Directed by Terence Fisher [Other horror films: Three’s Company (1953, episodes ‘The Surgeon’ & ‘ Take a Number’), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), The Mummy (1959), The Stranglers of Bombay (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), The Horror of It All (1964), The Gorgon (1964), The Earth Dies Screaming (1964), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Island of Terror (1966), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Night of the Big Heat (1967), The Devil Rides Out (1968), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)]
Horror of Dracula, sometimes known as just Dracula, is one of Hammer’s earlier ventures into horror, following both The Curse of Frankenstein and The Quatermass Xperiment. It’s a decent film with some great performances, but it’s never been a favorite of mine.
Part of it may have to do with the fact I grew up on the 1931 Universal classic version of this story, and so even to this day, when I hear ‘Dracula,’ I immediately think ‘Bela Lugosi.’ Maybe that’s not fair, but it is true. Christopher Lee, of course, is a great actor, but when it comes to Dracula, he never really possessed the suave, almost je ne sais quoi, quality that Lugosi did. Lee is perhaps more frightening, and certainly more action-packed, but I’ve always been on Team Lugosi.
Even so, I’m not blind to the flaws of the 1931 film. I do tend to prefer it – while it may feel far more stagey than Horror of Dracula, I think it has far more classic scenes and lines which this version lacks – but at the same time, I don’t think it’s vastly superior to this movie. In fact, the story here is probably a bit more crisp and tragic, with some occasionally creepy vibes (such as a vampire leading a young girl through a forest at night), and of course, the fact that this movie’s in color helps out a bit.
It’s by no means a bloody film. There is one decent scene of a stake being driven into someone that looks good, but there’s no splatter whatsoever. Late in the film, we do see some quality special effects – think the conclusion of Fright Night only done 27 years prior – but on a whole, I think The Curse of Frankenstein probably stands out a bit more than this one in terms of pushing the boundaries.
I’ve always been a huge Peter Cushing fan. From his wide horror catalogue (The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Gorgon, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Abominable Snowman), he’s never failed to entertain me, and I quite enjoy his serious character here. I especially enjoy seeing him work side-by-side with Michael Gough (who I know as Alfred from the Batman movies, but he was also in Horrors of the Black Museum, Curse of the Crimson Altar, Berserk, Black Zoo, and Trog), who perhaps plays the most tragic character of the film.
We get a good twenty or so minutes with Jonathan Harker, played here by John Van Eyssen. He’s not that memorable, but I rather liked the approach to setting the story up. Neither Carol Marsh nor Melissa Stribling did much to leave an impression, but the more humorously-inclined scenes with George Benson were fun at times.
As far as Christopher Lee goes, his performance as Dracula is fine. Like I said, I personally prefer Lugosi, but both bring something different to the role. Lee (The Wicker Man, The City of the Dead, and I, Monster) is a great actor, and though he doesn’t have a lot of screen-time here, he does make a solid and threatening impression when he does pop up, and I certainly can’t find fault in that.
I think my biggest issue with the film – which may be overstating it, as I don’t think the film is bad whatsoever – is that I’m just so familiar with the Universal classic. The story here may be better, like I said, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near as classic to me. There’s no scenes that stand out as great, no quotes that stand out as stellar, and aside from Gough and Cushing, no performances which blow me away. I’ve always found Horror of Dracula a perfectly fine movie, but really, no more than that.
None of this should take anything away from the film. If I had seen this before the 1931 version, I’d likely enjoy this one more. It’s a good way to spend your time, and things pick up very nicely come the finale, which includes some solid special effects, but when it comes to classic Hammer horror, I’d personally prefer spending my time with The Curse of Frankenstein or The Mummy.