Saturday 3 September 2016

Dracula (The Horror of Dracula) (1958)

Man, there are a lot of vampire movies around! It seems to be an inexhaustible theme, at least for producers. For me I have a long time ago found my saturation point. The List also has its share of bloodsucking vampire movies. Including today’s movie I count four so far, where three of them are telling the same story. At least Dreyer’s movie had an entirely different angle.

For this reason I am going into this movie on a weary note. How many times do you need to watch this story?

This time round it is the British Hammer studio who are taking a crack at the story. Until recently I knew nothing of this studio, but thanks to Bea at “Flickers in Time” I am now if not familiar then at least aware of their movies and their penchant for the macabre.

The story itself hardly needs a summary. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Castle Dracula as a librarian, but with the secret objective to get rid of the count. Before he gets this far he is turned into a vampire himself. Alarmed by Harker’s reports Dr. van Helsing (Peter Cushing) rushes to Castle Dracula, too late to save his friend and to stop Dracula (Christopher Lee) from leaving.

Dracula has set his eyes of Harker’s fiancée, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh) and soon she is also turning into a vampire. Lucy’s brother Arthur (Michael Gough) is pretty upset about Harker’s death and blames van Helsing, but with Lucy’s illness and (un)death he is reluctantly coming around. Dracula really seems to have a grudge on him for his next victim is Arthur wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling).

Although van Helsing always seems to be two steps behind the count he is a professional vampire killer who knows all the tricks. Will he eventually catch up with his prey?

Because it is a retelling it is impossible not to compare the 1958 version with Murnau’s and Browning’s versions. There is no doubt that the Hammer version (directed by Terence Fisher) is technically more eloquent than the two former versions. Anything else would be strange given the intervening years. This especially counts for the special effects that now mostly works as opposed to the helpless effects Browning relied on. The 58 version also keeps a very nice pace with a story that actually moves and provides a reasonable amount of suspense.

But a number of things are not working so well here. Dracula for one. I had so much been looking forward to see Christopher Lee give it as the count. Come on, this is Saruman, one of the vilest and most crazy characters in cinema. But 58 is a long time ago and Lee in his youth did not possess that venom that later made him such an excellent villain. Bela Lugosi had more of that exotic charm and suave that makes Dracula dangerous AND sexy and Max Schreck was an infinitely more menacing actor. It is not that Lee is outright bad, he is just trying to wear some very big shoes.

Another element that annoyed me tremendously was that although this was clearly presented as a very gothic story taking place in Germany, each and every character, even the innkeeper in the unnamed eastern European country Dracula lives in, are very, very British. Accent, attitude, mentality, everything exudes Victorian Britain and that crashes completely with the setting. Van Helsing sounds, acts and looks more like Sherlock Holmes than a German or Dutch vampire hunter.

What this movie ultimately suffers from however is that it feels generic. It lacks something to make it stand out and it feels like a good, but alas a run of the mill rendition of the Dracula tale and in that sea of Dracula movies that is available that is just not good enough. I am not a fan of Browning’s Dracula, but at least it had Lugosi. Murnau’s version however was uniquely creepy and is still for me the one I would watch again.

Am I the only one who found Michael Gough’s Athur Holmwood totally annoying? If he was supposed to be he did a marvelous job.


  1. I'm going to disagree with you here pretty much across the board. I think Lee makes a great Dracula. This is a guy who doesn't really say anything in the second half of the film, but he casts a massive shadow over everything that happens. In many ways, I think he embodies the original idea of the sexy vampire--he's not exotic, but he's still magnetic.

    1. Yeah, I read your review and can see you take a very different position on this movie. Maybe I am just getting tired of vampire stories or maybe I expected more. The thing is this is not a bad movie, I am just lacking that thing to make it stand out.

  2. Thanks for the plug! I might go for this one over the Browning Dracula which I'm not as big a fan of as most. (I liked your reference to the helpless special effects. I love those aardvarks or whatever they used instead of rats in the crypt!) My vote would go to Murnau though, with Herzog not far behind.

    1. I want Dracula to be sinister. I want people to be essentially helpless around him and I want something unknown, half-hidden. Murnau's version is all that. In Horror of Dracula Dr. van Helsing is too acomplished and we know it is just a matter of time before he catches up. A gruesome side of me would have prefered a resolution where Dracula unleashes an epidemic of vampyrism in the town so although he might fall the town is doomed.

  3. I agree the 1958 film doesn't stand out, I found it a bit tame. Coppola's 1992 effort is my favorie adaptation of Dracula. John Van Eyssen was a better casting choice as Jonathan Harker than Keanu Reeves. But I prefer Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula over Christopher Lee’s.

    1. Gary Oldman is usually a perfect villain. Christopher Lee I prefer in his later incarnations. I am not sure I have seen the 92 edition, vampire movies usually have little appeal for me.