Retro Reviews: The Horror of Dracula (1958)

Even though Bela Lagosi did it first, and did it well for those times, for this reviewer, the face of Dracula is Christopher Lee. From his stately height to his noble features he is how I want to visualize the Dark Master.

Retro Reviews: The Horror of Dracula (1958)

The Horror of Dracula (1958)

The Horror of Dracula is a 1958 British horror film directed by Terence Fisher and written by Jimmy Sangster. Both the Dracula characterization and the storyline was based on Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name. The very first in the series of Hammer Production Dracula Horror films, it initiates, not only the now iconic film duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as horror film partners, but an entire catalogue of horror films.

In the beginning The Horror of Dracula was just called ‘Dracula’ in the UK but was changed in the US to prevent confusion with the earlier Dracula film starring Bela Lagosi in the titular role.

The plot in the Horror of Dracula is modelled after the original Bram Stoker novel. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) goes to Transylvania under the guise of being a librarian. However, after a meeting with one of Dracula’s brides, he is forced to embark on his real mission of killing Dracula a bit ahead of schedule.

However, Dracula is on to him but not before Harker stakes the vampire’s bride. This really get’s under Dracula’s cold, dead skin, so after Harker’s close encounter with Dracula (which almost always turns out quite badly for the other guy) the “Prince of Darkness” wins and Harker becomes a vampire. Later, when Dr. Van Helsing (the real vampire hunter, played by Peter Cushing) arrives in town, it’s too late. Helsing is horrified to discover that Harker has become a vampire and reluctantly- Helsing has to “stake him”.

Fast forward to Dr.Van Helsing who hence goes back to London to tell Lucy, (Carol Marsh) Harker’s fiancé and her sister, Mina (Melissa Stribling) and brother-in-law (Michael Gough) about the terrible demise of Harker. Enter Dracula, who has apparently gone to London too. He followed Van Helsing and wants to seek revenge. And perhaps he needed to visit his tailor for a few more of those fabulous designer capes?

The rest of the story is all about the impressive Count, going after- first Lucy and then her sister, Mina, (Melissa Stribling). Then we have Peter Cushing as Van Helsing (another type-cast role) tromping around London trying to find Dracula to put him effectively out of everyone else’s misery.

This was Christopher Lee’s first movie portrayal of Dracula. Little did he know that he would forevermore be remembered as the face of Dracula and not really be able to shake the overwhelming association. It is said that he (Lee) didn’t really like playing the ‘king of vampires’, but his performances spoke the opposite. He looked the part and performed so well that he was cast in several more Dracula films. And even though he may not have liked to be type-cast as the character, he did ensure that Dracula would forever be respected. It is said that if he didn’t like a particular part of the script (which apparently was often), he would interject his own bits of dialogue taken directly from Stoker’s novel to improve the impact of the delivery.

At the time the film was a commercial success and was widely accepted by fans of the original Bram Stoker novel, “Dracula”. Trade journals back then gave positive reviews of the innovative horror film, that gave Dracula an aristocratic, classic demeanour who actually had his own style of sex appeal. A film bulletin of the time noted, “As produced by Anthony Hinds in somber mid-Victorian backgrounds . . . and directed by Terence Fisher with an immense flair for the blood-curdling shot…The James Bernard score is monumentally sinister and the Jack Asher photography full of foreboding atmosphere.”

One of those old reports was especially favourable, “Of all the “Dracula” horror pictures thus far produced, this one, made in Britain and photographed in Technicolor, tops them all. Its shock impact is, in fact, so great that it may well be considered as one of the best horror films ever made. What makes this picture superior is the expert treatment that takes full advantage of the story’s shock values.”

Although personally, The Horror of Dracula (1958) was the first and best of the series of Dracula films, the production of this entire genre of Dracula films are superior. And, with the exception of The Prince of Darkness, which turned out to be a disaster because Christopher Lee hated the script so much he hissed through most of it and didn’t speak, every one of them are top notch. Lee maintains his exceptional portrayal of “the Master” in each one plus, the Eastman Colour photography along with the special effects are superb!

Don’t miss this great video!

The Horror of Dracula (1958) is the one to watch to enjoy Lee at his ghastly best. For pure, classic horror and the truest, ‘best bite’ from Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Bram Stoker’s Dracula I rate the Horror of Dracula at 8.7/10.

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