HORROR OF DRACULA —–“Why all these garlic flowers? And over the window? And up here? They’re not for decoration, are they?” No, in Klausenburg, a pretend locale somewhere in the Bavarian Alps of Germany in 1885 they’re for warding off nocturnal visits from one of the neighbors, who has a bad habit of picking off inquisitive travelers and the stray village maiden. When his associate ‘Jonathan Harker’ goes missing after arriving at a baroque castle, vampire hunter ‘Dr. Van Helsing’ (Peter Cushing) tracks clues (and undead bodies) to his ultimate quarry, ‘Count Dracula’ (Christopher Lee) and the stage is set for a contest between good and evil, symbols and savagery, corrupted sex and salvation through stakes. *
Scoring a surprise 1957 hit with a gaudy color update of an old foe-friend in The Curse Of Frankenstein, Britain’s ambitious Hammer Films snagged another of the venerated Universal creatures and reteamed stars Cushing and Lee, director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and technical associates to inject bright new blood (and ample breasts) into the vampire legend. Sangster and Fisher scuttle Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel and the earlier movie versions of the artery-fond fiend as played by Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. For this frank and fierce 1958 incarnation, Hammer brought not just a new jolt of excitement and the surefire attraction of heaving bosoms but vivid color—including the favored red– to the genre that had lived in more discreet black & white.
Unlike Dracula’s who would follow (Frank Langella in 1979, Gary Oldham in 1992), Lee speaks a mere 16 lines and is on-screen for just seven minutes, but with his imperious demeanor and the sleek way he moves his 6’5″ frame, chatter seems superfluous. The basically sick but undeniably arresting sexual compulsion aspect of vampirism got amped up for the approaching 60s by Hammer’s censor-baiting. Seduction, submission & domination is at the heart (or throat) of the matter. Lugosi’s courtly creepiness and the projected aura of mesmerization had hinted at it, but Lee’s cut-through-the-chaste approach overwhelms his female victims with sheer animal magnetism. They in turn approach their male targets with nothing less than panting lust (aided in tactics by those low-cut bodice-ripping gowns). Well, I guess it’s better than the Wolf Man, who leaves foreplay to Byron and opts for a Jack the Ripper game.
Cushing’s Van Helsing is a top drawer hero: cool and collected, civilized and certain, with an elegant but accessible voice. Valerie Gaunt is memorable as the first of Dracula’s bride-trove; 26, she only appeared in two movies, The Curse Of Frankenstein and her famous bit here, and then she married a reverend and left acting and fangs behind for a 58-year marriage and 4 children.
The production cost is reported as having been 81,000 English pounds, which, if my fevered calculations are right (hard to do with a wreath of garlic around my neck) equals around $2,460,000 in 2019; in other words a trim and slim affair. An international hit, it grossed $2,900,000 in the US alone, 80th place for the year. Other claims (including Christopher Lee in his autobio, “Lord of Misrule”) say the movie ended up making $25,000,000 globally, which seems a stretch, but who knows? Only the Count, and he doesn’t say more than he has to.
Vibrant use of color in the cinematography by Jack Asher, and there’s a crashing score by James Bernard. With Michael Gough (dullsville), John Van Eyssen (the unfortunate Mr. Harker) Melissa Stribling (wide-eyed initiate ‘Mina’), Carol Marsh (unlucky ‘Lucy’), Janina Faye, Miles Malleson and George Woodbridge. 82 minutes that spawned 8 sequels, 6 with Lee, 4 with Cushing. The acknowledged best came in 1960 with The Brides Of Dracula. **
* Someone needs to explain how the art director saw to it that a pineapple ended up on the food tray selection, in Germany, in 1885. The real place once known as Klausenberg is now Cluj Napoca, in Transylvania, Romania, where the real Vlad Dracula inspired fear as ‘Vlad the Impaler’ back in the merry 1400s.
** Keeping Cushing & Lee creepy company in 1958: The Fly, Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, From The Earth To The Moon, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, Tom Thumb, The H-Man, Monster On The Campus, Revenge Of Frankenstein, Hercules, The Thing That Couldn’t Die and The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad.