As one of the four Hammer films to be released in 1958, the Horror of Dracula captures the very essence of the Gothic genre from the dramatic burst of the famous opening music to the set design. The set design in fact which you can even see in other Hammer films such as The Hound of the Baskervilles. Not only was this classic the beginning of the seven other Dracula films yet to come (including the Brides of Dracula), it was also only the second time Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starred together in a Hammer production. Ultimately creating the precedent of Hammer’s dream team.
Although this film undoubtedly strays away from both the original novel and the famous Universal classic, Hammer achieves to create a unique retelling of the infamous Count. As with most remakes of classic films, Hammer attempted to distance itself both in story and in image from Universal, going as far as to completely change the plot in some instances. For Hammer gaining the copyrights of the famous story from Universal appeared to be quite a task and after some time they finally were granted permission which was somewhat ironic as the actual copyright over the book would run out only short time later.
But the change in plot should not put off any potential new watchers. It is the change in storyline in fact that gives the film the classic Hammer twist. Perhaps the most interesting changes occur when discussing characters. The film completely removes the mad character of Reinfield but interestingly enough decides to add his characteristics in the following film ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ under the guise of Ludwig who similarly to the book eats insects and is locked away. The Horror of Dracula manages to successfully get the main character’s names in such as Jonathan, Arthur, Lucy and Mina but oddly enough seems to pair Arthur (played by Michael Gough) and Mina (played by Melissa Stribling) as a married couple with Lucy as Jonathans finance which is the complete opposite of the book. It is hard to say why this decision was made but it definitely makes the film unique. The character of Lucy, played by Carol Marsh, although is different from the original character still manages to be caught by the Count himself and stars in the staking scene which contributed to the X rating of the actual film. Back when this film was made, gore wasn’t a major factor in the majority of horror like today. As I have often said, old horror was gothic but somewhat innocent. With seductive women and fake blood, this Hammer film was on the cusp of change when concerning the Horror industry, breaking away from the glamorous Hollywood Horror which had enticed audiences for years. Hammer was competing with Universal as the 1931 Dracula was still extremely popular at the time, 27 years after it was first released.
Peter Cushing plays the role of the famous Van Helsing adjourned with a smoking jacket and like any role Cushing played, he manages to bring a certain charm that frankly no one but he could achieve. At the age of 45 Cushing was still very capable of stunts and possibly the most entertaining scene he delivered in the film was when he dived dramatically across the long dining table, ripping the curtains down and blinding the evil Count with the vicious rays of sunshine. The scene in which he destroys Dracula always sticks in my mind as one of the better death scenes Hammer has choreographed, especially with the candlesticks crossed forcefully by Peter Cushing. In fact, the special effects used to create the dissolving sensation of Dracula’s hand are quite impressive for the time and was the success of Sid Pearson and Phil Leaky who achieved this.
And of course it would be almost a crime to not discuss the legendary Dracula himself played by Sir Christopher Lee. With only thirteen lines in the entire film, and even none in the future films to come, Lee’s Dracula breaks away from the talkative Transylvanian played by Bela Lugosi and instead presents an almost aristocratic English gentleman who looms in the shadows. It is to be noted that Lee ends up not speaking in future films due to the quality of the script which he was not happy with. Yet even without many lines, Lee managed to create a Dracula that is now renowned and remembered. In one of the first scenes we see Dracula, which is with Jonathan Harker played by John Van Eyssen, the Count shows Harker to his room and interestingly enough when you watch the scene, you can see how cold the room was as Lee’s breath can be seen. This is the only time Dracula is presented as a more human character as for the rest of the movie he is portrayed more as a monster. But unlike Lugosi, Lee was able to avoid being type casted as the Count and his acting range was defiantly used by Hammer in future films.
To conclude, in my opinion this Hammer film was one of the better Dracula films created by the company and was greatly successful in giving the story a new breath of life, however different it was. What makes this Hammer classic far greater than the later Hammer Dracula films such as The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974), is that it still held the charismatic touch of classic horror whereas the later films were more competing with the likes of The Exorcist and other new horror films. Unfortunately, I do not believe Hammer could keep up with such a dramatic change in the genre and the later Dracula films are examples of this. Yet I would always recommend watching The Horror of Dracula if not for the unique telling of a classic novel but for the very captivating charm of Hammer itself.