Last month’s viewing of BLACK SUNDAY put me in the mood for some classic vampire flicks. So it was great luck that the IFC Center not too far from my new restaurant is in the midst of a nine-film Christopher Lee retrospective, and this past Friday’s showing was Lee’s first turn as Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA. Though it has some scary scenes and great atmosphere at points, the film slogs along through too much of its plot. And that’s a shame, because it has a lot going for it.
HORROR OF DRACULA begins with the familiar scene of Jonathan Harker arriving at Dracula’s castle. But right away, Jimmy Sangster’s script turns Bram Stoker’s novel on ear. Harker is not there to complete a real estate deal, but to archive the Count’s library. But that’s just a cover for his real motive: to kill Dracula. That, unfortunately for Harker, does not go as planned, and the Count ends up terrorizing the family of Harker’s fiancée Lucy. But Dracula’s reign in blood will not go unchecked, as he’s drawn the attention of renowned vampire hunter Van Helsing. The film will draw the two into a final battle over the immortal soul of Mina.
All that sounds pretty compelling. Sadly, Sangster and director Terrence Fisher don’t deliver. Lee’s Count shows up early, and he’s creepy in his long cape, fangs and blood-red eyes. But after that initial sequence with Harker, Dracula disappears for long droughts. As for Van Helsing, Hell of Fame inductee Peter Cushing is compelling as always, even as a good guy here. But he doesn’t show up until 25 minutes in; which means a full third of the film doesn’t even include him. I acknowledge that some of these issues arise from the source material, but these two horror greats deserved more screen time. Worst of all, they don’t even appear in the same scene until the final stretch of the film. Ponder that. Hammer’s most famous duo appear in a horror film and barely share the screen. Even their final fight seems rushed, and lasts only a few minutes. This is a wasted opportunity, and I’m not sure Hammer even knew quite what they had with the two at this point.
Because it doesn’t capitalize on Cushing and Lee, much of the film focuses instead on Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood. Dracula has put the moves on his wife Mina, and Holmwood joins Van Helsing in the quest to destroy the Count. The problem is, Holmwood is a dick. I didn’t like the character, and I thought Gough was miscast. Arthur should be a sympathetic character, but both his dialogue and the way Gough plays him, he’s a snobbish bastard. I kept hoping Dracula would turn him into a vampire, until I realized that would make him a dick with eternal life.
HORROR OF DRACULA is an interesting case of the Horror Movie Relocation Program. It’s original title: DRACULA. Changed so as the film would not be confused in America with the Universal Classic Horror film.
And yet, HORROR OF DRACULA is still a decent horror film for a few reasons. Though they’re parsed out, several scenes are scary in that old “fog over the graveyard” way that Hammer did to sweet perfection. Fisher knew how to create atmosphere, taking stock scenes such as the Count entering a lady’s room to feast, and raising them to a higher level. He also gets great performances from Lee and Cushing, both of whom bring their A game. With lesser actors and director, HORROR OF DRACULA would have been generic and easy to pass on; with these pros, it still draws people to a theatre some 50-odd years later.
The film also carries over the Hammer style created in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the first Cushing-Lee pairing. Hammer made its mark by showing the heaving bosoms and bright red blood that the black-and-white Universal Horror films could not, due to monochrome and censorship. Freed from those bounds, there was always something sexy about the Hammer flicks, and even this stodgy effort flexes that sex appeal.
HORROR OF DRACULA never quite reaches the greatness of BLACK SUNDAY, but it’s worth watching just to see Lee and Cushing running around in a Gothic horror film. It’s a missed opportunity in many ways, but Terence Fisher knows how to elicit spooks out of a rolling fog bank with the best of them.