Dracula (Christopher Lee) screams in agony in the conclusion to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
SHOCK SCENES: DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings
Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at famous scenes in horror movie history. Up today, a look at the Hammer DRACULA series, specifically the endings, those scenes where Dracula meets his demise, which is a strange thing when you think about it: the King of the Undead is an undead, immortal, and yet at the end of every movie he’s thrust back down into the world of ashes and dust. It’s a wonder how he survived so long in the first place!
Anyway, we’ll be looking at the various endings to these Dracula movies to see how Dracula met his end in each one. So, if you haven’t seen these films, be forewarned, there are spoilers galore, so consider this a major spoiler alert. If you have seen these films, read on and enjoy!
Here we go:
HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
The first Hammer Dracula film, HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) is widely considered to be Hammer Films’ best movie, as well as one of the finest Dracula movies ever made. A big reason for this is the ending. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) chases Dracula (Christopher Lee) into Castle Dracula. They scuffle, and Dracula pins Van Helsing into a corner, but the clever doctor sees a sliver of sunlight shing through the curtains, and he climbs onto the long table, runs across it, and leaps up at the window, tearing the curtains down.
The sunlight knocks Dracula to the ground, and Van Helsing keeps him there by grabbing two candlesticks and using them to make a cross, forcing Dracula into the sunlight, where the shrieking vampire disintegrates into dust before our very eyes.
This is one of those endings where once you see it, you never forget it. Hands down, this is the best ending of any Dracula/vampire movie. Ever. Period. Not even close. If you have not seen HORROR OF DRACULA, you owe it to yourself to check it out. The ending alone makes it worth it, and of course, fans know the rest of the movie is every bit as effective as its famous conclusion.
There’s lots to talk about here. First off, the special effects, for 1958, are amazing. Dracula’s disintegration looks horrific and authentic at the same time. It’s all done with a series of cutaways. The camera cuts back and forth between Dracula’s disintegration and Van Helsing’s reactions. It’s all very quick, but effective. The last stage is pretty much a dummy of a rotting Dracula head with red lights inside lighting up his eyes. It’s a really cool image.
Of course, for years, the original uncut ending was not shown to Western audiences, until just a few years ago (and I’ve written several blog posts on this along with the video links, so feel free to check them out.) when the uncut footage was discovered in a vault in Japan. The footage, which shows a few more scenes of disintegration, as well as one very cool shot of Dracula clawing the flesh off his face— again, for 1958 these were some incredibly bold effects— was finally released to European audiences but for some reason has still not been included in U.S.versions. That being said, I did include a link of this footage on my blog post so feel free to check it out.
Strangely, when Hammer chose to restore HORROR OF DRACULA several years ago and insert the “lost” scenes from the Japanese version, they didn’t include all the scenes. For some reason, there are still scenes from the finale in the Japanese version which did not make it into the recently restored print of the film. I don’t know why they were not restored. Anyway, if you check YouTube, you can sometimes find the complete ending from the Japanese version.
The other reason this ending stood out in 1958 was before this, the endings to the Universal DRACULA series had been pretty much anticlimactic. Heck, Dracula was staked off camera in the original Lugosi DRACULA (1931) and none of the subsequent Universal films contained dramatic endings, but that’s a story for another column.
A few other items about the ending to HORROR OF DRACULA: supposedly, it was Peter Cushing himself who suggested the infamous run across the table and leap to tear down the curtains from the window. The original script had Van Helsing taking out a crucifix from inside his coat to ward off Dracula, but as Cushing once put it, he felt like a “crucifix salesman” pulling out crosses in nearly every scene, and so he suggested the more dramatic leaping from the table.
And as far as I know, since I’ve never read or heard otherwise, that is Peter Cushing himself and not a stuntman making that run and leap at the curtains. If anyone out there has information to the contrary, I’d love to hear from you.
Of course, the ending takes liberties with the tradition of a crucifix warding off a vampire. In this ending, rather than using a blessed religious crucifix, Van Helsing forms two candlesticks into the shape of a cross and uses that to fend of Dracula. It probably shouldn’t work, but it sure makes for great cinema! And it also has made it into vampire lore. In one of my favorite lines from the vampire movie FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996) George Clooney asks the folks trapped with him by the gang of vampires what they know about vampires, and one guy suggests making crosses out of anything they can find. When Clooney asks if that will work, the guy replies, “Peter Cushing does it all the time.”
HORROR OF DRACULA not only contains the best ending in the Hammer Dracula series, but it’s also the most dramatic and memorable ending of any Dracula movie period.
It’s one for the horror movie history books.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)
Christopher Lee declined to play Dracula again in Hammer’s proposed sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA from fear of being typecast. Of course, he would change his mind several years later.
But in 1960 Hammer went ahead without Lee and made THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), a film that in spite of its title did not feature Dracula, but instead one of Dracula’s disciples, Baron Meinster (David Peel). Hammer did get Peter Cushing to return to play Van Helsing once again.
The ending to THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, while not as memorable as the ending to HORROR OF DRACULA, is very good. The film was directed by Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher, who also directed HORROR, and he goes all out with this one. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA may be the best looking of the Hammer DRACULAS- it’s certainly the most atmospheric, and is one of the most atmospheric vampire movies ever made. For some fans, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is their favorite Hammer Dracula, and considering that Christopher Lee isn’t in the movie,that’s saying quite a lot.
The ending, as directed by Fisher, is every bit as atmospheric as the rest of the film. One of my favorite shots is when Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) enters the old windmill in search of Baron Meinster. Its shot with purple lighting, and Van Helsing is backlit, and it makes for an indelible image. It’s also reminiscent of the scene in THE EXORCIST (1973) when Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) first enters Regan’s home. I’ve often wondered if EXORCIST director William Friedkin was influenced by this scene in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.
One of the most memorable parts of the ending comes when Meinster and Van Helsing battle, and this time Meinster wins and actually bites Van Helsing, setting up one of the most memorable scenes in the film, where Van Helsing uses a hot poker to burn the bites on his neck before dousing them with holy water, in effect curing him of the vampire’s bite. Once again, Hammer takes liberties with vampire lore, but it again sure makes grand horror cinema!
Later, Van Helsing burns Meinster’s face with holy water, setting up the film’s dramatic conclusion, where Van Helsing leaps onto the wings of the windmill, using it to form a shadow of a cross which falls on Meinster and destroys him. Terence Fisher purposely did not show the shadow of the windmill but only of the wings, and he did this for full dramatic cinematic effect.
As Hammer Dracula endings go, this one is one of the more understated, as Meinster simply collapses, and we do not see him distintegrate. For story purposes, this makes sense, since unlike Dracula who was centuries old, Baron Meinster had only been a vampire for a relatively brief time.
The ending to THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, like the rest of the movie, is wonderfully atmospheric and cinematic.
Of course, this wasn’t the original ending. Originally, Van Helsing was to use a little black magic to conjure up the forces of darkness to unleash a barrage of vampire bats which would descend upon Baron Meinster and tear him apart. Peter Cushing objected to this sequence because he felt it out of character for Van Helsing to turn to black magic rather than religion and science, and I agree with him. I’m glad they changed it. Hammer would use a variation of the vampire bats sequence for the ending to their next vampire movie, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1964), which once more did not feature Dracula.
That’s it for now. Join me next time for Part 2 of SHOCK SCENES: DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings, when we’ll look at the endings of the next two Hammer Dracula movies, DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968).
See you then!