Well, we’re getting to October, and Halloween, so, it’s time to watch some horror movies, and of course, to review them. So, we might as well semi-start things with the classic Hammer Horror film “Horror of Dracula” starring Christopher Lee as the titular vampire and Peter Cushing as Abraham Van Helsing.
The film starts in the right place, with Johnathan Harker on the way to the castle of the mysterious Count Dracula – only it changes things up quickly by having Harker being there fully aware of the Count’s nature, and actually being an assassin there to kill him. This, and all of Harker’s scenes in the castle really summarize the movie in a nutshell, in terms of it’s high points and low points.
First, the lows. The story of Dracula, in most of it’s retellings, actually has a very broad, sweeping, almost epic scope. Stoker’s novel takes readers from Transylvania in the Carpathian mountains all the way to the bustling urban metropolis of Victorian London. This is a scope that is preserved from Nosferatu to the classic Universal version of Dracula with Bela Legosi, all the way to Coppela’s version. Hammer’s version, on the other hand, is missing it entirely. Dracula doesn’t have 3 brides, he has 1. Harker isn’t there on the pretense of closing a real estate deal that would allow him to come to London and spread Vamprism there, he’s there on the pretense of sorting out the castle library. Dracula doesn’t come to London by boat, with a reckless passage on the ship Alert that leaves the ship sailing into the harbor crewed only by the dead, but goes instead to a psudo-Germanic city a few days ride away, in a hearse. All in all, Dracula’s menace is decidedly local.
Also, on a side note, other iconic characters aside from Dracula’s brides are missing. Most notably, the supporting cast has been cut down to 3. Dr. Seward gets a some total of 2 scenes and then vanishes from the story, with not only his lines, but his innovative approches for fighting vamprism (such as the use of blood transfusions to help stave off the effects on the bitten) and the use of, at the time the book was written, state of the art technology to arrange his notes, such as recording his notes onto a phonograph cylander, are given to Van Helsing. The female characters are, at best, set dressing, and are at worst a liability to the heroes. Actually, that should be singular. Lucy’s fate is known as soon as the story begins, to those familiar with the Dracula story, and to those who are unfamiliar with the story, her fate is made fairly obvious. This leaves us with Mina, who all but becomes a human McGuffin by the end of the film.
There are some bright points in there though – Cushing and Lee’s performances are excellent, and for Lee’s scenes with dialog, he does come off as being both suave, sophisticated, and seductive, while also being menacing. Cushing, on the other hand, plays Van Helsing as intelligent, serious – a man who doesn’t think he’s right, he knows that he’s right, so why in God’s name won’t you listen to him! Thus, Van Helsing also comes off as being appropriately grating (which, frankly, he should be).
The film also is notable in that it covers some of the elements of the story that other movies really didn’t get into before this – that staked vampires don’t dust, they just return to whatever age they should be, given how long they’ve been alive – as well as getting into the elements that were cutting edge at the time the book was written (the aforementioned blood transfusions and recorded notes) and while it doesn’t play up the “relevant documentation compiled by an editor” theme that the original novel used and that Coppela’s later film played up, the use of Harker’s diary early on, and Van Helsing’s recordings do make for a nice touch.
All in all, the movie is a decent Dracula film. It’s certainly one of the better Dracula adaptations, I would not call it the best. It’s worth a rental, and only a purchase if you’re either a big fan of Lee or of Dracula – nothing else.