The Dracula Movies #3: ‘Horror of Dracula’ (1958)

19 Jun

DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA) (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Hammer studios are often said to have re-made all the horror classics that Universal had such success with in the 1930s and ‘40s. While this is true to an extent, the treatment of the material is far different. This, of course, is what gave Hammer Horror its appeal and was arguably its raison d’etre. Everything was in colour, and the horror was bloodier and gaudier, at least by the standards of the time; but what of Hammer’s Dracula in particular?

Finally, a Dracula you can be really scared of.

Well, I have to say Terence Fisher’s Hammer version of Dracula is a very economical one, running at less than 80 minutes. Jimmy Sangster’s faster paced and ‘punchier’ adaptation of the Stoker novel necessitates the loss of much of the original story’s material, most notably Renfield, the Carfax estate and Dracula’s actual journey to and from Romania. While it’s always good to see these events (as they are an integral part of the story), Hammer’s version allows for this by re-editing the story to manage without them. Whether it should is another argument to be had I suppose. One of the first changes I noticed, for example, was Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula was to work as a librarian (a pretence to hide the fact that he is actually there to destroy Dracula; something which doesn’t happen until the end of the film, of course.)

Sex, fangs and blood. A winning combination every time.

It’s also more sexual and (as mentioned) bloodier than previous versions, although the amount of blood on show is paltry compared to the litres even Hammer studios would throw at us throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.

One especially pleasing difference with this version are the performances. The cast are generally very good, and there are few of the mannered, wooden performances seen in Todd Browning’s 1931 version, which was still very much seen as the definitive version when this film was released. Peter Cushing is wonderfully sincere and engaging as Van Helsing and Michael Gough offers a stoic cynicism, melting to humble purveyor of justice. Carol Marsh was also very good, and her turn as the vampiric version of Lucy is perhaps a turning point for the Dracula adaptations, for at last we get to see fangs! Hisssssssss!!!

Not quite the Van Helsing from the novel, but Peter Cushing made the part his own.

Speaking of which, Christopher Lee is a magnetic presence throughout the film, despite his lesser screen time. I’m not convinced this is his strongest outing as the Count (seven more were to follow, including another version of the novel, which we’ll come to in time). He certainly presents a strong template for future performers though, and his initial appearance is quite suave with a disturbing animalistic side emerging soon afterwards. Lee doesn’t get many lines in this film, and I do think that was a shame, but despite my reservations about that, the performance does work very well for this version.

I don't think it'll go an extra round.

There’s also a nice atmosphere throughout, although not quite as oppressive as the 1931 version, and the production design is pleasing. Dracula’s castle is a case in point, looking rather cleaner and more style conscious than most of Dracula’s homes! The whole film is perhaps more accessible for a modern audience in comparison to Browning’s adaptation, and particularly Murnau’s. There is some nice original dialogue and some pleasing attempts at a scientific angle to the ‘vampire problem’ in Van Helsing’s discussions, which a savvier modern viewer will perhaps appreciate. The whole production is, as I said, quite economical and takes some huge liberties with the source material, to the extent where it often borders on being a completely original story. However, despite this (and perhaps because of its original take on the tale) it is quite engaging and does its best to entertain, even if it is not particularly scary. Hammer would present more thrilling spectacles than this, but it’s still a very worthy addition to the Dracula canon and while not my favourite Hammer, I do hold it in high esteem.


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