The Horror of Dracula

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The Horror of Dracula

(pop culture)

Second only to the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (1931) in setting the image of Dracula in contemporary popular culture was the first of the Hammer Films Dracula movies starring Christopher Lee. Originally released as Dracula (1958), it subsequently was released in the United States as The Horror of Dracula, the title commonly used to distinguish it not only from the other Dracula movies, but from the host of Christopher Lee Dracula/vampire films. The movement of Hammer Films into the horror market has become one of the most famous stories in motion picture history. The Horror of Dracula came on the heels of the company’s success with a new version of Frankenstein, and utilized the following team: Christopher Lee as Dracula; Peter Cushing as Abraham Van Helsing; and Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster as director and screenwriter, respectively.

While having the 1931 Universal Pictures production as a persistent reference point, The Horror of Dracula attempted to reinterpret the story and return to the Bram Stoker novel for inspiration (though it deviated from both the novel and the previous movie in important ways). The story opened with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) coming to Castle Dracula not as a real estate agent, but as Dracula’s new librarian. Here, prior to Dracula’s appearance, he encountered a young woman dressed in nightclothes. It soon was revealed that he was an undercover agent and had, in fact, come to Castle Dracula as Van Helsing’s assistant to kill Dracula. Harker was attacked and bitten by the woman (Valerie Gaunt), whom he in turn killed. But in the process he became a vampire himself. (The Horror of Dracula popularized the assumption that a single bite by a vampire was all that was necessary for one to become a vampire—an opinion not proposed in Stoker’s novel.) In this movie, Dracula escaped before Van Helsing arrived at Castle Dracula to check on his co-conspirator. Discovering that Harker had been compromised, Van Helsing was forced to stake him, and he returned to England to begin a one-on-one confrontation with Dracula, which was the true subject of the film.

Dracula beat Van Helsing to England, where a new configuration of Stoker’s familiar characters had been created. Gone were Dr. John Seward, R. N. Renfield, and Quincey P. Morris. Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) emerged as the dominant male. Rather than a suitor of Lucy Westenra (Carol Marsh), however, he was married to Mina Murray (Melissa Stribling), and Lucy was recast as his sister (and Harker’s fiance). Lucy also was the primary object of Dracula’s interest, he having taken her picture from Harker before leaving the castle. Van Helsing discovered that Lucy already had been bitten and was vampirizing others, so he took the lead in killing her. An angry Dracula then attacked Mina.

In the final scene, Holmwood and Van Helsing chased Dracula back to his home. Dracula had discarded Mina in an open grave and was burying her when the hunters arrived. Arthur went to his wife’s side while Van Helsing chased Dracula into his castle. Dracula had all but defeated Van Helsing, but, as so many villains before him, he paused to experience a very human moment of satisfaction. In that moment, Van Helsing recovered and, pushing the vampire aside, he rushed across the room and pulled the draperies from the window, allowing sunlight to stream into the room. The sunlight, which was fatal to vampires, caught Dracula’s foot and quickly burned it. Grabbing a crucifix, Van Helsing pushed Dracula farther into the light, which then completely consumed him. Dracula’s ashes blew away in the wind, leaving only his large ring. (The ring and ashes would become important in future Hammer Dracula sequels, though there seems no reason to believe that Fisher had a sequel in mind when completing the The Horror of Dracula.) By the same sunlight that killed Dracula, Mina was cured of her vampirism, and she and her husband were happily reunited.

Two elements contributed to the success of The Horror of Dracula. First, the movie presented a new openness toward sexuality. There is every reason to believe that the interpretation of the psychological perspectives on vampire mythology, such as that offered by Ernest Jones’s now classic study On the Nightmare (1931), underlay the movie’s presentation. That sexual element began with Harker’s encounter with one of Dracula’s brides. While Harker drew her to what he thought was a protective embrace, she gleefully took full advantage of the situation and bit him, a scene that has been the object of various psychological interpretations relative to teenage sexual awakening. That interpretation was reinforced by his subsequent attack on the woman with his stake. Harker’s naive actions, of course, prove fatal.

Dracula was just as sexual as his vampire bride. He seduced the women he bit with kisses and gained their loving attention before he sank his teeth in their neck. As David J. Hogan, in Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film, notes, “When he (Lee) bites a young lovely’s throat he is not merely feeding, but experiencing (and inducing) a moment of orgasmic ecstasy.” Lee would go on from the The Horror of Dracula to become an international star and, like Lugosi, to develop a large and loyal female following.

The second element of success of The Horror of Dracula was that it was the first Dracula movie to be made in Technicolor. It made full use of red liquids from the still little understood blood dripping on a crypt during the opening credits to its more appropriate reappearances throughout the picture. Color added a new dimension to the horror movie and secured its revival in the 1960s. Color also cooperated with the heightened level of freedom concerning what could be pictured on the screen. In 1931, Dracula never showed his fangs or bit anyone on camera. However, Lee regularly showed his teeth and had no problem offering the women his vampire kiss.

Sources:

Hogan, David J. Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1986. 334 pp.
Holte, James Craig. Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 161 pp.
Jones, Ernest. On the Nightmare. New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 1951. 374 pp. Originally published in 1931.
Ursini, James, and Alain Silver. The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. New York: Limelight Editions, 2004. 342 pp.
Waller, Gregory A. The Living and the Undead: From Stoker’s Dracula to Romero’s Dawn of the Undead. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986. 376 pp.