The first in the Hammer Dracula series. Its no exaggeration to say that this movie along with The Curse of Frankenstein released the previous year helped to revive and reshape the entire horror genre itself on the silver screen.
Almost 60 years on whilst it may no longer seem quite as shocking and terrifying as it once was, it still does hold up as a well made, imaginative and engaging horror flick, and it features what are definitely among the greatest versions of Dracula and Van Helsing played by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Towards the end of the 19th Century the town of Klausenberg is ruled by Dracula, king of all Vampires with an iron fist. Dracula has ruled over the town for close to 100 years. Though there were many attempts to slay the Demon, all failed and now the people are so terrified of the monster they dare not strike back at him. Every couple of nights Dracula ventures into the town and murders a young woman. Some of them he turns into Vampires, but even then they are still poorly treated by him and often discarded after a short period of time.
Jonathan Harker soon arrives at Castle Dracula. Harker is a student of Van Helsing, one of the worlds leading experts on Vampires. The study of Vampires is obscure and poorly researched and thus most people though having heard stories of the monsters are unsure of which myths are true. Van Helsing meanwhile has devoted his life to studying them and has discovered many things in his research that has eluded others throughout the years. He plans to murder Dracula and finally free Klausenberg from his rule.
Unfortunately however the young and eager Harker decides to go ahead. Greatly under estimating Dracula, Harker poses as a hapless Librarian in order to trick the Count. The Count sees through his disguise and locks him in his room. Harker manages to escape, but is soon tricked by Dracula’s latest Vampire bride who bites him. Before she can finish him off however Dracula emerges. Fresh from the kill, Dracula knocks Harker out effortlessly and drags his bride away forcefully as the sun is about to emerge and they must retreat to their coffins soon.
When Harker comes too hours later he realises he has been bitten and frantically searches for Dracula. He has one day to stake Dracula’s bride, the Vampire who bit him or else he shall become a Vampire himself. Harker searches through the dark, maze like catacomb’s of Dracula’s castle for hours until he finds the two sleeping Vampires.
With mere minutes to go before the sun goes down he stakes the Vampire that bit him and is freed from the curse. Unfortunately as he moves to stake Dracula, he sees to his horror that he is too late. Its now night and the Vampire has awoken, and corners a terrified Harker in his crypt.
Some time later Van Helsing finally arrives in Klausenberg. Once he makes his way into Dracula’s now deserted castle, he finds his old friend Harker who is now a Vampire. Van Helsing stakes his friend and decides to visit his fiance Lucy to let her know what happened to him.
Unfortunately Lucy is ill. Van Helsing soon discovers that Lucy is in fact being visited by Dracula. Dracula is planning to make Lucy into his new Vampire bride to replace the one that Harker killed. He is doing this to make an example of Harker in order to make sure that no one will ever dare cross him again. Not only has he made Harker the very thing he hates the most, but he also intends to do the same to all of his loved ones.
Despite Van Helsing’s best efforts to find him, Dracula manages to kill Lucy who returns as a Vampire. Lucy then tries to murder both her brother Arthur and her niece but Van Helsing stops her using a cross. He then later manages to stake her.
Dracula decides to make Nina, Arthur’s wife his next victim. Unfortunately despite Van Helsing and Arthur remaining outside the house on guard, Dracula manages to sneak his way in and bites Mina.
As Mina begins to turn into a Vampire Van Helsing discovers how Dracula was able to sneak his way in. Apparently Dracula kept his coffin in the cellar of Arthur and Nina’s house. With Dracula realising that Van Helsing is on to him, he slips away taking Nina with him.
Van Helsing and Arthur follow the Vampire who retreats to his castle. There Dracula attempts to torture Mina by burying her alive. Before he can finish, Van Helsing intervenes. With the sun about to rise Dracula decides to flee and retreats back to his coffin. Unfortunately for him Van Helsing follows him to it.
Dracula decides to fight Van Helsing, even with the sun rising. He grabs the Vampire hunter by the throat and effortlessly over powers him. Pinning him to the ground, Dracula knocks him out, but as he prepares to bite his throat, Van Helsing comes to and catches Dracula off guard. Dracula corners Van Helsing. Smiling with sadistic delight as he believes that Van Helsing is defenceless.
Fortunately however Van Helsing noticing the sun has now risen outside darts across the table and pulls the curtains down, causing sunlight to flood the room. Caught in the suns rays Dracula begins to literally crumble into nothing but a pile of ash. As the Vampire king frantically crawls along the floor, Van Helsing quickly grabs two candle sticks and uses them to create a make shift cross forcing Dracula back into the sunlight.
The Vampire expires and crumbles into nothing but a pile of dust.
After Dracula dies, Nina is freed from the curse of Vampirism and turns back into a human, whilst Van Helsing stands over the remains of Dracula, nothing but his cloak, his ring and a pile of ash which is blown away by the wind.
Horror of Dracula is not the most faithful adaptation of Stokers novel. So many of the most essential and iconic moments from the novel such as Dracula’s journey to London, are omitted. Indeed the character of Renfield himself is left out of this film entirely.
The character of Dracula in this film could be seen as the polar opposite to the version from the novel in some respects too. The Dracula from the novel was an old man who got younger the more blood he drank, he also had mystical and shape shifting powers, he did not ever seduce his victims and he is also planning to spread the cult of Vampirism across the entire world.
In this film Dracula has no shapeshifting powers, he relies solely on his brute strength, he is young and alluring from the start, he seduces his victims and far from planning to spread the cult of Vampirism around the world, he is desperate to hold on to his power base in a small little remote village.
Thus as a faithful adaptation of Stokers novel it certainly doesn’t succeed, but fortunately not only does it hold up as a film in its own right, but I feel it is able to add a lot to the story of Dracula too.
To start with Lee’s Dracula is a truly memorable villain. Whilst he may not be as otherworldly and unnerving as Lugosi, or as Machiavellian as the Dracula from the novel, Lee’s Dracula is far more savage.
His Dracula is a hissing, animalistic monster that you can imagine literally ripping his victims apart with his bare teeth. Lugosi’s Dracula tried to hypnotize Van Helsing, whilst Stokers Dracula goes into a big verbose speech of having commanded armies before Van Helsing was even born. Lees Dracula in contrast throws a candle stick at Van Helsing’s head, throws him across the room, chokes him, smashes his head off the floor and tries to rip his throat out with his teeth! The image of Lee’s Dracula with his massive long fangs dripping with bright red blood is by far a more striking and terrifying image than that of any other Dracula.
At the same time however there is also a certain sexual element to this version of Dracula who outright seduces his victims. Even the act of being bitten by a Vampire is presented as a twisted, masochistic sensation for the victim.
What’s interesting though is the way that Lee’s Dracula is not presented as an even remotely romantic character. In fact I’d say he is the least romantic version of the character I have ever seen. The Lugosi version and even the novel version are more romantic in the sense that they want to make their victims their brides for all eternity. Whilst Dracula may beat his wives in the novel he does tell them that he loves them dearly.
Lee’s Dracula however does not care about his wives at all. He beats and disregards them as soon as he is bored with them and he never expresses any kind of affection for them. Though he seeks revenge against Harker for murdering his bride its not out of affection for her. Its more of a kind of “How dare you kill MY bride” and its also to make an example of Harker. Unlike in other versions where Dracula pursues Mina and Lucy because he loves them, he does so in this film only out of revenge.
He doesn’t want to make Mina his beloved forever like Lugosi did. He wants to make her and those who love her suffer by turning her into a Vampire. When that doesn’t work he tries to torture her to death by burying her alive!
Thus whilst Lee may have cemented the image of Dracula and indeed Vampires in general as sex gods his Dracula is anything but a romantic character and the sexual aspect is presented as predatory with Dracula deriving a twisted, sexual pleasure from hurting the women he preys on.
Lee only has a couple of lines of dialogue at the start of the film that are nothing more than simple pleasantries to Harker. For the rest of the movie he simply hisses.
Personally I liked this as I feel far from limiting Lee it gave him a chance to make the role his own. The Stoker Dracula sees himself as above the rest of humanity due to his status as a Vampire, whilst Lugosi relished his immortality. Lee however relishes in causing violence. Its not just a question of he is willing to kill to survive, he loves hurting people. This Dracula has no humanity at all and so when the charming exterior he uses to lure his victims in drops, he is just a complete animal.
I feel that Lee was also able to inject some subtle little moments of villainy into his performance. I always loved the evil little smile he does when he corners Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker. That always gave you an idea of how twisted he was that he was absolutely relishing in his enemies helplessness. One can only imagine what vile thoughts are going through his head in that moment.
Other than Christopher Lee the other big stand out performance in this film is of course Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.
Cushing’s Van Helsing is similar to Lee’s Dracula in a lot of ways. He is a much younger version of the character like Lee’s Dracula, and he is also like Lee a much more vicious and darker character.
Much like Dracula, Van Helsing is someone who thrives on death to an extent, in that he has no life beyond hunting Vampires. He travels from town to town destroying them and is utterly ruthless when he dispatches them in quite gruesome ways, like burning their flesh with a cross, stabbing them through the heart, or burning them in the sunlight.
Much like Dracula, Van Helsing can appear quite charming and gentlemanly on the surface, but at the same time when he is around the Vampires, Cushing adds a real intensity to the character. He is a man with a will made of iron. He is not even remotely fazed by any of the horrors around him, he always keeps his cool, whilst the likes of Holmwood can’t stand to look in horror at what is happening.
To be honest I much prefer the Van Helsing in this to the original novel. In the novel he is just an eccentric professor but in this he is a far more interesting character and a much better match for Dracula too.
The final fight between Dracula and Van Helsing is a spectacular sequence and really sums up the more physical aspect both Lee and Cushing brought to their characters and also of how much more in your face and explicit the Hammer movies were to their Universal counterparts. In the Universal Dracula, Van Helsing stakes him quietly off screen. In this Van Helsing burns him to death in the sun light and we see Dracula’s face slowly crumble into nothing.
Everything about this film is more bright and explicit and though it might seem quite tame by today’s standards, I think the film’s visuals still look quite beautiful.
Terrance Fisher’s direction gives it an almost dream like fairy tale quality. Fisher certainly doesn’t go for a dark gloomy approach. Dracula’s castle for instance isn’t crumbling in the middle of nowhere. Its big shiny and beautiful.
I think this movie holds up better as a fantasy film rather than an outright horror movie and therefore I think Fisher’s direction actually suits the tone of the movie more.
I feel that Fisher successfully makes the world of the Holmwood’s seem quite innocent and peaceful which contrasts wonderfully with the terror of Dracula.
Overall there is very little to fault with this movie. Its sets, direction acting and even the music are all excellent. If there is one thing I that I don’t like about it then perhaps the Holmwood family are a bit dull. I normally quite like Michael Gough, but the character of Arthur is a bit of a wet fish.
Overall though I’d say this film is deserving of its reputation as a classic and I’d give it 5 stars.
Legacy and Influence
This film along with The Curse of Frankenstein released one year earlier helped to completely revive the horror genre which had become dormant during the 50s.
Both films were massive successes around the world and actually it could be argued that not only did they lead to horror movies becoming mainstream again, but also British movies in general coming to dominate the market as well.
The movie also helped to change how Vampires were portrayed in popular culture.
Prior to this Vampires had been more specteral creatures in films. Lugosi’s Dracula was more of a hypnotic, eerie otherworldly character who creeped about in the shadows like a ghost, overpowering his enemies with his hypnotic stare. He didn’t have fangs, he didn’t toss his enemies around with his brute strength and though Lugosi did have an alluring presence and even became something of a sex symbol for his role. His Dracula still did not actively seduce his victims.
Lee’s Dracula had massive fangs, marking the first time a Vampire ever had fangs in a movie, and super strength. Though Dracula did have super strength in the novel, this wasn’t really an aspect of Vampires in movies pre the 1958 Dracula. Nobody thought of Vampires as being super powered really up until the Hammer movies. Of course since then Vampires have just been getting more and more powerful to the point where they can now leap through the air like a super hero.
When you look at the old Lugosi movies where Dracula would put a woman under his thrall and then modern pieces of Vampire fiction like Blade where Vampires knock people hundreds of feet through the air its quite funny to see how much Vampires have changed over the years.
I think that about sums it up.
The Hammer movies can be seen to bridge the gap between the turbo charged Vampires and the old hypnotic Lugosi Vampires.
Of course at the same time Lee’s Dracula was more overtly sexual too which finally cemented the idea of Vampires being seductive in popular culture.
The image of Dracula in modern day popular culture can be seen to be a composite of Lugosi’s equally fantastic portrayal from the 1931 film and Lee’s from this movie.
The image we tend to have of Dracula is of someone with a long black and red flowing cape, a thick Hungarian accent, a black widows peak and also of a somewhat unnerving, yet oddly pleasant and charming individual. This all comes from Lugosi. However at the same time we also tend to think of Dracula having a towering stature, blood shot red eyes, massive fangs dripping with blood and also having a tremendous physical presence and also seducing his victims too. This comes entirely from the Dracula in this movie.
Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing meanwhile had arguably an even bigger impact. Whilst the modern day Dracula can be seen as a composite of Lee and Lugosi, Van Helsing is entirely Peter Cushing.
The Van Helsing in the novels was not really a Vampire hunter. He was someone who had knowledge of them simply due to the fact that he had read about Vampires as they were among his many interests. He did not devote his entire existence to destroying them however and he isn’t even the one to kill Dracula.
Though Van Helsing does destroy Dracula in the 1931 film he is still not the supreme Vampire hunter we would later come to know him as.
This film was the first to establish Van Helsing as someone who devoted his entire existence to hunting Vampires and also as a someone who was a physical match for Dracula.
When you look at the fight between Dracula and Van Helsing at the end of this film you could never imagine Edward Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi having a confrontation like that.
Thanks to Cushing Van Helsing has come to be seen as the ultimate Vampire hunter and Dracula’s eternal nemesis.
In many ways it was Cushing’s Van Helsing that made the Vampire hunter a major character in cinema history. Again prior to Horror of Dracula the Vampire hunter surprisingly hadn’t really been a character in the horror movie staple like the Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, or the mad professor.
Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing though effective had never really become a major character. Though he did appear in the sequel he wasn’t even second in the cast for ether film and in other Vampire movies the Vampires were killed generally by the same people who killed other monsters, bland leading men or mobs of angry villagers.
Certainly the Vampire killer wasn’t the role the big star would be after.
This movie changed all of that. Cushing was the big star (more so than Lee at this point) and Van Helsing was the character who all the focus was on.
From this point on the Vampire hunter became a classic horror movie character too and whole films, television series and novels would even revolve around the Vampire killer rather than the Vampire.
Cushing’s Van Helsing can be seen to be the daddy of all Vampire hunters. He’s Rupert Giles, the charming, somewhat stuffy old English expert on Vampires who is also a badass with a steely determination to destroy the undead. He’s also in his own way Blade, the Winchester Brothers and Mr Vampire, the person who travels from town to town destroying Vampires and monsters, who never settles down anywhere, who doesn’t have a normal life, who isn’t always trusted or liked by the people he helps. Indeed some might even blame him for the strange goings on in the town.
Not surprisingly due to this films success Cushing and Lee would become more closely associated with the roles of Dracula and Van Helsing than any other character they played.
They would go on to reprise their roles in many sequels though only two more together. Over the years both men’s names have become as associated with Vampires and Vampire hunters almost as much as the characters of Dracula and Van Helsing themselves.
In total 8 sequels would be produced for Horror of Dracula, these are Brides of Dracula, Dracula Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula AD 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.
Notes and Trivia
- Christopher Lee apparently wasn’t happy with his performance in this and other Dracula films, as he being a fan of Stokers novel he wanted to make it more like the original novel.
- The final scene in this film where only Dracula’s ring remains as the dust is blown away may have inspired a similar scene at the end of Flash Gordon.