The Archivist #99: HORROR OF DRACULA

Warner Archive serves up the Granddaddy of Hammer’s vampire classics

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

Recently on The Archivist, we’ve looked at two new releases from the UK’s famous Hammer Films Dracula series — Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, two latter entries in the franchise set in contemporary (1970s) London and endowed with a modern style and edginess. Warner Archive has followed up those titles with the original 1958 entry in the series which sits at the other side of the spectrum — a more classically crafted film, set a century earlier, and loosely based on Stoker’s novel.

It was nearly sixty years ago that Hammer released one of their most popular and enduring films: Dracula (retitled Horror of Dracula for distribution in the US), with Christopher Lee as the vampire and Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Van Helsing. The film forged a memorable screen pairing and a franchise that would would continue into 70s, spanning a total of 9 films (though for both narrative and circumstantial reasons, neither Lee nor Cushing appeared in all of them). The film also stars a third notable horror personage, Michael Gough (best known to most as Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman series), as a secondary protagonist.

While many details are changed, the film’s major beats echo that of the novel — realty solicitor Jonathan Harker visits the home of a foreign client, Count Dracula, in order to help him secure an estate in London. The vampire imprisons his guest, makes the move to England, and begins to prey upon the denizens of his new home — starting with Harker’s fiance Lucy (Carol Marsh), her brother, Arthur Holmwood (Gough), and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling).

If those names sound oddly jumbled, it’s because they are. Many cinematic adaptations of Dracula combine characters together to streamline the narrative, or even arbitrarily switch characters’ names. I don’t mind too much when some secondary characters are removed for economy of story, but Hammer’s Dracula is indeed guilty of some switcheroo nonsense, performing a wife swap (or name swap, depending on your viewpoint) with Lucy and Mina, among other changes.

That said, the biggest crime among Dracula films at large is propping up its eponymous villain as a tragic figure or even romantic lead (ugh, Coppola), and in this respect, Hammer’s depiction makes no false moves. This version of the vampire is as he should be — blasphemous and evil.

Indeed, Lee is one of the most iconic representations of the character — perhaps the most famous character in all of fiction — and it’s not hard to see why. Standing at over 6’4″, he strikes an imposing figure, especially when the bloodlust is upon him — memorably depicted in the films with piercing crimson eyes.

Cushing’s stoic portrayal as the brave Van Helsing bears very little resemblance to the the character of the novel (an endearingly eccentric and paternal Dutchman), but for what it is, it’s an elegant and masterful performance, and his most important key element remains intact: he’s always the cleverest and most resourceful guy in the room.

The biggest missed opportunity here is a sense of de-emphasis of Mina in the narrative, partially because of the star power of the male leads, but also because in this telling, she interacts primarily with supporting character Arthur rather than as a kindred spirit to Van Helsing (arguably the very heart of the novel).

Somewhat lightweight but immensely satisfying as entertainment, Hammer’s Dracula is one of the best adaptations of the tale despite taking a number of liberties with the material. It’s a terrific start to one of England’s most beloved and enduring horror film franchises.

The Package

Fans rejoice! You can finally retire that “4 Film Favorites” DVD set that’s been on your shelf for the last decade. With this release of Horror of Dracula, the films in that set are now all available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros., along with The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

The package is typical of Warner Archive, with a standard Blu-ray case and attractive artwork.

Special Features and Extras

Trailer (2:11)

Parting Thoughts:

Besides the five Dracula films that WB has put out, Brides of Dracula and Dracula: Prince of Darkness are also available on Blu-ray from Universal and Shout! Factory respectively (Brides in a Hammer Horror box set, and Prince also having been released in a now out-of-print edition from Millennium). That leaves only Scars Of Dracula (1970) and The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) remaining to make the jump to Blu in the US. I don’t know who holds these rights, but Scars is available streaming through Lionsgate, and Seven Golden Vampires was released on DVD by Millennium in a triple feature set with Prince, which makes me optimistic that perhaps Shout! Factory may have gotten ahold of it as well. Here’s hoping.

[Update: Literally within an hour of this article going live, Shout! Factory announced the release of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires on Facebook.]

A/V Out.

Further reading:

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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