Tag Hammer

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

The sexual transformation of a man into a woman will actually take place before your very eyes!

Dr Jekyll is a brilliant scientist who has spent his life trying to create an “antivirus” to cure some of the world’s most deadly diseases. But he realises that his quest to preserve life will ultimately be ended by his own death at some point and decides to test out a serum on himself which he hopes will prolong his life. He needs female hormones to be able to create this serum and enlists the aid of grave robbers Burke and Hare to provide him with fresh corpses to harvest. This supply doesn’t last long though as they are caught and he eventually turns to murdering prostitutes himself. The serum also has devastating side effects on him and he temporarily turns into a woman from time to time. Attempting to cover up the secret, he passes his alter ego off as widowed sister, Mrs Hyde. Realising where his work is taking him, Jekyll tries to stop the killing but Hyde is growing stronger inside him and beginning to take over his mind and body.

 

With Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Hammer has created a bizarre but workable mix of the Jekyll and Hyde story, the Jack the Ripper murder case and the true tale of Burke and Hare, the notorious grave robbers, to create arguably the most deadly version of Victorian London you’ll ever see on film. There’s even mention of Sweeney Todd and the infamous meat pies. The mix works well though as the idea of Jack the Ripper being Dr Jekyll killing prostitutes for his own research is explained as well as it could be. It also gives purpose to the inclusion of Burke and Hare although these two stories (which have easily stood on their own in the past) are included to the detriment of the main Jekyll and Hyde story.

Robert Louis Stephenson’s classic story has been made into films versions time and time again but this was the first version to attempt a different spin. What a master stroke it was having Jekyll turn into a woman instead of a man. The gender conflict about whether man or woman will come out on top is interesting and it’s a pity that the film doesn’t really do as much with it as it arguably could. Matters are made worse when Jekyll’s neighbour, Howard, falls in love with Mrs Hyde and Howard’s own sister falls in love with Jekyll. What you get is a bizarre love triangle (or should that be square) and watching how it pans out is one of the highlights of the film. This could easily have been turned into a comedy (how many films about men dressing as women end up as comedies – Mrs Doubtfire, Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, etc.) but the film is no laughing matter despite some attempts at black humour. In fact there is a rather disturbing sexual element underlying the entire film with the film crossing into boundaries of homosexuality, transvestitism and gender confusion. In one memorable scene, Miss Hyde has been caressing the face of Howard but is then unaware she has changed back into the male guise of Dr Jekyll. The film is a straight up horror film though and only touches upon these themes. There is no larger scope at work here, trying to grapple with ideas and take chances with the material – its intention is to scare and shock and that’s it.

The original story saw Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as contrasting opposites, with Hyde being the inner monster unleashed into the world by the repressive Jekyll. However in this adaptation, Jekyll himself is just as bad, if not worse, than Hyde. He kills under the name of science in an attempt to justify his actions. His attitude of sacrificing a few low lives in society so that millions more could be saved is how many man men in history have turned to mass murder and genocide. Unfortunately because he’s such a nasty piece of work before he transforms, there’s no audience sympathy for him when he begins to lose control to Hyde. The supporting characters (Howard and his sister, Susan) are much more sympathetic because we know that their love with both Jekyll and Hyde is tragic and doomed to fail in the end.

Hammer’s inclusion of blood and nudity may not have been as welcome and relevant in some of their other horror films but it works well here because of the ‘sexual’ nature of the story and the violent manner in which Jekyll acquires his hormones. Watching Jekyll come to terms with being a woman for the first time and exploring his newly-female body is rather fascinating. You couldn’t do that with a few boobs! Hammer’s trademark period settings are also at their glorious best with the Gothic and seedy back streets of London being drenched in fog, darkness and eternal despair.

Ralph Bates was seemingly groomed as Hammer’s eventual successor to the leading man roles of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. However, Bates never really convinced anyone despite getting a few top billed outings. This is arguably his best work and although he’s still somewhat restrained in the role, he tries to conjure up his best mannerisms, tone of voices and attitude to bring this admittedly challenging role to life. Martine Beswick is Mrs Hyde and apparently only got the job because Caroline Munro wouldn’t go nude (damn it, I’d have paid to see that!). She oozes sexual aggression though, gets naked a few times and looks pretty unpleasant when she’s in murder mode. She does look a bit like Bates too so taking them as the same person is easy enough to believe. It’s a bit hard on her though to find her attractive in this film knowing who she is really portraying in the film.

 

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is one of the better Hammer films to come out of the 70s when their output was dwindling in quality. Everyone involved seems to have pulled together to craft a suspenseful, atmospheric and at times graphic re-imagining of the classic novel. It’s highly underrated in the Hammer cannon but a definite must watch for fans of old school horror.

 

Fear in the Night (1972)

Fear in the Night (1972)

Peggy, a young woman recovering from a nervous breakdown, is attacked by a one-armed man in her house but no evidence is found and no one believes her story, merely blaming it on her state of mind. Her new husband is offered a new job at a rural boarding school and she moves with him to the country. There they meet the rather eccentric headmaster and his wife. However things soon take a turn for the worse when she believes that the one-armed man has followed her.

 

Hammer is more famous for their classic Gothic horrors but they did dabble in other genres such as the fantasy genre with the likes of The Lost Continent and One Million Years B.C. What are usually forgotten or glossed over are there numerous forays into the Hitchcockian-style thriller that they did in the early 70s. None of which are particularly memorable but are at least curious companions to their more lavish horror counterparts. It was around this time that Hammer had begun to emphasize gore and nudity a lot more in an attempt to keep their films fresh and get back some of their lost popularity. Fear in the Night was an attempt by the studio to head in a new direction. Ironically enough this ‘new direction’ was to hark back to its golden era where atmosphere and suspense were the name of the game, not blood and boobs.

Unfortunately this one relies a little too much on creating the atmosphere and suspense and forgets to do anything with it. Director Jimmy Sangster was responsible for two of Hammer’s worst horror films but redeems himself somewhat with a solid effort which keeps it’s cards close to it’s chest for as long as it can. This can be a little distracting for the viewer – each character is seemingly hiding some secret which would reveal more about the plot twist but they are kept hidden for as long as possible. Whilst this allows for an interesting pay-off, the route leading to it seems plodding and rather distant from the viewer. Usually thrillers keep you hooked with little tid-bits of information but Fear in the Night refuses to play by the rules. You’re either going to switch off in confusion (or boredom) before the finale or stick with it in the hope that the script will play its cards at some point. Unfortunately, the finale isn’t overly thrilling although there’s a prolonged ten-minute stalking sequence through the creepy, desolate school. Hammer was always great at setting their films in eerie locations and this remote schoolhouse is one of their best complete with empty classrooms and huge white sheets covering over furniture in others. Tape recorders play the noise of children yet there are no pupils to be seen anywhere. And the opening shot of a slow pan across the school grounds to reveal the legs of a man hanging from a tree is a rather startling image.

Can you go wrong with Peter Cushing as a rather nutty headmaster? I don’t think so. This was Cushing’s first film after the death of his wife and he looks rather detached from proceedings but this works in his favour as the character has a lot of sinister secrets to keep hidden. The fact that his character only has one arm isn’t kept in the dark and one of the first encounters he has with Peggy where he stands behind her to help her untie her scarf is excellent – we see that he has a prosthetic arm but she does not.

Joan Collins has made a career out of playing bitchy women in film and television and her role here is no exception. She plays, well a bitch, and is one of the stronger performers on display and it’s a shame she’s not in the film more than she is. Judy Geeson is attractive and likeable in the lead role as the long-suffering woman who no one believes. She’s not the best actress I’ve seen but the role requires more sympathy and support from the audience than it does admiration and she fits this bill. Ralph Bates, the man Hammer tried to groom as their next leading man, is as weak as he was in the other Hammer films he starred in. Bates isn’t a bad actor and delivers his lines well, it’s just that he has little screen presence or charisma to really get into any of the roles he plays.

Whilst the cast are all very well-equipped in their roles, this is arguably the film’s weakness – there are just too few people around! Like the Scooby Doo cartoons where the ghoul/ghost/monster was always the only other person introduced in the episode apart from the gang, Fear in the Night attempts to keep us guessing with the murder-mystery story but it’s blatantly obvious who it’s going to be from the start. It’s the only possible outcome to the film as there are so few suspects lurking around the school grounds.

 

Fear in the Night was a brave attempt by Hammer to go in a new direction but ultimately fails because even in 1972, the plot twists weren’t new or original in the slightest. It’s entertaining enough if you want to stick it out but it will never be regarded as one of Hammer’s better films.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Reptile, The (1966)

The Reptile (1966)

Half woman – half snake!

Harry and his wife Valerie travel to Cornwall to investigate the mysterious death of his brother Charles. With the help of a few locals, they believe the death to have been the result of a snake bite and their search to find the cause leads them to Dr Franklyn. Harry discovers that Franklyn’s daughter was abducted by a snake cult when he was researching in Borneo and now possess the ability to transform herself into a snake.

 

After Hammer had begun to run out of ideas for their major franchises (Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy were growing stale quickly) and with their remakes of secondary Universal horror films not being as successful (namely The Curse of the Werewolf and The Phantom of the Opera), they turned their attention to stand alone films in the hope that they’d strike gold and hit another winning formula by their own making. Unfortunately, with the trio of films they made in the mid-60s (The Gorgon, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile), all Hammer did was virtually replace the traditional Universal monsters with a similar substitute.

So what we have in The Reptile is basically a vampire film in all but an appearance of Van Helsing and Count Dracula. Heck, the creature even leaves two small bite marks in the neck. Although at least when Dracula featured, you’d be guaranteed a gruesome staking somewhere along the line. But Hammer has always been a seal of quality and despite the rather unoriginal premise they hit another winner in The Reptile.

Shot back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile shares many of the same sets and cast, not to mention director John Gilling. From a business perspective it makes perfect sense. From someone who watched them back-to-back, it’s not ideal as it’s easy to mix the two films up. Not so much an outright horror film but more of a murder mystery at times, The Reptile is a rather timid effort from Hammer that isn’t going to smash any awards for excellence. It’s got a reputation for being a bit of minor Hammer classic but I just don’t see that here. Maybe if there was something slightly original on display here – I mean the film is basically Dracula with a snake-woman. In fact the script is so muddled at time that I’m wondering whether Hammer didn’t just alter one of the planned scripts for the Dracula sequels.

The creature is not well thought out at all. It kills for no apparent reason and does so randomly – it’s not for revenge and it’s not because it needs food. It’s just pot luck (and highly unfortunate) for any of the minor characters who stumble upon it during the duration of the film. The creature itself doesn’t look particularly menacing or scary but given Hammer’s relative lack of experience in conjuring up new monsters and the practical limitations of what they could create with make-up effects, it’s not that bad and the less you see of it, the more intimidating it becomes. In fact the damage that the creature does is more unsettling, with the bodies that it leaves behind looking like ghostly visions of death, drained of their blood. Being a female monster also makes it somewhat unique for the time.

The Reptile is Hammer horror to the bone though. The quaint setting, the varying village characters, the lucid colours, the mood and the music is all as it should be in a Hammer flick. It’s all steady stuff but nothing groundbreaking. Up until the finale, the film moves along rather slowly and although director John Gilling does manage to create some atmosphere with the remote village setting, it’s all wasted because a) we know that the killer is in fact a reptile of some kind (hence the title) and b) the film is too uninteresting for us to even care about anything else. The finale is rather weakly staged and it ends with a bit of a whimper but given the nature of reptiles, it makes perfect sense – it’s just not great material for a rip-roaring film finale. I’m sure if this was made today there’d be all manner of explosions and daft things going on but here the film ends on a rather bum note, a very flat and uninspired conclusion to what has been a rather flat and uninspiring film.

 

If Hammer had tried to do something different instead of obviously re-designing a vampire film, then maybe The Reptile would have worked out. But the similarities are too much and you’d be best off sticking with Count Dracula and his cronies as opposed to this slimy snake. Better yet, the counterpart production, The Plague of the Zombies, is a definite classic not to be missed. I guess all of the effort went into making that one.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Countess Dracula (1971)

Countess Dracula (1971)

The more she drinks, the prettier she gets

In medieval Europe, the aging Countess Elisabeth rules over her kingdom with the help of her lover, Captain Dobi. However one night she inadvertently discovers that bathing in the blood of young virgins makes her young again. She gets Dobi to start bringing her virgins with the promise that she will marry him. However when she reverts back to a younger age than Dobi, she wants someone of her own age and poses as her own daughter to fall in love with the young soldier who was to marry her.

 

What do you do when a posh man with a fake set of fangs, a tatty black cape and more make-up than a drag queen convention becomes boring and unfashionable? Well that was the dilemma facing Hammer at the end of the 60s when the Dracula series had pretty much run its course. Well the answer is a pleasing one – get Ingrid Pitt in the buff on the screen and pretend she’s the new threat facing Eastern European villagers the world over. Technically not a vampire film, this is based on the infamous story of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a rich aristocrat from Hungary who is believed to have killed around 300 young girls in an attempt to look younger. The similarities with vampirism are evident enough, the only difference being that the countess here just murders her victims instead of sucking their blood.

Admittedly the film is pretty slow and plodding. As with most of Hammer’s films, the film keeps to the same couple of locations and it gets a bit tiresome after the third visit to the dining area, the servants quarters or the courtyard. Characters are always essential to a good Hammer flick and here is no exception. Ingrid Pitt’s Countess Elisabeth is a ruthless, selfish bitch who never for once thinks of anyone else during the film, be it her wannabe lover Captain Dobi, her loyal servants and advisors in the castle or even her own daughter. The way Pitt switches between the role of the older, fragile Elisabeth and the ravishing temptress is one of the highlights here. The scene with Ms Pitt giving herself a bloody sponge bath is one that will certain linger in the mind too and is one of Hammer’s more iconic images of it’s ‘sexing up’ of horror. It’s actually Nigel Green who steals the show here as Dobi. He’s a man obsessed with love and although you can never reason for his actions (kidnapping and murder to name a few), he’s always done it for Elisabeth. The way she cruelly brushes him aside in favour of younger men is pretty harsh on the old fella.

I get the feeling that this film could have done with the talented touch of Terence Fisher in the director’s chair. That’s not to say he’s a bad director, he just doesn’t seem to get the look and feel of the film right, especially for a Hammer film. It’s got a great set (a leftover from a Universal film I believe) which expands on the usual Hammer vision but despite the bigger set, the film itself seems content to keep itself confined. Sasdy seems to be holding a lot back. Whether it was the studio, the censors or the script, the film seems to imply a lot more than actually happens. Yes, Elisabeth does kill a few virgins but there’s not a great deal of scope in the whole thing. It’s all very low key, something that the film should have tried to expand on. No further proof is needed than the final third of the film which ends in a damp squib. Fisher’s talent at creating atmosphere out of nothing is sorely lacking here too.

 

Countess Dracula is a solid Hammer effort held back by a lack of depth to the whole thing. It’s talky and largely uneventful but come on, they don’t make them like this anymore so what’s stopping you from watching Ms Pitt take a sponge bath of blood?

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

They taste his blood and the horror begins!

A merchant witnesses the death of Dracula and scoops up some of his remains, his cloak and an amulet for safe keeping. Years later a trio of respectable gentlemen who are fed up of their bourgeois lifestyle decide to indulge in a bit of black arts. They meet up with Lord Courtley, one of Dracula’s disciples and together they set about resurrecting the Count. But during the ceremony the gentlemen lose their nerve and bottle it but are unaware that Count Dracula has been brought back to life anyway. Dracula sets out to get revenge on them by targeting their children.

 

The late 60s and early 70s was a testing time for Hammer. With 1968′s Night of the Living Dead bringing a more realistic and downright scary approach to horror, The Exorcist just around the corner and their own films becoming stagnant after hardly changing their formula since the late 50s, the studio was really struggling to find their next hit. So as they always did in times of need, they churned out another sequel to their ‘safe’ franchises of Dracula and Frankenstein.

Whereas the Frankenstein series always continued to reinvent itself with new ways for the Baron to experiment, the Dracula series simply rehashed the same old repetitive cycle of events. Dracula is resurrected. Dracula gets revenge for something. Dracula targets someone’s young female relative. Dracula is defeated. It may have worked the first few times but there were only so many times you could do the same thing with the Count before audiences began to groan. In my opinion, the series reached its peak with Dracula, Prince of Darkness – the first of the sequels to feature the Count and the one in which that whole cycle of events felt fresh. Hammer churned out Dracula Has Risen From the Grave which was more or less the same thing and then along comes Taste the Blood of Dracula, another almost like-for-like rehash.

Taste the Blood of Dracula starts off well by showing us the death of Dracula from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave from a different viewpoint and builds from there, adding some continuity to the story. We at least know that this is set in the same canonical universe as laid out in the previous film. Well, at least until it fast forwards into the future. It’s this change in time period which is the film’s saving grace. A new director in charge heralds a new direction in most film series and out went the rich and lavish Technicolour sets of Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis (of which audiences had been saturated with in the countless Hammer horror films since the late 50s) to be replaced by a more grittier, darker and realistic Victorian setting.

The newer setting works in the film’s favour as this is the first time that Hammer audiences could see Dracula roam free in his iconic Victorian locale. The dark, grim setting is a nice contrast to the sometimes fairytale-like colour of the previous films but it’s all for nothing really as there’s little atmosphere to the film. Predictability and the lack of any constant genuine threat throughout the film keep things off the boil. Dracula is hardly around, Courtley makes an early departure and the three children, converted to do Dracula’s bidding, are hampered by the actors’ inability to get into the roles. The finale is also a let down. One of the trademarks of the series had been the unique ways in which Dracula was killed off at the end of each film but here, instead of a roaring or melting demise, his death turns into somewhat of a damp squib.

Like the majority of the sequels, Taste the Blood of Dracula simply doesn’t know what to do with its title character and this is its main weakness. It’s all well and good spending time building up to his resurrection and these scenes are generally the highlights of the Dracula films. But once the Count is back, the script doesn’t know what to do with him barring the usual stuff. In fact the Count has little control over most of the events in this film and he’s almost a bystander. Christopher Lee had long been sick of playing the character by this point but continued to appear and get top billing, almost sleep walking through the film. Apparently he wasn’t supposed to be in it at all and the script originally centred around Ralph Bates’ shadowy Lord Courtley character (Bates making his Hammer debut here).

So it’s no surprise to find out that Dracula gets little screen time as he let’s his minions do most of his dirty work. The revenge motif isn’t new to the series but here, Dracula’s revenge is not so much of the neck-biting and blood-drinking kind. The vampiric elements hardly get a look in as Dracula simply corrupts children to do his dirty work – children who were already on the brink of corruption thanks to the indulgent and hypocritical lifestyles of their fathers. It’s ironic that he decides to take revenge for his disciple’s death since he didn’t know him at all and his death was necessary for Dracula to be resurrected in the first place but this is just petty nitpicking. The supporting cast do better including Geoffrey Keen (whom most people would recognise as the Minister of Defence from many of the James Bond films) and Peter Sallis, who is more famously known for his vocal work as Wallace in the Wallace and Gromit claymation films.

 

Taste the Blood of Dracula tries to give the Count some new life by bringing him ‘home’ into the Victorian era but apart from that, it ticks all of the usual Dracula boxes and this is where its problem lies. It’s not the worst of the series, just one of the most routine. Dracula is more like a passenger in his own film and whilst I can understand the reasoning behind it, it doesn’t work well with the title!

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Scars of Dracula (1970)

Scars of Dracula (1970)

After being caught in bed with the burgomaster’s daughter, Paul Carlson jumps into a nearby coach and makes a hasty escape. He winds up at Castle Dracula where he becomes Dracula’s latest victim. His brother, Simon, and girlfriend find out that he’s missing and set about trying to track down his last whereabouts. This leads to an eventual confrontation with Dracula.

 

Yeah, it’s pretty thin on the ground for story but I guess it beats Dracula setting out for revenge again. The sixth of the Hammer Dracula films, Scars of Dracula is often heralded as the ‘point of no return’ for the series in which the films got really bad after this. That’s being a bit harsh on The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a hugely enjoyable kung-fu horror romp not to be taken too seriously. But the next two sequels, in which the story was transported into the then-current time period, are shambolic.

However in my opinion, the series really lost its way after Dracula, Prince of Darkness and the following sequels simply rehashed the same sort of story with lesser results and ever-diminishing budgets. This is clear with Scars of Dracula, a film in which its lack of budget works to destroy any sort of suspense or dread better than any shocking script could do. I bleated in my reviews for the previous couple of sequels that the first half of them were all about building up to a pivotal resurrection scene halfway through when Dracula would burst back onto the screen. Then the last half of the film would involve characters trying to kill him again. But you won’t get that here, at least with the resurrection bit.

Dracula is revived within the first few minutes here and there’s no point in trying to make any sense of it as it involves a cheap bat-on-a-string and a few drops of blood. Like Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees many years later, it’s best not to try and think about the ridiculousness of the situation and just focus on the fact that the main villain is alive and kicking again. Compared to the amazing resurrection sequence in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, this one looks downright feeble. So with Dracula all ready to within the opening act, the stage is set for us to finally see more Christopher Lee. He gets more screen time here than the previous few sequels combined and is a lot more like the character he was portrayed as in the original – coming off as a well-mannered distinguished gentleman when he needs to and then turning into a snarling, ravenous beast when he gets the urge. The irony now is that we perhaps see too much of him and any sense of mystery or aurora of the supernatural just evaporates. The more you see of him, the less you think of him as Dracula, the ultimate vampire, and the more you just see him as a run-of-the-mill bloodsucker.

Scars of Dracula is probably the bloodiest of all of the Dracula films and the gore quota has been upped dramatically. Like any horror series, you know the creativity is decline when there’s more blood on show and this is evident here. Dracula doesn’t care how he gets the blood from his victims this time around, even going so far as to stab a woman in the stomach just to be able to drink her blood. A massacre inside a church and a torture scene makes this one of Hammer’s most violent and graphic films. But when everything else is as routine as it is, the only thing you could really change is the amount of blood.

Like the majority of their output, there’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ Hammer horror film. It does its job adequately in almost every department. It’s just that the series had never really tried to do anything new (until the next couple of sequels) so the vampiric shenanigans all seems forced. There’s decent support from the likes of Patrick Troughton, Hammer regular Michael Ripper and the attractive Jenny Hanley but they can only inject so much energy into proceedings before they are engulfed by the film’s stagnant appearance. The script could really have done with a Van Helsing type character because without the famous vampire hunter, Dracula always seemed to be one step higher on the food chain than the rest of the characters (until he was killed at the end of each film however!)

 

Scars of Dracula is the weakest of the period Dracula films. It is derivative of its predecessors, fails to inject any new life into the tired story and simply goes through the motions very awkwardly. It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just perfectly demonstrative of Hammer’s later output when they tried and failed to keep interest in their big franchises.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Satanic Rites of Dracula, The (1973)

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

There Is No Hope Left…

In London in the 1970s, Scotland Yard think they have uncovered a case of vampirism and head off to seek the expert advice of Professor Larimer Van Helsing. Investigating further, Van Helsing discovers that some extremely rich and powerful figures are ploughing money into a huge foundation with a boss who has never been seen. It turns out that this boss is in fact the resurrected Count Dracula who is finally sick of the endless pain and suffering of eternal life and is plotting to unleash a new enhanced strain of the Black Death thus taking everyone in the world down with him when he dies.

 

Talk about flogging a dead horse. There’s no wonder Christopher Lee got sick of donning the fangs whenever Hammer came calling! This penultimate Dracula film is slightly better than the abysmal Dracula A.D. 1972 but still suffers from placing the film in a contemporary setting, instead of the traditional period settings which Hammer were exceptional at recreating. However The Satanic Rites of Dracula has always been given a lot of bad press and a lot of it is undeserved. Hammer clearly didn’t know what to do with Dracula anymore and so this ends up a random mix of traditional elements from Hammer, the newly popular Devil/occult themed films (The Exorcist) and bizarrely enough, the James Bond films.

The plot, whilst it may not be keeping with the historical legacy of Count Dracula, is still chillingly believable as Dracula wants to end his life and take everyone down with him as the ultimate act of revenge. However we see so little of the Count during the majority of the film that one could be forgiven for thinking it was Dr No or someone trying to take down the world. Speaking of Bond, this film does seem to smell a little of being a spy caper. There’s plenty of espionage, underhand dealings, sinister headquarters, secret agents, conspiracies and of course, the plot to take down the world. It seems as though Hammer was throwing caution to the wind and trying to contemporise Dracula a little too much. Like the similarly-themed Fu Manchu films, the horror aspect is thrown away for most of the film and it turns into some low-brow action/spy flick. It’s so obvious that the writers were struggling to find worthwhile things for Dracula to do – having him running a massive corporation isn’t exactly what Bram Stoker would have thought his character would be doing.

Thankfully Christopher Lee is back as Dracula and Peter Cushing is back as Van Helsing so at least Lee’s last appearance in the series ends on a pretty respectable note with the two titans battling each other one final time. Even if the script fails them, these two icons are always worth their pay cheque and this is no exception. Dracula’s demise is a little weak though and I would liked to have seen Van Helsing finally hammer home a massive stake through his heart to end the personal vendetta between the two. Comparing the final showdowns in the previous films where Dracula is turned to dust or drowned, this one ends on a little whimper.

Apart from the Dracula-fighting, the older Van Helsing seems a little out of place in the ‘action man’ environment and most of the hero stuff is left to one of the younger supporting investigators. Again the old guard and the new breed are brought together with mixed results and I would have preferred the action elements to be left alone so that Van Helsing could stake some more vampires in grisly old school fashion. After this, Christopher Lee said he was done with Dracula and hung up his cape. Cushing would stay on for one more vampire flick, the quite enjoyable The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires which dealt with Dracula but only fleetingly at the beginning.

 

The Satanic Rites of Dracula isn’t a bad way for Christopher Lee to bow out as Dracula, especially compared to the previous instalment and the plot is interesting in theory. But when you look back to some of the highlights of the series including Horror of Dracula and Dracula, Prince of Darkness, you can see how much they were milking this series, and milking it badly too. It’s fallen a long way since 1958.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Revenge of Frankenstein, The (1958)

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

The Terror Rises Again

Sentenced to death by guillotine for the actions of his murderous first creation, Baron Frankenstein hatches an ingenious escape with the help of his assistant. He relocates to a new town, adopting the name ‘Dr Stein’ and opens up a medical practice to help the poor and the sick. But this practice is just a front for his latest experiments and, with a steady supply of body parts from his dying patients, Frankenstein is determined to correct the mistakes he made with his original creation. Things don’t according to plan once again as his creation exhibits deadly side-effects.

 

When Hammer made The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, they didn’t realize that it would revolutionize the horror genre and become a landmark films of its kind. As we all know too well by now, commercially successful films are easy cash cows when it comes to studios planning their next moves. The day of the sequel is almost as old as cinema itself and Hammer quickly cranked out The Revenge of Frankenstein, the only true sequel to the original which picks up directly where the first one left us.

Unlike the Universal Frankenstein sequels which focused on the monster, the Hammer series made the Baron himself the main character and the sequels followed his progress and development. It’s a novel idea and allowed Hammer the chance to continue to reinvent the story, tweaking different parts and adding new challenges for Frankenstein to keep the material fresh over time.

The Revenge of Frankenstein kicks off with an ingenious start to the film. As Frankenstein is being escorted to the guillotine, it turns out that the executioner and his assistant are both in cahoots with him. This is good news for the Baron, who escapes but bad news for the overseeing priest who takes his place to get the chop. Jimmy Sangster picks back up the writer’s pen and adds new, resourceful ideas to his original story which really enhances Frankenstein and brings out the best in both character and actor. Unfortunately the film doesn’t show half as much creativity during the rest of its running time, opting to become a weaker retread of the first film. It’s nowhere near as dark, as clever or downright entertaining as the original. That’s not to say it doesn’t have much merit, it’s just that the original set high standards that the series always tries to better but never manages to.

Director Terence Fisher is back for this one and he replicates the same sort of Gothic vibe and atmosphere to create the illusion that this is the same world, the same time and the same place as the original. The pace of the film is good and the real pleasure as an audience is seeing how long Frankenstein will be able to get away with using his pseudonym before he’s found out. It’s going to happen at some point and the highlight scene of the film is the one in which the monster bursts through the ballroom window, publicly confronting ‘Dr Stein’ and outing him in front of his peers. The ending shows just as much inspiration as the beginning and sets the way up for another sequel quite ingeniously. It’s a pity that the following sequel didn’t use it and instead rebooted the series.

The Frankenstein series is notable for giving horror, in fact cinema in general, one of it’s greatest ever villains in the form of Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein. Never a man to phone through a performance, Cushing infuses the role with all of his acting skill, portraying a character of immense complexity. Cushing’s Frankenstein is a little more sympathetic in this one and he doesn’t send the monster out to kill anyone. He’s more a man blinded by science than an outright psycho. He seems no problem with stealing body parts for the progression of science and his bitter contempt for his inferior counterparts is masked through his charming personality. This is a man who would hug his own mother and tell her he loves her whilst knifing her in the back to take out a kidney if he thought it would better science. His heart is in the right place but every time you think Frankenstein is back on the straight-and-narrow, along comes something ambitious which drags him back into a murky world.

Christopher Lee does not return as the monster, his Hammer star quickly rising thanks to his role as Dracula in Horror of Dracula. As a result, the new monster is a bit of a let down. To say he’s been patched up from body parts, there’s no stitch marks or scars or any visible signs that he was anything abnormal. He just looks like a normal man, albeit a very tall one. He’s not as intimidating or threatening as he was before and most of the menace is lost. But in tweaking the monster this way, the series was able to reinvent itself time and time again so that it wasn’t just the same story over and over. Frankenstein didn’t repeat the same mistakes, he was always trying out new ways of creating and preserving life. Here, Frankenstein is doing the right thing by giving his crippled assistant the chance of a new life by giving him a new body albeit it with disastrous consequences.

Michael Gywnn does at least convey a lot of emotion as the monster, his cries of “Frankenstein – help me” during the very public confrontation with Frankenstein brings out a lot of sympathy for the monster. He’s a tragic character but simply an unwitting pawn in Frankenstein’s ultimate game to cheat death.

 

The Revenge of Frankenstein is top notch Hammer horror at its best, simply overshadowed by a classic original and a few superior sequels. How many franchises can you name which offer up a handful of fresh and original stories in such a manner as the Frankenstein series? It’s few and far between. To be honest though, the title is a bit misleading as Frankenstein doesn’t get his revenge – only what is coming to him.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Evil of Frankenstein, The (1964)

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

He’s never been more shocking! shocking! shocking!

Forced to leave town over his unethical experiments, Frankenstein and his assistant Hans return to their home town of Karlstaad to take up residence at his family’s old chateau. Frankenstein even discovers his old creation, frozen in ice in the mountains. After bringing it back to life, Frankenstein finds that it will not respond to commands. So he enlists the services of a Zoltan, an unscrupulous hypnotist, to animate it properly. Zoltan has other plans for the monster though and uses it to extract his revenge on the local authorities who forced him out of town.

 

The first of the Frankenstein films not to be directed by Terence Fisher, The Evil of Frankenstein is considered one of the weakest of the series and it’s not really hard to argue that point. That’s more to do with the fact that the other films are all of excellent quality and not because this one is poor in any way. It’s just that it’s the least memorable entry by a long shot. Peter Cushing was still playing Frankenstein which is the main thing!

The Evil of Frankenstein was to be distributed in America by Universal and a deal was struck with the studio to allow Hammer the rights to copy as much of the original Frankenstein as they liked. Unable to use Jack Pierce’s legendary make-up design for the monster back when The Curse of Frankenstein was made, Hammer jumped at the chance to include it in this one. In turning the film into a vague remake of Universal’s classic, Hammer lost all of the unique attributes they’d brought to the table back in 1957. The make-up just doesn’t look right on a Hammer creation for a start – it’s forehead looks like glue and oatmeal and it’s big, bulky shoes make it somewhat of a comedic sight to behold. The other monsters in the series were a lot more believable because they didn’t use Pierce’s make-up and the designers had to get creative with how they approached their creations. It looks a little old fashioned and out-of-date (with no disrespect to Pierce’s legendary design) and it certainly doesn’t fit in with the new direction that Hammer had taken the story to distinguish themselves from the Universal series. The series ditched the design after this one and continued to creatively challenge the notion of the monster in the following entries, most notably with the next instalment Frankenstein Created Woman, the title of which seems to really tell you what you need to know about the ‘monster’ in that one.

Even Hammer’s sets don’t look as lavish and colourful as usual – they tend to be bleak and devoid of any life. Frankenstein’s laboratory complete with huge electric coils owes a lot more than just gratitude to the 1933 film. The sets have dated badly over time and look like the worst of the series but that’s no surprise considering they were ripping them straight from the 30s. Another bone of contention is the lack of continuity shown to the series. This one has a flashback to the events of The Curse of Frankenstein but re-shoots them and re-tells them in a different way. And no reference is made at all to the events of The Revenge of Frankenstein with the exception of the character of Hans. What about the new body that Frankenstein got at the end of that film?

And what about Frankenstein himself? The character is less scientifically-driven here and more sympathetic. One of the strengths of the character was always in achieving his end goal by any means but that takes a back seat so that he can settle a few scores with the locals. At least Cushing is on top form again. He’s excellent as the scientist and it’s hard to imagine anyone even coming close to portraying Frankenstein as well as he did. This is Cushing’s role forever and he relishes every minute of it – listen to the line he says when he removes the heart from a body right in front of the body snatcher, smugly claiming that “he won’t need it anymore.” Still, the character loses the traits he’d gained from the previous films, reverting back into a more clichéd, sympathetic and misunderstood character.

The addition of Zoltan the hypnotist isn’t really needed either and he takes something away from the whole re-animation/life after death process that Frankenstein was all about. However the odious Peter Woodthorpe still manages to put in a sly and underhand performance to win over any critics of his ability. It’s a great part to play and Woodthorpe relishes every moment, verbally squaring up to Cushing in some of the film’s best scenes.

 

You’d think I hate the film judging by the review but it’s not the end of the world. The Evil of Frankenstein is one of the weakest films of the series but when you consider how good some of the other films are, that shouldn’t really be taken as a damaging blow. It just doesn’t live up to the standards that the other films have set and seems too busy cashing in on the opening of the Universal flood gates to do anything nearly as good.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Brides of Dracula, The (1960)

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

He Turned Innocent Beauty Into Unspeakable Horror.

A young teacher on her way to a new job in Transylvania gets stranded at an old castle. There she is persuaded by a young man to help him escape the shackles with which his mother has kept him locked up in for years. Unknown to her, the man is actually a vampire and a disciple of Count Dracula. Finally freed, he begins to unleash his reign of terror on the local village. That is until Dr Van Helsing shows up to put an end to the vampire plague once and for all.

 

When Christopher Lee stated that he wasn’t going to reprise his role as Dracula, Hammer had two options. Either recast the role which could alienate a lot of people and they had to be sure they got the right man in the first place. Or the alternative was to switch the focus of this franchise from Count Dracula to Van Helsing and base the films around him and his vampire hunting. Let’s face it: Dracula was hardly in Horror of Dracula so this decision was a smart move on the part of Hammer. Having said that, the title is extremely misleading and a little shameless too, designed as a cynical marketing ploy and no more. Dracula does not make an appearance at all here so one must wonder just whose brides these are! Although calling the film The Brides of Dracula’s Disciple just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

The Brides of Dracula is well structured and although it does take time to get its wheels turning, it gets there in the end. We’re introduced to the lovely Yvonne Monlaur, obviously cast for her European beauty rather than her acting skills and there are plenty of plot twists which actually set about the releasing of the vampire. These are all reasonably executed so that you’re never at the point where you wonder if everything in the film is going to be a coincidence. It might be a little sluggish for some but it’s never boring and perhaps the only reason the film drags in these early stages is that you’re reminded of how much you’re missing Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing tearing it up on screen.

Fear not because the film kick starts itself once Van Helsing turns up and Brides of Dracula suddenly turns into one of the more memorable entries into the entire series. He doesn’t appear until the half-way stage so not only does the film rob the fans of Dracula but their new main star, Van Helsing, has to take a back seat in his first solo outing. You’ll feel a little duped for a while but there are enough tricks up this film’s sleeve to make you forget that. It has many stand-out scenes including but not limited to one of Dracula’s victims rising from her grave, a scene in which Van Helsing is bitten and takes drastic action to stop himself from becoming a vampire and, of course, a wonderful finale inside an old mill in which Van Helsing tries to end the vampire menace by using the sails of the windmill to create a huge shadow of a cross to dominate the landscape. You’d be hard pressed to find as many entertaining set pieces as this in the later instalments.

Atmospherically the film is top notch, with misty forests, dark and eerie castles and humble Transylvanian villages all providing some exquisite sets in which the actors can strut their stuff. Terence Fisher could have produced his most visually-impressive Hammer film here with everything erupting in glorious Technicolor. It has dated in some respects but in others, it’s beautifully shot and captures the Hammer period vibe down to a tee. It’s the perfect set-up for Peter Cushing to come in and do what he does best – command the screen with his screen presence. He carries this film and because he doesn’t turn up till half-way through, that is a heavy burden to shoulder. He is, in my opinion, the greatest genre actor to have ever lived and you can do worse than watch this film to see why. Watch his gentle, courteous and esteemed character suddenly turn into a brutal, cold-hearted man on a mission to destroy vampires when confronted with danger.

It’s a pity that he’s not up against someone a little stronger because you get the sense that Cushing underplays his role, for fearing of overshadowing his on-screen nemesis. David Peel is just too weak and bland and doesn’t have any menace or presence about him whatsoever, thus making the vampire threat somewhat of a damp squib. It’s a good job they didn’t recast Dracula because this guy would have ruined the part. As a minion of the Count, he’s passable. In this respect, Brides of Dracula shares the same fate as many other non-Dracula Hammer vampire films in that they just couldn’t top Dracula as the main villain. Once you’ve had the Prince of Darkness as your villain, everyone else seems second best. As with many Hammer films, it’s always the bit roles which provide the most entertainment – Miles Malleson almost stealing the show as a drunken doctor. The actual ‘brides’ of the title don’t get much to do except for parade around scantily-clad.

 

Coming directly after the genre-defining precedents that Horror of Dracula set was going to be no easy feat and thankfully The Brides of Dracula does it’s best to live up to standards. It takes it’s time to get going and has a weak villain (I can just imagine what Lee would have added to the film with his presence) but the final third is as exciting and entertaining as anything Hammer has ever done.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆