Gothic Romance– Horror of Dracula
This is the first of what’s intended to be a semi-regular column about gothic horror films, a genre near and dear to my heart. It’s been a part of the cinematic landscape from the 1920s to present, CRIMSON PEAK is one of my more anticipated movies of the fall, and I think that gives me a lot of latitude to explore a genre full of supernatural forces, striking architecture, and bleak landscapes. It’s perhaps not a subtle genre, but it’s a visually arresting genre which is why I think cinema returns to it again and again.
With the recent death of Christopher Lee looming in my mind, I went to extra effort to really unpack HORROR OF DRACULA. Subsequent installments will be more to the point.
If you have any suggestions for future entries, please feel free to share them in the comments section below.
1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN put the Hammer film studio on the map in a big way and would ultimately create careers and legacies for nearly everyone involved. The natural follow-up to Frankenstein was Dracula and the challenge was to prove that THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was not a fluke. The result would be one of Hammer’s very finest and most influential movies.
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN shows Hammer finding their way with some growing pains, which is not unexpected given that it was their first, color, gothic film. Heck, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably the first, color, gothic film from anyone. Hammer and Terence Fisher were on the cutting edge of horror and ushered in a new era and type of horror with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, whether they knew it at the time is an open question, but horror was irrevocably changed with the success of that film.
Clearly, Hammer took the right lessons from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN as HORROR OF DRACULA shows no signs of growing pains but is a fully formed whole. Terence Fisher’s mastery of the material starts during the credit sequence where the audience looks up at eagle gargoyles on Castle Dracula, the audience will be looking up at the ancient Dracula frequently during the film and Fisher visually establishes the audience’s subservience early. The camera then glides in Dracula’s crypt and closes in on Dracula’s coffin when, out of nowhere, bright red blood splashes down on Dracula’s name without explanation. Neatly, Fisher establishes that blood is going to be a major motif of the film and that Dracula is going to command the space outside the frame. Coupled with James Bernard’s score, Dracula is already a presence without being seen.
The film proper then begins in a way that’s familiar to all Dracula adaptations with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arriving at Castle Dracula. Or, at least, it leads you to believe it’s following the traditional template but screenwriter Jimmy Sangster has several surprises in store which play with expectations. Hammer’s spin on the material starts with Castle Dracula not being a decrepit, cobweb shrouded place, but a bright, attractive castle with an emphasis on red in Bernard Robinson’s terrific production design. Hammer is very much bringing horror out of the shadows and into the bright light. Castle Dracula is cold, you can spot the breath in several scenes, but it has a glamorous allure.
After a brief encounter with an unnamed woman (Valerie Gaunt), an apparent prisoner of Dracula, Christopher Lee’s Dracula makes an appearance out of nowhere at the top of a staircase. Lee’s Dracula will appear out of nowhere so frequently it will become a supernatural power; Dracula’s ability to move outside the frame, free from any constraints of space and time is striking and without a doubt an influence on characters as different as Batman and HALLOWEEN’s Michael Myers.
Lee’s initial appearance is excellently conceived by Terence Fisher as we see in one continuous shot, Dracula at the top of the stairs, we watch him impressively stride down the stairs without the sound of footsteps, and then he steps towards the camera, hitting his spot for a closeup, with the camera looking up at him, as he delivers his lines in a clipped, clean, British accented manner totally unlike Bela Lugosi. In the figure he cuts and his movements, we see a dominating physical and attractive Dracula established.
With that, Hammer’s classic style is firmly established once and for all. That style would bring the horror out of the shadows. And, even more so than THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, evil appears to be literally attractive. Seductive even. If Terence Fisher and Hammer had a central theme to their work, the charm, in all senses of the word, of evil is it and it is most apparent in HORROR OF DRACULA.
If Lee’s Dracula has one influence above others it’s Lord Byron. Byron was the inspiration for Polidori’s “Lord Ruthven”, which is the second most influential story that emerged out of that famous vacation which also produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lord Ruthven was one of literature’s first vampires and certainly was a direct influence on Bram Stoker. I think Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” sums up both Lord Byron and Lee’s Dracula in both their appeal and villainy. The word “Byronic” can apply to many of Hammer’s gothic films, both in its villains and heroes or anti-heroes.
At this point, Jimmy Sangster’s script also reveals its first major departure. The film follows Dracula delivering Harker to his room, the de rigueur of Dracula catching sight of Harker’s fiancée, Lucy (Jean Marsh) in this iteration, and then instead of waiting around for Harker to come to the realization that Dracula is a vampire, it’s instead revealed that Harker isn’t here for his stated purpose but instead to destroy the vampire Dracula! The film shifts into high gear immediately as it upends audience expectations and turns Harker from a reactive character into a proactive one. In many ways, HORROR OF DRACULA has a post-modern script that assumes audience familiarity with the material and then plays with that familiarity.
The script is also not interested in wasting our time. Directly after the revelation that Harker is hunting Dracula, Harker is lured out of his room in the middle of the night to Dracula’s library where he encounters Dracula’s woman again. At this point, Harker makes a fatal error, due to overconfidence / paternalism, he lets down his guard and is bitten by the vampire woman for his trouble. Fisher positions Harker between the woman and the audience, as a surrogate protector, but it’s clear that Harker is an inadequate protector.
HORROR OF DRACULA isn’t content to just stop there at the end of the scene, in one of the big shock visuals of the 1950s, Christopher Lee’s Dracula bursts into the room, blood dripping from his mouth, his eyes shot with blood, and proceeds to physically punish the woman, and Harker when he tries to intercede. A new cinematic vampire is born at this point, one that’s intensely physical and cruel. Violence of this direct physical manner towards women is fairly unusual in this era of cinema, and Fisher doesn’t try to hide it. It’s not pointless either, as it informs our understanding of Dracula and lays out the fate that awaits any woman that falls under his power. Dracula is a dominating and sadistic character despite his initial attractiveness. He’s practically Satanic. Whether anyone else will fall under the thrall of his cruelty happens to be the stakes of the film. Fisher and Sangster also don’t walk back Dracula as a monster, he won’t utter a line for the rest of the film and is always presented as something other.
At this point, the film moves to resolve Harker’s story. Harker awakens near dark, despairing that he’s been bitten by a vampire and infected with their disease. He jots down some final notes in his diary, proceeds to escape by a window, leaves his diary at a religious shrine as a warning to others, and then proceeds to enter the crypt of Dracula where Harker finds Dracula and his woman asleep in their crypts. Harker then sets out to stake the two, starting with the woman. Obviously, starting with the woman instead of the source of evil is a mistake, but it says something about Harker’s character. Harker envisioned himself as a strong character, perhaps a knight even that is going to save a damsel in distress, and once hurt his weakness is revealed. He sets out to destroy the woman, perhaps because his pride is hurt or perhaps because he needs to rebuild his confidence, but regardless he knows that he’s unable to tackle Dracula. Dracula is strong and Harker is weak and that weakness dooms his mission.
The sun sets while Harker is busy staking the woman, who reverts to the form of an old crone. But, when he turns to Dracula’s crypt, he discovers that Dracula is gone. It will be a recurring motif of the film that when you’re not specifically watching Dracula, he can move and be anywhere at any time. In this case, Dracula appears at the top of the stairs to the crypt. The camera looks up at Dracula and down at Harker, both establishing the 180 degree rule and their relative positions of power, and Dracula closes the crypt door sealing Harker’s fate.
As a statement of purpose, it’s hard to argue that the opening of HORROR OF DRACULA isn’t a major triumph that finds Terence Fisher and Hammer Films at the top of their game and which would reverberate throughout their careers together. After the wordless performance as Frankenstein’s creation in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Lee’s performance as Dracula was a major upgrade and spotlight and he instantly created a strong, memorable, sinister premise which would become the basis for his star persona. Both the attractiveness and the evilness of the gothic storytelling is spotlighted in this opening and that’s one of the keys to the lasting appeal of HORROR OF DRACULA and the gothic genre in general.
It’s at this point, after seeing Dracula at the height of his power, that Dracula’s strong opposite, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is introduced into the film. We don’t really see Van Helsing’s arrival, just his entrance, which puts him in the same cinematic space as Dracula. In this instance, Van Helsing arrives at a garlic festooned inn, complete with fearful villagers suspicious of outsiders. Van Helsing doesn’t win over the irrationally fearful, but he does win over the local, and very attractive (naturally for Hammer), serving woman and is given Harker’s blood red diary, recovered from the shrine, for his trouble.
The result leads Van Helsing to Castle Dracula just in time to witness the departure of a black clad hearse carrying Dracula’s coffin away. This is a pretty good lesson for screenwriting, in one scene two things are accomplished, we witness Van Helsing’s arrival and Dracula’s departure, and it injects movement and implied danger, Van Helsing narrowly avoids being run over. It’s a good example of the gothic in that danger lurks everywhere, and that it likely will come in stylish black clothing. It’s also notable as there’s a driver of the hearse, implying that Dracula has servants, or at least hirelings. It plays no major importance here, but it does provide a loophole for sequels.
Van Helsing quickly finds Dracula’s crypt and discovers Harker now turned into a vampire in one of the coffins. We never see Van Helsing pound the stake into Harker, given the phallic nature of the stakes in HORROR OF DRACULA we witness men driving their stakes into women, but never men driving their stakes into men, but the film simply cuts to Van Helsing relaying the news of Jonathan Harker’s demise to husband and wife, Arthur (Michael Gough) and Mina (Melissa Stribling) Holmwood so that the news can be relayed to Lucy Holmwood, Arthur’s sister.
It’s notable that while the movie never shifts from Eastern Europe to England, as in the novel, you would be hard-pressed to detect the difference between the Holmwood house and a prosperous middle-class home in England. It’s worth noting that, in a change from the novel, Arthur is no longer Lord Holmwood and the relationships between Arthur, Mina, and Lucy have been changed substantially. HORROR OF DRACULA establishes the Holmwoods as more of a tight-knit, middle class, nuclear family, certainly relevant for 1950s audiences, and less of the romantic aristocratic entanglements of the novel. To a large extent, the architecture reflects the characters, a trademark of the gothic style, and we see a very conservative style for the Holmwood home. A style that reflects Michael Gough’s fussy, but not very passionate, Arthur Holmwood. It’s not something that seems to be inconsistent with Melissa Stribling’s Mina either, who sits respectfully at Arthur’s side in a high collared dress and with not a hair out of place. Plotwise the scene serves mainly as a way to introduce Van Helsing to the couple, create an initial mistrust that must be overcome, and allude to the fact that Lucy is ill once Van Helsing leaves, but amidst those relatively minor plot concerns character and relationships are being established. It’s no surprise to discover later that Arthur’s display of affection to Mina consists of him mainly kissing her on the forehead paternally.
That leaves one final introduction of an important character, Lucy Holmwood. Carol Marsh had worked with Terence Fisher a decade prior in the film MARRY ME!, and had lost none of her youthfulness in the interim. It’s a youthfulness accentuated with her hair in pigtails and pink bed linens. But, Fisher and Sangster are quick to defeat that girlishness, by having her creep out of bed in a slightly diaphanous gown, open the French door windows, remove a cross from her neck and put it away, and lay back in the bed, stroking the now revealed bite marks on her neck, the “kiss of the vampire” according to Stoker. With fallen leaves swirling on the ground outside, it’s a scene of pure anticipated passion. Given the fact that Dracula isn’t present yet, I agree with Nina Auerbach in Our Vampires, Ourselves that it’s a scene laced with auto-eroticism. And it’s communicated purely through images.
Terence Fisher would later give Jean Marsh and Melissa Stribling a lot of credit for communicating inner passion as he felt the scripts essentially treated the two like props. Horror films had handled the sexuality of their female characters previously, CAT PEOPLE for instance, but HORROR OF DRACULA far outdistances its predecessors in making its sexual subtext overt text. Hammer and Terence Fisher come across as tame, even quaint, when viewed through modern eyes, but at the time they were a new wave of horror and sexuality breaking unheard of ground. And it drove the British censors crazy. Horror was okay, sexuality was okay, but mixing horror and sex seemed beyond the pale to them and it was through some heavy duty arm-twisting and the fact that Hammer was one of the few units of the British film industry making money and keeping people in employment that secured the film an X-rating at the time, allowing British citizens 16 and older to see the film. The British Board of Film Censors was given script approval ahead of time, but it’s a lesson in how images can transcend a script where the scene could come across as essentially chaste in other hands.
It’s notable that Fisher and Hammer decide to cut away from this passion to a scene with Van Helsing that functions as exposition to explain the characteristics of a vampire. Perhaps it’s intended to spare the sensibilities of the 1950s audience. Perhaps, Sangster and Fisher viewed it as the last opportunity to get necessary exposition out of the way before plunging headlong into the plot and horror. Regardless the scene itself is quite clever as it essentially finds Van Helsing organizing his thoughts and providing exposition to himself, and the audience, via a recording cylinder. It’s an incident repurposed from Bram Stoker’s novel, chapter seventeen to be precise, and is a novel approach to exposition in cinema. We get all the necessary exposition, but Van Helsing is active in the scene as he pages through Jonathan Harker’s diary, making notes as he studies his enemy. Van Helsing is a scientist, first and foremost, and the film doesn’t forget that. The scene also supplies the film with some comic relief as the confused porter ends up surprised to find only Van Helsing in the room. With Van Helsing recording additional thoughts at the conclusion of the scene, it brings to mind how coroners will record their thoughts for the benefit of the audience to the point that it’s become a cliché. But, this is certainly one of the earliest sources of that cliché and it’s used to much better effect than many subsequent uses.
The film swings back to Lucy and Dracula’s arrival in a shock cut closeup on Dracula and then Dracula’s entrance to Lucy’s film. Again, Fisher keeps Dracula’s movements mysterious as he essentially just appears at Lucy’s door. Fisher withholds the actual attack on Lucy, using Dracula’s cape as a censoring device as the scene fades to black, but the look of desire on Lucy’s face is unmistakable.
When we fade back in again, we get what’s perhaps the weakest scene in the film as Doctor Seward (Charles Lloyd Pack) exits Lucy’s room with Mina and reports that Lucy is worse. To the scene’s credit, it advances the plot, introduces the housekeeper’s daughter Tania (Janina Faye), who will be important in a few scenes, and makes Mina seek out Dr. Van Helsing for a second opinion, but It’s a scene with no Harker, no Christopher Lee, no Peter Cushing, and not even Michael Gough. But, it moves the plot forward and gets us right back to Peter Cushing as Mina decides to consult Dr. Van Helsing for a second opinion.
Cushing was one of the great horror film icons bringing both intelligence and dedication to his roles. Mina coming to Van Helsing for a second opinion, which will obviously get him to investigate Lucy’s case, is the kind of thing a lesser actor might rush through. Not Cushing though, he fiddles with the props, in this case doing things like wiping dust off the seat he offers to Mina and he doesn’t rush to a conclusion as he puts 2 and 2 together. But he knows enough to be on the case and collecting evidence. Fisher uses closeups to focus on Cushing’s reactions and the words are generally unnecessary to tell the story.
The film cuts directly to Lucy’s bedroom, again the film wastes very little time, and to Van Helsing examining Lucy. There’s a nice interplay between Marsh and Cushing as he examines her looking for evidence of Dracula, even as Lucy guesses that Jonathan is dead. Van Helsing finds obvious evidence as he finds the “kiss of the vampire” on her neck and we see his wordless reaction.
It’s taken a little while in the middle of the film, but at last Van Helsing and Dracula are set in direct opposition. Visually Terence Fisher underlines that these are the two strong opposites as he frames Cushing so that we’re often looking up at him as he towers over Mina giving her commands to shut off the room at night, festoon it with garlic flowers, and by no means to remove those flowers until dawn.
Like many Dracula adaptations and the original novel, why Van Helsing doesn’t stick around to guard Lucy is a question that never gets a satisfactory answer. There’s an argument to be made that Van Helsing is an anti-hero in this version and doesn’t much care what happens to Lucy as long as it ultimately leads him to destroying Dracula as the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But, the obvious tenderness and concern on Cushing’s face as he interacts with Carol Marsh seem to belie that interpretation. The film itself in empathetic towards Lucy as she writhes on the bed, with wild hair suggesting her tormented mental state, due to the overabundance of garlic flowers and convinces the housekeeper Gerda (Olga Dickie) to remove the garlic flowers and open the doors. It goes to the power of the earlier scenes and Lee’s strong presence that we don’t even need to see Dracula make an appearance and instead we rely on the swirling leaves outside, a shot of the moon, and James Bernard’s rising score to suggest Dracula’s imminent appearance. It’s one of the strengths of the staging by Fisher that he finds different ways for Dracula to make, or not make, an appearance so that the film doesn’t grow repetitive.
When morning arrives, Lucy is, of course, dead. Van Helsing sweeps in to find the obvious result and to followup with Mina, wearing a blood red skirt and ruby earrings as part of the red motif of the film, to ascertain that she followed his directions. She did but Gerda confesses her failure to follow through. Cushing’s reaction is silent, but a throbbing twitch of the cheek in closeup indicates some barely concealed anger. But, instead of an outburst, we get Van Helsing’s control as he pulls out Harker’s blood red journal and leaves it to be read by Arthur, as an irrefutable way of convincing Arthur of the evil in their midst.
The journal is a clever MacGuffin that finds multiple uses throughout the film. It’s used to reveal Harker’s thoughts. It’s used to lead Van Helsing to Castle Dracula and later as a prop for exposition. And, finally, it’s used to bring Arthur on board, but off screen. Leaving Arthur’s convincing in between scenes is both efficient and sidesteps a potentially awkward scene of exposition, of things we already know from watching the movie and being familiar with the story of Dracula.
It’s at this point that Michael Gough steps forward into the spotlight. During a quiet domestic scene, the first time we see Mina with a plunging neckline suggesting that Dracula’s desires may turn to her while Arthur rather paternally kisses her on the forehead, a policeman brings back the wandering Tania who claims to have seen and been lured away by Lucy, who fled at the approach of the policeman. At which point, Arthur recognizes the possible awful truth in the journal and goes out to Lucy’s gravesite to investigate.
This leads to the big central set piece of the film as Arthur’s investigations lead him to discovering that Lucy is not in her crypt. Hammer and Fisher invests Arthur’s investigation with a lot of atmosphere with swirling fog, color in the form of funeral flowers in Lucy’s crypt, and falling leaves which are obviously a favorite bit of atmosphere for Fisher. A short scene features Lucy, now out of her pigtails and looking more like a grown woman, gathering Tania in a forest among more dead leaves, some of which are painted red by Terence Fisher and Bernard Robinson. Lucy then returns to the graveyard with Tania in tow with her obviously intending Tania to be her victim.
Sangster’s script may deviate wildly at points from Stoker’s novel, but at this point it tracks rather directly with it as Sangster draws directly from Lucy as the “bloofer woman”. Given the obvious sexual nature of vampire attacks in HORROR OF DRACULA, Hammer is directly referencing pedophilia as an evil of vampirism. Dracula is the great source of evil in the film, but his evil seems relatively normal in comparison.
And, then Sangster manages to top himself by adding perversity to the story by Lucy turning her attention to Arthur as he interrupts her time with Tania. It’s evident that she wants to put the bite on Arthur, with all the incestuous sexual overtones that includes. Sangster had mixed up relationships in his reimaging of Dracula, but you can see that it was all done with a purpose as he adds to the horror of the story. And, it’s a horror that Arthur is clearly unable to cope with.
Van Helsing, on the other hand, proves quite capable of coping as he steps in with cross in hand to repel Lucy. More than any other entrance, Van Helsing’s sudden appearance puts him on the same plane of movement as Dracula as it’s impossible for Van Helsing to actually move out of hiding and appear from behind Arthur and suddenly surprise someone who isn’t blind.
Fisher invests Van Helsing, along with his cross, with a strong power as he looms over Lucy and forces her back, ending with Van Helsing branding her forehead with the power of the cross and forcing her back into her crypt.
Like in Stoker’s novel, the cross is a powerful weapon in the fight against vampires in HORROR OF DRACULA and Fisher communicates that quite clearly visually. Christianity really is mere coloring for earlier versions of Dracula with the cross being on the same level as garlic or even a mirror in being repellent to a vampire. Christianity is largely absent from most of the earlier Universal monster movies which even embrace non-Christian concepts like reincarnation, from Lewton’s noir-ish horror movies, and from the atomic age horrors of the 1950s. But, for all their boundary pushing, Hammer’s films are fundamentally conservative in religious aspect and fundamentally Christian. The cross and by extension God will prove to be decisive elements in defeating Dracula. By extension, the necessity of those elements will elevate Dracula to being a more fearsome foe than just a supernatural sexual predator. Many horror films operate on the absence of God, while Hammer’s Gothic films often take God’s existence as a given and vital part of their existence. In many ways, Hammer was paving the way for Christian horror like ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and THE OMEN.
After Van Helsing’s decisive defeat of Lucy, we get to see the one moment of real warmth from Cushing as he comforts Tania, wrapping her in his own fur lined coat, handing her a cross for protection, and being generally disarming as he compares her to a teddy bear. Cushing has a cold, steely demeanor on screen and as Van Helsing, but off-screen he was reputed to be one of the sweetest, nicest men you could ever hope to meet. I suspect that what we see here is a peek at what Cushing was like in real life. It’s a moment that perhaps goes at cross-purposes to the anti-hero reading of Van Helsing’s character, but clearly puts us on his side for the rest of the film.
The anti-hero side of Van Helsing isn’t hidden for long as he suggests to Arthur that they use Lucy to track down Dracula. Arthur has none of that and Van Helsing reluctantly agrees to free Lucy from vampirism via staking. This is one of the big scenes of the novel, a novel filled with theatrical scenes perhaps owing to Stoker’s background in the theater which get reinterpreted again and again, and Fisher and Hammer play the staking for all it’s worth.
Fisher played a bit coy with Harker’s staking of the vampire woman earlier in the film by mostly using shadows to show the staking. Like the good director that he was, he left himself room to go bigger as the film progresses and Fisher produces perhaps the bloodiest scene in the history of film to that point. We see the stake penetrate the body and bright red blood spurt out, we see Lucy scream, and we hear the pounding of the stake as Van Helsing drives the stake deeper. It remains one of Hammer’s most effective moments of horror.
There are layers to that scene. Cushing is impassively doing what he feels needs to be done. Gough reacts strongly to the staking by clutching his chest. Earlier Gough touches his head where the cross burned Lucy. Clearly, Fisher and Gough are establishing a connection between brother and sister and commenting that Arthur identifies with the female character. It again represents that there are two strong men in the film, Van Helsing and Dracula, and that we can expect a final confrontation between the two.
It’s at this point that, via Van Helsing, Sangster fully reveals that Dracula is explicitly targeting the woman close to Harker as revenge for Harker destroying his woman. In many ways, this is an improvement on the novel where Dracula’s motivation for going to London seems murky with no clear end goal and Dracula’s involvement with someone Harker’s fiancée knows is pure coincidence. By giving Dracula a direct revenge motivation and specific targets, it simplifies the story and ups the stakes as Dracula has reason for not just moving on in the face of a knowledgeable vampire hunter.
Demonstrating a keen understanding of the phallic subtext and symbolism of staking, the film diverges from the novel by having Van Helsing perform the staking instead of Holmwood as in the novel. Holmwood had the “honor” of driving the stake into his fiancée in the novel, but with relations mixed up it would bring up incestuous images. So, instead, it’s up to Van Helsing to do the deed.
Fisher also lingers on the face of Lucy following the staking. Fisher had a strong view on vampirism, that it was a curse, and if he plays up the horror of the staking, he also makes sure to emphasize that it’s necessary and shows Lucy post staking with a look of release upon her face. There’s a strong good vs. evil dichotomy in HORROR OF DRACULA, throughout most of Fisher’s Gothic films really, and while it may be considered simplistic, it also gives Fisher’s film a strong identity and point of view.
It’s debatable where you draw the line on whether Fisher was an auteur or not. It’s not debatable whether Fisher’s films have a consistent point of view that’s representative of their director; they do. Fisher’s style was much imitated after THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA, but the imitators rarely had the same thematic concerns that Fisher did, his sense of pace, his sense of miese en scene, his use of closeup to punctuate a scene, or the easy gliding camera work of his films. Fisher shot very lean, using his experience as an editor to know how the film would be pieced together, and his films reflected his personal vision in many ways as there weren’t many ways to cut his films other than how he intended.
After the horror of the staking of Lucy, the film moves in a lighter direction as Van Helsing and Arthur move to investigate where Dracula is hiding his coffin. There are passages in Stoker’s novel which refer to the investigators bribing men via money or drink to pin down the vampire’s location and Sangster uses these scenes mainly as comic relief. Probably to give the 1950s era audience a break. In 2015, these comic sequences read as very broad, but they’re effective enough and bribing the border guard for information plays very well visually. The bribery also makes Arthur useful which is a small detail that makes him an ally of Van Helsing as opposed to dead weight that Van Helsing must drag along.
In the midst of the bribery, Dracula proves to be an active participant in the plot as he lures Mina out into the night and to the undertaker’s funeral home which he has taken up residence. It’s not the atmospheric Carfax Abbey of the novel and other adaptations, but it’s a nice touch that goes against expectations. What better place to hide a coffin than amidst coffins? Fisher, again, holds off showing the details of Dracula preying on women.
The aftermath comes quickly as we cut back to the Holmwood home with Van Helsing and Arthur drinking coffee and planning their next move, a visit to the same undertaker that Mina has already been to. The useless Gerda is surprised to discover that Mina is missing when Arthur sends Gerda to summon her, but Mina arrives via the front door immediately explaining that she merely went out for an early walk. Arthur says she looks pale, but that seems a remnant of the script and out of tune with the actual scene. Melissa Stribling practically gives off a post-coital glow as she smiles to herself and snuggles into her fur lined coat when Arthur asks her where she’s been, which it is a real tribute to Stribling as an actress that she’s able to glow like that. She’s been a fairly dull matron up to this point, but now she’s a woman with passionate desires. And, this underlining is to the credit of Terence Fisher who reportedly said as instruction “Listen, you should imagine you had one whale of a sexual night, the one of your whole sexual experience. Give me that in your face.” And, it’s a great piece of instruction that stands to this day. And, to contrast strongly with the sexually magnetic Dracula, Arthur kisses Mina rather chastely on the forehead. The irony is, of course, intentional and displays a real understanding of the subtext of Stoker’s novel.
The investigation of Van Helsing and Arthur leads them directly to another comic scene, in this case with veteran comic actor Miles Malleson as the undertaker. Malleson would be something of a comic relief specialist under Fisher with Hammer, coming in to punch up one or two scenes, with BRIDES OF DRACULA and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES being his two biggest and best roles. Generally Malleson is a welcome presence, although this time he pitches it way to the back row, drumming on coffins and generally hamming it up. It’s no real surprise that Dracula’s coffin is missing, offering a setback to Van Helsing and Arthur, but Malleson fails to be make the scene entertaining beyond the plot point.
The film returns to the Holmwood house as Arthur and Van Helsing study a map, with some great big tankards as they fortify themselves for a long night of investigation, with Mina, again in a high collared outfit sits in the background doing needlepoint. Arthur, being sensible, offers Mina a cross to wear for her own protection, even if he’s still too much of a Victorian man to explain to his wife why she should do so, and Mina reluctantly agrees. Mina collapses upon receiving the cross and you get to see one of Fisher’s distinct camera moves as Van Helsing and Arthur rush to her side with the camera tracking close behind them. It’s a fairly big camera move for a small set and creates a great sense of urgency when a great many directors wouldn’t have felt it necessary to move the camera at all. It’s revealed that the cross has burned Mina’s hand, revealing her as a victim of Dracula, and Van Helsing and Arthur resolve to stake out the house as guards against Dracula now that they know whom his intended victim is.
HORROR OF DRACULA has some general similarities to HALLOWEEN in that it follows a man of science who believes in a supernatural evil character who stalks silently through the night, entering the homes of his primarily female victims and preying on them. John Carpenter was a child of the 1950s and you can see HORROR OF DRACULA, PSYCHO, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, and THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING in HALLOWEEN, although HALLOWEEN takes those elements and recreates them into something unique. If there’s a direct reference to HORROR OF DRACULA in HALLOWEEN, it’s the sequence where Van Helsing spends the night outside in the cold, waiting for Dracula to strike, and to intercept him which recalls much of Donald Pleasance staking out the Myers’s house in HALLOWEEN. Earlier, Van Helsing stated that vampires don’t actually turn into bats and we have reason to believe that he didn’t leap to that conclusion erroneously.
But, more than anything, the power of Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA is to move through space and time outside the frame. Mina, now with her hair down and in a not quite shoulder-less night gown, looks out the window and then wanders into the main house apparently restless for the appearance of her vampire lover. And, despite the guards outside, Dracula is present right in the heart of the Holmwood home. We see one of the few downward shots of Dracula in the film as Fisher films Lee from the top of the stairs, from Mina’s point of view. Still, through careful framing and Lee’s presence, the black clad Lee dominates the frame. And he keeps dominating the frame as he ascends the stairs, coming closer and closer to Mina and the camera until Lee stands towering over Melissa Stribling. Dracula’s domination is shown as Mina backs into the bedroom, with Dracula close behind and the door is closed behind them.
The British Board of Film Censors was more a hindrance than a help, in my opinion. Legends have it that much of the board was literally made up of blue haired aunts of members of Parliament. They could have easily demanded that the bedroom scene between Mina and Dracula be edited out and it wouldn’t have harmed the picture plot-wise. That they allowed the scene to pass is to their credit, as the scene makes it a better film. Mina and Dracula is one of the more erotically charged scenes in Stoker’s novel and the same is true of the movie. Fisher films the scene, in a medium close shot, of Dracula and Mina caressing cheeks before Dracula lowers her out of frame and it clearly evokes a love scene more than anything Bela Lugosi was allowed to film. It’s also allows a payoff for Fisher withholding the Lucy/Dracula scenes earlier as there is a solid progression of attacks from barely explicit to highly explicit as the film nears its climax.
Bram Stoker was working in the theater business in the East End of London during the Jack the Ripper killings and it’s likely that those memories played a role in his novel written just a few years later. Given that a lot of rumors of the time were that Jack the Ripper was an Eastern European, it’s not hard to draw parallels between the Eastern European Count Dracula preying on English women as a sexual predator, until he’s driven out of England by an alliance of western men, including an American. By including the bedroom scene, HORROR OF DRACULA really makes explicit the sexual predator element of Dracula that’s implicit in his creation and the subtext of the novel. If we want, we can consider vampirism as a sexually transmitted disease and find justification in the text of the movie.
Of course, there are limits to what the film censors would allow. We never actually see Dracula sink his teeth into any of his victims. Instead, the film film cuts to a screeching owl which startles both the audience and Arthur who is blissfully unaware of what it going on in his own bedroom. This isn’t the first time that owls will have been used for shock effect in films, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER also makes use of an owl and there are many examples throughout the history of film. But, it’s effective here and between the strong colors of Hammer and the owl imagery, you can wonder if it’s coincidence or influence that David Lynch also uses owls in TWIN PEAKS.
The film cuts to the next morning and the vampire hunters return from an unsuccessful night. Things seem normal until Arthur checks in on Mina. Peter Cushing engages in an act of swashbuckling physical acting as he leaps over the balcony to rush to discover the source of Arthur’s cry. The discovery of Mina reveals the marriage bed splattered with blood. Dracula is attacking the sanctity of family and marriage in HORROR OF DRACULA and that image speaks directly to how he’s defiling the Holmwood family.
The film next cuts to Van Helsing finishing a lifesaving transfusion of blood from Arthur to Mina with bright, blood red instruments of the transfusion prominently featured in the frame. Blood is life is never stated in HORROR OF DRACULA, but it’s present in images. Cushing and Fisher spend a fairly long time as Van Helsing methodically removes the tubes and needles from his patients, but it underscores the reality of the situation. Cushing famously consulted with his doctor on how things are done to add to the verisimilitude of his performance, and you can sense that he did a consultation before this scene. It’s a small detail in a big film, but it speaks to Cushing’s dedication and attention to detail for his performance. It also speaks to Fisher’s support of his actor that the scene is allowed to play as long as it does.
The aftermath of the scene finds Arthur wondering if Dracula can, in fact, turn into a bat and Van Helsing insisting that there must be a more rational explanation. (It should be noted that Hammer was unconcerned with this as a strict plot point in BRIDES OF DRACULA as the lead vampire does indeed turn into a bat in that film.) It’s at this point that Gerda proves her one moment of usefulness, when asked to fetch some wine from the cellar, as she volunteers, and disobeys Mina’s orders, that a large box was delivered to the cellar the previous day and that Gerda has no interest in visiting the cellar.
It’s a clever plot point by Sangster that finds Dracula hiding right under their noses while at the same time allowing the film to keep his movements and whereabouts mysterious. Van Helsing, of course, rushes down into the basement where he finds Dracula’s coffin. And, Dracula, for some reason, decides to pop in from the top of the stairs, again a recurring motif, and locks Van Helsing in. Van Helsing places his cross in the coffin, preventing Dracula from returning to it, and then bangs to be let out until he’s eventually released by Arthur. After a very dated slapping of Gerda to bring her out of hysterics, Van Helsing and Arthur learn that Dracula has carried off Mina with Castle Dracula being the only possible destination. A chase is then on.
The final portions of Bram Stoker’s novel finds Van Helsing and company chasing Dracula across Europe ending with a climatic fight at Castle Dracula. Neither NOSFERATU or Tod Browning’s DRACULA included that chase, while HORROR OF DRACULA is the first one that tries to capture the excitement of the novel. HORROR OF DRACULA isn’t the most faithful in specifics, but in spirit it captures the novel well in terms of themes, blood, sex, and Christianity all feature prominently, and in general structure. To this day, HORROR OF DRACULA is the only Dracula movie that can really claim to have a blood pumping finale.
The chase back to Castle Dracula itself is nothing special. There’s a gag regarding Dracula and Van Helsing both crashing through the border guard’s crossing guard, but otherwise it’s a pretty stock sequence just to get the participants to Castle Dracula.
Once arriving at Castle Dracula, Dracula proceeds to quickly dig a grave and then starts to bury Mina in it. There’s something of a dog burying a bone to this action, and it certainly refutes any idea that the attraction between Dracula and Mina is as any sort of equals. Mina’s an object to Dracula, not a person. Before he can complete the burial though, Van Helsing and Arthur arrive causing Dracula to flee from the vampire hunter into his castle. You can see a good example of Fisher’s mise en scene as, instead of a series of shots, he uses one shot to show action bursting out into all directions; Dracula flees to the castle, Van Helsing pursues, and Arthur veers off to the left to rescue Mina.
With Van Helsing in pursuit, Fisher communicates that this is a chase of equals by actually showing Dracula’s movements. We watch Dracula run up stairs and then we watch Van Helsing run up stairs. Van Helsing can match Dracula’s movements and the vampire can’t just disappear outside the frame with this hero in pursuit. Fisher is not just telling a chase sequence here, he’s telling us about the equality of the characters and showing us that Dracula is being brought down to earth. It’s a parallel backed by parallel music cues courtesy of James Bernard as well.
The chase ends in a fight in Dracula’s library. Van Helsing isn’t a physical match for Dracula as he’s quickly overcome by the vampire, but after cleverly feigning unconsciousness he breaks free of Dracula’s grasp. Fisher makes it clear that as strong as Van Helsing is, he’s going to need help to overcome this monster and he’s going to have to work for it.
That help comes in the form of nature and God. Noticing it’s morning, Van Helsing leaps on a table, runs down it, leaps, and pulls down a tapestry over a window letting sunlight stream into the room. The sunlight strikes Dracula, dissolving his leg and leaves the vampire crippled but not quite defeated as he could potentially crawl away. Van Helsing then grabs a pair of candlesticks and fashions them into the shape of a cross and forces Dracula back into the sunlight.
By all accounts, the candlesticks were a suggestion from Peter Cushing and replaced a script instruction that Van Helsing pull a cross out of his pocket. Cushing reportedly wondered just how many crosses was Van Helsing supposed to be carrying? Fisher quickly assented to the suggestion and one of the iconic images of horror cinema, and one of the very few demonstrating the heroic victory over the monster by the hero, was created. Fisher, of course, films Van Helsing with the camera looking up at the triumphant hero and down at the defeated villain. And the biggest cross in the film is used as a symbol of that triumph. Dracula isn’t defeated through the will and power of man. Dracula isn’t defeated via nature. God just doesn’t strike Dracula down. But, it’s the combination of all three that strike the fatal blow against Dracula. Hammer would use that combination of elements for the destruction of Dracula in subsequent films, but very few other vampire films would have that exact incantation and it’s part of what sets Hammer apart. Heck, even GREMLINS which pays explicit homage to the finale of HORROR OF DRACULA isn’t able to repeat that particular formula.
Dracula’s destruction is shown in great detail and it’s not presented as a release or as pleasant at all. For a 1950s film, it’s very explicit. Some of the detail, such as Dracula’s leg dissolving in the sunlight is implied, but Dracula’s arms and face are shown essentially turning to ash and dust as Dracula virtually burns up in the sunlight and it looks beyond painful. Dracula does not get a release like his victims, but reaps pure destruction. And, Fisher shows this destruction with the camera looking down on Dracula, often with the cross in the foreground. Sangster had a similar idea in X THE UNKNOWN where a radioactive monster burns the flesh off an x-ray technician, but Fisher invests a similar sequence with meaning and subtext rather than pure shock.
Bernard Robinson also plays an important role in the finale. As a Gothic film, the art direction is important, and Robinson came up with the idea of having the destruction of Dracula play out on top of a giant astrological wheel. Before God, Dracula is reduced to dust. The final shots of the film are of Mina, with the cross burn fading out indicating the power of God, and Arthur reunited and of Van Helsing opening a window and letting the wind blow away Dracula’s ashes from atop the zodiac linking the vampire and the occult together. It’s an overtly Christian ending.
HORROR OF DRACULA was one of the first color Gothic films and helped establish the template for all that follows. It’s not a subtle film, but it’s a film where the visuals tell the story and make explicit the subtext as much as, if not more than, the words. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a great film that holds up upon closer examination. Where once it was shocking and a new wave, its inherent strengths have left it as a film worthy of study or just worthy of being watched as an entertainment even if those shocks have faded as others have followed and exceeded it in those attempts. Its legacy is intact though and there are films in the Gothic tradition, or which have followed the path of HALLOWEEN, that still can be considered part of the family tree. It’s a classic.