The blurb on the cover to the DVD release of Horror of Dracula strikes the right cheesy Famous Monsters of Filmland note. "Christopher Lee's fang-tastic first ever performance as the Lord of the Undead," it trumpets alongside the requisite graphic of the man himself holding a suitably buxom victim in his arms.
Recently reissued as part of a Hammer Horror collection (which also contains Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Mummy and Taste the Blood of Dracula - but, alas, no Curse of the Werewolf), Horror is the first pic in the British horror film company's long-running Drac series. Along with Curse of Frankenstein, the company's gory remake of Mary Shelley's novel, it ushered in a new brand of monster cinema when it was first released. Colorful and bloody, with brazen full-bodice sexuality, Hammer films were the late fifties' answer to a franchise of monster movies that looked pretty staid at the time. In their day, the Hammers provided a demarcation line for young horror movie fans: between those who thought the films' new relative explicitness were just what the genre needed to keep vital and those who felt the movies a poor substitute for the early moodier black-and-white Universal monster pics.
These days, of course, those trendmaking Hammers look a tad musty themselves: their colorful use of well-placed grue is pretty restrained compared to the buckets o' blood flung about in modern movies, while the acting of established thespians like Peter Cushing (who early had appeared as Osric in Lawrence Olivier's filmization of Hamlet) and Michael Gough (the British Whit Bissell) has a whiff of old-time staginess to it. And though a pic like Horror still looks great - the studio made wonderfully evocative use of deep rich color, particularly in Dracula's castle - it remains a comparatively low-budget affair. This shows in scenes like the climactic battle between Cushing's Van Helsing and Lee's Dracula, which just doesn't come across as dynamic as you'd hope. Or the moment (much more obvious in the DVD than in regular network broadcasting or videotape) when a sultry vampiress' breath can be briefly seen on what must've been a chilly set.
That noted, Horror of Dracula remains a primo example of solid B-picture making. Hammer's primary strategy was to emphasize blood-and-thunder storytelling over the more atmospheric imagery of directors like Tod Browning and James Whale, and it stood 'em in good stead through years of costumed horror pics. House screenwriter Jimmy Sangster took the source material and tweaked it in intriguing ways - making Cushing's Frankenstein in Curse an unrepentant blackguard, for instance - and you can see this approach in the company's first Dracflick. Though they followed the general outline of Bram Stoker's original novel, Sangster and director Terrence Fisher worked to surprise audience members overly familiar with the story. Thus, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), who serves as our introduction to Castle Dracula, is presented not as a naif (as he is in Stoker's book and the Bela Lugosi movie) but as someone who already knows what Dracula is. When Dracula leaves his castle to stalk Harker's fiancee, it's not to London but to another European city, Carlstadt, which turns out to be a half a day's hearse ride from the vampire's home turf. Warner gets this detail wrong, amusingly, on the DVD box text, incorrectly noting that Dracula shows up in London - an understandable error to make since a.) that's the way the original novel worked and b.) most of the actors, including the mittle-European villagers, speak with British accents.
But what about Christopher Lee's "first ever" performance as the Count? Simply put, he carries the film, so effectively that you feel his presence even when he's not onscreen. Unlike Lugosi, who played the vampire as a Valentino-esque lover, Lee's sire is a pure force of masculine will: his imposing height and bass voice (which for some strange reason, was rarely used in the Hammer sequels) are utilized to maximum effect. And in the middle of the film, when Dracula comes in the night to seduce and vampirize two different female victims, you accept every heavy breasted sigh. Lee's Drac is a vicious bastard (you know he beats his vampire lovers), but he's an attractive vicious bastard.
Cushing's Van Helsing (who alternately is called "Helsing" in the film) is suitably authoritative, but I find his amoral Frankenstein more fun to watch. He definitely wields a mean stake, though. Unlike so many vampire pics, the act of staking clearly takes a strong forearm (remember that Buffy ep where Willow dispatched a vamp with a sharpened number two pencil?) and more than one hammering. Director Fisher knew that dispatching vampires was exertive work more than a calling, and his staging of the story's second big vampire slaying - the second death of the once innocent Lucy Holmwood - emphasizes that fact. In Hammer's heroes, you can also see the roots of Sean Connery's teeth-gritting James Bond; when Cushing's fearless vampire hunter leaps and slides across a table to bring down a light-shielding curtain in his final fight with Drac, you can't help flashing on Bond sliding across the floor of Fort Knox, reaching for that big ol' wire to electrocute the imposing Odd Job.
In short: an enjoyable DVD and my favorite of the early Hammers (Curse of Frankenstein shows its budgetary limitations more clearly, while the studio's remake of The Mummy is kinda plodding). And as with the recently issued Universal Legacy mosnter movie packs, I'm hoping that the upcoming Van Helsing renews enough interest in this type of material to spark future DVD sets. Keep your candlesticks crossed. . .