Hammer's first vampire film is both a radical upgrade and heavy compacting of the plotting and vampire lore in Bram Stoker's original novel, but the greatest changes for fifties audiences was the switcheroo from black & white to blazing Eastmancolor, a heavy dose of blood, and Christopher Lee portraying Dracula as a slender, fast-moving and sexually aggressive bloodsucker.
Jonathan Harker is no longer a realtor's aide but a partner of Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), pretending to be a librarian to gain access to Dracula's castle, his confidence, and eventually ram a stake through the vampire's heart. No explanation is given for Harker's awareness of Dracula's roots and bad habits, but when Harker fails his task, Van Helsing travels to the castle, and arrives too late - missing the vampire's exit and journey to Harker's 'central European' hometown where Dracula has already started sucking the life from Harker's pretty (and mentally vapid) girlfriend Mina.
When Van Helsing returns home, he attempts to save Mina from the evil count, and then does extra duty for Mina's sister-in-law, ultimately leading to a showdown with the count just as the sun is about to rise.
Hammer's changes to the vampire myth are significant: Dracula is much more sexual (particularly with veiny bloodshot contact lenses used to hypnotize victims), the castle and Harker's home town are on the same continent, and Harker's first encounter at the castle isn't Dracula but a lone concubine (instead of the three present in the novel).
Jimmy Sangster's script is very economical, but the dialogue is often just functional, with Lee and Cushing being the only thespians ably rising above the mundane. The cast have ridiculously perfect English elocution, with not a commoner's accent in sight, but Cushing manages to survive the snotty demeanor, even when he utters "evil" as "Eee-ah-vill!"
The time period seems to rest around the turn of the century where technology is making inroads at various economic levels: Van Helsing uses blood transfusion technology, a metal disc music box is spun at the inn near the castle, and more interestingly Van Helsing uses a wax cylinder recorder as a Dictaphone. (His ideas on vampires are hysterically facile: "Sunlight fatal. Repeat: FATAL!")
Most of the sets feel authentic, but there are some odd little details that are perhaps circa 1958. Among the bottles of booze at the inn one can make out Gordon's gin and Grand Marnier with fifties labeling, and the reception hall of Dracula's castle looks like a big stage with spartan details including a blue game show curtain, a skeletal arch seemingly leftover from an Ali Baba fantasy film, and red and gold floral wallpaper from a fifties romance. Jack Asher's cinematography does recreate the warm amber hues of oil lamps and candles, but the set paint and lighting gels are sometimes classic fifties lime green and turquoise.
What's important is how Hammer was able to upgrade the creaky vampire film and eclipse the rather stilted, theatrical portrayal of Bela Lugosi with a rich colour palette and significant narrative changes, freeing filmmakers to have fun with Stoker's tale, and paving the way for further tales of Dracula (which Hammer certain produced to the very end).
Warner Home Video's transfer is fine, but there's noticeable video compression, and it's clear the Hammer films are starting to need proper HD upgrades. The colour saturations alone would benefit from a fresh 1080p transfer, as well as James Bernard's classic score getting the uncompressed HD treatment.
The DVD's extras include a trailer and text menus, but should WHV choose to revisit the title (or license it to another label), there should be a historian commentary track, and perhaps an isolated score track for Bernard fans.
This Warner Bros title is also available as part of the Hammer Collection that includes The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Horror Of Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) and Taste The Blood Of Dracula (1970). The 2010 TCM set repackages all but the last two titles in a budget-priced set.
© 2002 & 2011 Mark R. Hasan