DraculaFest: Horror of Dracula

It’s fitting that, after the grand excesses of Coppola and crew, we arrive at a stripped-down, bare bones version of the vampire tale. Horror of Dracula (1958)–or just plain Dracula for the home audience in the UK–is the second film in the classic horror era of Hammer Films, a low-budget British production company. Following on the heels of the wildly successful The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer introduced the Prince of Darkness to Technicolor, with a touch of Grand Guignol that shocked audiences used to the black-and-white Universal reels of previous decades.

Let it bleed, now in Technicolor!

Let it bleed, now in Technicolor!

No room for star-crossed romance here–there are veins to open. Christopher Lee‘s Dracula, though vaguely aristocratic at first, has no use for skirt-chasing unless the owner is his blood type. Director Terence Fisher wastes no time getting into the bloodletting. At a scant 82 minutes, this version of the tale is the shortest yet. Shortcuts abound: Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), no longer a real estate agent but a vampire hunter in his own right, already knows the Count’s true nature and has accepted a position as castle librarian (!) in order to stake the bloodsucker himself. On finding Dracula’s resting place, he inexplicably bypasses him in order to stake his undead bride, allowing Dracula to wake up and put the bite on Harker–like a chump. Distraught over his friend’s death, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) delivers the bad news to Harker’s fiance, Mina (Melissa Stribling)–who, for some reason, is now the sister of Lucy’s fiance Arthur (Michael Gough, later Batman’s butler). None of those others really matter, though, as the rest of the film is devoted to a showdown between Cushing and Lee, the twin pillars of Hammer horror.

That’s about it, really. Van Helsing effects a surprisingly agile jump from the table onto the curtains and brings them down, turning his quarry into some type of lumpy Play-Doh creature with disturbing, human eyes. Then Dracula disperses to the wind without comment while credits roll. No muss, no fuss.

Lousy choice of decor, Count.

Lousy choice of decor, Count.

This version takes place in Germany for some reason, despite the Anglo names and accents. It’s supposedly 1885, despite the electric lights and ’50s fashions. I like to imagine the Hammer films taking place in their own reality, an alt-world where Saruman and Alfred Pennyworth and Grand Moff Tarkin tumble through karmic revenge cycles for eternity. Lee and Cushing, both veterans of the previous Frankenstein film and destined to carry the Hammer brand for over a decade, make accomplished rivals. Lee’s Dracula speaks only thirteen lines of dialogue, spending the rest of the film springing from doorways and snarling at potential victims. It’s a classic Count, the perfect delivery vessel for Technicolor blood spatters, and it’s a lot of fun. Cushing finds a rare opportunity to side with the good guys for a change. He’s just as much fun dispatching vampires as in his more scheming roles. Scattered attempts at humor would seem out of place if the whole thing weren’t so British: during the final chase, a border crossing guard repairs the gate arm that Dracula has busted through just in time for… I’m sure you can guess the rest.

Hammer occupied a unique niche in the history of horror, filling the gap between the waning Universal monsters and the resurgent Hollywood horror of the ’70s and ’80s. Hammer produced eight other Dracula films with varying degrees of success. Horror of Dracula is perhaps the purest of them all, the closest the studio came to the classic version of the Count. Some of the later films invite exploration, while some provide a good cure for insomnia. I’ll likely revisit the Hammer world at some point, because it’s a reality all its own and one well worth visiting.

Horror of Dracula earns 1.5 out of 2 fangs out, dripping in Technicolor blood.

Up next: None more black!