Category Archives: 2 stars

Skyfall (2012)

Holy uninspired poster campaign! All the posters are truly bad this time, still leaving the “flame girl” advance from THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH as the last good one.

A review by a Bond fan for Bond fans, kept spoiler-free

A over generous 2 stars out of 4. As a Bond Film no rating.

What a mess Mum.

Daniel Craig’s “Bond” returns for a third outing, and possibly the most uninspired. Here we have an older agent who is initially caught up in a uninvolving chase which results in him being left for dead. After taking an extended vacation as a dead man, “Bond” only returns after a series of attacks begin to be carried out upon MI6 and more specifically targeted against M as if there is someone with a personal motive for exacting revenge.

“Bond” follows loose plot strands that take him to Shanghai, Macau, an unnamed island, London and finally Scotland all in the pursuit of the film’s antagonist, cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who when actually onscreen easily steals the film. Silva orchestrates elaborate means to get at M (Judi Dench) for reasons as yet unknown.

This plot is rather stupidly simple once revealed and in the end leaves one wondering what exactly the point of it was since the objective was so obvious and delayed to fill a 143 minute runtime. From the opening pre-title sequence (still no gunbarrel opening) there is a stunning unwieldiness to the film that never lets up. This comes to a head during the film’s unwelcome third act which reeks far too much of some unnecessary bad pseudo-psychoanalysis of “Bond’s” childhood and a mixture of Straw Dogs (1971).

Dench is finally given something to do as M after seventeen uneventful years, and after only gradually getting increased roles as Purvis and Wade progressed through their tenure, now emerges as essentially the lead Bond girl. The two other female leads are merely tools plot advancement and quickly disappear with little or no consequence. Bardem is entertaining, fascinating and actually does recall some of Fleming’s villain style. His performance is effortless and one really wishes that he would have been onscreen far longer and actually developed far more than simply generalized Bond villain no. 5 plot structure. The introduction of a new Q (Ben Whishaw) is obviously well labored over though, he sadly becomes little more than the obligatory computer operator inside the HQ to forward the plot. Additionally the Mallory character (Ralph Fiennes) is similarly unfulfilled and is merely there to facilitate his character’s eventual placement. (which admittedly is something I actually look forward to in Bond 24.)

I have never faulted Daniel Craig as an actor for being in films that I so completely loathed as both a critic and lifelong Bond fan. The character became timeless long ago and is open to untold amounts of interpretations, much like Sherlock Holmes or Batman. The problem that began with the “reboot” of Casino Royale (2006) is that by taking “Bond” back to his beginnings most of the essential elements of his character that Ian Fleming created were left on the cutting room floor. With the successive entries there has been the sense of gaining back Bondian elements to eventually present the complete character once more several films down the road. In the ending of Skyfall, this idea is upheld to its maximum and essentially reveals the film to be little more than a bridging vehicle between the un-Bond of these films and a new hybrid in the classic mold to be presented in the two new film under Craig’s new contract.

In Skyfall, Craig presents a character who is both older and wiser in the ways of intelligence work. He is presented a the senior officer who knows the ropes all too well and after being knocked down must regain himself in both the eyes of MI6 and his own. With a steelier gaze, rough stubble and more thoughtful characterization, this is easily his best performance. For the first time there are glimpses of a 007 instead of an unnamed cheeky thug who happened to be promoted to the 00 section in a time of necessity. But these are few and far between, as this is not the adventures of a secret agent on his own but rather a intelligence operative who is constantly in contact with his superiors and bureaucracy at every turn. Since when does Bond need confirmation and inescapable guidance to complete a mission? The fantasy and adventure is all but gone in this new era of “007”, still in favor of Bourne flavored frenetic narrative juxtaposed with failed attempts at a sort of Bondian grandeur.

The execution of the film works against itself, especially in the direction which is virtually nonexistent. There is no real style evident, no defined pacing, and the acts merely bang together instead of being constructed into a well flowing narrative. With Quantum of Solace I has become worried that they were attempting to spruce up the opinion of the Bond film by having relatively art house directors make Bonds, and Sam Mendes does absolutely nothing of worth here to warrant his winning of the reins. Skyfall is just as cold and unmoving  as Mendes’ previous film with Craig, Road to Perdition (2002). The best of the Bond directors have a tight grip despite whatever their leanings may be, and this is almost completely overlooked by general reviewers who instead focus on the lead actor. What is so sorely needed is the guiding force of a Terrence Young, Guy Hamilton, Peter Hunt, hell even another John Glen.

The much written about cinematography is uninspired, though filling the scope frame out nicely. Composition is certainly there, but lacking in definition and polish. This partially comes from shooting on the Arri Alexa camera with a maximum resolution far short of 4K resolution. For a series that has always had capable and clear cinematography as a part of its arsenal, this was a major disappointment. And I cannot think as to what people will be seeing in IMAX, blown up from such a small source. Color is blown up in select sequences to enhance the setting and overall an effect is made to heighten the visual look to achieve a sense of depth to create flair with both modern and “classic” sensibilities. It fails to do this. Primarily the film looks flat, dull and washed out.

The sound mix is completely uninvolving, with the banal score even drowning out most effects that are badly mixed. Surround usage is virtually nonexistent, and the Dolby presentation as always far too polite and restrained. Long gone are the days of even the Brosnan era with pulverizing mindblowing 5.1 tracks that defy all logic.

The score is forgettable and even manages to somehow out-monotonize David Arnold. It could belong in any other film save for the requisite Bond theme placements to remind the audience that thy are actually watching a Bond film. Adele’s title song is equally forgettable and sleep inducing, despite finally having a throwback touch to the choice of performer that isn’t merely a throwaway. The title sequence is too literal and badly cut to the song itself.

With the film’s ending (featuring a Dark Knight Rises-style facepalm inducing character reveal) being a heavily classicized variant on the exact same scene that came about halfway through Die Another Day (2002) there is a sense of regaining the classic elements of the series that have been lost over time. This is certainly a step in the right direction, especially with the loss of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade as screenwriters, but it also underlines the fact that Bond hasn’t truly been Bond in a very long time. 25 years in fact. Here Bond is still in the shadows of others, namely Jason Bourne, and is not yet himself again. At some point the producers will find the plot again and perhaps 007 will be both characteristically and cinematically unique onscreen as created 50 years ago.

Skyfall?……more like Skyfail.

 

Note: The added 50 years logo is a bit heavy handed in its placement. As is the now obligatory Bond product placement. The film even began with a Bond commercial for Omega in the trailers. Also, I write Bond and 007 in quotes as still despite having three films there has not yet been a true Bond character present in either Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace or Skyfall.

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Filed under 2 stars, Film Review, James Bond

The Dark Knight (2008)

2 stars out of 4. Unbelievably confused and completely perplexing because it should have never been like this.

It has often been said that a Batman story lives and dies on the strength of its villains. This is a slight miscalculation. A Batman story lives or dies on the strength of its story. This is something that The Dark Knight both prides itself on and ultimately is its biggest failure.

There are moments of depth and great insight, but these are like the IMAX sequences, in a word: fleeting. The Dark Knight is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be and neither does its main character. This is the key problem. I felt at times as if I were watching some other guy running around in body armor and not Batman.

Though flawed, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is so completely full of subtext and feeling that it remains a good film, if not an even more entertaining one twenty-three years on. Where’s the feeling in The Dark Knight? The characters are so broadly painted that if we did not know it was a Batman story, there would be little to ever care about. Fans may decry that I am overlooking the late Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as the Joker with this criticism, but as brilliant as his performance is…IT. DOESN’T. MATTER. IF. YOU. DON’T. EVER. GIVE. THE. CHARACTER. ANYTHING. TO. DO. ISOLATED. SCENES. DO . NOT. A. CHARACTER. MAKE.

And that’s what this overlong film really is, a collection of isolated scenes and setpieces that are cut together in such an incoherent and confusing way so that we become so confused that whatever the film says must be gospel. These are collected in an uninspired attempt to create a large story arc of defining importance when in fact all this does is hollow out every single bit of depth that was established by Batman Begins.

As I watched this unfold in the theater, I found myself at first confused. It was confusing as a story on the surface, but what began eating away at me was the simple fact that there was no sort of resonance to anything in the film. Executive producer and Batman historian Michael Uslan has said of the 1960’s TV series that he felt “the whole world was laughing at Batman.” Well, experiencing The Dark Knight made me feel as if the whole world was being spoon-fed a heavily watered down version of Batman and even more disconcerting was the fact that they took to it like mad.

When something becomes a worldwide phenomenon, it can be quite lonely and hard to be the one voice of dissension. So, as with the issues I had on Begins, I again thought it was my own mistake and that there must be something I was missing. Everyone couldn’t be wrong.

The passage of time and revisiting the film twice has told me one thing: I was not mistaken.

 

The film sets us up with a new Gotham after the events of Begins. It has been a few years, and through his efforts, The Batman has been able to clean up a definite percentage of the city’s streets and instill a deepening confidence in some Gothamites. The main conflict is now between the police and the more centralized Mob in a never-ending tug of war political battle. Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) has his “secret” aid in the Bat (Christian Bale)  and gains a new public ally in the form of new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who is hell bent on crushing the Mob once and for all. Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) remains Bruce’s love interest but shows far more attraction to her new boss which creates a complicated love triangle where one guy seemingly just doesn’t get it. Into this mess is thrown a Joker (Heath Ledger) who orchestrates everything and everyone in his path into absolute doom.

The Mob attempts to hide their money with a wily Chinese accountant who actually absconds with their funds for “protection”. The Joker bursts in upon this little meeting and makes his first demand of the Mob that they pay him to kill the Bat who has caused their fear of doing business.  They laugh at this ridiculous scheme but when the Joker warns of Batman having no jurisdiction he is proven correct. Batman goes to Hong Kong and returns the embezzler to Gordon. This leads to a mass trial of the entire Mob on misdemeanor charges simply to make a statement and have clear streets for a short while.

This pushes the Mob to back the Joker’s mad plan and essentially accept his “contract-for-hire”. Of course, the Joker has no real plans except his own mad vision of chaos that only he could envision. He inventively dispatches the judge and Police Commissioner and demands Batman’s identity revealed otherwise innocents will start dying.

As Batman, this situation should present an extreme test on one’s moral conscience and on the obsession with vengeance. As the ever-faithful Alfred (Michael Caine) simply states when Bruce asks “What would you have me do?”, Batman would could and should “Endure.”

Of course this incarnation does nothing of the sort and plans to turn himself in. Before he can do this, Harvey Dent claims he is the Batman and is suitably arrested. Then what follows is an extremely long and convoluted chase sequence where the Joker attempts to destroy a convoy transporting Dent to prison with Batman attempting to hold the mad clown at bay. What makes this fall apart is the incomprehensible editing and design of the sequence which absolutely ruins any chance of it working. It takes until the final moment of the sequence with the Joker standing in the middle of the road playing chicken for things to finally make any sense or be of any interest.

The Joker is captured, and Dent cleared to reveal an elaborate police hoax to catch the Clown Prince of Crime. However, Dent and Rachel disappear any only the Joker knows where…

To make an already long story much shorter, Dent becomes Two-Face at the Joker’s hand and holds the world at large responsible for the destruction of his life. A Wayne Enterprises accountant realizes Batman’s identity and attempt to go public with it. The Joker re-utilizes his same plan and threatens the lives of every hospitalized person is the puny bean counter is allowed to live. In the midst of chaos, he slips into Dent’s hospital room and actually convinces the man he destroyed to take his revenge upon the world.

Two-Face begins going through the city and exacting his own brand of justice on any and all he deems responsible for his misfortunes, of course using his lucky coin. The Joker blows up a hospital and takes some hostages. He later sets up a scheme to distract the police with two ferries rigged to explode. Each has a detonator set to explode the other boat and a strict time limit in which they must decide. One boat contains hardened criminals and prisoners, the other full of innocent civilians.

This scene goes on far too long and effectively undoes any tension it may have instilled in the audience. Batman then supersedes the police force in taking down the Joker, who reveals his ace in the hole: the newly pissed off Two-Face.

Now there is yet another conclusion to add to the already innumerable amount of conclusions, where we are told that the knowledge of Harvey’s misdeeds in madness would undo all the good work done by the police. Because people are just stupid, I suppose. There is a big hoopla about Batman being made to order for the blame and so he must now run off into the night and be hunted by the very law enforcement he once worked hand in hand with. The semblance of a score picks up and we are supposed to feel some kind of exhausted exhilaration that Batman is the hero we deserve, “a dark knight”. It feels seemingly like a grand dramatic conclusion but on the whole it really isn’t, not with the story we’ve just been told. It is another puzzle piece that has been shoved into a spot where it really doesn’t fit.

True actual interest lies only in the small moments. This is primarily due to the fact that the story is so broad that the only humanity is displayed in simple interactions between characters about mortal problems. The instance where Batman realizes that the Joker holds both his salvation and his dream hostage grabs out attention because there a definable issue at stake as opposed to simply the sanctity of Gotham.

Only the supporting characters are fleshed out enough to invoke our care or worry. The main characters are drawn so broadly that the universe that they inhabit and the ground rules are left to be established by the supporting cast. The Joker here is defined as an agitator who works primarily behind the scenes in order to create chaos and mayhem. This would be fine if the script decided to use him for something other than plot facilitation. Michael Caine’s Alfred is again so completely interesting that you often wish the film were actually about him, and that Bruce had died or gone on holiday or something.

Christopher Nolan has cited Heat (1995) as an influence on TDK’s methods, a film which exhibits some of the exact same symptoms of this film right down to the convoluted plot falling apart in an overlong runtime. The characters seemed just as broad and empty, a trait that I find shared in nearly every Michael Mann film. (Oddly there are two bits uselessly appropriated from the Bond films in TDK.)

Christian Bale’s voice as Batman has long been a joke due to its severe overdone hoarseness. The moment where he declares the difference between Batman and copycats as the fact that he is “NOT WEARING HOCKEY PADS” has become the lynchpin for such horribly over the top line delivery. (It was recently revealed that this was overly enhanced in post-production.)

Seeing the film in its intended quasi-IMAX presentation opened up the visuals to some extent but ultimately proved to be worthless, as only certain sequences were shot in the format. For a film shot on 35mm and processed for film, this is a very uninspiring look for Gotham. Then again, it is merely a redressed Chicago in order to tie in with the film’s desire to place the comic books in a real world setting.  Gotham City becomes a nonentity altogether.  The cinematography is a bit too drab with its over-reliance on blues and fluorescent lighting with the IMAX scenes being almost a relief to get away from the style used on the Panavision scenes.

On the other production fronts, TDK is well made to a point. The editing is a seemingly intended slipshod mess. There are countless moments where it seems the edits were made with the audience directly in mind. These are done to “involve” the viewer in such a way that our brains must be actively involved in order to process the event onscreen. By changing shot order, dropping linking shots, and other subtle little tweaks and cuts this creates a highly kinetic but downright muddled vision for the brain to comprehend. There are even several jump cuts in the film that make absolutely no sense, even for a jump cut!

Knowing it was a big summer movie clocking in at 2.5 hours, I thought it would be really tightly plotted and cut to match. Coming out of the theater, I was convinced that Warner Bros. or someone else had done a big hack job on Nolan’s final edit to get something more releasable out quickly. After the relatively well plotted Begins, this just couldn’t be the way they wanted to continue. But it was. This was the final cut, and there wasn’t some longer and more relaxed edit out there. In the final release version, there’s just no time to savor, enjoy or even take in what the heck is going on. There are two moments that glaringly stand out, both of the Joker in seemingly unimportant non-dialogue shots. Both are the single instances where there are finally cracks in the wall separating comic book fantasy and reality. In the shot of the Joker standing outside the hospital in a ridiculous nurse outfit the surrealism of the scene is so great that it takes a bit of time to process. But we are not allowed the opportunity to do this and the powerful image is completely diminished. Even more regrettable is the unbelievably powerful shot of The Joker sticking his head out of the window of a speeding police car in absolute ecstasy. The trailer displayed this to great enticing effect and I looked forward to seeing this fully in context. In the final film, this is merely flashed at, ruining any chance of an emotional connection with the sequence.

I hate being told that I just don’t get something. This has been the statement I have received from many, many people over the past four years if ever expressing any sort of discontent with the supposed gospel truth of TDK. Because it was “important”, because the production had a tragedy, because it was slightly serious in tone, because it was “realistic” it seemed to be beyond mere criticism. Well, here’s some more.

Batman is nonexistent in TDK. This is a man who wears a suit of body armor because he can and because he wants to fight crime. There is no bearing on his psychological issues any longer, seemingly because these were addressed in the first film.  This Bruce Wayne is not The Batman. He is not a detective; he is not working for vengeance.  What he is doing is working out of some sort of a developed sense of civic duty. Because he became the Batman he can do things normal civilians cannot. He can go further than the law. Well of course he can, he’s a vigilante isn’t he?

Indeed what is most sorely lacking in the film is the sense of Batman, which must be present in any incarnation of the character for it to ever work. Throughout his seventy-three year existence our pointy-eared friend has seen multitudes of different interpretations. Some may be preposterous and some over serious, but they all share a common link-they are all Batman stories. This is why the 1966 Batman film can be enjoyed by a fan of The Dark Knight Returns or why a reader of Knightfall can still be entertained by Batman Forever. But The Dark Knight may just be the first Batman story to not feature Batman at all. What the film resembles most closely to me is in the comics. There have been many hyped and lauded story arcs that ultimately fail to deliver on their potential due to drawn out, overlong, overcomplicated characterizations and plot lines. This is exactly what The Dark Knight feels like. Coming out of it feels exactly as one does when finishing one of these overdone graphic novels. In comics one can simply file it away with all the other stories and move on to another but with the film it isn’t that simple.

Or is it? For years I have held the belief that a comic book film cannot be made in live-action. There is simply too much imagination and escapism present on the panels to truly make the jump to live-action cinema. There is always an element of disconnection inherent that holds the comic book film back from being truly free as are the drawn pages. This is why comic book animation works so inherently well, as it is a medium that is not as far removed from the comic book itself.  Combine this with a knack for storytelling and you simply cannot lose. In 22 minute little episodes, the makers of Batman: The Animated Series were able to incorporate and effectively use more storytelling than is contained in the entire Batman film franchise. The visuals are just as if not more stunning than anything physically shot and the performances are legendary among Bat-fans. Along with the Fleischer Superman theatrical serial cartoons, these are the definitive comic book superhero adaptations. Their only limitation is the scope of one’s imagination and a short runtime.

The Dark Knight took all of the negative elements from the first film and did away with any of the positive strong ones dealing primarily with storytelling. I kept waiting for this film to go somewhere, but it never did. And this lack of nearly anything somehow gives it the pretense of “importance”? Batman always has always been about  well thought out storylines so that even in their most convoluted state they don’t seem like random snake pits and double crosses with a random line run through at the end to tie it together. Bad story construction, some editing and sound mixing mistakes, all compounded by not knowing how or where to end the darn thing. If they had really wanted to make a tortured realistic hero story, just show how Batman never can stop his crusade and how Bruce Wayne doesn’t really exist. That in the end it doesn’t really matter if there is such a vigilante because one man could never possibly hope to make a difference. Okay, it’s not bad-but it certainly does not in any circumstance deserve its reputation.

The Dark Knight is not a bad film, but an infuriating one. It is well made to a point yet the story seems horridly underdeveloped. What the length adds to this is a giant layer of fat covering the very little amount of meat at the center. I really want to like this movie. I did going in and still do after watching it three times, but damn it if I still don’t come out with a bad taste in the mouth.  I liked Begins, and though the film glossed over some elements to quickly, it has a much more complete narrative and thus to me at least is much more satisfying as a movie.

It is with a heavy heart that I go into The Dark Knight Rises this week. After the painful debacle of the second film, one can only foresee even more pain ahead that is inevitable with the end of a “trilogy” and tying up loose ends. Of course, I want the film to be good and be something enjoyable but I truly have no expectations. I will enter as a blank slate and hopefully come out of it not feeling so dejected. Then again it looks as if elements of Knightfall will be carelessly chewed up. Sigh.

I must admit I will feel an unavoidable sense of “I told you so” when audiences come away with disappointment after they realize the faults in the Nolan Batman universe.

EDITIONS: Released simultaneously on DVD and Blu-ray in a multitude of different exclusive editions and sets. The DVD has the film at a uniform 2.39:1 as was seen theatrically. The Blu-ray uses a cropped 1.78:1 for the IMAX scenes and alternates between this and 2.39:1 for all the Panavision shot scenes which form the bulk of the film. I wish they had presented the full IMAX image at about 1.44:1, but the decision was made in order to fill modern 16:9 displays. (The DVD Special Edition supposedly has all the IMAX sequences at the original IMAX ratio, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.) The film works better visually with the largest format somewhat intact and even some establishing shots are done in IMAX to boot. The alternating is seamless, though you do find yourself wishing they had just bitten the bullet and shot the thing that way, as the switch back to standard Panavision with the lighting style they used is very grating at times. Bitrate is fine for such a long film, though there could have been improvement in quality so far as the encoding Warner used perhaps by moving the features to an additional disc.

Color and everything else seems exactly like the theatrical presentation, if a bit less than what the format can really show off.

Audio is relatively impressive, though at a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track. Nice depth and bits of rumbling with a good amount of spatial reference.

It’s a well produced disc, but not completely befitting of a big film completely shot and processed in 35mm and IMAX. It is however, exceptionally well-done for the format and regularly at less than $10 the best the film will look for some time.

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Filed under 2 stars, Batman, Film Review

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

2 stars out of 4. Kung-fu vampires. Need I say more?

The final installment in Hammer’s Dracula cycle was a co-production with the famed Shaw brothers in Hong Kong. Thus, the first and only kung-fu vampire film was born.

It isn’t pretty to look at. It isn’t a very literate story. It isn’t even the year’s best kung-fu film crossover. (The honor is reserved for the oft-maligned but brilliant The Man With The Golden Gun.) 7 Golden Vampires is just a young boy’s imagination run rampant. This film is almost Hammer’s attempt at a 1930’s action serial, and is the reason why it tops many of their other output from the same era.

Check your brain at the door and remember a time when you used to like doing odd crossover stories with different action figures. (And then setting them on fire…oh wait, whoops-wrong story. Another time perhaps.)

The film opens with a random Chinese monk wandering around Transylvania. He reaches Count Dracula’s castle where he begs the Count to help him restore the full power of the 7 Golden Vampires. Dracula, in one of the most unconvincing Dracula performances, (Christopher Lee isn’t in this film) agrees and takes the form of the monk in order to travel back to China. Later, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, thank god!) is giving a university lecture in 1904 China. He recounts the Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires which we are treated to in flashback. One of those in the audience is a young man skilled in kung-fu. He tells Van Helsing that he knows the location of the village and begs him to join him on a quest to rid the world of the golden vampires once and for all.

After some coercion, Van Helsing sets off with his son, a wealthy European woman to fund the expedition and the young man who leads their way. They are joined and protected by the man’s seven kung-fu siblings, each with their own specialized form of combat.

That’s all there really is to it. The simplicity of the plot allows the story to keep flowing from one setpiece to another. There’s a fight nearly every fifteen minutes so the long dialogue scenes aren’t allowed to let things get stagnant.The climax takes about 90 seconds to occur and the credits roll just as abruptly as the previous Hammer Draculas.

Peter Cushing throws himself into the proceedings with absolute glee. Van Helsing once again does all kinds of physical feats in addition to his wonderfully staged monologues. And yes, we are finally shown that addition to being vampire-proof  and bullet-proof, Professor Bad-ass Van Helsing is fireproof.

Call it trash, call it whatever you want to. The vampires are terrible, most of the acting is terrible, the fight scenes aren’t that well done, it’s terribly unconvincing, and features possibly the worst Dracula performance on celluloid but it is damn fun. And that is more that can be said for any of the other Hammer Dracula sequels leading up to it. The series ends with a higher note than expected after the awful trilogy of travesty (Scars, AD 1972, Satanic Rites) in this gleefully ridiculous mishmash of kung-fu vampires.

NOTE: This film was re-cut (loses about 20 minutes.) and released in the USA as The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula. Not recommended.

Anchor Bay’s DVD is anamorphically enhanced with standard Dolby 2.0 mono. The 2.35:1 image looks nice and clean but relatively unremarkable. But this film isn’t meant to jump off the screen, and the DVD gives a nice theatrical representation. The flipside of the disc gives the shortened American cut The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula. This exact disc was also later re-packaged with Frankenstin Created Woman. Both are now out of print, but the original disc is available as a manufactured on demand DVD-R from Amazon.com.

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Filed under 2 stars, Film, Film Review, Hammer Films

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

2 stars out of 4.

This film was Hammer’s attempt to strike out of their already cliched Dracula formula and do something different for the shifting audiences of 1970. Like the previous year’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Taste the Blood of Dracula has a harder and ultimately darker edge than its predecessors and carries a “R” rating from the MPAA. But this only lasts for the story’s first act.

Taste seems to have been constructed as a criticism of Victorian society. The strict imposition of “morals” and repression of emotions cause a deep rift in even the strongest of souls. So we are introduced to three well to do aristocratic family gentlemen: Hargood, Secker and Paxton. They are all relatively unpleasant sorts, but what English older gentleman of the time wasn’t? On the last Sunday of each month, they travel to the East End of London to perform acts of charity. this “charity” consists of nothing more than a visit to secret brothels where they perform acts of debauchery in an attempt to coax some interest back into their absolutely boring meaningless lives.

Enter the mysterious Lord Courtley. This shadowy young man impudently strides through the brothel as if he owns the place. Hargood in particular is intrigued by this man’s sheer presence. Courtley was the subject of a nasty disowning by his rich father after supposedly practicing Black Mass rituals in the family church…which makes him sound like an ideal playmate! Indeed, this is exactly what Hargood proposes to Courtley and the four then go to a ncie dinner in order to discuss the possibility of new pleasures from being in Courtley’s company.

The film originally opens with a traveling salesman lost in the woods. He inadvertently stumbles upon Dracula’s demise from Has Risen from the Grave in a nice bit of continuity between films. This peddler then steals Dracula’s cloak, clasp, ring and most importantly the blood of the Prince of Darkness. Courtley leads the three supposed do-gooders to the peddler’s shop to buy the remains of the great Master of evil. He proposes they perform a ritual to resurrect the Count and promises them immortality in exchange for their souls.

The film then proceeds to that ritual, with the three men meeting at an abandoned church where Courtley anxiously awaits them. He then begins the ceremony and gives the men each a goblet with some of the dried blood. After slitting open his hand, Courtley drops his own blood into all the goblets and the dire blood fully reconstitutes amidst atmospheric lightning. He demands they all drink, which the other men cannot bring themselves to do. He berates them and even this does not work. (Look at Ralph Bates’s intensity here…he ferociously commands “DRINK!” amidst giant spatters of saliva. Yes!) He bemoans them as fools, and they tell him to drink the vile thing. He complies and drains his own goblet, immediately regretting his decision. Courtley chokes, spits and cries “Help me!” as he stumbles towards the men obviously in a great deal of pain. The three gentlemen react accordingly. They viciously beat him to death. Visibly shaken, they hastily make their exit leaving Courtley’s corpse in the former house of worship.

So what is one to do after witnessing and being party to a Satanic murder in Victorian England? Establish an alibi and pretend it never happened of course. Unfortunately one of the men does turn to drink, but that is another matter. A bit later we return to the abandoned church where Courtley’s body still remains. Suddenly, a large amount of dust begins to cover it forming some type of cocoon. This cracks open to reveal the resurrected Dracula yet again.

Someone isn't very pleased.

The Count then declares his intention for revenge against the three who destroyed his servant in one of about five of his lines of dialogue. Of course this doesn’t make much sense, because he actually took possession of his servant’s body so in effect, Dracula killed Courtley.So shouldn’t he declare revenge against himself? Or simply be done with the whole revenge fixation and get on with his Countly duties? The answer is no because this is a Hammer sequel, and because the script says so. At this point, the film takes a sharp downturn from being anything truly meaningful of interesting. Christopher Lee’s statement about Dracula being shoehorned into completed stories is entirely correct, because this film was originally all about Courtley. He was supposed to have arisen here as himself and exact his revenge on the three fools instead of Dracula. This ties in the original conception more closely with the idea of a commentary on Victorian mores. It also goes without saying that the resulting film would have been indefinitely more interesting. As soon as Courtley exits the story, the vitality and energy is sapped out right with him. American exhibitors scoffed at the idea of a Dracula film without Lee as the Count, ignoring the facts of the second film not featuring Dracula and Lee hating the role.

So any possibility of this entry being something different disappear with Courtley. The psychological film that could have been (reminiscent of Hammer’s other non-monster horrors which focused on the mind.) is all but gone leaving the exact revenge plot that was tiresome last time around. Hargood has a daughter who he all but keeps locked up in her room. He doesn’t like her boyfriend Paul at all. (Again, the boyfriend’s name is Paul. What happened to some originality here and there? But since we’re re-using various parts of scripts here I don’t think it’s to noticeable.) His dislike seems to stem from the fact that, Paul is the son of his compatriot Paxton. After trying to bury the fear and guilt of Courtley’s death, Hargood drunkenly attempts to beat his daughter Alice for going to a party with Paul. Alice escapes out into the garden where she encounters Dracula. The Count speaks her name and goes in for the kiss…but then thinks better of it as Hargood comes stumbling out in the dark. Dracula wills Alice forward and commands her to hit her father with a shovel. Hargood is felled by his own daughter and sees the spectral form of Dracula as he expires.

“The first.”

Yes, Dracula actually says this after Hargood dies. He then disappears into the darkness with Alice. Hargood’s body is found and Alice has disappeared. The police seem to think it is yet another routine case and that the girl has run away. Paul goes about in anguish as they then bury Hargood. At this funeral, Paul’s sister Lucy is called aside by Alice. Alice plans to meet with Lucy later that night and leads her off into a wild carriage ride where she is then led to Dracula at the abandoned church. There she becomes his new conquest.

Now that Lucy is missing in addition to everything, both Paxton and Seckler decide to check on Courtley’s corpse in the hopes that he is not behind these odd doings. In the church they find Lucy’s coffin and Seckler recognizes the bite marks on her neck. He declares she is a vampire and attempts to destroy her by staking. Paxton who is a blustery idiot shoots Seckler in the arm and forces him off. Seckler runs off into the cemetery, but falls unconscious due to his wound. Paxton is unable to stake Lucy before darkness falls and she forces him off as Dracula approaches. The Count orders Lucy and Alice to kill Paxton, which they do by reversing his own stake upon him in the church.

“The second.”

And what of the third lying just outside, unconscious and bleeding to death? Let’s just leave him till tomorrow. Sackler awakes the next day and somehow staggers back to his home to write a letter to Paul detailing the backstory and how to fight the evil of Drcaula. (Because we were all wondering just how Paul was going to fight Dracula without knowing anything about vampires…)  That night, his son is lured by the sight of Lucy standing at the window. She places him under her power and he then stabs his father.

“The third.”

Dracula and Lucy then return to the church and she demands him to approve of her. (because she didn’t already seem enough like Zena from the last film.) The look on Christopher Lee’s face is priceless in this scene as his pure annoyance and boredom swiftly becomes malicious. He first lusciously drinks her blood then drains her completely dry. Her moans of pleasure turn to horrible screams of death.

Dracula returns alone to take Alice’s blood, but is foiled by the cock’s crow. The police find Sackler’s body and arrest the son for the crime. Paul is given the dead man’s letter detailing the tools and techniques he will need to kill Dracula. Paul then pulls out a beyond convenient book entitled “Vampires and Vampirism” in a montage of gathering supplies. He heads for the church stumbling across his sister’s body on the way. Arriving at the old place, he places a crucifix on the door and changes out the Black Mass altar adornments for the correct ones.

Alice and Dracula appear, and Paul tries to break her of Dracula’s hold. He aims a cross at Dracula, but is overpowered by Alice. Then for some odd reason, Dracula informs her that she is no longer of any use to him. This pushes Alice to throw down the crucifix at Dracula’s feet thus pinning him between it and the door so he is unable to escape. So the Count climbs to the balcony and begins to throw all sorts of things at the two. Suddenly he backs into a stained glass window with a cross that he somehow previously didn’t notice. Dracula breaks the glass but then dizzily sees the church in all of its splendor with the Lord’s Prayer being recited. He then falls onto the altar and crumbles into dust.

Paul and Alice run away from the incoherent event and the end titles roll. This absolutely haphazard and slapped-on ending still does not make real sense and is a completely ineffective conclusion. Why should Dracula hallucinate in this way? What exactly makes him die? Paul really does little of nothing and Dracula is destroyed by random unexplained events. Hardly anything truly exciting.

This is a film with a brilliant and interesting first act that was ultimately ruined by an insistence to stick in Dracula. The promise of something different is just obliterated by hammering on the resurrection-revenge-destruction plot. The “R” rating is wasted. Taste the Blood of Dracula ultimately leaves the viewer with a bad taste in the mouth…guess that blood wasn’t so tasty after all.

Warner’s DVD is very similar to their edition of Has Risen. This is the fully uncut R-rated version of the film never before screened in the US. Not that it really adds much. The print source is very clean with only a mark or speckle here and there. Color and detail are very good in this single-layered 1.85:1 anamorphic image. That standard Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack reappears and theatrical trailer is included. Also packaged in the Horror Classics boxset and 4 Film Favorites:

EDIT: I stumbled across this tidbit on the film’s Wikipedia page: “Vincent Price was originally cast to play one of the dissipated British gentlemen, but when the budget for the film was cut, Price could no longer be afforded and was released from his contract.” If this is true, this film could have been phenomenal. Price being allowed to cut loose in a horror film for adults is something to be seen indeed. Oh, to have a Hammer Dracula sequel that would have been as strong as Abominable Dr. Phibes, Witchfinder General or Theater of Blood…that’s certainly a dream.

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Filed under 2 stars, Film, Hammer Films

Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968)

Another entry in the "Really cheekily clever poster that sadly is better than the film it depicts" category.

2 stars out of 4.

The key to understanding this one is: there’s more religious aspects and being 1968, Hammer tried to liven things up a bit.

We open on a small village where a young church boy finds a bitten body of a girl in the bell. This actually is a prologue that doesn’t make much sense in either the context of the film or script. Unless it was to setup the church boy to perform some heroic deed in the climax…which it isn’t. What a fitting open to this mess of a film.

A year passes and we now follow a Monsignor who happens to stop in the town to check up on its local church. He finds the church empty on a Sunday and the priest in the local bar. The entire town has become disillusioned with the Church after their dealings with Count Dracula. This puts the Monsignor into a rage and so he takes the priest to go and rid the old castle of evil spirits once and for all.

It was a dark and stormy night…is there any other kind of night in vampire films? Well…later on in this one night looks like daylight due to some of the least convincing day-for-night photography ever shot but that’s another story. The two head on up towards Dracula’s abandoned castle and then the priest refuses to go any further. The monsignor goes on to reach the front door, where he then says some prayers and places a big golden cross on the front door. (Oh, it’s so protective! There’s no way this would stop the Prince of Darkness.) Meanwhile the priest falls on some rocks and strikes his head. The blood from his head wound trickles down the rock onto the frozen river that goes down the side of the mountain where it reaches a crack in the ice and goes right into the mouth of Dracula.

The extreme improbability of The Count’s resurrection cannot be put into words.  This is our first glimpse of Dracula:

There's a thing called CONTINUITY!!!

Notice any issues? Such as the REFLECTION? Oh well, just another bit of lore previously followed thrown out the window. The Monsignor leaves the town, his job finished, or so he thinks. Dracula has indeed risen from the grave, and now his mortal assistant is one of the cloth. Now what could that be implying? Here we have yet another interesting thematic concept in a Hammer sequel that then is completely disregarded. The Priest simply does what every other Dracula servant does: the Master’s bidding like a walking robot. Doesn’t anybody find these people a bit strange? If you were to stagger around mumbling only monosyllables people would think you’re crazy. Any notion of this subplot being some kind of metaphor of the church acting as a false prophet is completely ignored.

The heavy religious undertones (they’re so heavy you could call them overtones. It’s really obvious.) continue with the Monsignor’s return home. He has a niece who is in love with a young man who happens to be an atheist. You can already see the obvious conflict and how this is spinning into the classic Hammer sequel formula.

Dracula goes to his castle only to find the door blocked by the Monsignor’s crucifix. And declares he must get revenge. What? One measly crucifix blocks his castle? Why didn’t anybody do that before then? And why can’t he just get the priest to remove it so he can go about his business? So, Dracula sets off for the Monsignor’s city of residence to exact his “revenge”. (Hmm…that couldn’t be stalking any female close to said offender, preferably a young girl, making her his own and then killing the offensive one now could it?)

The priest takes up residence in a local barroom where the boyfriend of the Monsignor’s niece works. The bar is run by a sexpot barmaid who is the first new blood to be taken by Dracula. (Why does it always have to be women? What happened to drinking the blood of animals for sustenance?)  His coffin is then hidden in the basement so that he can wait out the niece Maria’s visit-I think. In fact there’s no real reason for Dracula to choose that particular place to reside becuase there’s no way for him to have known that the boyfriend works there unless he possibly read the script. So there’s a vampire in my basement and he sits there for days doing literally nothing.

Dracula orders the maid Zena to bring him Maria. She reacts with jealousy that the Count might desire someone else and completely misses the point of his revenge. Maria is coerced down to the hidden alcove but Dracula’s feeding is interrupted by the boyfriend Paul. Zena loses much favor with the Count and has to beg for more “attention” from his Excellence. Dracula simply makes her a vampire and orders her body thrown into a fire by the priest. The fires of eternal damnation?

Dracula then enters Maria’s bedroom where we are treated to the most explicit scene thus far in the Hammer series. Dracula approaches Maria and we then see her neck approaching in close up from his point of view. He almost lovingly prepares the area of the skin for his bite and we cut away to Maria’s hand clutching a china doll only to let go in satisfaction.

These new techniques do not stop with a Drac-cam shot. There is a color tinting to nearly every scene featuring the Count. The center of the frame is normally lit, but only in a orb around Dracula. The rest is either dark red or a golden yellow perhaps suggesting a dark bloody aura of evil around him.

This was all propagated by the switch in director. Freddie Francis brings a bit of vibrant camerawork new to the series. Otherwise this could be a made for TV movie. It seems more realistic due to the more contemporary camera placement, but even this is spotty. The distribution deal with Warner Bros-Seven Arts gave Hammer a higher budget than usual and all of this comes across in the set design.

Christopher Lee is featured in the first of his “stand in a dark corner and occasionally bite someone” performances. You trudge along watching this film merely to pass the time until he appears. Then you go and get all excited to watch the Count in action…which doesn’t happen because he goes away-again. Why can’t these films actually be about Dracula? It’s not as if they aren’t named after him. Lee has pointed out over the years that the scripts were increasingly written without Dracula actually in them. It was only at the last minute before shooting that they would actually write in the main character of the movie.

My second time around with Has Risen was more enjoyable than the first many years ago.  This is only because the story didn’t seem so tedious as before. The characters are better written than the previous film and seem more like fleshed out versions of real people instead of caricatures. But they so tediously follow a story formula that all of that development is useless. You more and more frequently spend most of your viewing with these Hammer sequels having to restrain yourself from shouting “Get a bloomin’ move on!”

The ending is relatively well constructed. Paul has already had to assume the duties of the lover attempting to kill a vampire who has taken his woman. In one controversial but memorable scene (the one scene that makes this movie really worth anything) he actually stakes Dracula, but being an atheist is unable to perform the prayer that would complete the ritual. So Dracula is then able to rip out the stake in his heart. So then what does one do? Trail the girl and vampire back to the castle and fight again! Dracula is improbably staked by falling on the Monsignor’s cross and the priest is then miraculously able to say the prayer to end the Count’s evil. The end credits follow about a minute later.

And as many others have discussed, this film carries a G rating from the MPAA.

You gave me a G rating? You make me sad.

Dracula even weeps blood. There aren’t slow fades when he goes to bite someone, and the pretty explicit sequence in Maria’s bedroom. There are also multiple bloody stakings, corpses and deaths. So how the heck this got a “G” rating is beyond me. I’ve always found it amusing to see older films carry “R” ratings despite being hopelessly outdated in the adult content they were originally rated for. But this is the opposite. It’s certainly not one for the kiddies and should at least be a “PG”, but a “G”? The next in the series carried an “R”!

Warner’s DVD is bare bones, but looks about the best a transfer of this sort could be. The single layer 1.85:1 image is anamorphic with strong color. The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is decent and relatively clear. Theatrical trailer is included. This same disc was later repackaged with 5 other WB held Hammer titles in the Horror Classics Collection boxset (Missing AD 1972 for some odd reason) and the Dracula 4 Film Favorites (all four WB owned Hammer Draculas, including AD 1972)

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Filed under 2 stars, Film, Film Review, Hammer Films