Retro Review: Horror of Dracula

2011/08/16 15:47:27 +00:00 | Andrew Smith

Posing as a librarian, vampire hunter Jonathan Harker travels to Castle Dracula where he intends to kill Dracula and end his vampiric legacy. The sun sets before he can do it and Dracula manages to bite him.

Wanting revenge for his attempted assassination, Dracula preys upon Lucy, Harker's fiancé. Jonathan's book and diary are found by his friend, Dr. Van Helsing, who teams up with Lucy's brother Arthur to try to put and end to Dracula before she fully turns.

The ball had started rolling for Hammer's glorious technicolour reinvention of horror cinema a year earlier with The Curse of Frankenstein but it was Horror of Dracula which cemented the legacy of the studio and marked the beginning of their dominance over the horror genre for the next two decades. Universal Horror films had died out in the 40s and audiences had grown tired of seeing Bela Lugosi in a daft cape and turning into a bat-on-a-string. So it was a risky move for Hammer to test the waters and see if audiences were ready for a new breed of Dracula. Brought into the then-modern era with lavish and exotic colour to give realism to everything, Horror of Dracula marks a far cry from the black and white days of old. This was Dracula like audiences had never seen before and it changed the face of horror cinema forever.

Horror of Dracula is a groundbreaking film not just for screen vampires but for horror in general. Taboo subjects back in the day were thrust into the spotlight with graphic violence and sexual undertones, once only suggested in the original Dracula films, now receiving centre stage. It may look tame nowadays but back in 1958 this was shocking material. The link between vampirism and eroticism is common nature in cinema now. Quite frankly it would be virtually impossible to separate the two and they have become bound by time. Say vampire to anyone and they would conjure up the exact images that this film presents - that of the tall, dark and handsome vampire who seduces young women and then drinks their blood. This is the film which gave birth to this vision. The previous Universal Dracula never even skirted the issues. This one confronts them head on.

Christopher Lee smashed preconceptions of how Dracula was to be portrayed. Instead of Bela Lugosi's stage play version of the Count with his high collars and greased back hair, Lee's Dracula is ripped right from the book. One moment he is a perfect gentleman with manners and courtesy, the next moment he is transformed into an almost-rabid monster, displays raw, animalistic instincts like never before. He possesses a more sexual, sinister element and this erotic tone, skirted over in the Lugosi Dracula film, is now brought to the fore. Dracula is now predator-like, stalking his sweet and innocent virginal victims before turning them into wild, aggressive vampires with the same sexual desires and needs as he.

The shock value has greatly diminished over the years as this has become the norm for vampires. But back in 1958, this was something shocking to behold. Female characters sit waiting for Dracula with plunging night gowns which do little more than cover over anything that would have led to the film being banned. Lee's physical attributes are key to the character's success. Tall, imposing and handsome, Lee looks everything like a dashing nobleman. It's funny to note that he has little screen time and few lines but such is the impression his character makes, you would think he was present in every scene. It's a mesmerizing performance and there's little wonder that Lee's portrayal (in this one at least) is consistently labeled as the best Dracula to have ever hit the big screen. There can be little argument with that.

Let's not forget Peter Cushing. His Van Helsing brings all of Cushing's calm, intelligence and wit to the role and is the perfect foil to Lee's Dracula. With Lee not having much to say, a lot of the impact of the film and the events that unfold is down to Cushing and his performance. He balances religion and science, bringing credibility to the vampire threat and enhancing the role of Dracula as a bringer of death and destruction. In many of the portrayals since this, Van Helsing is seen as somewhat of a lesser adversary to Dracula but not here. Van Helsing is on a equal playing field and the two are well matched. One only needs to watch the gripping finale as Van Helsing and Dracula tussle through the castle, culminating in a memorable finale as Van Helsing pulls out all of the tricks in his book to try and kill Dracula once and for all. It's a finale which none of the following sequels even came close to beating.

As well as the two legendary main stars, the main men behind-the-scenes from The Curse of Frankenstein were all back on board to try and do the same with Dracula. Director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster and composer James Bernard all contribute some of their best work here. Fisher's direction is assured, pacing the film well and keeping the cast on their toes for the majority of the running time with little lull in proceedings. He knows what he wants from the screen and proceeds to ring every ounce of detail from the sets. This is gothic but like audiences had never seen before - brought to life in vivid colour almost fairytale-like. The entrance of Dracula, silhouetted at the top of a staircase, is fantastic horror imagery.

Credit must also be given to cinematographer Jack Asher who brings to life the sets and embraces the novel use of colour - Dracula's fangs have never dripped blood as crimson and as pure as they do here. Sangster's script is economical and manages to streamline Bram Stoker's book, admittedly not being a very faithful adaptation and taking a few liberties with plot elements. James Bernard produces another of his fine scores here with the signature theme for Dracula being one of his most famous pieces.

Horror of Dracula is a landmark Hammer film, more importantly so than The Curse of Frankenstein because of the increased focus on sexuality in horror. What we know as the norm was risqué material in 1958 and it's thanks to the likes of Horror of Dracula that the genre we know today is what it is. It's possibly the best teaming of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in two of their most iconic roles and is, quite frankly, one of my country's finest horror films. Scratch that, it's one of the genre's finest horror films too.