Reader poll write-up | Horror of Dracula (scary movie edition 2018)

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.)

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

First glimpse of Jonathan Harker, who poses as a librarian in this Dracula adaptation

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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!

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

HarkerHow soon may I start work, sir?

DraculaAs 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.

DraculaI consider myself fortunate to have found such a distinguished scholar to act as my librarian.

HarkerI like quiet and seclusion. This house, I think, offers that.

DraculaThen 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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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!

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

First glimpse of Dracula’s private library

As Harker enters the room, he is startled to find the mysterious woman behind him.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

Fight in the library!

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

Harker and Dracula duel in the library

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

There’s a shortcut tunnel in and out of the library!

Lights out

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

Dear diary

He then hides his diary in a boulder outside the house. This detail will be important later!

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

Dracula’s lair

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

Stake and shake

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

Uh-oh!

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

InnkeeperLook, 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 HelsingPlease 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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

Have you seen this diary?

IngaThis 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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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!

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

Final showdown in the library — don’t take it out on the books!

Screenshot from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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.

Final tidbits

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.

Behold:

The many faces of Jonathan Harker from 'Horror of Dracula' (1958)

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!

Reel Librarians | Horror of Dracula VHS cover collage

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.

Sources used

Past reader poll winners

Interested in write-ups of past reader poll winners? Check out them out below:

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Welcome to Oldfield

Reel Librarians  |  DVD case for 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)In a small Tennessee town named Oldfield, a local librarian and historian (Vincent Price, in one of his later roles) retells four horror stories to a nosy reporter — stories that reveal the town’s “long history of violence.” The library and its records serve as a framing device for the other stories in From a Whisper to a Scream (aka The Offspring, 1987), similar to the structure of the 1993 film Necronomicon, Book of the DeadThat film is based on a series of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories; this film raises a glass — literally — to Lovecraft, as well as Poe, “those two masters of horror.”

A classic tale, this is not. The most frustrating thing about the film is that you can see how it could have been a decent film, had its production values been higher and the different stories bound more closely together. The film’s fatal flaw is that for a film whose premise is based entirely on place, its stories have a total lack of place. The stories, although set in different time periods, could be set almost anywhere:

  • The first tale is modern-day, and its only sense of location is that it’s a town with some kind of factory or shipping business.
  • The second story takes place in a swamp filled with voodoo magic (more like Louisiana than Tennessee).
  • The third story takes place in the 1930s at a creepy carnival.
  • The fourth and final story could be anywhere in the U.S. South at the end of the Civil War.

The films opens on a woman being executed by lethal injection (we later find out she’s a serial killer who’s been murdering people since she was seven years old). A reporter present at the execution (Susan Tyrrell) then drives to Oldfield to interview the woman’s uncle, Julian White (Vincent Price).

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

She walks through decaying, crumbling hallways until she stumbles upon the equally decaying, crumbling library. The room is filled with books, antique furniture, books piled over a big desk, and red velvet curtains. The librarian/historian sits in a red leather chair, his own personal throne amidst a crumbling empire. His more formal, professorial attire — a tweed coat, shirt and tie, pocket square — blends in with the shabby library interior. In an amusing review from the Movie Librarians website, A. G. Graham states, “I found the library fascinating — it looks like an antique store threw up to create a set,” and concludes, “If nothing else, watching this film will make you itch to go dust your books.” 😀

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

Julian White is not pleased at this late visitor, stating, “The library is closed, and I want to be alone right now.” But as she continues to ask questions, both about the town and about his niece, he relents and starts providing information and stories about the town’s history.

  • “You could read the whole history here yourself.”
  • “I have something I want to show you. These are the original town records. If you read these, you’d find out what kind of people settled here, what kind of lives they chose to live. It goes back to the Civil War.”
  • “Oldfield’s history is written in blood.”

He is a classic Information Provider, a supporting but necessary role; therefore, his portrayal joins the Class III category of reel librarian films.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

The reporter also gets in a few choice zingers in reference to the library:

  • “The atmosphere of this library is getting to me, but I don’t think it would drive me to commit murder.”
  • “Tonight, your niece becomes another sickening entry in your library.”

The librarian reveals the history of the librarian before him, who used to bring young girls to back room for “romantic interludes” — until one night, a husband “dealt with their indiscretions with an axe” and buried both of them under the floorboards. “At night, I swear, you can sometimes hear the lovers’ screams.” Too bad there are no flashbacks to that Naughty Librarian. 😉

There is not much scope or depth to this reel librarian, but Vincent Price manages to inject what dignity he can into the role. Julian is a watcher of history, not a participant in life. As he states late in the film, he “was lucky enough to sit back and watch the murderous parade pass by” from the (seemingly) safe walls of his library. But is that safety an illusion?

The films ends on a twist — but one could also argue the film ends where it begins. “Welcome to Oldfield” indeed.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

And now I have to go dust my books… 😉

Kennel clubs and unsolved murders

Reel Librarians  |  'The Kennel Murder Case' collageThe Kennel Murder Case (1933), whose title refers to the initial location of the Long Island Kennel Club, is the fifth film in the Philo Vance series — but the fourth outing for star William Powell as the well-known detective. The author of the Philo Vance mystery series was S. S. Van Dine, who penned 12 books in the series and whose works inspired 15 film adaptations.

This effort is generally considered the best of the films and has been critically well-received, even being hailed as a “masterpiece” in 1984 by film historian William K. Everson.

The film showcases a classic locked-room mystery, and of course, only Philo Vance and his trusty Scottish terrier can sniff out the truth. (And if you’re thinking this sounds awfully familiar to William Powell’s other famous detective and mystery series, The Thin Man, you’re not alone.) Powell’s legendary portrayals as Nick Charles in The Thin Man are not that different from his portrayals of Philo Vance, as both detectives are witty, well-dressed, and urbane. Both detectives have a canine sideback, as well. However, The Thin Man series boasts Powell’s chemistry with leading lady Myrna Loy as Nora Charles.

For all its good points, The Kennel Murder Case does not, alas, feature a reel librarian. It therefore ends up in the Class V category, which are films that may feature libraries but not librarians. So why continue this post? In the first five minutes of the film, we are introduced to a private library, as well as a book called Unsolved Murders that becomes central to the mystery plot.

The private library in question belongs to Brisbane Coe (Frank Conroy), who employs a private secretary, Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan). Five minutes into the film, we are treated to a classic cinematic shot of a bookshelf, revealing a close-up of Brisbane’s face. The bookshelves serve as a natural framing device. Brisbane grabs a book entitled Unsolved Murders, places it in an overnight bag, and prepares to leave on a trip.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot of 'The Kennel Murder Case'

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot of 'The Kennel Murder Case'

Here’s the conversation between Brisbane and his secretary:

Brisbane Coe (Frank Conroy): Now, let’s see here. Where did I put that? Ah, here it is. Unsolved Murders. Hah! You know, I almost forgot it. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep a wink tonight. Wondering who murdered who and why.

Raymond Wrede, the Secretary (Ralph Morgan):  How any intelligent man can read that drivel is beyond me, Brisbane.

The next morning, His brother, Archer Coe, who has a contentious relationship with his entire family, is found dead upstairs. The police declare it an apparent suicide … enter Philo Vance and his dog! While they’re searching the dead man’s room — which features another shot from the closet and behind a line of suit jackets, mirroring the earlier shot through the bookshelf — Philo gathers clues that his brother, Brisbane, had returned home from the train station. But the question remains, “What did he do with his bag?”

A little over a half-hour into the film, Philo leads the detectives to Grand Central Station, where they locate Brisbane’s bag. Philo takes out the Unsolved Murders book, which has a bookmark opening up to a chapter that includes a description just like the murder scene of his brother.

“… the door was locked from the inside…”

KennelMurderCaseChapter2

Philo Vance, after following the book’s description, demonstrates to the police how the lock was locked from the outside. He then gathers clues that the murder was actually committed downstairs in the library, not upstairs where the body was discovered! A series of witness statements follow, featuring more shots of the library and its distinctive double doors, as seen below.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot of 'The Kennel Murder Case'

Gathering statements and clues like a dog sniffing in the garden for a bone, Philo Vance uncovers a double murder, canine abuse (!), and a case of mistaken identity. The film also concludes in the library, where it all began. So although the film does not feature a reel librarian, a library and a specific book provide both the central setting — and catalyst — for the central murder mystery.

Thrilling indeed!