Surprisingly poor. It's worth a watch if only for its historical significance, but a cast that should have been wonderful somehow comes out stiff and flat. I was shocked to see that this came out after Hammer's Frankenstein, since that's a far more accomplished horror film and I'd been assuming that this was simply a weak first effort. It can't hold a candle to Universal's 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, which was incidentally still playing in American cinemas when this came out. Hence the title change to Horror of Dracula, to avoid confusion.
The problem is the acting. Universal caught lightning in a bottle with that extraordinary ensemble performance, surely the finest to date in the horror genre, but the acting in the Hammer version is a bit rubbish. Starting with the title role, Christopher Lee brings nothing to the role but his height. He only gets thirteen lines of dialogue and they're all opposite John Van Eyssen's plank-like Jonathan Harker. Lee has a terrific voice, but they hardly let him use it. In a sense it's unfair to compare Lee and Lugosi, since the latter at the time of filming had already done a lengthy run playing the Count to great acclaim on stage, but ultimately it's what's on screen that matters. Christopher Lee's one and only advantage over Lugosi is his physique, being toweringly tall and in those days also incredibly strong. He's not hulk-like or anything like that, but this man could have snapped you in two and used your spine as a xylophone. However I can't think it would be controversial to say that in this film he's poorly used and doesn't even give you any reason to think that an injustice.
Even Peter Cushing is bad! I couldn't believe it. He's my favourite screen actor, but this isn't the Cushing I love. Michael Gough is the best of the male actors, if you don't count a comedy undertaker cameo, but the only performances I'd call good are those of Melissa Stribling and Carol Marsh as Mina and Lucy. I loved their transformation into bad, bad girls under the influence of Dracula, which was a daringly sexual subtext at the time. Yes, obviously it's in the novel. It was still a surprise to see it on the screen. There's no nudity, this being the 1950s, but there's a fair amount of blood in addition to seeing Christopher Lee getting all these hot women a-swoony. The camera shies away from actual biting, but by the standards of the time this was a video nasty.
Mind you, I always find it odd to see a Dracula killing his victims by degrees over the course of several nights. It's certainly effective. The film comes alive thanks to all these willing victims running to embrace their tall, dark destruction. However apart from direct Bram Stoker adaptations, I can't think of any other films where being vampire-food isn't immediately fatal.
The problem is that it's all so mannered. The Victorian setting was probably a factor in this, although I was surprised to learn halfway through that we weren't in London after all but instead somewhere Germanic. Inschtadt? Karlshtatddt? Somewhere with too many consonants, anyway. The Count's castle is a relatively short journey away from the city where the main characters live and there are no sea voyages involved. It's a shame to lose Stoker's death ship, but it's actually quite a logical change. It lets them bring the castle back into the story at the end, while of course if you think about it there's little reason for Dracula to want to go to England in the first place. Crossing water's a big deal for him. Safer to stay on the Continent and eat Germans.
It's faithful to the book, in its own way. There are plenty of changes, but we open with narration taken straight from Bram Stoker and you can tell they were at least thinking of him. There's no London, of course. No Renfield. They cut short the unfolding horror of Harker's gradual discovery of the truth of Castle Dracula in Act One, which is a shame since that's my favourite part of the book, but I suppose these days the audience would be ahead of you there. From the beginning this Harker knows everything. He's an associate of Van Helsing, which has the advantage of bringing Cushing into the action earlier. As with the Lugosi version, the original novel's rather disjointed plot is pulled together into a more cohesive whole. Unlike that film they manage not to turn the local villagers into a comedy cliche-fest and even retain something that approximates to Stoker's Act Three, with Dracula getting back home for a final confrontation at his castle.
Visually it's nice, though no more. It would have been far more atmospheric in black-and-white, but that's Hammer for you. Costumes, cleavage and technicolour. Apparently this was the first film to give vampires fangs, if you don't count a couple of Mexican and Turkish versions. It does that silly thing of shining light into Dracula's eyes and thinking that's scary, but fortunately only once. On the upside it has the best visualisation I've even seen of a vampire's disintegration. It's a kind of autumn leaves effect and niftier than anything yet created with CGI. What's more, that sequence is even missing a further effects shot! Dracula was to have clawed gouges in his decaying skin, which they did by painting Christopher Lee with red make-up and mortician's wax for him to scrape off with his fingers. There are apparently some surviving photos of this, but it seems that it was judged to have gone a bit far to make it into the film.
There are some "you must be joking" moments. With only thirty seconds to go until sundown (huh?), Harker sneaks into Dracula's crypt and finds two vampires in neighbouring coffins. One is Christopher Lee's Dracula, whereas the other is a pretty young thing played by an actress so terrible that she goes through the other side and almost turns it into a feature. Who would you stake first? Yup, me too. Not Harker. Then later Van Helsing holds back on telling Lucy's relatives the truth until after Dracula's made his final night-time visit and turned her undead. Uh, dude? Mightn't telling them earlier have helped them to take your warnings more seriously? Why does Harker take photos of his loved ones to Castle Dracula if he knows what he's up against? And while I'm nitpicking, can't any of these actors lie still in a coffin? Even the ones who are dead rather than undead can't manage it.
This film can be sinister. I liked Christopher Lee taking a friendly interest in Harker's photos and complimenting him on his fiancee. Naturally on leaving the castle he makes a beeline for her. If I were a vampire, that's what I'd do. Kill the grieving relatives and you'll minimise not only the suffering (if you care about that) but also the chances of some hothead deciding to swear vengeance and hunt you down.
Mind you, it's surprising to see these famous actors looking so young. Fresh-faced, even. Lee looks good on it, but I think I prefer Cushing with some lines on his face.
This film should have been better. It's strong in most respects, but lifeless acting lets it down. At the end of the day it's perfectly acceptable and even a little eerie at times, but there's not much reason to watch it. Dracula adaptations tend to be reasonably faithful, whereas Frankenstein adaptations will vary wildly and there's hardly a single point of connection between the Hammer, Universal and original Shelley versions. I enjoyed this film, but it's a variation on a theme we all know pretty well by now. In fairness though there are far worse vampire films! I've seen this movie called a classic and while I think it has major problems, its strengths and historical significance are enough to make that a label I wouldn't necessarily argue with.