Of all the cinematic adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it took the Hammer Horror treatment to produce the best. The 1958 version of Dracula, or to give it its official title of the time, Horror of Dracula, still stands up today as a superb example of true horror cinema.
It is horror by contrasts. Those contrasts are achieved by sudden shifts. These include shifts in mood, aesthetics, pacing and tone.
The formula begins in the film’s opening scene when a weary Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen) arrives at castle Dracula. The scene , shot in vivid Technicolour, takes place in the daytime, rather than the moody night darkness many bring to mind when they think of horror cinema.
Harker’s description of the castle immediately references contrasts, subtle hints at the presence of evil:
“The Castle appeared innocuous enough in the warm afternoon sun, and all seemed normal, but for one thing: there were no birds singing.
As I crossed the wooden bridge and entered the gateway, it suddenly seemed to become much colder…”
Harker’s wonderfully written opening monologue is just one of many moments when elements, feelings, words and sounds are set in opposition. It’s how Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay frames the battle of good vs. evil that is central to the story and the fear it generates.
The technical shifts are just as thrilling and unsettling as the verbal ones. The score, a brilliantly plotted, ear-splitting cacophony from James Bernard, shifts from serenity to sudden crescendos.
Those crescendos usually come about when something horrific takes place. A great example is the first appearance of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee).
Harker is engaged in conversation with a mysterious celestial-like woman ( Valerie Gaunt) who pleads for his help only to suddenly scurry away at the sight of some off-camera menace.
All the while the score is eerie but quiet. Yet when Harker turns to see the malevolent figure of Dracula, shrouded in black robes and shadow at the top of a staircase, the percussion section sends a shattering note echoing through the ears.
The changes in the score are so swift they jolt the viewer into fear. It is an adrenaline-induced state of anxiety that is fiendishly created.
As for Lee’s particular take on Dracula, simply accept no substitutes.
Don’t be brow beaten by the purists who point to Bela Lugosi as the first and best incarnation. Don’t fall into the trap of being wowed by the suave, chic detachment of Gary Oldman’s performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s diabolically bad 1992 version.
If you’ll allow a brief aside, it’s still difficult to stomach that the man who directed The Godfather Parts I and II, as well as Apocalypse Now, also helmed the Oldman-Anthony Hopkins led Dracula, a campy and overly theatrical abomination to the eyes.
Now, back to the only version that matters.
Lee’s Dracula is civility personified. He is calm and confident when delivering his few lines in the film upon meeting Harker.
But this genteel ease of manner masks the barbaric evil that lurks within. There’s those contrasts again.
Lee delivers the darkness within Dracula via crazed and steely glances of the eyes and sudden bursts of alarming physicality. Lee’s Dracula is like a coiled snake waiting to strike.
When his rage is unleashed provides some of the film’s most nerve-jangling and thrilling moments.
So do the special effects created by Sydney Pearson and Les Bowie. With this being a Hammer picture, those effects could be considered crass of even kitschy. However, they play perfectly with the tone of this script.
The first time we see Dracula he is dapper, well-groomed and efficient in his manner and words. Yet his second appearance is in such stark contrast it’s almost impossible to forget.
When Harker is attacked the by the strange woman who reveals herself to be Dracula’s slave, the Count is enraged. The camera shifts from Harker frantically freeing himself from the woman, to Dracula’s face.
His shoe polish black hair is contrasted by the redness of his features. The sight of Dracula’s red-tinted eyes and blood-soaked fangs is still shocking today. As is the ravenous hiss Lee angrily unleashes.
His violent attack on both the woman and Harker is so frenzied and maniacal that he’s barely recognisable from his first appearance.
As good as Lee was as the Count, one of the film’s greatest strengths was having Peter Cushing play Dr. Van Helsing, Dracula’s nemesis.
Cushing didn’t portray Van Helsing as the eccentric caricature Hopkins would regrettably turn him into 34 years later. Instead, he gave him a true air of authority.
Cushing made Van Helsing somebody who opposes Dracula in a believable way.
Alongside the acting, superb sound effects and editing carry most of the action. Each scream, and there are many, is a piercing, nerve-shredding experience.
But one of the more unforgettable sounds is the crisp and sharp impact made whenever a wooden stake is driven into a Vampire. You can almost feel the pain and wince with every blow of the hammer.
Thanks to sound recordist Jock May and boom operator Claude Hitchcock, sounds echo in the ears long after they’ve been rendered.
Part of the film’s infamy is how it changed several core details from Stoker’s original novel. These include having Harker arriving at the Castle as an emissary intending to kill Dracula. Harker is also engaged to Lucy Holmwood, known as Lucy Westenra in the book.
Harker’s love interest from Stoker’s pages, Mina, is married to Arthur Holmwood. Meanwhile, Dracula’s death, a brilliantly savage moment of action cinema, occurs after enforced exposure to sunlight.
Such liberties with the original source material may annoy some. But in reality, they created the only cinematically cogent version of the story ever committed to the big screen.
Polar opposite emotions are played against one or other via contrasts in every aspect of film production. The result is a near-perfect example of horror cinema.