After the overwhelming success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Studios decided that if horror was what the people wanted, horror is what they would receive. So Hammer started setting out to put their mark on all the classic horror series and up next was the most classic of them all Dracula!
The story opens with a man named Jonathan Harker arriving at Castle Dracula, under the guise of a librarian who had accepted the position of cataloging the Count's library. In reality Harker is an associate of Dr. Van Helsing and believes Dracula to be the leader of a malicious cult of vampirism. Unfortunately Harker is unsuccessful in his attempt to kill Dracula, he stakes one of Dracula's brides only to find himself to soon be slain. Shortly after Van Helsing travels to Transylvania in search of his colleague only to find his corpse and evidence that Dracula has left to ensnare Harker's fiancee, Lucy. When Van Helsing returns to see Lucy he discovers he's almost too late, Dracula has already begun the process of turning Lucy into a creature of the night and he has very little time to save her and destroy Dracula before his reign of terror continues.
Horror of Dracula sees the return of some very familiar faces from Hammer's first horror installment. Peter Cushing (Van Helsing), Christopher Lee (Dracula) and Valerie Gaunt (Dracula's bride) all had major roles in Hammer's first horror success, The Curse of Frankenstein. Horror of Dracula is thought by many to be Hammer's greatest film and one of the finest Gothic fantasies ever made. A large part of this is thought to be due to the performance and presence Christopher Lee gives as Dracula. Ironically, Lee only has a combined onscreen time of 8 minutes with very few lines, yet his presence in this film is still thought of as one of the best performances of the character.
It was at this point in the late 50's that films such as The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula were thought of as pushing the envelope in terms of on screen violence and gore. While loved by moviegoers, Horror of Dracula did not receive such a warm welcome by many of the critics who found the film "sadistic" and "disgusting", such comments which seem quite ridiculous today, considering what the horror genre has transformed into, Horror of Dracula would be considered extraordinarily tame. But for it's time this and most of Hammer's horror films were ahead of their time, and even thought to be responsible for expanding what eventually began to be acceptable on screen. Horror of Dracula set new standards in Japan, it's suggested that early Japanese prints of Hammer horrors were more violent than those seen anywhere else. The book Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography stated that:
Pictures like Ian Fleming's Dr. No, (1962) might not have been made without Hammer's challenging what was permissible on the screen. This challenge may have led to more bad films than good, but this is not Hammer's fault.
For me Horror of Dracula was more satisfying than Hammer's first attempt at horror with The Curse of Frankenstein. In comparison Horror of Dracula is definitely a darker and more gruesome film which focuses more on the monster than it does the man, which was the opposite with The Curse of Frankenstein. In a sense it's ironic I say that when Dracula is rarely physically on screen, but even in his absence the writers managed do a great job of making his presence felt, whether it be through a gust of wind, or simply the film's creepy soundtrack. Most importantly Horror of Dracula doesn't attempt to be a saga, it's a simplified and to the point film adaptation of the book, unlike Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula which put me to sleep, and Hammer's short, low budget production makes the story much more satisfying and realistic than any overblown blockbuster could have been.
So is Horror of Dracula the best Hammer film ever made? Truthfully I don't know, since I've only yet to see a handful of Hammer films, but I can say it's not my favorite. I think there's many aspects where Horror of Dracula could have definitely improved and more than 8 minutes of Dracula wouldn't have been a bad place to start. While I agree Christopher Lee does a fantastic job with what little screen time he has, I think it's a little foolish to suggest his 8 minutes is a large reason why this film should be considered one of Hammer's best. Personally I think this title is simply placed on the maiden Hammer horrors due to the fact they launched the success of Hammer's horror franchise and broke some boundaries for film in general. Therefore I believe much of the praise they receives comes more for what they represent, and not necessarily what they present. Still Horror of Dracula is worth a look, while not my favorite Hammer horror it's still a highly recommended view.