As per the winning entry in the most recent reader poll, this week I am analyzing Horror of Dracula (1958)!
Horror of Dracula, the first in the series of Hammer horror films starring Christopher Lee as Count Dracula, was a critical and commercial success when it was first released in 1958 — and it has remained a go-to classic ever since. The film was directed by Terence Fisher and clocks in at a brisk 82 minutes long.
“Horror of Dracula Official Trailer #1 – Christopher Lee Movie (1958) HD” video uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube license
This film adaptation differs in several ways from Bram Stoker’s original and groundbreaking source novel. I will not take time out here to enumerate those differences; for a list of them, visit the film’s IMDb.com trivia page. The broad strokes of the main storyline remain relatively intact, however, so I will also not go into detail about the plot. I am also assuming that the reader is familiar with the basic storyline of Dracula and characters like Harker, Lucy, Van Helsing, and Arthur Holmwood.
***SPOILER ALERTS THROUGHOUT***
Meet Jonathan Harker, librarian?
John Van Eyssen, a South African actor who later became a literary agent-turned-movie producer, plays Jonathan Harker. Although he only earned seventh billing in the film’s credits, he essentially opens the film, narrating from his diary upon arrival at Count Dracula’s castle in Klausenburg. (Note that the entire film takes place in Germany.)
The diary of Jonathan Harker
His first words:
The Diary of Jonathan Harker. The 3rd of May, 1885. At last, my long journey is drawing to its close. What the eventual end, I cannot foresee. But whatever may happen, I may rest secure that I have done all in my power to achieve success. […] I deemed myself lucky to have secured this post and did not intend to falter in my purpose.
First glimpse of Jonathan Harker, who poses as a librarian in this Dracula adaptation
Count Dracula’s castle in ‘Horror of Dracula’ (1958)
Right away, it’s clear that Harker is on a mission.
While Harker eats dinner in the castle and waits for Dracula, he takes out a couple of books from his case. The slim volume with the red cover is Harker’s diary — we will see that volume several times throughout the film. In fact, that diary is so important and onscreen so frequently it’s kind of a wonder the film wasn’t retitled The Diary of Jonathan Harker!
My self, my diary
A beautiful but mysterious woman enters the room. Harker hastens to introduce himself.
My name’s Jonathan Harker. I’m the new librarian.
This is the first mention of Harker being a librarian. And tellingly, the word “new” in that introduction indicates there has been a prior librarian. This thread is never followed, but it’s an interesting idea to think about. (The fan fiction practically writes itself, right?! “To all the librarians I’ve loved and lost, XOXO Dracula” ♥ )
His next words are also interesting:
How can I help you?
What I found intriguing about this line is that this is TOTALLY what a (real) librarian *would* say, but Harker says this line in a completely different context than how a librarian would mean it while at, say, a reference desk. Harker says this in response to the lady’s distress, who is insistent that she is being kept in the castle against her will.
She runs away, and then we get our first glimpse of Christopher Lee’s iconic portrayal of Dracula, as he pauses for full dramatic effect at the top of the stairs. (My husband mused at this point, “Why did capes EVER go out of style?!” 😉 )
Dracula and Harker then “meet cute,” and Harker puts away his diary.
Count Dracula, Jonathan Harker, and the all-important diary
These next exchanges between Dracula and Harker constitute the bulk of the context of Harker’s position as the librarian.
They continue talking as Dracula shows him up the stairs to his room, when Dracula references his private library collection.
Harker: How soon may I start work, sir?
Dracula: As soon as you wish. There are a very large number of volumes to be indexed.
When they get into his room, Dracula reveals Harker’s qualifications to be engaged as his private librarian.
Dracula: I consider myself fortunate to have found such a distinguished scholar to act as my librarian.
Harker: I like quiet and seclusion. This house, I think, offers that.
Dracula: Then we are both satisfied. An admirable arrangement.
Dracula then leaves. But after Harker unpacks a few things, Dracula comes back into the room and gives him a key.
Dracula: As I shall be away so long, I think it’s better that you have a key to the library, Mr. Harker. You will find the library to the left of the hall.
The key to the library!
Dracula then leaves for the night, and he utters the last words we will hear him speak onscreen, “Sleep well, Mr. Harker.” (Dracula only speaks 13 lines in the entire film, all to Harker!)
Harker then sits down to write in his diary, and he reveals to the audience the specifics of his mission — and his subterfuge!
At last, I have met Count Dracula. He accepts me as a man who has agreed to work among his books, as I intended. It only remains for me now to await the daylight hours, when with God’s help, I will forever end this man’s reign of terror.
Ending at less than 15 minutes, this is quite an efficient opening sequence.
First fight in the castle library
Harker dozes off in a chair by the fire and awakes when he hears his door knob start to turn. He goes downstairs and into the library, the room opposite the main dining hall. It’s our first peek at the library, and considering what we had heard Dracula say before (“There are a very large number of volumes to be indexed“), the first impression is… underwhelming. There look to be only a few rows of bookshelves along the back wall. I think the fireplace in this set may be larger than Dracula’s private library!
First glimpse of Dracula’s private library
As Harker enters the room, he is startled to find the mysterious woman behind him.
I don’t think she’s there to help index the books
Once again, she pleads with him to help her escape Dracula… and of course she turns out to be a vampire! (The three brides of Dracula in the novel are condensed into this sole role.) After she bites his neck, Harker pushes her away as Dracula rushes in through a door in the middle of the bookshelves. Harker attempts to stop Dracula from hurting the woman, but Dracula pushes him away and then grabs his bride and takes her through the door in the library.
Fight in the library!
Harker and Dracula duel in the library
There’s a shortcut tunnel in and out of the library!
Harker then wakes up on his bed, still fully clothed, and realizes that he has been bit. He takes out his diary again and writes:
I have become a victim of Dracula and a woman in his power. It may be that I am doomed to be one of them; if that is so, I can only pray that whoever finds my body will possess the knowledge to do what is necessary, to release my soul. I have lost a day. Soon it will be dark. While my senses are still my own, I must do what I set out to do. I must find the resting place of Dracula and there, end his existence forever.
He then hides his diary in a boulder outside the house. This detail will be important later!
Hiding the diary before he looks for Dracula’s lair
Harker then discovers a door to an underground lair, where he finds caskets for both Dracula and his bride. He has a wooden stake and hammer, yet his instincts are not as sharp as his stake. Instead of fulfilling his stated mission — “I will forever end this man’s reign of terror” — he starts by staking the woman.
Stake and shake
Dracula wakes up, and OF COURSE night then falls, right on cue. Harker’s brain starts to work again, as he realizes the mistake he’s made when he finds Dracula’s casket empty. But it’s too late, and it’s (literally) lights out for Harker.
And I know what y’all must be thinking right now… will Dracula’s books NEVER get indexed now?! 😉
The diary of Jonathan Harker
But never fear, at least ONE book doesn’t get forgotten — Harker’s diary!
The next scene takes us into the village, where Dr. Van Helsing, played by top-billed Peter Cushing, enters a local inn. Van Helsing starts immediately asking questions about his friend, but the innkeeper is reticent to tell him any information. Inga, the innkeeper’s daughter, lets slip, however, that she remembers Harker and a letter he had her post.
Do you remember this letter?
The innkeeper and Van Helsing continue talking, and Van Helsing reveals more information about why and how he and Harker were working together.
Innkeeper: Look, sir, you’re a stranger here in Klausenburg. Some things are best left alone, such as interfering in things which are beyond our powers.
Van Helsing: Please don’t misunderstand me. This is more than a superstition, I know. The danger is very real. If the investigation that Mr. Harker and I are engaged upon is successful, then not only you, but the whole world will benefit.
The innkeeper’s daughter then comes back to serve Van Helsing dinner, with a little extra on the side.
Have you seen this diary?
Inga: This was found at the crossroads near that place. He told me to burn it. But your friend was such a nice gentleman, I couldn’t.
This then leads Van Helsing to Dracula’s castle, where he finds the underground lair… and his friend, Harker.
Librarian turned vampire?
As a distraught Van Helsing takes up the stake and hammer Harker had left on the floor, the camera fades.
The next scene reveals Van Helsing informing Arthur Holmwood and his wife, Mina, about Harker’s death. In this film, Arthur is the brother of Lucy, Harker’s fiancée. In this short scene, when learn that Arthur is suspicious of Harker’s death; that Harker died 10 days ago; that Harker was cremated (“As his friend and colleague, he told me some time ago that he would wish it“); that Arthur and his wife will tell Lucy the news; and that Lucy is ill. This film is certainly efficient in its storytelling, isn’t it?!
Thirty-five minutes into the film, Van Helsing reviews Harker’s diary while a recording plays on a gramophone. The recording is Van Helsing’s own voice, detailing the dangers and signs of vampires. Again, a clever way to include a lot of expository details in a short amount of time!
Reviewing Harker’s diary
Van Helsing then starts recording himself, likening vampirism to drug addiction. He also invokes the death of Harker as further reasons to kill Dracula:
Since the death of Jonathan Harker, Count Dracula, the propagator of this unspeakable evil, has disappeared. He must be found and destroyed.
So although Harker is no longer physically part of the film, he and his diary remain central to the film and propel the plot forward. This time, it’s personal!
The last mention of Harker’s diary occurs at 47 minutes into the film, when Arthur is upset at Van Helsing and blames him for (SPOILER!) Lucy’s death. Van Helsing gives Jonathan’s diary to Arthur, stating:
I cannot expect you to believe me, but you will I know believe Jonathan. Here are his last words, his diary. When you have read it, you will understand.
The diary holds the key
Final fight in the castle library
The final scene and showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula occurs five minutes before the end of the film.
As Van Helsing follows Dracula to this castle, they meet up in the library — where else?! — and Van Helsing spies sunlight peeking in through the heavy curtains at one end of a large table scattered with piles of books. Van Helsing dashes across the table and throws upon the curtains. Van Helsing leaps back upon the table — scattering books in his wake, and the librarian in me could not help but exclaim, “Don’t take it out on the books!” — and grabs candlesticks to form a cross and force Dracula into the sunlight. Dracula then starts crumbling to ash in the sunlight.
Final showdown in the library — don’t take it out on the books!
Aftermath in the library
Why a librarian?
Harker is clearly posing as a librarian, as the line in the opening sequence that Dracula “accepts [Harker] as a man who has agreed to work among his books, as [Harker] intended” reveals. However, it does stand to reason that Harker is a scholar of some merit. It would be too easy to check otherwise, especially as the action takes place in such a limited geographic area. And Van Helsing is a scientist, so it is plausible that he and Harker met because of common scientific, or psychiatric, interests.
The idea that Jonathan is a scholar does, theoretically, provide some kind of plausibility about him being able to pass himself off as a librarian — or rather a freelance kind of indexer or cataloger — for Count Dracula’s private library.
I also wonder if the screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, chose “librarian” for Harker’s reason for being at Dracula’s castle (rather than as a solicitor arranging real estate transactions for Dracula, as in the source novel) as a way for Harker to throw Dracula off the scent; i.e. that posing as a librarian would not arouse suspicion in Dracula, as librarians are generally (and stereotypically) mild-mannered. Of course, that reasoning only works when Harker goes in knowing about Dracula to begin with, as is obvious from the beginning narration of this film.
Ultimately, although Harker has quite a significant role in this film, his attempts at being a reel librarian really only amount to that of being an Information Provider. He is there to provide context for thwarting Dracula, and his diary provides clues along the way for Van Helsing, as well as for the audience.
Although we don’t really learn much about Harker on a personal level, I was greatly amused by the variety of facial expressions John Van Eyssen packed into his supporting role.
The many faces of Jonathan Harker
Although Harker’s change of occupation did not get mentioned on the VHS copy I have of this film, I was amused to discover that the first library scene DID make the side cover!
VHS cover of ‘Horror of Dracula’ (1958)
Past classification struggles
I first saw this film years ago — clearly, when VHS tapes were commonplace! — and I have to admit, that I have found it difficult to classify this film, according to my usual “Reel Substance” categories.
I first classified this film under the Class V category, films in which there are no actual librarians, because Harker is posing as a librarian in this film. But that never felt quite right, so I eventually decided to reclassify the film under the Class I category, because the fact that he’s posing as a librarian serves as the catalyst for the rest of the film’s plot as well as Van Helsing’s (re)commitment to destroying Dracula.
What are your thoughts on this? I’d love for you to leave a comment and share your thoughts on this or other aspects of Horror of Dracula.
And thanks to everyone who voted for Horror of Dracula! It was fun to revisit this horror classic.
Past reader poll winners
Interested in write-ups of past reader poll winners? Check out them out below: