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.

DraculaFest: The Hammer Sequels, Part 1

Hammer Films followed up Horror of Dracula with eight other sequels throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Here’s my take on the first half of that creeptacular catalog.

Brides6The Brides of Dracula (1960): A better title might be The Brides of Some Other Random Vampire, for Dracula does not appear here and is mentioned as dead before it begins. The return of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing takes some of the sting out of Christopher Lee’s absence. Young teacher Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) finds herself without lodging and accepts an invitation from Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt). Marianne discovers the Baroness’ son (David Peel) shackled in another room and takes it upon herself to free him. Too bad the young baron is a vampire who uses the opportunity to kill his mother and embark on a biting spree in a nearby village. Bummer. Good thing Van Helsing arrives and runs into Marianne, who is clueless about the evil she’s wrought. Interestingly, Baron Meinster manages what Dracula never could and bites Van Helsing (!), who promptly cures himself with a hot brand and a sprinkling of holy water. Why doesn’t this work for any other victims? A harrowing chase ends as Van Helsing arranges the blades of a windmill into the shadow of a cross, which is more than the young vampire can bear. Hilarious. Dracula’s absence is keenly felt but, perhaps because of this lack of Drac, Hammer focused instead on story for once, and it’s not all that bad. Drags in the middle, though. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966): Christopher Lee returns! As does Horror of Dracula director Terence Fisher, which accounts for why it’s more stylish and tense than later outings. Out of the blue, Dracula has a servant named Klove (Philip Latham), who lures a group of travelers to Dracula’s castle in hopes of reviving the Count. Klove murders Alan (Charles Tingwell) and scatters his blood on Dracula’s ashes, reviving the titular vampire. His wife becomes supper as the other couple–Charles and Diana, I shit you not (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer)–flee to a neighboring village. They seek the aid of Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a poor substitute for Van Helsing, and are betrayed by fly-eating Renfield stand-in Ludwig (Thorley Walters). The final battle results in another silly and unsatisfying end for Dracula as he falls through some cracked ice, because now running water also kills vampires. Of course it does. Next he’ll probably die by smearing peanut butter on his face. Despite the dumb and abrupt ending, this film stands up to the original Horror in ways the other sequels do not. Welcome back, Mr. Lee! 1.25 out of 2 fangs out.

dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave-the-first-stakingDracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968): Church workers discover the body of a woman hanging in the belfry, drained of blood. This can only mean Dracula has returned! Except he’s still frozen in ice from the last film, so he couldn’t have done it. Logic–who needs it? The local monsignor (Rupert Davies) climbs up to Dracula’s castle and performs an exorcism, sealing the door with a huge and gaudy crucifix so the vampire can not escape. Except he’s still frozen in ice down the hill, so he’s trapped outside instead. Oops. A silly accident breaks the ice and frees Dracula, who’s pissed that his castle has been sealed and embarks on one of his signature rampages. The priest and our young hero Paul (Barry Andrews) trap the Count and drive a stake through his heart. Except the movie conveniently updates the vampire death ritual to also require a prayer now, and Paul is an atheist. Wah wah. His lack of faith allows Dracula to survive and remove his own stake. Too bad Dracula ain’t an atheist, too, so none of this religious memorabilia would work on him, right? Hijinks ensue until the Count falls off a cliff and somehow lands on the gaudy crucifix from before, impaling himself right through the heart. Shades of Return of Dracula! The whole thing is hokey as hell, and Peter Cushing is sorely missed, but it’s more fun than a lot of the later Hammer joints. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970): A trio of bored old men leave their families at night and seek adventure in brothels and taverns. Sinister occultist Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates) appeals to their love of danger and enlists their help in resurrecting Dracula. Okay? They purchase the Count’s remains from a merchant who happened to show up as Dracula died and turned to dust at the end of Risen. (I guess the Monsignor and Paul just walked off and left him struggling on that crucifix?) Courtley drinks Dracula’s reconstituted blood and convulses on the floor. The old men freak out and have second thoughts–imagine that!–and beat him to death with their walking sticks. Somehow Courtley’s corpse turns into Dracula, who swears revenge on the old men. It’s an interesting premise even if it is rendered ineptly. The men are themselves so heinous to their families that Dracula becomes a sort of avenging antihero; you may even cheer as one or two them get taken out, crossed off Dracula’s to-do list. (“The first!” “The second!”) Drac leaves most of the killing to young lasses in his thrall, including Alice (Linda Hayden), the daughter of the most psychotic of the old men. A young man named Paul (Anthony Higgins)–déjà vu, but no, this is apparently not the young Paul from the last film–decides to decorate Dracula’s lair with church memorabilia. The Count returns home, freaks out over all the religious paraphernalia, and promptly turns to dust. What? Anticlimax of the century. The potential of the premise drifts away in the second act much like vampire remains in a stiff wind. .75 out of 2 fangs out.

Next time: Hammer’s back half, in more ways than one.

DraculaFest: Horror of Dracula

It’s fitting that, after the grand excesses of Coppola and crew, we arrive at a stripped-down, bare bones version of the vampire tale. Horror of Dracula (1958)–or just plain Dracula for the home audience in the UK–is the second film in the classic horror era of Hammer Films, a low-budget British production company. Following on the heels of the wildly successful The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer introduced the Prince of Darkness to Technicolor, with a touch of Grand Guignol that shocked audiences used to the black-and-white Universal reels of previous decades.

Let it bleed, now in Technicolor!

Let it bleed, now in Technicolor!

No room for star-crossed romance here–there are veins to open. Christopher Lee‘s Dracula, though vaguely aristocratic at first, has no use for skirt-chasing unless the owner is his blood type. Director Terence Fisher wastes no time getting into the bloodletting. At a scant 82 minutes, this version of the tale is the shortest yet. Shortcuts abound: Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), no longer a real estate agent but a vampire hunter in his own right, already knows the Count’s true nature and has accepted a position as castle librarian (!) in order to stake the bloodsucker himself. On finding Dracula’s resting place, he inexplicably bypasses him in order to stake his undead bride, allowing Dracula to wake up and put the bite on Harker–like a chump. Distraught over his friend’s death, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) delivers the bad news to Harker’s fiance, Mina (Melissa Stribling)–who, for some reason, is now the sister of Lucy’s fiance Arthur (Michael Gough, later Batman’s butler). None of those others really matter, though, as the rest of the film is devoted to a showdown between Cushing and Lee, the twin pillars of Hammer horror.

That’s about it, really. Van Helsing effects a surprisingly agile jump from the table onto the curtains and brings them down, turning his quarry into some type of lumpy Play-Doh creature with disturbing, human eyes. Then Dracula disperses to the wind without comment while credits roll. No muss, no fuss.

Lousy choice of decor, Count.

Lousy choice of decor, Count.

This version takes place in Germany for some reason, despite the Anglo names and accents. It’s supposedly 1885, despite the electric lights and ’50s fashions. I like to imagine the Hammer films taking place in their own reality, an alt-world where Saruman and Alfred Pennyworth and Grand Moff Tarkin tumble through karmic revenge cycles for eternity. Lee and Cushing, both veterans of the previous Frankenstein film and destined to carry the Hammer brand for over a decade, make accomplished rivals. Lee’s Dracula speaks only thirteen lines of dialogue, spending the rest of the film springing from doorways and snarling at potential victims. It’s a classic Count, the perfect delivery vessel for Technicolor blood spatters, and it’s a lot of fun. Cushing finds a rare opportunity to side with the good guys for a change. He’s just as much fun dispatching vampires as in his more scheming roles. Scattered attempts at humor would seem out of place if the whole thing weren’t so British: during the final chase, a border crossing guard repairs the gate arm that Dracula has busted through just in time for… I’m sure you can guess the rest.

Hammer occupied a unique niche in the history of horror, filling the gap between the waning Universal monsters and the resurgent Hollywood horror of the ’70s and ’80s. Hammer produced eight other Dracula films with varying degrees of success. Horror of Dracula is perhaps the purest of them all, the closest the studio came to the classic version of the Count. Some of the later films invite exploration, while some provide a good cure for insomnia. I’ll likely revisit the Hammer world at some point, because it’s a reality all its own and one well worth visiting.

Horror of Dracula earns 1.5 out of 2 fangs out, dripping in Technicolor blood.

Up next: None more black!