Welcome to the latest instalment of “Virgin’s View” where I review a classic vampire film without being exposed to any background information or reviews, hence the term “virgin.”
In honour of the recent passing of Christopher Lee on June 7, 2015, this month’s feature is Horror of Dracula (1958), directed by Terence Fisher and staring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, and Carol Marsh.
Full disclosure: my previous exposure to Dracula movies is limited to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and recently watching the 1931 version (“A Virgin’s View on ‘Dracula’ ,” May 26, 2015). I am also slowly reading my way through Dracula (1897), the Broadview Press edition. Before you proceed, beware major spoiler alerts ahead!
I loved the intro credits because of the intense music that jumped straight in; ending the scene with a shot of a tomb labeled “Dracula” being splashed with some amateurish red paint as makeshift blood. I know back in the day they didn’t have access to the realistic fake blood we do now for films so I’ll have to get over that one.
The ambiance was set by a audio pattern; every action scene was introduced and accentuated by the dramatic musical sounds of orchestrational goodness. When the music jumped in, you knew you were in for a treat.
The castle itself was newer and more modern than what I was used to in the other films. Part of this could be blamed for limited budgets back in the day. The set looked like it had been assembled from a 1970s garage sale and accented by some candles, drapes and cheesy wall hangings.
The ambiance was completely different from the original 1931 film: it didn’t include extravagant cobwebs accompanied by giant spiders, fluttering fake bats dancing around the window fixtures, or automatic creaking doors.
What threw me off about this film was where the storyline began as opposed to what I was familiar with. There was a lack of build up and it began with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arriving at Castle Dracula.
Jonathan was greeted by an empty castle and welcomed by a warm dinner, an open fire and a crazy lady (Valerie Gaunt) dressed like an extra from the set of Gladiator (2000).
I assumed Harker was there for a real estate deal like the other movies, but he announced to the lady of the castle, he was hired as the new residential librarian. I was totally confused.
Other tip offs about the altered plot was when Dracula (Christopher Lee) let himself into Harker’s room like he owned the place, and discovered a photograph of Harker’s fiancé, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh). Wait, wasn’t he supposed to marry Mina?
The plot changes didn’t stop there. Jonathan’s first entry in his journal was: “At last I have met Count Dracula. He accepts me as a man that agreed to work among his books as intended. It only remains for me now, to wait the daylight hours, when with God’s help, I will forever end this man’s reign of terror.”
It sounds like Harker is working a covert assassination mission from MI6. In true James Bond fashion, he finds the same damsel in distress in the library the next morning and agrees to be her white knight and take her away from the castle until Dracula had something to say about it.
Dracula emerged from a secret passage and objects to Harker’s domestic interference and steps up his game with a full minute of vampire chaotic violence. Lee tosses them around like rag dolls until he exits with his lady, but first the femme fatale pays back Harker for his generosity with a bite.
Harker passed out on the floor, and demonstrated his vampirological knowledge when he woke up, to find fang marks on his neck and cried. He knew it was game over.
Speaking of games, when we met the major player Lee, the first thing I noted was his characteristics were different from his Dracula predecessors. He was stealth, suave, lacked the Transylvanian accent and had that tall, dark and handsome thing going for him.
Comparing Lee to Lugosi is like comparing the new and improved T1000 (Robert Patrick) to the first Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in the second movie, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
Another altered aspect of the plot was when we finally meet Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in a local pub, it turns out he’s there to find Harker. That meant he knew Harker was on a vamp killing mission and was now missing in action. Totally opposite of the sheltered Harker we’re all familiar with.
Van Helsing looked like he had just finished a fashion photo shoot with his fancy fur lined coat, scarf, and hat. Throughout the entire film he graces us with three piece suits, accompanied with his blunt bad doctor’s bedside manner. At one point he says, “Follow my instructions or she will die!”
The good doctor wasn’t able to get any answers from the pub, but recovered Harker’s journal. He proceeded to Dracula’s castle only to discover his friend vamped out in a coffin and Dracula AWOL. As an audience, we know what has to be done; however, they cut the scene so the staking is left to our imagination.
The other plot twist is we finally meet Mina (Melissa Stribling) and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough). Mina’s sister, Lucy, was Harker’s fiancé. Again, the characters are mixed up from previous film I watched and book I’m reading. Makes me wonder if they changed the characters around to avoid paying royalties or something?
To sum up my thoughts on the soap opera, Dracula goes after Harker’s bride to be, Lucy, out of revenge. An eye for an eye kind of thing. Only the plan doesn’t go very well. Van Helsing knocks off Lucy, liberating her soul and giving her eternal peace. Dracula ends up enslaving Arthur’s wife, Mina, as a substitute. I guess the guy isn’t much of rebound man.
All the women Dracula turns are like drug addicts jonesing for their next vampire fix. Hell, Van Helsing even compares vampirism to “drug addiction” in one scene.
When comparing this film to the 1931 version, one noticeable difference is they stepped up the gore factor; however, only slightly. We see a bloody Dracula bearing fangs in the chaos scene accentuated by blood shot eyes.
When Harker ventured into the basement to stake the vampires, both were sleeping with a slight trickle of blood at the corner of their lips. Harker stakes Dracula’s bride first, but we only see the action represented with a shadow. The aftermath is a shrieking corpse that ages instantly into an old woman with a bloody gash and stake in her chest.
But the ultimate special effect laced with a hint of gore was in the final scene where Dracula gets destroyed by Van Helsing. The two struggle and Van Helsing steps up his game by tearing down the curtain, letting sweet sunlight flood the room.
Dracula’s foot instantly melts like ice-cream and then turns to dust. Struggling away from Van Helsing’s makeshift cross, Dracula gets another dose of vitamin D melting off his hand before he loses his face.
Thanks to our desensitized horror standards nowadays, this does look pretty fake. But if you think about the time we are dealing with, it was brilliant.
Compared to my other Virgin’s Views, this is by far my favorite film. It was easier to take in and the storyline kept me interested because of the curveballs with the plot. By today’s standards this film isn’t scary, but back in the day I bet it was a total novelty. I give this film five stars!