Horror Month Day 11: The Horror of Dracula

Guest writer Benito Cereno is back! Be sure to check out his Tumblr here to read about his newest comics projects and other musings. Today he writes about one of the Hammer-produced horror films, The Horror of Dracula.

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While Universal Studios had more or less dominated the horror movie market in the 1930s and 1940s with their depictions of the classic movie monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and so on—by the 1950s, tastes had shifted and the major monster pictures tended to focus more on giant bugs and other irradiated metaphors for the Red Scare and nuclear tensions. And so it would fall to a British film production company called Hammer to pick up the torch of Gothic horror in the mid-’50s, and with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, they did so with style—and in vivid color. Thus began the era, which ran from the mid-’50s until the 1970s, of what is known as Hammer horror.

Hammer produced many films within the genres of horror, thriller, and science fiction, including new versions of many of the franchises Universal had made popular in the ’30s and ’40s, including Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, and Jekyll and Hyde, as well as many original properties featuring different monsters or other deadly threats. It’s longest running franchise, however, spawning a total of eight films (barely beating out the seven films of the Frankenstein franchise) was Dracula, which began with 1958’s appropriately named Dracula (known in America as The Horror of Dracula to avoid confusion with the 1931 Lugosi version).

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The Horror of Dracula features the unbeatable Hammer trinity of Christopher Lee (as Dracula), Peter Cushing (as Van Helsing), and director Terence Fisher. The film is ostensibly an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but it is one that feels free—to its credit—to play around with the source material. The filmmakers here know that this is unlikely to be the first Dracula film you’ve ever seen, and so they play with your expectations. Although the movie opens like the novel and most film adaptations with Jonathan Harker traveling to Dracula’s castle, we soon learn that his motivations are not the same as what we have been trained to expect from other versions of the story. This Harker is no mere real estate agent.

The changes continue from there, with familiar names being used in unfamiliar ways as Arthur Holmwood (played by Michael Gough, later of Alfred from the Batman movies fame) becomes Harker’s future brother-in-law and Lucy and Mina—as happens in a large number of Dracula adaptations—find their roles more or less switched. Still in his familiar role as learned vampire hunter, however, is Dr Van Helsing, who must convince the rest of the assembled characters of the threat presented by Dracula.

Christopher Lee as Dracula

Gone is the subtext of xenophobia at the heart of the Dracula narrative, as this is no story of a swarthy Eastern European come to ravish the well-bred ladies of London. Though Dracula’s castle is still in Transylvania, everything has been Germanicisized, with Dracula’s hometown given its German name of Klausenberg, and Holmwood and co. making their home just a few hours down the road in a town called Karlstadt. As would be a hallmark of Hammer’s filmmaking, there is still a veneer of sexuality to their horror, as the looming Christopher Lee drools over heaving bosoms spilling out over lacy bodices, his untamed unibrow radiating animal magnetism. And there is always something lurid about the way Van Helsing nestles his stake between the pert, alabaster breasts of the young lady vampires.

The addition of color gives a sense of wild immediacy to this film that is missing from the parlor-room drama of the 1931 Dracula. Lugosi’s eyes never burned red as he charged across a room to fling his bride to the ground. Nor did the Universal Van Helsing ever flinch as a bright red spray gushed into his face, putting a tortured soul to rest. The lush and vibrant use of colors would make all Hammer productions stand out from contemporary horror filmmaking and would be much imitated by competitors.

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing

The story continues its twists and turns, playing on your expectations until its legitimately surprising third act, which leads up to the tense and dramatic final confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing back at Dracula’s castle. The true mark of quality of a Hammer Dracula film is how spectacular and innovative the Dracula death scene is (spoilers: Dracula dies at the end of every Dracula movie), and even with seven sequels, the dramatic conclusion of The Horror of Dracula is never quite matched.

Gripping, tense, beautifully shot and acted, and still managing to surprise despite adapting a story that has been told hundreds of times, The Horror of Dracula is essentially a flawless Dracula film. It’s no surprise, then, that it should spawn so many sequels, and that the formula of Lee, Cushing, and Fisher should be used in various combinations of the three for much of the remainder of Hammer’s existence. Hammer Studios more or less ceased production in the ’70s when its style of Gothic horror fell out of fashion, but in recent years it has started up production again with such films as Let Me In and The Woman in Black. Whether Hammer will hit the great heights it achieved in the ’50s and ’60s is yet to be seen.