(Horror of Dracula)
Director: Terence Fisher
Production: Hammer; Eastmancolor; running time: 82 minutes. Released May 1958.
Producer: Anthony Hinds; screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Bram Stoker; photography: Jack Asher; camera operator: Len Harris; editors: James Needs, Bill Lenny; sound: Jock May; art director: Bernard Robinson; music: James Bernard.
Cast: Peter Cushing ( Dr. Van Helsing ); Christopher Lee ( Count Dracula ); Michael Gough ( Arthur ); Melissa Stribling ( Mina ); Carol Marsh ( Lucy ); Olga Dickie ( Gerda ); John Van Eyssen ( Jonathan ); Valerie Gaunt ( Vampire Woman ).
Sangster, Jimmy, Dracula , in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), July-September 1975.
Pirie, David, Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946–1972 , London, 1973.
Eyles, Allen, Robert Adkinson, and Nicholas Fry, The House of Horror: The Story of Hammer Films , London, 1973; revised edition, 1981.
Glut, Donald F., The Dracula Book , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1975.
Rohle, Jr., Robert W., and Douglas C. Hart, The Films of Christopher Lee , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1983.
Variety (New York), 7 May 1958.
Motion Picture Herald (New York), 10 May 1958.
Today's Cinema (London), 19 May 1958.
Kine Weekly (London), 22 May 1958.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1958.
Huss, Roy, "Vampire's Progress: Dracula from Novel to Film via Broadway," in Focus on the Horror Film , edited by Huss and T. J. Ross, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.
Photon , no. 27, 1976.
Schneider, M., "Hammer Horrors: The Dracula Films of Christopher Lee," in Monsterscene (Lombard), no. 3, Fall 1994.
Ray, F.O., "The Hammer Factory," in Midnight Marquee (Baltimore), no. 47, Summer 1994.
Brunas, M., in Midnight Marquee (Baltimore), no. 49, Summer 1995.
Fischer, D., " Colossus/Silent Running ," in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), no. 8, 1997.
Thornton, S., "Barbara Shelley," in Midnight Marquee (Baltimore), no. 54, Summer 1997.
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Many consider Terence Fisher's Dracula to be the director's finest film. It is certainly Fisher's most visible work, but it is unfortunate that its fame obscures the many other excellent films which he created in his lifetime. It does seem that in reviving the Gothic tradition in Britain, Fisher found a comfortable niche for himself with both the public and Hammer. Dracula (1958) is just one of a series of excellent Gothic romances Fisher made during Hammer's "Golden Age" (roughly 1957–65). As late as 1967, Fisher showed that he was capable of first-rate work with The Devil Rides Out. There is no question that he was the finest director working for Hammer during this period, but there is also no question that his current high critical reputation has been long in coming. The reason for this is simple: horror films have always been considered on the fringe of respectable cinematic discourse, because they push the limits of graphic representation.
When Dracula first appeared, the reviews in the popular press were almost uniformly negative, despite the great popular acclaim the film received. Hammer, for their part, did little to discourage any sort of publicity, and took the bad reviews in stride. As long as the film made money, Hammer was satisfied. Fisher's earlier films for Rank were simply ignored, and he was considered by most to be simply a commercial director with no personal investment in the films he created. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Dracula is more than a stylish, rapidly paced redaction of Bram Stoker's novel; it is a film which explores and explodes the surface of Victorian society, using Dracula as a metaphor for the release of sexual urges which had long been repressed or sublimated. Dracula is also seen by Fisher as a parable of righteousness against the attraction of evil; although Dracula enslaves his victims, Fisher shows that there is considerable allure in the life of the undead. Those who fall under Dracula's spell are addicted to vampirism, as one is addicted to drugs; the power of free will alone cannot save the newly recruited vampires. If Dracula is "evil incarnate," as Fisher insisted he was on several occasions, the scholar/scientist represented by Cushing's Van Helsing is at once a redemptive figure who combines in equal parts faith and knowledge, with respect for the separate powers inherent in each. Lee's Dracula is a radical departure from the role as interpreted by Bela Lugosi; for the first time, Dracula is seen as a figure of sexual magnetism, rather than a rapacious animal slavering for blood alone. Fisher's Dracula is an aristocrat first, who hides his rupture with society beneath precisely clipped speech and elegant manners. It is only the night which liberates Dracula's other personality, based entirely on need, addiction, and the use and abandonment of others as mere vessels of momentary satisfaction.
What makes Dracula all the more remarkable is the precise assurance with which Fisher handles his camera. The opening of the film, detailing Jonathan Harker's abortive trip to rid the world of Dracula, is framed within the confines of a diary narrative. Yet the device of the diary notebook is never allowed to slow down the film; rather, Harker comes face to face with castle Dracula in the first seven shots of the film, placing him in immediate jeopardy. Fisher stages Harker's entry into the castle in smooth, contemplative tracking shots, mirroring the ease with which Dracula moves about his domain. When Dracula himself does appear, in a shot which has become justly famous, he is framed in silhouette at the top of a long staircase, which he noiselessly descends. Demonstrating his characteristic economy, Fisher holds on the shot until Dracula walks directly to the camera and addresses it in the first person (the shot is from Harker's point-of-view), dominating the frame. One must remember that, after early work as a clapper boy, magazine loader, and third assistant director, Fisher spent most of his time in the cutting room, working on many of the most important British films of the early 1940s. This precision in editorial construction thus comes from a thorough understanding of the uses and abuses of camera coverage, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Fisher shot very little more than he needed, although he never story-boarded a film in the Hitchcock manner. Jack Asher's cinematography creates a world of blues, reds, and greens, which punctuate rather than dominate Fisher's compositions.
In addition, Asher's lighting locates the actors within the confines of the set as figures fixed in stygian gloom, illuminated by shafts of light from above or from the side, but never bathed in light. This makes the final sequence in the library all the more effective, as Van Hesling runs down the refectory table, rips the curtains from the window, grabs two candlesticks to form a hastily improvised cross, and, with a combination of light and faith, sends Dracula to his doom. We realize during this climactic scene that we have been living in a world of night, or twilight, a world entirely under the control of Dracula, for most of the film. It is the light we all share, and the light of faith: these forces alone will account for our salvation. Asher's gloomy, moody lighting during the main body of the film reinforces this, and works in perfect harmony with the over-dressed, claustrophobic sets of Bernard Robinson.
The role of Dracula made Christopher Lee a star, and Peter Cushing made an indelible mark as Van Helsing, but both continued to work outside the horror genre. Fisher, however, was typecast as a horror director, and a Hammer director, and made few attempts to break away from this public perception of his work. In part this was because Fisher enjoyed making Gothics; he believed in the films he made, and spent a great deal of time and care with them, within the confines of the time and budgetary constraints imposed by Hammer.
Nevertheless, Fisher's work there, using the services of Hammer's excellent technical staff and superlative stable of character and lead actors, revitalized, transformed, and re-created the horror film for an entire new generation of viewers, who enthusiastically enjoyed Fisher's work while their elders denigrated it in favor of the Universal expressionist Gothics of the 1930s and 1940s. It is now clear that Fisher was simply ahead of his time, and the degree of graphic violence which pervades his horror films was simply a response to the needs of the viewing audience for greater generic realism. Fisher's work stands as one of the signal achievements of the British cinema, and paved the way for the next cycle of horror films, which would start with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead , a film shot through with a pessimistic spirit Fisher would never have allowed to inhabit his films. Though the battle may be vigorous and hazardous in Fisher's films, good, being infinite, will inevitably triumph over the finite evil of Dracula and his minions. Some see this as a structural weakness in Fisher's vision; if so, it is a weakness shared by Britain's two greatest Gothic writers, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.
—Wheeler Winston Dixon