HORROR OF DRACULA (Film Review)

horror of dracula verticle poster technicolorThis full-blooded vampire film (you should pardon the expression) reinvented the image of Count Dracula for a generation of filmgoers, eschewing cobwebby castles and black-and-white atmosphere in favor of a bold, colorful approach, filled with lovely cinematography and lavish sets that belie the modest budget. The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster jettisons the creepy clichés and gets down to basics, jumping directly into the action while wasting little time on superfluous exposition; it is a model for how to write a remake of a well-known subject. Director Terence Fisher stages the action with all the gusto you could bleed for: the film feels almost like an action-adventure movie, exciting and lively. Composer James Bernard provides a memorably exciting score, dominated by the famous three-note title theme (just imagine the orchestra saying “DRA-cu-la,” and you get the idea). Peter Cushing turns Professor Van Helsing into a variation on his Frankenstein characterization: a vampire hunter as obsessive in his quest to destroy vampires as the Baron was in his quest to create life. Perhaps most important, Christopher Lee remakes the vampire king into his own image: aloof, condescending, attractive – in a domineering, overpowering kind of way guaranteed to provoke ambivalent responses in viewers, male and female alike, who both fear and admire the Count.


HORROR OF DRACULA (known simply as DRACULA in its native England) was designed by Hammer Films to capitalize on the success of their previous effort, 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was the first Gothic horror film shot in color. Energized with a fresh approach and a modern sensibility, CURSE became a hit at home and abroad. As filmmakers who have tackled one half of horror’s dynamic duo almost always do, Hammer inevitably followed up Frankenstein with Dracula, taking all the elements that worked the first time and improving upon them the second time out.

The essential elements of the Hammer approach to horror, as established by CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, were color, action, eroticism, and gore, with a sometimes quirky British sensibility lurking around the edges. Although mild by the standards of later horror films, the impact was quite shocking during its day, causing howls of outrage from disgusted critics who accused the films of abandoning atmosphere and subtlety in favor of crude violence and bloodshed. Fortunately, neither CURSE nor HORROR is as crude as the critics would have had us believe, and now that the shock has worn off we can see perhaps more clearly just how good the films are: energetic and involving, with a crisp, fast-paced approach to narrative that somehow makes the incredible events seem like a completely believable component of the world being portrayed.

In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.

While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.

The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.

horror of dracula lee copy
Christopher Lee as Count Dracula

Lee’s costume retains the familiar black cloak but omits the red lining (favoring Stoker’s description of Dracula’s attire being “without a speck of color anywhere”). Rather than Lugosi’s melodic cadences, Lee opts for a fast-paced, authoritarian tone of voice. Like Stoker’s character, he speaks “excellent English,” though without the “strange intonation” captured by Lugosi. By dropping Lugosi’s Hungarian accent, Lee erases the Count’s Continental aura, instead emphasizing the physical strength that underlies vampire’s aristocratic mien. Unlike Lugosi, one can imagine Lee leading troops in warlike fury against the enemy invader.

Without being overtly Freudian, the film is certainly more obviously aware of the sexual undertones in Dracula’s attacks on helpless women, who seem to enjoy being ravished by the rapacious vampire. His approach to his female victims, who now consciously await his caresses (rather than sinking into a hypnotic stupor), emphasizes the erotic as never before. The fact that Dracula is less subtly seductive and more physically overpowering in these non-verbal attacks (we never see him talk to the women whose bedrooms he invades) lends an almost sado-masochistic air to his nighttime predations.

Like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the script for HORROR OF DRACULA offers a severely condensed version of the source material that erases the globe-trotting elements of the original story. While omitting the details, this telescoped version at least captures more of the essence of the novel’s structure (retaining more of Stoker than CURSE retained of Mary Shelly’s novel).

Stoker’s story was loaded with characters and took place over the course of several months. Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to help the Count purchase property in London, only to discover that his client is a vampire. Back home, Harker’s fiancée Mina has a friend named Lucy who becomes Dracula’s first English victim. Dr. Seward, one of Lucy’s three suitors, calls in Professor Van Helsing for consultation; unable to recognize the disease, the professor eventually realizes the cause is vampirism, which eventually claims Lucy’s life. Van Helsing teaches Seward and Lucy’s two other suitors, including her fiancé Arthur Holmwood, how to destroy her after she returns from the grave as a vampire. When Jonathan Harker returns to England (having escaped the clutches of Dracula’s three vampire brides), the details of the journal he kept lead Van Helsing to realize that Dracula is the vampire that attacked Lucy. Meanwhile, Dr. Seward has been noticing that one of his psychiatric patients, Renfield, has been acting in a way that seems to be an index to the comings and goings of the Count. Renfield, who wants to extend his life by devouring the lives of living things, worships Dracula as a sort of Antichrist, but the Count kills him when Renfield rebels and tries to prevent the vampire from claiming Mina as his next victim. Eventually, Van Helsing leads Mina and the young men on a trek back to Transylvania, where Harker and the Texan Quincy Morris manage to stab Dracula in the heart and behead him.

Sangster’s script jettisons Renfield and Morris, and reduces Seward to a walk-on as a family physician. Harker still comes to Castle Dracula, but he arrives on false pretenses, intending to destroy Dracula; instead, he falls prey to the Count after staking his vampire bride in her tomb. Van Helsing is no longer a kindly old bumbler who comes to believe in vampires only after studying Lucy’s condition; he is a full-fledge vampire hunter, dedicated to wiping the plague off the face of the Earth, with the same zeal as a doctor eradicating smallpox.

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing
Peter Cushing as Van Helsing

This twist on the Van Helsing character, embodied by Peter Cushing (who brings the same zest and precision that he displayed as the Baron in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) lends HORROR OF DRACULA its peculiar thematic underpinnings. Despite occasional flashes of warmth, Cushing’s Van Helsing embodies a cold ruthlessness in his quest that is very similar to Frankenstein’s monomaniacal obsession to create life, no matter what the cost. If Lee’s Dracula represents the eruption of carnal desire, of physical lust overwhelming the mind and sense, then Cushing’s Van Helsing is the intellect divorced from feeling, who will stop at nothing to subjugate the flesh to the mind.

In effect, HORROR OF DRACULA espouses a very conservative morality, in which unbridled sexuality is equated with spiritual Evil, and sexual repression is allied with Good. What prevents this old-fashioned concept from descending into camp is the very secular way it plays out. We are clearly seeing a film in which the characters can be interpreted as embodying the abstract metaphysical concepts of Good and Evil, yet the religious iconography is expressed in purely practical terms. In other words, the film’s Van Helsing (unlike the novel’s) seems hardly devout or spiritual; he uses crosses like weapons because they are effective, in the same way that an exterminator uses poison or traps.

The benefit of this approach is that it dissipates the cornball melodrama associated with too many bad horror movies, creating a film that seems fresh and modern even after the passing of decades. The potential pitfall is that it could downscale the story, mitigating the mythic undertones that make great horror films resonate in the mind like half-forgotten dreams suddenly recollected.

Somehow, HORROR OF DRACULA walks this razor’s edge with the skill of a tight-rope acrobat. Thanks to the robut staging of director Terence Fisher, the final battle between the forces of Darkness and Light, embodied by Dracula and Van Helsing, is as exciting as an World Wrestling Federation bout, culminating in Van Helsing’s Errol Flynn-style leap through the air to yank down a massive set of curtains, leading to the Count’s disintegration in the rays of the sun, his ashes blowing away in the wind — a remarkably poetic image to cap a remarkably well-made movie. At a clipped eight-two minutes, this is one of the most effective and tightly structured horror films ever made; in fact, some have gone so far as to call it the greatest horror film of all time.

In truth, the short running time robs the film of the scope that would have made it a full-blown, multi-level masterpiece. It works on its own terms, rather like the cinematic equivalent of a novella rather than a full-length novel, but there are other horror classics that have displayed more depth and sophistication.

HORROR OF DRACULA also falls prey to occasional melodramtic excess. In the role of Arthur Holmwood, Michael Gough’s horrorified reactions to the horrible events sometimes go a tad overboard (as when he desperately asks Van Helsing “Is there no other way?” – besides a stake in the heart – to release his sister from the curse of vampirism). And the flow of the story sometimes seems interrupted by old-fashioned fadeouts, not to mention the questionable cinematic device of showing Jonathan Harker sitting down to write in his diary. (Thankfully, the filmmakers eventually figure out that it is enough just to hear his words in voice-over on the soundtrack, while showing him perform some other action.)

But these quibbles do nothing to undermine the many strengths of HORROR OF DRACULA, which manifest themselves in numerable, memorable scenes. The first glimpse of Dracula at the top of the stairs is a wonderful fake-out – an ominous introduction followed by the Count’s perfectly civil greeting to Harker. The Count’s vampire bride (Valerie Gaunt) is wonderfully seductive, and her fight with her master, who stops her from making a victim of Harker, is wonderfully done, including Dracula’s athletic leap over a table. The staking of the vampirized Lucy (including a close-up of the stake sinking her white grave clothes, red blood welling up around it) is still sharp enough to make an audience squirm. Michael Gough does an excellent job in a relatively thankless role; embodying audience incredulity, he serves as the skeptic who must be convinced by Van Helsing, hopefully helping the audience to believe what they are seeing on screen. Also, Melissa Stribling deserves mention: the character of Mina has never come across on screen as well as Stoker imagined her; although Stribling’s version lacks most of the attributes of the literary version, the actress deserves credit for imbuing some life into her underwritten screen version. Her sly smile after her first encounter with Dracula, followed by her ambivalent reactions while anticipating a return visit, perfectly capture the mixture of attraction and repulsion inherent in the vampire mythology.

In short, HORROR OF DRACULA may not be the greatest horror film ever made, but it easily ranks in the pantheon of genre classics, and despite it’s considerably liberties with the source material (Sangster’s adaptation is in some ways almost an original screenplay), the film remains the best big-screen version ever made of Stoker’s novel. The decades may have given us far bloodier vampires, realized with bigger budgets and better effects; however, HORROR OF DRACULA (thanks in part to luminous Technicolor cinematography that defies the passing of years) is every bit as vibrant as the day it was released, living on from one generation to the next, rather like the undying Vampire Count himself.

TRIVIA

The film was influenced by NOSFERATU, the silent German adaptation of DRACULA, in at least two ways:(1) Dracula can be destroyed by sunlight, whereas in the book he simply loses his powers and requires rest in his coffin. (2) Taking up residence in Castle Dracula, Jonathan Harker displays a photograph of his fiance, which attracts the attention of the Count, who later seeks her out.

One element retained from the novel is a rather pronounced class consciousness. The servants in the film are never taken into the confidence of Van Helsing and the upper-class Holmwood, even in the case of the maid Gerta, whose daughter nearly becomes a victim of the vampirized Lucy. And the various working class characters that Van Helsing and Holmwood interrogate in their search for Dracula’s resting place are inevitably played for comic relief. Fortunately, the humor goes a long way toward balancing out the film’s more horrific scenes.

For decades, rumors abounded that Hammer Films created multiple versions of their movies for different markets, supposedly even shooting different versions of some scenes: a tame one for England, a slightly rougher version for the U.S., and an outright bloody one for the Far East. Although Hammer executives propagated these stories to generate publicity, they appear to have been more mythical than real. There is no doubt that censorship in different territories resulted in different versions of the films being released, due to the trimming of violence, gore, or sexual innuendo, but there is little evidence that alternate versions of scenes were ever shot.

In the case of HORROR OF DRACULA, there does seem to have been more explicit footage that has never seen the light of day, not even on DVD.

In the course of the film, three vampires are staked, but only one, late in the film, is shown explicitly; the other two are suggested with shadows or fade-outs. Supposedly, these earlier scenes were shot to be more explicit; however, this seems unlikely, because of the obvious problem: two graphic stakings early in the film would undermine the impact of the later one, which would seem repetitious. However, there is a publicity still of Jonathan Harker, lying in a coffin after Dracula has turned him into a vampire, that suggests more footage may have been shot of Van Helsing staking his colleague and seeing his body decay after the vampire’s curse has been lifted.

horror of dracula disintegrationEven more interesting, there is an oft-published still of Christopher Lee wearing a hideous, pock-marked makeup that was clearly intended to show the vampire’s face decaying in the sunlight. In the cut of the film shown theatrically and on home video, Dracula’s destruction takes place mostly off-camera: we see Van Helsing fashion two candlesticks into a cross and force the Count back into the sunlight; there are brief shots of his hand and his foot disintegrating, followed by a reaction shot of the professor reacting to the vampire’s demise. Then we see a prop skull covered with dust and, after another reaction shot, a pile of dust on the floor. We never see the makeup meant to show Dracula’s face beginning to decay, but the editing of the sequence clearly leaves room for another transitional moment to bridge the gap between Lee’s normal features and the prop skeleton that replaces him.

Film editor and horror fan Ted Newsom has seen a version of this image that reveals it to be a strip of 35mm movie film, which would indicate that the shot was filmed for the movie, not just as a publicity still:

“I’ve never seen the destruction scene in the climax, but it did clearly exist. Over on Latarnia, on the Hammer thread, I posted a frame blow-up of the scene, showing the same make-up from the standard 8×10 still, but from a camera angle which matches the rest of the shots. It was published in some Japanese magazine in the ’90s, reprinted in a Hammer book in 1995 or 96. Seeing the proof of the existence of the scene in the Asian version sent me off on a 2 year back and forth thing with the Tokyo Archive. On the verge of getting the material telecine’d for posterity, they hired a new archivist, who went back to the party line and said ‘We don;t have it.’ It was bullshit, but I’d had enough.” We can only hope that some archivist finds the footage, either in a vault at Hammer or in a print in the Far East, so that a restored version of HORROR OF DRACULA can be made available to fans.

In September 2011, Hammer Films finally announced restoration efforts to include the missing footage, after a Japanese print was seen by fan Simon Rowson in the National Film Center near Tokyo.

Horror of Dracula (a.k.a. “Dracula,” 1958). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Miles Malleson