Made nearly 30 years after Tod Browning's equally ground-breaking,iconic and financially successful Universal version starring Bela Lugosi, director Terence Fisher crafts something just as distinctive and unique, helped both by a first rate cast and a punchy script by Jimmy Sangster, one that never forgets that the audience wants to be entertained. Sangster takes the basic premise from the Bram Stoker novel but tinkers with the story quite significantly, stripping the plot to the bare essentials, moving the action from England to Germany, changing some characters (Jonathan Harker is upgraded to Van Helsing’s undercover sidekick, and is fully aware of the Count’s night-time activities), and playing down or eliminating others, such as Dr Seward.
The main theme of Good v Evil is left in place, along with the absolutist, black and white definitions of each, and this film taps into many of the tropes associated with vampires and Hammer films, such as the gloomy castles, frightened villagers and lush Gothic ambience. However, despite the changes from the source material, the underlying themes are still in place too, and as any media studies student knows, vampires are about two things - addiction and sex. The former is undisguised, with the vampires depicted as slaves to their craving for blood, and Van Helsing explicitly comparing it to narcotic dependence.
Sex is there too, in an overt rather than explicit manner. The main source of the sex is the Count himself, with Christopher Lee lighting up the screen as six feet five inches of charm, testosterone and magnetism. Of course, if you go with the "neck biting as intercourse" theory, he is not only seducing other men's wives, but other men too, (in the climax between Van Helsing and Dracula, after their initial skirmish, look quickly and you can see Van Helsing checking his neck to make sure he hasn’t been penetrated by the Count). This imagery gives a queasy undertone to the sight of Harker’s fiancée Lucy, turned into a vampire by Dracula, trying to abduct her niece and seduce her brother,.
The lurid sexual tone is backed by an equally violent one, albeit tamer than we see nowadays, with lashings of very red blood, and a new slightly extended gruesome sight of Dracula disintegrating, thanks to some recently rescued footage taken from a previously lost Japanese version of the film.
The other thing that I had not properly appreciated is the energy, intensity and swashbuckling demeanour of Peter Cushing. His version of Van Helsing is a world away from the elderly, more academic characterisation by Edward Van Sloan in the Browning film, and the final battle between him and the Count could almost have come right out of an Errol Flynn film.