Every now and again, a film hits the zeitgeist and becomes instantly successful, not having to take its time to become a hit. Dracula is one of those films.
1958’s Dracula, known as Horror of Dracula in the USA, is a violent drama by Terence Fisher. Christopher Lee is charming as the horrifying Count, and Peter Cushing is perfect as Professor Van Helsing. While occasionally over the top, the film is amusingly spooky.
Hammer reinvented Count Dracula for a new generation, replacing the cobwebbed castles and black and white scenes for daring colours, gorgeous cinematography, and luxurious sets. Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay gets away from the eerie clichés and leaps straight into the action without taking the time to give us a redundant description, which makes sense as Dracula is a well-known property at this point.
Interestingly, Cushing’s Professor Van Helsing, a vampire hunter, seems to be a decent version of Baron Frankenstein. The former’s fixation on destroying the vampires is as strong as Baron’s quest to create life.
But, it is Lee’s performance that most people take away from the film. His Dracula is stand-offish, alluring, and robust. A perfect combination for the audience, who both dread and appreciate him.
The Hammer film is only loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel and is a fast-paced bloodfest. Many of the changes from the book happen to help move the plot along; relationships are altered, events are shuffled out of order, and locations moved to facilitate the short 82 minute run-time.
While The Curse of Frankenstein started the technicolour revolution, Dracula made sure that it became synonymous with Hammer productions and made Hammer a strong force over the next twenty years. Audiences no longer wanted to see Bela Lugosi and bats on a string, so Hammer decided to bring the story into modern times. Extravagant and colourful images brought a levelheadedness to the piece and Dracula became the next step from its black and white predecessors.
The audience had never seen the titular vampire like this and the film reinvented the horror genre forever. Dracula had already gone through several adaptions but never in a literal way. The novel includes many luxurious scenes, such as the ocean voyage and the vast English countryside, which was outside of many film’s budgets. Another thing that makes adapting the novel to film difficult is the many points of view the tale is told from. Dracula’s time in England is revealed to the reader through diary entries and testimonies of many people as each chapter changes its point of view. However, Lee’s Dracula manages to capture some of the essence of Stoker’s Dracula in his performance.
Stoker’s Dracula is an exciting but dreadful monster, and that is what you get with Lee. While we still see the cultured aristocrat that started with Lugosi’s Dracula (especially in the early scenes when Count Dracula plays the delightful host to Jonathan Harker), it is clear that it is a smokescreen to hide the evil under the surface. As well as an iconic Dracula, we also get a unique Van Helsing. Cushing is almost a Bond-like hero, smart enough to think on his feet, like using a candlestick to create a cross.
Every time you see Van Helsing, we know he is the most intelligent man in the room, and we feel his irritation whenever he is questioned. It is something that you see in Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles adaption, as well.
What was once deemed as shocking has lessened over time, and sex and violence have become standard vampire tropes. In 1958 it was truly incredible that the female characters, in their plunging nightgowns, covered enough to make sure that the film was not banned. But it is the sexiness of Lee’s physical appearance and allure that is the most vital part and, at least in this film, creates one of Dracula’s best versions.
Like many older films, Dracula had a restoration in 2007 by the BFI to be re-released in UK Cinemas. In 2012, Hammer gave us another version by adding additional shots in its Japanese release. These include scenes that had been deemed controversial at the time of the original 1958 release, such as a more extended shot of Lee biting Melissa Stribling and Dracula’s extended death scene, which shows him pulling rotting flesh from his face.
These scenes are of a lower quality than the rest of the film and can be a jarring experience. However, in any version, the film plays upon the sexual connotations of Dracula’s assault on defenceless females, who in turn love the experience of being entranced by the avaricious vampire. Dracula is now overtly seductive and physically healthy in his silent assaults, giving the overall experience a sadomasochistic air.
Dracula is one of Hammer’s most essential films and it gives us one of the most iconic roles in the teaming of Cushing and Lee. It’s a groundbreaking and entertaining film and is still worth a watch, whether it’s for the first or the hundredth time.
By: Beverley Price
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