Horror of Dracula (1958)
Dracula: Christopher Lee
Consider this film (just called Dracula in the UK) the anti-Coppola Dracula. Relentlessly modern (it was the first Technicolor vampire film) and breathlessly paced yet luridly Gothic to the core, carving to the heart of Stoker’s novel while discarding its plot almost entirely, it would be a great Dracula movie for those reasons alone. But it has in addition three advantages that no production has had before or since: Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, and Terence Fisher’s sure, bold direction. Fisher’s sincere Christian vision, of Dracula as a fundamental story of good vs. evil, permeates the film. Lee’s Dracula both tempts and terrifies, fully animal and entirely demonic — all in only 7 minutes of screen time. Cushing brings Stoker’s multi-dimensional Van Helsing more than alive as well: pious scientist and plague-fighting philosopher, faith and reason joined. Cushing also depicts Van Helsing’s human tenderness and innate leadership qualities with economy and confidence, throwing into stark contrast his more-than-surgical strain of violence. To Fisher, the best of men can still be a beast; the worst of demons is all too attractive. But throughout, Van Helsing and Dracula remain almost polar opposites and their war is a war — is the War — for all humanity.
The film is not perfect, of course. The now-primitive day-for-night shots make exteriors chancy, the comic relief at the border hangs an unfortunate lantern on the claustrophobic setting (instead of countries across a continent from each other, civilization and Hell are in neighboring postal codes), and Hammer’s idiosyncratic love-hate relationship with the British class system mars the narrative of middle-class heroes reducing an undead aristocrat to dust. The third-act turn (taken from the cursed Deane-Balderston play), in which Dracula’s hiding place turns out to be the Holmwoods’ cellar, works thematically but not narratively. But across all that, Fisher shoots a realistic nightmare, building shots from parallel rising action, and filling the frames with color and natural motion — the wind effects in this movie alone should be mandatory viewing. Like Cushing’s Van Helsing, Fisher’s lens combines realism and even irony with faith and violence, that latter quality incidentally unleashing Christopher Lee to become a great actor and a generation’s dream of Dracula. Horror of Dracula, I submit to you, is the greatest Dracula movie ever made.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Here to catalogue books (and your comments and responses) and kill vampires, it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order the glorious sunlight that is hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!