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Horror of Dracula (1958)
Without a doubt, 1958's Dracula is the Granddaddy of Hammer Horror. Changed to Horror of Dracula for the US release (to prevent confusion as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was still playing in the theaters), this film put Hammer on the map.
The film starts off with a commoner named Jonathan Harker who just happens to be attacking Dracula at his castle. Never one to be sedated, the vampire (played for the first time by Christopher Lee) voyages to Harker’s hometown and starts pillaging and killing his family members. In enters Dr. Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing) to kill that pesky Dracula once and for all! Or, at least until the next sequel.
Terence Fisher, the undisputed god of British horror, directs the film. From a directorial stand point, this film is literally flawless. And I’m jaded and bitter, so that means something. Terence's camera angles have never been better. Every single shot of Chris Lee is absolutely menacing in the most deliciously subtle way. It is this subtlety that gives this film its creepiness. Even if you’re just a casual fan, you can not help getting sucked into the atmosphere that this film creates. This film sets the bar high in the "mood" department and Hammer Films never met this standard again (with the possible exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles).
Fisher is an extremely detail-orientated director and is the master of lighting and makeup. As Chris Lee was still quite young for the role of dead-since-before-Columbus-set-sail vampire, Terence used lighting and makeup to focus on Chris Lee’s more pronounced physical features while effectively hiding his more youthful attributes. Also, he is one of the few directors who effectively uses Chris Lee’s Sasquatchian height as an advantage. The audience is treated to several “towering” camera angles of the vampiric menace throughout the film which could possibly be some of the creepiest moments captured on celluloid.
This is not to undermine the acting talent at all. In fact, this single film proves that Chris Lee is capable of equaling and possibly exceeding Bela Lugosi’s version. He plays Dracula as debonair, menacing, and eerily understated. Not to mention, Peter Cushing’s performance of Van Helsing blows Edward Van Sloan’s version in the 1931 Dracula out of the water. Partially this is due to the Hammer script (and Van Helsing isn’t portrayed as someone needing an immediate shot of Ritalin), but mostly it is credited to the chemistry between Chris Lee and Peter Cushing. Never before (or for that matter, again) have two horror actors repeatedly emitted such a complicated, diabolical, and utterly mind-boggling form of film chemistry. This chemistry existed through every film they did, and is responsible for them forever being dubbed as "The Deadly Duo" of British Horror.
The only unfortunate aspect of this film is that it is rarely seen its entirety. Some scenes were banned from US theaters in 1958 and the censored version is still shown today. Apparently, they are a little behind on bookkeeping. I managed to score a copy of the uncut version and I fail to see what the big deal is. One of the scenes in question is someone getting impaled. Yeah, it was gory, but it was no more gory than... er... the entire rest of the movie. While the movie stands alone without these scenes, it flows even better WITH them. I’m thinking 50 years of evolution has brought us to the point that it’s relatively safe for these scenes to return to the movie without fear of a riot - ideally, on a special edition DVD. Please?
Horror of Dracula is one of those horror gems that come around once in a lifetime… or at least as many times as Lee decides to wear a cape. Yet, this will always be the film that cut Hammer’s teeth (no pun intended. Eh, all right, it was), and it is the best of the best. Poignant, creepy, and absolutely mesmerizing, this film needs to be viewed at least once a year (preferably in the impending Halloween season).