The Gospel According to Terence Fisher
DIRECTED BY TERENCE FISHER/1958
Horror of Dracula (aka Dracula in its native U.K.) opens with great, thunderous horror film music as the camera tracks around a gothic castle, eventually resting upon a closed coffin simply marked “Dracula”. As the accompanying opening credits come to a close with the screen-filling proclamation “Directed by Terence Fisher”, drops of blood ominously hit the Dracula nameplate. From this sequence alone, barring any outside knowledge of director Fisher’s personal faith, one would never guess that the film that follows is in fact one of the most gloriously direct presentations of the Christian faith.
It’s true that Fisher was a committed Christian, and he often communicated his faith metaphorically through his films. That’s not to say his films, this one included, lack the expected quotient of thrills, blood, victims, and scares that audiences have come to expect in horror films. Those elements, as well as sharp editing and striking musical cues (by composer James Bernard), are tremendously effective in underlining this film’s good versus evil points, and make for quite a visceral ride. Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is based upon Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, itself a true Gothic exploration of the battle between good and evil. Symbols such as crosses (the hope of all mankind), and sunlight (the light of the world) have always been detrimental to the vampire (the embodiment of evil in the world). In this film, those symbols pack a spiritual punch that was less present in Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Stoker’s novel (Tod Browning’s classic Dracula, with Bela Lugosi). This film goes deeper in a sense, detailing a battle for the souls of individuals, and often displaying humanity’s ultimate shortcomings.
The story begins with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) going to his new job as librarian at Dracula’s castle. Immediately we see the castle is a bad and threatening place, moderately adorned with various weaponry, torches, cannons, horned animal skulls, and even an astrological chart on the floor. Harker’s opening narration informs us that the interior is cold, something commonly associated with evil places. Dracula (Christopher Lee, playing the Count for the first of many times,) makes a striking entrance, appearing atop a staircase as a black-caped specter of evil. The movie wastes no time introducing the vampire, and the threat that he is.
Lee’s gestures, gazes, and body language establish him as the definitive Count Dracula for years to come. When Harker is confronted with his inevitable fate, it gets us thinking about the general fragility of life and imminent death. Granted, Harker has the benefit of knowing a very specific time-frame for how much longer he has, whereas most people do not, but in a broad sense, his situation is an exaggerated reflection of our own – what will we do with our remaining time? Harker, as he slowly loses his ability to think in a sane manner, has the chance to stake either Dracula or the female vampire who first bit him, causing his downward spiral. He apparently caves to his revenge emotion, and chooses the woman, allowing Dracula to rise and take full control over him.
Meanwhile, just as we start to wonder where the hope is, the film’s hero, Dr. Van Helsing, (Peter Cushing) is introduced as he enters a foreign bar while traveling. Upon noticing garlic flowers adorning the place, he begins to inquire in a roundabout way about the vampire problem of the region. In an impressive display of stubbornness, the bar owner wards off Van Helsing’s offer to help them with the response “We haven’t asked for any help.” The doctor is quick to tell him “You need it all the same.” Even when the bar owner and its patrons know they have a major problem, they persist in silently trying to handle it on their own, resulting in an uneasy holding pattern at best. Van Helsing is clearly their only hope, but their stubborn pride prevails.
To further solidify just what the doctor stands for, it is quickly apparent that he is primarily concerned about the souls of the vampire’s victims. As the film’s provider of verbal exposition, he informs us not only of what a vampire is, and how to repel and destroy them, but also of the eternal entrapment of their souls. He reveals that the victims “consciously detest being dominated by vampirism, but are unable to relinquish the practice, similar to addiction to drugs. Ultimately, death results from loss of blood. But, unlike normal death, no peace manifests itself – for they enter into the fearful state of the undead.” Parallels to addiction and sin abound. He goes on to differentiate that Dracula is the cause of this epidemic, and must be destroyed.
No origins or motives are given for Dracula or Van Helsing. Their respective allegiances to evil and good are a matter of fact, and left at that. In this film, with its solid adherence to the simple extremes in the natures of good and evil, the lack of personal characterization is not a bad thing. Dracula and Van Helsing are archetypes, pure and simple. Human emotion appropriately takes a back seat to the logical reality of the film’s world. Everywhere Van Helsing goes, he inquires to the vampiric activities, and tells listeners just the info they need to know, but despite his speaking the truth and willingness to help, he is consistently and sternly sent away.
This is another common element in human nature – even when we know we need help, we, like the bar owner mentioned above, often reject it, and when the truth is presented, we simply don’t want to hear it. At first Van Helsing may seem cold, clinical, and uncaring in his approach and his mission, but in truth, his willingness to physically drive stakes through the hearts of his victims (literally breaking their hearts, if you will,) proves he cares more than anyone else about the trapped souls within the undead vampiric exterior. Inevitably, the facts line up to present undeniable evidence, and the side of the truth gathers followers as skeptics Arthur and his wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling) become believers.
One of the films most memorable moments comes when Arthur and Van Helsing go after a family member-turned-vampire. I can’t think of a more exhilarating, direct visual representation of spiritual good over evil than when Van Helsing interrupts the vampire’s attack, repelling her with a metal cross. It is no small reflection of Fisher’s own worldview that when the cross touches her skin, it physically burns her, and she wails in sheer agony.
Clocking in at a brisk eighty-two minutes, this film is shorter and more effective in delivering its message than some sermons I’ve sat through. Following directly the success Hammer Studios had with Curse of Frankenstein the previous year, this proved to be the first of many Hammer Dracula films. In my opinion, this film tops its excellent predecessor in every area – a high compliment indeed. Lee, Cushing, Michael Gough (playing Arthur here, went on to play Alfred in several Batman films), and the rest of the cast turn in appropriately urgent and well-realized performances.
This piece originally appeared online in 2003 as a review of the Warner Brothers DVD release of the film. It was heavily influenced by a Hammer Films seminar given by Paul Leggett at the 2002 Cornerstorne Festival’s Imaginarium venue. Mr. Leggett’s book on director Terence Fisher is highly recommended.