Dracula (1958)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 December (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

BBC Four are screening Dracula today, and The Curse of Frankenstein at 11.00 pm tomorrow, and while they are exhibited with reasonable frequency it’s always a pleasure to revisit these old Hammer classics, both responsible to a large extent for the studio’s success and a revolutionising of the entire horror genre. They may look old and slow now (someone I know who teaches A-Level Film Studies told me that her students groaned throughout Dracula), but at the time they were very big deals, cutting edge cinema, and they deserve our respect.

Despite the BBC’s scheduling, it’s worth pointing out that The Curse of Frankenstein came first of the pair, its quick success giving Hammer licence and funding to follow up with their adaptation of Dracula. On the sort of budget that must have made even contemporary producers weep with frustration, they nevertheless turned out a profitable picture, one that looked good and sustained Frankenstein’s use of colour, blood and cleavages. These were innovations within horror cinema at the time; compare Dracula with something like Night of the Demon, which came out the year before, and note the latter’s black and white photography, buttoned down characters and largely gore free thrills. Of course, Jacques Tourneur’s entry has since been hailed as a classic, and rightly so, but it’s important to see that at the time, Dracula looked like a real step forward.

For modern viewers, the good news is that this film plays like a reasonably close adaptation from Bram Stoker’s original novel. I don’t suppose any screen version has stayed entirely true, and this I believe is correct given the book can be a rather stuffy experience in places and never quite gets across the Count’s demonic power; in other words he’s a character made for the screen. Hammer chose Christopher Lee for their vampire, one of those casting decisions that goes down in history as a no-brainer, and yet it was a bit of a leap given the main use of Lee previously as taking advantage of his height to give him the ‘monster’ roles. Made up heavily as the creation in The Curse of Frankenstein, what Dracula brought out was his good looks, dark charisma and presence. His is a Count you can imagine seducing women with a stare, all those suggestive leers that verged on the scandalous in 1958 but from Lee seemed wholly credible. The actor famously attempted to distance himself from the role in later years, understandable as Hammer were churning out sequels of varying quality to order and Dracula became increasingly a classic screen bogeyman rather than a character with motivation, but in truth he was a victim of his own success. As soon as he appears in this film, shaded in subdued colours at the top of the castle staircase, hopelessly eclipsing John Van Eyssen’s Jonathan Harker who can do naught but stare up at him, he kills it. A legend was born.

Speaking of legends, Dracula’s main opponent in this version is Doctor Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing. I’ve made little secret of my admiration for ‘the Cush’ on these pages, and this performance is a very good reason why I feel that way. Bear in mind that Dracula cost £81,000 to make; it was a relatively small scale production, so it would have been understandable to watch actors going through the motions. Nothing of the kind. Cushing threw himself fully into the part, already capable of exuding great intelligence and authority from his work as Baron Frankenstein, but here adding a physical dimension that makes the climactic scenes between Van Helsing and the Count such an action-packed thrill. Requiring a crucifix to help him in the sequence, it was the actor himself who suggested forming a cross from two candlesticks, which the props department quickly whipped out of storage and onto the set for use in the film.

Cushing had nothing but praise for the professional spirit that turned Dracula into a success, belying its slim budget to produce a slick and racy horror experience. In charge was Terence Fisher, establishing himself as Hammer’s go-to director for its horror releases. The challenge was to make something that played differently to the 1931 Universal film, which Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster did in various ways. One was to transform the main characters, Dracula and Van Helsing, removing the latter’s stuffy, professorial air as essayed by Edward Van Sloan in the earlier movie, whilst having the Count put in a more physical and sensuous performance than Bela Lugosi’s cape swishing antics. Whereas Universal’s production owed much to Dracula’s run as a Broadway hit, actually filmed in many places as a stage play, this version is far more obviously cinematic, with its heavier emphasis on action and the sight of Lee shown biting his victims, a real shock at the time. The colour is used brilliantly, even if the blood is obviously fake, yet there’s still room for the castle’s gloomy shadows and dark corridors, adding to the place’s claustrophobic sense of foreboding. When Harker is the only human in Castle Dracula, aware that its other occupants are the Count and Valerie Gaunt’s sexy bride, both after what flows in his veins, the cloying air of doom that surrounds him is palpable.

It would be wrong to try and claim that this is the best version of Dracula out there. These days, it looks its age; try watching it after more recent vampire flicks like 30 Days of Night or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (I’m halfway through this one, it’s good!) and it plays like what it is, a mild horror made for prior generations. Arguably there have even been better Dracula offerings. I’m a fan of the John Badham adaptation from 1979, an altogether glossier affair, though for the sight of a cadaverous Jan Francis stumbling through the sewers rather than Frank Langella’s eponymous Count, who looks and acts like a Dracula for the Dynasty crowd. His vampire retains Lee’s smooth sexuality but fails to bring out the more dangerous side of his character. Gary Oldman tried both in his playing for the 1992 version, and modern effects made him appear as both the old man we first come across in Stoker’s novel and the powerful, apparently younger model when he arrives in England. Another film with lots of money spent on it, and sadly spoiled by an endless cavalcade of visual metaphors, along with heavily nuanced performances as though the actors are begging for attention in the middle of all those expensive special effects.

So whilst this might not be the best Dracula adaptation, something that’s surely up to each viewer to decide, it’s certainly my favourite and I would argue that it marks a milestone within horror cinema.

Dracula: ****

8 Replies to “Dracula (1958)”

  1. Really glad to see this on the schedules – in its way this remains a revolutionary film, its success then still easy to appreciate, which one can’t often say of films of this vintage 🙂

    1. Thanks Sergio. I think “revolutionary” sums it up nicely; you get the sense of them film pushing at the boundaries of what was acceptable and even possible. Of course it all looks rather quaint now, but that’s part of the fun. My 90-something gran remembers sneaking into the cinema to watch the 1931 Frankenstein and was absolutely petrified by it – hard to believe now, but it was cutting edge at the time.

  2. Probably my favorite version of the story – the 1931 film is indeed incredibly stagy with some very wet performances aside from Lugosi. I’m no fan of the book either mind, I had a hard time getting through it when I read it years ago. The Hammer movie gets the balance about right, although the lack of explicit gore probably does date it for those who have grown up more recently. I like the color scheme, the sets, the music, the atmosphere and both the dedication and physicality of Cushing and Lee.

    1. Thanks Colin. It’s certainly a trawl of a novel, isn’t it? I remember reading both this and Frankenstein years ago, probably at University pretending to be grown up, really preferring the latter and finding Dracula to be surprisingly heavy going, not because of the Victoriana but it just plodded. By all accounts however the novel was just a starting point, wasn’t it, and it was the stage adaptation that held the secret to the character’s success. Certainly the Count in this film, and the 1931 version for that matter, are much more fun than the one on the pages.

      Incidentally my son will be going to sixth form next year so we visited it recently. He wants to do English Lit and I was delighted to find that Shelley’s Frankenstein is now part of the curriculum. It’s a great rise for the novel, which certainly wasn’t thought of so favourably back in my day.

      1. Yes, Frankenstein is the better book, and I think the film adaptations (even the various sequels) tend to be better too. Dracula most certainly works more effectively on screen than on the page, although much of that comes down to who’s playing the character and how it’s done.

      2. Not hard to see why that’s the case. Dracula to me is straightforward Gothic horror; Frankenstein raises all sorts of philosophical questions and I know on the sixth form course there’s loads about the wonder and fears relating to scientific advances, artificial life, etc.

        Talking of who plays Dracula, Lee pretty much nails it for me. I can’t really get my head around Jack Palance in the part, not that it’s bad, and Frank Langella’s a very fine actor but an unscary Count. Perhaps an idea for some future article there…

      3. Yes to all that. Lee is about as good as it gets in the role. Lugosi, while very much of his time, had a similar quality about him but it’s a difficult blend to achieve.

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