Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
It’s October, and—nope, that’s all the justification we need. I like horror movies, and I will take any excuse to think about them.
There was a period in my life when I jotted down notes on movies I saw, partly because I’d read about Peter Bogdanovich’s youthful habit of keeping movie notes on file cards. Now I keep a movie diary on my blog. I looked up some of these notes I’d kept from a weekend I spent watching Hammer Pictures’ Dracula films, having sustained a bruised ankle from a softball incident (an incident stemming from the fact that I have a lifelong inability to stop a softball with my glove).
Anyway. Some notes on the Hammer Dracula sequels. Quite a few spoilers here, if those apply in a genre like this. I don’t need to tell you that Scarecrow has these, or any Dracula or Hammer movie you could possibly imagine.
Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966)
First Christopher Lee sequel to Horror of Dracula. Begins with the last sequence of that film, then picks up ten years later. Fairly quickly goes into the haunted-mansion groove: four wayfarers, touring through Europe, are left without a coach in the Carpathian forest near the Count’s castle. A riderless carriage picks them up, takes them to the castle, where a servant named Klove fetches them dinner, carrying on the tradition of his dead master. Or undead. Splendid bit: He kills one of the men (Charles Tingwell), hangs him upside down over D’s grave, and drains blood into it, reviving the vampire. A monk (Andrew Kier) teams up with the surviving couple to quell the monster. Some droll dialogue: Klove says to the diners, “My master died without issue, sir—in the conventional sense of the term.” Leading man Francis Matthews is weirdly like Cary Grant, especially in voice and attitude. Lee doesn’t have any dialogue—he hisses, and is pretty animalistic, bounding and grabbing at blond leading lady Suzan Farmer. He doesn’t have much screen time at all. During the creepy scene with a bunch of monks staking Barbara Shelley’s fang-bearer, you can be forgiven for sympathizing entirely with the vampires and not with the misogynistic monks. Some of the film’s sexual undercurrents become overcurrents pretty quickly. Unusual death: Dracula falls into the ice surrounding the castle and is trapped down there; kind of a cool idea, not especially well executed. Terence Fisher directed, and the movie has the stately look (Techniscope) and feel of classic Hammer—very studio bound, lots of carriages with charging horses, pretty slow overall.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)
Very churchy, this one: Dracula is awakened during a storm on a mountain, when two priests climb to his castle to take the hex off a town. The younger man is made D’s slave, the older (Rupert Davies) returns home and Dracula follows. A young atheist (Barry Andrews) with a poufy 1969 hairdo and a Michael Crawford look is romancing the reverend’s daughter (Veronica Carlson); she will of course be the Count’s target. There’s also Barbara Ewing as a blowsy barmaid (the young atheist is a baker and lives in the tavern) who is just right. Nice studio feel to the film, with lots of scurrying over rooftops in the town. Director Freddie Francis goes for a less classical look than some of the previous Hammers; he uses handheld and colored lenses, and some fast-motion of Dracula driving carriages harks back to Nosferatu. Very late 60s sensibility at play, with youth vs. the Establishment, and dinner-table conversations that turn into arguments. It all comes down to religiosity, as the kid can’t get behind the need for god in the fight against D; in the end, the vampire dies impaled on a gold cross (he sheds tears of blood), and the hero makes the sign of the cross as it fades out. No dialogue for Christopher Lee, just menace.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Opens with some footage from the previous outing, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. Roy Kinnear is a salesman traveling in the Carpathians, who stumbles across the dried blood and cape of Dracula. Cut to London, where we meet a threesome of wealthy gentlemen; professing to go off for “charity work in the East End,” they actually meet at a bordello. Turns out they seek wilder ways of pushing the envelope of depravity—this all seems inspired by the Hellfire Club—and invite a young Oscar Wildean stranger to take them to the next level. He brings them to Kinnear’s shop, where they buy the Dracula artifacts, then retire to a desecrated chapel for a truly cool ceremony in which the dried blood is mixed with new blood in their goblets, and foams into liquid. The young man dies, the oldsters try to cover it up, and Dracula is reconstituted in the chapel. Christopher Lee can’t quite follow up the great Black Mass scene, but he works some complexity and romance into his performance, and counts off the dead men as he takes his revenge….’the first….the second….” Main debaucher is Ralph Bates, whose blond daughter (Linda Hayden) is soon the focus of D’s interest. He also recruits her fiancee’s sister, and both of the girls end up killing their own fathers—Bates gets a shovel in the side of the head. Some weird stuff at play—Bates is so against the daughter’s marriage he threatens to whip her in one scene, with all kinds of incestuous overtones. In this one, the nice girl really goes over to the dark side for a while—we see her curled up on Dracula’s grave, gazing lovingly at him as he sleeps. Directed by Peter Sasdy, this is a good one.
Scars of Dracula (1970)
Some odd continuity leaps from the previous entry in the Hammer series, Taste the Blood of Dracula. When a bat drips blood on the desiccated corpse of Dracula, we appear to be in the spot where he last expired (an English chapel), but are in Europe instead. Local villagers try to burn D out of his castle, only to return to their church and find their loved ones slaughtered by the bats—a grisly scene, indicating the 1970 moment. Jump back to town, where the young folks have Seventies hairstyles, and a bounder is finishing sex with a mostly nude (it’s 1970) woman. He is chased to Dracula’s castle, where the movie shifts into Bram Stoker territory, with this guy as Jonathan Harker. Back in town, his brother (Dennis Waterman) and galfriend (Jenny Hanley) begin searching, with no help from the surly villagers. Servant Klove is back, looking deranged and not dissimilar to Eugene Levy’s Bruno in the “Dr. Tongue” segments of SCTV. Klove becomes enamored of a cracked photograph of the blond heroine, thus helping fight Dracula. Christopher Lee has more to do and more to say in this one than usual, and he dies pretty well: about to toss a metal spike at the hero, a lightning bolt strikes him and burns him up. A lurid entry, pretty ugly looking, but lively enough until it slows down.
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Begins with a prologue set in 1872, with Dracula and Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in a carriage fight. D takes a wagon spoke through the chest, but a passerby gathers a vial full of ashes. Jump to Swinging London, looking more than a bit like Kubrick’s Clockwork city. A mod party is going on (featuring the hairy band “Stoneground”) at a posh home; the young party crashers are a youthful Hellfire Club, crazy kids seeking illicit kicks (cf. the old guys in Taste the Blood of Dracula). They are led by Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), who organizes a blood-letting in a desecrated church, which brings back Dracula. The vampire desires Van Helsing’s descendent (foxy Stephanie Beacham), Cushing is around as her guardian. Scotland Yard seems to think the group is a Manson-type cult. The cop in charge has a clacking-ball toy on his desk. Dracula claims his first black victim, in the progressive spirit of the times. Christopher Lee has some dialogue and a few good, tortured facial expressions. Cushing keeps a woodblock print of Dracula’s image in his home. Groovy music. Van Helsing finally gets Dracula to go back into his original grave. But it’s only temporary.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)
Last official Hammer Dracula for Christopher Lee, who isn’t in this one much. Weird story: a group of English geniuses has developed a plague-like virus for world domination, but it turns out they’re doing it at the bidding of Dracula. A bunch of spy stuff and Clockwork Orange style (symmetrical wide-angle shots) mixed together. Begins with a black mass involving a naked blonde. D appears almost 40 minutes into it; in one scene Christopher Lee gets to put on a Bela Lugosi accent, as he hides behind a bright light pretending to be a reclusive industrialist and questions Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Dracula’s mansion has a basement of chained-up Hammer babes. Van Helsing serves a very nice tea service, and also smelts a silver bullet (in detail) from a silver cross. The police inspector, Michael Coles, is the poor man’s David Warner. Van Helsing’s niece is played here by Joanna Lumley. Freddie Jones is the most cracked of the Nobel-prize winning Satanists, babbling on about “the beauty of obscenity.” Lee finally goes down in a thorn bush, rather blasphemously wearing a crown of thorns; his bones melt away into dust, this time for good.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.