The first Dracula film is just about the best thing I have ever done for Hammer and it still looks like a very successful film. Everything seemed to hang together for once during the shooting...
How times had changed. When Hammer's Dracula arrived in 1958, Todd Browning's 1931 film of Bram Stoker's novel, a seminal moment in Horror Cinema to be sure, creaked and groaned in comparison with Terence Fisher's fresh and exciting adaptation. A flagging Universal distributed the film in the US and regained significant ground with the substantial profits from the film, in return giving their British partners the rights to their roster of Horror properties. More Frankenstein and Dracula films would follow as well as The Curse of the Werewolf and The Phantom of the Opera. And the rest as they say, is Hammer history.
Christopher Lee has been famously critical of Hammer's approach to Stoker's novel, and while Jimmy Sanger's screenplay is less than faithful to the source material, a huge part of the film's success is the boldness of the adaptation, Hammer's condensing of the book (a practical decision to accommodate the limited funds available to the studio) simply makes for great cinema. Sangster juggles various ideas and episodes from Stoker's novel with some getting shelved away while other elements appear in altered form, like the marvellous moment where Jonathan Harker reveals his true intentions at Castle Dracula ("With God's help I will forever end this man's reign of terror"). Sangster also removed some of the more fantastic elements of Stoker novel, as in a scene where Peter Cushing's Van Helsing mentions that the vampire's ability to shape shift into a bat or wolf is pure fiction.
Terence Fisher's direction is as urgent as the opening lines delivered by Christopher Lee. Right from the credits overlaid against an eerie tracking shot around the entrance of Dracula's resting place, the film grabs the attention. An early draft of the screenplay had been submitted to the BBFC who nixed some of the more overtly sexual elements of Sangster's adaptation but Fisher remained determined to explore the Count's sexuality and the director still managed to import this aspect of the character into the film, albeit with sly subtlety - for instance, the scene set the morning following Mina's nocturnal visit from Dracula, actress Melissa Stribling gives a smile suggesting that her character has just enjoyed a night of great sex. This element of the film, the Count's lust for flesh as well as blood is Hammer's most significant contribution to Vampire Cinema and has reverberated through the mythology ever since.
Performances in the film are excellent across the board, but it's the two leads that steer the film towards greatness. Peter Cushing is tremendous as Professor Van Helsing with his impeccable manners and gracious style, while still able to roll up his shirt sleeves when the moment calls for it, like the climax of the film where Van Hellsing destroys the Count, diving off a table, clutching two candlesticks together in the shape of a crucifix. Christopher Lee, emerging out of the monster makeup of Curse of Frankenstein, is superb and once seen gliding down the staircase in the opening sequence becomes the quintessential Count Dracula (so much so that his absence from Brides of Dracula is sorely felt). Aside from a few lines in his entrance scene, Lee never speaks which actually works in the character's favour, making him even more sinister and otherworldly. It's only a shame that he has relatively little screen time.
Warner's 2002 DVD of Dracula (issued under the original US release title Horror of Dracula) is decent enough, the 1.78 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks sharp and colorful (which the screenshots I selected above don't do justice to), but is let down by some tight framing, lopping off some breathing space at the top of the picture - the film would probably look better at 1.66. At least the film is now fully uncut, with the shot of some bubbling gore when Lucy is staked, reinstated, and Dracula's disintegration scene is now completely intact. For the mono soundtrack, James Bernard's score can sound a little thinny and shrill but otherwise is absolutely fine and dialogue is clear. A theatrical trailer is offered as an extra. Considering the marvellous treatment Warners have bestowed upon the studio classics, like the stellar Blu-Ray editions of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Searchers, it's scandalous that Hammer's masterpiece has been largely ignored.