The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Horror of Dracula

Revisit a horror classic that co-starred two major Star Wars actors.

Count Dooku and Grand Moff Tarkin are names familiar to Star Wars fans, but slightly less familiar might be the names of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. They were the actors who gave life to those characters in the original Star Wars films, and though they never appeared on screen together in a Star Wars film, they were one of the greatest on-screen duos (or nemeses) that cinema has ever seen.

Together, they appeared in 22 films beginning with Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. They grew to notoriety starring in pictures for Hammer Films, starring in horror films ranging from 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein to 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula. In between, they starred in adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, The Mummy, and every other sort of horror film you could imagine.

The Hammer Horror films took the world by storm and many of them in that era starred either Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing or both.

During this horror movie season, I re-viewed their second Hammer collaboration, 1958’s Horror of Dracula. The film itself is a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, changing many details, but remaining true to its spirit. While Christopher Lee plays the title character, Peter Cushing plays Dr. Van Helsing, hellbent on destroying Dracula by any means necessary. Cushing’s Van Helsing is a charming but driven man who hides in shadows, lurking through graveyards and crypts, seeking to rid the Earth of Count Dracula. The way the story goes is not unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lurking in the shadows of Geonosis, hunting down a Count of his own. Both Obi-Wan and Van Helsing are singular in their goal, subtle when they need to be, but not afraid of running from a fight.

And could it merely be a coincidence that when Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula is cornered and angry, his eyes turn blood-red and yellow, just as a Sith’s do?

Lee and Cushing made a mark on the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, and it made perfect sense for George Lucas to seek out Cushing to play the role of a bad guy in A New Hope. By all accounts, Lucas wanted a strong actor for the part of Tarkin since he’d have to play off the essentially blank slate of Darth Vader (played bodily by another Hammer Horror veteran, Dave Prowse.) Peter Cushing was cast and the rest is history.

But with the release of James Luceno’s Tarkin, we’re given one more taste of a Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing collaboration. Luceno’s book captures the voice of Peter Cushing, as Tarkin, from the era of the Hammer Horror films. Through the novel, Tarkin thinks back on his life before the fall of the Republic and his time before the Clone Wars and recounts a scene where Count Dooku is trying to convince him to join the Separatists. It’s brilliantly written in the same style of language one would expect when you marry the prequel era with the Hammer films.

Stephen Stanton, who provided Tarkin’s voice for The Clone Wars also went to the old Hammer Horror films for inspiration, doing his best to recreate what Cushing would have sounded like as Tarkin as a younger man. His work is flawless and is almost as synonymous with Tarkin now as Cushing himself.

But without the work of the Hammer Film studio, it’s very likely that none of these things would have made their way into the galaxy far, far away.

For those looking to watch Hammer Horror films with the kids, Horror of Dracula is a great place to start. It’s elegant and a bit dry, but exciting as well. And if they’re Star Wars fans, they’ll love seeing Tarkin as the good guy. The film itself is not rated and the violence is bloody but cartoony compared to today’s standards.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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