Horror of Dracula
1958, Hammer Film Productions/Universal Pictures
Well, this one is a pretty historic horror film that I’ve only referenced over the years but never really talked too much about. With my recent post about a few Hammer books and having watched the movie on Turner Classic Movies recently, I might as well say a few words about it.
Released in 1958, Horror of Dracula (released as Dracula in the UK), along with the previous year’s The Curse of Frankenstein, helped propel Hammer Films to the top of the horror foodchain. Both movies starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, two men who would become horror icons for a new generation.
Universal Pictures, home of all those old classic monsters from the 1930s and 1940s, played host for this movie’s distribution in the United States but they were not directly involved with the making of this film. So, this is not a Universal Monster flick. Horror of Dracula was entirely a Hammer production. Hammer often used various distributors in the United States (Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros, etc.) but a Hammer film was always a Hammer film. It almost seemed like they operated with American movie companies on a per-picture basis with no true long-term association with any one movie studio to distribute. This probably explains why there is no complete boxset of their Dracula or Frankenstein series… the U.S. rights are owned by a number of movie studios!
The first time I watched this film was on DVD. I used to work at a video store and had a coworker who had grown up on Hammer Films. As employees, we got a pretty sweet discount on videos so I ordered the 1959 Hammer version of The Mummy (which I lost years ago) , The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula all around the same time when they were first released on DVD.
As I mentioned elsewhere, there was an element of sex and blood with Horror of Dracula that most studios had shied away from putting on the screen at the time of this film’s release. Not Hammer though. Hammer pushed the envelope with full-color blood and cleavage. It was controversial and it was successful. It was also a sign of things to come as Hammer (and the horror genre in general) would get more and more graphic.
Bela Lugosi is my personal pick for best Dracula but I suppose Christopher Lee is probably slightly closer to what the character looks like in the Bram Stoker novel (and John Carradine even more closer). Lugosi gives off a creepy performance from the start, he just looks evil but Lee’s Dracula comes off as slightly more affable.
The plot itself is a retelling with of the original Bram Stoker story, with a few differences, and is in no way a remake of the 1931 classic starring Lugosi. Horror of Dracula does its own thing from the start. For instance, the character of Jonathan Harker in this movie is not an estate agent but a vampire hunter who works with Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. Both men are aware of Count Dracula’s vampiric nature from the start of the film and Harker, posing as a librarian, has been sent to rid the world of him once and for all. Of course, things don’t always turn out as planned…
Also, Van Helsing is much more physically active in this movie. Certainly much more active than I’d ever expect the always frail-looking Peter Cushing to be. He’s jumping, and running around and it all leads up to a big brawl between Van Helsing and Dracula inside Dracula’s castle. One reason for these differences is that Hammer did not want to get sued for copyright infringement from Universal (the very company that distributed the movie).
You could argue that Horror of Dracula is a better film than 1931’s Dracula. This movie has a couple of things going for it that the 1931 movie did not but Lugosi’s performance is so classic and iconic and the atmosphere in that film is so great, I can’t put Horror of Dracula above it, even if this movie does feature a lot more action. Still, Lee himself is an icon in the horror industry and has the only other legendary portrayal of Dracula that I can think of.
Some of Hammer’s later Dracula movies became extremely silly (Dracula goes around stabbing people INSTEAD OF BITING THEM ON THE NECK, Dracula wants to poison literally the whole world as a way of suicide), ignored their own continuity and dated themselves (swingin’ London, Dracula vs. kung fu brothers) but Horror of Dracula remains a classic Gothic piece of horror film history. If you haven’t watched it, you need to.