I said in my look at Bela Lugosi’s first Dracula movie that Lugosi is perhaps the most iconic single vision we have of Dracula in cinema history. And I would like to add to that by saying that Christopher Lee in the 1958 Hammer Horror classic Dracula is, without a doubt, the hottest.
If Lugosi’s Dracula opened the door for the Count as a sensual, even sexual being, Christopher Lee kicked it in
just like he can my back doors any time he wants oh my GOD and claimed it as his own. Lee’s Dracula, as helmed by Terence Fisher, is a remarkable piece of pop culture history in many ways – not least because Lee never allowed it to define his acting career, and went on to have several iconic performances later in life, too. But, more than anything, as Dracula caught up to the swinging sixties, Lee imbued the character with an overt sexuality that builds on Lugosi’s charming chomper into something altogether new.
Lee is an inspired choice of casting for this role; he originally worked with both Cushing and Hammer Horror for the first time playing Frankenstein’s Monster to Cushing’s Doctor Frankenstein, but it soon became clear that his charm and chops were far too good for Shelley’s ill-fated Gothic creation.
Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula is a sexpot, downright. Whether you subscribe to a queer reading of the film or not (and I certainly think there’s a case to be made for it), it’s not just his pursuit of young, buxom women with heaving bosoms and fluttering lashes and lovely virgin necks that stands out here, it’s their pursuit of him. Though the female cast of characters isn’t really up to much in terms of writing or performance, but their fascination with Dracula and their willingness to let him have a cheeky wee nibble is pretty new in terms of the adaptations we’ve covered so far. Everybody is seduced by Dracula, his strength, his power, his intensity, and Lee is about the only person I can imagine playing this with any level of believability, especially for the time. Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula is a sexpot, downright. What passed for sexed-up in the fifties that still stands up today is pretty much limited to this and Marilyn Monroe scrambling into a top bunk in Some Like It Hot. You look at the smile on Mina’s face after she returns from her night with the Count and tell me that is not a woman who just got her hole six ways to Sunday and loved every second of it. What passed for sexed-up in the fifties that still stands up today is pretty much limited to this and Marilyn Monroe scrambling into a top bunk in Some Like It Hot.
And I think the reason that Lee got away with such a horny version of the Count is because the hugeness of his, uh, performance seems to fit with the rest of the tone of this film. Hammer Horror films would become synonymous with high-camp, British-flavoured silliness in the decades to come, and that archetype is on full display right here. From Cushing’s theatrical Van Helsing (elevated from solicitor to vampire hunter), to the hyper-dramatised final act of Dracula sweeping through a village of women, to the set design, which echoes some of that expressionist drama of Nosferatu while capturing a distinctly low-budget, wobbly vibe that is so bloody charming, it’s telenovela-levels of ridiculous and overblown drama. With everything turned up to eleven, it only makes sense that Lee should bring out the inherent sensuality of the character – subtlety in a film like this is to be lost in the shuffle, and there was no way that he was going to let that happen.
Christopher Lee’s take on Dracula works because of the film that surrounds it: extreme in almost every way (for the time, at least), his savage and sensual take on the Count just makes sense. While Hammer’s first foray into the Dracula world might be the highest of camp, it’s also the highest of British horror, and I still love it with all my (staked) heart.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via CBR)