Sunday Matinee: ”Horror of Dracula” Revisited

It had been two years since I last sat down to watch the Hammer classic Horror of Dracula (1958).  It is a film I owned on VHS and never upgraded — not because I didn’t like the movie.  Rather, because it was a film I always considered to be “just good enough.”  It was “just good enough” to replay at Halloween every year or so, “just good enough” to enjoy as a time-filler.  In other words, it never made my essential viewing list, quite unlike the original Dracula (1931) or Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).  Upon re-watching it, I am unsure why.  The film itself is rather well done.  It takes the main story of the novel, condenses it, and creates an enjoyable product that has some truly memorable moments —  to name one: the best Dracula death sequence in the history of film!

But there’s something about it that causes me to take pause, to not fully love it as many fans of the genre do.  Part of the problem is I had always viewed the title character in this version as little more than a glorified prop.  By now, some of you are shocked and ready to delete this site from your bookmarks.  But, allow me to explain.  I love Christopher Lee, and I love his interpretation of Count Dracula.  He is menacing, strong, powerful, and downright evil.  But, in this film, he has very little screen-time.  And while the main action revolves around him, we don’t see him that much.  This film is very much a Peter Cushing movie — and I love Cushing, especially as Van Helsing; but there’s just something about the uneven screentime given the Count that doesn’t sit well with my Dracula-loving heart.

After really thinking about it, the lack of Dracula actually makes this film closer to the novel than it would otherwise appear.  Bram Stoker never featured his main character all that much, so why should this second film adaptation be any different?  And I suppose that is why so many people give it a pass and automatically relegate it to “must see” status.  Don’t misunderstand.  Dracula is extremely effective the few minutes he is on screen – his fangs, his fierce expressions, the blood.  The whole characterization marked a new chapter in the monster’s history.  But with so little of him and so much of the rather bland Arthur Holmwood, the film had always been relegated to my stack of lesser-viewed films.

Another reason I disliked the film was because of its rather claustrophobic settings.  Nothing is grand or luxurious about this movie’s sets.  Nothing convinces me that this demon Count is at all wealthy or that he lives in a castle.  (The exterior shot of Dracula’s home doesn’t help change my mind.)  It’s as if the director, Terence Fisher, never wanted his audience to experience a delusion of the Count’s grandeur.  Nearly every scene has a very confined feel, and it is not to the film’s benefit.  Unlike Universal’s rather grand approach  to the material, complete with sweeping staircases and vast catacombs, Hammer’s version is small-scale in every sense of the word.  And while this sometimes works well in the visual medium (think TV’s Dark Shadows), the close quarters here detract more than they add.

So what made me change my mind about Horror of Dracula?  Two things:  First, the fact that this is virtually the first and  last truly decent picture where Lee and Cushing face off  in their most iconic Horror roles.  Second: the iconography the film helped to create.  This is the film in which Dracula sprouted his first real pair of fangs.  This is the film that added a whole new level of Horror to the vampire legend.  This is where blood and red eyes got their start.  Despite all of its drawbacks, this is the one vampire film since Bela Lugosi’s original Dracula that actually helped redefine the genre.  And so while my preference in the Hammer realm will always fall towards Dracula: Prince of Darkness (More on this in a week), Horror of Dracula has finally earned its rightful place on my “must-see” Halloween viewing list.

4.5 bats out of 5.

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