What better way to mark the 50th anniversary of Hammer Horror than with the re-release of Dracula – not only Hammer’s first take on the Bram Stoker classic, but undoubtedly its finest. Thanks to the BFI National Archive, a new generation of cinema-goers can now enjoy director Terence Fisher’s vampire saga in a beautifully restored version. Blood and gore never looked more appetising.
UK critics had a very different opinion upon the film’s original release: ‘There should be a new certificate – S for sadistic or just D for disgusting’, warned an outraged Daily Telegraph, whilst the Daily Express branded it ‘one of the most revolting pictures in years!’ Mercifully, the public paid little attention and Dracula (shot on a shoestring budget of í‚Â£82,000) became a box-office smash.
So what was all the fuss about? Was it the fact that Hammer’s version took liberties with the original source material, upsetting Stoker purists? Or was it the film’s daring concoction of graphic horror and sex upsetting the moralists? The answer is, both. To begin with, Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay adaptation had to be cut due to budgetary restrictions. After a terrifying opening in Dracula’s castle (emphasised by James Bernard’s legendary score), the action switches to nearby Karlstadt as opposed to Whitby in Yorkshire. ‘I didn’t bring Dracula to England because we couldn’t afford a boat’, remarked Sangster. Insect-munching lunatic Renfield is completely absent, while high-flying estate agent Jonathan Harker is downshifted to a humble librarian.
None of these changes, however, do Hammer’s fast-paced version any harm, largely thanks to Christopher Lee’s menacing performance. Lee’s Dracula is not just a cold-blooded animal but also a skilled seducer – it is always clear how much his victims enjoy the Count’s nocturnal bites. Such scenes established the then 38-year-old actor as the new superstar of Gothic horror, and this first Dracula vehicle was to remain his favourite – ‘it would allow me to speak proper sentences’, Lee once remarked.
The action kicks off with Harker arriving at the castle, posing as a librarian but really on a mission to destroy Dracula forever. He is soon acquainted with a buxom beauty claiming to be the Count’s captive. Valerie Gaunt – Hammer’s original vampire babe – is truly mesmerising, playing out her wanton lust to the max. Unfortunately, her seductive powers will save neither her nor Harker from a sticky end, and soon Professor Van Helsing, whose character is given a clever twist by Peter Cushing’s fierce portrayal, sets off to search for his missing friend.
Meanwhile, the Count has discovered the Holmwood household and with it Lucy (Carol Marsh), his next victim. After Lucy’s gory staking at the hands of Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), the Count moves on to seduce and kidnap Arthur’s wife. Melissa Stribling is terrific as Mina Holmwood, laughing off her husband’s concern about how ill she looks (we already know the reason for her deathly pallor). In a breathtaking finale back in the castle, Dracula and his opponents are drawn together in the ultimate showdown – at least until the next of eight sequels.