The Horror of Dracula


Year 1958

Peter Cushing as  Dr. Van Helsing  
Christopher Lee   as Count Dracula
 
Director - Terence Fisher
Screenwriters - Jimmy Sangster  

Make no mistake - The Horror of Dracula is a Hammer Films' "B" movie. It doesn't have the production values of Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version or even Tod Browning's 1931 version for that matter. But, it captures the mood of Bram Stoker's novel better than the other two.

It's immersive for starters. When you're visiting the castle, you know that this isn't some set. It's a real freaking castle. The water plume at the front entrance is a real water plume at the front entrance. Of course, it may not be a Transylvanian castle, but it's a castle.

The screenwrite also knew that there was enough scary stuff without having to resort to long, drawn out sequences to artificially crank up the suspense level. Within the first fifteen minutes, an unsuspecting vampire hunter is mercilessly dispatched. There's no fooling around with this Dracula. He's a point A to point B kind of guy. He's into survival and everyone else is just food. There's no attempt at gentility by this Vlad. He's superior, he knows it, and he's not longing for anyone to confide in.

He even treats the woman he loves as if she were an appendage of him. Dracula has never been captured as a more imposing figure.

Oh, if you take a poll named, "Who's your favorite Dracula?", people will select Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella, George Hamilton, and even Leslie Nielsen before they select Christopher Lee. Bela, maybe. Oldman was too campy. Maybe Langella was good, I haven't seen his movie. But for a pure, old fashioned sense of power that cannot be reasoned with, no one beats Christopher Lee's portrayal.

There are lots of cool effects in this movie. Like Lee walking up stairs. You can tell that Lee is taking the steps two at a time. But Dracula, his cape flowing behind him appears to be floating up the steps. There's no effort on display, just a smooth ascension.

When the actors speak in the cold mountain air, there's smoke coming from their mouths. This definitely makes all scenes outdoors more immersive, even though I'm sure it was uncomfortable for the actors.

But my favorite scene, the one that hooked me on this movie, comes early. Jonathan Harker, a vampire hunter protégé, is approached in the castle library by a scantily clad woman with a healthy "attitude" who pleads with the young Harker to save her from the sadistic Count. Harker agrees to help. I'm sure his mind is filled with wild imaginings regarding what the woman's clothing is holding back. It's a reasonable estimation. I was once that way once myself.

Then, after he agrees, she embraces Harker to thank him. What's a young man going to do? He lets her hold him close as he wrestles with his Puritan conscience. He is, after all, engaged to someone else. During his mental conflict, the woman bites his neck. He doesn't care. It's a great effect of sexual attraction coupled with bodily harm. He's obviously in the thrall of erotic pleasure. Now, it's common place to see this dichotomy in movies. But back then, it was ground breaking. That the moment is understated only serves to make it emphatic.

But that's not best part. That happens when an unsuspected library door opens and Dracula is behind it. He's not happy, but who is he angry with? The girl? Harker? Christopher Lee, in one of the great moments of defining Dracula's strength, effortlessly takes two steps, one of them across a long table, and arrives at Harker. The first time I saw that, I went, "Wow!". No special effect, no wires, just sheer emotion seemed to carry Lee. It's still impressive. Now this is Vlad the Impaler. This is someone you don't want to mess with.

He subdues the woman and, also effortlessly, carries her off and leaves Harker without a second glance. Harker is beneath his concern. Talk about driving home Dracula's arrogance and disdain. It's great.

Then comes the standard Dracula sucking blood, nearly killing a couple of people, and his destruction. But it's all fresh. There're woman who don't care if they die if they feel Dracula's passion. There's Dracula's calculated revenge based on humiliation.

There's also only one transfusion scene which is really lame. They pump out pints of blood from a donor and leave most of it in the rubber tubes rather than get it to the intended recipient. Still, lots of transfusions in the book slowed that down and at least there's only this scene in the movie.

And it does follow the book pretty closely. Dracula is an enigma and a symbol, not a guy who you become so understanding of that he becomes a sympathetic character. You want him dead. You don't want him to reform. You don't want to even think of him as being human or even once upon a time human.

That's why it's worth seeing at least once, to see a treatment that relies more on acting than special effects to get its points across.


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