When television and film go back to the same characters over and over, the first incarnation we see tends to be the one that becomes “ours.” Our James Bond or our Doctor or our Sherlock Holmes is the correct one and you can’t shake us.
There is a random quality to intersections with pop culture, but longevity allows an actor’s interpretation to become the default for generations. Dracula may have been depicted onscreen 270+ times, but nobody played him more often than Sir Christopher Lee. Sir Christopher Lee was everybody’s Dracula.
Horror of Dracula (1958) was Lee’s first appearance as the peckish Count. It was the second of the “Hammer Horror” films produced by the British company Hammer Film Productions, released simply as Dracula in the UK.
Dracula in a jewellery box
With an eye on the budget, the script lays out the antique Bram Stoker dining set on a much smaller table than in the novel Dracula.
Doctor Van “Dr Helsing” Helsing (Peter Cushing) is a scholar specializing in the study of vampires. His study buddy Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is engaged to Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), who is younger sister of Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), who is husband of Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling): simple as that.
Dracula’s social situation is similarly streamlined, with his trio of bad, bad babes replaced by a monogamous one-bride-out-one-bride-in sort of policy.
Nothing trimmed out feels missed, although I did mourn the lost opportunity to hear a superfine British actor doing a cowboy accent for the ages.
Horror of Dracula doesn’t wrap its arms around the whole continent of Europe the way the novel (and some filmed versions) of Dracula do, but makes the action curiously local. The curiousest bit is that the locality isn’t in England. If there was ever an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original Dracula story that I would have expected to take full advantage of the original locations in England, it was the Hammer Dracula, but no. The place seems to be Bavaria, almost exclusively shot on sets. Castle Dracula is less than one night’s carriage ride from the Holmwoods.
Cherchez la femme (vampire edition)
In fact, everything in Horror of Dracula is very intimate: the family circle, the inside pages of a diary, the bedrooms of women, the beds of women. The world is the Holmwood home and its doors and windows are wide open; even Van Helsing lets himself in to examine Lucy without waiting to be invited, barely nodding to the social nicety of sending in his card.
There are plenty of theories about what the Stoker novel Dracula is “about.” The best monsters are like empty bottles that society can pour its fears into, and Dracula is a very good monster. In Horror of Dracula, the story is about sex.
Who possesses a woman’s body? How can any man protect his womenfolk from penetration by a desirable and determined male? Can science ever contain the monster of female sexual desire, or does religion remain the only recourse? And how does one protect vulnerable children from these fallen women? Will NOBODY think of the CHILDREN?
When the world shrinks down to the size of a family home, saving the family becomes a matter of life and death. The world Doctor Van Helsing saves is Arthur Holmwood’s world.
Cushing and Lee
Young Peter Cushing was a revelation to me. I’ve been aware of Cushing, the same way I’m aware of Cubism or the moons of Saturn, but I’d never actually educated myself. I had no idea how pretty he was, and how compulsively watchable he was.
From the moment Cushing appears—fashionably late, like all the best Van Helsings—every scene in Horror of Dracula is his. He steals the pants off everyone else on screen, but he’s very charming about it and I’m not sure anyone minded all that much.
Sir Christopher Lee’s iconic performance as Dracula is iconic. Lee’s Dracula looms no matter what angle he was filmed at, isolated and monolithic, conveying the size of the threat he represents better than the script does: big bad dude is bigger than me, bigger than you, bigger than any of the beautifully-dressed forces arrayed against him.
I was surprised by how little he speaks. He wasn’t the star of Horror of Dracula, sure, but they had ears. Sir Christopher Lee’s voice was a phenomenon, a special effect in its own right. Imagine a world, let’s call it 1958, when somebody could hire Christopher Lee and think, nah, a few more lines for him wouldn’t add anything to the picture.
Melissa Stribling is the centre of the story as Mina, connecting Van Helsing to Lucy, Van Helsing to Arthur, Arthur to little Tania, and housekeeper Gerda to Dracula. She is a vision of corseted middle-class respectability, with no indelicate ankle or female emotion showing, the family and home embodied in one figure. But Stribling’s Mina is a perfect, beautiful pressure vessel that should only be punctured with caution. Her destruction leads only to the destruction of everything worth saving.
Carol Marsh, on the other hand, enters the movie already living the vamp life; we are never invested in Lucy’s life and there is hardly time for her to establish herself as worth mourning before she is dead. But it’s okay, because this is a Dracula movie and Marsh is soon back. She is so unsettling in vampire mode as little Tania’s predatory Aunt Lucy that I suspect this was the bit that attracted her to the role, and less so the lying picturesquely in a sickbed bit.
John Van Eyssen is charismatic enough as Jonathan to carry Horror of Dracula on his own for most of the first act, but I never felt like I understood what he was about. His internal life seems so complex and full of contradictory instincts that I wanted either lots more of him—Jonathan Harker, Victorian Secret Agent!—or so much less.
Michael Gough’s Arthur is solid as the foundations of the earth. (Even in the 1950s, Gough already had the gravitas of a government-protected heritage church.) Delightfully, he also manages to carry off the only funny joke in the script with an economy that makes the two broad comic turns in Horror of Dracula look especially flabby and unnecessary.
Horror of inefficiency
One of the saddest things any of us will experience in life is a wedding where the food runs out. It’s a lesson for life, that when the budget is limited, the first thing you have to cut is scale. Horror of Dracula gets that right. It’s a lean, quick-footed movie, attractive and crafted with a jeweller’s eye.
Horror of Dracula is also relatively free of moments of dumb, and they’re concentrated in Jonathan Harker’s scenes, which means it’s probably just Harker that is dumb.
Is Horror of Dracula scary? Not for Dr Jim and I, but it’s worth keeping in mind that in 1958, it was rated X (18+) in the United Kingdom.
I tend to be surprised when a revered classic turns out to be very good, but at Chateau Monster of Arts we will watch Horror of Dracula again and again. Maybe as a Christmas tradition. Is that weird?❤