An entertaining and atmospheric vision of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Horror of Dracula is a vampire movie that gets it right. While the bloodsuckers are now generally thought of as eternal adolescents hopelessly attracted to uninteresting girls, there was a time with vampirism was considered a curse and the vampire considered a sinister but alluring villain.
This 1958 film sees things the right way, naturally. Directed by Terence Fisher, the picture features a veritable goldmine of British acting talent and is the first of many Hammer entries based on the Stoker tale. It also boasts some mighty sets and costumes, as well as a fair dose of bloodshed for its era.
The movie opens with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arriving at the castle of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) in Klausenberg. His host isn’t present at the time of his arrival, but he does encounter a mysterious woman (Valerie Gaunt) who seems to need his help. It is soon revealed that Harker is at the castle to kill Dracula, who is responsible for terrorizing the countryside.
Unfortunately, the good doctor’s mission doesn’t end well. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) tries to follow in his partner’s footsteps but is startled to learn the fate of his friend at the hands of the Count. Not only that, but Harker’s fiancé Lucy (Carol Marsh) labours under illness and her brother Arthur (Michael Gough) blames Van Helsing for everything.
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to discover that Count Dracula is indeed a vampire. Van Helsing and Harker have been tracking these creatures for ages and the unfolding of information and superstition around the “contagion” makes for fascinating mythology. All the accoutrements, from the cross to the garlic to the sunlight, are used to fight the caped evil.
As much as the curse of Dracula startles, it also seems to seduce its victims. The women appear simultaneously scared and turned on, especially Mina (Melissa Stribling). This combination of shock and sex appeal is a big part of the mystique. Lee’s haunting, sneering performance gives him the façade of a shadowing pervert at times and a perfect gentleman at others.
Fisher’s picture certainly exploits this dividing line, especially in the earlier scenes with Gaunt’s vampire woman. She turns from prey to seductress to murderess in seconds, underscoring just how volatile these dynamic elements can really be and how little difference there is between such vicious passions.
The other victims go through similarly quick courses. Mina is one moment a steadfast wife to Arthur and the next a garden-walking menace burned by the cross and prone to impulses. Because of the relatively short duration of Horror of Dracula, Fisher and the Jimmy Sangster screenplay communicate these journeys rather hastily.
The economy of motion fails to hurt the story overall, luckily. Thanks to solid performances from the entire cast, especially Cushing and Lee, this saga is enchanting from the outset. It never relinquishes its hold and balances its Gothic horror with little titbits of humour, like a scene where a gate is crashed through not once but twice in a fashion usually reserved for car chases.
The symbolism in vampire tales has always been a big part of the equation and Horror of Dracula is no different. Religious iconography is once again the straw that stirs the proverbial drink, with many crosses burned into the skin in the movie’s lean minutes. When a more formal cross won’t do, Van Helsing forms the shape by intersecting candelabras.
The cross embodies good’s conquest over evil, a point stressed in the very best horror movies. Viewers must be reminded that nobility triumphs, even in despair, but Horror of Dracula does this without totally closing the casket. The germ for evil is always present and one day there may be a scarcity of stakes, but on this occasion the corporeal – and Peter Cushing – have won.