Howard Hawks’s recipe for a good movie comprised “three great scenes and no bad ones.” Hammer’s first entry in its Dracula franchise gives us exactly that.
The first great scene comes early. Jonathan Harker has arrived at Castle Dracula posing as a librarian. While prowling the castle’s corridors at night, he finds a young woman. She sports full lips, brilliant blue eyes, and ample cleavage. Quivering with fear, she claims she’s being held prisoner and begs Harker to help her escape. Harker feigns ignorance. She persists. His resolve weakens and he agrees to help her. Grateful, she bursts into tears and buries her head in his shoulder. The music shifts. Her head tilts back as her eyes fix on Harker’s neck. Her glistening lips draw back to reveal fangs. She bites Harker.
Just then, Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) explodes into the room. Lee is feral and demonic. The camera zooms in and Lee’s bloodshot eyes pin us to our seats. His gore-smeared mouth twists into a snarl, revealing blood-covered fangs. The shot lasts seconds but packs a punch. This is Dracula in his visceral glory.
The second great scene happens at about the three-quarters mark. It’s night and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) has gone to the crypt of his recently deceased sister Lucy to assure himself that she is not a vampire. To Arthur’s horror, he finds Lucy seemingly alive, returning to her tomb, leading a young girl. Lucy sees him. Her eyes light up with more than just brotherly love. “Come, let me kiss you,” she says to Arthur. She advances, baring her fangs. Arthur stands frozen, transfixed by her gaze.
Before she can consummate the act, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) bursts into frame, thrusting a crucifix into Lucy’s face. She backs away in agony. Van Helsing advances, cornering her. Jaw set, eyes full of cold detachment, Van Helsing presses the crucifix to her forehead. The flesh smolders and burns, leaving the imprint of the cross. Van Helsing stares down, unmoved. Lucy shrieks and flees into her tomb.
It’s a crackerjack scene that works just as well today as it did half a century ago. The practical effects still thrill and Cushing’s performance electrifies.
The third great scene is the finale. Arthur and Van Helsing have chased Dracula back to his castle. Dawn is fast approaching. Van Helsing catches the Count before he can disappear down a secret passage. The two grapple. Dracula looks to have the upper hand. In a flash of inspiration, Van Helsing vaults atop a long table, runs the length, and launches himself toward the wall. He hits the wall high and pulls down the tapestry curtains, letting in the morning sun. Dracula tries to flee, but Van Helsing fashions a make-shift crucifix out of candle holders and pins Dracula in place.
These swashbuckling acrobatics cement Van Helsing as the heroic foil to the villainous Dracula. Cushing’s Van Helsing isn’t just a wise man with a strong will, he’s a man of action. The iconic monster hunter out to rid the world of supernatural evil.
I vacillate between this film and Dracula (1931) for my favorite interpretation of the Count. I prefer Lee’s grittier performance but dislike the overt physicality. His Dracula runs, grapples, and digs holes1. It makes for more action but lends the character a vulnerability that softens his edge. Also, it’s a shame Lee doesn’t have any dialogue apart from his introductory scene. A battle of wills between Cushing and Lee would have been dynamite2. Imagine Lee, with his ominous baritone, delivering the classic line, “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you’re a wise man, Van Helsing.”
But these are minor quibbles. Buoyed by iconic performances from Cushing and Lee, Horror of Dracula is a great film. It rolls along at a terrific pace. By paring down the supporting cast and playing up the sex and gore, it makes the familiar plot feel fresh. It turns a gothic horror story into a thrilling adventure. Howard Hawks’ definition of a good movie may be a bit simplistic, but Horror of Dracula proves simple can work.
- The hole-digging scene always throws me. Why wouldn’t he put her in the crypt? And how does he happen to have a shovel handy?↩
- Lee and Cushing wouldn’t meet again as Dracula and Van Helsing until the disappointing Dracula A.D. 1972. Cushing starred in the immediate sequel The Brides of Dracula which lacked Lee. Lee returned in the third installment Dracula: Prince of Darkness which lacked Cushing.↩