Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Melissa Stribling, Michael Gough
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
"The Horror of Dracula" starts out looking like a straight adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, but ten minutes in, the film takes a hard left when its revealed that Jonathan Harker has come to Castle Dracula not as a hapless victim but as an agent of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing and that Harker is fully aware of Dracula's true nature.
But it all works, because when Van Helsing appears on screen (played by the late, great Peter Cushing), we get a different interpretation of him than offered in Stoker's novel, and a different spin on vampirism as well. In the Hammer version, Dracula is devoted to spreading a cult of undeath that consists not only of vampires but of human minions who thirst for everlasting life and who are committed to turning the world into a cesspool of evil and corruption. Van Helsing is a man both of action and letters who is the center of a network of brave men and women who have dedicated themselves to eradicating this sinister evil, which, by the close of the 19th century, is viewed as so much superstitious poppycock.
As "Horror of Dracula" unfolds, Dracula claims Mina and Lucy as victims, mostly because he wants to take revenge against Harker and Van Helsing for being pains in his rear... but this vindictive streak becomes his downfall, as Van Helsing penetrates Dracula's lair and confronts him in one of the neatest climaxes of any of Hammer's Dracula films.
While Cushing's energetic, action-hero Van Helsing is a sharp departure from how the character comes across in Stoker's novel, the Dracula in this and subsequent films in what I designate as the "Van Helsing Papers" is truer to Stoker's portrayal of him than any other film version I've come across. He's not the incongruously eveningwear-sporting-but-decaying-castle-dwelling Bela Lugosi, nor is he the pathetic whiner that Gary Oldman portrayed in so so-very-inaccurately named "Bram Stoker's Dracula"... no, the Lee Dracula is a blood-thirsty monster who preys on the life and emotions of the living. He is a strange and alien fearsome outsider, just as Stoker wrote him.
It's over 50 years since "Horror of Dracula" was released, yet it's still a an exciting item to pop in the VCR or DVD player when you're looking for a chilling, adventuresome diversion.