Horror of Dracula: Hammer Films Classic Turns 60

From the 1930s to the late 1940s, Universal Studios dominated horror with collection of Gothic ‘Monsters’. That reign ended with the comedy and horror pairing in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Gothic horror would subsequently give way to the atomic age and space invaders. But by the mid-1950s, British studio Hammer Films made the move from crime thrillers to horror with The Quartermass Xperiment.

Following Quartermass’ box office success, Hammer chairman James Carreras saw a winning formula. Wasting little time, he turned his attention to two Gothic horror classics. In 1957 and 1958, Hammer Films released Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, respectively. Both movies would strike box office gold, paving the way for Hammer’s legacy as the premier horror studio. Sixty years ago, Hammer released the Horror of Dracula. For this edition of The Vault, I take a brief look at this British revision of the Bram Stroker classic.

Horror of Dracula Diverges from Universal’s 1930’s Classic

With both the Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, Hammer Films had to tiptoe delicately around the copyrights to the original literary sources still held by Universal Studios. The creature effects in Curse of Frankenstein, for example, could not resemble Jack Pierce’s legendary make-up with Boris Karloff. To obtain permission to film a new version of Stoker’s famous vampire, Hammer Films granted Universal Studios the distribution rights. Moreover, Hammer needed to distinguish their gothic monsters from the Universal iterations. Even today, most people think of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi’s renditions renditions of The Monster and Dracula.

Hammer needed to distinguish their gothic monsters from the Universal iterations …

Like Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Films first played fast and loose with the original literary source material. Story elements were removed, settings altered, and characters were revised or not included entirely. Jonathan Harker, for instance, is no longer a solicitor retained by Dracula. Here, he’s a vampire hunter, masquerading as the Count’s personal librarian. Most notably, many of Dracula’s supernatural elements are cut from Horror of Dracula. This lends the vampire a level of mystery, distinguishing itself from Lugosi’s version. Who is Dracula and what can he do are left vaguely undefined as possible myth.

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Dracula in All His Bloodletting Glory

… the Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Draculawere among a handful of films in that time period that paved the way for more overt horror elements in film.

Another key departure from Universal’s Dracula was Hammer Films’ use of glorious colour, particularly its inclusion of bright red blood. Following the opening credits, the camera pans to Dracula’s white coffin as droplets of blood splatter its sides. In contrast to its black-and-white influence, Horror of Dracula boldly shows blood trickling from bite wounds. The movie’s climatic disintegration scene, while technically impressive, was also transgressive in 1958. Film critics in the 1950s were appalled by the overt graphic violence. Yes, it’s all very tame by today’s standards. But Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula paved the way for more overt horror.

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Horror of Dracula a Career Launching Pad For Cushing and Lee

Both Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula launched the career of director Terence Fisher. Prior to directing the Curse of Frankenstein, Fisher has a relatively large and eclectic filmography. His box office success with Hammer’s early horror entries would pigeon-hole Fisher in the horror genre. Nevertheless, he enjoyed a long, fruitful partnership with the studio. He would go on to direct several studio classics including Curse of the Werewolf and The Devil Rides Out.

Horror of Dracula similarly launched the careers of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as horror icons. For over a decade, the British actors headlined a long line of Hammer horror movies. A tall and imposing figure, Lee’s Dracula carves out his own undead niche in Horror of Dracula. Lee’s version of the Count is menacing – the character demands attention whenever he is on screen. Likewise, Cushing engages as the eccentric Van Helsing. The British thespian adds a unique charm to the role. This version of Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula is arguably still the best cinematic version of the character. Lee and Cushing would also go on to appear in rival Amicus Productions’ anthology horror movies including The House That Dripped Blood and Dr Terror’s House of Horror’s.

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Franchise Heroes for Hammer Films

It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula saved Hammer Films. In the 1980s, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise financially propped up New Line Cinemas. Over time, the studio earned the appropriate moniker “The House Freddy Built”. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, Terence Fisher’s re-imagining of Gothic classics similarly breathed new life into Hammer Films.

Several sequels followed both Frankenstein and Dracula. Between 1958 and 1974, Hammer Films released six sequels to the Curse of Frankenstein. A total of eight sequels would follow the Horror of Dracula with the final one hitting theatres in 1974. Across these franchises, Cushing and Lee would come and go. Hammer Films sent its Dracula to the 1970’s in two sequels. Another sequel mixed vampires and Kung Fu. The quality of some of these sequels never met the heights of the originals, but it’s hard to argue that they weren’t successful ventures for Hammer.

A Hallmark of Classic British Horror

After 60 years, the Horror of Dracula remains a classic in the genre. It’s a beautiful example gothic horror not seen enough today. From lush settings and costume design to its gloriously cinematic score, the Horror of Dracula is perfectly illustrative of Hammer’s brand of horror.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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