- Vancouver, British Columbia - While it can be argued that the most iconic portrayal of Count Dracula is Bella Lugosi's 1931 performance, it was Christopher Lee who played Dracula the most amount of times. In the 1950s, a British production company called Hammer Films came to remake many of the classic horror films which had a long run in the 1930s and 1940s. They started in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, which was a box office success, so they sought to not only make a sequel, but capitalize on other popular monsters that served Universal Pictures so well a couple of decades before. Their logical choice of course was Count Dracula. The new version was called Dracula in its native Britain, but to avoid confusion with the Universal version, they called it Horror of Dracula in North America.
The film follows the novel by Bram Stoker, but takes a number of creative liberties. It first follows Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen), who travels to Count Dracula's castle saying he wishes to become Dracula's book keeper, but actually knows that the Count is really a vampire and intends to destroy him. Harker, however, is not successful and is killed and turned into a vampire himself. Not long after that, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) journeys to find Harker, but finds him as a vampire. He puts his friend's soul to rest, but is unable to find Dracula. He returns home to bring word of Jonathan's death to his fiancée, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh). However, Lucy has fallen ill and now possesses two very familiar looking marks on her neck.
Horror of Dracula was considered to be quite cutting edge for the time and a terrifying update to the classic story. By today's standards, it's pretty tame. That's fine by me; I don't care for most of today's horror films. In fact, the more versions I watch of it, the more I enjoy the Dracula story. I've seen most of the classic adaptations and I really enjoy seeing the different ways that the story has been told. While the classic 1931 version had a more chilling atmosphere, this Hammer horror version is one of the most fluently told. I never felt like at any point I needed clarification as to what was happening. This isn't entirely the fault of the older versions. When Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931) came out, cinema was still a developing art form and there were kinks that still needed to be ironed out as far as communicating with the audience went. By the late 1950s, many of those problems had been addressed.
Christopher Lee plays a very different Dracula compared to the more iconic Bella Lugosi portrayal. He starts off as a very well spoken gentleman, but after a point, he loses it and suddenly he has no more dialogue in the film. It is as if he became nothing more than a monster. This isn't completely accurate though, as Dracula has a very well calculated plan which he carries through without a word. His power and charisma are present when they need to be, but he is a vicious monster when the time calls for that also.
Peter Cushing plays a smart and sophisticated Van Helsing who is well educated in how to battle and defeat vampires. He gives the character a consistent sense of urgency, reminding us how crucial it is that Dracula be destroyed. Helsing truly believes that the vampire is pure evil, but manages to keep a cool head for most of the film.
Vampire lore has always been about good vs. evil and this version is one of the more clear depictions of that. Like I mentioned before, Lee plays Dracula to be sinister, but a soulless killer, who not only seeks revenge for the death of his slave/bride/woman, but carries it far beyond that so that he seeks to destroy the whole family and possibly beyond that. But what is encouraging about this movie, and so many other depictions of vampires, is that they are ultimately helpless against true good. There is so much religious symbolism surrounding the cross and how it actually renders vampires helpless. This is used in a different way in the film Nosferatu, but I'll discuss that a bit more when I review that film next week.
Horror of Dracula brought the classic horror villain into a whole new generation. The sequels would of course get made and carry on through the 1960s and 1970s, but they stopped being influenced by the novel. This was the first colour Dracula telling and would help make both Cushing and Lee into horror movie icons. While not many think of this version when they first hear the name Dracula, you can see how this film influenced the popular image of the story and character. I recommend it to classic horror fans.
Rating: 3.5/5 Sour Grapes