Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling
Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker are scientists studying the legend of vampirism. When they locate the castle of Count Dracula in Germany, Harker takes a post there (librarian?) to keep watch over the demonic lord. He slays one of the Count’s undead brides, provoking a deadly revenge: the Count bites Harker and then travels to find his fiancee, Lucy. The extremely dapper Van Helsing arrives too late to save Harker, but finds his diary and his diabolically preserved corpse, which he stakes. Van Helsing returns home to share the sad news with the Holmwood family — Arthur, his wife Mina, and his sister Lucy — but learns that Lucy has recently fallen ill with “anemia.” Can Van Helsing convince the Holmwoods of the truth in time to save Lucy and to keep Dracula’s attention away from Mina?
After their 1957 success with The Curse of Frankenstein and the ensuing franchise, Hammer Studio’s first foray into the vivid and bloody waters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula — which became known as The Horror of Dracula to U.S. audiences to avoid confusion with the Bela Lugosi film — is an over the top treat. Though some of the sequels took a bit of a nose dive (Taste the Blood of Dracula, I’m looking at you), this film is a strong start to what is admittedly one of my favorite franchises in horror cinema. It also helped set the very strong standard for vampire films that Hammer would continue with the Dracula series and beyond.
Similar to many other Dracula film adaptations, this has little to do with Stoker's novel and changes plot elements and characters at will. But if you’ve never seen a Hammer Studios horror film, this is a great place to start because it presents so many of their early trademarks with gusto: the sure, stylish direction of Terence Fisher, the weighty presence of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, lavish costumes and Victorian set pieces, plenty of buxom ladies, a heaping dose of sexuality, and even a bright red smear of violence. Fisher, Cushing, and Lee were reunited here after The Curse of Frankenstein and, in my opinion, are at their collective best.
Christopher Lee is a fantastic Dracula — and though he was not overwhelmingly fond of horror films, it was a career-making performance — and the tall, dark, and handsome Lee was probably the first to be overtly sexual or physical. I could be wrong about this, but he’s also probably the tallest Dracula, towering above everyone on set at 6’5”, a height that kept him out of leading roles early in his career, but got him cast as the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein. And while a lot of earlier adaptations of Dracula put an emphasis on the Count’s metaphysical abilities, but Lee’s Dracula is very earthbound and quick to put newly-shined shoe to ass.
Peter Cushing is a fabulous match in every way possible, retaining some the icy charm that leant itself so well to the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein. He’s also responsible for the single most stylish moment in any Hammer film when he walks on set wearing — I shit you not — an expertly tailored, three-piece red velvet suit. Cushing’s Van Helsing is cold, rational, and slaps the shit out of anyone prone to hysteria, while keeping in check the cruelty that fueled Baron Frankenstein.
It’s strange to think of their partnerships in the two competing franchises. While Cushing appeared in every Frankenstein film save one in the seven film series (The Horror of Frankenstein, a loose remake of The Curse of Frankenstein), Christopher Lee is missing from two entries in the nine film Dracula series (yes, count ‘em, nine): the second, The Brides of Dracula, and the last, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a Shaw Brothers coproduction. Sadly, Cushing’s Van Helsing did not turn up nearly as often, only in The Brides of Dracula, and the last three fantastic efforts, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.
But Cushing, Lee, and Fisher aren’t the only things that make Dracula so fantastic. James Bernard's score is wild, dramatic, sinister and over the top, there are a series of great side performances from actors who would become regulars to the studio, and a thrilling conclusion that makes Universal’s Dracula look old and crusty. Of course it comes with the highest possible recommendation and you can finally pick up the complete, special edition version on the fantastic import Blu-ray.