Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Cinema Monolith: 6/10
The Motion Pictures: 4/5
Released in the US on May 8, 1958 and in the UK on June 16, 1958
Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Bram Stoker
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Janina Faye, Charles Lloyd Pack, Barbara Archer, Miles Malleson, Valerie Gaunt
Hammer Films kicked off its storied vampire franchise with this well-paced and atmospheric offering, the first of nine Dracula films released by the company between 1958 and 1974, and the first of three to feature both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Lee was fantastic as the fabled Count Dracula, jumping into the part with both feet and heaping large doses of elegance and menace into the character, while Cushing was serious and fearless as the vampire hunter Van Helsing; he may not have looked the part, but he most certainly played it with conviction.
Terence Fisher, who directed Cushing in thirteen films and Lee in twelve, seemed to have a flair for directing Gothic horror, and that skill was quite evident here. To me, he set just the right mood by letting his camera tell the story, and he allowed scenes to play out at a relaxed pace while the heavy atmosphere played havoc with your nerves. What I liked best about this film was how Fisher lulled you into a false sense of security with a static shot or dialogue scene, then chilled your heart with a slow but unexpected reveal, or the sudden appearance of someone from just off-camera, which was punctuated by a jarring crescendo of music.
Fisher set this tone early with the arrival of Jonathan Harker at Dracula’s castle, where Harker awaited Dracula’s return; after several moments of minimal sound and no dialogue, a woman suddenly approached from behind Harker—a simple shot that really goosed me—and soon a crashing music cue signaled the eerie arrival of the Count from the top of a high staircase. From there, Van Helsing and Dracula battled it out stake and fang for supremacy over the town of Klausenberg; in the former’s case, for the safety of its denizens, and for the latter, the seduction of its women (and for good measure, their young nieces as well).
On the technical side, Fisher continued to impress me with his filmmaking skills, which is why, perhaps, he directed 18 more horror films (by my count) over the next sixteen years. He was quite deft with his moving camera, and artfully filled the frame to maximum effect, using elaborate set design to establish mood and enhance his shots. And the way he staged certain scenes in Horror of Dracula, you got the idea that female victims were experiencing sexual fantasy and fulfillment with each vampirical visit; this was still 1958, when any hints of cinematic sexuality and gore were kept to an of-the-times minimum. Yet here, Fisher allowed both aspects to creep onto the screen…and in a not-so-subtle way.
As I’d mentioned, the thunderous music score was a plus, and Jimmy Sangster’s script was smooth and efficient, and delivered some smart dialogue. Why then, after all this praise, am I punishing the film with a fairly lukewarm rating? Look no further than the ridiculous acting of Michael Gough, playing the role of Arthur, whose anachronistic stage-drama style and overboard delivery were laughable in their execution, and destructive in their existence. Yes, he was that bad, and it’s unfortunate the film had to suffer because of it. (6/10)