Dracula: Fisher, Lee and the creation of an icon

Dracula 1958

Bram Stoker‘s Dracula is one of cinema’s most enduring characters that continues to fascinate and inspire filmmakers and filmgoers more than 100 years after the book’s initial publication. A classic Gothic horror, the book’s heady plot and borderline homoerotic prose is very much of its time – indeed many of Stoker’s contemporaries were obsessed with crime and ghost stories – but surprisingly, despite unanimous critical approval, the novel enjoyed limited success upon its release, only reaching its iconic status in the early 20th century after several movie adaptations and a stage play took Dracula to the masses.

Dracula 1958_7

The earliest film adaptations (the unauthorised Nosferatu was released in 1922, and the Tod Browning-directed Dracula was released in 1931) cemented the character of Dracula into the public consciousness, despite their varying degrees of faithfulness to the source material. Either way, Dracula resembled a sinister, haunting evil that wasn’t out to scare, rather to play on the mind of audiences. Of course, that perception was changed forever with the release of Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the US) a full-colour, flamboyant offering that launched countless clichés, spoofs and cartoons. But that all came later, Terence Fisher’s film was a small-budget Hammer Studios production with big ambition, from the surprisingly lavish sets to the all-out action, itself only homage to Stoker’s original text.

Dracula 1958

One of the biggest amends was the characters – Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen) evolves from a solicitor to a vampire slayer posing as a librarian, the three brides are condensed into one (played gore-loriously by Valerie Gaunt) and Renfield is notably absent. The removal of Stoker’s more ‘supernatural’ elements (Dracula’s ability to turn into a bat, for example) lend an everyday evil to the story; similarly Doctor Van Helsing’s (Peter Cushing) ready explanations of vampire behaviour (an allergy to light that was introduced in Nosferatu) ground the evil firmly in the real world: this is a fight between good and bad. To move the plot along swiftly, all the action is set in fictionalised ‘middle Europe’ – this simplification was almost certainly due to budget constraints; reportedly Fisher was shooting with a budget of £81,000 (a not unusual figure for a Hammer production).

Dracula 1958

The frenzied pace suits the leading men. Christopher Lee repackaged Dracula as a well-mannered cultured specimen, a ‘tall, dark and handsome host’ that’s considerably more savage than Legosi’s depiction. In fact, Lee’s Dracula – who simmers with menacing theatricality but can, nevertheless, switch from charming host to savage monster in a matter of minutes – is actually much closer to Stoker’s original description, right down to his seemingly superhuman strength, demonstrated just after his (unsurprisingly) dramatic entrance as he carries Harker’s heavy suitcase upstairs, taking them two at a time. His ferocity is almost terrifyingly authentic, but the effect is tempered by Lee’s tendencies towards theatricality and baroque melodrama and the lavish set and backdrop – and the almost comical, vividly red dripping blood that hammers home the horror either dripping from fangs or reflected in the lining of Harker’s travelling bag.

Dracula 1958

Dracula 1958

He might be the lead, but Dracula is very much in the background and appears in very few scenes. Instead, his antics and the fear of his presence, pervade the entire film, paving the way for the ruthless, single-minded Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) to triumph over evil. One of the criticisms most commonly levelled at Dracula is overt theatricality and melodrama and, whilst not completely unfounded, there’s something in that lends itself to Stoker’s original Gothic text. Lee’s Dracula entry, complete with sweeping cloak, is accompanied by a familiar score, itself a riff on the character’s name. These tropes have become deeply ingrained into the legend that is Dracula, although later Hammer Studio sequels evolved into a caricature and were no match for the original.

Dracula 1958

Dracula 1958_6

At the heart of Dracula is a story of sexual repression. Fisher certainly played up to this element; the female characters have a yearning for Dracula and seem to enjoy being ravished by the vampire. The women function simply as secondary at characters – paralysed at the hands of this mysterious creature and unsure why he holds power over them. Some of the scenes do hint at low-grade erotica and surely contributed to the critic’s disapproval (“One of the most revolting horror films I have seen in years,” lamented the Daily Express’ reviewer); the biting that seems so tame to modern audiences would likely have been more shocking to audiences in the 50s.

Dracula 1958

Dracula was an enormous box-office success in both the UK and US, and Hammer was quick to capitalise on its success with eight sequels (including Brides of Dracula, 1960, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, 1966 and Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970). These films varied in quality, and none (with the possible exception of Brides) were a match for the original. Talking about the Dracula in 1974, Fisher explained why: “Everything was right about that film; the script, the casting, everything just clicked. The chemistry just worked the whole way. A wonderful experience”. Camp, theatrical and accidentally hilarious? Yes. But it’s also a lasting testament to British cinema and, despite the liberties with source material and lack of true ‘gore’, ranks as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Further reading: Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film / The Women of Bram Stoker’s Dracula


2 thoughts on “Dracula: Fisher, Lee and the creation of an icon

  1. A very good analysis. I think we often tend to forget how good these early Hammer Horrors could be, allowing them to get submerged in memories of the overabundance of shlock that the studio released later.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a shame the studio’s name has become synonymous with accidentally-hilarious horrors as some of the early productions were ground-breaking.

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