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.