Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) has travelled to the castle abode of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), ostensibly to arrange his extensive library. As he crosses the bridge over the stream that leads to the castle doors, he feels a chill come over him but dismisses it as the effect of the freezing water. On entering the building, there is no one there to greet him as he stands in the main hall, although there is a note from the Count saying that he will meet him later. And as the day turns to night, Jonathan does meet someone: an anxious woman (Valerie Gaunt) who implores him to help her escape from the Count's clutches - could he be all he seems?
Come to think of it, could Jonathan be all he seems? He's not the Harker of the Bram Stoker novel, but Jimmy Sangster's adaptation took a few liberties with the source material to pare it down to a lean eighty minutes or so of screen time, and the result was one of the finest vampire movies ever made. Here, Harker is in no doubt from the beginning that Dracula is the embodiment of evil and he means to put a stop to his nocturnal activities as he poses as a librarian, gaining his confidence just as the Count gains entry into his victims' homes.
Terence Fisher was our man in the director's chair after a worldwide hit with a similar reworking of the Frankenstein story the year before, and on this one he did an even better job, the subject being perfect for his economical and briskly stylish handling. As it turns out, Harker, who might have been the hero, is foiled pretty conclusively by his foe and so his ally, a certain Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), goes to look for him. But now he and Harker's friends and family have caught the attentions of Dracula, and he means to corrupt their straightlaced lives in the only way he knows how: by seducing the women.
Yes, far more so than the urbane Bela Lugosi, this Count was a sexual creature, and the way his female victims tend to welcome him into their bedrooms leaves us in no doubt as to what the impulses the bloodsucker is appealing to. Lucy (Carol Marsh) was the fiancée of Harker but in a perverse twist Dracula has his revenge by turning her into a vampire, and even more audaciously she cannot wait for his nightly visits. Lee was ideal in the role of villain, towering above the rest of the cast, starting off well-mannered but showing his true colours as a ravening force of evil that only a fanatic like Van Helsing can overcome.
Cushing was, and still is, the best Van Helsing; he can be compassionate but it's his life's work to bring down vampires that consumes him and rarely was an actor better cast. He even got to emulate the swashbuckling heroes he loved from his childhood as this doctor is no doddery old man, but a dashing and athletic champion of good, and not afraid to be ruthless: the grand finale is perhaps the finest ending to any vampire movie ever, and one of the great climaxes in horror movie history. But most of all, the whole film was a perfect example of that particular Hammer genre that it had already made its own with this, a peculiar fable of chills set in a Middle European location where the supernatural was apt to break into the real world at any moment, and was more often than not to be feared. Music by James Bernard ("Draah-Cu-Laaaah!")