Greetings, fellow devotees of darkness. On this day, May 26th, we pay homage to a novel that launched a thousand fangs, one that continues to shape and dominate the vampire genre even over a century after its publication – Bram Stoker’s legendary “Dracula.” This monumental date marks the day in 1897 when Stoker’s groundbreaking novel first found its way into the trembling hands of readers 126 years ago.
The brooding Count Dracula has since donned many faces and cloaks, but none have been quite as enduring as the portrayal by the legendary Sir Christopher Lee in the Hammer Film Productions. His incarnation of Dracula was a mesmerizing blend of aristocratic charm and menacing terror, a portrayal that has left an indelible impact on the genre and on The Longbox of Darkness. This was how I first encountered Dracula on screen. Before “The Horror of Dracula” (1958), which I saw at much too young an age, my encounters with the legendary Count were in the pages of Marvel Comics, where writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan brought him to chilling life (or un-life as it were). I was enthralled by Lee’s performance and found him every bit as frightening as Dracula from the comics, if not more so.
So, to honor this Dracula Day, let’s sink our teeth into Lee’s spellbinding performance in the series of Hammer’s Dracula films, ranking them from best to, well, still pretty darn good because let’s be honest, when it comes to Lee’s Dracula, there’s no such thing as a bad film.
1. “Horror of Dracula” (1958)
The one that started it all, “Horror of Dracula,” is arguably the best of the series. Here, Lee’s Count Dracula was first introduced to the world, and his hypnotic portrayal set the benchmark for all future vampire depictions. It was a film that perfectly blended gothic horror with the captivating allure of the unknown. Lee’s Dracula, with his towering presence and unsettling charm, was a stark contrast to previous vampire portrayals. The late 1950s audiences were left entranced by his charisma and petrified by his menace, a testament to the power of Lee’s performance.
The plot centers around Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), who arrives at Castle Dracula under the pretense of becoming the Count’s new librarian. Unbeknownst to the Count, however, Harker is, in fact, a vampire hunter intent on ending Dracula’s reign of terror. But Dracula (Christopher Lee) is not so easily defeated, and Harker’s mission takes a deadly turn.
Dracula, in retribution, sets his sights on Harker’s loved ones, including his fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh) and her sister-in-law Mina (Melissa Stribling). The situation becomes desperate, prompting the intervention of the renowned Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). As Dracula’s grip tightens around Lucy and Mina, Van Helsing must use all his knowledge and courage to confront and defeat the formidable Count Dracula.
2. “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” (1966)
This movie marked Lee’s return as Count Dracula after nearly a decade. His silent yet intimidating portrayal throughout the film was both unique and intriguing. Despite having no lines, Lee managed to command the screen with his imposing presence and searing glares alone, creating a performance that was as chilling as it was captivating. The film’s creative direction, along with Lee’s haunting performance, solidifies it as one of the best entries in the Hammer series.
The story follows two English couples, the Kents – Charles (Francis Matthews), his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer), his brother Alan (Charles Tingwell), and Alan’s wife Helen (Barbara Shelley), who is vacationing in the Carpathian Mountains. Their journey takes an eerie turn when they find themselves stranded near the ominous Castle Dracula, despite warnings from the eccentric Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) to avoid the castle at all costs.
When the mysterious Klove (Philip Latham), Dracula’s loyal servant, invites them to shelter for the night in the castle, the stage is set for Dracula’s return. Klove carries out a ritual using the blood of an unsuspecting victim to resurrect his master, and thus, Dracula is back from the dead and thirsting for revenge. The couples soon realize the danger they are in, and as Dracula sets his sights on them, they must fight to escape his castle of horrors.
3. “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” (1968)
Lee reprised his iconic role in “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave,” showing us yet another facet of the enigmatic Count. The film adds a degree of humanism to the otherwise monstrous character, creating a sense of complexity and depth. Lee’s performance as the tormented villain is both captivating and horrifying, further emphasizing the duality of his character.
The story picks up where “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” left off, with Dracula trapped in a frozen moat. However, the Count is accidentally revived by a priest’s blood, who was knocked unconscious and bled into the moat following a fall during an exorcism attempt.
Free once more, Dracula seeks revenge against the Monsignor (Rupert Davies), who conducted the exorcism that had initially kept him trapped. In order to do so, he targets the Monsignor’s beautiful niece, Maria (Veronica Carlson), drawing her into his sinister plans.
Meanwhile, Maria’s atheist boyfriend, Paul (Barry Andrews), becomes aware of Dracula’s intentions. Despite his disbelief in the supernatural, Paul must confront the undeniable reality of Dracula’s existence and find a way to rescue Maria from the vampire’s clutches.
4. “Scars of Dracula” (1970)
In “Scars of Dracula,” Lee was allowed to delve deeper into his iconic role. The film explores the dark past of Count Dracula, revealing the scars that shaped him into the creature of the night we all love to fear. Lee’s performance was filled with nuanced expressions of torment and malevolence, adding an extra layer to the character that hadn’t been explored in previous films.
The narrative centers around the character of Paul Carlson (Christopher Matthews), a young man who disappears after spending a night in the foreboding Castle Dracula. Worried for his well-being, Paul’s brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) and his girlfriend Sarah (Jenny Hanley) decide to investigate his disappearance.
Their search leads them to Castle Dracula, where they encounter the menacing Count and his bizarrely devoted servant, Klove (Patrick Troughton). They soon discover that Paul has fallen victim to Dracula and realize that they too are in grave danger.
As Simon and Sarah attempt to escape the clutches of Dracula, they must navigate a world of horror and deception. The tension escalates as they work to save themselves and put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror.
5. “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970)
“Taste the Blood of Dracula” provides a glimpse into Dracula’s vengeful side. Lee’s portrayal was as menacing as ever, yet his performance hinted at a sense of vulnerability. The Count’s thirst for revenge showcased a different yet equally terrifying aspect of his character, one that was seething with hate and hunger for retribution.
The plot follows three affluent gentlemen – William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis), and Jonathon Secker (John Carson) – who are seeking new thrills beyond their mundane upper-class lives. They engage the services of Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), a disgraced aristocrat and devotee of the occult, who promises them an experience like no other – the opportunity to taste the blood of Dracula.
During the blasphemous ritual, the trio gets cold feet and ends up killing Courtley in a panic. However, the ceremony is successful enough to resurrect Dracula, who vows to exact revenge on the men for Courtley’s death, viewing it as a betrayal.
As Dracula seeks his vengeance, he preys on the men’s children, turning them into vampires. This leaves their parents in a race against time to save their loved ones from Dracula’s curse and stop the Count’s reign of terror.
6. “Dracula AD 1972” (1972)
In a bold move, “Dracula AD 1972” transported Lee’s timeless character into the modern era. The film was a quirky blend of traditional gothic horror and 70s pop culture. While it may not have been the most critically acclaimed entry in the series, Lee’s performance, as always, was spot on, proving that his Dracula could captivate audiences, irrespective of the era or setting.
The movie begins with a prologue set in 1872, where a final confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing results in their mutual deaths. A hundred years later, in 1972, a group of young London party-goers, led by Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), conducts a black mass ritual at a desolate church. This unholy ceremony successfully resurrects Dracula.
Dracula, now in modern London, seeks revenge on the descendants of Van Helsing. He targets Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), the granddaughter of Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), a descendant of his old nemesis.
As Dracula sets his sights on Jessica, Lorrimer must come to terms with the reality of his family’s legacy and confront the revived Count to protect his granddaughter.
7. “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973)
In “The Satanic Rites of Dracula”, the last of Hammer’s Dracula series, Lee gave a fitting end to his reign as Count Dracula. The film had a more contemporary and somewhat avant-garde feel to it, offering an intriguing departure from the previous gothic installments. While the plot may have strayed a bit from the classic Dracula lore, Lee’s performance remained as chilling and enthralling as ever.
Set in 1970s London, the plot takes a departure from the gothic settings of its predecessors. The story follows a secret British intelligence investigation into a mysterious, elite cult. When they learn of its connections to Count Dracula, they enlist the help of Dracula’s old adversary, Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).
It’s revealed that the cult’s leader is none other than Dracula himself, who has hatched a sinister plan to unleash a deadly plague upon the world. As his plan unfolds, he targets Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley) as his next victim.
Van Helsing, aided by his allies, must navigate this labyrinth of evil and face off against his old foe in a final attempt to thwart Dracula’s apocalyptic scheme.
“The Satanic Rites of Dracula” offers a unique blend of traditional vampire lore with elements of espionage and conspiracy thriller. This creative twist, along with the final confrontation between Lee’s Dracula and Cushing’s Van Helsing, provides a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to Hammer’s Dracula series.
From the fog-laden streets of Victorian London to the pulsating heart of the 1970s, Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Count Dracula has thrilled and chilled us in equal measure. His performance in the Hammer Dracula series has forever etched his name into the annals of horror cinema.
As we commemorate Dracula Day and honor the novel that birthed an icon, let us also celebrate the man who breathed new life into the immortal Count Dracula. Sir Christopher Lee, much like the character he so brilliantly portrayed, will continue to live on in our memories and nightmares.
So here’s to Bram Stoker, to Christopher Lee, to Dracula, and to all of us who relish the thrill of a good scare. May the spirit of Dracula Day remind us of the power of storytelling and the enduring allure of the creatures of the night. After all, what is life without a bit of horror to keep things interesting?
Until the sun sets again, my fellow horror enthusiasts, happy Dracula Day!