There is a lot of horror in Terence Fisher’s Dracula, but very little story. Had this movie been the very first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel I suspect many viewers would’ve been lost and confused. Who is Dracula? How did he come about? What are his motives? How does he keep his teeth so clean? But having seen many variations of the story, from Dracula 2000 to Mel Brook’s Dracula: Dead And Loving It, Dracula’s tale is well known not just to me, but to most people. And because of that, this movie pulls through.
There is no origin story here. We never find out where Dracula was born, who he was born to, how he became this evil monster everyone claims him to be, or why he is so repulsed by the cross and the garlic flowers. The movie begins with him already a master of tyranny, as Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) finds out, a poor lady is being held at Castle Dracula against her will and desires freedom. Harker poses as a librarian and arrives at Castle Dracula to help organise the Count’s books. We later discover that his true purpose is to drive a stake through his heart, a task that proves to be much more tricky than at first it seems.
We are all familiar with the rules: Dracula and his abominations cannot go out in daylight. In fact the sunlight burns their skin and turns their bodies to ash. They must sleep the day away in coverless coffins that provide our heroes with the perfect killing opportunities. Only when the sun goes down can they awaken and wander about doing vampiry deeds. The odour of garlic, or in this movie’s case garlic flowers, repels them, as I’m sure it does most living human beings. Personally, I love the smell of garlic, which means I’m most probably not a vampire. Thank god. And of course there’s the cross, the symbol of God and Heaven which this movie trivialises as nothing but a symbol of good. I was quite intrigued to find out that makeshift crosses are just as effective as ready-made ones, as Dr. Van Helsing so efficiently displays in a scene of immense athleticism.
He is played by Peter Cushing, as a stoic doctor of medicine whose field of speciality extends far and wide. He has spent his entire life researching Dracula, he claims — an endeavour we know nothing about. In fact we know little about any of the characters. They exist, as the movie presents them to us, as people living in a certain point of their lives with no link to past or future events. Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster focus instead on the horror of Dracula. We know a lot about the events at hand — women, one by one, falling victim to sorcery and bloodsucking — but nothing about why they’re happening. I suspect now that maybe we’re not meant to know why anything is happening.
We are, as far as I can tell, meant to sit back and be scared. Like I mentioned at the start of this review, the story is of little significance. If you watch this movie now, you will know the characters and the plot without even trying. It will all come naturally. So what you should do instead is absorb the movie’s terror, which it deals out with great aplomb. Christopher Lee makes a fantastic Dracula. He is handsome, upright, certainly aristocratic, and intelligent. He has, unfortunately, only 13 lines of dialogue in the movie, but none of it matters when his eyes turn a bloodshot red and his fangs begin to drip blood. He morphs into a violent entity that is as skilful in a fight as it is proficient at draining one’s body of all fluid. When the inevitable duel with Van Helsing arrives, his downfall is due to the time of day, not a lack of power.
Just recently I was perusing Empire magazine’s 666 Greatest Horror Characters of all time. I was astonished to find Norman Bates at number 9, two spots higher than Lee’s Dracula (#7). Do I think Dracula makes a better character than Bates? Hmm. I’m not so sure. Bates is a perfect incarnation of insanity. Maybe Dracula is the perfect incarnation of supernatural evil. I’d prefer not to judge. I was surprised though by their number 1 pick, a character who has never left an impression on me. I think I’m going to have to re-watch his movies now.
Best Moment | There is a lot to enjoy in this movie. I particularly liked its third act, beginning with Van Helsing getting locked in the cellar.
Worst Moment | Some of Michael Gough’s lines fell a bit flat for me.