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“Try It, You’ll Like It” – Horror of Dracula (1958)

05 Dec

horror_of_dracula-1958-usa-posterHorror of Dracula is my contribution to the “Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently. The purpose of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon is to share films that can serve as a “gateway” to classic films for people who are either resistant to or unfamiliar with old movies.

Of course, not all movies will appeal to all people and the key is to know your audience. Male? Female? Teenager? Child? Adult? Sci-fi fan? Romantic comedy fan? Musicals? Action heroes?

My target audience for this film is the young superhero lover. Do you know a teenager or young adult who loves superhero and YA fantasy films, but says they are tired of the sameness of superhero and YA fantasy films? Even the recent Dracula Untold managed to look like a re-hash of a Marvel movie. If you’ve heard this complaint voiced, one film to suggest is Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It worked for my teenage cousin, who subsequently became interested in the early Universal Horror films. Not that you have to be a teenager to like this film…or even a fan of superhero films. You could be a Jane Austen miniseries and Fred Astaire musical enthusiast (ahem).

What makes this film so accessible is that though it has less action than most teenagers are used to, there is a lot they are familiar with. It’s in Technicolor, still retains its creepy vibe, weird powers, cool British accents (which always goes over well in the U.S, where college students love nothing more than to imitate a British accent) and has the benefit of starring two actors nearly everyone is familiar with today, thanks to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings: Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) and Christopher Lee (Saruman and Count Dooku). Grand Moff Tarkin vs. Count Dooku? Learning this is like a whole new world and most people are fascinated to discover that the two men appeared in 22 films together and were good friends.

Peter Cushing gets star billing, but we don’t actually meet him until twenty or so minutes into the film. The movie actually opens (after a thundering crash of music with garish red-orange letters streaking across the screen) with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), who has come to work as a librarian at Count Dracula’s castle (Christopher Lee)…or so he says. He soon reveals in his diary that he is really a vampire hunter and is there to destroy Dracula.

Dracula 2

Christopher Lee…making an entrance

But his plan is ruined when a woman at Dracula’s castle (Valerie Gaunt) begs him to save her from Count Dracula. He says he will, but unfortunately his neck looks too inviting and she can’t prevent herself from taking a bite, much to the rage of Count Dracula.

Christopher Lee’s appearance at his point is unforgettable. When Harker first meets him he looks and sounds like a reasonably polite, if brusque and physically imposing, English gentlemen…with a cool cape that swishes nicely when he walks up stairs. After Harker is bitten he emerges onto the scene transformed, with blood dripping from his fangs, red, wild eyes and an almost animalistic intensity…after which entrance we never hear him speak a line of dialogue again.

But before he is killed by Dracula, Harker manages to kill the woman – Dracula’s bride – by driving a stake through her heart. In revenge, Dracula goes to town (by shipping himself off in a coffin) so he can turn Harker’s fiance, Lucy Holmwood, into a replacement bride. And finally, Van Helsing appears (Peter Cushing). He is looking for his fellow vampire hunter and traces him to Dracula’s castle. He finds Harker’s body, but since Dracula is gone, he returns to inform Harker’s fiance and her family of his death.

The majority of the film consists of Dracula preying on the family: Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), her brother Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife, Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling). Van Helsing fails to save Lucy from becoming a vampire, but he does much better after he tells Arthur the truth about vampires and the two of them must fight to save Mina. One of their main troubles is that Dracula seems to have an uncanny ability to invade the house and find his way to the women’s bedroom without anyone realizing it.

Half the tension in the film is knowing that Dracula is about to appear and wondering when. We see an empty doorway and expect he’s going to come through at any moment. When he finally does, the affect is not disappointing. He has a habit of suddenly appearing, either standing still with all the power of his tremendous height (6′ 5″) and presence, or coming through the doorway. He walks through doorways very effectively.

Peter Cushing...wielding a cross

Peter Cushing…wielding a cross

But Peter Cushing makes a superb match for Lee. His Van Helsing is incisive and precise, but also with a will. He is every bit as capable of physical activity when called upon, which stands in marked contrast to the original Dracula of 1931, which resembles nothing so much as a drawing room horror story.

But in this film vampire hunting is not synonymous with superheroism. These vampire hunters (Van Helsing and Harker) are doctors and scholars, educated men who have devoted their lives to understanding and eradicating vampires. They are, admittedly, on the fringe of the scientific community, but are still able to pass themselves off as eminent men and not mere crackpots. Van Helsing is a modern man, who uses a phonograph to record his thoughts and is capable of administering blood transfusions, which was no easy thing in the 1800s (blood types were not then understood).

As a complete rabbit trail, my sister was wondering if vampires are subject to the same blood type concerns as mere humans. Could a vampire with blood type A drink the blood of someone with blood type B or would that be a problem? Someone really ought to look into that.

I was a little confused by the geography of the film. In the novel and 1931 film, Dracula’s home is Transylvania but he leaves to terrorize London. Here, Dracula’s castle appears to be near Klausenburg, a German village. Harker comes from somewhere not far off, only one night’s ride away, so presumably he lives in Germany, too. Everyone has a British sounding name and speak with British accents, but the setting is clearly Germany. Maybe British expatriates?

But Horror of Dracula is a British film produced by Hammer Film Productions in London, a studio best remembered for the horror films they began making in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein. Unlike Universal Studio’s horror films, Hammer horrors had blood, gore, low cut necklines and were altogether racier, more Gothic and more energetic…all in color, which made a distinct impression on audiences. The Curse of Frankenstein was so successful that the following year they paired Cushing and Lee again in Horror of Dracula.

Christopher Lee...making another entrance

Christopher Lee…making another entrance

The Curse of Frankenstein is really about Frankenstein – played excellently by Peter Cushing – and Christopher Lee has relatively little to do as the monster. But although Lee is only in Horror of Dracula less than 20 minutes and has scarcely any lines, the film made him a star and he would go on to play the role so often that he grew to dislike it. Peter Cushing also appears in a few Dracula sequels, but he was more noted for appearing in his own monster franchise: Frankenstein.

Both men are dynamic together, especially in Horror of Dracula, which is perhaps the best showcase for them as rivals. Along with The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula they made The Mummy (you can probably guess who plays the mummy) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (with Cushing as a delightfully zany, arrogant and eccentric Sherlock Holmes and Lee unexpectedly cast as the Baskerville heir Holmes must protect – it was the first time I had seen Lee in a regular suit; he always seems to be wearing tunics, cloaks, or robes). But as an introduction, you can’t beat Horror of Dracula.

I am extremely excited to be participating in the “Try It, You’ll Like It” Blogathon and am grateful to Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid for hosting! For the complete list of “gateway” films to the classics, please click here.

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16 Comments

Posted by on December 5, 2015 in Movies

 

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16 responses to ““Try It, You’ll Like It” – Horror of Dracula (1958)

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    December 5, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    Cushing! Lee! Dracula! Of course! An inspired choice for a gateway film and a most entertaining article.

    Liked by 1 person

     
  2. Grand Old Movies

    December 6, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Lee and Cushing were always wonderful together – I think it’s because they were such contrasting types, with Lee so imposing and calm, and Cushing wiry and intense. Supposedly the reason that Lee never spoke any lines in Horror of Dracula (or in his subsequent Dracula films) is that he hated the dialogue that the script gave him and refused to speak them. But I think his silence as the Count is far more effective (and, oddly, sexier!).

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      December 6, 2015 at 8:54 am

      That’s a good point. When he speaks he sounds like a rather pleasant young man and his silence works so much better. It’s funny, but when I was trying to get some still images of him from my copy of the film, whenever I paused on a close up of him, he looked so young and not all that frightening. But as soon as the film was in motion, his menace (and presence) was palpable.

      Like

       
  3. Silver Screenings

    December 6, 2015 at 9:33 am

    This alone would sell the film: “Grand Moff Tarkin vs. Count Dooku”!

    Great post. I’ve not seen this film, and would never have considered it if I hadn’t read your post. See? You’ve even sold me on it!

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      December 6, 2015 at 2:22 pm

      I’m so glad it sounded like an enticing film! 🙂 Honestly, I never would have considered it either, except I wanted to see Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing when they were younger. Then I got hooked. You’re right: “Grand Moff Tarkin vs. Count Dooku” ought to be the film’s tagline. It would bring in droves of people. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

       
  4. Movies Silently

    December 6, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Thanks so much for joining in! Like so many in my age group, I came to Hammer via Star Wars and couldn’t agree more with your conclusions. One question remains: is the German postal service really so lax that one can mail one’s self with impunity? Inquiring minds wish to know!

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      December 6, 2015 at 2:47 pm

      Hmm…intriguing question. That does seem rather permissive. I’m trying to imagine sending a coffin today: “And is there anything hazardous or fragile in here? Do you want insurance?”

      Maybe vampire hunters should become mailmen, the better to investigate suspicious coffins crisscrossing the land.

      Like

       
  5. Kristina Dijan

    December 6, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Love these movies and actors, great choice and suggestion for that target viewer–you described me and my taste at the age I discovered these Hammer films!

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      December 6, 2015 at 5:32 pm

      Thanks! Hammer horror are such an addictive introduction, aren’t they? Especially since the actors made so many movies together.

      Like

       
  6. Richard Swymeler

    December 7, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Chirstina, my sister Margaret and I used to watch some of these films as children at the Strand Theatre in Ocean Beach. (San Diego). Mom loved these horror movies as did Margaret. It was a fun Saturday Matinee where we could do something as a family.
    These types of stories used to give me nightmares, but as I grew older I have learned about the incredible acting that took place by by talented people and that goodness always overcomes evil. What a great article you have submitted this week!! Penny and I really enjoyed this!

    Like

     
    • christinawehner

      December 7, 2015 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed it and that it brought back good family memories. And I’m really jealous that you got to watch them at the theater. 🙂 I used to wonder where Leandra and I got our love of these horror movies because we didn’t know any one else in the family liked them, but now that you’ve told me I realize that is definitely in the family.

      I so agree; it was great acting! Sometimes it seems like they don’t get enough credit for what good actors they were just because horror films aren’t as “critically” acclaimed, and yet it takes tremendous skill.

      Like

       
  7. Joe Thompson

    December 12, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    “Could a vampire with blood type A drink the blood of someone with blood type B or would that be a problem?” Your sister is a genius. And you made an excellent argument for using this film to entice young people into the world of classic film.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      December 13, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      Thanks! She definitely is a genius; with some of the most unexpected observations about movies. 🙂

      Like

       

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