Horror of Dracula

Year: 1958
Studio: Hammer Films
Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, John Van Eyssen

Most of those in the developed world know the story of Dracula backwards and have done so since the early 20th century, so the only real reason to watch this outing is to appreciate the high water mark of the Hammer aesthetic. I can imagine if I'd been a kid or a young teenager seeing it on TV the matte painted backgrounds and plywood standing in for centuries old stone would have captivated me.

The script by Jimmy Sangster takes just the right amount of liberties with Stoker's novel to make it familiar but give it a little more familial urgency and the strange, barely-chaste sexual undertone a lot of horror of the time simmered with.

In this more than most versions, Dracula (Christopher Lee) is a suave, come-by-night lover who seduces Lucy and sets his sights on Mina, a theme Stoker was aware of and conveyed as much as the social mores of the time allowed, but which few cinematic versions have quite managed to capture.

Rather than a real estate agent facilitating the purchase of properties in London for the mysterious count, Harker (John Van Eyessen) arrives at Castle Dracula to serve as the Count's librarian.

He barely has time to settle in when a terrified young beauty comes begging for his help, saying she's being held prisoner. Harker promises he'll protect her but can't think what to do for her, his hesitation revealed when he writes in his journal about the real reason he's here. Dracula's secret is known, and Harker is here to condemn his soul to hell where it belongs.

After the desperate woman visits him again and this time attacks, biting him, Dracula arrives to scare her off. Waking up hours later in his room, he realises time is running out and returns down to the stony basement crypt, dispatches the woman with a wooden stake but finds Dracula himself isn't there. Instead the count is waiting for him at the top of the stairs, slamming the crypt door shut and trapping him inside.

Instead of being a specialist bought in to depose the horror, Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is a friends of Harker's who follows him to the nearby village when Harker has gone missing and not reported back with word of his progress.

When the innkeeper's daughter confides to Van Helsing that Harker has gone to the accursed castle, Van Helsing travels there, finds Harker sleeping in a tomb, now a vampire himself. He does away with his friend and returns, heartbroken, to tell Harker's fiance Lucy and her family the news.

From there the familiar characters and their plights are strung into a new spin on the tale by Sangster, with Lucy already bitten because the count has arrived ahead of Van Helsing, wavering on the edge of being undead, and Mina next in his sights.

It can't really escape the low budget and effects technology of the time, but there's a sense of screen magic and an otherworldly quality to the sets and the design that would have made it appear much larger than it was, and you can see why it's a staple for many people.

It was also an anachronism in that the story came first, with no apparent edicts about movie stars wanting to capitalise on their screen time. As the titular character, it feels like Lee hardly appears at all, and Cushing doesn't even show up until about half an hour in.

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