Horror Of Dracula (1958) is the third version of Dracula I’m watching this month, after Nosferatu and Universal’s Dracula! I should really watch the 1992 version as well, but I’m kind of done with the story now so I think I’ll save that for next year.
This is the first of the Hammer horror films, which is a series with which I’m not nearly familiar enough, and am looking forward to exploring more in the near future.
The opening is very British with all the castle buldings and gates, looking exactly as boring as they look in real life if you visit these things all the time! We then get an ominous shot of Dracula’s coffin, with silly unrealistically-coloured blood (it looks more like paint) spattering on it.
The backstory is provided by Jonathan Harker narrating his diary, confirming that the setting is 1885, slightly earlier than in the novel (which came out in 1897 and was set in an unspecified year during the 1890s). At first it seems to be truer to the novel than the Universal version, with Harker being the one to visit Castle Dracula rather than Renfield, but when a young woman comes to speak to Harker, he tells her he’s the ‘new librarian’, which is a departure from the standard estate agent story.
Dracula makes arrangements for Harker to be comfortable until he can meet with him, thus keeping up the pretence a bit better than in previous versions. However, the young woman begs for help, insisting that she’s a prisoner of Dracula, and then runs when the Count appears.
Dracula (Christopher Lee in the role that he didn’t like being defined by) is very normal-seeming at first, displaying typical British politeness toward Harker. The geographical setting of the film is quite confusing – all the characters act extremely British, and have the British names of the original novel characters, but all the action in the town (which has streets with Germanic-sounding names) takes place fairly close to the castle, probably no more than thirty miles away (as at one point, the characters are able to travel to the castle from the town by horse and cart in the space of a couple of hours).
Harker is engaged to Lucy in this version, as opposed to Mina, like in the original. Dracula takes an unusual interest in the photograph Harker keeps of her, which is something that happens in most versions of the story. At night, he finds himself locked in his room and starts diarising again – but the twist is that he turns out to know what Dracula is! ‘I will forever end this man’s reign of terror.’
The door is later unlocked, and downstairs, Harker meets the young woman again, who won’t tell him why Dracula is keeping her prisoner. She then tries to bite him, leading to an abrupt vampire fight between her and the suddenly-arrived Dracula. Harker gets knocked out in the kerfuffle. He wakes up back in his room, locked in again, and is distressed to find the vampire bite on his neck. He starts writing his diary again, worried that he will become a vampire and hoping that someone will be able to take care of it if he does – he seems to know a lot about the mythology.
In the morning, Harker hides his diary by the nearby crossroads and goes off to try and find Dracula’s coffin. When he does, he stakes the girl vampire, which wakes Dracula up, and the Count sneaks off. Harker finds his coffin empty, but Dracula soon catches up with him.
Cut to the local tavern in the village of Klausenberg, where Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, who’s great in this film) is ordering a brandy. Harker turns out to have been a friend of Van Helsing, but the tavern owner is scared of the vampire and won’t share information about Harker’s visit with the doctor. However, the waitress secretly passes him Harker’s diary, which was found by locals at the crossroads.
Van Helsing arrives at the castle and searches for Harker, but finds his room ransacked and Lucy’s picture missing. Down in the crypt, he finds his friend has been turned into a vampire, and is asleep in a coffin. We fade to black here, but it’s assumed that Van Helsing stakes him.
Back in what I assumed was England but actually turns out to be somewhere else in Vaguely Eastern Europe-Ish, Lucy’s brother and sister-in-law, Arthur (Michael Gough, who this Doctor Who fan will always think of as the Celestial Toymaker) and Mina Holmwood (it’s very confusing that all these different versions keep switching the characters about in terms of who’s related to who!), are suspicious of Van Helsing’s account of Harker’s death, with good reason, as he won’t give them any details. Lucy, who Arthur and Mina believe is ill, turns out to be already under the influence of Dracula, as once the others have bid her goodnight, she opens her balcony window and takes her cross necklace off, showing vampire bite marks on her neck.
Meanwhile, at what looks like a hotel, Van Helsing is listening to some phonograph recordings that he’s previously made about vampire mythology. Van-Helsing-on-tape is explaining the power of garlic, which is the big anti-vampire plant in this film, in contrast to the wolfsbane of the Universal version. When a hotel worker shows up and asks Van Helsing who he was talking to, the doctor claims to have been talking to himself, which seems a bit unnecessary – surely everyone understood how phonography worked by that point? It wasn’t some kind of secret.
Back at the Holmwood house, Dr Seward shows up to treat Lucy for anaemia. He’s out of ideas and advises Mina to get a second opinion, so she goes to visit Van Helsing and brings him to see Lucy. Examining her, he sees the vampire bite on her neck. He tells Mina to keep Lucy’s windows closed and surround her with garlic flowers, and is very ominous about it, but doesn’t explain anything else to Mina.
Of course, Lucy can’t stand the smell of the garlic, and begs the housemaid, Gerda, to remove the plants and open the windows, which she does. At this point, I assumed Mina had just forgotten to tell Gerda about Van Helsing’s instructions, but in the morning when the doctors show up due to Lucy having inevitably died, it turns out Gerda did know the instructions but is just a bit thick/softhearted, depending on the viewer’s reading!
Van Helsing plays a blinder here – rather than pointlessly trying to convince Arthur and Mina of the existence of vampires, as would probably be attempted by 99% of other film characters, he just leaves them Harker’s diary, telling them that they will understand if they read it.
A young girl who lives in the Holmwood house, Tanya, goes wandering at night, and has bumped into ‘Aunt Lucy’. (At this point, it’s not very clear who Tanya is, as she knows Mina and Arthur as Mr and Mrs Holmwood, so she can’t be a blood relation.) Perturbed by this, Arthur goes to check Lucy’s coffin and finds it empty. Tanya has gone off with ‘Aunt Lucy’ again, and when Arthur sees them near the crypt, he calls to Lucy. This is exactly as bad an idea as you might expect, but luckily Van Helsing is around to ward Lucy off with a fancy-looking crucifix.
(Ah! It’s revealed in dialogue here that Tanya is Gerda’s daughter. That could have been made clearer earlier!)
Van Helsing wants to use Lucy to find Dracula, but Arthur can’t bear the idea. Instead, they stake her to give her peace. Arthur has heard that vampires can turn into bats and wolves, but that turns out to be a false myth in this version.
While Van Helsing and Arthur go to try and find shipping records for Dracula’s coffin (which Dracula has used to transport some of his burial earth so he can survive in the town), a shifty-sounding message (allegedly from Arthur, but that’s clearly not the case) arrives at the Holmwood house, telling Mina to go to some random address on Frederickstrasse. Cut back to the shipping office, where it turns out the coffin was shipped to the exact same address, an undertaker’s business.
Because Mina doesn’t have much sense, she goes to the random address alone, and Dracula appears from the coffin. Cut back to the house, where Van Helsing and Arthur (now the best of buddies – it’s amazing what a bit of vampire hunting can do) are debriefing. There’s a minor panic when it seems Mina is missing, but she immediately reappears, obviously holding a stole round her neck and claiming to have gone for a midnight stroll. Van Helsing and Arthur apparently don’t see anything strange about this, and head off to the undertaker’s on Frederickstrasse.
We get a slightly odd bit of comedy relief with the morbid undertaker cracking jokes about people falling down the stairs, but he’s soon stunned into seriousness by the fact that the coffin has disappeared.
Back at the house, Van Helsing and Arthur are making more plans for vampire-hunting. While he’s away, Arthur wants Mina to wear a cross for protection. She faints at its touch, and they find she’s being turned into a vampire. Arthur blames himself for not taking Van Helsing’s advice earlier, and agrees to let Mina lead them to Dracula.
The two men watch Mina’s window while she sleeps, but inside, Mina leaves her room to find Dracula brazenly standing in the hallway. He follows her into the bedroom to bite her (the portrayal of this process is getting more and more sexual as the 20th century goes on).
Van Helsing and Arthur find Mina bitten and immediately start a blood transfusion process to save her life, which is a nice lift from the original novel (where towards the end everybody was doing transfusions with each other!). I’m very impressed with the way Van Helsing is shown to be following due aftercare process, right up until the point where he tells the post-transfusion Arthur to drink ‘plenty of fluid – tea, coffee, or better still wine’!
Gerda’s been acting thick again by following Mina’s orders no matter what, meaning that Dracula’s coffin has been hidden in the Holmwood cellar without anyone noticing. When this is discovered, Dracula runs, taking Mina with him, and Van Helsing surmises that he will have to go back to the castle, because vampires always have to sleep in the earth in which they were buried. They get on a horse-driven cart and give chase.
There’s a random comedy bit here with someone rebuilding a barrier after Dracula’s horses and cart have crashed through it, only for Van Helsing’s horses and cart to do the same thing.
Arriving at the castle as dawn is starting to break, Dracula tries to bury Mina in the earth, but runs into the building when spotted by Van Helsing and Arthur. While Arthur goes to rescue Mina, there’s a great chase sequence through the castle between Van Helsing and Dracula, culminating in Dracula trying to strangle Van Helsing. However, Van Helsing is able to throw open the curtains and use the sun as a weapon, as well as a makeshift candlestick cross, meaning that Dracula is soon nothing more than dust.
The cross scar on Mina’s hand disappears as she’s freed from the curse, and the film ends on a shot of Dracula’s ring, revealed as the dust blows away. Roll credits!
I quite enjoyed this one, even though the story was probably even more of a departure from the novel than the Universal version. I’m still hoping that one day the BBC will do a sumptuous twelve-episode TV series that’s totally faithful to the book (there’s currently talk of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat doing such an adaptation, so I remain hopeful).
An ’80s sequel tomorrow!