GODS OF THE HAMMER FILMS 2: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

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(second of a series)

Hammer Films Ltd. knew they were on to something with the release of 1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The Gothic horror was box office gold on both sides of the Atlantic, and Hammer wasted no time finding a follow up. Reuniting CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN costars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with director Terence Fisher, the company set its sights on giving the full Eastmancolor treatment to Bram Stoker’s immortal Count Dracula.

Universal’s 1931 DRACULA, starring the fantastic Bela Lugosi in his most memorable role,  was an adaptation of stage play. This Hammer production remains faithful to Stoker’s novel, albeit in a truncated  version. The story is familiar to all vampire fans: Jonathan Harker arrives at Castle Dracula in Transylvania to slay the Count. He dispatches Dracula’s bride, and is in turn bitten by the evil vampire. Van Helsing shows up at the castle too late, and has to stake his former friend. He tells Harker’s fiancé Lucy and her brother Arthur Holmwood the news. But Dracula has already targeted Lucy as his next victim. When Van Helsing notices the marks on Lucy’s neck, he orders Holmwood to have the windows locked and garlic placed around the room. But a sympathetic maid removes them at Lucy’s request, and she’s found dead the next day. Van Helsing gives Holmwood the diary of Jonathan Harker to read, and he’s stunned by the revelations of vampirism.

When Lucy is spotted in the woods by the maid’s child, Holmwood and Van Helsing go to Lucy’s crypt and discover the body is gone! Lucy lures the little girl into the woods, and Holmwood is almost attacked  by his undead sister. Van Helsing brandishes a cross which burns her flesh, and she is staked by the doctor. The men track down Dracula’s coffin to a mortuary in Ingstadt, but it isn’t there anymore. The Count has taken Holmwood’s wife Mina under his spell, and she’s arranged to bring the coffin to their home. The vampire hunter return to find Mina’s blood spattered body lying in bed. They discover Dracula’s coffin in Holmwood’s basement. Dracula kidnaps Mina and brings her to his castle, with Van Helsing and Holmwood in pursuit. A battle between the good doctor and the evil Count ensues, ending only when Van Helsing leaps and pulls down the drapery, letting the sunlight in and destroying the vampire in a gruesome climax.

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Christopher Lee’s snarling, beastial Dracula is completely different from Lugosi’s suave continental charmer. This Dracula doesn’t pretend to be anything but was he his, the embodiment of pure evil. Lee is sexy and seductive in a satanic way, and he dominates every scene he’s in. It’s hard for me to choose between Lugosi and Lee as the Count, so I’ll just say I enjoyed both actor’s interpretations. Lugosi only played Dracula onscreen twice, while Lee donned the cloak a total of nine times. .

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Peter Cushing is an athletic Van Helsing. Though Cushing is best remembered for his six turns as Baron Frankenstein, he played Van Helsing to Lee’s Dracula twice more (and in two without Lee, BRIDES OF DRACULA and the horror/kung-fu hybrid LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). Michael Gough (Holmwood) starred in a few fright fests of his own (BLACK ZOO, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM), later gaining fame for his portrayal of Alfred in BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK NIGHT. Melissa Stribling (Mina) and Carol Marsh (Lucy) both make fine heroine/victims. Let’s not forget director Terence Fisher, who keeps things moving and doesn’t spare the blood.  Fisher was responsible for much of Hammer’s early horror output and his contributions deserve recognition.

If you’re someone whose vampire watching is confined to lame ass TWILIGHT movies, take the time to rediscover HORROR OF DRACULA and the other Hammer horrors. Once you’ve seen Christopher Lee, you’ll forget all about Edward, or whatever his name is, I guarantee.

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