For a couple decades mid-Century, the British film company Hammer was kind of a big deal – particularly for its horror films. Part of the draw for film goers was that Hammer films didn’t shy away from gore and Gothic monster stuff – and as time went on, they leaned into that, to the point that it started to feel a bit over-the-top and corny; when gore no longer was a draw, they tried playing up the sex until that didn’t work either. The later Hammer works sound definitely like they would match anyone’s impression of a 50s or 60s “B-movie” or drive-in feature.
But this 1958 adaptation of the famous ur-vampire story was at the beginning of their heyday – and I think I get why they became a thing in the first place.
I talked a lot about adaptations during my original reviews of the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein, and how sometimes over-faithfulness to the original work can do a film a dis-service. This adaptation definitely plays fast and loose with the original story – ditching some plot threads and characters entirely, changing some other characters’ relationships and completely doing away with some of Count Dracula’s powers. But they were really smart about it, and their tweaks ultimately made up a retelling that was lively, attention-getting and much easier to follow.
For example: in the original work, the character “Jonathan Harker” is a real estate solicitor Count Dracula has summoned for a more mundane business deal, and he gets bit by a couple of Dracula’s minions and turns up in a hospital in Budapest with some mysterious blood loss. No one even suspects Dracula is a vampire until he turns up in England and starts snacking on some women there, and the character “Van Helsing” only comes on the scene when Harker’s fiancée “Mina” sees her bestie “Lucy” start to succumb to the same weird blood loss Harker is facing. There’s a whole weird love triangle between Mina, Harker, and the Count, another one with Lucy and a bunch of guys, and a whole lot of primly-worded letters back and forth to people across three different countries while Van Helsing, Harker, and company all figure out how to corner the Count and do him in.
Here, we cut straight to the chase – Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) already knows Dracula (Christopher Lee) is a vampire, and has gotten himself a job at Dracula’s castle as part of a plan he’s cooked up with Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to stake him and get things over with. But Dracula finds him out and turns the tables on him, causing consternation in the home of his fiancée – who instead is Lucy (Carol Marsh), and is only a couple towns over instead of all the way in England. But Lucy herself is mysteriously ill, and is being tended to by Mina (Melissa Stribling), who is already married to Mina’s brother. Van Helsing turns up a few days later in search of Harker, checks in with Lucy and Mina, and quickly figures out not only that Harker failed in his mission, but that Dracula has now targeted Lucy – and after that, he’ll probably move on to Mina. Working with Mina’s husband Arthur (Michael Gough), he comes up with a new plan to track the Count down and do him in once and for all.
That is a way simpler distillation of the plot – doing away with all the extraneous stuff which adds color to the text when you’re reading, but bogs things down when you’re watching. It’s similar to the cuts which the Universal film made, so director Terrence Fisher probably knew it would work. And it does work – this film had a quick pace that grabs you right at the start, and it’s easy to follow the story from the word go – even when they throw in some brief “comic” bits involving a paranoid innkeeper or a bureaucratic guy manning a toll booth. Fisher also had the advantage of some better technology – the special effects that he has just plain work better, and he also has the gift of color film instead of the black-and-white of the 1930s.
Fisher also had some really smart people working on the film – particularly Christopher Lee in the title role. In a later interview, Lee confessed that he found the famous Bela Legosi depiction a little ridiculous – ” Surely it is the height of the ridiculous for a vampire to step out of the shadows wearing white tie, tails, patent leather shoes and a full cloak.” Lee ignored all other actors’ takes on the character and instead studied the book – and picked up on an erotic note to the character which other actors had previously ignored. He leaned into that – Legosi’s Dracula stares creepily at his prey, but Lee’s Dracula stares lustfully. It’s a much more “magnetic” performance, and better explains the compulsion Dracula has over his victims. Fisher worked that erotic undercurrent into the rest of the film; when filming one scene, in which Mina comes home after having been lured out by Dracula, Fisher advised Stribling to play it as if she’d just come home from one hell of a one-night stand.
These same elements – the quick pacing, the erotic subtext, the willingness to diverge from the source material – probably shot Hammer in the foot later on. But here they got the balance precisely right, and it was easy for me to see how Hammer Horror was able to capture people’s imaginations for so long.