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Horror of Dracula
Tonight's Feature Presentation

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen

Written By: Jimmy Sangster Directed By: Terence Fisher

The Short Version

Christopher Lee plays a newly imagined Dracula for a new generation.

Peter Cushing always commands anyone’s attention.

The script plays very fast and loose with the novel to the point of no longer being a real adaptation.

Jonathan Harker comes this close to being worthwhile; poor chap.

The Count compels any fan of vampire movies or horror in general to see Horror of Dracula.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

WEISSLACKER.

Bold, tangy German cheese for the bold and inexplicably German Count.

Pairs Well With...

SCHLITZ.

No, not the Malt Liquor; the brown bottle beer.  The world premiere for Horror of Dracula wasn’t in London or New York or LA; it was in Milwaukee.  Steins abound in this flick, so why not fill them with “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”?

“Of course you’re shocked and bewildered.”


In the late 1950s, Hammer Studios reinvented Gothic horror, and it used two characters made famous by Universal Studios a generation earlier to do so.  First came The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957.  The following year, Hammer intended to release a movie called Dracula, but American theatre owners who still played the classic Bela Lugosi film from the 30s in re-release protested, and so the movie that premiered at the Warner theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in May of 1958 was called Horror of Dracula instead.

Those who lined up at the box office that day would quickly discover that this was not their parents’ lord of the undead.  This Dracula was a Count unto himself.

To begin with, though we retain the end-of-the-19th-Century setting of both Bram Stoker’s novel and the 1931 film, the storyline surrounding the Count (Christopher Lee, The Mummy) has changed.  (Indeed, the story is changed so much and the characters have gone through so much of a shell game that the studio is almost being generous giving Bram Stoker credit for the basis of their adaptation.)  In Horror of Dracula, the Count is not Transylvanian; instead, he’s German.  (So is everyone else in this film, which takes place entirely within two towns in Germany, even though no character names are made into anything Germanic, and everyone speaks with an English accent of some sort, including the Count.)  He’s also not looking to buy land in England.  When Dracula asks Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen, Four Sided Triangle) to come to his castle, it’s not to hire the services of a solicitor, but rather to hire the services of a scholar to live on site for a while and catalog the books in his library.  Indeed, it’s reasonable to suppose that the offer of employment is genuine, and that Dracula initially means to do Harker no harm at all.

Thanks to what proves to be one of the great reimaginations of this screenplay, however, the same cannot be said of Harker with regard to Dracula.

Generally speaking, the role of Jonathan Harker in any Dracula story is one of the most thankless in all of horror.  The man as written by Stoker and as adapted by most everyone else is pretty much of a sap; a helpless, ineffectual dupe bamboozled by Dracula, made a plaything by his brides, and generally emasculated from start to finish.  When writing this adaptation for Hammer, however, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster had other ideas.  In this version, Harker is no stooge; he knows exactly what Dracula is before setting foot in the castle.  Indeed, it is he who has duped the Count, for as the capable and knowledgeable partner of vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, The Satanic Rites of Dracula), he intends to put a stake through Dracula’s heart at the first chance he gets.

Could it be that one of the most thoroughly emasculated characters in horror fiction history might really have a chance to make something better of himself here?

As it so happens, no.  After meeting a unnamed woman in Dracula’s castle who does indeed look rather fetching in her dress (Valerie Gaunt, The Curse of Frankenstein), Harker allows himself to be lulled by her damsel in distress routine, and only discovers that she’s Dracula’s bride (singular; only one in this version, and that’s important) once her fangs are in his neck.  Dracula himself bursts in to stop the attack (more on that later), but now Harker officially knows the Count’s secret, doesn’t he?

Nevertheless, he’s still himself when he awakens, and even finds Dracula’s crypt just before the sun is about to go down.  And then, showing that can-do intelligence we’ve all come to expect from anyone named Jonathan Harker… he kills the woman first.  She gets staked, the sun goes down, and Dracula wakes up in time to turn the tables on Harker.  Bob’s your uncle, and Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire.

So close, but even this Harker’s still an idiot.  And now that he’s deprived Dracula of his bride, the Count sees little choice but to get his revenge by claiming Harker’s fiancée, instead…

And to think, that’s just Act One.  I’ll let you enjoy the rest.  (Just remember, if you’re familiar with any other telling of the Dracula story, the names have been changed in this movie to protect nobody in particular.)

More striking than any changes to the surrounding story, though, are the changes in the presentation of Count Dracula himself.  Far from being the charming, urbane entertainer, the Count as portrayed by Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula is pointed and terse, shuns polite conversation, and speaks very quickly when he bothers to speak at all.  (Indeed, Lee’s Dracula has only thirteen lines in the entire movie; all of them are spoken to Harker.  And you thought Stallone’s Rambo didn’t talk much.)  Forget this slow stalking and mysterious gliding about business; this Dracula takes to his heels and runs.  This is no charming party host; this is a nasty killer who’s all about taking care of business.  He doesn’t have time to play with his food; he just wants to go for the jugular and be done with it.

Christopher Lee’s Dracula is a monster, pure and simple.  Once another character knows what he is, he sees no reason to keep up the pretense of being anything else.  That, above all, is what makes this Dracula unique, and Christopher Lee plays it to the hilt.

Of course, he’s on the screen for less than twenty percent of the time, so it’s a good thing that there’s someone else to pick up the slack.  That someone is Christopher Lee’s great friend, Peter Cushing.  Along with having one of the greatest voices in all of Gothic horror, Cushing has a screen presence that absolutely demands attention, even when he’s just sitting in a chair.  When he moves, you watch, and when he speaks, you damn well listen.  (Like, for example, when he describes the experience of being victimized by a vampire as one similar to drug addiction, or when he dismisses the notion that vampires can turn into bats or wolves or mists as “a common fallacy”.)  While there’s likely to be an eternal debate over whether Lugosi or Lee makes the best Dracula, there’s no question at all that Cushing is the best screen interpreter of Abraham Van Helsing.

Cushing and Lee are both helped along by the excellent direction of Terence Fisher, who knows what kind of talent he’s dealing with and is willing to let his cast members take advantage of their strengths and have at it.  The camera is used to great effect to augment the already imposing presence of Christopher Lee, and the shrewd intellect imparted by Cushing.  Fisher also provides a reasonably brisk pace to Horror of Dracula while still allowing the audience time to absorb the overall atmosphere.  That atmosphere is itself propped up by set designs that eschew the drab, shadowed cobwebs of other Castles Dracula in favor of something clean, well lit, and colorful.  (And speaking of color, when the blood flows, you’ll know.  That red is really red.)  Indeed, the only real atmospheric complaint I can think of is that sometimes, the silences last too long.  Oh, don’t worry, the brash horns never miss a cue, but sometimes during the breaks a little bit of oboe or something might be nice.

Of course, no discussion of Horror of Dracula would be complete without specific mention of three key scenes which stand as hallmark moments in the history of vampiric cinema.

The first is Christopher Lee’s initial appearance as Dracula in any form.  In this film, Harker has already been making himself at home in the castle as an invited guest for some time before meeting his host.  He’s finished eating a meal and is standing in the dining hall when he turns to see a tall, imposing figure at the top of the stairs.  This is Dracula, and before he even moves a muscle, Christopher Lee has set his portrayal apart.  In most every other interpretation of this scene, the Count is cordial and inviting.  Standing atop those stairs, Lee’s Count is imposing and very much in command.  Yes, Harker may be a guest, but Dracula is master of the house.  This is our first hint that the old rules won’t be applying here.  Then Dracula comes down the stairs, briskly.  No pussyfooting or elegant dance steps here; he comes down the stairs with purpose, just like anyone else.  And when he addresses Harker, he addresses Harker.  He says all of the right words to be polite, but his speech is terse and quick.  This Dracula is very much all business, and in this scene, the meat of what doesn’t even take a single minute, Lee has made his stamp on the role for all time.

The second hallmark scene comes shortly after, and was touched upon earlier.  This is the scene wherein Dracula’s bride makes her attack on Harker and Dracula arrives to break things up.  The Bride’s attack is interesting enough for its sensual undertones, but it is the appearance of Dracula that burns in the memory.  This is the first time we see Christopher Lee in full-on vampire mode, and there is nothing subtle about him.  As he bursts through the door, the look on his face is crazed, and his mouth is already stained with blood.  He wastes no time with dramatic words; he just runs across the room, jumps over a table, and starts delivering an old fashioned smackdown.  This vampire isn’t romantic; he’s savage.  This is a killer unleashed… a horrific killer.  Lee has now put his own stamp on the second aspect of his role, and he does so in striking fashion.

Finally, there is the climactic battle between Lee’s Dracula and Cushing’s Van Helsing.  For many, this is the best Dracula endgame of all time, and even though the limits of Hammer’s budget can be seen, the performances of the actors and the dramatic direction of Terence Fisher make that a detail of little consequence.  I will spare the details for those who have yet to experience it, but I will say that whether or not you decide it’s the best of all Dracula duels, it will without question be a duel you won’t forget.

And yes, you do owe it to yourself to experience Horror of Dracula, not only for that scene, but for all the rest.  This movie is one of the pillars of the horror genre, and with damn good reason.  It changes the Count back into a monster, and helped turned Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing into legends.

Bottom line, the Count compels you to see Horror of Dracula, and really, no self-respecting horror fan or vampire aficionado’s video library can be considered complete without having this as part of their permanent, owned collection.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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