter Cushing - Dr. Van Helsing
Christopher Lee - Count Dracula
Michael Gough - Arthur Holmwood
John Van Eyssen - Jonathan Harker
Melissa Stribling - Mina Holmwood
Carol Marsh - Lucy Holmwood
Valerie Grunt - Vampire Woman
Genre - Horror/Action/Vampires
Running Time - 82 Minutes
When audiences think about the character of Dracula, usually the 1897 Bram Stoker novel and the 1931 Universal Pictures adaptation starring Bela Lugosi come to mind before anything else. It's no surprise. The Universal representation of this horror character has become iconic, to the point where modern interpretations of the character still maintain some of the elements Bela Lugosi made famous. Many actors have played the character within many adaptations on film, on television, and in other forms of media. But my personal favorite comes from the British based film studio known as Hammer.
Hammer Film Productions was founded in 1934. Even though they had a few successful films that dabbled in multiple genres, mainly mysteries and thrillers, they had issues with finances due to slumps in the British film industry and trying to move their studio. It wasn't until 1955 with The Quartermass Experiment on BBC Television [as well as Quartermass 2 in 1957] that Hammer Film Productions started to catch momentum. In 1957, the studio received a script for THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Although the novel by Mary Shelley was public domain, the script was too similar to the 1939 Universal film, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Realizing that Universal had the rights to the look of the Frankenstein monster and how the story was told, Hammer Films realized they had to present their version much differently. This included using color film instead of black and white, designing a different look for the monster, and pushing the envelope a bit in terms of violence and sexuality. The film was a giant success in both the UK and in the USA, influencing filmmakers at the time.
In 1958, DRACULA [or HORROR OF DRACULA in the United States] was released. But the film had its own share of problems during it's pre-production phase. Universal, who had the rights to the look and the stage play adaptation, wrote an 80 page legal agreement to Hammer with provisions that Hammer had to follow in order to avoid copyright infringement - and this was AFTER the film was already completed. The Hammer version of DRACULA couldn't use the same storyline as the Universal film. The Hammer version also had to present the story differently. Hammer felt that Universal would want to finance the film, so they can make some money off of this new version, but the studio had no interest [although the studio would financial the remainder of the budget while the National Film Finance Council made up the rest]. HORROR OF DRACULA changed the adaptation somewhat, changing relationships and characters while focusing more on an action feel with horror elements. It was also in color and had no shame in showing blood and seductive women. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing signed on for the project and the film was a massive success all over the world. In essence, HORROR OF DRACULA was the film that really made Hammer Films into what it is known today.
After 54 years, HORROR OF DRACULA still manages to be considered the best adaptation of the Bram Stoker story, even with the liberties the script took with the original narrative. It's due to its presentation, incredible acting, and taut direction that keep HORROR OF DRACULA a favorite among horror fans. I will always respect Bela Lugosi for his portrayal of Dracula. But when I think of the character, I think of Christopher Lee and this awesome movie.
Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Count Dracula's (Christopher Lee) castle, posing for a job as his librarian. While getting settled in, it's revealed that Jonathan is really there to kill Dracula, who he knows is a dangerous vampire that must be stopped. When Jonathan is distracted by one of Dracula's "brides" (Valerie Grunt) who tries to bite him, Dracula reveals his true form and eventually turns Jonathan into a vampire. What Dracula doesn't know is that Jonathan had kept a diary of his thoughts and actions on Dracula, sending it to Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).
Van Helsing, finding Jonathan as a vampire, stakes him. He then tells Arthur (Michael Gough) and Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling) about Jonathan's passing, since Jonathan was engaged to Arthur's sister, Lucy (Carol Marsh). At the same time, Lucy has been feeling under the weather, concerning her brother and sister-in-law. What they don't know is that Lucy has been bitten by Dracula and is now seduced by him. When Lucy dies and turns into a dangerous vampire, Van Helsing convinces Arthur about the existence of vampires. The two decide to hunt down Dracula to kill him, not realizing that Dracula has his dangerous sights on Mina.
HORROR OF DRACULA is one of Hammer Films finest productions, and still holds up very well today. Unlike the stagey and static adaptation Universal had released back in 1931, this adaptation is horror-action at its finest. I could just imagine how this movie effected audiences back in 1958. The vibrant colors, the sight of red blood, the low cut dresses, and a Dracula that's more killer than a charming lover - this must have really opened eyes and caused an outcry that many would find humorous today. While there have been many versions of the Dracula story done on film since, HORROR OF DRACULA may be its best one.
Due to budget reasons and Universal's legal documents, the narrative in HORROR OF DRACULA had to be changed. There's no Renfield here. Dr. Seward barely makes an impression in a small cameo. The relationships have been switched with Mina now with Arthur and Lucy with Jonathan - it should be the opposite. The journey to Transylvania to Count Dracula's castle at the beginning of the story has been taken out. There's no asylum. Dracula also isn't a supernatural being, supposedly unable to transform into a bat or a wolf. You would think that these changes and omissions would ruin the traditional story. However, it allows the film to maintain a certain focus while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster maintains the essence of the novel.
HORROR OF DRACULA is only focused on one thing - the revenge plot against Dracula. The entire movie is a cat-and-mouse chase where certain characters are after Dracula for turning their friends into vampires. Unlike most adaptations, HORROR OF DRACULA feels more like an action film than a horror film, which works well in this installment. While the characters aren't as developed like they are in the novel, we know enough about them to care and understand their roles within the story. Jonathan Harker sets up the story fairly quickly, as we learn through him that Dracula is a vampire. Mina and Lucy are there to be victims of Dracula, which gives Arthur and Van Helsing reason to go after the vampire. Arthur is the skeptic who doesn't believe in vampires until he sees it for himself, becoming a hero afterwards. Van Helsing is the protagonist of the story, the Captain Ahab to Dracula's Moby Dick. He knows all about vampirism and how to combat it. He's a completely active character who will fight to survive, even if the odds are against him.
And then there's Dracula. Before this film adaptation, Dracula was portrayed as more of a charming, seductive character who came off as an aristocrat who just happened to be a legendary vampire. In HORROR OF DRACULA, the charm and seduction are downplayed for an animalistic take on the character. Like in the novel, Dracula comes across as a sexual predator, taking advantage of proper and prim women and turning them into sexually aggressive beings. Besides his first appearance, Dracula is never portrayed as a human being. He hisses and growls like an animal, always on the hunt and not caring who he has to charm to get his way. This Dracula is a parasite that needs to be stopped, as he doesn't mess around when it comes to getting a midnight snack. The character is ruthless and vicious, which makes Dracula a great villain and a perfect foil to the more calm and collected Van Helsing. While I'm sure this portrayal of Dracula shocked audiences in 1958, it's honestly the best way to go with the character. He's a monster in every sense of the word, just in human form. It makes the chase to stop Dracula that more interesting and exciting, building to a satisfying ending.
The set design and the use of blood are also highlights in HORROR OF DRACULA. Seeing blood in Technicolor must have been quite a sight in 1958, but it adds a lot to the film and shows how different this adaptation is from the 1931 Universal one. I also liked the Gothic sets and the wardrobe that reflects this period in time. The exterior shots are also quite lavish as well. I also loved the scene where Dracula turns into dust via sunlight. For its time, the special effects are quite good. It would all be CGI now, but I love practical effects like this one. I liked the burn scars of crucifixes on vampires whenever they were touched by one. It's obviously influenced other vampire adaptations ever since, especially in 1985's FRIGHT NIGHT and certain Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes. The production values are really good here.
The direction by Terence Fisher, who is thought of as the best filmmaker in Hammer Film Productions history, is excellent. The pacing is great, as the film is only 82 minutes long. It's well shot, with great framing and composition. Loved the angles as well, especially when Dracula appeared. The film has atmosphere in spades. The action centered moments were paced and shot well. The color is vibrant. Fisher really wastes no time getting to the nitty gritty and sinking his fangs [pun intended] into the revenge portion of the film. There's no time to reflect on subtlety or Romanticism. This version of Dracula is violent action, which works in Fisher's energetic favor. Just a really solid job.
The acting is also very good here. Carol Marsh and Melissa Stribling are good as Lucy and Mina respectively. While prim and somewhat virginal, they still carry this quite seductive air about them that I liked. It's easy to see why Dracula was so eager to bite their necks. The ladies did a nice job. John Van Eyssen is cool as Jonathan Harker. He doesn't get to do much, but I liked his performance and his narration. Michael Gough, best known for his four portrayals as Alfred Pennyworth in the original BATMAN series, is okay as Arthur. He was a bit bland at times, but got better towards the end of the film.
And Christopher Lee, for me, is also the best Dracula out there. He's not in the film as much as people probably think, but it doesn't really matter. His performance creates a presence within the film that one could feel even when he isn't on screen. Lee creates an evil and animalistic Dracula, with a face that screams "don't fuck with me," - with bloodshot eyes and bloody fangs. It's no surprise he would play Dracula six more times in this franchise. He's fantastic in the role.
THE FINAL HOWL
4 Howls Outta 4