A couple months ago, our special contributor Adam wrote up a review of ‘The Hammer Vault’, a book that details the history of the legendary British movie studio, Hammer Films. Reading that review forced me to admit that I’d never actually seen a film from the studio – well, none of its classics, anyway. (I’d only seen the very recent ‘Let Me In‘.) I decided to rectify that oversight, only to realize that few of the studio’s movies are currently available on Blu-ray. VUDU, however, came to the rescue with one of Hammer’s signature titles, ‘Horror of Dracula’, directed by Terence Fisher and starring the duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Although Hammer Films had been producing movies, mostly period costume dramas, since the early 1930s, the studio didn’t truly forge a unique identity for itself until the birth of so-called “Hammer Horror” in the 1950s, starting with Nigel Kneale’s sci-fi thriller ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ in 1955. The most popular of these were the series of films centered around the iconic Gothic literary characters Frankenstein and Dracula. The 1958 ‘Horror of Dracula’ was the first in the vampire cycle, and made a superstar out of Christopher Lee, who had also played the Monster in the previous year’s ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’.
‘Horror of Dracula’ is a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel that takes many liberties with its source. Similar to the book, the film starts with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) traveling to Castle Dracula in Romania for business. (Never does the movie refer to the location as Transylvania.) However, this Harker is not a law clerk, but a librarian, engaged by the Count to sort out his book collection. This particular change doesn’t really lead to anything or go anywhere, so I’m at a loss to explain why it was imposed. But that’s nothing compared to the next plot twist. Soon after arriving, Harker reveals that he’s not a librarian either, but rather the assistant of famed monster hunter Dr. Van Helsing, sent undercover on a mission to kill the vampire!
That’s quite a drastic divergence from the source material. Harker makes his way to the crypt in Dracula’s basement and sets about on his task, but makes the boneheaded mistake of staking the Count’s buxom bride first, thus giving Dracula time to wake up and get the jump on him. Later, the erudite Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives at the castle to find his protégé, only to realize that he’s too late and the vampire has fled – though not to England, but to Bavaria for some reason. (Naturally, most of the cast speak English with British accents.)
From there, further changes entail a lot of consolidation and repurposing of characters. We learn that Harker’s fiancée was not Mina, but Lucy. Mina, meanwhile, is the wife of Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), who is in turn Lucy’s brother. The jumbling of these relationships will mainly be notable to fans of the book. While the changes seem to serve little purpose, they aren’t detrimental to the film as a film. Other characters such as Dr. Seward, Quincey Morris and Dracula’s acolyte Renfield have been streamlined out of the narrative.
As in Stoker’s original telling, Dracula turns Lucy and seduces Mina. That much remains the same, but the rest of the story has been greatly condensed and simplified. Basically, what it boils down to is that Van Helsing and Holmwood team up to take care of the Lucy situation and kill Dracula, then chase the vampire back to his castle.
Hammer’s films were famous for their ornate production design. While certainly elaborate, the sets look pretty stagy. The action is also frequently stodgy and blandly staged. I hate to use a word like “dated,” but director Fisher’s attempts to create atmosphere are pretty old-fashioned in approach, mostly involving a lot of fog machines and creepy music. The film’s bloody violence was notable in its day, but seems quite tame by modern standards. While the young and dashing Lee has a magnetic screen presence, the movie doesn’t use him nearly enough. Dracula spends far too much of the running time off camera. The vampire also doesn’t wind up being particularly dangerous to the male characters, who scuffle with and dispatch him without too much fuss.
(Forgive the plot spoilers, but… c’mon, I can’t be held responsible if you don’t know the basic story of ‘Dracula’ by now. It’s been made into about 500 different movies. Also, Lee returned as Dracula in a series of sequels, so that should tell you how definitive his character’s fate is here.)
None of what I’ve written above should suggest that ‘Horror of Dracula’ is a bad movie. I actually had quite a lot of fun watching it. Nonetheless, I suspect that younger viewers will probably label the film “cheesy” and dismiss it. Such are the foibles of youth.
VUDU’s 1080p HDX streaming version looks pretty terrific, surprisingly so. A Warner Bros. logo suggests that this comes from a cable broadcast master that made the rounds on the now-defunct Monsters HD network a few years ago. (I don’t believe Warner has distribution rights anymore.) The picture is presented in a 1.78:1 transfer. It should be 1.66:1, but the difference isn’t drastic enough to be a deal breaker. The credit text is very crisp and detail throughout is quite good. Film grain is present; it’s neither overwhelming nor smeared away with DNR. Some minor dirt and hair on the film elements aren’t terribly distracting. The image seems a bit too bright for a horror movie, but I’m not familiar enough with the film to know how accurate that is. Blood is bright red and looks kind of fakey, but that may have been a censorship requirement of the day. Colors otherwise seem accurate, if a little bland. All in all, it’s a very satisfying high-def experience for a film of this age.
The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is less impressive, unfortunately. It’s very flat, with harsh volume swings and no low end. Still, it’s listenable.
While VUDU rentals don’t come with extras, per se, the service often provides free preview trailers when available. The one for this is very corny. It also looks like a standard-def TV ad that’s been cropped and then stretched to 16:9.