Horror of Dracula

Movie Information

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Horror of Dracula Thursday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Terence Fisher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen
Rated: NR

It is entirely coincidental that Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958) is being shown the day before Hammer Pictures returns to the realm of big-screen horror with the release of Let Me In. Nevertheless, the 52-year-old film may prove an interesting comparison to this latest effort. Horror of Dracula is the second of the Hammer horrors—it follows Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957)—and it may be said to be the movie that cemented Hammer’s status as the “house of horror.” It certainly sealed Christopher Lee’s fate as the iconic Count Dracula of his era. The film’s impact in 1958 may be a little hard to understand today, but it remains a handsome, entertaining and reasonably exciting film. At the time, it was unlike anything horror fans had seen.

Generally speaking, the Hammer films were not remakes of the 1930s and ‘40s Universal horrors, though Fisher’s The Mummy (1959) borrowed liberally from The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), and Don Sharp’s The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) reworked elements from The Black Cat (1934). Rather, the films were new takes on the literary sources—done in a new style. Hammer’s films had color, blood and bosoms. Of course, the blood looked for all the world like red paint and the bosoms, while prominent, were behind nightgowns that appeared to offer push-up bras. The Hammer vampires had fangs, too, which was a novelty. The funny thing is that these elements that made them so comparatively edgy then actually seem to make them feel more quaint than their older Universal counterparts now. That, however, has a certain charm.

I’ve never been a huge admirer of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, but then I’m a 100-percent Lugosiphile, so that’s hardly surprising. I’ve heard all the arguments about him being Byronic and sexy, but I don’t get them. I hate the way he delivers his “I am Dracula” speech at the beginning of Horror—like he can’t wait to be done with it. Granted, Draculas tend to reflect their eras. Lugosi’s Dracula was Valentino-esque. Frank Langella’s blow-dried version from the late 1970s would have been comfortable on the floor of a disco. But I’ve never understood who or what Lee was supposed to represent—though he certainly springs to life when he gets animalistic. But he had to be doing something right, because he’s second only to Lugosi in being identified with the character—and this from a series of movies in which he says very little (sometimes nothing) and tends to be offscreen a lot of the time.

It’s largely pointless to compare Horror of Dracula with the old Universal Dracula. The aims of the two films are entirely different. Horror isn’t, as is often claimed, more faithful to the novel, except on the level of a Classics Illustrated comic book. That, however, does make it a more exciting work—on a simple level—because it boils things down to key scenes. And keeping things moving is in the film’s best interest. Its blood-and-thunder climax is so effective that you don’t spend much time wondering how exactly we get to Castle Dracula in the space of one night.

Horror of Dracula is a film that manages to deserve its classic status while not really being a great film in its own right. (Yes, the same argument has been made about the Lugosi version.) Terence Fisher’s direction helps the film attain a certain atmosphere—the graveyard scene where Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) catches up with Lucy (Carol Marsh) is very fine in its fairy-tale ambience—but it can’t keep the movie from feeling a little rushed. In the end, though, the film is colorful, entertaining, occasionally exciting and sometimes a little silly—and that makes for a nice evening of spook show.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

11 thoughts on “Horror of Dracula

  1. Ken Hanke

    I’ll try and line up a DVD viewing of this within a few hours of your screening.

    You could still make it if you got on a plane now, I think…

  2. twinkie223

    ‘Let Me In’ is a remake of the Norwegian vampire film ‘Let the Right One In’ (2008). Excellent horror film, not too much gore, minimalistic and strange. See it if you can.

  3. Dionysis

    “The aims of the two films are entirely different. Horror isn’t, as is often claimed, more faithful to the novel…”

    Two other versions claim to be “faithful to the novel” as well, Jesus (‘Jesse’) Franco’s version of Count Dracula and the BBC production of the same name. Franco’s version, which I finally saw for the first time recently, was a bit closer to the novel, but was (IMO) a really lousy movie. I felt like I was just off the stage behind the cameras watching a semi-amateur production being made. And Christopher Lee played the title role (he claimed this was his ‘favorite’ Dracula film, but I don’t see why). The other, the BBC production with Louis Jordan (odd casting choice but he did a fine job) was probably the closest to the novel, and a really good version of the classic tale.

  4. To be honest, I think both this and the Universal DRACULA improve on the novel immensely. They both realise that Van Helsing is a far more interesting protagonist than Johnathon Harker or the three suitors and beef his role up considerably.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Let Me In’ is a remake of the Norwegian vampire film ‘Let the Right One In’ (2008). Excellent horror film, not too much gore, minimalistic and strange. See it if you can.

    All well and good, but I’m not sure how it relates to a screening of Horror of Dracula.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Two other versions claim to be “faithful to the novel” as well, Jesus (‘Jesse’) Franco’s version of Count Dracula and the BBC production of the same name.

    I don’t know that Hammer themselves ever declared faithfulness, but the claim has been made by others for it. Sr. Franco, on the other hand, made extravagant claims of fidelity.

  7. Ken Hanke

    To be honest, I think both this and the Universal DRACULA improve on the novel immensely. They both realise that Van Helsing is a far more interesting protagonist than Johnathon Harker or the three suitors and beef his role up considerably.

    I wouldn’t dispute that, though Universal was essentially following the lead of the 1927 stage play, which was actually a starring vehicle for the play’s co-author, Hamilton Deane, who played Van Helsing.

  8. twinkie223

    Mr. Hanke, you referenced the release of ‘Let Me In’ as a segue into your review of ‘Horror of Dracula.’ ‘Let Me in’ is the American version of ‘Let the Right One In’ as ‘Horror of Dracula’ was Hammer’s version of the original Dracula film. That’s how my comment about the origin of ‘Let Me In’ relates to your discussion of remakes and variations of the genre. All apologies.

  9. Ken Hanke

    That’s how my comment about the origin of ‘Let Me In’ relates to your discussion of remakes and variations of the genre. All apologies.

    No need to apologize. I was just perplexed, I guess, because the Let the Right One In and Let Me In business was already being discussed in the “Weekly Reeler” and its comment section.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Nice crowd and nice response to Horror of Dracula last night. If you only know these movies from TV, you really ought to give them a shot with an audience. It makes a very significant differene.

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