The Cushing Lee Factor
Part 3: The Mark of Dracula
The 1958 film, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula in the US, to differentiate it from the 1931 Lugosi version) used the same team that has been so successful with The Curse of Frankenstein, Cushing and Lee, a screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, music by James Bernard and direction from Terence Fisher; and they reunited to bring a slick, bloody and entertaining take on the story to the screen. The story is Stoker compressed and distorted with characters having structurally different purposes, relationships and endings, so it doesn't carry the richness of content, character and connections that are present in the original novel, nor does Dracula himself have the complex, tormented and therefore more interesting persona that Stoker wrote. All of this would be realised much more faithfully in Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant 1992 version. However, what Fisher’s version does have is a great river of energy running through its broad plot lines, energy which pumps life into every scene, giving urgency to every event as the characters struggler to be free from the grip of Dracula’s deadly lust. This is Dracula as a bloodthirsty devil rather than as any tortured soul. It all comes together fabulously and the music, art direction and look of the film are as with Curse, beautiful. Lee and Cushing give it their all. Little time is wasted. The action unfolds, the characters battle, victims swoon and a new, full-blooded Dracula is born.
Apart from a few lines in the start of the film, Lee’s Dracula is silent. And his whole screen time is less than ten minutes. But his magnetic performance still dominates, making the best of the little he has, bringing forth to his few scenes a being of great strength and charisma whose underlying rage and desire to overpower and control all, will not be stopped. Cushing's Van Helsing, like his Baron Frankenstein, is a man full of vitality and obsession. Inside however, his inner being is at the other end of the human spectrum to the Baron. Outside of his pursuit for Dracula there is little time to show his humanity, but when it comes, Van Helsing’s decency and wisdom, as well as his acknowledgement of the spiritual power needed to defeat his enemy, is there to see. It is a character Cushing would play a further four times, and twice more against Lee in the 1970’s.
With this and Curse, the two actors future was cemented. However, if Baron Frankenstein was one of a handful of characters for which Peter Cushing was to be most clearly remembered, his association with that character is nothing compared to what Christopher Lee would endure for the rest of his life in always being connected to the world’s most famous vampire. Lee and Dracula were to become synonymous, something which he came to quite reasonably resent. But while part of this is due to the quality of Hammer’s 1958 film and Lee’s performance in it, most of it comes from the fact that between '66 and '76 Lee would go on to play Dracula a further nine times (four times in 1970 alone) in films of wildly varying quality and consistency.
Lee would often rubbish Dracula films he'd appeared in, and his lack of enthusiasm for the part leaks out of his later performances (it’s not as if he was being stretched by yet more neck biting, hissing and increasingly ludicrous dialogue and death scenes). But the first few Hammer films, when viewed as entertaining and re-imagined stories in their own right and not as faithful or insightful versions of Stoker’s novel or his characters, have much about them that can be enjoyed and admired. Lee's view was probably tainted by his familiarity with the original text and greater desire to portray Dracula as written by Stoker. He always seemed disappointed that he had only been given a pale version to play with (Lee was a great admirer of Gary Oldman’s version which he called definitive) but to some extent he was doing a disservice to his earlier performances. Whilst they were limited by the ‘cut to the chase’ style scripts, the unsophisticated nature of the character and minimal screen time, he truly brought something to it. The starting point may have been pale, but he gave it real blood and guts.
From here. the two actors would move straight on to two more Hammer films with Terence Fisher: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy, both in 1959.
Note on the Dracula sequels:
Hammer would go on to produce eight more in the Dracula / Van Helsing series, all of which starred either Lee, Cushing or both.
The Brides of Dracula (1960) (directed by Terence Fisher)
A good direct sequel with Cushing as Van Helsing again, hunting down the vampiric Baron Meinster who has designs on an innocent teacher, nicely played by Yvonne Monlaur. Dracula is mentioned as a character but does not appear. Considered by many to be one of the very best Hammer films, Fisher directs this with his usual power and style.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) (directed by Terence Fisher)
Lee returns for the first time as Dracula (reluctantly by all accounts, with the actor refusing to speak any of the dialogue, therefore putting in a wordless performance) in a film that still packs a punch. The misadventure of four sightseers who happen upon Castle Dracula, including the excellent Francis Matthews and Barbara Shelley has some genuinely creepy moments and bags of atmosphere.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) (directed by Freddie Francis)
The ghost of Dracula haunts a small town and renders the local priest unable to protect his cynical flock. When Rupert Davies’s Monsignor arrives to sort things out, the Count is not best pleased. Not as strong as the previous two sequels (Terence Fisher’s sudden exit after a car accident couldn’t have helped) but the acting is good all round especially from Davies. The scenes between him and his niece’s atheistic boyfriend are good fun and as Dracula, Lee puts in probably his last decent go at the Count. These four films work well as (fairly) coherent series and as he was already fed-up with the role, Lee would have been best placed making this one his last. However…
Taste the Blood of Dracula & Scars of Dracula (both 1970) (directed by Peter Sasdy & Roy Ward Baker)
After being able to play an apparently more Stoker-like version of the role in Jess Franco’s 1970 Count Dracula (which I have not seen), Lee starred in (was dragged into) two more Hammer versions in the same year. In Taste the Blood, his inclusion was ill-conceived and last minute. Scars is better, if only for seeing Dennis Waterman in a Hammer film, but there is nothing new in either of them and the formula didn’t seem to have anywhere else it could reasonably go. However…
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) & The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) (directed by Alan Gibson)
These two films are effectively a re-boot of the legend, and work together as a double-bill with Lee and Cushing re-uniting in their roles for the first time since ’58. Don Houghton wrote and Alan Gibson directed both films and there is a recurring role for Michael Coles as Inspector Murray. Cushing is Lorimer Van Helsing, grandson of the original vampire hunter who, through his granddaughter’s association with the wild and dangerous Johnny Alucard, gets drawn into a murderous series of events including the resurrection of Lee’s Dracula.
The incongruity of having Van Helsing and Dracula do battle in early 70’s London, while essentially being the same characters they were in the earlier, 19th century, films, is quite hard to swallow. However, despite being several galaxies away from Stoker (and anything Hammer had made before in the Dracula production line), the fusion of the two eras works a little better than it had any right to. The stories are coherent and deliver a few shocks and interesting moments. And A.D. 72 is better than its sequel. But neither of them rise above the level of entertaining nonsense (the funk-rock score that accompanies Cushing and Lee doing battle at the end of A.D. 1972 is a particular example of the film's spaced-out charm and ineffective cheesiness). Some of the supporting actors raise the temperature a little and Cushing is solid. But Lee is going through the motions and ultimately these two films do nothing to add to the earlier, much richer Hammer legacy.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) (directed by Roy Ward Baker)
The last in the Hammer series has Cushing’s Van Helsing battling the machinations of a disembodied Dracula (voiced by David de Keyser) in China where the seven golden vampires are building an undead army. Kung Fu meets vampires in a film whose title and pitch promises much more than it delivers.