The late night horror film used to be a regular feature, back in the days of regional television, and against his better judgement, my dad let me stay up one night when I was twelve to see Hammer’s colour re-imagining of Dracula. I was hooked. Christopher Lee’s magnetic performance made an impression and I ditched my then crush, Indiana Jones, and joined the dark side forever.
Hammer’s first gothic horror, The Curse of Frankenstein, was highly successful, resulting in a sequel and the desire for the studio to try for another horror icon. Universal Studios had the rights to Dracula and it was only in March 1958, after Hammer’s version had already been shot, did they come to a legal agreement with Universal. The film was released as Dracula in the UK, but renamed The Horror of Dracula in the United States in order not to confuse the it with Bela Lugosi’s version.
To date there hasn’t been a faithful adaptation of the novel, though Hammer’s interpretation manages to evoke the spirit of Stoker’s work. It begins with Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen) travelling to Castle Dracula to take up a position as the Count’s librarian. He is greeted by Dracula (Christopher Lee) when he arrives, the Count seemingly urbane and charming, however later in his room Harker reveals that he know what kind of creature Dracula is, and that he intends to kill him. Harker’s attempt fails, and it is up to his friend Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to eliminate the vampire Count, while trying to prevent Dracula from putting the bite upon Harker’s fiancée, Lucy (Carol Marsh), and her sister-in-law Mina (Melissa Stribling).
Cushing and Lee had worked together previously in The Curse of Frankenstein, with Cushing as the Baron and Lee playing the mute monster. Cushing’s Helsing is energetic and noble, an excellent foil to Lee’s seductively evil vampire who is both handsome and grotesque in equal measure. Michael Gough makes for a passable Arthur Holmwood and Melissa Stribling is suitably beguiled by the Count. However it’s Carol Marsh’s performance as Lucy, the girl doomed to become a vampire, that is more interesting. Marsh manages to portray Lucy with understated eroticism, both repelled and attracted to Dracula. Compared to Sadie Frost’s blatantly sexualised Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) Marsh is a more ethereal Lucy, her transformation into a predator who attempts to drink the blood of a child made all the more chilling in contrast to her past life as an upper class Victorian virgin.
Dracula evokes a sumptuous atmosphere, mainly due to Bernard Robinson’s set designs, giving Castle Dracula a welcoming, luxurious feel rather than a forbidding crumbling ruin. James Bernard’s score accents the action sequences with thumping vigour, mellowing to soft eerie tones. Lee’s costume is a nod to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the red-lined black cape and widow’s peak, but the demonic red eyes and rivulets of blood dripping from his fangs is all Hammer.
The film was successful in the UK, the US and in Canada, and a sequel followed in 1960, The Brides of Dracula. Peter Cushing reprised his role of Van Helsing but Christopher Lee wouldn’t play Dracula again until 1966 in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Dracula set a pattern for all future Hammer vampire films, the addition of Technicolor scarlet blood, the plunging necklines and floaty nightgowns of the heroines, and the dark eroticism of the count.
Dracula is classic Hammer at its best.