Few actors have such long and distinguished careers as the great Christopher Lee. He starred in everything from Olivier’s Shakespearean work to B-movie schlock to major franchises including Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. But he’ll always be known best for his horror career; particularly for his depiction of the undead Transylvanian Count.
It’s Hammer Time! (Hey, you knew I was going to say it.) Founded in 1934, Hammer Film Productions had been ‘just another film company’ until the end of the 1950’s. The studio hadn’t found its niche yet. But that changed in 1957 with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein. I reviewed that film for Monsterpiece last year HERE. Although the script called for a pathetic version of the creature opposite Peter Cushing’s menacing Baron Frankenstein, Hammer execs liked what they saw and cast Lee as the lead in their next major feature, Horror of Dracula. What bears repeating is that Christopher Lee was hired to portray the mad scientist’s monster in Curse because he was willing to work for 2 pounds a day less pay (8 pounds) than the others -- two pounds made Christopher Lee an international star!
kill Dracula. Although he manages to kill a female vampire (Valerie Gaunt), he fails in a showdown with the Count. None of that is in the book.
encounter vampire Lucy in a graveyard and stake her.
begins corrupting Mina and she helps him hide the coffin in her basement. When it’s discovered, the hunters chase Dracula back to Transylvania. Holmwood rescues Mina. Van Helsing corners the Count and rips open some drapes, killing Dracula with sunlight.
Lee is neither a repulsive beast like Count Orlok in Nosferatu, or a reserved character like Lugosi’s interpretation. And despite having only 13 lines, all delivered before the film is ten minutes in, Lee is credited with adding three key ingredients to the Dracula mix. First, he had a genuine aristocratic presence. He feels like he could instantly command all attention just by walking into a room. Second, the rage came out. In the book, the sight of blood made Dracula reveal his bestial, violent hatred of humanity. Lee has that in spades, showing no mercy to anyone he’s trying to kill or who’s foolish enough to get in his way. And third, the sexual element now so closely associated with the vampire attack.
In this film, Lucy lies in bed waiting for Dracula. Mina also appears to Arthur and Van Helsing looking very satisfied after she’s attacked. Director Terrance Fisher told her to look like she’d just had the best sex of her life the previous night, all night long. The notion of vampiric sex - sex from the neck up - has been a part of the film version of the lore ever since. Of course, this isn’t safe sex, given what happens afterward (death and vampirism). But as scholar Sir Christopher Frayling put it, “you can’t have everything.”
As an aside, Lee took credit for none of this innovation. He said he was only doing what the script required and what Terrance Fisher told him to do on set.
Horror of Dracula has many Hammer trademarks. The film is awash in glorious color; it’s the first time we the Count with red eyes and his fangs dripping with blood. As noted, the filmmakers changed the story in several ways, but, as with other Hammer movies based on books, they made it work. (Though I still have a problem with Castle Dracula looking almost pristine, instead of the above-ground graveyard it’s supposed to be.) The film was also gory for its time, though it seems quite tame today. Interestingly, despite, the sexual element added to the tale, there’s a noticeable lack of female skin for a Hammer film. The film also pays interesting homage to both the novel and its Universal predecessor. As in the novel, modern (1890’s) technologies like a phonograph and blood transfusions are used by Van Helsing. And like the 1931 film, the cinematographer uses a tiny flick of light to illuminate Lee’s eyes; only this time before he bites Lucy.
We also need to note the addition of Arthur Holmwood. In the book, Arthur is Lucy’s fiancée. Here, he’s married to Mina and becomes Van Helsing’s right-hand man. Michael Gough is also great here. He has to be. Just like in the book, Dracula is only really an active character in Transylvania. After that, we mostly get just the characters’ reactions to the Count’s evil deeds. Gough is also believable as an early skeptic converted to a crusader who is terribly concerned with protecting Mina from Dracula. He perfectly compliments Cushing.
Like Cushing, Gough never got the credit he deserved. From the villain in Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera, to a harassed artist who strikes back against a bullying art critic (Lee) in Amicus’ Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Gough showed plenty of versatility before becoming just another British actor who appeared in every movie Tim Burton ever made.
Oh, I really don’t want to do this one, but I’m going to for comparison. You see, if there’s one thing Christopher Lee didn’t like about Hammer’s version of Dracula (other than being blinded by the contact lenses, that is), it was the deviation from the source material. Lee was a huge fan of Stoker’s book, and tried to work in some of the author’s classic lines. But Fisher would have none of it. And despite starring in six of the film’s eight Hammer sequels, Lee always longed to star in a faithful adaptation of the story. Well, in 1970, Lee got what he wanted- or so he thought. So, without further ado, I give you director Jess Franco’s take on Dracula.
Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Maria Rohm), and her friend, Lucy (Soledad Miranda), meet him there. The next half hour or so is Dracula seducing Lucy, Renfield (Klaus Kinski) yelling and screaming, and asylum director Van Helsing (Herbert Lom) and Dr. Seward (Paul Mueller) musing about what might be happening. Lucy becomes a vampire and is staked. Dracula then sets his sights on Mina. After Van Helsing suffers a stroke, it’s up to Harker and Quincy Morris (Jack Taylor) to pursue Dracula back to Transylvania. They frighten the Count’s Gypsies with some rocks and then expose Dracula to sunlight. Fin.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the film started with an ominous omen. As an appetizer, I watched a Youtube clip of Harker and the Count meeting. Then, cuing in the “children of the night” quote, was a stock animal howl. I heard this sound before and it filled me with dread- the wrong kind of dread. For you see, dear article reader, the only other time I can remember hearing that sound effect was for the Master’s Pet in “Muh…Muh…Manos, the Hands of Fate!!!!!” What, you don’t believe me?! Okay, fast forward the clip in question to 5:52. Now, fast forward to 34:59 of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. I’ll pause while you do so. [pause] Thought I was kidding, didn’t you?
To make matters worse, this film was produced by Harry Alan Towers. Yes, the immortal producer of such classics as The Castle of Fu Manchu (“Wait. Christopher Lee was Chinese?”), and Outlaw of Gor (“Look, it’s Jack Palance!” “I’ve crapped bigger than this movie.”). Oh, the pain, the pain…
Dracula: Christopher Lee
Lee isn’t awful this time around, though he isn’t memorable, either. With the exception of two scenes where he bites Lucy and just he hisses, he’s always stoic, brooding, and walking like Rod from Birdemic. (Yeah, I went there.) Still, his presence remains commanding. Also, in a nod to the book - the reason Lee agreed to this project in the first place - the Count gets younger as he drinks blood. Not handsome, mind you. Just younger. Nice touch. Overall, it actually feels reassuring when Lee’s onscreen - something you don’t feel very often in this film.
But it’s the difference between human Lucy and vampire Lucy I want to point out. As a human, Lucy is vulnerable, innocent, and easily dominated by Dracula. As a vampire, Lucy appears alabaster, with darkened eyes and wearing a black gown. She looks like a walking corpse. She also now easily commands children to come to her so she can feed. Like in the novel, it’s a complete inversion of her human self and a mockery of female beauty. Lucy represents the terror created by the corruption Dracula leaves behind in his wake. And so far, believe it or not, this movie, IMO, has done this part the best- especially when Miss Miranda bears her fangs.
Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania during his lifetime. Everything he knew came from travel guides (such as Emily Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest), and history books he read in the British Museum while doing research for his novel. In his hands, the land became a hotbed of monsters that preyed upon a peasant/merchant population. Dark forests surrounded fairy-tale towns while massive packs of wolves howled throughout the night. Locals took extreme precautions- including extensive used of garlic and crucifixes- to protect themselves from vampires and other vile creatures.