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125 Years of Dracula: Bruce Markusen Looks Back at ‘Horror of Dracula’

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125 Years of Dracula: Bruce Markusen Looks Back at 'Horror of Dracula'

During this 125th anniversary year of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the famed vampire continues to make news. No fewer than three major Dracula-related film productions are in the works, with all three primed to make their debuts over the next 10 months. First up is The Invitation, scheduled to premiere on August 26. It is a stylish, Gothic film in which a young man invites his girlfriend to his parents’ palatial home, only to unleash a series of vampiric surprises on her. Then in January of 2023, The Last Voyage of The Demeter is set to enter theaters. It’s a film centered on the ill-fated ship that carries Dracula’s body from Transylvania to the English coast. And then in April of 2023, the most anticipated of the three films is set to hit theaters; it’s Renfield, which places the focus on Dracula’s deranged servant but also features what promises to be a memorable turn by Nicolas Cage as the vampire himself.

This trio of films will only add to the extensive library of movies that are either centered on Dracula, or feature him as an important character. The on-screen interpretations of Dracula began with Nosferatu in 1922 and reached a tipping point with 1931’s Dracula, with the latter film spurring on a series of Universal Studios sequels that persisted into the 1940s. And then in the late 1950s, the famed British studio, Hammer Films, decided to take its own crack at the Dracula legend, giving us the first full-color interpretation of the vampire.

After its initial success with Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Hammer Films realized that it had enormous potential in continuing to remake many of the monster classics that originated with Universal. In May of 1958, Hammer’s Horror of Dracula debuted, becoming the fifth in the studio’s series of horror movies. (The film was originally called Dracula, but the title was changed to Horror of Dracula for its American release in order to avoid confusion with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula.) Directed by Terence Fisher, Horror of Dracula is arguably the best of all of the Hammer Films – with apologies to The Devil Rides Out and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter – a film that is strengthened by exemplary acting, an above-average script from Jimmy Sangster, and brilliant cinematography.

Horror of Dracula Peter Cushing

Horror of Dracula begins with the plight of Jonathan Harker, a man who travels to a strange castle in Romania to become the librarian for Count Dracula. Not only does Harker meet The Count, but he also encounters a young woman claiming to be imprisoned. It is soon revealed that Harker is actually working for Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, the famed vampire hunter. Van Helsing follows Harker to the castle, where he soon learns the fate of his young associate. This will lead to an inevitable confrontation between Van Helsing and the vampire, culminating in an action-packed chase and rousing conclusion at Dracula’s castle.

As with most every Dracula film ever made, Horror of Dracula takes its share of liberties with the Stoker novel. That’s understandable, given the length of the novel, along with its many characters and somewhat complicated plot. (By his own admission, screenwriter Sangster threw out his copy of the novel, something that he came to regret.) Horror of Dracula simplifies the story so that it can be presented within an hour and a half of running time (an hour and 22 minutes, to be precise). As such, there is no Renfield, no Mina Murray, and no Quincy Morris. There is also no depiction of Dracula’s murderous journey on The Demeter. For some Dracula purists, the decision to simplify things is disappointing, as is the relative brevity of the film, but it was mostly necessary given the budgetary constraints faced by director Fisher.

One of the true strengths of Horror of Dracula is the second unveiling of the famed duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who had worked together in Curse of Frankenstein. But in that earlier film, only Cushing was given top billing, while Lee was placed further down in the credits. In contrast, both Cushing and Lee are top-billed in Horror of Dracula, a sign that Hammer now fully recognized their talents and their burgeoning bankability.

Horror of Dracula Image

Both Cushing and Lee are outstanding in Horror of Dracula. As Van Helsing, Cushing does not make his first appearance until 25 minutes into the film, but once he enters the story, his presence and aura are powerful. Cushing’s talent and expressiveness quickly establish Van Helsing as a sympathetic but forceful protagonist.

As Dracula, Lee makes an earlier entrance than Cushing, but he appears on screen for fewer than 10 minutes and somewhat surprisingly delivers only 16 lines of dialogue. For the most part, Lee’s Dracula hisses and growls at his enemies, but the lack of the spoken word does little to affect the actor’s intimidating screen presence. At the same time, Lee brings a level of charm to the role of Dracula. Tall and handsome, Lee gives us somewhat of a romantic interpretation. As Lee himself said in an interview many years after the film, the character “had to have an erotic element about him… It’s a mysterious matter and has something to do with the physical appeal of the person who’s draining your life.” And perhaps that that is why Lee’s Dracula draws sympathy from some viewers. Horror historian David Skal recalls the intriguing reaction of some filmgoers. “As soon as Christopher Lee appeared on screen, he was cheered [in theaters],” explains Skal. “People wanted him to defeat the other forces around him.”

That popular sentiment begins to change somewhat after Van Helsing’s entrance into the story, but both characters remain compelling whenever they are on screen. It’s no wonder that Hammer turned to the pairing of Cushing and Lee again and again. After Lee turned down a reprise of his role in the 1960 film, The Brides of Dracula, Hammer convinced him to return for the studio’s third Dracula film, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but Cushing did not appear in that film (other than in archival footage). The tandem would appear together in two later Dracula films, Dracula AD, 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and in a number of other Hammer horror ventures involving mummies, gorgons, mad scientists, and other nefarious characters.

Horror of Dracula 1958 Movie Still

For many modern day viewers, a vintage film like Horror of Dracula might come across as too tame. It’s a criticism often heard of horror movies from the 1930s, forties, and fifties. After all, the body count of Dracula victims is only five. But for the era of the late 1950s, Horror of Dracula was considered gory and graphic, far more so than the earlier films from Universal. One example of bloodshed can be found in a scene involving the character of Lucy Holmwood, who is staked in the heart. The staking results in blood spurting out very visibly and in full color. This was something that never could have happened with the black-and-white (and more conservative) films from Universal.

That scene is one of many iconic moments from a film rich in imagery. Another memorable scene involves Jonathan Harker, who discovers two coffins in the cellar of the castle, one of which contains the female vampire imprisoned by Dracula. After destroying this “bride” of Dracula, Harker approaches the second coffin, anticipating the moment that he will drive a strike through the heart of the lead vampire. To his chagrin, The Count is nowhere to be found, filling Harker with a sense of doom.

And then at the end of the film, there is a beautifully filmed maneuver by Cushing’s Van Helsing. As Van Helsing and Dracula grapple in one of the rooms of the castle, the vampire hunter brilliantly improvises a makeshift cross with two candlesticks. He then leaps toward a large window, dramatically pulling down a curtain to allow light to penetrate the room and fall directly onto the doomed Dracula.

The imagery, the story line, the performances, and the skilled direction of Fisher make Horror of Dracula a must-see for horror fans of the era. The end result is a hallmark of late 1950s cinema, a well-constructed film that set a template for Hammer to follow in its many Dracula sequels. In setting a high standard for the studio, Horror of Dracula emerged as a vampire classic.


Bruce has a new book out titled Hosted Horror on Television, which you can order right now through the McfarlandBooks website.

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