It was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to able to watch the very first of Christopher Lee’s Dracula movies from Hammer Films in a real movie theater, with a restored print no less. It’s not that often that you are given the opportunity to indulge something this classic in the appropriate surroundings in a proper cinema.
I’m not sure why exactly, but I had kinda foolishly gone and assumed this wasn’t going to be a direct Bram Stoker adaptation, which it turned out to be, and would have had a completely original story. It doesn’t really matter but I have to admit, some of liberties taken with the source material of Stroker’s Dracula are a bit mystifying at times. Without any type of prologue or foreshadowing, the movie simply begins with Jonathan Harker traveling to castle Dracula, to kill Dracula. Yes, apparently Harker somehow just knew Dracula was a vampire and specifically engineered a plan to be hired as Dracula’s librarian so that he could go and execute the good count during daylight. It’s never explained just how Jonathan became aware of Dracula or why Harker is passionate enough to go on such a dangerous mission alone. It was really puzzling what the logic here was meant to be. Sure, it gives a great opening hook to the movie when you learn Harker’s true intentions (and discover the first of many departures from the original novel) but it never really gets expanded properly how it all came about. It’s not a major plot hole but it is odd.
And then we get to the next strange plot point which introduces van Helsing to the story: he only appears near castle Dracula in the nearby inn because Harker sent him a letter from there and he’s for whatever reason decided come to look for him, being deeply puzzled by everything, meaning van Helsing clearly wasn’t in on the plan to kill Dracula. It just feels so convoluted way to introduce him when he could have more organically just been nearby as Harker’s back up.
As its ow thing the movie is alright. It’s admittedly a bit slow in the middle once the focus shifts entirely on Peter Cushings’ van Helsing dicking around and looking for Dracula, but there is thankfully enough stuff happening in the margins to keep you suitably entertained. It’s pretty clear Cushing was the main focus and draw planned for the picture and hence he gets a ton of screen time being dramatic without the story really moving forward much. The ending climax thankfully picks up the pace considerably and manages to deliver one hectic finale. The last, I don’t know, fifteen minutes or so, are simply amazing. It’s a constant stream of frantic action and Dracula’s demise is incredible, especially when you realize how hamfisted and hastily done and speeded up it feels. There’s no proper dramatic build up, Dracula just gets incinerated by daylight after a small tussle with van Helsing. But somehow it just works. The old school special effects showing Dracula’s body crumbling and withering away as the sunlight destroys him at the very least has to get part of the glory because the effects are so marvelous looking. It’s not particularly outlandish but it is very nice looking and effective.
The only real flaw, if you can count it as such, with the movie is the lack of Christopher Lee. It is his first outing as Count Dracula, so understandably he’s not the main attraction yet, explaining why he’s so criminally underused. You find yourself repeatedly wishing he’d get more focus, because while he has very little material to work with, Lee alreafy has incredible charisma and stage presence that it’s so much fun whenever he graces the viewer with his presence on the screen. It’s no wonder he became such a big deal in this role and made so many Dracula films for Hammer, he practically shines in every scene he is in. It’s one of those magical performances where you just instantly recognize stardom in the making. You might even say he outright dominated the screen with his gigantic stature.