UK (1958) Dir. Terence Fisher
This review comes twenty-four hours after the sad passing of the film’s star Sir Christopher Lee aged 93, after an amazingly prolific and genre spanning career which lasted nearly seven decades.
While Sir Christopher played many iconic roles in that time and in many seminal franchises – the most recent being Star Wars and Lord Of the Rings – it is for his horror work, and in particular his playing of Bram Stoker’s famous literary creation that Lee appears to eternally linked to.
However Dracula was Lee’s second role in his famous run of films for the rejuvenated Hammer Studios, having played the Monster in Curse Of Frankenstein a year earlier in 1957 but it was as the legendary vampire that his career took off and Lee never had to look back.
For this film, scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster took a few (!) liberties with Stoker’s original story yet still turns out an engaging and chilling yarn which is very much in the spirit of the classic vampire tale. In this instance Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is not an estate agent looking to help Count Dracula (Lee) move to English but arrives at his castle in Klausenberg to take up the post of librarian. Harker is met by a woman (Valerie Gaunt) who claims to a prisoner of the count.
Harker is in fact a vampire hunter planning to destroy Dracula. His fate was sealed when trying to help the woman who was a vampire herself, and she bit him. Harker manages to attack Dracula but this upsets the count who kills him then decides to seek revenge on Harker’s family, namely his fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh). To thwart this Harker had the foresight to write a letter to his friend Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) who came by Harker’s informative diary thanks to inn maid (Barbara Archer).
The rest of the story continues to divert away from Stoker’s novel but follows all of the traits and conventions of the vampire genre thus feels like a completely credible telling of this gothic horror classic. With a brisk 82 minute run time everything bowls along at a rapid pace but doesn’t feel rushed due to the way the second half of the script is structured as a tense cat and mouse game between Van Helsing and Dracula.
Up until this point, Tod Browning’s seminal 1931 version of the tale, featuring arguably the definitive screen Dracula in Bela Lugosi, was considered the standard by which all others needed to aspire to. Director Terence Fisher has delivered a distinctly British version of the story which lends itself with greater authenticity to the gothic influence of its origins. It possesses too many different and unique elements to avoid direct comparisons to previous versions which is also its greatest strength in being recognised as a classic in its own right.
As the emphasis is on action and keeping the story moving, Van Helsing and Dracula don’t even cross paths until the very end of this film, unlike previous versions where their rivalry is established quite early on. This adds a desperate edge to the drama and whether Van Helsing can indeed outsmart the count, as his attempts to win the trust of Lucy’s family, cynical brother Arthur (Michael Gough) and easily persuaded sister-in-law Mina (Melissa Stribling).
To circumvent the lack of budget, certain aspects concerning vampirism are excised, even flat out discredited in one scene, so there are no transformations of Dracula from man to bat (and no rubber bats on wires to that end either). The famous mirror dilemma is ignored too but frankly, the permanently grim, tense and eerie atmosphere makes up for their absence, almost rendering them to mere frippery. But there is blood, which has previously been avoided, and in colour too which is a bonus.
Modern audiences might find it all a bit hammy and cheap but the more discerning viewer will find this film still holds up very well. It is hard to imagine that was a certificate “X” in 1958 (an 18 today) with the Blu-ray re-issue used for this review – complete with restored footage lifted from a damaged Japanese print – rated 15 which still feels a tad excessive compared to what we can see in PG films these days.
But what this film hangs on the most are the two central performances from two legends in their field. Forming a partnership that extended beyond the screen, Messers Cushing and Lee both dominate their scenes with their inimitable screen presence for different reasons. Cushing’s steely blue eyes, and sharply drawn features bring comfort, gravitas and authority into the frame suffused that elusive English gentleman aura he exudes. he really is the quintessential good guy.
Christopher Lee’s impact is through his physical presence – a towering, strong jawed demon with piercing eyes that hypnotise and terrorise. While Lugosi had the European accent and the suave looks to suffuse his vampire with panache and charm, Lee’s Dracula has a more dangerous edge. He doesn’t have many lines and those he does have, he races through as opposed to how Lugosi spoke in a deliberate tempo, but Lee’s authoritative and succinct delivery has its own sense of menace about it.
Hammer Studios built their reputation and their unique and easily defined take on the horror genre off of this film, and while Curse Of Frankenstein was the first shot, Dracula was the one that drew blood – no pun intended. As much as the impressively detailed sets, strong direction from Fisher and iconic musical soundtrack made this a visual and tangible viewing experience, it was the casting of two future legends which cements this film’s place in cinema history.
It may seem tame today but Dracula was gory for it time and paved the way for the blood and guts horror that arrived in its wake. If you enjoy atmospherics and measured storytelling this is still quite the visceral experience.
R.I.P Sir Christopher Lee 1923-2015