Category Archives: Hammer Films

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Striking artwork utilized for the DVD release.

 

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film, and truly an ingenious classic.

Without a doubt, this film is the sole reason for the horror film’s survival past the 1950’s. By this time, horror films had become nothing more than mere exploitation fodder for the lowest of double bills and had no critical or commercial interest whatsoever. Hence no major studio wanted to actively pursue anything in the genre.

And so after producing a string of moderately successful pictures, and the adaptations of the Quatermass serials, a small studio called Hammer decided to tackle Mary Shelley’s  classic novel of one man’s attempt to play at being God. The idea was sound, and it was certainly time for a fresh approach to the story, but there arose one small problem: they could use no element whatsoever from the Universal film cycle.

This along with an extremely limited production and budget provided the necessary spark for extreme creativity, which is something that abounds in this, a horror classic.

The Curse of Frankenstein, despite what the scathing reviews of the time would contest, is an intricate and eloquent horror film for the mind. It so richly detailed in characterization, direction, execution and screenplay that the experience is not one of supreme terror but moreover one of complete entertainment of both mind and spirit.

For 1957 audiences this combined with the Creature in lurid dripping color was almost too much too bear. The Eastman color usage by the early Hammer horrors is justly legendary, as it was the first time these horrors has ever appeared in color.  Terrence Fisher’s direction firmly established the Hammer mission, and with his expert hand the film’s execution is essentially effortless allowing the master shot to encase the ongoing drama and then moving in gradually to accentuate that particular dramatic moment to an almost fever pitch.

Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is truly remarkable in both construction and execution. Taken on its own, the script is very literate despite deviating wildly from Shelley’s novel. But it is the reality inherent of Baron Frankenstein’s mad dream to create a man, that firmly wins the audience over and moves quickly past the realm of disbelief. You truly believe that the Baron must have a simple laboratory in his attic, that he is workmanlike in his approach to creating a man, right down to rolling up his own sleeves to get the job done no matter how dirty or bloody… The construction is absolutely ingenious, and once considered plays with the mind long after the film has ended. The opening shows the Baron (Peter Cushing) in prison under penalty of execution, where he begins to recount his tale to a priest in the hopes of convincing someone of his sanity despite sounding like a raving madman. This flashback forms the narrative, and begins with the young Victor just after his mother’s death.

Victor is now the Baron, and hires a new tutor to instruct him in advanced sciences. Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) performs this task admirably and they quickly become close friends and probe the unknown for years to come. As adults, their work quickly turns toward advanced medical sciences and eventually with the manipulation of conscious life. The first of these experiments shows a small scale version of the eventual apparatus and in a truly invigorating sequence, the experiment works and a small puppy is restored to life from the dead.

Paul wants to turn their knowledge into the medical convention as he feel it could be used in operating procedures as what we would eventually know as anesthesia. However, the Baron refuses to hear of it and proclaims that they have only opened the door of possibilities with this discovery. The manic gleam in Cushing’s eyes belays it all, now the Baron has seen his true goal of creating a being and nothing will stand in his way. And so it begins, with the abduction of a highwayman’s corpse, a new head, fresh eyes, the hands of a sculptor, the brain of a genius, and ends in unspeakable acts that provoke Paul to refuse further participation. However, Victor’s cousin and fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) arrives to live in the estate which provokes Paul to remain for her protection.

Frankenstein is absolutely possessed by his mad dream to create life. This is no exaggeration as he ignores everything, even his own fiancée in pursuit of his self-destruction. Painstakingly everything is procured and finally it is time. The process works, and after an agonizingly built-up reveal, The Creature (Christopher Lee) breathes life for the first time. This Creature has nothing to do with Boris Karloff’s characterization, and is in fact extremely lifelike in both presentation and performance. This abomination is a mismatch of body parts and animalistic in that its actions are all confused primitive urges. It is truly a thing to be pitied instead of feared. The makeup is quite original and resembles more of deformity or accident than the classic Universal look.

The Creature slowly wreaks havoc on the Baron’s life unbeknownst to the glory-mad scientist. Paul’s repeated attempts to subdue this madness and destroy the Creature culminate in his shooting of the escaped creation and its burial. Now it is done and the film has nothing to go on with…but of course our Baron cannot give up so easily, and continues his work on his creation.

Cushing gives the performance of a lifetime and would go on to portray the increasingly mad Baron another five times. It is his intensity, his energy, his body language that make the Baron come to life before our eyes, and he absolutely makes the film what it is. He infuses the Baron with the necessary flaws of someone of power in that time period, right down to an elitist coldness to others not of his class as best seen in the deliciously evil treatment of his servant girl mistress.  It is this coldness that truly frightens when it surfaces and perfectly foreshadows the later atrocities he will perpetrate. And in the Hammer series, it is not the Monster that is to be feared, but the Baron himself. It is rightly so the scientist who is the monster and not the deformed creation, for despite the Baron’s cultured outer appearance he is actually a demonic monster far worse than anything even he could create.

The cinematography is exquisite in both detail and providing a glimpse into the more realistic version of Frankenstein and his experiments. The use of color is exploitative and subliminal, with vibrant red blood being very prominent yet always used in ways to complete the overall scene. The film is mostly comprised of deep browns, blacks, and ambers which perfectly compliment the story’s autumn setting. The skin tones are brilliantly rendered in that hauntingly plaid redness that goes with true Eastman color.

James Bernard’s score is strikingly effective, and helps to perfectly underline the conclusion of the film which returns to the Baron’s recount in prison. Because of the way the story is setup, this ending can be taken a number of ways. It may indeed be as the Baron recounts and that he did create a monster that ravaged, killed and caused incalculable harm. Or he may be truly insane and likely committed the murders himself. In either case Paul refuses to help and may have a set of motivations all his own. It is a strikingly multifaceted ending that can be taken however the audience wants to, and it fits with the studio’s later psychologically minded film thrillers, all spearheaded by Sangster.

The film was a runaway success, to the complete surprise of all involved. In the UK and distributed by Warner Brothers in the US, The Curse of Frankenstein singlehandedly revitalized the horror film and thrilled shocked audiences in countless packed theaters. Today it remains the clarion call that announced to the world that Hammer had arrived.

 

EDITIONS: primarily there are now two versions of note. The 2004 Warner DVD and the new Hammer Blu-ray. The DVD is grain reduced; edge enhanced a bit, lacks in color and is framed at 1.78:1 with no extras.  The new BD comes from a supposed “restoration” but was actually taken from a fresh 4K scan of the interpositive held by Warner. The results are mixed when they should have been exemplary. The image is richly colored, with most of the deep Eastman color look restored. The contrast has been unfortunately tweaked, which effects shadows and gives an overall impression of too many whites blown out. But the big problem is grain and detail. The transfer is horribly soft, and the grain reduction is so prevalent that is absolutely reprehensible. The included PAL DVD version actually has better contrast levels. And to compound these issues, the aspect ratio has become an issue. The film was obviously shot open matte with a widescreen image the intended result. There were still a large amount of theaters that were not widescreen equipped, and so the academy full frame could have been presented as such. Hammer has taken the position of the full frame being the intended ratio and the 1.66:1 matting as inferior. They have presented both as separate encodes (thus limiting the transfer’s space and space for further extras), but poorly framed the 1.66:1 version so there are numerous instances of heads being lopped off and important elements being cropped out of the frame by incompetent matting.

So one has a choice of a featureless DVD with tight cropping and over-sharpening, versus a BD which is riddled with noise reduction but has some better color, along with a lossless rendering of the original mono soundtrack, but with an incompetent rendering of the widescreen version. The BD is Region 2 locked, so one would need a Region free player to view it. Oh, and it does restore the censored eyeball shot, so that’s at least one point in its favor.

At some point I hope to review to letterbox laserdisc version.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Hammer Films, Immortal Films

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

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

1 star out of 4. Beyond godawful.

Somehow this garbage is simultaneously better and worse than AD 1972. If that makes any sense at all.

After the runaway success of the previous film, (I’m kidding, even then people knew it was awful.) Hammer decided to make a direct sequel to cash in on its in-no-way-under-any-circumstances-could-ever-be-possibly-considered-a-sucess hit idea of resurrecting the Count in the present day.

The film opens with an unexplained Satanic ritual being performed in some English country house. A man escapes from being held captive and makes a dash for freedom. He manages to elude his captors and jump into a waiting car outside. These turn out to be his superiors, and the injured man is an undercover secret service officer. He attempts to tell the others of the house being a front for a Satanic cult including several notable members of the British government. After recounting this he dies and the officials are left scratching their heads. They call in the Scotland Yard Inspector from the previous film and he in turn recommends they talk to Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

The secretary who has been taking notes all this time is suddenly attacked by the two sheepskin vest wearing cult henchmen on motorcycles. She is later shown tied up at the manor house and Dracula randomly appears to give her a bite to eat…

The officers travel to tell Van Helsing of these strange events and he recognizes one of the men as an old acquaintance (Well, he actually doesn’t say anything at first, but his granddaughter says that he knows one of them, so he then admits he was holding back for some unknown reason…maybe time padding perhaps?) and agrees that he should go and visit his old friend Doctor Keeley and pump him for information.

The officers and Jessica Van Helsing travel out to the manor house where they are greeted by the supposed leader of the cult, Chin Yang (yes, this movie even has a random Chinese lady.) They find themselves in the cellar, which is filled with vampire girls chained to the floor and the coffins in some sort of vampiric dungeon. The head officer stakes the secretary from earlier and the three then flee from the grounds.

Vna Helsing confronts Doctor Keeley, who is nearly insane at this time. Keeley has been commissioned to create a new strain of the bubonic plague by some mysterious benefactor. Another of the sheepskin wearing henchmen shoots Van Helsing, who crumples to the floor. He awakens later (Yes, Van Helsing was shot at point blank range in the head and was merely knocked unconscious.) to see the Doctor’s body hung from the ceiling. The bacteria that was on a table earlier has vanished.

Kelley spoke of the 23rd of October, which Van Helsing knows to be the “Sabbath of the Undead”. The Doctor’s writings reveal a certain mysterious businessman named D.D. Denham to be behind the funding of this new project. Van Helsing deduces that this is none other than Dracula himself, who wants to wipe out all humanity with the plague in order to die taking everyone with him in the ultimate revenge. Van Helsing then travels to the headquarters of Denham, armed with a gun loaded with silver bullets. He arrives at the building which was built on top of the church ruins from the previous film. He meets with Denham in one of the oddest scenes in the entire series.

Of course this is actually Dracula. It’s really rather obvious. So why the filmmakers decided to make Cushing and Christopher Lee carry on this charade any longer than necessary is inexcusable. Lee speaks in a almost imitation of a Middle European accent (possibly Hungarian…?) and is seated behind a desk with the light turned towards Van Helsing to keep his face in darkness. (yeah, right.) Van Helsing cleverly slips a Bible into some papers on the desk and thus reveals Denham to be Dracula. (Yes, we knew that already thank you very much.) He then repels Dracula with a crucifix and takes a good several minutes too long to shoot the silver bullet. He is captured by Dracula’s minions and taken to the manor house to be killed slowly.

The two inspectors and Jessica lie in wait outside the house keeping watch. They are attacked by a sniper and the elder agent is killed. The Yard detective and Jessica are captured, with the detective awaking in the cellar. He is approached by the Chinese lady from earlier who is also a vampire. He manages to stake her and escape all the others, making it to the door of the cellar. In just about the only clever moment of this entire film, he notices his arm is next to the old sprinkler lever. He snatches at it and activates the water flow. The cellar full of vampiresses are destroyed.

Dracula then begins his own ceremony to inaugurate his plans of apocalypse. Lee is on top form here as he speaks of the men being his four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The three remaining government officials begin to react in dismay as they believed the plague to be a biological deterrent and never expected the Prince of Darkness to actually use it. This causes one of the men to tremble and accidentally break the vial of plague. He staggers about in agony as a fight between the detective and a guard results in a fire breaking out. Everyone flees leaving the flailing plague man, Dracula and Van Helsing as the only ones left in the burning house.

Van Helsing escapes into the woods and lures Dracula into a hawthorn tree. (Earlier, Van Helsing mentioned that this tree could harm vampires because it was used to make Christ’s crown of thorns.) His method is brilliant; simply shouting at Dracula. The idiot Count does not realize what tree this is, so he blunders through the branches and finally makes it through the other side mortally wounded. Van Helsing makes an improvised wooden stake from a nearby fence and kills Dracula again. The end titles immediately appear.

Let me reiterate: Dracula is essentially killed by a tree. That should tell you everything in a nutshell. The film looks incredibly cheap and badly shot. The script is incomprehensible at times and with all of the espionage and sci-fi elements it becomes quite obvious that it was written by a former Doctor Who scribe.

This one is so bad that American distributors initially refused to distribute it in the US. It was only in 1976 that the film was released, greatly cut down and under the inane title of Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride.

But the idea of the plot is genius. For once there is actually a good idea behind Dracula’s actions.  The idea that Dracula actually wants to die is a thought that gives intense personal drama to the character and actually gives him a motivation. But Dracula cannot simply commit suicide. No, no no. He decides the best way to die is to kill the entire population of all living things on the Earth and perish due to lack of food supply. Thus he would achieve his revenge for all eternity and finally be free from his eternal damnation. To achieve this he lures politically powerful men into a Satanic cult and hides everything behind a rich corporate front, pretending to be a reclusive millionaire à la Howard Hughes. Ironic? Chilling? Cold? Metaphoric? Societal criticism? In a 70’s Hammer film?

Cushing once again proves that he is life force of these films. The dialogue could be nonsense (which occurs often) and his energy is so focused that we believe anything the man says. One could only wish that a better film could surround these few good qualities because they are so promising that you have to wonder what the film could have been like if everything was excised and someone had done a second draft.

The film has lapsed into the public domain. I wonder why…

 

Due to the film being in the public domain, there are indefinite versions floating about all in terrible quality. Anchor Bay released the only watchable transfer years back under their Hammer Collection banner. It is a terribly outdated non-anamorphhic 1.85:1 transfer with muddy Dolby 2.0 mono audio. The same disc was repackaged with Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Both editions are now out of print. Several public domain DVDs are said to use the Anchor Bay transfer.

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Filed under 1 star, Film, Hammer Films

Dracula AD 1972 (1972)

1 star out of 4. Rubbish.

This is the one I dreaded returning to. It’s just awful. The title is the entire film. Dracula is destroyed in 1872 and returns a century later.

But instead of doing anything remotely interesting or worthwhile with this radical departure from the vampire legend, Hammer does their typical stupid revenge plot. And this time all of it is lifted from various parts of their own Dracula films, and done so monotonously that one simply has no care in in finishing this mess.

The film opens with the only really exciting sequence, a final battle between Dracula and Van Helsing (Peter Cushing back in one his best roles after 12 years.) atop a runaway carriage. Both are thrown when the coach crashes and Van Helsing staggers awake to find Dracula conveniently run through by a broken carriage wheel. He uses all of his strength to break off the wheel and form a wooden stake which destroys Dracula. Van Helsing then crumples to the ground not noticing the shadowy figure that appears to gather Dracula’s ashes…

This same person buries the ashes outside the churchyard where Van Helsing is being buried. We dolly into the tombstone and then pan over to a pile of rubble. We then pan up to the blue sky and the titles begin: DRACULA (and then a jet appears and the first cue of the absolutely awful 70’s funky score) AD 1972. And you then know for sure this will be absolutely horrid.

I wasn’t kidding.

The only saving grace of this trash is Peter Cushing. You wonder why it took Hammer twelve years to put him in a Dracula film again. His presence is so sorely needed to keep the proceedings actually interesting, because Dracula will only be in the film for  a combined total of ten to fifteen minutes. Here he plays the descendant of Van Helsing, who just happens to also be an expert on the occult. His granddaughter runs around with a group of hippies who have an odd pastime: they like to gatecrash houses until the police arrive.

This is the opening sequence of the modern-day London setting. Random twenty somethings are dancing about (badly) in a traditional English drawing room. There’s this truly awful band in the background as the kids do all sorts of uninteresting random things. The adults all stand back in their formal wear, completely exasperated by the doings of this traveling band of youths. And this single scene goes on for nearly ten minutes. It’s enough to make you want to leave then and there, but this reviewer has braved the atrocities a second time to bring you a detailed look at the horrors of bad Hammer.

The ringleader of this little group is on Johnny Alucard (that doesn’t suggest anything does it?) who voices the consensus that things are getting a bit stale. So he proposes to perform a Black Mass inside an old abandoned church because that’s the groovy thing to do these days. No one really raises any more than an eyebrow at this suggestion.

So they all meet up at this church that night for a night of fun! They begin the ceremonies looking like a bunch of stoned hippies when Alucard begins actually performing a ritual. The fact that this is the same actor who played the mysterious man in the opening already tells you where this is going. Alucard then attempts to resurrect Dracula by slitting open his hand in a moment that exactly recalls the far superior Taste the Blood of Dracula.

The kids flee, Dracula rises again, he kills a girl and that’s it. Haven’t seen that before have we? They wonder why she has disappeared, and then the police find her body. one of the detectives seeks Van Helsing’s advice as this murder resembles something of the occult. Alucard is granted vampiric life and some of the other kids are killed and vampified as well. All of this leads to a final showdown between Lee’s Dracula and Cushing’s Van Helsing for the first time since 1958.

Of course this isn’t done very well either so the entire climax of the film is wasted. Dracula spends his little screen time standing in this old church for no apparent reason and lusting after Van Helsing’s granddaughter. Why it takes people so long to realize just where Dracula is located is beyond me. It isn’t as if they don’t know where the abandoned church is! The girl’s body was found there and they know the Black Mass was held there, so why does Van Helsing only discover this location at the end of the film? Then again, it took him a whole night to realize Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards.

It is reestablished here that running water can kill a vampire. This leads to an interesting end for the battle between Alucard and Van Helsing in the former’s apartment. Yes, Alucard drowns in his shower. That’s how bad this gets. You didn’t believe me did you?

Dracula never even has anything to do with 70’s London, so why the change in locale? Simply because this was an attempt by Hammer to reconnect with young audiences to drum up ticket sales. And it fails horribly. Still, it is hard to fault when Cushing is involved. He throws himself so wholeheartedly into the story that you can honestly still believe in it somehow. This combined with the usual Hammer quality of production is the only reason why anyone should even dream of watching this.

Unfortunately there are actually fans of this film, which I still cannot believe that there are any:

Go figure.

Like many film series, the awful later entries are usually the ones best represented on home video. Warner’s bare bones DVD is nearly flawless. The single layer 1.85:1 anamorphic image is fantastic, and the Dolby 2.0 sound clearly gives you that completely unnecessary funky score. Also available packaged with Horror of Dracula, Has Risen from the Grave and Taste the Blood for considerably less.

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Filed under 1 star, Film, Hammer Films

Scars of Dracula (1970)

1 star out of 4.

I didn’t think it could get worse than either the monotonous Dracula sequels or A.D. 1972. Unfortunately, until this point I had never seen the two lowest regarded films in the series: The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) and this film.

Intended as a reboot of the Dracula series (along with Horror of Frankenstein being a reboot for the Baron, both were released as a double bill in 1970), Scars has some remarkably different tendencies from all the films that preceded it. The gore is amped up considerably to match other films, notably the increasing amounts of gory European horror. In fact, Scars is the goriest of all the Hammer films I’ve yet seen. The other big notable difference is the fact that the budget and interest is all but gone.

Everything looks cheesy and made of cardboard. Of course, if you don’t realize this by the time of the opening sequence your head examining is a trifle late. The film opens with a resurrection that has nothing to do  with any preceding events. A rubber bat flies into a castle alcove and then coughs up blood over Dracula’s remains.

Why do you continues watching this mess? For Christopher Lee as always. Even in the most uninspired of these films, his performance is always a treat. But even he cannot find much to do with the material, giving his lines a feeling of absolute lifelessness. This Dracula is monotonous.

The sole interesting points of the story are the opening ten minutes, Dracula’s manservant Klove, Dracula’s attempt to be the next top slasher, and the oft mentioned climbing of the outer castle wall by the Count. The latter is referred to as a great reference to Stoker’s novel but in all actuality only lasts all of five seconds.

The opening ten minutes is the only genuinely exciting part of the film, and even that isn’t staged or cut very well. In fact, had the movie ended there I would have not disliked it so much. In this opening: Dracula is resurrected, a dead girl is found with a bite scar on her neck, the villagers break into Dracula’s castle, Dracula’s castle is burned to the ground, and the villagers returning home to find the church where they hid the women and children infested with vampire bats who have massacred all within. And then nothing else of importance happens.

Oh, well save for this bit that makes absolutely no sense:

A man is lured into the castle at night and welcomed by Count Dracula. The female vampire comes to his bedroom later in the night and goes to embrace him. She does not try to bite him there and they proceed to spend the night together. Awakening the next morning, the vampire attempts to then bite the man when Dracula suddenly appears and stabs the girl to death for no apparent reason! He then makes his exit. Not only is this brushed aside, but it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever! It was as if the writer decided, “Hey, we need something exciting in here..oh yes I know! Dracula stabs his own vampire…” It doesn’t fit the character to stab someone, and especially not repeatedly as if he were trying out for the best slasher scene category. This sequence has to be seen to be believed.

Klove reappears for the first time since Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) but here is played as a completely subservient slave to Dracula’s will instead of the devoted creepy butler shown previously. This Klove is repeatedly tortured by his master for insubordination and actually falls in love with Dracula’s next desired conquest. It was as if someone decided to actually have a character we could actually sympathize with and root for. Sadly, this goes nowhere and there is no reason to even really have the character in the story other than to facilitate the next plot element.

Dracula is destroyed in a completely ineffective and terribly stupid way. He has cornered the final young couple at the entrance of his mountaintop castle. Their escape has failed and we are ready for them to be killed so this whole thing is finally over with. One throws a convenient iron rod at Dracula, which lodges in his side. Dracula triumphantly removes it and moves to hurl it back his attacker. Suddenly the most convenient lightning bolt since The Bad Seed (1956) strikes the rod which then somehow sets Dracula on fire. We then alternate between a highly obvious stuntman flailing around unconvincingly in a bad rubber mask and close-ups of Lee’s burning face. The Count then falls from a ledge and plunges down into the abyss and the end  credits come much to late to save us from this schlock.

The thing so terrible about this entry is that the sense of Hammer that people adore is all but gone. The original spirit of these films has been completely obliterated by a businessman’s idea to combine only the elements that are supposedly popular. Sex, gore, blood and oddly a badly placed scene of campy humor…

Anchor Bay’s DVD is long out of print and fetches outrageous prices on Ebay. The 1.85:1 image is quite good and anamorphically enhanced. The Dolby mono is clear. The commentary with Christopher Lee and director Roy Ward Baker is wonderful. One of the best DVDs in this series for one of the worst films. There is also a DVD-R version floating around that can be occasionally purchased on Amazon.com. These manufactured on demand discs lack the extra features and are known to have manufacturing issues.

 

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Filed under 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