When you watch a vampire movie from any era it’s hard not to think of the Universal Dracula films of the 1930s. Bela Lugosi’s eerie, sophisticated portrayal of the Transylvanian Count has become so iconic that it’s been ingrained in our collective consciousness as the blueprint for what a vampire film should be.
In 1958, Hammer Films took that Universal blueprint and sunk its fangs right in.
At first glance, Hammer’s “Horror of Dracula” looks a lot like its Universal ancestor– a dark, gothic period piece. But the resemblance, like Count Dracula’s humanity, is only skin deep.
Christopher Lee’s take on the immortal monster is physical, openly malevolent, and savage. Where Legosi hides the inner beast beneath the exotic exterior of a Transylvanian aristocrat, Lee is all fangs and blood from the get-go. Intimidation, rather than seduction, is his modus operandi. And he is intimidating. At about 6’4’’, Lee doesn’t need camera tricks to tower over everyone else on screen, including his nemesis Van Helsing.
And for a big guy, he can move. Lee’s tall caped frame bounds around at full tilt, lunging at people with fangs bared and eyes bloodshot, like a rabid wolf. If you’re used to the calm and creeping Dracula of the 1930s, brace yourself.
If there is a shortcoming in the Hammer Dracula, it’s his animal simplicity. We get no hint of the Count’s true feelings or inner motivations, no subtle inclination towards any remaining humanity – he simply is the ultimate evil force – nothing more, nothing less.
Lee would go on to play the Count in seven sequels to the Hammer original, and it’s not hard to see why he was in demand. There have been creepier, more dramatic, more creative portrayals over the years, but never has there been a Dracula so savagely and physically frightening, before or since.
It takes a legend to face a legend, and opposite Christopher Lee is Mr. Hammer himself, Peter Cushing. Like his undead nemesis, this Van Helsing is a bit of a departure from the Universal version. Far from a superstitious cleric fighting the forces of evil with folklore and wives tales, Cushing is cold, calculated, and scientific. Referring to vampirism as a contagion and comparing it to drug addiction, the brilliance of his role is how straight-faced he plays it. It’s a treat to see a classic horror role played so honestly and skillfully, and without a hint of parody.
It would be too easy to remember “Horror of Dracula” as Lee’s film, but it’s Cushing who carries it from end to end and makes it the horror mainstay that it is.
Michael Gough (who played Alfred from the first Batman films, for all you 90s kids) is Arthur, a man who remains skeptical of Dracula’s existence until his daughter is taken by the beast. He and the rest of the supporting cast all perform well, but they can’t help but fade into the background as Lee and Cushing effortlessly rule the screen with their chemistry.
Visually, the film is cold and creepy. Pale colours and heavy, layered clothing give it a chilled atmosphere. Look closely and you can see the actors’ breath in the cool air of Dracula’s castle.
Other simple special effects, like bloodshot contact lenses and that classic set of prosthetic fangs, are put to great use.
The soundtrack is a lot like Lee – primal, powerful, and uncomplicated. While perhaps not a standout on its own, it’s a score that works effective magic in a movie that never has any illusions of being more than what it is – pure gothic horror.
The sets are cavernous, cold and creepy, though Dracula’s castle in particular badly needs to be shown in more detail. We only see the same few rooms and entrance a few times, but never the entire fortress.
“Horror of Dracula” is an unchained, savage version of the time honoured classic tale, and it’s obvious the filmmakers were pushing the boundaries of horror on the silver screen here. Nowhere is that more evident than during the climatic final battle, when Van Helsing rips down a castle curtain, and the Count disintegrates in the light streaming through the window – screaming in agony as he crumbles to dust.
Hammer was forced to remove a few of these gruesome disintegration shots from the original theatrical cut to appease censors, and for years the fully realized ending was thought lost. But take heart Dracula fans, because after roughly 36 minutes of additional footage was discovered in Japan, Hammer released a 2013 Blur-ray that included some of the legendary death shots fans had been waiting for for more than 50 years. A real Hammer Horror Holy Grail.
See more of Colin’s Hammer Horror reviews on Hammer Time, our ongoing exploration of all things gothic and macabre from the classic UK movie studio Hammer Films.
About the author
Colin McNeil is a journalist living and working in Toronto, Canada. His film writing has been published in Canada’s largest daily newspaper, Metro News, and on his own film blog at BloodyFilm.com. Follow @McNeilColin