[Movie Review] Dracula (1958)

Hammer Films Production , dir: Terence Fisher, 82 minutes

dracula5By Nathan Rexter

★★★★☆

Dracula has been portrayed by so many different actors in so many different eras in film, television, and theatre that, like with Batman and James Bond, everyone has a favourite version. A version in which they believe the actor playing the character completely embodied the role and made it iconic for them. The Hammer version of Dracula from 1958, with the wonderful Christopher Lee playing the Count, is, for me, the greatest version of Dracula to ever appear on screen or stage. Though this version does take a lot of liberties with the original Bram Stoker text; changing things, I think, for the benefit of the film.

The movie starts with Jonathon Harker (John Van Eyssen) arriving at Castle Dracula to become its librarian. When he enters the castle he is met by a woman that tells him that she is being held hostage by Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), but  once the Count arrives on the scene she scatters off. Dracula leads Harker to his room and leaves him there. It is then revealed to the audience that Harker isn’t there to become the castle’s librarian, but to kill Count Dracula. He goes down to Dracula’s crypt to do so but is bitten by Dracula.

We then have the arrival of Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to Castle Dracula. He is there to join his friend, Harker, but discovers him resting in a coffin, now a vampire. Van Helsing has no other choice other than to kill his friend. The story ensues.

I must say the set they built for Castle Dracula is fantastic. It’s grand and gorgeous, and has bright splashes of colour when it needs it. In fact, all of the sets are diverse and interesting: they all have their own little quirks that make them unique and memorable. The sets are of course steeped in Gothic tradition. All of the sets together create a sense of time and place, allowing the audience to be pulled into the film.

Like the castle, Lee’s Dracula is a tall and imposing figure. His stature creates a sense of dread, allowing Dracula to become a physical threat to his prey. Yet he is thin and wispy, moving less like a bat and more like a cat. Dracula in this film is almost silent (he only has thirteen lines) but the fact that he doesn’t say anything only serves to make him creepier and more mysterious.

On the other hand, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is a calming presence. He doesn’t over-react and get scared. He is a man that always knows what to do when he’s in danger and never lets anything get too out of control; making sure that everything is dealt with.

This movie’s story isn’t exactly that engaging. Mainly due to the fact that we know what’s going to happen: there isn’t much suspense. And for a matter of fact, it isn’t actually that scary, but I put that down to the fact the movie is nearly sixty years old and was probably absolutely terrifying at the time.

Though that being said, there are some creepier moments, especially at the end where — SPOILERS — Dracula is killed. He is hit by a ray of sunshine causing his skin to melt off his body and for his bones to turn to dust. We see his hand dissolve away quickly and sickeningly; we see his leg fade to dust inside his trousers; and for a finale, we see his face rip apart and watch his skull become nothing but dirt. The effect in this scene is amazing and still very effective to this day.

All in all, I enjoyed this movie. There isn’t much suspense and it isn’t really that scary, except that bit at the end, but it creates this atmosphere that allows you to forgive its faults. It’s just fun to watch. Which is really what movies are about.