Horror of Dracula/Dracula (1958) **½
Hammer’s Dracula series gets off to a much weaker start than its companion series of Frankenstein movies with this undeservedly lionized film. Horror of Dracula/Dracula is by no means a bad movie, but it is equally far from meriting either the quantity or quality of praise that has been heaped upon it over the years. Peter Cushing is fabulous as always, Christopher Lee does the best anyone could with a role that wouldn’t have stretched the acting talents of Kane Hodder, and director Terrence Fisher at least injects some style into the proceedings. But the script is a complete mess, reminiscent of a high school Creative Writing project slapped together at 3:00 am the night before the due date, and its shortcomings seriously undermine the efforts of all the talented people involved in the movie’s creation.
Devoted fans of Bram Stoker’s novel probably ought to stay far away from this movie, in which the original story is rendered all but unrecognizable. Horror of Dracula’s first departure from its source material comes a mere five minutes after the opening credits, during Jonathan Harker’s first meeting with Count Dracula (Christopher Lee). As in the novel, Harker (John Van Eyssen, of Enemy from Space and The Four-Sided Triangle) has come from far away to conduct some sort of business with the count, and as in the novel, he arrives to find Dracula’s castle empty, the only sign of his host a note expressing his regrets that some unexplained business has called him away, preventing him from greeting Harker in person. But this Jonathan Harker is no real estate agent, come to discuss with the count the purchase of property in London, but rather a librarian, hired by Dracula to index and inventory his vast collection of books! Furthermore, even this stated mission is merely a pretext; Harker’s true purpose in coming to Klausenburg (a Romanian city now know as Cluj) is to kill Count Dracula! What?!
Shortly after Harker finishes his dinner alone in the castle’s dining hall, he is accosted by a young woman (The Curse of Frankenstein’s Valerie Gaunt, in a dress that, by 1958 standards, reveals a spectacular amount of cleavage-- modern fans often seem to forget that the Hammer remakes’ principal selling point in the 50’s was the tits-gore-and-Technicolor angle), who begs him to help her escape from the castle. She won’t tell Harker why, but Dracula has apparently been keeping the woman against her will. Just then, the count makes his first appearance, and his captive flees the room, clearly dreading what will happen if she is seen talking to Harker. Dracula shows Harker to his room, explains that he has again been called away on business and will not be returning until the following evening, and gives Harker the key to the library. The count also takes notice of the framed photograph that Harker has brought of his fiancee Lucy (Carol Marsh). (“Harker’s fiancee Lucy?!” you say, incredulous. But that’s not all. This in not Lucy Westenra, but Lucy Holmwood, and she has been transformed into Arthur Holmwood’s teenage sister!) And now we come to the first big problem with Horror of Dracula: this scene contains the only lines of dialog that ever emerge from Count Dracula’s mouth. Throughout the rest of the film, Christopher Lee will be reduced to snarling like an animal and making loud hissing noises. The hissing and snarling begins in the next scene, when Dracula bursts in on Harker and the captive woman. She had again implored Harker to rescue her, only to attack him when he put his arms around her to quiet her hysterics. In the last scene that bears even the slightest resemblance to anything that Stoker wrote, the count pulls his consort away from Harker, bitch-slaps her into unconsciousness, and then turns his attention to the librarian.
When Harker awakens the next day, at what must be about 5:00 in the evening, he learns to his dismay that he has been bitten by one or the other of the vampires, and that, depending on how much of his blood was drunk, he may be well along the road to becoming one of them. With a new sense of urgency, he sneaks out of his room, and goes looking for Dracula’s resting place. It is, of course, in a vault beneath the castle, and it takes Harker relatively little time to find it. Unfortunately for him, he makes the mistake of staking the count’s concubine first (the first appearance of the gore element of that tits-gore-and-Technicolor triad I mentioned earlier), and by the time he gets around to her master’s coffin, the sun has set, and Harker finds that coffin empty. The implications for the length of Harker’s remaining lifespan are obvious.
Some time later, an old friend of Harker’s, a physician by the name of Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives in Klausenburg to look into Harker’s disappearance. Van Helsing knew the true nature of Harker’s mission, but his efforts to impress upon the locals (who know as well as anyone that they are ruled by a vampire) the importance of helping him learn of Harker’s fate meet with little success. Only an innkeeper’s daughter has the stones to risk vampiric reprisal. She fortunately happens also to be the one who found Harker’s diary, which he hid on the castle grounds before he went coffin-hunting, and after giving Van Helsing the journal, she points him in the direction of Dracula’s home. Van Helsing arrives just in time to see a hearse, bearing a polished white coffin, tearing ass away from the castle, which is of course empty when Van Helsing reaches its threshold. Well, okay, so it isn’t quite empty; in the vault, Van Helsing finds the now-undead Harker reposing in Dracula’s old sarcophagus, upon which discovery the doctor makes use of one of the stakes that Harker dropped when he made his unsuccessful attempt on the count’s life. He also finds, empty, the frame in which Harker had kept his photos of Lucy.
And wouldn’t you know it, when Van Helsing arrives at the Holmwoods’ place somewhere in Habsburg Austria (“What?!?!” you say again. Just let it go, man...) bearing the bad news of Harker’s death, it comes out that Lucy is seriously ill. Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough, of Konga and Horrors of the Black Museum, whose appearance here is just one of the many discordant notes that do this film so much damage) is clearly distrustful of Van Helsing, partly on account of the doctor’s refusal to give any of the details of Harker’s death, and partly (or so the movie hints) because Holmwood has always regarded Van Helsing with suspicion. His wife, Mina (Crucible of Terror’s Melissa Stribling), on the other hand (Wha... oh, nevermind...), is more understanding, and when Van Helsing later asks her to describe the nature of Lucy’s illness (her physician, Dr. Seward [Charles Lloyd Pack, from The Revenge of Frankenstein and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver], says it’s anemia), she is even willing to follow the very alarmed doctor’s bizarre instructions for a new course of treatment. Lucy’s room is to be filled with garlic flowers, and all the doors and windows to her room are to be kept locked from dusk to dawn.
But naturally, something goes wrong, and Lucy is found dead the next morning. The blame lies with Gerda the maid (The Kiss of the Vampire’s Olga Dickie), who removed the garlic from Lucy’s room and opened the windows when the girl complained of the suffocating smell. By that point, Lucy was already under the vampire’s power, and craved his nightly visits like a junkie craves his fix. Arthur initially blames Van Helsing’s unorthodox medical advice, which, after all, flew directly in the face of the Victorian era obsession with the healing power of fresh air, but he changes his tune a few days later, when Lucy rises from the grave and begins terrorizing his daughter, Tania (Janina Faye, from Hell House Girls and The Day of the Triffids). Arthur and Tania are nearly killed by the undead Lucy, and are saved only by the timely arrival of Van Helsing, who, brandishing a silver crucifix, forces Lucy back into her crypt for a good staking.
It’s Mina’s turn next, as Count Dracula cleverly fixes things so that he can hide his coffin in the Holmwoods’ own basement, where Van Helsing and Arthur would never think to look for it. But Gerda the maid tips them off with a passing remark in conversation, not even realizing that she has thereby redeemed herself for her contribution to Lucy’s demise. Van Helsing renders Dracula’s coffin unusable by “contaminating” it with his crucifix after the vampire kidnaps Mina, and he and Arthur race back to Klausenburg in an effort to catch their foe before he can return to the sarcophagus beneath his castle. They arrive just in time to stop the count from burying Mina in the unhallowed ground just inside his moat, and Van Helsing then pursues the vampire into the castle just moments before sunrise. A disappointingly brief and one-sided contest in Dracula’s dining hall ends with Van Helsing ripping down the drapery and disintegrating the vampire in a special effect that must have seemed appallingly graphic in 1958.
This anticlimax is my biggest complaint with Horror of Dracula. In the entire movie up to this point, the vampire has had maybe ten minutes of screen time. If you’re going to set up your movie so that the great evil is a mostly unseen presence until the conclusion, it behooves you to make that conclusion a real zinger. Van Helsing spends the whole damn movie talking darkly of the menace of Dracula, even going so far at one point as to say that he poses a threat to the entire world. And yet one man is able to destroy him with a minimum of effort, armed only with a pair of iron candlesticks and a curtain. I hate to say it, but even Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein did a better job of using the action of the movie to support the characters’ assessment of the threat posed by the vampire. Adamson’s Dracula effortlessly defeats the entire human cast, then destroys Frankenstein’s monster with equal ease after concluding that he can no longer control it, and is vanquished himself only through an act of ego-driven carelessness on his own part. Don’t mistake me-- I would never suggest that Dracula vs. Frankenstein is, on the whole, a better movie than Horror of Dracula, or even than Dracula’s Dog, and I certainly wouldn’t commit the blasphemy of suggesting that Zandor Vorkov is worthy even to carry Christopher Lee’s jockstrap. All I’m saying is that there is a jarring discrepancy in Horror of Dracula between what the characters have to say about the count and the amount of effort it takes to defeat him once they’ve tracked him down. Coming on top of the 70 minutes’ worth of fumbles and missteps that lead up to it, this ill-conceived conclusion comes close to proving fatal to the film, which owes what success it manages to retain almost solely to the skill and professionalism of Peter Cushing.