From the 1930s to the late 1940s, Universal Studios dominated the horror genre with their collection of gothic ‘Monsters’. The comedy and horror pairing in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, while successful, marked the end of Universal’s ‘Monsters’ cycle. Gothic horror would subsequently give way to the atomic age and space invaders.
In the mid-1950s, British film studio Hammer Films,’ mostly known for crime thrillers, shifted their strategy and released their first horror film The Quartermass Xperiment. Following the box office success of Quartermass, Hammer chairman James Carreras saw a winning formula and turned his attention to two gothic horror classics. In 1957 and 1958, Hammer Films released Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, respectively. Both films would go on to become huge box office hits, paving the way for Hammer’s legacy as the premier studio for horror films. Sixty years ago, the Horror of Dracula was released in theaters so today we take a closer look at its place in horror film history.
Diverging from a 1930s 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, as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi’s renditions were firmly embedded into public consciousness at this point.
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, but a vampire hunter, masquerading as the Count’s personal librarian. Most notably, many of Dracula’s more supernatural elements are excised from Horror of Dracula, which serves to give the vampire a level of mystery to distinguish itself from Lugosi’s version. Who is Dracula and what can he do are left vaguely undefined as possible myth.
Aside from storyline differences, one of the key departures from Universal’s Dracula was Hammer Films’ use of glorious colour, particularly its inclusion of bright red blood. At the end of the opening credits, the camera pans in on Dracula’s white coffin as droplets of blood splatter its sides. In contrast to the earlier black and white versions of the legendary vampire, Horror of Dracula shows blood trickling from bite wounds and and small streams of blood along Dracula’s chin. The film’s climatic disintegration scene, while technically impressive, was also transgressive in 1958. Film critics in the 1950s were appalled by the overt graphic violence. While certainly tame by today’s standards, the Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula were among a handful of films in that time period that paved the way for more overt horror elements in film.
… 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.
A Career Launching Pad
Hammer Film’s back-to-back releases, Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, were responsible for launching the careers of director Terence Fisher and actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. 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 Hammer Films, directing several of their classics including Curse of the Werewolf, The Devil Rides Out, and several of the Frankenstein and Dracula sequels.
The success of Horror of Dracula would similarly launch the careers of Lee and Cushing as horror film icons. For over a decade, the two British actors appeared in a long line of Hammer horror films, many of which included the franchise sequels. In particular, Christopher Lee faced an uphill battle donning the cape and fangs following on the success of Lugosi’s version of Dracula. A tall and imposing figure, Lee’s Dracula is equally as definitive in Horror of Dracula. In every scene in which he appears, Lee’s version of the Count is menacing – the character demands attention whenever he is on screen.
Cushing is equally as engaging as the eccentric Van Helsing. The British thespian adds a unique charm to the character, a hallmark of many of his subsequent roles. The version of Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula is arguably still the best cinematic version of the character.
In addition to their work with Hammer Films, Lee and Cushing would appear in many of the anthology horror films released by independent studios like Amicus Productions, including The House That Dripped Blood and Dr. Terror’s House of Horror’s. Younger audiences will probably recognize Cushing from his Star Wars role and Lee from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But for horror fans, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are the faces of British horror.
Franchise Heroes for Hammer Films
It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula saved the small Hammer Films studio. In the 1980s, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise financially propped up New Line Cinemas, earning the studio the appropriate moniker “The House Freddy Built”. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, Terence Fisher’s horror interpretations of the gothic classics similarly breathed new life into Hammer Films. Both Frankenstein and Dracula would be followed by several sequels that sustained the British studio for well over a decade. Between 1958 and 1974, Hammer Films would produce and release 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. 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 and a beautiful example of a style of gothic horror not seen enough today. From its lush settings and costume design to its gloriously cinematic score, the Horror of Dracula is perfectly illustrative of the brand of horror that made Hammer Films a genre heavyweight for over a decade.