HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
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With the passing of screen legend Christopher Lee, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of his greatest horror roles starting with this classic, his first film as Count Dracula for Hammer Studios!
This 1958 flick is written by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Terence Fisher, who both worked on a number of Hammer Studios horrors, and is loosely based on Bram Stoker’s book. This version has Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) being an associate of Dr. Van Helsing’s (Peter Cushing) and infiltrating Dracula’s (Christopher Lee) castle disguised as a librarian, with plans to vanquish the monster. Harker fails to kill Dracula and The Count decides to take revenge by going after Harker’s fiancé Lucy and then her sister Mina. The only thing in the vampire’s way is Dr. Van Helsing who has come to try to save the Holmwood women and put The Count down…for the count! Sangster’s script takes many liberties with Stoker’s story but, what Dracula film hasn’t? The story is quick and to the point and doesn’t waste too much time with melodrama, getting right to the bloody action. Fisher directs the film with a moderate pace and gives it plenty of atmosphere with a gothic visual style that serves this Euro-horror very well. Fisher gives the story a slight sexual element, too, that wasn’t there in previous tellings, with Dracula’s female victims being a bit less resistant to The Count’s unearthly charms than in the past. There is also some fairly generous bloodletting that was also rare in previous vampire films and it gives this a more intense feeling than the tellings that came before it. It’s tame by today’s standards, but, must have been quite shocking to audiences in 1958 seeing blood spurting out of a staked heart in the full color of Jack Asher’s cinematography. The film is also effectively bathed in an equally gothic score by James Bernard, who became Hammer Studios go-to guy for their horror film music. All the elements combine to make a satisfying and very entertaining vampire movie that still works today as does it’s American counterparts of the 30s and 40s.
Another effective part of the film’s success is Fisher’s cast. Cushing is top-billed in this one and his Van Helsing characterization is one of the things this versatile actor is most known for. His Van Helsing is much younger and far more a man of action than the doddering old professors that preceded him and is actually a lot closer to the man in Stoker’s tale who was more of an adventurer. Cushing was also a bit dashing and he has a great rivalry/chemistry with Lee that would rekindle in two more movies as literature and film’s greatest rivals. As for Lee, his first appearance as Dracula is obviously impressive, though, The Count doesn’t have that much screen time in this one, and to be honest, he really doesn’t in the book either. He is more of a presence. When he is on screen, Lee is an imposing figure at six foot four and is a dashing looking man, as well as, intimidating, with his intense stare and smoldering features. He also adds a little sex appeal in with his menace, as he does seem to take pleasure in his blood draining, where previous vampires were simply monsters. Lee would come to own the character over the course of the series and may indeed be the quintessential Dracula to this day. Depends on what one wants in the character, but, I certainly won’t argue that he is. Cast also includes future ‘Alfred’ Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood and he is perfect as the dapper English sceptic who slowly begins to believe that monsters walk the earth. Eyssen is fine as Harker but, is on screen briefly. Melissa Stribling and Carol Marsh are also charming in the roles of Mina and Lucy perspectively but, aren’t given too much to do other than be damsels in distress but, that is a sign of the times, as this was still the 50s. At least they get to be a bit sexier than the Lugosi film heroines were years earlier.
Obviously this is a classic and even close to sixty years later, is effective and a lot of fun. Real-life best friends Cushing and Lee were in top form and just beginning to create legendary characterizations of two world famous literary figures…performances that would immortalize them alone, despite versatile and expansive resumes. It is quaint and charming by today’s standards and maybe even a bit tame when compared to modern vampire tales, but, still effective a telling nonetheless. It was the first Dracula film to turn up the sexy and crank out the blood and made a legend out of Lee and Cushing, whose body of work as a team and separately is unsurpassed. A classic and rightfully so…and for so many reasons!