“If you look over there you can see the sun coming up.”
Hammer Films was a London-based film studio that dominated the international horror landscape for decades. They had big hits that weren’t vampire related, but it was their series of gothic, increasingly sexualized vampire movies that had the biggest impact on pop culture. Their films didn’t just influence future vampire movies, but future films in general, especially horror (unsurprisingly).
One large influence was that Hammer continually pushed the envelope in terms of what sorts of things were shown on the big screen. They found ways to show you what was happening, instead of merely implying it through reaction shots to the more violent moments.
For example, my favorite moment in Dracula… **I’m going to say spoiler alert, just in case, but this particular part of Dracula probably shouldn’t be a surprise.**
Still with me? Okay, my favorite moment was Dracula’s death by exposure to sunlight. It was impressively explicit for its time.
Dracula was the first of their vampire series, retitled The Horror of Dracula in the US because of the fear that Americans are kind of dumb and would confuse the new film with the Bela Lugosi version released 27 years earlier.
This movie certainly has its silly bits, oh so many silly bits. Many of the bad bits were a product of the time the movie was made, but they were nonetheless distracting for me. To name a few: awkward or ham-fisted acting by many of the supporting cast, wooden blocking, and way too many moments where the story was moved forward by having a character sit and write thoughtfully while narrating their own thoughts through voiceover… we get it, the book was epistolary, that doesn’t mean I need to see your actors writing or reading letters or journals for 3 minutes at a time in the film version.
Overall, the winning moments outweigh the considerable weaknesses, especially in terms of legacy. There are so many iconic images and moments that still reverberate through horror films today, especially vampire films. If you’re making a vampire movie in general, or a Dracula movie in particular, you have to decide how you are going to interact with the legacy of these films. They’re that significant.
The most important aspect of that legacy is Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, roles they would go on revisit again and again. When Hammer Films decided to reinvent the franchise by moving it forward to present day, they even had Cushing play a descendent of Van Helsing to keep him around (which should be noted by current moviegoers who act like silly plot devices like that were created in the 80’s just in time to bring about the death of cinema).
Will I Ever Watch It Again? If there comes a time for a larger vampire movie festival, I would watch a string of Hammer vampire movies, starting with a rewatch of this one.