Hammer Horror Series: Horror of Dracula (1958)
by Steve Habrat
Shortly after unleashing their bloody interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hammer Studios decided to tackle Frankenstein’s partner in crime—Dracula. While The Curse of Frankenstein is considered the film that introduced Hammer Studios to the world, Horror of Dracula is considered one of their finest films in their vault. Once again starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Horror of Dracula is a sexed up vision of the vampire, complete with plenty of cleavage to satisfy the male viewers. While adding a heavy layer of sexuality and allowing plenty of blood to flow in striking Technicolor, director Terence Fisher has been credited for laying the groundwork for the modern vampire film. It features a suave Lee as Dracula preying upon voluptuous women who all shriek in orgasmic terror as the legendary bloodsucker drains them of blood. There is plenty of seduction in Horror of Dracula, something that was only vaguely hinted upon in the Tod Browning’s Universal classic Dracula. Much like The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula is very low budget, taking place primarily on two or three sets, which may have been left over from their previous offering, but there is plenty of misty atmosphere that would make Universal jealous. And then there is Lee as Dracula, who some argue gives the definitive performance as the iconic vampire.
Horror of Dracula begins with Jonathan Harker (Played by John Van Eyssen) arriving at Count Dracula’s (Played by Christopher Lee) castle, posing as a librarian. As he is taken into the gothic walls, a beautiful woman who is begging for help approaches Jonathan but is scared off by Dracula as he welcomes his guest. Dracula takes Jonathan to his room where it is revealed that Jonathan isn’t a librarian at all, but there to put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror. The next day, Jonathan is attacked by the same woman and bitten on the neck. Just as the woman is about to kill Jonathan, Dracula interrupts the attack and fights the girl off. Jonathan passes out from the attack and awakens the next day with strange marks on his neck. He slips down to the dungeon where he discovers Dracula and the woman in their coffins. Jonathan quickly dispatches the woman but Dracula wakes up and kills him. Shortly after the confrontation, Professor Van Helsing (Played by Peter Cushing) arrives at the castle looking for Jonathan and as he searches, he finds both the body of Jonathan and his diary. Van Helsing then sets out to deliver news of Jonathan’s death to his fiancé, Lucy (Played by Carol Marsh) and her brother, Arthur (Played by Michael Gough). But just as Van Helsing arrives to deliver the news, Dracula begins tormenting Lucy and Arthur.
Fisher’s Horror of Dracula doesn’t hesitate to jump right in to the action. There is no extended sequence of Jonathan traveling to Dracula’s gothic castle or whispers from the terrified villagers about the undead claiming the night. Right from the beginning, we learn that this Dracula is nastier and bloodier than anything we have seen before. Lee’s Dracula can be a gentleman one minute and the next; he is a red-eyed beast looking to tear the throat out of anyone who dares cross him. The first glimpse we get of the snarling Dracula certainly does shake the viewer up and it could very well be the most frightening scene of the entire film. The second half of the film finds Dracula largely absent from all the action and the main characters debating how to keep Dracula away from Lucy and Arthur’s wife, Mina (Played by Melissa Stribling). Many may deem this boring, especially since the middle section finds the characters pacing ornate dens while discussing vampire lore rather than tending to spurting arties. But it is these scenes that build the anticipation for Dracula’s return and in a way, make us fear him all the more. He could be anywhere, at any time, and we have no idea when he will choose to strike next.
Then there is the fantastic Cushing as Van Helsing, a mere mortal who resorts to tricks to fight the relentless vampire. It is difficult not to admire the way Cushing approaches each terrifying situation he encounters, as he is always cool, calm, and collected. Cushing has great chemistry with Gough, who is probably best remembered for his work as Alfred in Tim Burton’s 1989 gothic superhero film Batman. Cushing and Gough team up for a final showdown with Dracula that I promise will satisfy in every way imaginable. It is morbid and action packed but forced to remain restrained due to Hammer’s limited budget. We also can’t forget about the ladies, who also get their chance to really spook us throughout the course of the film. Marsh is the standout as Lucy, who nabs another one of the film’s more effective spooks. As a young girl wanders the woods, she is coaxed further in by the terrifying apparition of Lucy, who reveals a full set of razor sharp fangs to the young girl. It is another one of those scenes that catapult Horror of Dracula to the top of the list of horror movies perfect for Halloween night. Stribling gets a hair-raising encounter with the king vampire as he enters her bedroom and slowly makes his way in for the bite.
While Horror of Dracula may have plenty of terrifying moments to go around, the film has some surprising moments of humor, which does alleviate some of the tension. Yet when Fischer wants to scare the living hell out of you, he does it with a vengeance. Behold the scene where Gough and Cushing wander a misty tomb and come face to face with the undead Lucy. The final showdown in Dracula’s castle is also pretty gripping as a rattled Van Helsing starts to loose control against the demonic force he is facing. The film ends with some rickety special effects that have not aged well but are still appropriately disturbing. Incredibly influential and scary, Horror of Dracula is certainly one of the finest examples of vampires at their most sinister. The film deserves to stand alongside classics like 1922 silent German Expressionist nightmare Nosferatu, the legendary 1931 Universal/Lugosi offering, and Werner Herzog’s surreal 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre. Overall, Horror of Dracula is a small but scrappy homerun for Hammer Studios. You may find yourself hanging garlic on your door and sleeping with a stake and crucifix next to your bed. Make it a double feature with The Curse of Frankenstein.
Horror of Dracula is available on DVD.