After the success of “Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), the film which essentially resurrected the entire horror genre, Hammer Films turned its attention to the next big bad movie monster.
Once again beckoning to the talents of the gruesome twosome of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, when “Horror of Dracula” hit the big screen at the New York premiere on May 8, 1958, Van Helsing and Dracula themselves were in attendance.
It was midnight. A special showing. Most of the audience were show business. Peter and I sat right under the projection booth at the back, and the crowd came in: they were shouting, they all knew each other, they were in high spirits. Someone fired a gun — a blank cartridge — and that got a few people’s attention.
Finally, the lights went down. Along came the credits and there’s the tomb with the name ‘Dracula’, blood smattering on it — and they roared!
At that point, I said to Peter, “I’m leaving. I can’t take this. This is awful.” And Peter said, “No — just stay.”
And this kept going until the famous scene in which Jonathan Harker meets me for this first time, he feels the presence and he turns around and there, at the top of the stairs is this silhouette. I tell you, the place erupted. The roof nearly came off. Perhaps they expected to hear a macabre foreign voice, or see a strange looking person with a green face. I just walked down the staircase and said, “Mr. Harker, I’m glad that you have arrived safely.” And the silence was quite remarkable.
From then on, we had ’em. For the rest of the film, there wasn’t a sound!
In a delightful video clip from Cushing and Lee’s final meeting before Peter’s death in 1994, the two reminisce about attending the premiere, and how it was Lee’s first visit to America.
Lee: The very first time we ever went to America, which was the premiere in New York of the first Dracula movie, we were on television. Now, I’d never been on television in an interview in my whole life. Ever. And so I was a bit nervous about it, to say the least. It was ABC, I think.
So I said to my friend here [gestures to Cushing], I said ‘I’m not used to this sort of thing, I don’t really want to do it. I feel very uncomfortable. I’ve never been to America before, and you have in your youth. So please help me out because I don’t think I’ll be able to cope very well.
So we get in front of the camera and this man says, ‘Mr. Cushing, you’re over here for this and that and the other,’ and I’m sitting there quaking. And he turns round to me and he says, ‘Mr. Lee, this is your first visit to the United States?’ And I opened my mouth to say yes, and my helpmeet and friend said, ‘Well, it’s interesting you should ask that because as a matter of fact, I was here before the war.’ And the man said, ‘Uh, Mr. Lee, how do you feel about this movie that you’re over here to promote?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you…’ [gestures that Cushing interrupts him] ‘Well, it’s interesting you should ask that. As a matter of fact…’ I never got a word in!
And that was the great mistake I made in saying ‘Please, help me out!’
Including “Horror of Dracula” in 1958, Hammer made a total of 9 Dracula films: “Horror of Dracula” (1958), “Brides of Dracula” (1960), “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” (1966), “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” (1968), “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970), “Scars of Dracula” (1970), “Dracula A.D. 1972” (1972), “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973), and “Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires” (1974). 7 starred Lee as the immortal Count, and only 3 of those included Cushing as Van Helsing.
If pushed to pick a favourite Hammer Dracula film, I often cite “Scars of Dracula”. But if I had to choose which I think is the best? I will always say the original, “Horror of Dracula”.
There are no gimmicks. There is no unnecessary violence or gore. It’s simply a well written script, played out by incredible actors operating at the very peak of their careers, all while immersing the viewer in sumptuous costumes and Gothic sets that drip with glorious Technicolor.
Because at the end of the day, what does any vampire fan really want? Dracula, Van Helsing, blood, bats, candles and a creepy castle. And preferably a good staking scene, which “Horror of Dracula” has, just not involving the Count himself.
2018 will be the 60th anniversary of Hammer’s flagship vampire film. And much like its namesake creature, its popularity hasn’t waned with age, and its allure will live on forever.
Until next time, unpleasant dreams . . .
“Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?”
The Mummy (1932)