Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 12: Horror of Dracula (1958).
In previous posts I’ve mentioned that, with a few notable exceptions, I am not a fan of slasher films. Well … the same could be said for vampires. I don’t know … I just never really understood the fascination with these creatures—at least as far as movies, novels, and TV are concerned. I can certainly understand the allure of living forever, being beautiful, and having power over lowly human beings; but fictional incarnations of the vampire way of life (or undeath, I suppose) have mostly, to my way of thinking, been little more than simplistic retellings (and often shameless rip-offs) of what Bram Stoker created more than a century ago (and, to a lesser extent, what John William Polidori created almost two centuries ago with his short story “The Vampyre”). And yet, as with slasher films, there are notable exceptions. Movies like Near Dark, Martin, Fright Night (1985), Let the Right One In, and both the silent F. W. Murnau 1921 version and the full-audio 1979 Werner Herzog version of Nosferatu have become all-time favorites of mine. But for me, when I hear the word vampire, I think of Count Dracula and Abraham Van Helsing, and I when I think of Count Dracula and Abraham Van Helsing, I think of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and when I think Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I think of the Hammer Films series of Dracula pictures. And then I smile like big slobbering baby.
Horror of Dracula, the first and arguably the best in Hammer’s Dracula series, is, to me, required viewing, an absolute necessity come each October. It should be noted that this Dracula has almost nothing in common with what Stoker produced; in fact, writer Jimmy Sangster and director Terrence Fisher seem to revel in completely reinventing Stoker’s narrative to suit their considerably limited resources and miniscule budget. And they make it work, effectively retooling Stoker’s overtly sexual narrative metaphor into a pure seek-and-destroy-the-monster tale … with overt sexual overtones still in play, of course.
Horror of Dracula proudly bears its blood-stained fangs, squeezing every ounce of moody atmosphere out of its Gothic setting through in-your-face art decoration and costuming, the not-so-realistic background matte paintings of looming mountains, the liberal use of blood the color of candied apples, and a surfeit of scenes set in ancestral graveyards, chilly crypts, and dank cellars. But perhaps the most fun to be had lies in the performances. This film provides the horror fan the rare opportunity to see iconic characters played by iconic actors at the height of their abilities. Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, Christopher Lee as Dracula, Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood—no room for teen scream queens here. Isn’t that a novel concept?