By the 1950s Universal were seeing a decline in their horror monster films. They weren't attracting the same massive audiences that Dracula and Frankenstein once had. There were a number of reasons for this, from the already aged and slightly cringy special effects, to the fact that most of their audiences had just experienced the real horrors of the Second World War. Once you've experienced that, I doubt the likes of Lagosi's Dracula or Karloff's Frankenstein has quite the same appeal.
However, there was a small British movie company called Hammer who had found success with a small film in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein. Hammer had been around for a little while up to that point but none of their films had really hit the mark. But what was helping to set the Hammer Horror movies apart from those produced by companies like Universal was the movie into technicolour. The Curse of Frankenstein had been slammed by critics, mainly because of the vivid colours, the gloriously rich red of Hammer blood.
So imagine their faces when in the opening titles of 1958's Dracula, we open with a castle, hidden away in the mountains then slowly finding yourself in a crypt and a splatter of that red blood bringing the titles to a close.
What had helped Hammer with their previous Frankenstein release was its use of the original text. Apart from Victor Frankenstein creating his monster, little of the rest of the film has a lot to do with the original novel from Mary Shelley. Part of this was budgetary, there is no way that a small company like Hammer could have pulled off a film based 100% on the original Frankenstein novel, not even Universal could do that. Instead, writer Jimmy Sangster took aspects of the novel and wove it into a brand new story. The same approach was to be taken with Dracula. In the novel, there are long passages where characters are at sea, travelling from different countries, And as much as I love the Stoker novel, there are lots of changing focus as the book switches between characters.
What's interesting with Dracula is that we are introduced to who we think the hero will be, Jonathan Harker right at the beginning and we spend the opening ten-fifteen minutes with him. What is also a great twist is that Harker already knows Dracula is a vampire and is there to kill him, ending his reign of terror once and for all. But Dracula isn't a fool and knows what Harker is up too. When a woman who has been turned into a vampire, begs Harker for his help, we see the real Dracula, with gleaming fangs and blood red-eyes. Its a terrific image and thanks Christopher Lee's performance never comes across as corny and is actually quite frightening!
Harker's downfall is in trying to free the woman from her vampiric curse and stakes her in her coffin rather than Dracula. The titular monster wakes up and Harker is killed. And that all takes place in the opening ten/fifteen minutes! We then switch focus to one of Harker's colleagues, Professor Van Helsing, played by the ever reliable Peter Cushing. Van Helsing makes it his mission to hunt down Dracula, though his mortal enemy has set his sights on Harker's family, drinking the blood of Harker's fiance, Lucy, while seducing his Sister-in-Law, Mina. Van Helsing has no choice but to team up with Arthur Holmwood, played by Michael Gough, the only member of the family who hasn't been turned by the Count.
Nowadays, the tiny villages and the depictions of those who live in these ancient European towns might seem a little insensitive. But Hammer has always been able to do period pieces very well, the nail in the coffin for the Dracula franchise was when he journeyed into the 1970s. And even if the depictions of some of these characters might not please modern sensibilities, there is no doubt in the film making that these actors aren't townsfolk from Europe. Author Jimmy Sangster had no choice but to restrict the locations to a few taverns, side roads and the imposing Castle Dracula, for budgetary reasons, but in setting this in the middle of nowhere, helps give Van Helsing a sense he is a fish-out-of-water. This is a completely new world to him and he doesn't know who he can really trust beyond his own instincts.
Despite his appearence on movie posters and other promotion for the film, Christopher Lee only plays Dracula on screen for a total of 9 minutes and 35 seconds. And yet, his presence looms large over proceedings, so much so you'd swear he was in almost every scene. Lee's electrifying performance haunts the entirety of the movie, in much the same way Stoker's original vampire did in the novel, despite him not being in that much either. Each scene is spent waiting for Lee to appear and in watching the movie, it isn't hard to see how audiences found it so frightening originally. Director Terrance Fisher manages to build that menace right up until the end with the climatic showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula. Ripping the curtains away to expose the sunlight is something that has been time and again but never so effectively as it was here.
Cushing and Lee are magnetic together, and there is a common belief that they are in each subsequent Dracula movie. In fact they only starred opposite each other in a further two films. But what little screen time they share here is handled brilliantly both in the performances and the acting. While Cushing is excellent here, much like The Curse of Frankenstein was his movie, this is Lee's movie, who was just about to find himself with a long and varied and brilliant career. Its hard to believe that just a year earlier he was hidden underneath tons of makeup as the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein. He would be hidden again in Hammer's next outing The Mummy. It's little wonder why here, Lee proved so popular and is regarded, quite rightly as perhaps the best interpretation of Count Dracula ever.
To 1950s sensibilities the scene between Mina and Dracula raised a lot of concerns. Indeed, there are heavy sexual connotations to be read into it. While the entire scene where Dracula drinks her blood was filmed, much of it was cut from the final releases. Instead, we see Dracula entering Mina's boudoir and about to bite her, before cutting away to a owl screaming. I'm still not sure what would have been more effective. Nowadays, seeing Dracula come in and drink someone's blood would be considered one of the more tame aspects of a horror movie. But in a time when religion and more liberal thinking was coming to blows, you can understand why it might have been cut.
More bizarrely, they didn't seem more concerned about the following scene which sees Mina returning home, once highly strung and now careless and looking like she had a great night. Surely that scene is much more suggestive of what went on? Especially when you think that director Terrance Fisher told actress Melissa Stribling to play it like she had just had the best sex of her life. Even more bizarre is that it was only recently that the British Board of Film Censors allowed those scenes to finally be included for the 2013 Blu-Ray release!
Seeing Dracula now, after all this time, it isn't hard to understand why Hammer Horror had the success they did. Not only were they cracking films, but still, there is an air, of 'are they really suitable?'. There is nothing here that people should be concerned, the real blood and sex of Hammer would come a little later as it moved into the late 1960s and 1970s. What adds to the air here is that it always felt like a vast and sprawling story, despite the small cast and limited locations. Even film makers nowadays would have trouble telling the story of Dracula as Bram Stoker originally wrote it. But the stark and empty countryside, quiet-Victorian European villages and draughty castles we see here, can still easily beat the more modern attempts at telling the story of Dracula.
This is the version of the character I always think about when people talk about the titular monster and while Lee would famously come to detest playing the Count, here just at the turn in his career that would lead him to greatness, forged a lasting legacy, not only for himself as an actor, but an immortality for an otherwise immortal character. Don't let the age of this film put you off, like a good wine, Dracula gets better with age, its just a shame about the rest of them getting progressively worse! But this opening instalment of Lee's Dracula is rightly held as a classic.