In a mere 63 seconds of screen time, Christopher Lee, all but vanquished those who came before him when it comes to portraying the iconic Bram Stoker character on screen in Terence Fisher’s classic film adaptation released by “The Studio That Dripped Blood,” Hammer Films. Such is the power of Lee’s initial unveiling as the bloodthirsty Count after briefly and calmly welcoming John Van Eyssen to the castle just moments earlier in the film.
There. I’ve said it and I say this with all due respect to those who came before him including Bela Lugosi and John Carradine. And let me state for the record that I am a fan of both actors going out of my way to see any film they’ve appeared in.
Like many of my fellow Hammer, Lee and Peter Cushing fans I first saw the film at a young impressionable age and it’s remained in my consciousness ever since. I’m guessing I might have been about 9 or 10 years of age when I came upon it channel surfing. Probably a weekend as I recall it was a late night airing on a Buffalo TV Station we got on cable here in Ontario, Canada. Of course I’d already been turning through the pages of Famous Monsters Magazines and signing out books on horror movies from the school and public libraries so by this time I knew the names and many portrayals of Karloff, Chaney, Lugosi, Price, Lee and Cushing. I even had a copy of the comic photo novel I picked up in a downtown magazine shop I frequented as a kid.
Now decades later I generally revisit the film on a yearly basis but after that initial viewing it took me a good ten plus years to see it a second time. Eventually the film was advertised at a local retro theater for a Halloween showing with another pair of vampire themed films, 1922’s Nosferatu and 1932’s Vampyr. If memory serves, the movie was going to be shown last so having already seen Noseferatu and Vampyr a number of times by this point, I showed up for the third feature with my soon to be wife in tow only to be turned away disappointed. It seems that the projectionist was having trouble with one of the other films and to speed things up and keep the bloodthirsty fans at bay he switched the order of showings meaning we arrived late.
So I still had to wait a while longer for my first revisit to see Lee and Cushing do battle. That second go around arrived when I came across a WB Clamshell case at a collectors show for both records and movies.
Now I’ve moved from the VHS tape to the DVD to blu ray. Who knows what the future may bring us?
Backed by one hell of a score thanks to James Bernard, Hammer’s vampire debut is arguably the greatest of all Dracula’s to be caught on camera and the studios best film. It’s a perfect storm of talent colliding. Peter Cushing remains the screen’s greatest vampire hunter in his portrayal of Stoker’s Van Helsing. Lee as I’ve already mentioned is for me the quintessential Count. Terence Fisher having just come off The Curse of Frankenstein with both actors would prove to be the studios go to director at Gothic Horrors. Jimmy Sangster’s script, Bernard Robinson’s set design, Phil Leaky’s make-up, cinematographer Jack Asher and a host of “faces” including Michael Gough, Miles Malleson, Geoffrey Bayldon, George Woodbridge, Valerie Gaunt, Carol Marsh, cuteness personified in Janina Faye and leading lady Melissa Stribling. All combine to deliver a knockout of thrills in chills circa 1958.
I find there’s little to add in a synopsis of the film. That’s assuming most of you are familiar with either Stoker’s novel or any one of the multiple variations and or versions available to watch be it the Lugosi/Browning version of 1931 which was more or less the hit play from Deane and Balderston, the Palance/Curtis version of 1974, the Langella/Badham take from 1979, the Oldman/Coppola big budget adaptation of 1992 or maybe even the Nielsen/Brooks satire released in 1995.
Of course none really adhere to the written page in the end though the Louis Jordan version on BBC in 1977 tried it’s hardest. Writer Sangster streamlined the story dropping multiple scenes and characters and it works even if it doesn’t cater to the purist in me. And yes I’ve read the original novel a half dozen times or so.
I’d much rather celebrate the film as a whole from the point of view of a fan and memorabilia collector. Truth is I don’t have a single item from the film. No original poster to speak of though I must ashamedly admit I held one in my hands about 35 years ago and didn’t buy it. Now I probably couldn’t afford one if I had the chance or just don’t want to part with that much cash. No lobby cards either though reproductions are always available I just can’t bring myself to bother with them.
I often love to look for props when watching a favorite film and while the one prop I’ve wanted since my teenage years remains The Maltese Falcon, I’m afraid I don’t have the millions needed to acquire it. Still, my wife did buy me a reproduction for Christmas a couple years back which remains one of the best things I’ve ever opened on a Christmas morning. When it comes to Horror of Dracula my eyes are drawn to items like Jonathan Harker’s red leather bound diary, the eagle statue that guards the entrance to Castle Dracula, Lee’s ring that lies in his dust at the fadeout and how about those candle sticks that Peter uses to make a cross at the action packed climax.
Speaking of the film’s climax, with Bernard’s dynamic score rising to a crescendo, this proves to be one of cinema’s greatest battles of Good vs. Evil. Not just in horror films but in any genre. Period.
I’d include Horror of Dracula as one of those films I’d liked to have seen on it’s original release had I been alive at the time. It’s nothing like it’s competitors of the late 1950’s. It’s raised the bar. Boldly filmed in blood dripping color, the sexual intensity of the film is clearly on the rise from the moment Miss Gaunt’s lustful vampire bride bares her fangs to Marsh’s Aunt Lucy hungering for blood to the look of satisfaction on the face of Miss Stribling towards the end following a late night visit from her vampire lover. From Lee’s entrance to the staking of his vampire brides, Hammer has upped the ante from all previous entries in the horror genre and would continue to dominate the field in the coming years alongside the Price/Poe cycle via A.I.P.
Dear Peter Cushing, often referred to as the “Gentle Man of Horror” who I’ve yet to hear a negative word about from any and all of his costars who’ve gone on record would play Van Helsing in the direct 1960 sequel, The Brides of Dracula (minus Lee) before dropping out of the subsequent Lee series until making a welcome return in Dracula A.D. 1972 and it’s subsequent sequel, The Satanic Rites of Dracula in ’73. Both films get better with every viewing no matter what the critics say. He’d return to Hammer for one more go around in the oddball entry, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, a Hammer/Shaw Brothers co-production.
While Lee would continue to downplay his Dracula image in the years to come the fact remains that he will forever be identified with Stoker’s Count. Lee would famously return to Hammer and the role in 65’s Dracula – Prince of Darkness, 68’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, a trifecta in 1970 with Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula as well as Jess Franco’s low budget Count Dracula. Make that a 1970 quartet if we count his cameo in the Jerry Lewis directed One More Time. Then Dracula A.D. and Satanic Rites ended his association with Hammer renditions. Let’s not forget a Dracula like cameo in 69’s The Magic Christian, a feature documentary in 1975 from the Florescu/McNally book, In Search of Dracula and lastly an outright comedy, Dracula and Son released in 1976 which is far better than I’d been led to believe after finally seeing it not all that long ago.
My most recent revisit is thanks to the Warner Archive blu ray edition that actually runs a British print of the film under it’s original U.K. title, Dracula. Haven’t seen it? Trust me on this one and grab a copy.
You have seen it? Then why not sit down for another viewing and be transported back to 1958 as if you’re seeing it for the first time.