Director TERENCE FISHER was already well established during the first half of the 50s with his low budget series of Film noir gems, like Stolen face (1952.) or Blackout (1954.), but that success was mild compared to the vast, unknown, addictive reaches the horror genre was going to offer. That was a last call for the DRACULA franchise. It struggled to survive, but everybody knew that they are looking at dead fish in the water. Upon the surprising success of Fisher’s first dip into the horror genre with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957.), the Hammer studio demanded an equally strong follow up, but they didn’t have enough money to raise the stakes. So, due to budgetary reasons the reboot of the DRACULA franchise was going to be different from the get go. By trying to be successful, Fisher and JIMMY SANGSER (screenwriter, Paranoiac) came up with a great idea. Everything you knew about Dracula and vampires in general should be thrown out of the window. Hammer should define the rules anew. And they succeeded! Alas! They created a worldwide phenomenon which entailed the three B’s for the first time in horror history; blood, boobs and balls. It was forbidden, scary, totally creative and completely new. Hailed by many as the best Dracula adaptation to date, it certainly has a lot more to offer than what meets the eye. Many disregard it as a pretty straight forward horror oldie, known only for its historic values, but there are many unanswered questions and many hidden layers tucked between the lines. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Terrence Fisher: ‘Film directing is transferring the written word of the script into visual images. You can follow the context of a film script but add things of your own to it. Sometimes, thank god, you can also leave out a few things that shouldn’t be in, by underplaying them, always within the context of the story.’
THE MYSTERIOUS INTRO
The intro sequence of the movie is very stylized, somehow disconnected from the rest of the movie, because it wants to tell the audience a certain kind of message. The message is:
- There will be blood
- Evil is lurking in the basement
- It will affect you, the audience member
Waller: ‘The three note theme that plays over the credits – with one sustained note followed by two repeated notes is designed in its intonation to mimic the word ‘Dra-cu-la’. While one would not necessarily expect an audience to notice this, it could be argued that the theme does function here as a subliminal reminder of Dracula himself and in this it can be aligned with the stone hawk and the empty tomb as another stand in for his presence.’
The blood that is dripping down on Dracula’s tomb comes out of nowhere, suggesting the blood comes from the audience. With that notion Fisher is breaking the fourth wall, by being aware someone is watching this movie and that this someone is going to have a visit from Dracula. The cellar is functions as a foreshadowing element, which tells us where Dracula will hide, during the film. This intro explains the codeof the whole structure of the movie.
In this version of Dracula many changes happened that left the audience speechless. First of all, the characters are mixed up, the names are still the same, but the connections and relationships are different from the Dracula movies the moviegoers are used to. The whole movie is in Technicolor, with bright lively colors, set in the past and drowned in classic Gothic elements:
- Set in the past
- A Castle
- The motif of the double
- Terror (shadows, fog) and horror (physical shock)
- Fear (something that comes back)
The film is promoting sex as a weapon and Dracula seems like a young active foreign lover. Van Helsing is more into action and is on the verge of being a fanatic and somehow the whole story takes place in foggy towns located in Germany. Funny thing is, today, these elements are the things everybody takes for granted about Dracula, but they were brand new and introduced for the first time inside this Dracula adaptation.
Somewhere in the past before the faithful day on third of May 1885, JONATHAN HARKER (John Van Eyseen) was a nice gentleman, a prestige scholar with an average life. He didn’t think about Vampires or any kind of battle, until he witnessed a crucifixion of a bloodsucker by the hands of Van Helsing. After witnessing such gruesome act, he couldn’t just go on and live his life like nothing has happened. He asked Helsing to train him, to show him the way to defend himself from these creatures. Now, engaged to Lucy Holmwood, he leads a double life as an undercover vampire hunter. Nothing of this is clarified in the movie, but we can assume it went that route, because we see how Arthur Holmwood also didn’t believe until he witnessed Lucy being a Vampire. After that he said to Van Helsing:
‘I’ll do anything you say.’
Harker kept a diary on him at all times, and he wrote everything down; every information he received and everything he witnessed. In the film, only the last two entries are presented to the audience, but when Arthur is reading the diary, he stumbles upon the fact that Dracula is 500, 600 years old. That info is written before he went to Dracula’s Castle. The film begins by opening Harker’s diary and a flashback begins. It is Van Helsing, who is reading Harker’s diary after he got it from the maid INGA (Barbara Archer), inside the tavern in Klausenburg. The question on everybody’s mind is: Why didn’t Harker kill Dracula, when he got the chance? Many judged him wrongly by saying he’s the most incompetent vampire hunter that ever existed. Although not experienced, he did his homework. He stood upon Dracula’s grave, but then he remembered, when killing the source that bit him, he can survive, just as we see at the end of the movie when Helsing destroyed Dracula, the burned cross in Mina’s hand disappeared, telling the audience she returned to a human being again. The only problem was, it took him too long to kill the Vampire woman which led to his demise.
Everybody thought Dracula, with his magnificent entrance, is the most important thing in the movie, but he isn’t. It’s just the overture for VAN HELSING (Peter Cushing). He is the main character. He is first billed! Established as a middle class professional vampire hunter, he is elegant, wise, and ready to help. Hailed, praised and celebrated, Van Helsing is bigger than life, an icon of goodness and knowledge. Except, he isn’t.
Jimmy Sangser: ‘The part was different than the actual Van Helsing part in the book. We made him a much stronger character. He was responsible for everything.’
He is responsible for the fact that Harker fought something that is beyond him and Van Helsing was well aware of who Dracula was. He lead him to certain death.
Van Helsing: ‘I know. The danger is real. If the investigation that Mr. Harker and I are engaged upon is successful, not only you but the whole world will benefit.’
Granted, Harker is younger and it is easier for him to pose as the new librarian, but why wasn’t Van Helsing around the corner to help him with the staking? Harker wasn’t ready, which is evident when he had to stake the Vampire woman. It was his first time, because he was surprised to see what happened to her after the staking. Van Helsing initiated the feud against Dracula and that devoured the lives of Jonathan and Lucy and threatened to destroy the Holmwood family as well. Arthur said it immediately:
‘Whoever you are and whatever your motives, please go and leave us in peace.’
Of course, Helsing is well aware of his wronging; he has a guilty conscience and therefore tries to fix everything by helping Arthur and Mina, but he should have listened to the advice the innkeeper gave him:
‘Some things are best left alone, such as interfering in things which are beyond our powers.’
Van Helsing was really lucky to successfully destroy Dracula and save the Holmwoods, but the innocent victims that died, are gone forever.
For an actor who said a total of thirteen lines and appeared just five minutes on the silver screen, CHRISTOPHER LEE’S DRACULA is the real icon of this picture. He made such an impact with his behavior and unexpected fluent English, moviegoers are still surprised. Although he’s seen in just a few scenes, his character is omnipresent with the use of music and a ghostly presence, when the wind blows by Lucy’s window. Dracula was always a misunderstood creature, in the book, as well as in the movies. In this version, he still personifies evil, but at the same time his revenge streak is somehow justified. Not that he is a goodie-two-shoes now, but it is easier to understand his motives.
Christopher Lee: ‘First of all, he is a noble man, so he must be noble in his physical presence, and impressive. I believe that Dracula was not only mortal, but very much to be pitied. The sadness of a man who would very much like to be free!’
Form Dracula’s perspective, Harker came as a new librarian to his Castle. He closes the door on him during the night, so he doesn’t snoop around the castle; his job is only to categorize the books in his library. In return he gets three meals and accommodation. He is a guest and employee, nothing more, not now anyways. When the Vampire Woman attacks him, Dracula throws him to the side to deal with the woman. Stubborn Harker goes to the woman, but Dracula stops him with his almighty hand grip. He actually helped Harker, by disabling the woman and bringing him back to his room, where he easily had a chance to kill him or turn him into a Vampire himself, but didn’t do it out of respect. Instead, he protected him and what does he get in return? Harker destroys his long afterlife companion.
‘As leading British horror film critique Kim Newman notes, ‘the Count’s actions in the remainder of the film are motivated by revenge’ for Harker stalking of his vampire companion which is why he goes after Harker’s fiancée and sister in law. Newman is correct in pinpointing that this approach puts the Count on the back foot as a villain: undoubtedly evil, he is also someone whose open hospitality is sorely abused by an employee, treated as a guest, who was actually out to kill him!’
After this debacle, Dracula searched every corner of Harker’s room to find information about his nearest and dearest so he can plan a juicy revenge strategy including Harker’s fiancée Lucy Holmwood, which he saw a picture of. The old ‘You took mine, I’ll take yours’ method.
That woman is not to be trusted. She is the companion of Dracula, she lied only to get what she wants, namely Harker’s blood. But is she Dracula’s wife? It’s very possible, because she is old, old as Dracula himself. After Harker staked her, her body turns into a corpse similar to the mummy.
ARTHUR (Michael Gough) is the only character that changes throughout the film. Firstly, he has reservations about Van Helsing and wants him out of his crib, but the audience can witness his jaw drop, after seeing his dead sister walking around the misty cemetery. There is no turning back. He becomes a full-fledged Van Helsing follower and subscriber.
IT ALL BEGUN WITH THE RING
The last shot of the movie is very peculiar. On one hand it shows how the evil is destroyed and that a happy ending will ensue, but on the other hand, a longer shot like this is in the movie for a purpose. It conveys some kind of message. It means something deeper than just ‘The End.‘, it says ‘pay attention, this is important‘.
Why is the RING so important? How did Helsing KNOW about Dracula’s Castle? Why would he SEND an inexperienced guy to destroy a main villain? Was Dracula MARRIED?
Christopher Frayling: ‘Last shot, you see the ring. Dracula’s wedding ring.’
So, Dracula was married. Was he married to the Vampire Woman?
It’s hard to tell. When she’s on screen her left hand is mostly not visible, hiding under a cloth or away from the camera on purpose, thus creating room for interpretation. Exploring further, Arthur Holmwood is married to Mina and he has his ring fairly visible in the shots. Jonathan doesn’t wear a ring, because he is not married yet.
Dracula’s ring is also visible, just as the one of Van Helsing. Wait, what?
Yes, everyone who is married is wearing the wedding ring on the pinkie of the left hand. Van Helsing seems to be married, but there is no Mrs. Van Helsing in sight. That is why Van Helsing has a MOTIVE. He lost his wife, probably to Dracula, and he explains to Arthur:
‘Holmwood, the study of these creatures has been my life’s work.’
He became a fanatic about Vampires and as an act of revenge towards the ones that took his wife; he slays everything that rocks any kind of fangs.
Kant’s doctrine of radical evil – which holds that human beings, as a species, possess an innate propensity to evil.
Assuming Dracula killed his wife, he can’t just walk up to Dracula himself, but he can send someone he trusts to infiltrate the enemy, maybe even do the job instead of him. The teacher and his protégé were carefully planning how and where to kill Dracula. Unfortunately, that’s where things go downhill. Only one moment in the entire film permits the audience to see Van Helsing display any kind of emotion, that moment being Jonathan’s staking. It’s too painful for him so that brutal act happens off screen.
Christopher Frayling: ‘Dracula is a liberating force, but it is a fairy tale about adultery. It’s about adultery and a marriage surviving it.’
This version of Dracula implies more than just a battle of good versus evil; it is a cautionary tale which tells the audience ‘cheating is bad, really bad.’
Christopher Frayling: Terrence Fisher said, you know, the supernatural is not the issue in this film; it’s about how evil finds peoples vulnerabilities and gets under their fingernails. Lucy is desperate to get married so she behaves like an expected bride. Dracula spots that. He also spots that Mina is not working the marriage, the Michel Gough character isn’t giving her what she wants.’
The tall, suave, elegant, mysterious bloodsucker is a metaphor for the libido the women lost in the relationship with their spouses.
Erica L. Spiller: ‘The female character’s quest for autonomy, by replacing the man in their lives with Dracula, was caused by their displeasure with being mere pawns of their controlling husband, father, doctor!’
A COLOR CODE is also embedded inside this film. Since it’s the first Dracula version in color, the color has to have a special meaning.
RED – describes anger, blood, unknown danger and the color represents ‘NO‘
GREEN – is natural, very open and represents ‘YES‘
YELLOW – shiny, bright and represents ‘INNOCENCE‘
BLACK, WHITE AND RED – connected to necrophilia, victims, death and represents ‘UNDEAD‘
CHANGES IN THE MYTHOLOGY
By collecting every piece of information that the movie offers, we get a glimpse of what a Hammer horror Vampire is about. Not only spoken words are crucial, but observing details are important as well. Helsing’s research concludes these facts:
- LIGHT – The Vampire is allergic to light
- GARLIC – Vampires repelled by odor
- CRUCIFIX – Protects the normal human being, but reveals the Vampire
- SHAPE SHIFTING – Common fallacy
- ADDICTION – Vampires are just addicted to blood, it is not essential for their survival
- MARKS – A Vampire marks his victims with two bite wounds on the neck
- TRANSFORMATION – Death of the victim results from loss of blood. This is the pattern: Human gets bitten, develops blood addiction, loses blood, death ensues and rises as the Undead
What else did the movie imply about Vampires? Lucy, as a Vampire, had TELEPATHIC abilities. She called out to TANIA (Janina Faye), from the far out forest, nowhere near the Holmwood mansion.
Tania: ‘I heard you called me, aunt Lucy!’
Furthermore, Lucy knew that Jonathan died, before anyone told her anything. ‘Premonition. It’s not uncommon‘, Van Helsing explained, but in reality, it isn’t. He meant for Vampires, it’s common to have PREMONITION. In addition, Dracula doesn’t shape shift, but…
…he still seems to fly. Dracula kidnapped Mina from the bedroom on the second floor of the mansion and DISAPPEARED through the window, carrying her as he vanished. He couldn’t carry Mina if he transformed into any other being, so it’s more likely that the just flew away or jumped two stories down and ran away. Either possibility reveals a special skill. Did you see or hear anything about the fact that Dracula has to feed on blood in order to stay alive?
The whole film is an exercise in duality:
- TRADITION vs. MODERNITY – Traditionalist approach to marriage opposed to modern views on sexuality
- SUBCONSCIOUS DESIRE vs. CONSCIOUS REPRESSION – Every being has desires, not always clear to the being itself, but repression manifests itself in the real world as a problem
- NARRATIVE vs. METAPHOR – The storyline of Dracula is very easy to comprehend as opposed to figuring out deeper layers and hidden messages and what they mean
Christopher Frayling: ‘This is Dracula’s world, the films seems to say, a world in which nothing is what it seems – not Dracula, not his vampire companion, not even Harker himself!
Bernhard Robinson, the Production Designer, is clearly a genius. When paying better attention to the sets, it becomes evident that every single set is built on the same spot. The wavy columns and the staircase give them away, but thinking about the production, it had to have been pure hell. Shooting out of order, filming every scene necessary inside that set, tearing it down, building another and so on.
Terrence Fisher: ‘He [Bernhard] was uncanny in knowing that your world needs a certain kind of window design or wall or something at a particular place. He would know exactly where a certain action would take place, and he would give you a background which went well with the emotional impact of that scene. He had a great feeling for his work.’
The set was carefully built to convey hidden meanings, just as Christopher Frayling explains:
‘So, the detail of the set is new, it matters.’
In the dining room where Harker awaits Dracula is a crest with the engraved FIDELIS ET MORTES (Faithful in death) on it. That says a lot about the character of Dracula. He created this Castle and inside it are his thoughts and attitudes to life and death. With this crest he tells the audience that he is a traditional thinking creature. He had a wife and he loved her throughout his whole existence, so it makes sense why he goes on a wild rampage to kill everyone connected to Harker, who staked his beloved spouse (possibly his wife). Furthermore, the set design functions as a foreshadowing element inside the story. When Harker steps inside the castle for the first time, he stops at the edge of the steps to have a look around. In this position he is smack in the middle inside one of the three ARCS in the room. One arc on the left side is closed and bears the color red, which represents Dracula who’s out for blood. The next three arcs represent three victims which will die under Dracula’s fangs; first one is Harker, then Lucy and near the end the unfortunate Coach driver. Mina is not dead, Van Helsing saved her.
The sign above the tavern, in which Van Helsing tries to get information about Harker’s whereabouts, shows two keys. These keys indicate that the movie can be interpreted in two different ways, there is the layer of the keys representing a cross, Van Helsing explains ‘a crucifix. Symbolizing the power of good over evil‘, the straightforward element of the movie, his battle against Dracula, which ends on a bright note, but there is a deeper level, the metaphor of the story, the hidden layer. The incident in the tavern explains how Van Helsing is wrong and he ‘shouldn’t interfere in things which are beyond his powers‘.
Many riddles mentioned in this analysis were carefully explained, but the biggest mystery still remains: Why, in heaven’s name, is the movie located in Germany?
This movie is disregarded as a 60’s Hammer horror waste of time that oozes B-movie quality, but although it might seem that way, it has a lot more to offer. The obviously good aren’t just good and the striking evil isn’t just evil. The film is covered with secrets and although it doesn’t beg the spectator to get on a wild discovery, it is great in creating a sense of mystery. During the fight with budget restrictions, lack of actors and locations to shoot on, Fisher and Sangser accidentally created a masterpiece.