Horror of Dracula

Hammer Films, 1958
Directed by Terence Fisher

The first of Hammer's celebrated series of Dracula movies is one of the best adaptations of Stoker's original novel. At the film's opening, Jonathan Harker arrives at Castle Dracula on foot, the coachman having refused to take him all the way. What Harker finds is a rather quaint but charming old schloss, well suited to the Bed & Breakfast trade, and rather oddly provided with a fast-running stream in the front yard (not terribly convenient for a vampire!). The Count, it transpires, has hired Harker to be his new librarian, though it never becomes clear why the Count developed this sudden desire to have his collection cataloged. Complicating the scenario is a buxom young brunette who is being held prisoner by the Count. A couple of plot twists later, the Count has ventured forth from his lair in search of Harker's fiancee Lucy, and proceeds to wreak terror on her and the rest of the Holmwood family. 

Jimmy Sangster's screenplay modifies the novel's geography, placing the primary victims in Karlstadt, Germany rather than England. The setting of Dracula's castle near Klausenberg (aka Kolozvar, now known as Cluj) keeps him in Transylvania, but seventy miles or so southwest of the location in Bram Stoker's novel, and in a less remote area. 

Sangster also compresses the action from months to seemingly just a few days. Gone also are Whitby, Renfield,  and Dr. Seward's asylum. But there is action galore, with galloping coaches, fight scenes and blood spurting freely. Van Helsing is dashing in the most literal sense, as he seems to sprint everywhere!

Though not following the book slavishly, this version does surface a few interesting elements from the original. The blood transfusion is interesting to see performed with period apparatus. Other nice touches are Jonathan's compulsive journal writing, and Van Helsing's dictation to an early Edison recording device. One of the comic relief elements, the bribing of a customs official is actually reminiscent of the many instances where the novel's characters rely on cash incentives to speed their pursuit of the evil one.

Cast and Crew
The commanding performances of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are of course the major strong points of the film. Cushing's qualities of  penetrating intellect, fierce determination, and boldness in action made him forever the greatest of Van Helsings, and vampire slayers generally. Lee's commanding physical presence and appeal to women made him the definitive Dracula of his generation. Sadly, the writer doesn't give him much to say, aside from a few pleasantries in the early scenes. His wordlessness in the remainder of the film foreshadows the trend of later Hammer productions, when his dialog was minimized for reasons of budget or artistic disagreements.

However, almost equally of note is the film's charming and atmospheric production design by Bernard Robinson. The barbaric and semi-Oriental splendor of Dracula's great hall adds greatly to the mood of the tale.

Vampire Lore
Most of Stoker's vampire lore is omitted or rejected here. The issue of mirrors is never brought up, and Van Helsing asserts that vampires cannot transmute into animal form. On the other hand, the modern notion that daylight is lethal to the vampire is strongly emphasized and forms the rationale for the film's finale.

Coup de Gras
In one of the most famous scenes in all of horror film, Van Helsing uses a cross improvised from iron candlesticks to force the Count into the light, which reduces him gruesomely to ashes: first a foot, then a hand, as with his terrified face the creature suddenly becomes a figure of pity, baring his fangs one last time before the final dissolution.

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