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HORROR OF DRACULA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh
Director: Terence Fisher
Audio: English mono
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Video: Color, widescreen
Studio: Warner Brothers
Features: Cast & crew page, trailer, mini-essay
Length: 81 minutes
Release Date: October 1, 2002

"It is established that victims consciously detest being dominated by vampirism but are unable to relinquish the practice, similar to addiction to drugs."

Film ***

How do you differentiate a true horror film buff from the rest of the typical movie-going Joes?  Just ask him if the word "Hammer" brings anything to mind.  Most folks will respond along the lines of nails and carpentry, but not a true horror fan.  His eyes will light up because "Hammer" to him implies Hammer Films, an independent British film studio which had established itself years ago as the quintessential House of Horrors.

In the 1950's, the Hammer studio was set on the goal of remaking the classic Universal horror films.  Starting with 1957's Curse of Frankenstein, the studio achieved its initial great commercial success, thanks particularly to the pairing of Peter Cushing opposite Christopher Lee.  For the following two decades, Hammer Films would churn out one horror film after another, many of which offered a fresh perspective on familiar horror film icons.  Perhaps no Hammer film is more famous, however, than Horror of Dracula (1958).

This film was the follow-up to Curse of Frankenstein and established the classic Hammer formula for success.  In other words, the story was spiced up with suggestive sexuality, voluptuous women, and a generous helping of blood, all of which only seem to grow proportionately in size with each progressive offering from the film studio.  The Hammer films were also shot in color, unlike the original Universal films.  By adding color to these tales, Hammer effectively re-introduced these classic horror stories to a new generation of young film-goers accustomed to color films.

Horror of Dracula featured the formidable Christopher Lee as Count Dracula.  Lee so completely embodied the role that afterwards, he was always subject to some degree of  type-casting.  Lee would ultimately portray Dracula ten times, seven of them in Hammer films!  Just as Bela Lugosi defined the vampire for the first half of the twentieth century, so Christopher Lee was the definitive vampire of the latter half of the century.  But whereas Lugosi's Dracula was exotic and refined, Lee's Dracula was pure aggression and menace.  There was also a palpable aura of sexual tension surrounding his multiple portrayals of Dracula that had only been vaguely implied in previous films about the vampire.  In fact, in Lee's first two incarnations as Count Dracula for Hammer, he more resembled a snarling, vicious animal than a dignified noble.

The plotline in Horror of Dracula should be generally familiar to anyone who has seen a typical Dracula film, although there are a few changes.  A young man, Jonathan Harker, has traveled to Transylvania to conduct business with a mysterious Count Dracula.  In this version, Harker is secretly a vampire slayer posing as the Count's new librarian.  Harker knows of the Count's true nature and plans to end his realm of terror once and for all!  Unfortunately for Harker, Dracula is aware of Harker's intentions but chooses not reveal himself initially.  So, for the first portion of the film, Harker and Dracula play a fish-and-bait game, both feigning ignorance at the other's intent.

During these early scenes, Harker happens across a mysterious woman in Dracula's castle.  Who is she?  As it turns out, she is Dracula's mate, and she has a secret agenda of her own.  When Harker unwisely intervenes, Dracula quickly drops all pretenses of gentlemanly manners.  Enraged, he becomes something of a ferocious animal, and his first unveiling as a true vampire is one of the film's famous images.  Dracula deposes of Harker (in typical vampire fashion) and then travels abroad to seek out Harker's fiancée, Lucy, as well.  Most versions of the Dracula tale have him falling in love with Lucy, but in this film, Dracula is perhaps motivated more by a lust for revenge than anything else.  Since Harker has stolen his mate, Dracula will return the favor and will initiate Lucy as his new mate.  Dracula becomes a pure hunter, seeking out his prey with razor-sharp precision and unwavering determination.

From hereafter, the vampire only makes fleeting appearances, and the focus of the film shifts instead to the character of Dr. Van Helsing, as played by Peter Cushing.  Cushing and Lee would appear as clashing opponents in several of the finest Hammer films, and Horror of Dracula is a classic example of their many cinematic confrontations together.  In this film, Van Helsing is Harker's comrade-in-arms.  Where Harker has failed, Van Helsing means to succeed - Count Dracula must be defeated!

Following Harker's demise, Van Helsing's investigations take him to the home of Arthur (Michael Gough) and Mina Holmwood, where he bears sad news of Harker's fate.  Arthur, who is Lucy's brother, accepts the news very gravely.  He initially turns away the doctor, but when mysterious events soon transpire concerning Lucy's failing health (and later, Mina's livelihood as well), Arthur begins to believe Van Helsing.  Side by side, the two men struggle to solve the mystery of Dracula's whereabouts and his involvement in the tragedies plaguing the Holmwood family.  The remainder of the film focuses upon the dangerous cat-and-mouse game played out by Van Helsing and Dracula.

This ultimately sets the stage for a grand showdown between Van Helsing and Count Dracula (you knew this was coming, right?).  It's a fine climactic fight, albeit a bit on the short side.  In fact, the film, clocking in at a lean 81 minutes, is a bit on the short side, too.  But, no matter - Horror of Dracula proved to be a smashing success for Hammer and only the first of many vampire movies for the company.

To be honest though, Horror of Dracula, while innovative in its day, is probably a bit dated today.  The film never seems quite as scary as it could have been nor, despite the great performances by Cushing and Lee, is it quite as tense as it could have been.  One problem is surely that the film often cuts away from Dracula's scenes too quickly.  It is of curious note that we never actually see Dracula biting anyone!  The result is a film in which more is implied than actually seen.  This is generally a good horror film technique for building suspense, but one suspects that perhaps British censors, being allergic to too much violence or sexuality, had something to do with this.  Nevertheless, viewed in the context of the 1950's, the film is still quite effective, although it will not induce many nightmares in today's jaded audiences.

The film's set design and the lighting scheme fare better but do not quite hit the mark, either.  Except for a few foggy scenes in a cemetery, the film is not very atmospheric.  Dracula's castle even resembles a set from an original series episode of Star Trek, when an away-team has beamed down to some exotic planet!  To be fair, the film's small budget probably did not allow for many lavished embellishments or fancy camera movements.  Under such conditions, the film is still decent but leaves one wishing for more, somehow.

In general, there really isn't any sense of real character development, either.  The film seems to rely more upon our pre-knowledge of these characters from the Universal films than from the actual script.  Most of the characters do the typically stupid things that people in horror films always do.  For instance, after a young girl is nearly attacked by a vampire, what does she do?  The following night, she wanders out alone in the dark again, encounters the same vampire again, and follows it again!  When another character has a chance to stake the helpless Count Dracula, what does he do?  He nonchalantly turns his back on the Count until the sun sets, after which point Dracula raises and then the party's over.  Horror films probably would not be very scary if people only ever acted rationally.

Expectedly, the acting is mostly B-rate.  The exceptions are Peter Cushing, who is reliably stoic, and Christopher Lee, who is magnificent as Dracula.  The performances of rest of the cast, however, are uneven.  Michael Gough, a solid character actor who has made a career of appearing in supernatural (or super-hero) films, comes across as rather dull and useless.  The women in the film, uniformly bland, exist mainly to provide pretty appetizers for the Count.  In general, Hammer women tend to come in either a dim-witted variety or a buxom variety (and sometimes, both together).  Feminists probably will not like Hammer films very much.

In this film, the women seem to actively seek out Dracula's attention!  They toss away the garlic and open their windows.  They often do nothing more interesting than lie around on their beds in nightgowns, anticipating Dracula's arrival.  There's no screaming or running away here.  There is only expectant submission, almost of a sexual nature.  But then again, if Hammer wished to spice up their horror films with pretty but vacuous women, why complain?  These films, in essence, were the precedent of today's slasher and teen horror flicks, although Hammer productions were generally classier.

In any event, Horror of Dracula still features Christopher Lee, and he is absolutely the best thing in this film.  He has great screen presence, and it is too bad that he doesn't utter a single word after the film's early scenes.  In his follow-up, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Lee doesn't even have a single line in the entire film!  It's a wasted opportunity to make use of that solid, baritone voice.

But despite its minor flaws (many inherent to the horror genre anyhow), Horror of Dracula has many fans and is undoubtedly a cult classic.  And like most cult films, it is able to transcend its weaknesses, thanks here to a rousing, star-making performance by Christopher Lee.  In the end, that is all that really matters.  Any actor who has made a career out of whupping the likes of James Bond, Gandalf the Grey, a whiny young Darth Vader, and even a unicorn or two is okay in my book!  See Horror of Dracula for Christopher Lee, and see for yourself why legions of horror fans consider him the penultimate Dracula.

Video ** 1/2

Horror of Dracula is presented in widescreen.  It has a decent image, but the source print could have used a little touch-up work. There are a small number of minor scratches and dust marks here and there.  The overall appearance of the film is also slightly on the soft side, but this appears to be related to the film stock.  Fortunately, the transfer is otherwise quite acceptable, and I did not notice any glaring compression artifacts.

The color cinematography is a little problematic.  It certainly looks pretty, without a doubt, but perhaps it is too cheerful.  That's right - Technicolor is fine for a Hollywood musical but seems out of place in a horror film.  Understandingly, color films generate more interest than black & white films and will certainly draw larger audiences, but it should be noted that Horror of Dracula is most effective during night scenes, when everything is mostly in shades of dark gray.  Shadows and darkness, silhouettes and flickering lights, these are the stuff of great horror films!  Only black & white photography can adequately capture these images effectively.  Thus, although Horror of Dracula has its moments, its power is somewhat diminished by the bright, glowing colors.  One favorable aspect of the Technicolor photography, however, is that it gives Hammer an opportunity to use flashy red colors (as in bloody) as often as possible.  Dracula's mouth frequently drips of fresh blood, and even the opening credits are highlighted in blood-red hues.  For a 1950's film, it is rather bloody (though very tame by today's standards).

Then again, Hammer made dozens of highly successful horror films with Technicolor, so what do I know?

Audio ** 1/2

Horror of Dracula is presented with its original mono track.  It is perfectly fine although it is a little shrill at times and lacks the dynamic punch that more modern soundtracks have.  The audio is clean of hiss or crackles, and while we can ponder what sorts of improvements a new 5.1 audio upgrade might have brought, I've heard enough botched jobs in this area to be satisfied with the decent mono audio as provided here.

Features *

Well, to start with, the back cover art on the DVD case has a misreferenced photograph from another Hammer film altogether, but that's no big deal.  It's just packaging.  Only the movie on the disc matters, even if there is little else on this DVD beside the film.

Frankly, the best "feature" is the vintage theme music (lifted directly from the first few minutes of the film itself) that plays during the menu screen.  The music has a great, classic-horror feel to it, and next to Christopher Lee, is probably my favorite thing about the film.  That doesn't say much for the actual extra features, I'm afraid.  There is a one-page cast & crew section.  There is an old trailer.  And then, there is a very brief essay listing Christopher Lee's six other Hammer appearances as Dracula.  That is all.

Considering the brevity of the film, Warner Brothers could easily have included a lot more extras for this cult film but sadly did not choose to do so.

Bonus Trivia - Michael Gough appeared in another highly-profiled series of films about another bat person.  He played Alfred, the butler in Warner Brothers' Batman films!

Summary:

Watch Christopher Lee's most famous role as Dracula in the Hammer cult classic Horror of Dracula!  No horror buff is a true horror buff until he has seen this film at least once!