The weirdest thing that will catch anyone familiar with Dracula happens about ten minutes in, when Jonathan Harker (the nominal hero of the novel and most of its adaptations) writes his old friend Van Helsing, declaring his intention to destroy the ruthless and evil Count Dracula. That doesn’t go so well for Jonathan; when Van Helsing arrives at Castle Dracula, looking for Harker, he finds that his friend has been transformed into a vampire (whom he then proceeds to stake) and the manor’s namesake nowhere to be found.
While fidelity to the source material is generally considered to be directly proportional to a Dracula film’s quality, this version doesn’t suffer from having Van Helsing at the front instead of the Harkers; as I think I’ve mentioned in the past, Jonathan isn’t a particularly effective hero. (Which doesn’t mean that the Harkers’ roles are entirely eliminated from the story; they’re taken up by the Holmwoods–now Jonathan’s prospective in-laws, as Mina has been made Arthur’s sister.)
In addition, Jimmy Sangster’s script drops a lot of the novel’s more familiar supporting characters (such as Seward and Renfield), so having a stronger central character benefits this particular approach. Despite some of the more unusual changes to the original plot, Sangster and director Terence Fisher don’t deliver a radical reinterpretation of the source material; anyone who’s familiar with the novel or any of its myriad adaptations will be familiar with the progression of the plot or the development of thematic elements. This is a bit of a stripped-down and simplified (one might even say “dumbed-down”) take on the source material, but it’s still recognizably Dracula.
The dominant qualities of Horror of Dracula–the lush production (an eventual Hammer trademark) and the performances of Peter Cushing (Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (Dracula)–have been discussed so much that it’s probably impossible to come up with something to say about them that hasn’t yet been said. What I can say is that every inch of the legend is deserved. It goes without saying that Cushing and Lee are great actors; pretty much everyone of my generation is familiar with Lee through his late-career renaissance via the Lord of the Rings films, the Star Wars prequels and the last decade or so of Tim Burton’s work. Cushing we’re less familiar with, but we remember that he’s one of the few actors who could believably play the guy pulling Darth Vader’s strings (and maybe we recall that he fought the Daleks in two Doctor Who movies).
But there performances here aren’t just great performances, they’re damn near definitive performances. There have been other great Draculas (Max Schreck, Gary Oldman, Louis Jourdan, Klaus Kinski) and even great Van Helsings (Edward Van Sloan), but Cushing and Lee stride on set and own these characters, totally and completely. (You might even find yourself asking, “Bela who?”) It’s a damn shame they only share a couple of scenes. Unfortunately, the rest of the ensemble can’t really stand up to Cushing and Lee, and anything not involving them directly tends to feel like a diversion. Even the late Michael Gough (another actor people my age will recognize though association with Tim Burton–he played Alfred in the Burton/Schumacher Batman films), playing Arthur Holmwood as juvenile lead and sidekick to Van Helsing, has a tendency to get steamrolled.
Meanwhile, the visuals bring entirely new meanings to adjectives like “lush” and “vivid.” Horror of Dracula could serve as a masterclass in how to use Technicolor in a Gothic horror picture (if it still existed), while Fisher wrings every penny of value out of his budget. By modern standards, it only looks slightly cheesy, so imagine how great this looked when it was originally released in 1958.
Horror of Dracula isn’t anywhere near the best Dracula adaptation, but it’s still pretty damn good. If nothing else, it’s worth watching if you want to see where Cushing and Lee’s legends came from.
My rating: 7 of 10.
82 minutes. Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh.