Movie Review: Dracula (1958)a.k.a. Horror of DraculaDracula (1958)Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring PeterCushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough,Melissa Stribbling, Carol Marsh, John VanEyssen.Cross-posted to Black Gate.October films come in two flavors for me:Universal and Hammer. I have affection foralmost any Gothic horror films these studiosproduced during their Golden Ages (1930sand „40s for Universal, 1950s and „60s forHammer), even the lesser entries. Thestudios have such opposite visual approaches to similar material—the black-and-white shadowsof Universal, the rococo lurid colors of Hammer—that they create a perfect Yin and Yang forHalloween, a Ghastly Story for Whatever Suits Your October Mood.And what suits my mood best, most of the time? Hammer‟s 1958 Dracula, released in the U.S.asHorror of Dracula. This isn‟t my top-pick of the Hammer canon—I lean toward two 1968 filmsfor that honor, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Devil Rides Out—but it is the film I turnto more than any other when the calendar changes into the deep orange and serge hues of theGreatest Month.Dracula „58 is my favorite version of the Dracula story, and perhaps myfavoritevampireanything—with the possible exception of Matheson‟s novel I Am Legend. It hasflaws, but scoffs at me for even thinking that they exist. It is so desperately alive, so explodingwith its own entertainment value, and so rich in execution that it never fails to be “exactly what Iwanted to watch tonight.” I can say that about few films, even objectively better films.Just to caution you, because a comment suggested it, I will now talk extensively aboutthe wholefilm, so if you recoil from “spoilers,” be warned. However, I think this is a spoiler-prooffilm. You can know the whole story of the film beforehand and still receive the full effect. This isthe genius of a great film.Dracula is the cornerstone of the Hammer Film Productions legend, and an icon of the Anglo-Horror revival that seized the 1960s. Hammer had already entered the field of horror with theirscience-fiction “Quatermass” films, the intriguing spiritual spin-off X the Unknown, and theunusual creature-search adventure The Abominable Snowman. In 1957, the studio made theirfirst color period horror movie, The Curse of Frankenstein, which whirled far away from bothstandard source materials—Mary Shelley‟s novel and the 1931 James Whale film starring BorisKarloff—to represent an accidental manifesto of the new terror. It also introduced the horror-watching world to the double-team of Peter Cushing (Doctor) and Christopher Lee (Monster).
But The Curse of Frankenstein is a very goodfilm, while the follow-up of Dracula is a superb one. As Hammer prepared to film a sequel to theirFrankenstein success, The Revenge of Frankenstein, they also set in motion the filming of theother famous Gothic movie monster from Universal‟s stable. The filmmakers involved in TheCurse of Frankenstein all moved over to the new film: director Terence Fisher, screenwriterJimmy Sangster, producer Anthony Hinds, production designer Bernard Robinson, composerJames Bernard, cinematographer Jack Asher, editor James Needs, and stars Peter Cushing(Doctor) and Christopher Lee (Monster). The result was a fresh synthesis that sealed the stylethat Hammer would use through the next decade.Dracula had a tricky time getting funding. Universal-International originally was cold to theproduction (the studio was outwardly hostile toward The Curse of Frankenstein and made it clearthey would pursue legal action if the film‟s monster resembled the famous Jack Pierce make-updesign of their Frankenstein Monster), but finally chipped in for the international rights. The restof the money came from the National Film Finance Council. The massive successofDracula would change Universal‟s mind about Hammer doing versions of movie monster theyhad made famous, and with next year‟s The Mummy, Universal-International entered anagreement with Hammer to give them full access to their catalog. The Mummy then went on tomake even more money than Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula.With the distance of over half a century, it is difficult for modern audiences to understand howshocking and powerful Hammer‟s Dracula was when it reached theaters. The Vampire King isincredibly physical and violent, leaping over tables, bestially snarling, hurling people acrossrooms, drooling fire engine-red blood from his fangs. His adversaries don‟t hold back, either: thecamera doesn‟t flinch from showing stakes driven into chests, squirting blood, while anenthusiastic Van Helsing wields the hammer. Much of this comes from director Terence Fisher,who always kept his films keyed on movement and grand theatricality. Fisher delivered action-oriented finales, and the closing moments of Dracula „58 were filled with so much energy andagony that audiences were stunned. I still think the ending of Dracula is one the best horror-finales ever lensed: Dracula is not destroyed, he is violently and harshly annihilated after athundering fight and chase build-up.Looking at Dracula „58 in the history of adaptations of Bram Stoker‟s novel presents a weirdconfluence of elements and new ideas. A combination of budgetary concerns and the desire todo something different made interesting changes to Stoker‟s novel and popular conceptions fromthe Bela Lugosi film of 1931. There are superficial differences, such as Dracula‟s inability tochange into animal form (“That‟s a common fallacy,” Van Helsing announces, thus saving about£5,000 in one sentence) but many that make significant changes in the whole subtext of thestory.
First, Dracula (Christopher Lee) is no longerthe initial aggressor or the active mover of the story. It‟s Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) who putsevents into motion and makes the first move against the Count. Bram Stoker‟s Count planned toinvade England with an army of coffins and called Jonathan Harker to his castle to make thearrangements. But in Jimmy Sangster‟s script, Dracula is quite willing to remain in his fortresswith his vampire bride (Valerie Gaunt) and feed off the local population, and let the rest of theworld mind its own business. But Van Helsing sends Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) to thecastle to destroy Dracula on the excuse that he will catalog the Count‟s library. When Harker (anidiot, as always) screws up the assignment and only manages to kill Dracula‟s bride beforeDracula kills him, the Count decides to get his revenge—and a new bride—and seeks outJonathan‟s fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh) and then Lucy‟s sister-in-law Mina (Melissa Stribbling).Although never stated, I think that Dracula is also hunting to find someone to really index hislibrary. Somebody who won‟t kill his live-in girlfriend. Freelance librarians these days, I tell you.Second, Dracula appears to be monogamous. Only one vampire bride lives in his castle. Budget,I‟m assuming, but it also accents Dracula‟s anger at Van Helsing and Co. for coming along andinterfering with his life. Hammer films are known for their relatively brazen sexuality,and Draculahas a quite a few heaving bosoms waiting in anticipation of Dracula‟s embrace (justwatch the way young Lucy lays herself out like a girl on her wedding night, awaiting herhandsome groom), but it is interesting that the Vampire King here only focuses on one victim at atime, and moves on to the next whenever his opponents kill the current one.Third, Dracula is no longer a foreign menace, but a domestic one. The budget curtailed thecross-continental action of the novel. The story instead occurs entirely in a fictionalized Germancountry (a.k.a. “Hammerland”) where Van Helsing has established headquarters in Carlstadt, aremarkably Anglo city that is only a carriage-ride away from Dracula‟s haunt in Klausenberg (theGerman name for Cluj, a Romanian city, but since this is a fantasy-geography there‟s no reasonto believe that it really is Cluj, and it seems far too small).Fourth, and perhaps most important, is the significant changes that Sangster‟s script makes tothe character of Van Helsing.(Dracula‟s motivations are different from the character in the novel,but he still seems closer to the vicious tyrant of the book than the figure pioneered on stage andthen in the 1931 movie.) Stoker‟s Van Helsing is an archetype of the Wise Mentor figure, a Merlingiving advice to the young knights of the Round Table in their quest to slay the dragon. Sangsterre-writes Van Helsingas a younger man, the active hero of the story who has hardly anycompanions at all except the reluctant Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough, later of Alfred-the-Butler Batman fame), who is about the same age as Van Helsing. Van Helsingdoesn‟t stumbleupon Dracula‟s existence and take up the task of eliminating him as in the book; his whole life isfocused on the eradication of the plague of the undead, with Dracula his primary target. Thechanges to Van Helsing‟s character are even more pronounced in Peter Cushing‟s performance,which I will discuss in more detail later.
After Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee is theactor most associated with the Vampire King, and his performance benefits from having nothingto do with the evening clothing-attired version that Lugosi made famous. Lee‟s Count Dracula isdressed in simple, all-consuming black, with a cape hiding him from head to foot. He exudes themanners of a cruel tyrant of the Middle Ages, no longer polite or filled with social grace, butbrimming with the steel arrogance that he simply must be obeyed.The Christopher Lee Count Dracula is foremost a physical creature. Lee has often said that hesought to make Dracula “more human,” and I do not think he means “sympathetic.” Even thoughDracula is on a quest to get revenge for his bride‟s staking, he‟s hardly a figure of pathos. Hedidn‟t love the vampire woman that Harker killed; he owned her as any deserving tyrantwouldown his trophy beauty, and now he wants beautiful property to replace her. What I believeLee means about a “human” Dracula is a flesh-and-blood creature that is vitally alive, eventhough it is technically undead. This Dracula hurtles across the screen, running, leaping, andthrottling. It must have stunned audiences in 1958 when Dracula made his sudden secondappearance, after a scene of cold commonplace hospitality to Harker, as a blood-drooling red-eyed monster. It still has shock power today.But as great and career-making a role as Dracula was for Christopher Lee, at the end of the filmit is Peter Cushing‟s Van Helsing who leaves viewers amazed. I‟ve seen Dracula „58 as manytimes as I‟ve seen any of my favorite movies, and sometimes I prefer some parts of it more thanothers, and sometimes I find myself critical of sections that I wasn‟t critical of the last time andeven rejoicing in sections I was criticizing the time before. I think this is true of any movie that welove with rough honesty, something different than childhood idolization. (Although childhoodidolization is itself wonderful; joy should never be denied.) However, what always is and willalways be a pure joy in Dracula „58 for me is Peter Cushing as the finest and most marvelousembodiment of a vampire hunter. Peter Cushing is One of My Favorite People.Seeing him in anything, his face, his expressions, his voice tones, his command of all aroundhim, is a wonder. I can never have enough of Peter Cushing, even when he‟s doing lesser work(yes, he was capable of it, although it seems impossible when I write it down). That he is deadand there is a terminal point to his work is a painful thought, but no one lives forever. Not evenDracula, and that‟s because Peter Cushing‟s Van Helsing is there to put an end to him.Dracula „58 is really Van Helsing—much more so than a certain horrible film of the same name,
which is nominally about a Dr. Van Helsing. In Terence Fisher‟s film, it is Van Helsing‟s world,and Dracula is only (un)living in it . . . and on borrowed time. If Dracula could see with clear eyesthe man he is up against, he would crawl back to his castle, bolt all the doors, and lie in his coffinuntil he starved to death from blood deprivation. Because there is no way this semi-mad, fullybrilliant, thoroughly ambitious Dr. Van Helsing can ever be beaten. He is a straddling colossusbetween science and the supernatural, but dismissive of the conventional thinking on both, anddriven with a puritanical haughtiness that is ultimately not puritanical at all, but bloodthirsty. He‟salmost a villain in his ruthlessness, and if he were not on our side opposing the evil undead, I‟msure he would have enslaved every single one of us already and killed all the heroes trying tostop him.The above paragraph is my way of describing Peter Cushing‟s performance in Dracula. I findmyself lost trying to write about it in standard film review language. Peter Cushing‟s Van Helsingis one of the great layered film characters. He‟s heroic, but also unable to relate to other peoplein a socially normal way. His lack of empathy, often demonstrated in his matter-of-fact dealingwith the confused Arthur Holmwood, borders on psychopathic. Van Helsing knows he is right andthat he is all that stands between humanity and the plague of the undead contagion, and he doesnot understand why other people even need to have this explained to them. Or why somebodymight object to having his sister‟s corpse gorily staked in her coffin. The exception that provesthe rule is that Van Helsing‟s only kind exchange with anybody in the film is with an eight-year-old girl (Janina Faye). He appears to feel some guilt over sending Jonathan Harker off to hisdeath at Castle Dracula, but it seems this is more Van Helsing‟s self-reprobation for his ownlogistical failing, not that Jonathan Harker was a close friend. He can hardly offer anything in theway of comfort to Jonathan‟s fiancée Lucy or Lucy‟s family aside from insisting they have to lethim have his way with the stake and the cross and the garlic or they will all regret it.Although an inexpensive film, Dracula „58 disguises the budget with the tremendous work ofartistic director Bernard Robinson, the man who became the visual architect of the HammerHouse of Horrors. Robinson‟s work is so different from the style of the Universal films that he wasalmost fired for what he was attempting. At first glance, Dracula (and most Hammer movies ofthe age) are alarmingly bright, with few shadows and remarkably clean Gothic interiors.However, Robinson‟s genius lies in his choice of décor and his use of color to create asumptuous fantasy world. The terror of a Hammer Film‟s sets are not in darkness or webs, but intexture, decadence, and detail. The smallest object placement can create weird, upsettingcompositions, or add a sense of reality to the inherently unreal Victorian world. For example, thelarge stove made of green porcelain in Van Helsing‟s study in the background and the “magicalmachine” of a Dictaphone in the foreground. Dracula‟s castle has a visual marvel on its floor, amarble zodiac wheel inscribed with Homeric Greek along the edge. Harker‟s room in the castle iscrammed with bric-a-brac, including a writing desk with astonishing woodwork detail on thedrawers. And Dracula‟s vaulted tomb is a place filled with the heaviness of stone and earth, aforeboding place even though it has few ornaments. James Bernard‟s score deserves specialmention for how it contributes to the new atmosphere of Gothic horror alongside BernardRobinson‟s designs. Bernard‟s music thunders and stabs. It rejects subtlety for huge brassbooms and neurotic strings. It‟s hyper-aggressive, but it works, because the film is virile enoughto move to that sort of rhythm. Bernard‟s “Dracula Motif” is a wonder of simplicity, three
notessynchronized to the syllables of “DRAC-u-la!” “DRAC-u-la!” (James Bernard enjoyedcreating his themes to match the syllables of the titles. He did astonishing work with long titlessuch as The Devil Rides Out—“The . . . De-vil . . . RIDES OUT!”—Frankenstein Created Woman,and Taste the Blood of Dracula, both of which use sweet love themes, believe it or not.)Orchestrating this work is director Terence Fisher. Dracula isn‟t necessarily the best work heever did, it is perhaps the most typical of his wild and aggressive style and how it influenced all ofAnglo-horror to come.Hammer continued to make Dracula films until the late „70s, when the company ceased filmproduction. The results were uneven. The first sequel, 1960‟s The Brides of Dracula, does noteven feature the Count, but it was a true sequel because Peter Cushing returned as thecrusading Van Helsing and took on one of Dracula‟s aristocratic descendants. This florid andstrange movie is one of Hammer‟s most beautiful, and easily the finest of the Dracula sequels. Itwasn‟t until 1966 that Hammer got Christopher Lee to put on the fangs again (although herefused to speak any of the dialogue written for him) and produced the attractive-looking butmostly dull Dracula—Prince of Darkness, with Van Helsing nowhere to be seen. It was also thelast of the Dracula films that Fisher directed.The series improved a little with the next outing, 1968‟s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, andthen got back to near-great status the next year with the Peter Sasdy-directed Taste the Blood ofDracula, where the Count turns the children of wealthy decadents against them. But with thecheap-looking Scars of Dracula in 1970, the series entered steep decline. Peter Cushingreturned as Van Helsing‟s descendant in the first movie with a modern setting, Dracula AD 1972,a film with a certain campy charm because of the swingin‟ Chelsea backdrop—too bad Draculaspends most of his time hanging around a dull ruined church while the rest of the movie hasfun.The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974) keeps the modern setting and Peter Cushing, but tries tofashion an espionage thriller from the material and ends up showing that series was blood-drained. The last film, also release in 1974, is an interesting genre-masher, The Legend of the 7Golden Vampires, which puts the Hammer movie into a Shaw Brothers‟ Kung Fu feature.Cushing played the original Van Helsing, but Lee was done by this time, and Dracula‟s shortappearance was undertaken by John Forbes-Robertson.Hammer Film Productions is once again releasing movies, with a film of The Lady inBlackforthcoming. Will they re-visit their old standby of Count Dracula again? At this moment, theonly “Dracula” film project that might possible excite is one with the name “Hammer” on it.BFI restored the film in 2007 and created this amazing trailer for it. It encapsulates all that iswonderful about the complete movie. Appropriately, Dracula is almost unseen in it, with VanHelsing leading the charge.