Horror of Dracula (1958)

Ladies and gentlemen, Sir Christopher Lee:

I love him for understanding that the Dracula in the movies wasn’t Stoker’s character.

But with that said, I really enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would!

I’m noticing something bizarre as I watch all of the Dracula movies/shows/mini-series for this blog: when the title of the movie differs from the book, i.e. “Nosferatu,” “Horror of Dracula,” and even “Count Dracula,” it actually follows the story beats, the spirit of the book, and everyone’s characterizations better than its counterparts. But when it’s got Bram Stoker’s name in the title or otherwise associates with him, it screws up the characters and the plot almost beyond recognition. I think I will call this phenomenon “Stoker’s Law of Inverse Adaptations.”

This particular movie opens with the diary of Jonathan Harker, just like the book.  He narrates the early scenes in the movie as they happen.  Normally, I don’t think this is a great idea, but it works here because we find out afterwards that the diary was given to Van Helsing and he’s reading it.  After that reveal, the narration stops.

In this version, Jonathan isn’t a solicitor helping Dracula move to London.  He’s a librarian.  One of my favorite characters in the book has the same career as me!  YAY!

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Dracula hires him to work in his library.  It’s never explained why the Count needs a librarian, but within a few scenes it becomes clear that Jonathan’s not just a librarian: he’s a vampire-hunting librarian!

This movie is hitting all of the right notes with me even if it’s not necessarily great adaptation-wise.

So, in this version, Jonathan and Van Helsing are colleagues who hunt vampires.  Jonathan went undercover to investigate the Count and meets a woman who claims to be his prisoner.  Maybe she is, but she’s also a vampire who tries to turn Jonathan.  Like the book version, Jon tries to kill Dracula while he sleeps in his coffin, but fails.  Unlike the book, he does stake the Bride, but then Dracula wakes up and turns him into a vampire.  Van Helsing finds him later and stakes him.

I guess a vampire-hunting librarian was just too cool to live.  Note to self: stick to the Reference Desk.

Even though Jonathan wasn’t a solicitor, the Count still goes to London because he wants revenge against Jonathan for killing the Bride.  I like this idea because it explains why he obsesses over Mina and Lucy while also maintaining his monstrous personality.  It’s similar to his motivation for attacking Mina in the book- to punish the men trying to hunt him down.  Also like the book, the Count doesn’t appear very much except for a few key scenes.  It’s a shame that we don’t get to hear Christopher Lee talk very much, but he does a good job with the scenes that he gets, as he always does.

So how does poor Madame Mina fair?  Well…better than other movies, but still not perfect.  She and Lucy swap love interests in this version: Lucy is engaged to Jonathan and Mina is married to Arthur Holmwood.  I’m not sure why, but I guess they wanted to keep Mina as the married protagonist and couldn’t do it with Jonathan because they’d already killed him off…?

The film has one of the few versions of Lucy who acts mostly in-character: an innocent, naive young woman who doesn’t flirt with everything that moves.  Mina acts more in-character too, although we don’t get to see her awesome secretary skills or deductive reasoning.  When she realizes that Lucy isn’t getting any better under Dr. Seward’s care, she is the one who goes to Van Helsing for help.  Throughout the film, she comes across as a sensible woman who’s willing to believe Van Helsing before her husband does.  But unlike the book version of her character, she doesn’t get to do anything to save herself when she gets attacked by Dracula next.  Boo!

Hammer’s version of Van Helsing combines his character with Dr. Seward’s: he uses a phonograph to create audio diaries, knows all about vampires, and doesn’t need help pronouncing English words because he’s English here.  Even though he’s not the most in-character version of Van Helsing, I think he might be my favorite.  He really feels like a formidable foe to Dracula without coming off as insensitive to his friends or unbearably smarter than them.

It helps that he’s played by Peter Cushing, aka Governor Tarkin.  That man could keep Darth Vader under control.  Dracula never stood a chance.

Arthur is a combination of his book character and that jerk version of Jonathan in the 1931 movie.  He blames Van Helsing for everything that goes wrong at first, but after they stake Lucy, he accepts that Van Helsing’s telling the truth and becomes a good ally.  There’s a really funny scene in this movie where they try to find Dracula’s location by interrogating a clerk that transported his coffin.  The man swears that his customers’ confidentiality is more important to him than anything else…while Arthur calmly keeps taking bills out of his wallet until the man admits that he can always make an exception when it’s an emergency.  That is in fact how the heroes get a lot of things done in the book: Arthur’s nobility and money gets them access to whatever they need.

As a film, I find Horror of Dracula very engaging.  While the 1931 version basically had Dr. Seward and Jonathan following Van Helsing around and either absorbing or arguing over everything he taught them, Arthur’s interactions with Van Helsing show steady character development.  The Bride gets to be a more ambiguous character.  We never really know for sure whether she wanted to bite Jonathan or if she struggled against Dracula for control over herself.  Her dialogue implies that she might’ve been like Mina once: an unwilling victim who can no longer leave the Count because of what she’s become.  I wish the movie showed more about her backstory.

The castle looks great and I love the surrounding scenery.  There’s something about the movie overall- maybe the set design, maybe the music, or maybe the mood- that makes me think of Halloween and that I’d like to add it to the list of movies that I watch around October.

It cuts a lot from the book and still doesn’t do Mina Harker justice.  But the rest of the movie makes up for the changes.  At least it successfully demonstrates the conflict of good vs. evil, a fantastic Van Helsing, a slightly stronger Mina, and a more complex Bride.  I’d happily watch it again.

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