This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
After Hammer Film Productions lit the fuse of the gothic horror revival with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, 1958 is the year when the genre really explodes once again, and the new wave of imitators surpasses even the sci-fi horror films of the day, which are still going strong. Keynoted by Terence Fisher’s sumptuous Horror of Dracula, the horror genre has arguably its strongest overall year of the 1950s.
On the sci-fi side of the spectrum, we have a number of classics both major and minor, from the surprisingly gory killer brains of Fiend Without a Face to low budget drive-in cheese fests such as the similarly titled I Married a Monster From Outer Space and It! The Terror From Beyond Space. More influential on the pop cultural consciousness are two films that would both inspire gorier 1980s remakes: The Fly and The Blob.
Of the two, it’s the original version of The Fly that holds up better to modern viewing. Playing essentially like a suspenseful murder mystery with science fiction elements, it reintroduced horror audiences to Vincent Price after 1953’s House of Wax. This would be the launching pad for two decades of consistent horror performances from Price, which would see the actor collaborate heavily with budget-minded horror auteurs such as William Castle and Roger Corman. Here, though, he’s playing his role with considerably less puckishness than he’ll soon be displaying in the likes of House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler.
The year is also home to the first of Hammer’s Frankenstein sequels, The Revenge of Frankenstein, in which Peter Cushing’s doctor is secretly whisked away from the guillotine so he can continue his research in brain transplantation. This time, he actually succeeds at transplanting the brain of his hunchbacked assistant into a new, unblemished body … or so it appears. Complications unsurprisingly ensue, as Frankenstein’s life is put in danger by members of the community slowly realizing his identity, even as the new “monster” begins to deteriorate mentally and physically. It all ends with some truly inspired brain-swapping lunacy, but remains essential for the magnetic performance of Cushing, who is at his best here. It’s the first of several Frankenstein sequels that are nearly on par with the original, largely thanks to the antihero charisma of Hammer’s most important star.
1958 Honorable Mentions:
The Fly, The Revenge of Frankenstein, I Bury the Living, Lake of the Dead, Fiend Without a Face, The Blob, I Married a Monster From Outer Space
The Film: Horror of Dracula
Director: Terence Fisher
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee represented the two godfathers of Hammer Horror, and were paired up in many Hammer films—and again in productions by competing British studio Amicus, or independent films such as Horror Express—but it’s Horror of Dracula where the two have their most iconic confrontation. This is not a complex story; it’s an elemental one. Hammer’s revival of the vampire mythos trades in well-worn tropes of good vs. evil and the vampire lore established by decades of films and folk tales to this point, but it elevated those tropes to new heights through the use of sumptuous production design, vivid color, charismatic performances and professional direction.
Looking at these films from a modern perspective, it’s easy to lose sight of the novelty that was present in the gush of red tempera paint that springs forth from a stake driven into the chest of an undead blood-sucker, but to the audiences of 1958 London, New York or Los Angeles, it was a sight they’d literally never had a chance to see on the big screen. The bloodletting of both Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula ushered in a new era of cinematic violence, establishing new boundaries of good taste and what one could get past the censors. And that’s not even mentioning the increasingly plunging necklines that would follow shortly in the wake of so much Eastmancolor blood.
That blood, of course, was only a single element of Hammer Horror’s formula in films such as Horror of Dracula. Their budgets were by no means particularly muscular, but they made the most of what they had, with ornate-looking gothic manor sets, detailed period clothing and the requisite crumbling graveyards and sinister fogbanks. Terence Fisher’s lively direction was likewise a dependable element that helped launch each of the primary monster series, from Curse of Frankenstein to Horror of Dracula, The Mummy and The Curse of the Werewolf. His name emblazoned on each film helped project a sense of gravitas to these projects that is often missing in the horror genre.
And then, of course, there’s Lee himself, masterfully inhabiting the role that would define much of his career, to the actor’s own chagrin. His Dracula is an entirely different beast from the suave, exotic presence of Béla Lugosi in the 1931 Universal original, defined much more by his physicality rather than his charm. This isn’t to say that Lee’s Dracula lacks personality; rather, he radiates a sheer force of ironclad will to compel obedience, rather than achieving his means through faux romantic overtures or flowery dialog. The actor’s unusual height only adds to this Dracula’s commanding presence—he’s a largely silent puppetmaster, with a feral, bestial dark side that is only brought out in times of great duress. Believe it or not, he was the first on-screen vampire to be depicted with fangs, and it’s a completely fitting characterization, as are the crazed, bloodshot eyes. Lee’s Dracula often looks entirely out of his mind, and that only makes him a more terrifying spectacle.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.