Horror of Dracula (1958)

Dracula is one of film's most universal figures. He's the original vampire daddy and he is tough as nails. One of the first horror villains, he has made appearances is many versions of "Nosferatu" (the 1922 and 1979 being the most famous) and we can track the progression of madness through film cinema. Appearing first as a mindless vegetable of types that just eats people to survive, Werner Herzog's version of "Nosferatu" in the 70s is what gives us the change in character. Then, Dracula was a slave to his own vampirism. But things quite hadn't gotten to that point of empathizing in 1958 when Christopher Lee made an iconic turn as the elusive and deadly vampire count.
"Horror of Dracula" or "Dracula" as it was originally titled, differs pretty severely from the other big three renditions of the tale (being the 1922, the Bela Lugosi one, and then the Herzog film) because the plot differs greatly.
We have added characters, mystery and intrigue, some genuine horror instead of the faux wannabe stuff, and the stilted feeling of drama that hadn't quite left yet. What sinks the movie past being great is director Terence Fisher's choice of using humor in the piece, it doesn't belong there and because it appears only once or twice, it ruins the creepy atmosphere that builds up the rest of the time.
Still clinging to the horror style of the early years of cinema, "Horror of Dracula" is big on the screechy score and paused moments of characters seeing something off-screen. Surprisingly, it works rather well because it blends campy and suspense into something edible.
The movie begins as a young man goes out to Dracula's castle. In the early renditions of the story, he was tricked into going, being served up to the Count as an entrée, but that's not the case here. This young man is a vampire hunter and he wants to make Count Dracula his victim. He has gone to the castle with the sole intention of killing the vampire.
But he is bewitched by a female at the castle who begs him to help her escape from the clutches of Dracula and the man, foolishly, obliges her persistence. Turns out that she's a vampire too and she bites the kid and he...well...he gets turned into a vampire.
Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is now looking for the young man because he was a friend. He gets a hold of the man's diary and realizes that the worst is true. As he is about to make it to the steps of Dracula's castle, a hearse with a white coffin tears away from the castle.
Now Dracula has made his way into town and he's trying to find a replacement woman to be his trusty side-kick/killing machine. His attempts are repeatedly foiled by the good doctor who finds it his responsibility to tell the man's fiancee, Lucy (Carol Marsh) that her lover has died.
Trying to do what's right, the doctor is met with resistance by Lucy's brother, Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling). They don't want Lucy knowing because she's sick and the don't want to risk her condition worsening on account of the news.
It's clear that Dracula wants to get to Lucy and it's up to the doctor to convince Arthur and Mina that he has everyone's best intentions in mind.
"Horror of Dracula" establishes some of the vampire tropes that would be used in the years to come, while ignoring others that come back in modern cinema (see "Let the Right One In"). It's not the most influential piece of vampire cinema, at least not as much as Bela Lugosi's "Dracula" was; but what the film is remember for (rightly so) is Christopher Lee's rendition of the vampire, and its practical special effects, sure to inspire "An American Werewolf in London" years later.
The feel of the film is crisp and it's so short that it's offenses don't became too horrible to bear. All-in-all, it's a nice film; but nothing spectacular, though chilling in moments.

Score: ★★½

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