Interestingly enough, the first entry in their next saga was already complete before the lengthy Universal agreement was signed. The result was Horror of Dracula which proved so successful that Universal not only did NOT sue, but they expanded their agreement with Hammer to allow them virtually free-access to remake their classic library of films. For purely artistic reasons, of course. Well, those and the fact that Universal International was given the distribution rights outside of England, which proved to be remarkably lucrative.
Renamed "Horror of Dracula" in the USA (because the 1931 Dracula was still booking in American Cinemas) Dracula, as it was officially known in its native England, was a success because of the excellent new style that the "Hammer Horror" flicks had only just begun to cultivate. This included lavish color, impressive set design, the rich and detailed direction of Curse Helmsman Terence Fisher and a talented cast that included such greats as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee! Further, Horror of Dracula worked in spite of the fact that it was drastically changed from its source material.
This is one of the first things that Bram Stoker fans might notice about this version of Dracula. From the very beginning Jimmy Sangster's screenplay sets out to be its own work. We begin, as is common, with Jonathan Harker's arrival at Castle Dracula. Instead of the best-known real estate deal since God talked to Moses, Jonathan (played by John Van Eyssen) has been hired by Count Dracula himself to act as his personal... Librarian. Yes... Librarian.
What old Pointy-Teeth (Lee) does NOT know is that John-boy is not merely your average Dewey Decimal expert, but is actually a trained Vampire Hunter in the employ of one Doctor Van Helsing (Cushing). One just can't trust a Librarian these days, can one? You invite the guy in to dust off and organize your creepy tomes and he tries to give you a Stake Dinner!
After the now-common scene of Dracula inspecting the photograph of Jonathan's Fiancee (Lucy in this version, played by Carol Marsh), Jonathan sets about his task of giving every Vampire in the house a little Wood Poisoning. Time appears to be of the essence, as he's been given a little nip by one of Saucy Drac's Vampire Women (well-endowed Valerie Gaunt)!
As revenge for this betrayal the big guy in the cape sets about his task to recruit new "Brides of Dracula", starting with sexy Lucy, then maybe moving on to Lucy's benefactor Mina (Melissa Stribling)! Lucky for the ladies (but unfortunately for the high Count), Dr. VH has recruited a new ally in his war on Bloodsuckers in the form of Arthur, Lucy's big brother and Mina's husband (played by Michael Gough)! Who will win before sunrise? Place your bets, folks, place your bets!
Hammer's Dracula might not be quite as influential as Universal's own Lugosi-vehicle, but it is a very inventive film that still feels fresh half-a century (and beyond) after its release. Many of the changes made to the script were not so much to distance it from the original Novel, but to put some safe boundaries between it and the 1931 film that inspired it (a function they would employ much less of after the contract was expanded). Therefore, Horror of Dracula less a remake of its black and white predecessor than it is a reinvention all its own. At times this classic film feels like its own story with similarly named characters popping up to do completely different things. Other times the new take on the story succeeds in keeping the viewer guessing and making the movie feel both familiar and special in its own right... or should I say "Rite"?
Naturally this wouldn't work if the film wasn't well-done, in fact, some of the changes could amount to travesties if Fisher's film was less artful. The colors are rich and striking, especially when we see surprising beauty, tainted by red blood and innocence pulled into terrible situations. Lee and Cushing give great performances as the bitter enemies who amount to two sides of the same coin. Lee particularly brings a certain seductive sexuality to the role, deepening the plot of his "making new brides" quest in a strange way (especially for 1958). Meanwhile Carol Marsh's alternately waifish and vixen-like performance is nothing short of hot in a before-her-time Goth Girl kind of way. Bravo, lady, bravo!
Still, for all its horror and beauty, Dracula does have a certain Camp value and many a sequence feels hopelessly dated. In many ways our movie may suffer from its own success. As so many filmmakers have taken the fresh ideas of Dracula and borrowed them liberally for their later movies, some viewers may come back to this influential film and find the occasional groundbreaking moment to be somewhat trite.
That would be too bad, of course, as watching this film in any era is a treat for the educated. From the Score by James Bernard to the lavish cinematography by Jack Asher to the art direction and production design by Bernard Robinson, Horror of Dracula is a spectacle right on up to its final moments. Speaking of which, the amazing final sequence is a credit to special effects artists Sydney Pearson and Les Bowie! I don't want to ruin the ending, but trust me, for 1958, this is really something to see.
Such is the case with all of Horror of Dracula! True, it may not be perfect and it does seem to follow a certain formulaic track, but it is also a unique and inventive slice of cinematic horror that has to be seen to be appreciated. Horror of Dracula is worth your time to see, worth its place in THE SUMMER OF HORROR II and worth at least Three and One Half Stars out of Five! Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula were followed by a series of sequels and a fair amount of Universal Remakes, all in Technicolor. Some are better than others, true, but make no mistake, without the successes of Horror of Dracula (and, yes, Curse of Frankenstein, too) we might not have gotten any of them and I wouldn't be able to say "See you in the Next Reel!"
The first thing I noticed about Lee's Dracula was his Teeth!
No, not the Fangs, the post WW2 British Choppers
That seemed to point in about 32 different directions!
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