Title: Horror of Dracula
Distributor: Hammer Studios/ Universal Pictures
Writer: Jimmy Sangster (Screenplay)
Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh
Released: May 8th, 1958
It just occurred to me that this film wasn’t among the many Hammer films that I’ve reviewed. This cannot be so any longer, as I intend to showcase the first vampire film that Hammer Studios released, and the one that vaulted the career of Christopher Lee into orbit! Peter Cushing was already a commodity, and Michael Gough, Lee, and others had plenty of experience, but Cushing is the driving force behind the movie, make no mistake. Rather than me slobbering on forever about it, I’ll just get to the plot, which isn’t exactly like the Bram Stoker novel, due to legal issues with Universal and the estate of the Stoker family, but rest assured, it still is a classic!
The film opens with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), a young man who’s making his way through the Carpathian mountains, to reach a castle. Once there, his internal monologue tells us that he has a “job” to do, but what that is, we’re not sure. He sees food on the table, and decides to sit down and dine. After starting a fire, he begins to go through his personal items. He accidentally knocks over a plate, and as he’s picking it up, a beautiful woman (Valerie Gaunt) approaches. He introduces himself as the new librarian of the estate, but the woman only wishes to be rescued from being held a prisoner by the owner of the castle. Just then, the woman quickly races away, and Harker has a feeling there’s a good reason. He slowly turns around, and at the top of the staircase, is a dark figure, looking down ominously. The man quickly descends, and greets Harker, introducing himself, as Dracula (Christopher Lee).
After they exchange pleasantries, Count Dracula shows Harker to his room. He informs him that he’ll be away until tomorrow evening, so he can make himself at home. Dracula then notices a picture on the desk, and asks who the woman is, and Harker tells him that it is his fiancé, Lucy Homewood. Harker then writes in his journal, that he has gained access to the house, and that he is ready to do what must be done, about Dracula. As Dracula leaves, Harker is startled by the fact that he locks him in his room for the night. Later though, he hears the lock get unlocked, and he investigates to see who it was that was responsible. He heads downstairs, and runs into the same woman who approached him before. She pleads with him to rescue her from Dracula, but she isn’t clear about why she needs rescuing in the first place. As she hugs on to Harker, she also moves closer to his neck. He fangs pop out, and she readies herself to feed on the unsuspecting man.
Just as she attempts to bite him, Harker feels it, and shrugs her off. In the next seconds, you hear a godawful hiss, and we see Count Dracula at the top of the stairs, blood dripping from his mouth, and looking insane. He pounces on the woman, and scares Harker. But Harker tries to stop him from manhandling the woman. Dracula chokes him nearly unconscious, then grabs the woman, picking her up like a child, and carries her off to some other place in the castle. Harker then passes out in the living room.
The next morning, Harker awakens in his room, and is horrified to see that the woman actually broke through his skin, and bit him on the neck. He breaks down emotionally, and we see that he has some knowledge of this affliction. He writes again in his journal, and leaves a message for someone who he hopes will read this, and be able to help.
The next day, Harker embarks on a mission through the castle, to find the resting place of Dracula. He finds the woman, slumbering in a coffin. He wastes no time in driving a stake through her heart, but then notices the sun has gone down. As he looks towards the door, Dracula creeps in, and you know that Harker is no more.
Soon after, a pub is the new scene, and we watch as a man, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), enters and begins to ask questions about his friend who recently passed by, named Harker. The pub owner (George Woodbridge) acts as if he doesn’t know anything, but the waitress tells Van Helsing that she remembers him. The pub owner scolds her, and sends her into the kitchen. Van Helsing questions the pub owner some more, but he refuses to get involved. When the meal is ready, the waitress brings it out, and hands a journal to Van Helsing. It is the journal of Harker, and it details the happening at the castle. Apparently, both men are sort of vampire hunting team.
Van Helsing goes to the castle, and searches for Harker (having not yet read the journal). He finds that Harker’s room has been ransacked, and that he seems to be missing. As he descends into the lower levels, Van Helsing finds Harker, dead in a coffin, with bite marks on his neck. He then reaches into his bag, and pulls out a stake and a hammer, then proceeds to do the deed. The next scene shows Van Helsing at the residence of the Homewood family. Van Helsing informs them that Jonathan is dead, and that he was cremated. Arthur Homewood (Michael Gough), is the brother of Lucy (Jonathan’s fiancé), and he is quite upset with Van Helsing, and his being very mysterious about Jonathan’s death.
later that evening, Lucy is in bed, and she gets out, with a very creepy look on her face. She makes sure that her door is locked, then she unlocks the patio doors, that lead to her bedroom. She also removes her crucifix, and readies herself for a visitor. We then see that she has bite marks on her neck. Across town, Van Helsing is listening to a recording about ways of fighting these undead creatures, such as Dracula. The following morning, Lucy is very ill, and almost on the brink of death. Mina Homewood (Melissa Stribling) goes to see Van Helsing, and to ask for his help with Lucy. Van Helsing then examines Lucy, and sees the bite marks on her neck. He then instructs Mina to keep her doors and windows locked at night-time, and to keep garlic flowers in her room.
After she does what Van Helsing instructs, night falls, and Lucy cries out to the maid to take away the flowers, and to open the windows. She does as Lucy asks, and the next morning, Lucy is dead. Van Helsing visits, and Arthur is very crass towards him. Van Helsing then tells him to read Jonathan’s journal, and then, he will understand. In the evening, a policeman visits and brings Tania (Lucy’s niece) back to the house. Tania claims to have been visited by Lucy. Arthur then goes to the crypt, and finds that Lucy is missing. He then witnesses Lucy, as she’s about to snack on Tania. He calls out to her, and she attempts to attack him, but Van Helsing is there as well, and brandishes a cross. He burns her forehead with it, and Lucy runs away screeching. Van Helsing and Arthur then go to the crypt, and pound a stake through Lucy’s heart, ending her nightmare, and releasing her soul.
Dracula then focuses his attention on Mina, and it’s up to Van Helsing and Arthur to try to stop this evil entity!
OK, here are my thoughts:
If there’s anyone out there that hasn’t seen this film yet, get to it. Even if you aren’t the biggest horror movie fan or a fan of old movies, you need to see this one. This is the beginning of the Cushing-Lee horror combo, that Hammer Studios would use to build an empire. The acting is superb, as the two main characters, along with Michael Gough, put on performances that make this classic what it has been and always will be as a landmark in cinema. This film was made only one year after Hammer struck gold with Frankenstein, and the hits would keep coming for more than a decade.
Along with the great acting, the people behind the scenes were just as responsible for this gem. Starting with James Bernard, and his wonderful music score. You get some thunderous music, and other times a frightening interlude. He really nailed this one, and was simply perfect. The script by Jimmy Sangster was quite good considering he couldn’t use the story from the book or the screenplay from the Universal film either. Terence Fisher gives us his usual brilliance with direction, and the team of Hinds and Keys rounds out the production of the film. Everything from the costume designs, the sets, lighting, you name it, this film was top-notch. Hit up your local store or just get to Amazon and grab a copy, you wont be disappointed. I own a set a four Hammer Films that TCM put out a few years ago. It has this film, plus three other classics that you’ll love.