I first saw Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) at the old Austin Theater on South Congress sometime in the mid 1960s. It was on a re-release double bill with the studios' other blockbuster horror film, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). Both films starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and I fell in love with those men and their work on that long ago day. In the years since, I've always enjoyed watching Cushing and Lee, separately or together, in any film that they starred in. Even in small parts, they were always watchable, always professional and always a pleasure.
I watched HORROR OF DRACULA again this afternoon in honor of the recent passing of Sir Christopher Lee earlier this week at the age of 93. It's a fine film that holds up remarkably well after fifty-seven years. Released as DRACULA in the UK, the film was re-christened HORROR OF DRACULA for release in the United States. I suspect this was done in order to avoid confusion with Universal's DRACULA (1931), which was still enjoying the occasional theatrical re-release as well as showings on television.
Peter Cushing gets top billing and Christopher Lee has very little actual screen time (and minimal dialogue). Yet these two figures dominate the film. Lee was a big man and his entrances as Count Dracula are framed for maximum impact. Many are shot from a low angle, with Lee, ramrod straight and stiff, magnificent in his flowing black cape, standing in a doorway. He's just suddenly there. But Lee's Dracula is no static creature of the night. He jumps and leaps and runs and cavorts across the screen with a fierce energy and power. Here is a Dracula of uncanny strength and vitality, a far cry from Bela Lugosi's more subdued interpretation of the character. And Cushing matches Lee in the athletic sweepstakes, especially in the thrilling climax. I can't see Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan duking it out like Lee and Cushing do.
The sets are good, with many simply redressed and shot from a different angle to give the illusion of a more expansive production. There's a nice matte painting employed to give some depth to Castle Dracula. The Technicolor cinematography by Jack Asher is sharp and director Terence Fisher does his usual capable job. Note how he often places inanimate objects in the foreground of his frame, giving the film a quasi-3D effect. The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster uses the original Bram Stoker novel as a starting point but condenses much of the action and leaves out several characters. James Bernard's score is used judiciously but when it does kick in, it's a corker.
Michael (BATMAN) Gough as Arthur Holmwood, provides strong support to Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing, while his wife Mina is well played by porcelain beauty Melissa Stribling. Unlike the original novel and the 1931 film version, all of the action in HORROR OF DRACULA appears to take place somewhere in continental Europe. There's no mention of England and even though the actors all speak with British accents, the names of the towns, buildings and the dress of supporting characters place the film in Europe.
HORROR OF DRACULA was a ground breaking film for many reasons. It was the first Dracula film to be shot in color, it featured several actresses in low cut dresses and gowns in order to accentuate their bosoms and underline the sexual, erotic aspects of vampirism and it featured vivid, red blood. Granted, not much blood is actually spilled on screen but we do see it in several scenes. These were all radical elements for a 1958 British horror film.
The film also solidified the reputations of Cushing and Lee as horror stars and it indelibly linked Lee to the character he played in several more films over the years. Lugosi will always be the first cinematic Dracula but for my money, Lee's portrayal of the character is the best I've ever seen on screen. He's a throat-ripper, a beast, a savage blood-drinker. He's fierce, feral, big, fast and strong. That's a deadly combination and it makes Dracula a monster to truly fear.
Besides having a copy of the film on DVD, my other HORROR OF DRACULA collectible is the magazine pictured here.
This is a copy of FAMOUS FILMS #2, a short lived magazine series published by James Warren in the mid '60s. The other two issues in the series featured HORROR OF PARTY BEACH and THE MOLE PEOPLE (by the way, I have all three issues in my collection). The concept behind FAMOUS FILMS was to present classic horror films in a photo-format using stills from the movies with added word balloons, to tell the story. This issue is a double feature of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. In those days, there was no such thing as home video and you had to wait for a movie to either be shown on television (and hope you could see it), or be released (or re-released) to a local theater. That was it. But a magazine like FAMOUS FILMS gave you something to either remember the film by (if you'd already seen it) or something to tide you over and whet your appetite for the day you finally got to see one of these films for the first time.
The magazines look quaint today. They have a crude, primitive vitality but they're also cool as hell.