By 1958, American movie studios had largely gravitated away from the classic monsters that ruled the horror genre in the ’30s and ’40s. Until slashers became dominant in the late 1970s, American horror merged in elements of sci-fi, and plucky young heroes battled aliens and nuclear mutants instead of the supernatural, for the most part. Across the pond, however, the classic monsters had a bit of a renaissance. Hammer Studios picked up Frankenstein, the Mummy, and, of course, Count Dracula.
I’ve recently completed watching all of the Christopher Lee-starring Hammer Dracula movies. They vary in quality from 1958’s Horror of Dracula, which is a brilliantly directed and flawlessly acted new take on the character, to 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, which is none of those things. Hammer, like Universal before it, got into a wonderful groove of churning out sequels for progressively smaller investments. In the fifteen years between Horror and Satanic Rites, production values plummeted, and one can only speculate that box office revenue responded in kind.
My primary takeaway from watching all of these movies had nothing to do with Hammer’s diminishing returns, however, but Dracula’s. Every sequel follows the same basic formula: Dracula is resurrected in some convoluted way; he wreaks terror on nearby humans; he dies. Spoiler alert, I guess. Christopher Lee approaches the character with the same verve, class, and hypnotically power voice in each of his seven outings with Hammer. When we first meet the Count in Horror of Dracula, he sports a kind of terrifying dignity that you can only earn through centuries of bloodletting. He’s rewarded with a really good death scene. Though Lee approaches the character with dignity each time, Dracula’s subsequent deaths, well, they’re not all good. To the point where one might question why he bothers to come back to life each time. Let’s consider this from his point of view.
I’m about to spend a ridiculously long time and, yes, multiple articles delving needlessly into each of Dracula’s demises. You have been warned.
1. I’ll See You in Helsing or Angels (Van Hel)sing Thee to Thy Rest
Horror of Dracula (1958)
Count Dracula has exerted his evil vampiric rule over the hapless neighboring peasants for centuries. He’s got a good thing going here. Tons of free blood, undead wives, obedient servants, a gothic castle, and magic powers to boot. Then one day along comes some swaggering hot-shot young would-be vampire-slayer named Jonathan Harker. Dracula kills him easily (twist!), but it’s the principle of the thing. You can’t have monster slayers bungling about the castle grounds all the time. So, he decides to hunt down Harker’s family to teach them a thing or two before resuming his routine.
The problem? One Dr. Van Helsing. Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is without a doubt the best monster hunter ever put to screen. He plays the role with wit, dignity, intellect, and sincerity, in what can only honestly be described as an Oscar-worthy performance. There’s no shame in getting killed by him. He’s so cool. Dracula had a good thing going for a while, but it’s over now, and he was finally bested by someone who genuinely earned the victory.
Killer: Greatest cinematic monster-hunter of all time.
Time spent alive (undead): Probably centuries.
Movie title bonus points: 5/10, fairly innocuous monster movie title.
Death: 10/10, would recommend, would die again.
2. Goodnight, Sweet Prince of Darkness
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
In 1960, two years after Horror, Cushing returns in The Brides of Dracula, to take care of a few other vampires, though Christopher Lee is absent. Lee doesn’t reprise the role and return from the grave until ’66, but we are, sadly, without Cushing’s Van Helsing now until 1972. Despite Cushing’s absence, Prince of Darkness is still a pretty good movie, as it sees the return of Horror and Brides director Terence Fisher. He was Hammer’s best director by far. They made some good movies without him, but Fisher brought a visual flare and macabre, gothic sense of pace and framing that lifted his films far above their contemporaries. Unfortunately, this was his last contribution to the franchise.
Set ten years after the events of Horror of Dracula, this outing sees a quartet of English tourists marooned at Castle Dracula while en route to their destination. A mysterious servant at the castle welcomes them, but his hospitality quickly turns murderous. Using the blood of his victim on the ashes of his vampiric master, he’s able to resurrect Count Dracula, who gets back to his usual business.
His reign of terror never really gets off the ground this time. Back for only a short time and only able to turn one person into a vampire, he’s done in while trying to make a quick getaway from an abbey where the pesky humans dared fight against him. The kind-of-cool Father Sandor (Andrew Weir) gets the killing blow, shooting the ice of a frozen river Dracula is standing on, plunging the vampire into its running waters (that’s something vampires don’t like).
Killer: Father Sandor, a surly vampire expert who knows his stuff, so overall not bad for Dracula.
Time spent alive (undead): Gosh, maybe a day? Two? He doesn’t get much.
Movie title bonus points: 6/10, decent title. It’s pretty cool, if obvious.
Death: 6/10, nothing wrong with the killer, nothing wrong with the direction, nothing wrong with the execution. It’s just missing that little something special.
Right. That’s 2/7 Christopher Lee-starring Hammer Horror Dracula movies and I’m at about 800 words. This is what everyone wanted this Octoberween. Tune in next week for further of analysis of Dracula’s diminishing returns on life and death!