October 26, 2012 by abbyo
Now we’re getting to the good stuff.
After two weeks of writing about later-period Hammer Films releases that push the limits of camp, 1958’s “Horror of Dracula” is like a breath of fresh air (or, if you will, a transfusion of fresh blood. Horror metaphors!). In all the ways that “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb” disappoints, and “Countess Dracula” unintentionally lampoons, “Horror of Dracula,” Hammer’s first Dracula movie, delights and impresses. It may not pack in non-stop thrills, but for the time, the film does a pretty good job of pushing the envelope, and showing an early version of the hallmarks that would eventually distinguish the Hammer brand. That is: blood and special effects.
The story is pretty basic: Dracula’s going on a killing spree. Doctor Abraham Van Helsing is determined to stop him. Van Helsing tracks him down, they fight, Dracula dies. But there’s a bit more to it than that. What would otherwise be a plain, uninteresting story is pepped up by some interesting ideas on the part of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (who developed the idea of “fang bangers” decades before “True Blood” coined the term), and wonderfully dedicated performances on the part of the two leads: Christopher Lee (Dracula) and Peter Cushing (Van Helsing). Cushing and Lee had already appeared in “The Curse of Frankenstein,” and would go on to lend their talents to several more Hammer pictures.
Sangster’s script introduces the idea of Dracula’s victims as junkies. After he first attacks them, they’re hooked. The men and women from whom he drinks are terrified by him, but at the same time, they want to feel him drink from them again. It’s illustrated to a creepily on-the-nose degree by Lucy, one of Dracula’s victims. When Van Helsing realizes she’s being visited by the vampire, he instructs that the windows be locked, and garlic be placed in the room. Lucy’s reaction is like that of an addict going through withdrawal. She’s sweaty, unable to sleep or sit still, and has trouble breathing, forcing the housekeeper to open up the windows, letting the bloodsucking menace back in to turn Lucy into one of the undead. It’s an interesting scene, especially in watching Lucy’s reaction as Dracula approaches. She’s equally terrified and turned on.
Dracula himself is also an interesting figure. He has maybe five lines in the whole film. For the rest of the movie, Lee just menaces quietly and effectively. The way he stands, covered by a black cape, head slightly lowered, and the way he draws blood from his (mostly female) victims is creepily indicative of a sexual predator. Lee doesn’t even need to speak to make Dracula creepy. All he has to do is glower.
As Van Helsing, Cushing also shows total dedication to what is, ultimately, kind of a silly role. In this version of “Dracula,” Van Helsing is easily the world’s least effective vampire hunter. Everyone he works to protect in the film gets killed. He always manages to be in the wrong part of the house when Dracula attacks, and seems more interested in theoretical work than actually killing the creature. Still, when it does come to it, Cushing gets wonderfully physical with the part, as illustrated in the movie’s final confrontation between the two characters:
You may also notice from that scene some chillingly effective decay action on Dracula. It’s a really rather impressive special effect! Watching a body turn to ash before your very eyes is both cool and freaky. There’s something about the “real” look of old-school special effects that makes them seem tangible, and also makes you want to applaud the filmmakers for their ingenuity. Between that and the caliber of the performances, the last 10 minutes of “Horror of Dracula” are worth waiting for—not that an hour and twenty minutes is much of a wait.
“Horror of Dracula” is a meat-and-potatoes horror movie. It’s got a story stripped down to its bare essentials, a good atmosphere of eeriness with no cheap-shot scares, and just enough blood to satisfy horror fans looking for some gore. By today’s standards, the movie is relatively tame. But it’s an interesting movie to watch and think about in historical context, both in terms of Hammer’s history, and the history of the genre itself. “Horror of Dracula” is just good old-fashioned spooky, perfect for viewers seeking a good Halloween flick, but aren’t into edgier fare.
-At one point in the movie, Van Helsing presses a silver cross to a vampire’s head and burns an imprint onto her forehead. That’s a trick that gets re-used in the 80s cult classic “Fright Night.” It’s always fun to see filmmakers acknowledge their sources.
–Of course, while both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are Hammer Films legends, they’re probably both more famous in popular culture for completely unrelated roles. Cushing is better known as Grand Moff Tarkin from the Star Wars films, and Lee, well…
-On that score, it’s worth noting that Peter Cushing was, by many accounts, a very nice man. Here’s Mark Gatiss with a fitting memorial: