Director: Terence Fisher
Release Date: 1958
The First Hammer Dracula movie had little in common with Stoker’s book, though this had much to do with the fact that Universal owned the rights to Dracula. Yet, as wildly distant from the source material that this film might have strayed, it is a great film in its own right and introduced us to the actor who is now synonymous with the Count, Christopher Lee. Not only that but it also introduced us to Peter Cushing in the role of Van Helsing. These two actors were great friends off screen and, when one thinks of Dracula, the names of Cushing and Lee go with Dracula as well as ham and pepperoni on a pizza (for those who haven’t tried a topping combination of ham and pepperoni, well suffice it to say that you are, in my opinion, missing out on the greatest topping combination in pizza history).
The two actors give first rate performances. Lee is stately and yet gives the Count a palpable air of menace. Cushing lends Van Helsing a properness and yet an intelegent and determined doggedness.
The film is set in 1885, some 17 years before Stoker’s novel was written, and begins at Castle Dracula, we see Dracula’s coffin and blood drip across the name plaque. We hear an excerpt from Jonathon Harker’s diary. Harker (John Van Eyssen) is going to the castle to take a position. When he arrives there is no one there, but a letter invites him to eat well. He knocks a plate to the floor and a girl (Valerie Gaunt) comes up to him, imploring him for help, saying Dracula keeps her prisoner. She flees as Dracula appears. Harker is shown to his room, by Dracula, who spots his photograph of Lucy (Carol Marsh), Harker’s fiancée.
As Harker’s diary continues we realise that he is not the innocent of the original novel. This Harker may have been invited to work for the Count as a librarian but had gone with the sole intention of destroying Dracula. In the night the sound of his door handle turning wakes him and he explores the castle. The girl approaches him again and he says he will help her. He holds her and she vamps, but is disturbed by Dracula. A fight ensues and Harker fights with Dracula before being knocked out. When he awakens, on his own bed, the daylight hours have almost run out and he has been bitten. He hides his diary outside the castle and then finds Dracula’s crypt. In a moment of madness he stakes the girl before Dracula, she ages rapidly but her cry alerts the Count.
Later, Van Helsing is searching for Harker, they are colleagues. In an inn, where most of the locals deny knowledge of Harker, a friendly serving-girl passes him the diary. He heads for the castle, but a hearse flies from the castle as he arrives. In the crypt he finds Harker, now a vampire, in Dracula’s coffin.
Dracula has headed back to Harker’s home town to exact his revenge by turning Lucy. She lives with her brother, Arthur Holmewood (Michael Gough), and sister-in-law, Mina (Melissa Stribling). Van Helsing fails to protect Lucy and then, after she is despatched, Dracula turns his attention to Mina. The race is on to protect her.
The film is a masterpiece, there is no denying it, despite flaws such as the blood that is all too bright, and massive deviation from the book. We discover that vampires are affected by holy symbols, sunlight and garlic as Van Helsing listens to his own notes in phonograph format, a very effective way of ensuring that we know exactly which rules of vampirism Hammer have chosen to work within. The film states that transformation into a bat or wolf is a commonly held misconception.
In the film Van Helsing mentions the cult of vampirism, a theme that Hammer carries through many of its films. The film also likens vampirism to drug abuse, "The victims constantly desist being dominated by vampirism, but are unable to relinquish the practice similar to addiction to drugs." Van Helsing tells us. This then explains the reaction of the victims, and the fact that they seem to want nothing more than allow the Count to take them. Indeed, once Mina’s seduction has begun, she gives a look which is priceless as though the treatment she has received from the Count is the most marvelous experience she has ever had. The film carries two scenes of vampiric flesh being burnt by holy objects, the scene when Van Helsing burns Lucy’s forehead with the cross being a powerful piece of cinema.
Of course, Dracula is eventually defeated; this should come as no shock. Dracula meets his end in this movie in a fight with Van Helsing in castle Dracula. Van Helsing tears the heavy curtains down, flooding the room with sunlight and then takes up two candlesticks and crosses them, using the makeshift cross to push Dracula into the sunlight where he crumbles to dust.
The film richly deserves 9 out of 10, and is a must for vampire movie fans specifically and horror fans generally.
You can see the film in a short comic format by clicking here.
For another review of the film go to Exclamation Mark's B Movie Review.
The imdb page is here.