In Horror of Dracula, Hammer attempted to repeat the success of The Curse of Frankenstein by reunited Cushing and Lee with director Terence Fisher to tackle Universal’s next most popular monster. This time Cushing would shed the anti-hero mystique of Victor Frankenstein in favor of the classically heroic vampire-slaying Van Helsing and Lee, cast once agin as a famous monster, would actually have a few speaking lines (I find it funny that Christopher Lee, who built a career with his deep voice, began in roles where he barely spoke). Valerie Gaunt also returned (she played Justine in The Curse of Frankenstein) as a vampire bride of Dracula but unfortunately had limited screen time in both.
When comparing The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula I find the scripting of the former to exceed the latter. Horror of Dracula‘s story is rushed, jumping from plot point to plot point like a rabbit avoiding a snakebite, but in it Fisher again pushes the use of color in horror. Before we meet any characters we’re shown a graveyard and closeup shot of a headstone before technicolor red blood drips onto the memorial and shocks the audience to attention. Fisher is forecasting a bloodbath.
According to ScreenRant.com Dracula is the most adapted book in film history with more than 62 individual titles to its credit. Who has time to watch 62+ movies about Dracula? Hopefully not I, but I’ve seen enough to know that Jimmy Sangster made significant changes to Bram Stoker’s novel when adapting Horror of Dracula. The most notably that when Johnathan Harker arrives at Dracula’s castle he is already aware of the Count’s vampiric nature and is actively coordinating with Doctor Van Helsing to destroy the monster. However, Harker is doomed to die in this and nearly every adaptation. In Horror of Dracula he meets his end at the hands of Dracula’s vampire bride who plays the captive victim of Dracula’s cruelty before playing out a fable as the scorpion to Harker’s frog. He has his revenge when he stakes her through the heart before later taking her place in Dracula’s crypt.
Van Helsing doesn’t even appear on screen for probably the first 20 minutes of the film but he does have an incredible entrance. Cushing walks into a Transylvanian Inn nearby Dracula’s Castle inquiring about food and taking note of the establishment’s odd decor. Garlic lines nearly every surface and despite the very deliberate interior design choice no one will answer any questions about it. It matters not, Van Helsing is already keenly aware of the local vampire and his weaknesses. He’s more interested in learning the whereabouts of his friend Johnathan who hasn’t reported back in some time.
Van Helsing investigates the castle and finds his friend laying in a coffin with blood around his mouth and two circular wounds on his neck. He wastes no time staking Harker through the heart before spending the rest of the film hunting Dracula and helping the Holmwood family save Lucy from Dracula’s influence. Another difference between Horror of Dracula and many other adaptations is that Lucy is already under Dracula’s influence by the time she’s introduced onscreen. We see no seduction, no descent into decadence, just a sick girl devoted to a monster. Arthur Holmwood wants to help the poor girl and enlists Doctor Van Helsing’s help. Arthur is played by Michael Gough who I know best as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred! I guess he loves bat-obsessed goths.
Horror of Dracula is exciting and fun but also rushed and kind of boring. Christopher Lee speaks once or twice as Dracula but Cushing takes center stage yet again. Apart from the occasional hissing and bolting out of rooms in a flurry of blood and cloak, Lee’s only really great scene is at the end when he dies by Van Helsing’s hand. It’s really a phenomenal sequence where Dracula is turned to dust by the sun’s rays before scattering to the wind leaving behind only his bejeweled ring. It’s great.
I may’ve written about Universal’s monsters being Marvel’s cinematic universe’s template before but I think it’s worth noting here that the Hammer versions of these characters are some of the earliest instances of what we’d now call a reboot. This may seem obvious in a world where cinema is dead and most content is just jumping from reimagining one pop culture property to another but back in 1958 this practice of making three remakes of films with shared continuity was novel. Unsurprisingly it would also set the standard of reboots and remakes being hollow attempts to cash in on some earlier magic (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ghostbusters and obviously Tom Cruise’s The Mummy to name a few). Horror of Dracula‘s disappointing drop in quality from The Curse of Frankenstein would continue in the Fisher- Cushing-Lee trio’s next film The Mummy the following year. So stay tuned and I’ll get to that review next!