In the classic vein of British horror, 1958’s Horror of Dracula features Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough. They’re Dracula, Dr. Van Helsing, and Arthur Holmwood. Arthur’s wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) and Lucy (Carol Marsh) are sisters. The unfortunate Johnathan Harker role is played by John Van Dyssen.
Plus, we’ve got a female vampire (Valerie Gaunt), some servants types, Inga Barbara Archer), Gerda (Olga Dickie), and her daughter, Tania (Janina Faye). And there’s a Dr. Seward (Clarke’s Lloyd Beck). Got to be some superstitious innkeepers and villagers too.
In this iteration of Bram Stoker’s tale, Harker is a librarian; doesn’t much matter what he’s supposed to be. Anyone who’s summoned to ye olde house of Dracula draws a tough assignment (it’s notoriously a pain in the neck).
Harker starts off narrating his visit to Castle Dracula. Looks like the maid service has just tidied up; not so much as a spider lurking about inside. Dracula’s note shows some calligraphy skill. Ms. Vampire glides up on Harker, looking very nice, but very desperate. “I’m being held prisoner!” Too late for a rescue, however.
“I am Dracula” Lee looks more suave than Lugosi (in his 1931 role), but both make Dracula quite the gentleman. I don’t think we need the voice-over. Wait, why is he in-the-know about Dracula already? He’s there to “end this man’s reign of terror.” We’ve got to assume he’s referring to the the woman’s plight. When Dracula leaves, the girl comes up to Harker “you have no idea what an evil man he is!”
Unfortunately, she decides to sink her fangs into Harker; just then Dracula shows up, throws her aside, and attacks Harker himself. Of course, Harker comes to in a daze, with those tell-tale bite marks on his neck. “I have become a victim of Dracula and the woman in his power.” He knows he has to find the sleeping Dracula and kill him.
In ye olde crypt, Dracula is literally chilling. Harker spikes the girl first; but the commotion awakens Dracula, who magically appears above Harker. We segue to the village inn. Wind chimes, and garlic are the motifs. Like the castle, everything’s spotless. Van Helsing comes into the picture, inquiring about Harker.
Now we gather that Harker’s mission was a ruse, designed to get him into the castle with the express purpose of killing Dracula. Van Helsing doesn’t get help with the locals; the innkeeper’s daughter, however, has retrieved Harker’s diary. So Van Helsing scoots to the castle, only to see a hearse leave as he arrives.
Security being non-existent there, he rumages around Harker’s room, then goes down to the crypt. There’s two coffins: the suddenly ancient corpse of the woman in one, and Dracula in the other. And there’s the spike and mallet. Kind of a good time for a segue.
Yes, he’s back in London (?) filling in Arthur Homewood and Mina about her sister’s fiance’s death. Arthur’s more than a bit suspicious. Poor Lucy. She’s ill, and then this. But, we soon see why she’s ill; waiting up for a late night bedroom guest. What’s this? Van Helsing has an early type of dictaphone. This is what’s so great about the late-Victorian era–the dawn of technical wonders alongside dark medieval legends.
It’s not Johnathan, it’s Dracula swinging in on Lucy. I don’t get how Dracula escaped his fate back at the castle. The doctor (Seward) is sort of a blithering idiot; haven’t they noticed the bite marks? Mina comes to see Van Helsing; she describes Lucy’s symptoms. Aha! “Anemia,” huh? His exam of her is preemptory, but he’s seen the bite marks.
So he gives orders to shutter her room at night. Let’s get some garlic flowers, they’re so fashionable just now–they indeed are to die for. But Lucy really wants Dracula; she tells Gerda to ditch all the defensive measures. The full moon’s behind a cloud…next thing we know, she’s dead. Gerda confesses her role in the catastrophe.
Van Helsing now seems like a bad guy; he has to tell Arthur and Mina the real deal on both Johnathan and Lucy. The inspector shows up with Tania–what does the kid know? She’s seen…a ghost? Yes, Lucy. It looks creepy crawly down in the crypt, and, by now, Arthur’s convinced something’s up.
Right, Lucy’s coffin is empty. Incredibly, Tania leaves the house again at night, and meets the undead Lucy. Arthur intercepts them. Van Helsing, luckily, is wingman here. Before Lucy can get her midnight snack, Van Helsing scares her off with a crucifix. Poor Tania has witnessed everything.
Well, at least Lucy is back in her coffin. Thoroughly spooked, Arthur wants to finish her off right away. Van Helsing, thinking more strategically, wants to keep her around to lead them to Dracula. Well, Arthur gets his wish; Dracula, wherever he is, can’t be happy either.
First really quiet scene–at the Holmwood’s. He and Van Helsing discuss vampire lore. Van Helsing remembers seeing the hearse leaving the castle–he now figures that must’ve been Dracula himself. Good old provincial officials prove corruptible, so the good guys find out where Dracula’s coffin went from the castle.
Meanwhile, Dracula has a cunning plan; he sends a fake message to Mina to meet her husband. Actually it’s to meet the Count’s coffin. Next morning, she’s one of ‘them’ (I realize how similar the vampire’s possession of a victim is to the sci-fi Invasion of the Body Snatchers type of ‘alien’ takeover). The official leads the doctor and Arthur to the mortuary. Dracula’s coffin has gone missing.
A remote graveyard might turn up the old boy. When they try and hand Mina a crucifix it toasts her hand. So Arthur, seeing how he could’ve put Dracula out of business earlier, now agrees to use Mina as bait. The guys wait outside, underneath Mina’s window…shazam! Dracula’s already inside, buy some devilish art.
Mina screeches, but the good guys think it’s a owl. Nope, it was her, another casualty. Well, a transfusion may do wonders. We can’t kill everyone off. That night, they strategize. If one of them stays by her…ah, but Gerda mentions the cellar.
So Dracula is already in the house. Indeed, Dracula zips upstairs, and hies off with Mina. A coach driver is the latest victim. In the village, the customs inspector can’t stop either the bad guys or good guys. Just as Dracula buries Mina outside, Van Helsing and Arthur interrupt him.
Van Helsing struggles with Dracula, breaks free, and utterly destroys him by tearing the curtains down as day breaks. An incredibly grotesque and prolonged decomposition overtakes the vampire. The end.
This was great horror–one of the best Dracula films, the best British one, anyway. Aside from spot-on performances from Lee and Cushing, and the excellent period atmosphere (too well manicured), it’s the restless pacing that gives such an impressive impact.
My only quibbles would come with the plot, and maybe the premise. We can assume that anyone tuning in is going to be familiar with the story of Dracula (and vampires generally). So the quick-and-dirty treatment that Van Helsing gives Arthur is all we need; what doesn’t add up, though, is that we’re to assume that Van Helsing and Harker have prior knowledge that Dracula is a vampire.
Changing Stoker’s plot isn’t a problem. I’m dealing here with the movie’s premise about Dracula. I suppose that Van Helsing could’ve doped all of this out from studying Harker’s diary–but he seems to know what’s happened to Harker even before he gets the diary from the girl at the inn.
In any case, this stuff presumes inside knowledge, as though we’re supposed to have seen a prequel And, if The Horror of Dracula had followed up a previous story, wouldn’t Dracula already be dead?
The other thing is that it’s unclear if the English characters are ever in London, or whether the whole movie is set in Hungary (at least I know that in this time frame, Transylvania was Hungarian, despite it being of mixed Rumanian/German ethnicity).
When Arthur and Van Helsing go looking for Dracula, for example, there’s no sea voyage alluded to–which would be necessary to get from England to central Europe. That also explains why Dracula quickly appears on the scene to attack Mina; he doesn’t have to travel far, apparently.
Despite these misgivings, Horror of Dracula is a must see for horror fans generally, and Lee and Cushing fans particularly. 9/10