DraculaFest: The Hammer Sequels, Part 2

463827Scars of Dracula (1970): You may recall Dracula ended his last outing as a heap of ashes on a slab in his own hideout. Scars begins with a vampire bat flying in and dripping blood from its mouth onto Dracula’s remains, et voilà! He lives again! No, I didn’t leave anything out. As time wears on Hammer becomes less interested in the mechanics of storytelling and just wants to show Dracula killing people, dammit. Fair enough. This film also veers into Russ Myers-style T&A territory with brief nudity and sleazy innuendoes. For the third film in a row we have a young man named Paul (Christopher Matthews), a Lothario on the run from the local burgomaster after shagging his daughter. Some villagers try to burn Dracula’s castle, but his loyal bats invade the village church and kill their families while they are gone. Oh, snap! I guess religious iconography doesn’t bother the bats. Dracula kills Paul as he tries to leave the castle–for those keeping score, that’s Pauls 2-Dracula 1–and burns his servant Klove (Patrick Troughton) for attempting to save the lovely Sarah (Jenny Hanley). Several barely connected scenes later, Dracula pursues Sarah and Paul’s brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) outside during a thunderstorm, and is promptly struck by lightning and set on fire. The end. Random in, random out. A certified mess with a few decent scenes of carnage. .5 out of 2 fangs out.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972): After six films in the vaguely Victorian setting of the novel, Hammer brings Dracula into the Swinging Seventies! At least we get a new time and place, which infuses some energy back into the series. A.D. serves as a reboot, informing us that Dracula was killed by Van Helsing in London’s Hyde Park back in 1872. Yes, Van Helsing. Peter Cushing is back, and not a minute too soon! We’re off to a sloooow start with a groovy but interminable dance party in swinging London. The story kicks in once vampire wannabe Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) talks his hip young friends into performing a Satanic ritual in an abandoned church. (Yes, they overexplain the ALUCARD=DRACULA thing just as much as Universal did.) Turns out he holds the remains of Dracula, as scooped up in Hyde Park by one of his ancestors, and spills blood on the remains in order to restore the Count’s body. One of the partiers is Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), granddaughter of the grandson of the original vampire slayer (also played by Cushing). Her grandfather pursues the kidnapped Jessica, defeating Johnny Alucard with a bathtub full of running water (!). Dracula and the hand-me-down Van Helsing face off in the final act, and the Count is dispatched with a knife and shovel set to incongruous funk music. Silly, yes, but at least it’s not another romp in that faux-German, anachronistic village of yore. .75 out of 2 fangs out.

hammer3The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973): Christopher Lee’s last outing as Dracula finds him still stuck in the Seventies (sorry, Count) and hobnobbing with Satanists. Part horror flick, part conspiracy thriller, part exploitation vehicle, all ridiculous. Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing and gives one of his best performances in the role. Too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that legacy. Dracula remains absent for most of the running time, leaving Van Helsing to track down the cult enacting deadly rituals across London. Said rituals involve plenty of nudity, buckets of oversaturated blood and laughable overacting. Things pick up a bit once Dracula is unmasked as a mysterious businessman named Denham in a terrific and unusual office showdown with Van Helsing. Lee makes the most of his swan song with several great Evil Overlord monologues about his plan to spread an apocalyptic plague using the cult leaders as his unwitting Horsemen. Aha, so there is a tenuous connection between Dracula and all the silly Satanism. Unfortunately this film features what has to be the dumbest of the Count’s dumb Hammer deaths, stumbling into a hawthorn bush–which Van Helsing helpfully informs us is the bush used to fashion Christ’s crown of thorns. Van Helsing breaks off a nearby fence post and stakes the Count while he’s writhing around in a bush. The end. Despite a few great moments, Rites is an unsatisfying send-off for one of the most iconic Draculas in cinema. 0.5 out of 2 fangs out.

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974): I am happy to live in a world where Hammer Films collaborated with Shaw Brothers Studio, the legendary wuxia production house in Hong Kong. Legend is a crazy hybrid of English blood-and-guts horror and Hong Kong wirework martial arts. Neither house is known for engrossing plot work, but the action sure is visceral. Peter Cushing issues his last take on Van Helsing and turns the vampire hunter into a swashbuckling forebear of Indiana Jones. Alas, Christopher Lee is replaced here by John Forbes-Robinson. A Chinese shaman named Kah (Shen Chan) journeys to Transylvania to seek Dracula’s help in restoring the legendary golden vampires of his village. Dracula decides to take over Kah’s body and replace him as ruler of the Chinese village. Meanwhile, Van Helsing and his son Leyland (Robin Stewart) journey to China to hunt Eastern vampires. Nice coincidence! The doctor’s lecture attracts the attention of Hsi Ching (David Chiang), a descendent of the cursed village held in thrall by the golden vampires. After a perilous journey–with many king fu ambush scenes, natch–the entourage arrives at the legendary temple and defeats the vampires one by one. When only Kah remains, Van Helsing recognizes the voice of his old adversary and goads Dracula into revealing himself–so he can be chased and staked by the good doctor one last time. Strictly as a Dracula film this is pretty weak sauce. But it’s a fun romp with a unique blend of Eastern and Western tropes you won’t see elsewhere. Too bad Lee couldn’t have been persuaded to don the cape one last time, to complete the Hammer Dracula cycle. Watch it anyway. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Final thoughts: Hammer ruled the monster scene for over two decades, taking the crown from Universal and keeping it until the unprecedented resurgence of American horror in the late ’70s and ’80s. The influence of the Hammer catalog cannot be overstated. They envisioned a truly monstrous Dracula, not a charmer or romantic figure. Christopher Lee broke the dominant persona of Lugosi, transforming the Count into an embodiment of evil. That singular focus, however, limited the appeal of these films to pure mindless entertainment. Dracula’s increasingly preposterous deaths turned the vampire into an object of ridicule as more and more mundane household items were added to his list of weaknesses. Ignoring the silly storytelling, however, Hammer kept the Dracula myth alive during a fallow American period, and it’s likely the reason interest in the Count remains strong today.

Like Universal’s famous village, Hammer’s films exist in vague, anachronistic space and time. Ren Faire tavern wenches and King-George-era English nobles coexist in ersatz German towns. Continuity ebbs and flows, creating tenuous connections between films and then challenging them with inconsistencies. As pure escapism, however, the classic Hammer catalog provides many scares–and laughs. Just don’t think about it too much.

Next time: One last film! I thought I was done, but realized I neglected Christopher Lee’s sole non-Hammer role as Count Dracula. That won’t do! So it’s once more into the teeth.