#331. Horror of Dracula (1958)

Two yeas ago on Halloween, Turner Classic Movies ran a marathon of Christopher Lee’s seven Dracula films and my dad, when he came upon it, did me the solid of recording the last three: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Dracula A.D. 1972. I watched all three and thought they were all kinda boring. Maybe terrible. Certainly very cheap. Not only that—Christopher Lee is a terrible Dracula.

            Or that’s my reactionary impression.

            But the petard on which I’m hoisting myself in retrospect is whether I’m judging him for his actual interpretation of Dracula, or complaining, rather, that he isn’t doing a better impression of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Because I think that’s what I want from an undead count, especially one whose sex appeal is being emphasized.

Languorous, no rush to get anywhere, smooth-talking.

            But Lee moves around the set with the agitated, punctilious, stiff-armed gait of an unappreciated restaurant manager. He isn’t eloquent, isn’t charming. He might be intimidating by merit of his height, but that’s about it. He also looks like a 27-year-old with gray dye in his hair. And, unlike Lugosi, he looks and talks like a man of the mid-20th century.

            Shit’s weak. This was my first time watching Horror of Dracula, Lee’s first turn with the role, and I was hoping it might show a little more promise than the others, like I’d see the spark that compelled producers to keep bringing him back for sequel after sequel.

            Nope.

            Even Peter Cushing is kinda lame as Van Helsing.

            Any movie is a big collaborative effort and I try to be sympathetic to anyone’s effort, especially when they’re showing a real interest in resurrecting the kinda horror that I love and care about so deeply, but the final product here just strikes me as irredeemably tepid and lame–although, again, kudos to its filmmakers for having the balls to remake one of the most iconic movies in cinema history and actually fuck with the storyline in what I’m sure they considered a risky innovative way.

            Horror of Dracula is almost a loyal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, at least insofar as it’s got the same leading characters and they move in similar directions. (Sidenote: Wanna know what Bram Stoker’s Dracula and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix have in common? Alexander Sorondo has read the first 300 pages of both books several times, years apart, and never made it to the end.) The biggest difference between the movie and the book, right off the bat, is that Jonathan Harker, the guy who visits Dracula’s castle in the beginning, isn’t selling the old vampire a piece of real estate, as he is in the book and in Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation, but is instead going to be a live-in employee, overseeing Dracula’s library and presumably working on some research project of his own.

            I liked that setup! It would’ve made for a research-style detective story. All the President’s Men, but with vampires. I’m practically tumescent at the thought.

            Turns out Harker’s story is a ruse. He knows Dracula is a vampire and he’s here to kill him. One baffling thing leads to another and Harker gets killed. Dracula vanishes. Cue the arrival of Van Helsing to the village that houses the count, where the local pub is lined with garlic and people keep mum about the goings on in that castle over yonder.

            So no, again, I didn’t like the movie but I’ll say that watching it within the context of the Project has given me perspective on something I used to wonder about as a teenager. Because this is a release from Hammer Films, a British production outfit that released over a hundred horror movies between the 1950s and ‘70s, many of them gothic, and the studio’s reputation rests on the sort of horror movie salaciousness and cheap hasty-assembly that, as always, alienated critics while titillating younger audiences.

            But I remember reading a lot about their legacy before watching some of their Frankenstein movies on Netflix when I was 17 or 18 and, sure, there was a bit of blood and some plush pale cleavage, but it wasn’t anywhere near as edgy as I was expecting.

            I think I was expecting something more like 1970s grindhouse insanity.

            Well, watching it within the context of 1950s world cinema, I can say that the violence here (the couple heart-stakings and Lee’s ultimate subjection to sunlight) is among the ballsiest stuff to appear on the List to date. Hopelesly tame by today’s standards, but still. I can see why this made the splash that it did. I do think that Lee’s Dracula graces the screen like the lead of a high school play, but I guess I can see how a generation of young moviegoers might have delighted to think that they now had their own Dracula, different from the one that had scared their parents.

            But so I think it’s got three salient things in common with the 1931 original: it’s cheap, boring, and shocking for its time.

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