In Horror, the Dracula vs. Van Helsing duel is the driving force behind a precisely pared retelling of the Bram Stoker novel. The script by Jimmy Sangster (who wrote the screenplays to many of the classic early Hammer films, including The Curse of Frankenstein, which kicked the whole thing off) greatly condenses the story, eliminating extraneous characters and numerous changes in setting, leaving only the essentials. Instead of beginning in Transylvania, following Dracula to London, then following Dracula and his pursuers back to Transylvania, Horror of Dracula places the action entirely in the country surrounding Dracula’s castle. Whatever country that is – it’s an interesting place, where the towns all have names ending in the suffix -stadt, but everyone seems to speak with a refined British accent. There are no tedious voyages by sea or train, just a climactic carriage chase through the countryside.
The ungainly supporting ensemble of the classic Dracula story has likewise been whittled down and simplified; besides Dracula and Van Helsing, we have Jonathan Harker, who here acts as an agent of Van Helsing, sent to Castle Dracula as the film opens on the pretense of working in the count’s library. Unlike his counterpart in the novel, this Harker gets in over his head and quickly becomes vampire food. Back home in Carlstadt (sitting in for London) is Jonathan’s fiancée, Lucy Holmwood, who lives with her brother Arthur, and his wife Mina.
After traveling to a strangely deserted Castle Dracula and learning of his friend’s fate (and subsequently hammering a stake through his friend’s heart), Dr. Van Helsing seeks out the Holmwoods and informs them of Jonathan’s death, leaving out the grisly details at first. Unbeknownst to Van Helsing, Arthur or Mina, Dracula has come to Carlstadt to turn Lucy into a vampire and take her as his mistress (to replace the fang-toothed slut Harker staked before falling victim to Dracula himself). Lucy has been ill since Jonathan left, and Dr. Van Helsing recognizes the two fang marks on her neck as the cause. He orders her windows to be kept closed and for her room to be decked out with garlic flowers. Mina follows Van Helsing’s order, but Lucy talks the housekeeper into taking the garlic away that night, and sure enough the next morning they find poor Lucy dead as disco and bloodless as a kosher steak. In grief over the loss of his sister just a few days after the death of her fiancée, Arthur Holmwood tells Van Helsing to kindly hit the bricks.
Before he goes, Van Helsing leaves Arthur Jonathan’s diary, detailing his mission to assassinate Dracula and his subsequent bout of vampirism. A few nights after being entombed, freshly undead Lucy is spotted walking around by the young child of the Holmwood’s housekeeper. Convinced now that vampires are something he ought to be worried about, Arthur helps Van Helsing stake Lucy, then the two of them set off together to find and kill Dracula once and for all. While they’re out, Dracula takes advantage of their absence, promptly luring Mina to his lair beneath a funeral parlor and putting the bite on her. Things really start moving from here: Van Helsing and Arthur track Drac to the funeral parlor, but he is nowhere to be found. Mina begins to exhibit the same symptoms as Lucy, and orders the housekeeper to keep everyone out of the basement, leaving Van Helsing, in a moment of thrilling revelation, to deduce that Dracula has moved his coffin into the Holmwood’s own house. He discovers the coffin just as Dracula is returning for the evening. Dracula grabs Mina, hijacks a stagecoach, and books for home. Arthur and Van Helsing follow in a coach of their own, reaching the castle just a few minutes before sunrise.
Arthur remains outside with Mina, who Dracula was attempting to bury alive. Van Helsing races into the castle after the count. What follows is the most exhilarating climax of any horror film I’ve ever seen: Van Helsing and Dracula get physical, grappling in a room on the castle’s second floor. Dracula chokes Van Helsing out, but the doctor comes-to just in time to avoid the bite. He shoves Dracula off, backs away warily, and happens to notice out the side of his eye the light peeking in through the curtained window. Van Helsing makes a break for it, jumping up on the long dining table, running across and leaping onto the curtain, pulling it down and flooding the room with sun. The sunlight hits Dracula like a bullet, knocking him to the floor. Van Helsing forms a crucifix by crossing two candelabras and uses it to force Dracula fully into the light, rapidly reducing him to an empty suit and a pile of ash. Having defeated this great evil just by the skin of his teeth, Van Helsing runs a hand through his hair, takes a last look around, and walks out.
Thus ends the most exciting, inventive, efficient, and all-around fun Dracula flick ever made. Like I mentioned earlier, the two versions of Nosferatu are better films, but if you’re looking for something to show for a Halloween double feature (or a Friday the 13th double feature, as they held at the Weinberg Center last week) this is your baby. This is not a serious or pretentious film; it lacks the introspection of the Nosferatus, or the drippy romance of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1993 version, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a well-made film. The script by Jimmy Sangster I’ve already mentioned, but also impossible to ignore is the contribution of brilliant director Terence Fisher. Fisher was the James Whale of the Hammer series, directing not only this masterpiece but also its predecessor, The Curse of Frankenstein, as well as Hammer’s version of The Mummy, all of which starred the awesome combination of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Fisher also directed Lee in his next performance as Dracula, in 1966 in the belated sequel Dracula: Prince of Darkness, which ain’t half bad. He was one of the greatest of all horror directors, a talent equal to Whale, George Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, or any other genre director you could name.
It’s really all about Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, though. Lee’s Dracula is so impressive, it’s easy to forget that he appears onscreen only a few times, and is completely silent except for a brief dialogue with Harker in the early scenes. When he’s behaving himself, he’s all dark eyes and elongated reptilian good looks; when he’s on the prowl, he’s a creature of slinky, seductive menace; when he’s pissed, he’s cold bloodshot eyes and sharp fangs. Whatever he’s doing, your eyes are on him, and even if you’ve never seen a Dracula movie before, you’re certain of one thing: he is an evil bastard. Due to a small budget, and to go along with this abridged version of the story, Lee’s Dracula cannot transform into a bat, or a wolf, or rats, or a mist. But he doesn’t exactly need to. Standing against Lee’s Dracula is Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, a man of science and a man of action. He’s also a man of compassion, demonstrated in one of the film’s best scenes, taking a few seconds before going into the crypt and staking undead Lucy to wrap his coat around Tania, the housekeeper’s young daughter, asking her to hold his silver cross and keep warm. Cushing is so good as Van Helsing, I think, because he plays the role so straight. This is a serious character portrayed by a serious actor in what is altogether a pretty silly film. But the presence of Cushing and Lee lends weight to this silly story, allows us to be invested enough to be tickled at the climax.
Every time I see Van Helsing stomp across that table and dive into those curtains, a current goes up my spine. It has ever since I first saw the movie when I was a child, and it did this past Friday sitting in the Weinberg Center. Horror of Dracula is one of those really rare movies that turns out much more than the sum of its parts. The story is goofy, but well crafted and expertly told. The acting, apart from Lee and Cushing, is actually pretty bad (in particular Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood proves he was just as shitty an actor as a young man as he was in the Batman films as an old fart), and yet this movie never succumbs to camp. Unlike some of the later entries in the Hammer franchise, including a few of the Dracula sequels, this movie doesn’t belong in the “so bad it’s good” category; this one’s just good.