Whenever a filmmaker puts a sexy new spin on a classic character, there’s always a certain amount of pushback from purists crying heresy, but if some well, it’s the very act of renewal and updating that means a character can persevere for decades to come – and if there’s one being that knows a few things about living an unnaturally long life, it’s Dracula.
It’s kind of hard to visualise as we rapidly approach the one hundred year anniversary of Universal’s the version of Bram Stoker’s novel, but there was a time when screwing around with Bela Lugosi’s rendition of the titular Count would have been considered utterly blasphemous. However, British studio, Hammer Film Productions, forged ahead in giving some of horror’s most enduring characters an energetic, 50’s style facelift while still maintaining their core identities, starting with Curse Of Frankenstein and following it up with a spruced up version of literature’s most enduring bloodsucker.
Jonathan Harker arrives at the castle of Count Dracula to fill the post of librarian in order to catalogue the Count’s sizable collection of books and ancient tomes, but after being welcomed by his stern, but accommodating employer, Harker is also approached by a terrified woman who claims she is being held as the castle against her will (“I’m a guest!” he stammers in an oh-so-British response).
However, while the Count’s true intentions are obviously clandestine as hell, it seems Harker has the odd secret up his sleeve as well as far from being a lowly, officious librarian, Jonathan is an undercover vampire hunter who has planted himself in Dracula’s employ to bring his blood gorging reign of terror at an end. However, his mission is sent askew by the mysterious woman who appears again to beg for help but is really Dracula’s bit on the side who fancies herself a librarian as a midnight snack – but before she can lock her comely fangs into his neck, an enraged count returns and Harker can only pass out while they engage in a bit of an undead domestic that eventually results in one dead vampire bride and an unknown fate for Harker.
Days later, Harker’s vampire slaying comrade, the dashing Doctor Van Helsing, arrives looking for his stake buddy only to find that Dracula has up and moved on and hopes to avenge his dead bride by turning Harker’s fiancee Lucy into a vampire herself while proving that his pettiness is as sharp as his fangs.
While Helsing races to stop Dracula’s morbid version of speed dating, Harker’s brother, Arthur, slows matters down by being an irritating skeptic, but if he doesn’t get out of the way it won’t just be Lucy who’ll end up as a vampire’s concubine, it’ll be his wife Mina too…
Usually, when someone adapts a classic story, the end result is usually criticized if too many changes are made to the source material, but one of the reasons Dracula (or Horror Of Dracula, if you’re in the US) works so well is precisely because it takes Bram Stoker’s work, gives it a cursory glance and then flings it over its shoulder in order to craft a version that is far more exciting than anything that had been seen before. Dropping the whole subplot about Dracula being really into real estate, the Hammer version not only turns things on its head by going the same route as Curse Of Frankenstein by fully embracing its colour cinematography (the blood is so red it positively glows) and the less strict restrictions of the times by making things far sexier (behold the first of many heaving vampire bossoms). This ridiculously streamlined plot not only makes Dracula less chatty and more of a threat (remember, Universal’s 1931 version didn’t even have fangs) but it takes the fussy, exploitation spewing Van Helsing and turns him into somethimg of a proactive, go-getting 19th century James Bond who vaults banisters and engages the super strong Count in the occasional wrestle. Director Terence Fisher not only enfuses the film with a sense style and pace that older, slightly creakier adaptations failed to match, but he also has the plot tear into the original characters, switching up who the lead is and actually killing off formally vital characters in order to raise the prominence of Dracula and Van Helsing’s gloriously entertaining Michael Myers/Dr. Loomis levels of animosity – so while it’s initially shocking to see former hero Jonathan Harker sacrificed on the alter of the plot twist, its imperative so that the movie can give full attention to it’s two main combatants.
And what combatants they are! Arguably the finest double act in horror history, audiences first saw Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee spar onscreen as Frankenstein and his monster respectively a year earlier, but it’s in Hammer’s Dracula movies where their partnership truly bore fruit. From the moment we first see Dracula, his tall, imposing frame silhouetted in a doorway at the top of a flight of stairs (Lee’s Dracula really likes appearing in doorways), we can feel the raw sexuality subtly enimating off him in waves and he comes across as far more mysterious and overtly evil than most with naught but minimal lines and a steely stare. However, when curt responces and jaw-clenching death-stares aren’t enough, Lee isn’t afraid to embrace the horror and go full beast mode, hissing at his enemies with blood smeared lips and veiny eyes which may look quaint now, but must have been exhilarating and alarming in equal measure back in the late 50’s. In comparison, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is a driven maverick, whose rather cavalier attitude to vampire killing is as breathtakingly irresponsible as it is vicious, with our hero leaving piles of collateral damage in his wake as he stubbonly refuses to take his eyes off the prize. Christ, at one point he even uses a child as bait and Michael Gough’s weak-at-the-knees witness is constantly horrified at the effects Helsing’s war is having on his immediate family while our driven “hero” forges ever onward. In anyone else’s hands, Helsing could have been profoundly unlikable, but Cushing’s upper-class charm turns him into a dynamo, whose tactics may have costly ramifications, but who is also willing to put his own life on the line by engaging his nemesis in hand to hand combat in the thrilling climax.
Loaded with stirring, iconic, imagery (Helsing diving for a curtain like an all-star baseball player to release purging sunlight into a room; Dracula struggling to fight on after the rays turn a hand and foot to dust; Cushing forcing his enemy to his doom after fashioning a makeshift cross out of two candlesticks) and bringing one of horror’s greatest rivalries roaring into the 50’s with style to spare – the next time someone rolls their eyes when a new version of an established property is announced, remember that Hammer’s reimagining of the classic characters arguably produced the finest Dracula and Helsing we’ve ever had.
A full-blooded Drac-attack that’s aged as well as its antagonist.