In 1957, Hammer Films had a hit on their hands with Terence Fisher’s sumptuous and thematically complex, The Curse of Frankenstein.
Universal Studios initially showed their righteous anger toward Hammer by sending them cease and desist orders to register protest at the British studio snatching the Frankenstein monster from their monochromatic grip.
Universal of course lost that battle. Not only were the rights to Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel in the public domain, but by the late 1950s the American studio had really exhausted their scenario and narrative options for the monster and his crazed creator.
Hammer stayed away from Jack Pierce’s monster design and The Curse of Frankenstein made a killing at the box office, both in Britain and the U.S. And in doing so, the small independent studio by the Thames changed the face of the horror film in the second half of the 20th century. The success of Curse of Frankenstein spurred Hammer to quickly decide on another gothic horror concern to follow their monster hit.
So in 1958, utilizing the same technicians, artists and actors from their previous year's Frankenstein, Hammer gave the world Dracula (also known as Horror of Dracula in the U.S.).
Unfortunately, the rights to Stoker’s novel would not go into the public domain until 1962, and Universal held the rights. However, Universal-International saw the monetary potential, sold the rights to Hammer, and secured the American distribution rights to probably the greatest Dracula adaptation of the 20th century.
The term “based on” (and all that means to narrative fidelity) certainly applies to Jimmy Sangster’s lean adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. The novel itself, while a classic of gothic and melodramatic Victorian literature, is at times a little flabby in terms of narrative. Due to budget and the knowledge that only certain sets and locations were available, Sangster created a dynamic script which moves with haste, yet never feels rushed (much of this is arguably due to Fisher’s direction).
Gone are Stoker's subplots: characters are conflated and names are swapped; motivations have changed (Harker and Helsing are in cahoots from the beginning). Sangster locates the story in mittel-Europe, where the action stays.
Gone is fin de siècle Victorian London and gone are its xenophobic fears of the outsider. Gone is Dracula’s sea journey from Transylvania and the savaging of the Demeter crew.
When Sangster was approached to write a new version of Dracula, the writer knew he didn’t want to hand the public another version of the Hamilton Deane play (which Universal used in 1931). He and Fisher also knew if they were to create something unique, they needed a more dynamic, barbaric -- and sexual -- Count.
Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, while still popular (in fact Universal changed the title to Horror of Dracula in the U.S. precisely so audiences wouldn’t confuse the two versions, as the 1931 version was still in circulation), had seen its time. Hammer needed a new Dracula that both seduced and repelled.
In Fisher’s version of the Stoker story, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives in Transylvania (or Hammer’s fairytale city of Klausenburg) at Dracula’s castle to catalogue his library. Here we have the basic elements of the novel at play. Upon arrival Harker is approached by a buxom brunette (Valarie Gaunt), who with great desperation, tells him she is being held prisoner by the Count. In the novel, Dracula has three brides who seduce Harker. Fisher’s version, while not as provocative as having a threesome (or a foursome, counting poor Harker) still has some nicely played moments of sexual tension.
In haste, the bride disappears, just as the Count arrives, drifting down the staircase like a predator (his cape wrapped around him like folded wings) and greets Harker with perfunctory geniality. Christopher Lee is, of course, compelling as Dracula, and a far cry from Lugosi’s iconic, yet wooden Hungarian characterization. In his room, Harker (in voice over) writes in his diary about his true intentions: he is here to rid the world of the evil that is the vampire Count.
That night, as he wanders the halls of Castle Dracula (brilliantly rendered by Bernard Robinson on the lot at Bray Studios and decidedly cobweb free-- unlike Tod Browning’s castle interior from 1931), he meets the sexy woman in white from earlier, and once again she solicits his help. Harker attempts to comfort the damsel in distress, but as a reward, she attempts to bite his neck, revealing her true nature.
Dracula intervenes, in full, bloody-fanged glory, like an animal disturbed during a feeding, pulling the vampire woman from Harker, hissing and claiming his territory. In the melee, Harker blacks out and wakens in the morning to find he has been infected by the vampire’s bite. With no time to waste, he takes his bag of vampire-killing tricks and heads into the crypt below the castle to find the Count and his bride sleeping in their coffins. Without forethought, Harker stakes the bride first.
As she screams in her death throes, Dracula awakens. In a confusing moment, Harker goes back to stake the vampire, only to find the Count has disappeared. Then suddenly, through the open door at the top of the crypt stairs, Dracula enters and the door closes to blackness. Sangster was unhappy with Fisher’s staging of this scene, as it begs the question: where did Dracula go between the moment of his waking and the closing of the door on the shocked Harker?
Cue the entrance of the next iconic character of the film, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), a man who straddles the worlds of science and superstition. He has come to local village looking for his friend, Harker.
After an icy reception from the locals in a tavern (the mere mention of Castle Dracula closes them up), Van Helsing is given Harker’s diary (which Harker had hidden outside the castle before meeting his untimely end). Here we have another plot hole. If all in the villagers are afraid of approaching Castle Dracula, how did someone get close enough to discover the diary hidden in the little roadside shrine? Never mind, we are too busy being entranced by Cushing’s commanding performance.
Soon enough, Van Helsing makes the journey to the castle. On his approach, a horse and carriage (containing a white coffin), bolt past him into the countryside. Inside the castle ,Van Helsing discovers the now vampiric body of his friend slumbering in the crypt, and stakes him, finally putting him to rest. All of this within the first 25 minutes. Talk about streamlined storytelling.
Van Helsing must now tell the Holmwood family (Harker was engaged to be married to Lucy) of Jonathan’s death—leaving out the grisly details. Arthur Holmwood (played by genre staple Michael Gough) is none too pleased with Van Helsing’s explanation of events and is wary of the professor. Holmwood, and his wife, Mina (as I mentioned above, names have changed: in the novel, Harker’s fiancé is Mina and her friend is Lucy).
Upstairs in the Holmwood house we find poor Lucy, a little girl lost, seemingly distraught by the news of Harker’s death. Lucy, confined to bed with an illness, is getting paler and paler. The reason? At night Lucy has been leaving the “window’s open” as she waits, breasts heaving, for the seductive Count to ‘enter’ her room.
By today’s standards, the seduction scenes are handled with restraint and leave more to imagination and implication, but they still work effectively for those very reason. As clouds scud across the full moon, Fisher cuts back and forth between the anticipatory face of Lucy, and the open window. Then suddenly the Count is there, before her, the sexual shadow and predator; Lucy’s open window the only invite he needs.
Van Helsing, on close examination of Lucy discovers the telltale bite marks of the vampire and orders garlic and crosses, but to no avail. Lucy expires and is buried. Soon after Lucy’s demise, Tania, the daughter of the Holmwood’s maid, Gerda, claims she sees the dead Lucy on the moor and Van Helsing knows what must be done. With Arthur’s help, the professor traps the un-dead Lucy—after a disturbing moment where she attempts to take Tania, whom Van Helsing has been using as bait-- and stakes her, in a graphic scene originally censored in some regions, but now re-inserted for Hammer fans gruesome satisfaction.
Bruce Hellenbeck suggests in his book, The Hammer Vampire, that “the only way that [Lucy] can be dealt with is to be destroyed physically, so that the perception of sexual normality can once again be restored…”, not only to Hammer’s middle –European fairy-tale world , but also to the satisfaction of a late 50s audience.
As transgressive and progressive as Hammer was at the time, they still adhered to patriarchal and heterosexual norms, which today can feel a little conservative. Hellenbeck goes on to write that “purgative stake” used to penetrate Lucy, has the “unmistakable air of necrophiliac rape,” and that “Lucy is figuratively freed from her unnatural urges in a very sexist and old fashioned why by the men in her life…”
Helsing and Holmwood now take on the job of ridding the world of the evil that has taken Harker and Lucy by attempting to track down the coffin Van Helsing witnessed leave the castle. While this is happening, Mina gets a note—apparently from Arthur—requesting she meet him at a certain address. Arriving there, Mina sees the missing coffin, which begins to open, only to reveal the Count.
The last 25 minutes race to the finale, as Arthur and Van Helsing discover that Mina has been “compromised” (read sexually) and that the Count has been right under their noses, ensconced in his coffin in the Holmwood’s basement. As both men pursues the Count back to his castle--in the hope of rescuing Mina--time is of the essences, lest the Count disappear into the depths of his castle. The final race through the castle, as Van Helsing chases down the undead Count, is another iconic and remarkable set piece by Fisher.
Instead of an off-camera staking of the Count a la Tod Browning’s 1931 classic, here we have the ever resourceful professor seize upon the approaching dawn, race across the Count’s long dining table and leap into the air, grabbing the curtains, thus exposing the count to the lethal rays of sunlight. Before our eyes, the count starts to crumble, face contorted in pain. But Van Helsing is taking no chances. In a spectacular moment, he grabs two candlesticks, and slaps them together to form the ever potent symbol of Christ. Dracula disintegrates into dust and blows away.
Fisher’s Dracula, made for the modest budget of about 81,000 pounds in 1958, is not a flawless piece of celluloid or storytelling (one of the reasons we enjoy Hammer’s movies is precisely because they are flawed). There are plot holes and awkwardly delivered lines of dialogue. The weakest link in the movie is Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood, who melodramatically delivers his lines as if in a stage version of the story and feels compelled to emote accordingly. However, this is still a beautiful film to watch.
From the opening strains of James Bernard’s theme (still eerie and majestic today), to the first splashes of bright red Hammer blood (their blood always has a distinctive tinge), to the last flood of deadly daylight, Dracula sweeps the viewer up in its gothic embrace. Starting with CoF in 1957, Fisher’s movies set the standard for the gothic product to follow, as the studio moved beyond the expressionistic black and white of Universal and early B-fare of AIP, and into the lurid realm of Eastman Technicolor.
Since its release, there were rumors of several different cuts of Fisher’s movie. Hammer aficionados and historians like Hallenbeck, in his book The Hammer Vampire, point to talk of a more violent Japanese version, helped no doubt by Tony Hinds alluding to this fact in Moviegoer 1957, where he stated that “the Japanese want more blood, so we’re making a special version.” Ironically, the American market showed a less censored version of the film than the British. It appears the “uncensored” “gorier” version may just be a rumor. But more of this anon.
Initially considered disturbing upon its release, many critics (and a number of moviegoers) could not warm to the glorious red gore. Nevertheless, Hammer's Dracula was an even bigger hit than Curse of Frankenstein. The film has of course been re-evaluated in the intervening 50 years. The BFI (British Film Institute) has seen fit to preserve the title and count it as an important classic.
In 2007, The BFI restored the negative of Dracula, and even then controversy ensued. Many fans and critics alike were upset by the color grade of the new negative (which had bluer, colder tones than many were used to seeing). Arguments about the aesthetic quality even reached to the 2013 Blu Ray release (only in Britain, damn it).
However, quoting Hammer's official website, they state:
The BFI’s grading decisions were made based on a close
inspection of an original check print, which made it quite
clear that the artistic choices of Terence Fisher and
Jack Asher were for a somber, atmospheric and cold tone,
but still retaining rich reds, greens and blues. What we think of today as the Hammer Technicolor palette,
is to some extent determined not by what the original films
looked like when first exhibited, but by home entertainment releases --
in the US in particular -- which chose a far warmer palette than was
originally intended for many of Hammer’s films…
In 2011, at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, four out of nine original reels of Dracula were found (the first five were destroyed in a fire). Included in the recovered footage is a more graphic cut of the finale where Dracula crumbles to dust—and even sheds a tear? Footage that had never before been seen in other European cuts has now been included in the Region 2 Blu-Ray release. I love happy endings.
Regardless of the arguments made, or whatever way you choose to enjoy this cinematically beautiful movie, rest assured you will be enjoying a historically important piece of world cinema, which, in 1958, set the standard for the Hammer product to come, and the decade to follow.