I am Dracula, and I welcome you to my house...
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 24 December 2006
Considered by many to be the greatest Dracula movie yet made, Hammer's 1958 take on Bram Stoker's novel is a classic piece of cinema that in my view ranks as the most important British horror film of all. If the famous company hadn't made any more Dracula movies after this one, these days it would be thought of as equalling David Lean's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the rankings of British cinema's great literary adaptations. Instead, it is simply regarded as the first film in a fondly-remembered, though essentially campy series of chillers that took a dip in quality with every subsequent episode, ending with some real dreck in the early 1970s. However, Terence Fisher's movie, only his second gothic horror, did justice to the story in a way that no other filmmaker has been able to repeat. It's scary, sexy, action-packed, laced with atmosphere, and shows no signs at all of the low budget it was made under; the photography is gorgeous, the sets even better, and the music just perfect.
Though it sometimes receives criticism for the ways in which it differs from Stoker’s plot, Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is actually a smartly-worked distillation of the original story which reduces both the scale and the number of key characters, re-shaping the tale primarily as a duel between Count Dracula and his nemesis Dr. Van Helsing. The ending, a violent piece of hand-to-hand combat between the two, was unlike anything else seen in British cinema up to that point, with special effects that still impress today; but what really makes the film work are the performances of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the lead roles. Lee's star-making turn as Dracula ensured his status as one of the great cinematic villains, and though it largely typecast him for the rest of his career, there is no denying the impact that his feral, predatory vampire made on the horror genre. Cushing, meanwhile, also enjoys one of his signature roles, and he provides us with by far the strongest and most impressive Van Helsing on film, a model of Christian decency, a master of arcane science, and a steely assassin all rolled into one.
Horror of Dracula isn't a totally flawless movie; there are a couple of persistently annoying continuity errors, the comic relief could do with dialling back just a little, and the geographical setting is hopelessly unclear (a Transylvanian castle is in close proximity to a German-sounding town, populated by characters with English names). But if it isn't the very finest Hammer film (and I would suggest that 1958's The Revenge of Frankenstein and 1967's The Devil Rides Out are both a shade more accomplished), it remains the quintessential one, the most vital classic in the canon as far as Hammer aficionados are concerned, and a must-see for fans of British horror in general.
Unfortunately, Warner Bros' DVD of the movie does not do justice to the film itself, and neither does it go nuts in the extras department; indeed, this is an almost bare bones release, with the original trailer as the only additional feature worth a mention. Considering Horror of Dracula's status as probably the most famous and influential chiller of the 1950s, it would have been nice if Warner Bros had been able to set up the recording of a commentary from the likes of Lee, Sangster, and producer Anthony Hinds whilst, if you will pardon the remark, the gentlemen in question are still with us.
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