Horror Film Review: Horror of Dracula (dir by Terrence Fisher)

Of all the monsters who have appeared in horror cinema, Count Dracula is perhaps the most iconic.  Reportedly, Dracula first appeared on film in 1920, in a silent Russian film that is now considered to be lost.  In 1921, he would appear in a Hungarian film called Dracula’s Death and in 1922, he would be renamed Count Orlok for the German masterpiece Nosferatu.  Indeed, by the time Bela Lugosi gave his famous performance in Tod Browning’s Dracula, the count had been appearing in films for at least 11 years.  In nearly 100 years of filmmaking, a countless number of actors have brought Dracula to life.

We could spend hours debating who was the best Dracula and certainly, there are some worthy contenders.  Bela Lugosi brought a continental sophistication to the role, while John Carradine was properly intimidating and theatrical.  Udo Kier, Gary Oldman, Thomas Kretschmann, Leslie Neilsen, Zandor Vorkov, and Frank Langella have all played the prince of darkness, to varying degrees of success.

Yet for me, as worthy as any of those actors may be, there is only one true Dracula and he was played by Christopher Lee.

Lee famously played Dracula in seven movies for Hammer Films and, though he has often complained about the quality of these films (especially the later ones, which tended to mix Dracula with hippies), they were largely responsible for making Christopher Lee into the iconic figure that he remains today.  It’s also largely due to Lee’s performance that horror fans like me continue to discover and appreciate the films of Hammer today.

As played by Christopher Lee, Dracula was pure evil.  Lee’s Dracula had no use for self-pity and one can only imagine what his reaction would have been if he had ever run into the self-torturing vampires of Twilight.  Lee’s Dracula had no use for doubt or regret.  Instead, he was a determined animal who was driven by a singular lust for blood.

And yet, at the same time, Lee brought an intelligence to the role that was often lacking in previous performances.  Lee’s Dracula may have been an animal but he was a cunning animal.  Whereas it’s easy for me to imagine escaping from the clutches of Bela Lugosi, I know that if Lee’s Dracula wanted me then he would have me.  There’s no escape from Lee’s Dracula.  He’s too quick, determined, and intelligent.

Christopher Lee Is Dracula

His animal nature made Lee’s Dracula frightening but it was his cunning and determination that made him dangerous and, ultimately, even sexy.  (While I’ve read that audiences in 1931 swooned over Bela Lugosi, whatever sex  appeal he may have had is lost on modern viewers like me.)  It has often been argued that Bram Stoker meant for Dracula to be a symbol of all the desires that were repressed by Victorian society.   That’s certainly true when it comes to Christopher Lee’s carnal and viscous portrayal of the character.

Of the seven Dracula films that Christopher Lee made for Hammer Films, the first remains the best.  Released in 1958 and known as Dracula in the UK and the Horror of Dracula in the US,  it revitalized the horror genre and helped to make stars of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  Especially when compared to some of the sequels that Hammer subsequently produced, it remains one of the best Dracula films ever made.

Horror of Dracula

The film is a very loose adaptation of Stoker’s original novel.  Jonathan Harker comes to Dracula’s castle in Romania.  Though posing as a librarian, Harker has actually come to the castle to drive a stake through the heart of both Dracula and his vampire bride.  However, no sooner has Harker staked the bride than he’s overpowered and bitten by Dracula.  Significantly, all of this occurs within the first 10 minutes of the film.  As opposed to certain other Dracula films, Horror of Dracula gets straight to the point.  And why shouldn’t it?  After all, anyone watching the film already knows that Dracula’s a vampire so why waste time trying to convince us otherwise?  We don’t watch Dracula for the familiar story as much as we watch to discover how different filmmakers will choose to tell that story.

When Harker’s colleague, Prof. Van Helsing (played with the perfect amount of intensity by Peter Cushing) shows up at the castle, he discovers that Harker is now a vampire and that Dracula is nowhere to be found.

Dracula, needless to say, is out for revenge.  He stalks Harker’s fiancee Lucy, as well as Lucy’s brother Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling).  Much as in Stoker’s original novel, Lucy is eventually turned into a vampire and it’s up to Van Helsing and Arthur to stop both her and her new master.

(Of course, in Stoker’s original novel, Harker is not turned into a vampire and instead marries Mina while the aristocratic Arthur is one of Lucy’s three suitors.  However, I have to say that I always thought the literary Harker was a bit on the dull side and that Arthur was always my favorite character so I’m happy that he gets to be the hero here.)

If I had to pick one film to epitomize everything that I love about the Hammer brand of horror, it would be Horror of Dracula.  As directed by Terrence Fisher, the film moves at an exciting, non-stop pace while the traditionally lush cinematography is almost bombastically colorful.  Cushing and Lee, who were the best of friends off screen, make for formidable opponents, with Cushing embodying good just as effective as Lee embodied evil.  Though it’s been over 50 years since Horror of Dracula was originally released, the film remains effective and, not coincidentally, a lot of fun.

Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing

Quite simply put, this is a film that, for so many reasons, remains a true pleasure to watch.

One final note — I often find myself lamenting that I was born several decades too late and I realize just how true that is whenever I watch a film like Horror of Dracula.  Seriously, I would have loved to have been a Hammer girl, showing off my cleavage and getting hypnotized by Christopher Lee.

Seriously, what more could you want?

Horror Scenes I Love: The Howling

TheHowlingI always thought that Joe Dante’s 1981 horror film, The Howling, has been overlooked just a little bit due to it’s release being the same year as John Landis’ own horror film, An American Werewolf In London. Both were werewolf films and both were good in their own right.

Dante’s film has been called silly by some critics, but it was the more serious of the two with Landis’ own film mixing in more black humor in the narrative than Dante’s which took on a more traditional approach to the werewolf horror. Even the transformation scene from both films took on opposite sides in terms of mood and tone. Where Landis’ film treated the scene with both a mixture of horror and camp (due to the music playing in the background) in The Howling the scene went for full-on horror.

This has been one of my favorite horror scenes and it’s all due to the work of the very person who made John Carpenter’s The Thing such a memorable piece of horror filmmaking: Rob Bottin.

This man should be handed every award for every effects work he has ever done and will continue to do. It’s a shame that he hasn’t done anything of note since 2002’s Serving Sara, but until Hollywood decides that if they want great practical effects paired with advancing CG ones and hire Bottin once again we can always fall back on his past work such as the one’s he did for The Howling.

Horror On TV: Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction Episode 13

Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction aired off-and-on for about five years on the Fox network.  A sign of just how randomly this show was scheduled can be found in the fact that season 3 started in 2000 while season 4 didn’t start until 2002.  Reruns of the show currently air on the Chiller Network which is where I recently discovered it.

Hosted by Jonathan Frakes, each episode would present the viewers with five different stories.  Each story would appear to defy logic and then, at the end of the episode, Frakes would reveal which of the stories were fact and which were fiction.  The show was often incredibly silly and yet, it occasionally had an odd charm to it.  A lot of this was due to Jonathan Frakes, who always seemed to be rather amused with it all.

Even more importantly, as bad as this show often was, it’s the perfect type of show to watch in October.  It’s the television equivalent of a scary story being told around a campfire.

Episode 13 aired during the show’s 2nd season.  Can you guess what’s fact and what’s fiction?

Horror On The Lens: The Phantom of the Opera (dir by Rupert Julian)

The_Phantom_of_the_Opera_(1925_film)Today’s horror movie on the Shattered Lens is both a classic of silent era and one of the most influential horror films ever made.

First released in 1925, The Phantom of the Opera is today best known for both Lon Chaney’s theatrical but empathetic performance as the Phantom and the iconic scene where Mary Philbin unmasks him.  However, the film is also a perfect example of early screen spectacle.  The Phantom of the Opera was released during that period of time, between Birth of the Nation and the introduction of sound, when audiences expected films to provide a visual feast and Phantom of the Opera certainly accomplishes that.  Indeed, after watching this film and reading Gaston Leroux’s original novel, it’s obvious that the musical was inspired more by the opulence of this film than by the book.

This film is also historically significant in that it was one of the first films to be massively reworked as the result of a poor test screening.  The film’s ending was originally faithful to the end of the novel.  However, audiences demanded something a little more dramatic and that’s what they got.