Release Date(s)1958 (December 18, 2018)
Studio(s)Hammer Film Productions/Universal-International (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: D-
Horror of Dracula (aka Dracula for readers in the U.K.) gave Hammer Films newfound success and a new screen persona for them to take advantage of for a number of sequels. It's also inarguably Christopher Lee’s most recognizable role. His portrayal of the evil Count was the first time since Bela Lugosi that an actor became synonymous with the role, paving the way for others like Frank Langella and Gary Oldman to follow. Using Bram Stoker’s original novel as a springboard, the story was tweaked to make it less of a gothic horror romance and more of a straight suspense thriller.
In it, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) pays a visit to Count Dracula under the guise of becoming his new librarian, but when he suddenly disappears, his partner Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) begins an investigation. Meanwhile, the Count has set his sights on Harker’s loved ones, including his fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh), her brother Arthur (Michael Gough), and her sister-in-law Mina (Melissa Stribling). It’s now up to Van Helsing to convince them that they are being pursued by agents of darkness and destroy Dracula once and for all.
Horror of Dracula for me ranks very highly amongst other Dracula films. I personally believe that the changes made to the original Bram Stoker novel are definite improvements when translating them to the screen. While I admire the stylistic approach that Francis Ford Coppola would later make with his adaptation many years later, Horror of Dracula is entirely about the eradication of Count Dracula and his dark minions. It’s what makes Lee’s portrayal of the character all the more menacing. He’s an out and out villain and not a misunderstood creature of darkness.
On the other hand is the methodical Dr. Van Helsing, played to sheer perfection by Peter Cushing. Both he and Lee are actors in their prime and totally flipped sides of the same coin. Their battle at the end is one of the most enthralling set pieces of any vampire film, Dracula or otherwise. Cushing’s energetic jumps across the dining room table to retrieve two candlesticks in order to make a makeshift crucifix in order to subdue Lee is still thrilling, and all the more reason to continue to appreciate the film sixty years after its initial release.
Warner Archive’s U.S. Blu-ray debut of Horror of Dracula features a transfer sourced from the 2007 B.F.I. restoration of the film, which carries the title Dracula. It was previously released in the U.K. by Lionsgate and judging from screengrabs, it appears that the biggest difference between the two is the color timing, which leans more towards the palette seen on previous U.S. DVD releases. It’s certainly stable, clean, and organic in appearance, but detail is lacking a bit and there’s an overall softness. Blacks are deep with inherent crush while skin tones appear fairly accurate. For the audio, an English 2.0 mono DTS-HD track is provided with optional subtitles in English SDH. There’s good dialogue and score reproduction, but hiss and crackle are prevalent, though not overburdening. There are no dropouts and the separation of the elements limits distortion. Obviously, I don’t have the U.K. Blu-ray release in hand to do a proper comparison, but when I do, I may update this review a bit to reflect that. After all, seeing it in motion is always better than comparing stills.
What I can say for certain is that one of the biggest disappointments is the lack of supplements on this release. Only a scan of the original U.K. theatrical trailer in HD from a battered print with the title Dracula has been incorporated (though not unappreciated). The Lionsgate and Anolis German Blu-ray releases included both the 2007 BFI and the 2012 Hammer restorations of the film, as well as an audio commentary with Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and film critic/actor Jonathan Rigby; another audio commentary with Dr. Rolf Giesen, Uwe Sommerlad, and Volker Kronz; Dracula Reborn: The Making of a Hammer Classic documentary; a Resurrecting Dracula featurette; The Demon Lover: Christopher Frayling on Dracula featurette; a Censoring Dracula featurette; a set of unrestored Japanese film reels from the lost longer version of the film; The World of Hammer: Dracula & The Undead TV episode; a Janina Faye Reads Stoker featurette; several image galleries; the U.S. and German trailers; the 1996 German Super-8 version; a set of German premiere and re-issue ads; a set of French ads; a German film program; and a booklet by Hammer archivist Robert J. E. Simpson and the film’s original shooting script, both available as PDF files via DVD-ROM. To say the least, that’s a substantial amount of missing material, and it’s truly a pity that none of it could be ported over.
As for the film itself, it’s a wonderful combination of elements, including its actors, story, and style. While I enjoy the sequels that followed to lesser degrees, the original film is the purest and simplest in its approach. There’s nothing pretentious or silly about it, and it’s one of the most effective adaptations of Dracula to date. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray release leaves a lot to be desired, but for those unwilling to go Region Free and import the U.K. Blu-ray release, it’s nice to at least have the option. I have a feeling this won’t be the last time we’ll be seeing the film in high definition, but for now, it’s a nice stop in the road.
– Tim Salmons