Horror of Dracula (1958) Review

Alternative Titles:
Dracula (UK alternative title)
Dracula Il Vampiro – Dracula the vampire (Spanish Title)
Le Cauchemar de Dracula – The Nightmare of Dracula (French Title)

Running Time: 79 Minutes
Video Certificate: 15
Directed By: Terence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Melissa Stribling, Michael Gough, Carol Marsh, Valerie Gaunt and John Van Eyssen
Genre: Hammer/Dracula/Historical
Based on: ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker (1897)

In the same Vein:

  • The Hammer Dracula Cycle consists of six films, of which this is the first, the others are:
    Brides of Dracula (1960) stars Peter Cushing as Van Helsing (but NOT Christopher Lee as Dracula). It follows directly from this film.
  • Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965) stars Christopher Lee as Dracula, but NOT Peter Cushing. This also follows directly on from Horror of Dracula, ignoring the previous sequel.
  • Dracula, Has Risen from the Grave (1968) again Lee Not Cushing, follows directly on from Dracula, Prince of Darkness
  • Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) again Lee Not Cushing, follows directly on from Dracula, Has Risen from the Grave
  • Scars of Dracula (1970) again Lee Not Cushing, follows directly on from Taste the Blood of Dracula.

This film is the 7th screen adaptation of Stoker’s novel. The major screen adaptations of Dracula are:

  • Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugos
  • Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula (1971) with Christopher Lee (again!)
  • Dracula (1979) with Frank Langella
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) with Gary Oldman

Tag line:
“Dracula” The name strikes FEAR at the heart!

He’ll hold you in the grasp of shock!

While this film is based on the novel Dracula, Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay has “streamlined” the plot to make it more cinematic. As such there are startling differences and omissions from the novel so it is worth outlining the plot here:

Jonathan Harker (Eyssen) arrives at Castle Dracula, purporting to be the Count’s new librarian (in fact this is just a ploy so that he can get close to Dracula and destroy him). Jonathan is approached by a beautiful woman claiming to be Dracula’s slave, who begs him to set her free before trying to bite him. Dracula (Christopher Lee) arrives on the scene and pretty soon Harker is a member of the undead.

Harker’s friend Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives in Klausenburg on the trail of the missing Jonathan. After staking him, Van Helsing pays a visit to Jonathan’s fiancee Lucy Holmwood. Unfortunately, she is suffering from a sudden attack of anemia and is unable to see him, so he has to content himself with talking to her brother Arthur and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling). After a couple more visits from the Count, poor Lucy is turned into a vampire (dead to Arthur and Mina) and Van Helsing is thrown from the house, blamed for her death. However, he is soon called back in when Dracula goes after Mina. Van Helsing must fight Dracula in one climactic showdown.

It is Christopher Lee playing Dracula, a very young Lee – Horror of Dracula being his first outing as the Count. Emphasis is on the aristocratic nature of the vampire, though Lee does impart sexuality to the role making him a strangely seductive Dracula. Many of the traditions are present: garlic and garlic flowers repel a vampire. The crucifix symbolizing the power of good over evil protects the innocent and burns the undead. Sunlight and a stake through the heart destroy a vampire. During the day a vampire must rest in his native soil. The Count bites his victims (mainly beautiful and female) on the neck. Contradictory to later Hammer portrayals of him Dracula CANNOT change his shape into bat wolf or mist.

Dracula’s Demise:
In possibly the most famous showdown between the Count and his nemesis, Van Helsing leaps up and pulls the curtain down, flooding the Dracula with sunlight. He goes on to cross two silver candlesticks which he grabs from the dining table which he leaps onto in a fit of swashbuckling acrobatics. Powerless to move, the Count disintegrates into dust, leaving nothing but ashes and of course his signet ring.

Peter Cushing steals the show as the no-nonsense Van Helsing, completely reinventing the character. One of the main criticisms of Stoker’s novel is the sketchy characterization of Van Helsing. In the book his character is ineffectual, over-emotional and he comes across as an idiot. By incorporating elements of Dr. Seward’s character (The Dr. is relegated to a tiny role in the film as the Holmwood family doctor), Van Helsing is given youth, vigor, and wisdom. Mark A. Miller calls Cushing’s Van Helsing “the intrepid, dashing Erol Flynn of vampire hunters, armed with crucifixes and wooden stakes instead of a sword.” Van Helsing becomes an athletic and effective nemesis to Count Dracula. In my opinion, Peter Cushing is the definitive Van Helsing…

Love Interest:
The first beauty to grace the screen is one of Dracula’s conquest played by Valerie Gaunt. She has a wonderful white flowing dress, bound tightly under the breasts by gold straps (supposedly symbolizing her bondage to the Count). The scene where she tries to bite Jonathan is simply amazing – She has these violent green eyes which look really witchy!

Lucy Holmwood, the fiance of Jonathan Harker is played by Carol Marsh, She looks like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz with her hair in two plaits and the pale blue nightdress. She comes down with a sudden case of anemia after Jonathan’s death. Strange that…

Lucy’s brother Arthur is married to the regal-looking Mina (Melissa Stribling) and here we have one of the best performances in the film. Returning in the morning after a night with Dracula, her look of carnal satisfaction is like the cat that got the cream, wonderful stuff.

High Points:

The music score is fantastic. Anybody who has seen Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Dracula’ of 1992 would find the music instantly recognizable as it was heavily influenced by it. Classic Dracula music it is heavy and atmospheric, interspersed with interludes of music box tinkling – superb.

Peter Cushing is charismatic and expressive as Van Helsing in possibly his best role as Dracula’s nemesis.

The special effects are used sparingly, showing that films made on a low budget really can work. Dracula is rarely seen on screen, yet his presence is always ‘there’. his fangs are fairly small and not seen all the time – never overused as they are in later films like the Count Yorgas. The scene of Dracula’s demise is also pretty good, he is reduced to ash – quite sophisticated for its time.

The must see the scene is the showdown between Dracula and Van Helsing, it is possibly the most famous scene in vampire movie history.

Low Points:
As a faithful adaptation of the book this sucks! For students studying Dracula, do not watch this film in the hope of getting out of reading the book! Dr. Seward’s character has been amalgamated into that of Van Helsing. Jonathan knows exactly what Dracula is and goes to his castle to destroy him (unlike in the book where he is sent there by the reel estate agency he works for and is completely clueless about what Dracula is). He is engaged here to Lucy rather than Mina. Rather than being a major player, and surviving, be warned he gets turned into a vampire and dispatched pretty early on. That’s only the tip of the plot deviations… The first time I saw this, I was horrified, not because it’s scary, but because of the shocking liberties, they have taken with the story!

The biggest omission and disappointment is the character of Renfield. The whole asylum subplot is ignored. Renfield doesn’t appear at all and his character provides much of the humor in the Dracula story, which is sadly lacking from this adaptation.

I don’t know if the timing was off or what, but the humor in the film falls sadly flat. There is a droll undertaker who cracks a joke about the one man who “came to pay his respects and returned to share them.” Then there’s the scene of Van Helsing and Dracula racing in their coaches… These should be funny and yet, never quite make it. Pity as it would have lightened this up no end.

Logic let me introduce you…
When Harker enters Dracula’s tomb, why does he stake Dracula’s brides first? Particularly when his purpose for going to the castle was to stake the Count.

When Harker finally gets round to Dracula’s coffin, The count has already risen (behind his back) and left the crypt. Minutes later he enters the crypt door – why? Why on earth does Dracula leave the crypt for a couple of minutes then come back in to deal with Harker? If his intention was to kill Harker, then why leave the crypt at all? If his intention was to flee then why did he come back?

After Dracula has driven his carriage at breakneck speed to avoid the sunrise, why does he stop and try to bury Mina alive?

Why did the film try to break up the chase scene (one of the tensest in the film) with comedy – like having the two coaches reach the gate at the same time, so that they both won’t fit. This slapstick approach ruins the macabre atmosphere.

Say What? Cool Quotes:
Giles eat your heart out:
“My name’s Jonathan Harker, I’m the new librarian.”

Biggest sign of imminent doom, when your host says:
“I am Dracula and I welcome you to my house.”

Strangers have no place here:
“Look Sir, you’rre a stranger here in Klausenburg, some things are best left alone, such as interfering with things that are beyond our powers…”

You have to be a little bit mad to hunt vampires:
“When I was outside, I thought I heard you… talking to someone.”
“Of course you did, I was talking to myself.”

Metaphorically Speaking:
“The victims constantly desist being dominated by vampirism, but are unable to relinquish the practice similar to addiction to drugs.”

The music inspired Wojciech Kilar, composer of the score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

In the climactic confrontation with Dracula, Van Helsing makes a cross with two silver candlesticks. This was lifted from Berkley Square (1933) where two chandeliers are crossed to repel the devil.

The statue of the eagle and the gothic lettering was nicked by Daughter of Darkness (1989).

Anorak Connections:
Director Terence Fisher also directed Hammer’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965) which also starred Christopher Lee. He also directed Brides of Dracula (1960) starring Peter Cushing.

Jimmy Sangster who wrote the screenplay for this film went on to direct Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire (1970).

Christopher Lee, the most famous Dracula actor of all time has appeared in a total of 10 vampire films. Apart from this film he played Count Dracula 8 more times in:

  • Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965)
  • Dracula, Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
  • Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969)
  • Scars of Dracula (1970)
  • Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula (1971)
  • In Search of Dracula (1971)
  • Dracula AD 1972 (1972)
  • The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

He also appeared as a vampire in Uncle was a vampire (1960).

Peter Cushing has also starred in a great many vampire films, he starred with Christopher Lee in 22 films of which three were Dracula films, this one and:

He also starred in the vampire films:

Did you Know?
As far as I am aware this is the first vampire film made in color.

In the final scene, Dracula’s chest collapsing is a balloon deflating in a shirt.

Horror of Dracula was shot in just 25 days for less than £100,000. Christopher Lee was paid just £750 for his role as Dracula.

Despite only carring a 15 certificate today, in 1958 this film was considered really shocking, and was heavily criticised for excessive gore. The reviewer of The Daily Sketch wrote “when horror is allowed to become realistic and nasty, the game ends… Dracula sounds the warning bell. One step farther – and the license permitted by the censor’s X certificate will be dangerously abused.” Imagine how the reviwer would cope with some of today’s video nasties!

Gratuity Rating:
Sex/Nudity: None

Bites:  3 plus 3 unseen

Screams: 10

Human deaths: 3

Humans Turned: 2

Vampire deaths: 4

Final Word:
Forget the fact that this deviates very heavily from the plot of Dracula, it manages to capture the spirit of the story. This is Hammer at its finest. Peter Cushing is electrifying as Van Helsing and Melissa Stribling’s smirk is a landmark in vampire film history. A superb score and gothic sets including a creepy stone eagle and twisted pillars scream atmosphere, atmosphere. The film also subverts audience expectation: particularly when the narrator Jonathan Harker is killed relatively early on. Special effects are kept to a minimum, no mechanical bats or puppet dogs frequent in Hammer’s later offerings. Apart from lacking a Renfield this is one of the best adaptations of Dracula and probably one of the most influential. Truly a classic not just in terms of the history of vampire movies, but in the history of film itself. An absolute must for vampire film fans.


Information for this review comes from:

  • Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema – A filmography of their 22 collaborations by Mark A. Miller (McFarland 1995)
  • The Vampire Interview Book – Conversations with the undead by Edward Gross and Marc Shapiro (Image Publishing 1991)
  • The Pocket Essential Vampire Films by Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc (2000)