Count Dracula has continued to evolve and maintain relevance in cinematic history. From the Count’s cinematic debut in Dracula’s Death (1921), the German expressionist film Nosferatu (1922) and the well known Universal Dracula (1931), each film presented an entirely different visual translation of Bram Stoker’s supernatural fanged killer. Yet very few wield the status of “legendary” as those produced under Hammer Films Productions. Horror of Dracula (initially released as Dracula in the UK), was Hammer’s vampire debut released on this day, May 8th, 1958. Proving to be a massive financial success, Hammer Horror films produced eight follow-up sequels surrounding the ever-popular vampire.
From British filmmaker Terence Fisher, Horror of Dracula established Hammer Films as the leading horror movie production company in not only the UK, but in the entire world during the 1950’s. Paving the horror market towards mainstream success, as Universal films in America had one achieved, Horror of Dracula challenged the stereotypes associated with horror films by reshaping the movie experience through visuals, atmosphere and terrifying special effects. The film’s liberal interpretation of Stoker’s iconic novel was thanks to Jimmy Sangster, whose screenwriting work was also utilized for Hammer’s first horror film shot in technicolor, The Curse of Frankenstein.
Hammer’s fanged killer was not without its challenges and obstacles, including a very limited production and budget constraints. Yet this could well be the reason the film’s condensed plot allows ample room for intense horror and much more developed characters than previous adaptations. Modifications were even applied towards the mythology of the vampire to fit the condensed narrative.
Horror of Dracula introduced a new perspective on delivering a terrifying experience by utilizing the technical advancements of colour film. Shock value through special effects such as blood and gore, coupled with the film’s dark atmosphere yielded audiences with a palpable sense of fear and dread. Such a lurid approach can be credited to director, Terence Fisher, whose catalogue established him as one of history’s most prominent horror filmmakers. In Fisher’s Horror of Dracula, we witness the Count’s lack of sympathy, driven by pure evil and whose murderous intentions are executed with a clear conscious by the charming Christopher Lee.
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Lee’s menacing stature and superb acting abilities contributed to the success of Horror of Dracula, which surpassed expectations laying the foundation for how we see vampires today. Dracula’s blood shot eyes and blood-drenched fangs disarmed audiences in this terrifying new experience of terror that could not have been accomplished in the black and white versions of the past. Lee would continue to portray Dracula for Hammer Films in six sequels. While hosting a series titled 100 Years of Horror: Dracula And His Disciples, Christopher Lee discusses the character of Dracula.
“I regarded this character as heroic, romantic, erotic. Irresistible to women and unstoppable by men.” Lee continues to describe his interpretation and portrayal of the Dracula character which he expresses, “I decided to play him [Dracula] as a malevolent hero. I decided to play him as a man of immense dignity, immense strength, immense power, immense brain; because it’s all there. He’s kind of a Superman actually. If you read the book, it’s all there.”
Opposite Lee’s menacing and powerful Dracula was Peter Cushing’s heroic Dr. Van Helsing. Cushing’s portrayal was a distinct departure from previous incarnations, as the more agile and athletic version brought more of a sense of heroism to the character. This only amplified the conflict between the two, bringing a more relevant and relatable theme of good vs evil for audiences. While hosting 100 Years of Horror, Lee praised Cushing’s portrayal of Dr. Van Helsing stating, “Peter Cushing brought fierce intelligence and athletic determination to the role of the vampire slayer.” Cushing would continue his portrayal of the vampire slayer in four Hammer film sequels within the Dracula universe.
In Paul Leggett’s book, Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth, and Religion, he describes the central conflict in Horror of Dracula as such: “First, Dracula, whatever tragic dimension he may have (and Lee’s performance captures his loneliness), is nonetheless a symbol of total evil, truly satanic. Van Helsing, on the other hand, is motivated by compassion and the need to rescue Dracula’s victims from the grip of death.” Praising Cushing’s representation of Dr. Van Helsing, Leggett emphasizes his performance as the ideal model for this struggle. He states, “Where Dr. Van Helsing in the original novel is an elderly but still active man, Cushing plays him as comparatively young and full of intense energy. As such he is a perfect antagonist to Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula.”
Even with the film’s limited budget, Horror of Dracula continues to impress with its rich production value and stellar acting. It’s a film that influenced generations of not only Dracula based films, but vampire movies in general. In order to appeal to the modern audience at the time, themes of sexuality were explored more openly in order to compete in a competitive film market with relaxed censorship laws. The cinematic climate at the time was already pushing the boundaries of sexuality with the rise of giallo films flooding the American market, forcing Hammer to step up and evolve.
Horror of Dracula was more than a horror-erotic demonstration filled with blood and violence, it was a film built upon symbolism treading a moral landscape beyond Black & White. For this reason, Horror of Dracula (neary six decades later) has retained its relevance and continues to outshine many of even today’s contemporary adaptations. If you have not yet had the opportunity to watch this classic gem, stay home with a loved one, pour a glass of wine to toast The Count, and celebrate the release of Hammer’s pinnacle feature. Happy 60th birthday, Horror of Dracula. Cheers!
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