It is beyond a reinvention of Dracula from the staid and sanitized versions that graced cinema screens from Lugosi through the 50s; it is a call to arms, a reinvigoration of horror into action and adventure, where those caught in the vampire’s web had no choice but to rely on their primal insincts, fight or flight, not discuss or convince over cocktails or creep about in the early daylight shadows, but to pounce from the dinner table and rip the curtains down, flooding the room with sunlight and transforming the object of their pursuit to a pile of grasping ash, his bony skeleton fading into the tiled floor.
HORROR OF DRACULA, Hammer’s bold and action-packed retelling of the Dracula story removes it from the gothic horror of its epistolary source material and stage-play rebirth and transforms it into lurid pulp, the screen oozing with bright red blood and the heaving cleavage of Dracula’s brides, no longer the chaste polygamistic denizens of a nobleman’s castle, but the seductive harbingers of unspeakable evil and destruction.
While Christopher Lee’s performance as Count Dracula–his commanding frame, bloodshot eyes and razor-tipped teeth barely containing the animal that lives inside–is a defining one, it is Peter Cushing’s Abraham Van Helsing that makes HORROR OF DRACULA special. After Cushing, Edward Van Sloan’s 1931 portrayal of Van Helsing was exposed for what he was: a dinner party academic with a bag of sharp sticks and an intellectual curiosity for vampire bats. Cushing’s Van Helsing was an academic, yes, but he was as much Indiana Jones (Cushing’s Van Helsing had to have had some influence on the creation of Jones, if not overtly, then in the recesses of their minds) as a cold and clinical theorist. No longer was Dracula wrought by a real estate deal gone bad, he was wrought by Van Helsing’s own obsessive hunt for him; Harker, in this film, was an agent of Van Helsing’s, and Cushing’s every scene is awash with guilt for bringing this on Harker’s family-to-be, particularly when he has no choice but to kill his old friend and later when he wraps his coat and cross around young Tania before descending into Lucy’s crypt to dispatch the evil he was responsible for unleashing.
The “horror” in HORROR OF DRACULA is not only the surface horror of Dracula’s evil, but the horrors that one’s own obsessions can unleash on those only tangentially involved. It is a slam-bang thriller of horror with heroes haunted by their demons, seeking only to slay the evil released by those demons.
The poster hangs on my office wall and is a reminder of the power of storytelling that pushes the emotional boundaries of its characters, taking them to their primal state and thereby delivering a story with emotional weight, heft, and power.