Halloween Endurance Test: Horror of Dracula (1958)

Horror of Dracula was the second film in Hammer Films’ much celebrated original trilogy of horrors. Curse of Frankenstein had made both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into stars, so they return in another haunting literary classic. (And by the point the Mummy came out, Hammer Studios was now the star.) Of course, by “literary” I mean inspired by the classic, perhaps based off of, not so much an adaptation. Don’t let this deter you though, since, as I discussed with Universal’s version of Dracula, Bram Stoker’s original tale is a mess. Written all the past tense, with the reporting characters hardly ever actively participating in the action being described. Hammer does its best to fix this here.

First off, Stoker’s obsessive use of the past tense. This amazingly gets used in the film, courtesy of voiceover work by the principals. Giving the film that “Hey, we have read the book!” quality while still keeping the action present. Also, it allows for background information to be given to the audience without having to rely on the old “let’s sit around the library and read vampire books” exposition scenes

Also, in a nice nod to its literary forebears, Horror of Dracula includes all the media used to tell the tale in the book. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) uses an early phonograph to learn about vampires. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) leaves behind a diary to tell his tale posthumously.

We first meet Jonathan Harker, are welcomed into the castle with him, and learn he’s on a secret mission to kill Count Dracula (Christopher Lee). No boring introduction scene with Harker being assigned his job from some higher-up. Harker already has the job, we play catch-up, and continue on his mission. A pacing technique that would sadly be ignored by most in the genre.

Another change Hammer instituted was in the architecture of Dracula’s castle. Gone are Universal’s ceiling to floor cobwebs and swirling dust mists. Hammer’s Dracula clearly has a maid service on call, and, being a Count and all, has no problem living up to his title.

The most immediate thing noticeable in the film though is the use of sound. Given the voice-over narrative work, there’s hardly any speaking. When Harker commences on his mission, Dracula’s bride howls when she’s staked, waking the Count up. It’s still daytime however, so the Count is powerless to protect himself. Lee does a brilliant job of portraying this vulnerability through his eyes, as well as the following predatory instinct when the sun finally goes down. Not a word is said, ‘cuz the eyes say it all…

This theme of “action over audio” carries on throughout the entire film. Even when Dracula invades London, an otherwise bustling metropolis, hardly anything is heard but John Hollingsworth’s score. That and invectives directed toward Van Helsing, a man who’s much less beloved then in Universal’s version.

While I still love Bela Lugosi as the Count, Peter Cushing is clearly the superior Van Helsing. While Edward Van Sloan’s interpretation certainly seemed more intelligent, more book-learned, Cushing looks better prepared to act on his knowledge. A good doctor who’s equally ready to fight or write.

Van Helsing’s also quite bright. Explaining a chain of events that are vital to the story, but never integrated well. Everyone knows that Dracula starts hunting Lucy Holmwood after he arrives in London. Why Lucy, friend of Jonathan Harker, is never explained though. A strange coincidence considering how large a city London is.

Here Dracula’s pick is motivated by revenge. Jonathan murdered Dracula’s bride back at the castle, so Dracula murders both Harker and his bride-to-be. And yes, I know that Harker didn’t kill any of Dracula’s brides in the book, nor was he Lucy’s fiance. Just some of the changes needed to be made to Stoker’s classic to make it less cumbersome.

A philosophy which would form the basis behind Hammer’s horror movies. Using the stock literary characters, and just varying the surrounding situations enough to keep the public interested. Eventually taking it so far, in 1973’s the Satanic Rites of Dracula, that Dracula finds himself as the villain in a spy thriller! (Unfortunately, it sounds more interesting than it plays.)

—More Christopher Lee as the Count? YES Please!—

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave

Taste the Blood of Dracula

Dracula A.D. 1972


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