Movie Review: Horror of Dracula

Posted: January 22, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Dracula (1958 Hammer Film Productions Dir. Terence Fisher)

Castle of Death and Blood. Is there a story to that name?

After Universal got done running the bloodless vampires into the ground with 1945’s House of Dracula, the last “serious” Dracula film from Universal, the character went into decline for a while. In fact, if you watch carefully you’ll note that House of is an all in one affair and not really a Dracula movie at all. I probably wrote about this in my last review… which I haven’t actually written yet, but I have a plan for when these are going to be posted see and I think I’ll probably bring all this up then. Am I pulling back the veil too much? Can you see the man behind the curtain? Where was I? Oh yeah! After a while, the Brits noticed that no one was using this character and decided to give it a whirl over at Hammer, which was riding high after their Frankenstein movie had done so well. So they made their own Dracula movie, which was called Horror of Dracula when it was imported over here to avoid confusion.

Um… um… PASS!

This movie is the first time I remember seeing Dracula in color and they let you know it’s in color right away by showing red blood (paint, it’s clearly paint) splattering on a tomb marked “Dracula” in the opening title sequence. We don’t keep up that level of gore though. This isn’t a gory movie because it’s still 1958. Before we get going, this also only has passing resemblance to the book or previous movie. If anything, this strays further than any other version we’ll be talking about. It retains the Victorian setting though. We start the movie proper with John Harker showing up at Castle Dracula, reading aloud from his journal and looking for all the world like he’s about to ask Jeeves to get him a nice gin and tonic before dinner. While he eats dinner, a young hottie in a dress that really displays the fact that they had different rules about cleavage in England shows up and asks Harker to help her because Drac is keeping her a prisoner. We also learn one of the first differences between the original book and this version is that Harker is here to work as a librarian. The castle also seems to be in Scotland instead of Transylvania. It just doesn’t look Slavic to me. If anything, it looks like it’s eagerly awaiting the sixties so that The Avengers can come and film an episode or two in it.

It’s from the episode where Mrs. Peel wore a catsuit.

Harker isn’t engaged to Mina, but to Lucy and he’s not here to sell real estate but to whack Dracula. As Harker wanders around the castle, the girl in the low cut top comes and begs him for help again, using her nearly exposed breasts and her sultry eyes to lull him into coming close enough for her to bite. Yup! She’s a bride and fellow traveler as they used to say. You’d think that anyone named Harker would learn about this whole thing at some point, but they never do. She and Drac get into what is commonly called a domestic disturbance while Harker looks on in typical dumb incomprehension. The natural courses of evolution should have wiped out the Harkers ages ago if you ask me. As proof to this, Harker passes out, gets up and goes right back to writing incriminating evidence in his diary.

Very different ideas about cleavage.

Harker then wanders off and looks for Drac’s tomb, with spikes and hammer in hand, but as it’s only 20 minutes into the movie he fails to kill Drac by focusing on the woman first. I restate my earlier comment about Harker intelligence. In a neat effect, after he’s staked her, the woman turns into a withered old hag instead of the sexy young thing he started with. When Johnny boy runs to Drac’s coffin he finds it empty and Drac at the top of the stairs. I choose this time to remind you about my thoughts on Harker evolution. I’ll be reminding you about it some more in the next Dracula review. Seriously, boxes of rocks aren’t so dumb as anyone named Harker.

I think you’ll find my wallet is the one that says Bad Mother F***er on it.

But it’s all okay because Peter Cushing then shows up Doctor Van Helsing, the greatest hero since Yukon Cornelius! And he’s played by Peter Cushing, the only mofo that comes close to being as bad as Chris Lee. Dr VH searches the house of Drac and finds that all my thoughts about Harker are true. He was in a coffin, with teeth and all. Now we’re not shown, but it’s pretty well implied that Dr VH manned up and killed Johnny boy in a fit of anger at Harker’s legendary stupidity. Side note: This is as good a place as any to mention that I really like the way early English color movies and TV used color in their productions. They were so excited to have color that they really exploited it. In America there was a split between naturalistic color and heightened reality color with only fantasy style stuff getting the heightened reality treatment. In England it was all heightened color those first few years, as far as I’ve seen. They calmed down later, but the first few years were great.

Dude makes a wine colored velvet sports coat look manly.

Anyway, it turns out that Drac followed Dr VH home and is macking on Harker’s babe, which is Lucy Holmwood in this movie and she’s the sister of Arthur Holmwood who is married to Mina Holmwood. Now Lucy is sick, because she keeps opening the window for vampires to get in and you know what sort of sicknesses they bring. Dr VH takes one look at her and gives the basic “Close the windows and stuff the room with garlic” advice he always gives and which is always promptly ignored by the first maid that comes along. You ever notice that? Dr VH comes in, demands garlic and closed windows and someone always comes in and explains that they opened the windows, took away the garlic, cut open the girl’s veins, tore her shirt off, and wrote “fresh virgin blood here” on her chest, then wonders if that might have caused some of the later troubles. So… yeah, Lucy dies AGAIN! And then she starts biting children AGAIN! And they have to kill Lucy… AGAIN! Why? Because some damn maid can never EVER follow instructions. It’s not like this is the first time this story is being filmed. Someone must have pattern recognition. I must say though, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing wins big points for complete and total badassery. He doesn’t freak out when Lucy comes back from the grave and starts biting people. He just walks up, puts the cross on Lucy’s forehead and never looses his cool or raises his voice. This is a Dr VH that never once flinches, not even when Vader decides to choke a bitch*. My man could out cool the Fonze.

Step off punk.

Holmwood and Dr VH go to look for Drac’s trail while Mina is called away to the place where Drac actually is. How Mina is dragged away is also brilliant, as Drac sends a boy to tell her that her husband has a message. When they find her, she’s covering up her neck and it’s commented on that she looks pale. I shall now once again make my statement about the lack of pattern recognition in the people of Victorian Britain. I mean… damn! They do eventually figure it out and lay a trap for our vamp Drac, which he evades and almost kills Mina. These guys are seriously useless.

Yeah, the movie is only named after me, could I have one still?

Then the big climax comes. One of the maids explains she was told not to go to the cellar and Dr VH books it to the basement where he finds Drac’s coffin. He leaves a silver crucifix, Drac walks in and runs out, and the chase is on! Good thing too, we’ve only got 5 minutes left. Dr VH and Holmwood chase Drac home, Drac tries to bury Mina sans coffin and then runs to his crypt. Clearly, Drac panicked at the end. He’s not thinking about his next move, he’s just reacting. A fistfight between DR VH and Drac ensues, then they break out the capoeira and then getting into wire-fu. The fight ends when Dr VH pulls the drapes down and lets the sun shine just as… what band sang that song? Anyway, the sun turns Drac into a big pile of ash, which blows away in the wind.

Dude even makes a fur lined over coat look masculine. Why are we not worshiping this man?

This movie isn’t as great as some later vampire movies would be, but it sure set the stage for later movies. As much as I tease, this is really great for what it is and the time in which it was made. There are a lot of innovations in this movie that would follow in later movies, not least of which is the graphic onscreen death. I really like this one, I approve, even if it is a little silly by today’s standards you can’t ignore Lee’s and Cushing’s great performances.

And all that’s left is a ring and some ash.

Next week, we’ll leave the vampires behind for a bit and go for another classic.
*I have been subsequently informed that this happened in a different movie.

Official Score:
50 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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