31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Theme Weekend – Hammer Dracula Films on a 4 Film DVD Pack

I’m a bit behind, so I’ve only gotten a chance to write up two of the three films I watched this weekend. I should have the last (Dracula 1972 A.D.) tomorrow.

Theme Weekend: Random Hammer Dracula Movies on a bargain DVD
I didn’t get to see a lot of Hammer horror films growing up. The British films I got to see on cable were mostly science fiction – movies like 5 Million Years to Earth and Day of the Triffids. I do remember seeing The Mummy and a couple of the Lee Dracula pictures. Somehow I’ve never gotten around to really catching up, so most of these are new to me.

The Medium
All these movies were on a 4 pack DVD collection I picked up at Marden’s for $3. The other movie (reviewed previously) is the original Hammer Horror of Dracula. It’s a completely random assortment – the first, fourth, fifth and seventh films in the series. Not that there’s a huge level of continuity in the films, but I just wonder what the reasoning was. I’m sure it’s rights related – but I can’t help but imagine a wall with movie posters on it and a guy with darts.

It’s DVD quality, but I’ve never see high-def versions of these films so it’s not an issue for me. I do think Hammer films benefit from a high-def presentation, however, and I’d suggest viewing these movies via streaming or Blu-ray if you have the option.

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave
The nameless village at the foot of Mount Dracula is still under the shadow of the Count – literally. No one even goes to Mass anymore because the shadow of the castle touches the church and people get the willies. Even the local priest goes through the motions as fast as he can before heading off to the inn for a shot or two. Unfortunately for everyone the Church is sending a Monsignor to check on things, and when has a Monsignor ever been happy with an empty church and a drunk priest?

“Never. The answer is never. Good God, it’s not hard, man!”

 

Risen starts off promisingly enough – a mute altar boy finds blood dripping down the church bellrope. The priest investigates to find the clapper in the bell has been replaced by a young girl, drained of blood. That’s all flashback to the glory days of the Count, though – back when a vampire could get away with jamming a body into a church bell without getting hassled by the local religious community. The rest of the film takes place after the third Hammer Dracula movie (Dracula: Prince of Darkness), which ended with Dracula frozen in ice.

The Monsignor (Rupert Davies) is indeed displeased, and after hearing about the whole ‘shadow of the castle’ issue, resolves to exorcise the castle and seal it, thereby ‘ending the evil.’ After all, Dracula is dead, isn’t he?

Spoiler alert – Dracula is not dead.

Woohoo.

 

He’s accompanied by the reluctant priest, whose fear and lack of alpine skills cause him to falter halfway. (Seriously, what happened to the road to Dracula’s castle? Why are they engaging in Class 3 climbing to get to the place now?) The Monsignor reaches the castle and, despite a savage storm, performs an exorcism and jams a massive cross in place to seal the door. The priest, meanwhile, falls down, cracks his head, and bleeds directly into frozen Dracula’s mouth, reviving the lord of vampires.

Just go with it.

The Monsignor returns home, but Dracula follows. Seems he’s not pleased with the eviction notice on his castle. Dracula seems mostly motivated by revenge in these movies – he could easily have had his minion (the hapless drunk priest) remove the cross and simply return to preying on the locals, but no – he’s got to travel to the city and set about destroying the Monsignor.

The Monsignor’s beautiful niece, Maria, is in love with a local student (and part-time shirtless baker) Paul, but when she brings him to dinner he upsets the Monsignor by revealing that he’s an atheist. I hoped that this would lead to an interesting issue – what if Paul’s love for Maria was as strong as the Monsignor’s faith? That’s not the case however – and I can’t blame Paul’s eventual late-hour conversion. It’s hard to maintain your skepticism when Dracula’s biting your girlfriend.

“Okay, yes, I believe, but your haircut is still dumb.” “Agreed.”

 

There are seduced barmaids, rooftop chases, the Monsignor is betrayed to his death by the fallen priest, Maria is bitten and Dracula is actually staked. Unfortunately Paul’s atheism prevents him from saying the prayer required to finish Dracula off (I’m not sure that’s in Van Helsing’s notebook), and the vampire rises again and flees with Maria, back to his castle.

A chase ensues and Dracula and Paul fight on the parapet before Paul enlists the help of gravity in tossing the vampire off the side and onto the conveniently placed cross bellow. The fallen priest manages to shake off Dracula’s control to say the correct prayers and the vampire is finally destroyed.

“Little… help…?”

Yeah, right.

I haven’t actually seen the previous film in the series – Dracula: Prince of Darkness – but I know this is the first film that wasn’t directed by Terence fisher, and it feels… cheaper, somehow. Thin. The lighting is flatter, the sets are smaller, the blood is more fake. I know Freddie Frances, the director, is an Academy Award winning cinematographer (having worked on films like The Elephant Man and The French Lieutenant’s Woman), but he seems distracted here, with only the rooftop sequences showing any real flash of uniqueness.

There some cool light filters as well.

 

Christopher Lee is excellent, as usual, and I always lament the fact that no one seemed willing to make Dracula the protagonist of one of these films. His expressions and rare dialogue hint at a richer, deeper character than he was allowed to portray. The lack of any actor up to his caliber in opposition does the film no favors, either. The cast is fine, but I found myself missing Peter Cushing even more than I expected.

Bottom Line
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is a little thin in spots and Dracula is woefully underused. Lee is fantastic in every scene he’s in, there’s just too few of them and they don’t last anywhere near long enough. The opportunity for deeper characters and story – about belief and love and redemption – are barely touched on and remain as missed opportunities.

 

Taste the Blood of Dracula
Just off the bat (sorry), this is one of my favorite Dracula movie titles.

I also note that this was directed by Peter Sasdy, who helmed one of my favorite creepy BBC television specials – The Stone Tape.

Taste starts off with a businessman (Roy Kinnear – probably best known as Veruca Salt’s father in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory) stumbling across the final moments of Dracula from the previous film. Despite his fear, he collects Dracula’s blood (in the form of a red dust) and his effects.

“Could be blood. Could be strawberry kool aid.”

 

Elsewhere, three wealthy Gentlemen – Hargood, Paxton and Secker – meet for their weekly Sunday ‘charity work.’ This is actually their cover for a debauched evening at a brothel. They’re interrupted by young Lord Courtley, who takes one of the girls with him. The three men are informed by the brothel owner that Courtley had been disowned by his father for practicing the Black Mass.

The men approach Courtley later. It seems they are tiring of the more mundane pleasures they’ve been seeking and are looking for something a little more… dangerous. Courtly is more than happy to oblige, but first they’ll have to purchase some materials from a local businessman, Weller, who turns out to be the man from the beginning of the movie. After some back and forth the three men put up the money to buy Dracula’s ring, brooch, cape and, of course, his blood.

With Courtley promising them dark delights and eventual immortality, the men attend a ceremony at a ruined church. Courtley gives each of them a goblet with some of Dracula’s blood-powder in it. He then places a few drops of his own in each glass, causing the powder to reinvigorate into blood. However, the three men cannot bring themselves to drink it. Disgusted, Courtley drinks his own glass before collapsing, screaming on the floor. He’s then kicked to death by the three men, who flee into the night.

“I get the blood thing, but why the cape?”

 

Later that night Courtley’s body is transformed and Dracula rises in his place, swearing vengeance on those who killed his servant.

Okay, so vengeance again. You’ve got to learn to forgive and forget, Dracula! You’ll live longer… well, unlive longer.

I really enjoy the look and feel of this film – especially compared the previous one. The colors are richer, the sets are more expansive and the acting is better as well. Ralph Bates as Courtley is particularly enjoyable, treading that thin line between charismatic and smarmy. Sneering and wheedling and threatening all at the time. The original plot of the film had Courtley rising from the dead as a vampire himself, rejuvenated by Dracula’s blood and essentially taking his place. I enjoyed his performance enough that I could see this having worked. No one really wanted a Hammer Dracula picture without Christopher Lee, though, so the producers coughed up enough cash to entice him to return.

“And a pony!”

 

Dracula has a method by this point, and this film doesn’t deviate from it. He seduces the daughter of Hargrave and uses her to begin working his way through the families of each of the men (starting with her father, whom she dispatches with a shovel). As each patriarch finally dies he intones ‘The First,’ ‘The Second,’ and so on. It’s difficult not to image the Count from Sesame Street in his place, shouting “ONE, ah ha ha!” Well, difficult for me, anyway.

The characters are more fleshed out and the acting is of a higher level than the previous film. I was actually invested in the characters – not something I necessarily expect in a Dracula movie. Lee himself, though given more to do, is more detached with less emotion and expression, as if he is simply going through the motions.

Say it ain’t so!

 

The final confrontation between Paul – the young man trying to rescue his love Alice from Dracula’s clutches – occurs in a church, which Paul appears to re-consecrate after blocking the entrance with a cross. It’s an inspired way of dealing with Dracula, and way more interesting than another tired staking. (In fact, the only staking in the film is when two of Dracula’s thralls pin a living man down and drive a stake through HIS heart!) We’re treated to another time-lapse disintegration of Dracula, who is reduced back to the red dust form he started in. For a brief moment before the credits rolled I hoped that Weller would re-appear, collecting the blood and effects again, shaking his head and preparing for the next sucker he can sell Dracula’s blood to. Alas.

The Bottom Line
Overall, I really enjoyed Taste the Blood of Dracula. It’s more well made than its predecessor, and I enjoyed the way in which Dracula was brought back, the effects, the characters and the general quality. One of the better installments in the series.