In 1958, Hammer would finally find real success with the release of the film, Horror of Dracula as it was known in North America, or simply, Dracula. It, more than any other film, except possibly Curse of Frankenstein, really cemented what the studio would be producing for the next two decades. And while Hammer would meander into other genres, horror would be their home. But the film would do more than just make a name for the studio; it would also make international stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and set the bar for every horror film to follow. Lee himself would do such a good job as the Count in the film that they would bring him back for numerous additional sequels while Cushing would appear in half of them. The film’s significance cannot be overlooked either, as it would influence many other studios to try and imitate the style and substance found within. Horror of Dracula also came along at the right time as the Universal age of horror had run its course and the public was hungry for something new, something different. Luckily, Hammer was there to fill that role.
It would almost be unfair to compare this film to the Universal picture starring Bela Lugosi as they are so different in almost every respect. While Dracula was moody and atmospheric in it its starkness of blacks, whites and muted sound, this picture is big and bold in many ways. Where Tod Browning favoured silence, James Bernard would score this movie from start to finish, with the music adding another level of enjoyment to the film. The bleakness of Dracula was so prevalent; it set your mood from the very first moment and held you down throughout the picture, knowing that what you were watching was truly a horror film. Horror of Dracula, with its often whimsical, yet serious script, moved the picture through moments of horror, drama and even action and adventure. The movie would also feature some fairly quick pacing in comparison to Universal’s picture, and coupled with the exuberant performances of its stars, the film would rocket towards its conclusion.
And stars it did have and stars did it make with Lee and Cushing giving some grandiose performances. Peter Cushing would star as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a man intent on hunting down Count Dracula and stopping his reign of terror. Cushing gave the role determination and a seriousness that almost seemed out of place in the film’s full-colour glory and yet set a perfect tone for the film as together with Lee; it showed that even in the most idyllic of settings, horror could propagate. Christopher Lee meanwhile would add some dynamism and flair to his portrayal of the Count. Whereas Bela Lugosi would be the gentleman and the aristocrat, Lee added an air of elegance to the role. The two of them would be imposing in their own ways, Bela through his quiet and subtle demeanour and Lee by being forthright and larger than life. One of the big changes in this film would be to have Lee keep silent during his role whenever he was the monster. His silence would speak volumes as everything he did from that point would rely on body language and facial expressions. It would also accentuate the fact that he was by all accounts, a monster during those moments, a creature that would be overcome by a bloodlust that he was a slave to.
Van Helsing would also be a slave as whatever drove him on his mission would give the man a single-mindedness and determination that almost bordered on the fanatical. Cushing’s performance as Van Helsing is compelling and aggressive even, while in comparison, Edward Van Sloan who played the role in 1931 almost seems like a curmudgeonly old man trying to catch the neighbourhood kids after stealing his paper. Most often, Peter Cushing plays the gentleman in a movie, and during the film, you do see that. But in some instances, Cushing calls forth a bit of darkness from within and he makes Van Helsing a little scarier than even Dracula, possibly being more ruthless than the vampire himself. Van Helsing has no qualms staking the people whom he once considered friends after they have turned to vampirism and the fact that he can do it so systematically speaks volumes about what he must have gone through to get to this point in his life.
Terence Fisher and writer, Jimmy Sangster would ultimately make a number of changes to the film to differentiate it from the Universal picture, and it would work magnificently. From the use of colour, music, script and actors, the film is as different as it can be from the 1931 vehicle. Michael Gough would give a strong performance as Arthur, who at first is a disbeliever but soon learns better while Carol Marsh and Melissa Stribling as Lucy and Mina respectively would do a fair job themselves. But the picture which was about Dracula was as much about Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. They would play off of each other throughout the film and together, their chemistry was quite apparent and would be noticed by not only the viewers but the studio as well, who would pair them up in many future films. As for Dracula, a good movie monster never stays down for the count.
5 out of 5