Tag Vampires

Dracula II: Ascension (2003)

Dracula II: Ascension (2003)

A group of medical students find out that the barbequed dead body that they have just received is in fact a vampire. Realising the potential to use it’s blood to cure one of their own from a crippling disease, they set about trying to resurrect the monster in a remote location. However they don’t account for a priest-turned-vampire hunter who has been tracking the infamous Dracula and believes that he has found his body to destroy once and for all.

 

Dracula 2001 wasn’t particularly enthralling, especially after seeing something like Blade. However horror films with any medium of success in the cinemas must mean that a slew of straight-to-video sequels, which have little to no relevance to the original, will be rattled out. ‘Cashing in’ as you would call it in any other walk of life. Sometimes they’re alright but most of the time they’re just poor imitations or remakes with a lower budget. When you get gullible fools like me rushing to the shelves to rent or buy them when they get released, you’d think I have no right to complain! Anyway enough ranting because all of the ranting in the world isn’t going to make Dracula II: The Ascension any more bearable than it is.

The criminal thing that this film does is wets our appetite with a kick ass opening scene in Romania involving the bad ass (and best part of the film by a mile) Jason Scott Lee as the priest-turned-vampire hunter who dispatches two vampires with some weapons that Blade himself would be proud of. However the film suddenly shifts gears to the team of medical students and the rather dull plot of them trying to resurrect Dracula to use his blood to cure their sick comrade. The priest reappears a few times throughout the film but he’s never given enough screen time considering the explosive start he made. Talk about pulling the rug from underneath you.

Given that the film is about Dracula, it seems stupid to keep him locked up for about three quarters of the running time but that’s exactly what happens here as the Count is chained up for most of the film, only escaping towards the end to set up the inevitable sequel (which was filmed at the same time at this one and involves the same cast and crew). From a technical point of view, the film is up to scratch. It’s got a lot of style going for it, with slow motion action scenes, plenty of blood and some moody sets (the opening in Romania is great – the film should have been set here). It’s not on for too long and the film tries to keep the pace going with an odd twist and turn thrown around. But the problem is that no one cares less about it. The characters are terrible save for the priest and the plot is just an excuse to keep the cast down to minimum by setting it in some remote lab. Ideas were obviously being banded around between the writers but in the end they just ditched them all for a pointless story which goes nowhere.

As I’ve said, the best bit of the film is Jason Scott Lee. He owns the screen every time he is on but that’s maybe because there’s not a lot else to go off. The student cast just waste their times and mine with inept performances, the extremely wooden Craig Sheffer being a particular culprit. Stephen Billington takes over the role of Dracula from Gerard Butler (couldn’t see him wanting to get the fangs back on after hitting it big, can you?) but he looks like a catalogue model gone wrong with his stupid bleached blonde hair. And even Roy Scheider, with his name so visible on the front cover, is given maybe twenty seconds of screen time as a blind cardinal giving advice. Talk about an easy pay day.

 

Dracula II: The Ascension has some neat points but just had no clue what to do with them. The character of Father Uffizi is quality and kicks ass but he’s totally wasted in this pointless sequel which offers nothing and delivers even less.

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dracula (1958)

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Don’t Dare See It…Alone!

Posing as a librarian, vampire hunter Jonathan Harker travels to Castle Dracula where he intends to kill Dracula and end his vampiric legacy. But the sun sets before he can do it and Dracula manages to bite him. Wanting revenge for his attempted assassination, Dracula preys upon Lucy, Harker’s fiancé. When they find Harker’s book and diary, Dr Van Helsing teams up with her brother, Arthur, to try and put an end to Dracula before she fully turns.

 

The ball had started rolling for Hammer’s glorious Technicolour reinvention of horror cinema a year earlier with The Curse of Frankenstein but it was Dracula which cemented the legacy of the studio and marked the beginning of their dominance over the horror genre for the next two decades. There was a reason that the Universal films had died out in the 40s and that was because audiences had grown tired of seeing Bela Lugosi prance around in a daft cape and turn into a bat-on-a-string. So it was a risky move for Hammer to test the waters and see if audiences were ready for a new breed of Dracula. Brought into the then-modern era with lavish and exotic colour to give realism to everything, Dracula marks a far cry from the black and white days of old. This was Dracula like audiences had never seen before and it changed the face of horror cinema forever.

Dracula is a groundbreaking film not just for screen vampires but for horror in general. Taboo subjects back in the day were thrust into the spotlight with graphic violence and sexual undertones, once only suggested in the original Dracula films, now receiving centre stage. It may look tame nowadays but back in 1958 this was shocking material. The link between vampirism and eroticism is common nature in cinema now. Quite frankly it would be virtually impossible to separate the two and they have become bound by time. Say vampire to anyone and they would conjure up the exact images that this film presents – that of the tall, dark and handsome vampire who seduces young women and then drinks their blood. This is the film which gave birth to this vision. The previous Universal Dracula never even skirted the issues. This one confronts them head on.

Christopher Lee smashed preconceptions of how Dracula was to be portrayed. Instead of Bela Lugosi’s hammy Count with his high collars and greased back hair, Lee’s Dracula is ripped right from the book. One moment he is a perfect gentleman with manners and courtesy, the next moment he is transformed into an almost-rabid monster, displays raw, animalistic instincts like never before. He possesses a more sexual, sinister element and this erotic tone, skirted over in the Lugosi Dracula films, is now brought to the fore. Dracula is now predator-like, stalking his sweet and innocent virginal victims before turning them into wild, aggressive vampires with the same sexual desires and needs as he.

The shock value has greatly diminished over the years as this has become the norm for vampires. But back in 1958, this was something shocking to behold. Female characters sit waiting for Dracula with plunging night gowns which do little more than cover over anything that would have led to the film being banned. Lee’s physical attributes are key to the character’s success. Tall, imposing and handsome, Lee looks everything like a dashing nobleman. It’s funny to note that he has little screen time and few lines but such is the impression his character makes, you would think he was present in every scene. It’s a mesmerizing performance and there’s little wonder that Lee’s portrayal (in this one at least) is consistently labelled as the best Dracula to have ever hit the big screen. There can be little argument with that.

Let’s not forget Peter Cushing. His Van Helsing brings all of Cushing’s calm, intelligence and wit to the role and is the perfect foil to Lee’s Dracula. With Lee not having much to say, a lot of the impact of the film and the events that unfold is down to Cushing and his performance. He balances religion and science, bringing credibility to the vampire threat and enhancing the role of Dracula as a bringer of death and destruction. In many of the portrayals since this, Van Helsing is seen as somewhat of a lesser adversary to Dracula but not here. Van Helsing is on a equal playing field and the two are well matched. One only needs to watch the gripping finale as Van Helsing and Dracula tussle through the castle, culminating in a memorable finale as Van Helsing pulls out all of the tricks in his book to try and kill Dracula once and for all. It’s a finale which none of the following sequels even came close to beating.

As well as the two legendary main stars, the main men behind-the-scenes from The Curse of Frankenstein were all back on board to try and do the same with Dracula. Director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster and composer James Bernard all contribute some of their best work here. Fisher’s direction is assured, pacing the film well and keeping the cast on their toes for the majority of the running time with little lull in proceedings. He knows what he wants from the screen and proceeds to ring every ounce of detail from the sets. This is gothic but like audiences had never seen before – brought to life in vivid colour almost fairytale-like. The entrance of Dracula, silhouetted at the top of a staircase, is fantastic horror imagery.

Credit must also be given to cinematographer Jack Asher who brings to life the sets and embraces the novel use of colour – Dracula’s fangs have never dripped blood as crimson and as pure as they do here. Sangster’s script is economical and manages to streamline Bram Stoker’s book, admittedly not being a very faithful adaptation and taking a few liberties with plot elements. James Bernard produces another of his fine scores here with the signature theme for Dracula being one of his most famous pieces.

 

Dracula is a landmark Hammer film, more importantly so than The Curse of Frankenstein because of the increased focus on sexuality in horror. What we know as the norm was risqué material in 1958 and it’s thanks to the likes of Dracula that the genre we know today is what it is. It’s possibly the best teaming of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in two of their most iconic roles and is, quite frankly, one of my country’s finest horror films. Scratch that, it’s one of the genre’s finest horror films too.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)

You just can’t keep a good man down!

Even though Dracula drowned years earlier, the local town still lives in fear of his legacy and are forever in the shadow of his abandoned castle. When a young woman is found dead with the teeth marks in her neck, a visiting monsignor performs an exorcism in the castle to finally rid the world of his menace. But on their way out, an accompanying priest falls and hits his head. The resulting drops of blood resurrect Dracula. Outraged at what has happened, he plots his revenge and targets the Monsignor’s young niece to be his bride.

 

After helming the first three Dracula films, director Terence Fisher left the series and it’s no coincidence to note the stark decline in quality between this and it’s predecessor. Dracula Has Risen From the Grave suffers from the overriding problem that it’s too generic and contains too few memorable moments to distinguish it from the rest. After the first two Dracula films (the original for being a genre classic and Brides of Dracula being memorable for not featuring Dracula at all), the rest of the period Dracula films all blur into one for me. There’s some standard set-up featuring good-looking women destined to become slaves, Dracula’s minions running around trying to get the Count back from the dead and the hero of the piece blustering around the screen doing whatever he needs to do to kill time before Dracula is resurrected. Then once Dracula is brought back to life, it’s a quick re-run of the original (Dracula homes in on one young woman, said woman’s family and friends try to stop him) before he’s killed off again. Couple this with the same sets and locations, the same music and generally the same look as the others and you get an indistinguishable sequel which doesn’t promise much and doesn’t deliver much.

Like all of the direct Dracula sequels, the film’s strengths and weaknesses are basically the same. It’s halfway through the running time when Dracula is resurrected so the first half gears up towards this moment and then the last half is directed at finding ways to kill him. The opening half is sluggish, dull and tedious as a variety of nondescript characters go about their business, unaware that danger is coming. The film builds up the tension and the focus is solely on Dracula’s resurrection. You’d think it would be a big deal when he is given a new lease of film. However, once Dracula is back at the half way point, the film hits a brick wall and drifts into familiar territory. It spent all of that time building him up and then they simply do nothing with him for the rest of the film?

There’s no wonder that Christopher Lee was always unhappy about playing the role as all he does here is hanging around in a cellar, bite people who come down and then simply wait around for the next victim. This was supposed to be about Dracula’s revenge so why can’t he come up with a more elaborate and deadly plan than simply turn the Monsignor’s niece into a vampire? Surely he’s more scheming than that – heck, in one of the following sequels he turns into some sort of James Bond bad guy complete with gun-waving motorcyclist henchmen. He gets more lines this time around but quite frankly, he’d have been better off keeping quiet. His sheer presence was enough to turn the role into something sinister and supernatural in the previous films and there was a sense of awe and mystery surrounding Dracula. Some of that impact is lost when he opens his mouth and starts talking. I’m not knocking Lee, he’s one of my favourite actors – I’m just saying that the role worked better when Dracula was silent and deadly.

Hammer also plays around with the vampire mythology a little bit here with Dracula getting a reflection, walking around in the day time and a scene in which a huge stake through his heart has little effect. It’s all well and good tweaking the formula for stand alone vampire flicks but keep it consistent throughout the same franchise! At least the attempted staking does provide a healthy dose of the film’s blood quota. The other Hammer trademarks are evident with the two lead females parading around in little clothing to reveal their ample bosoms. Carlson in particular looks stunning and was roundly heralded as ‘Dracula’s most beautiful victim’ in the promotional material. You’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise as she’s the definition of the kind of woman that Dracula would love to get his hands on – buxom, blonde and beautiful.

Rupert Davies does what he can in the Van Helsing-like role as the monsignor-turned-vampire-hunter but he’s no Peter Cushing. Both he and Barry Andrews, who plays the younger hero of the piece, aren’t terrible in their performances but they’re not equals to Dracula. In the original Horror of Dracula and in the sequels which featured both Van Helsing and Dracula, you always got the sense that both characters were on level footing – both as equally determined to destroy the other and both as capable of doing so. Neither man was bigger or better than the other, they just needed to find the weakness of the other and exploit it. Here, Dracula seems to tower over his foes, so much so that you’d think it’d be impossible for him to lose.

 

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is your typical Hammer film with the right atmosphere, settings and mood and plethora of gore and suggested nudity. But the script is a little stagnant and it just goes through the usual Dracula motions which we’ve already seen before. Far from the worst sequel in the series but nowhere near the best either.

 

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

FIGHT BACK! DEFEND YOURSELF!

Everyone thinks that Dracula is dead after Professor Van Helsing killed him ten years ago. So when four English tourists stray into his old castle in the Carpathian Mountains and are met by Dracula’s old servant, they think nothing of it after being welcomed with open arms. Settling down for the night, one of them is curious when they see his servant dragging a case down into the basement. His curiosity is the last mistake he ever makes and Dracula is resurrected, unleashing his evil upon the world once again.

 

The third instalment of the Hammer Dracula series is the first true sequel to Horror of Dracula and sees the welcome return of Christopher Lee into the title role. He had decided to wait eight years before donning the cape again for fear of being typecast (which is ironic since he went on to star as Dracula in around eight films during his illustrious career). In all honesty, it probably wasn’t worth the effort. Whilst nowhere near as memorable as the original, Dracula, Prince of Darkness is perhaps the best of the sequels although it works better as a collection of iconic vampire set pieces rather than a fully rounded film. At least the film gathers the best that the studio had to offer in the form of director Terence Fisher, composer James Bernard and writer Jimmy Sangster who all contribute their individual pieces to the film in classic Hammer style.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness opens with the final scenes from Horror of Dracula to fill you in with what happened (and also hastens to remind us of how good it was). The film then immediately begins to suffer from the same problems as the rest of the sequels. It simply doesn’t know what to do with Dracula apart from having him hiss and growl into the camera and then seduce some nubile young women. The first half of the film is centred on the resurrection of Dracula but once he’s back in business, the film hits a brick wall. You wonder why they bothered including him in the first place and it may have been better had they just continued with the same theme as Brides of Dracula, featuring Van Helsing as the main character of the series and introducing a new vampire threat.

Like many earlier Hammer films, the pace is deliberate and the tone is foreboding. The film takes time to set up its story and characters, realizing that in order to care about people when threatened with evil, we need to know about them and their situation beforehand. It’s a little tedious at times and some of the stupidity of the characters beggars belief (the contrived circumstances in which the four people find themselves at Dracula’s old castle will have you shaking your head – despite all of the warnings, all of the doomsayers and all of the evidence to the contrary, the characters still decide to stay there and look what happens!).

Once Dracula has been resurrected, the film quickly goes through the usual motions of having him assemble a coven of lustful slaves to prey on whilst the vampire hunter rallies the troops and then finally confronts Dracula. This last sequence of events really seems rushed and had they introduced Dracula earlier in the film, they could have built up the finale a little more. Instead, the ending is left open for a further series of sequels, each one featuring more absurd ways of resurrecting Dracula.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness contains possibly one of Hammer’s most chilling scenes – that of Dracula’s resurrection. Klove (the servant) brutally slays one of the guests and hangs him above a coffin containing Dracula’s ashes, allowing the blood to gush out and spill over them, reforming Dracula. It’s an amazing sequence both in its violent nature and then in its spine-chilling conclusion as the Count arises to strike terror into the world once more. Coupled with James Bernard’s memorable score, the scene is Gothic horror at its finest.

Up there alongside the best scenes of the film is the moment where one of the female vampires is manhandled in the monastery by the monks who then promptly proceed to stake her in a most ruthless fashion. For 1966, these scenes are brutally effective. The traditional Hammer period setting is used to full effect here although if you think you recognize everything, it may be because both this and Rasputin: the Mad Monk were filmed by Hammer in 1966 and they share the same sets (as well as the same cast – economic filmmaking at it’s finest!).

Christopher Lee is back in the cape and although he only appears half-way through and doesn’t speak a word (apparently his lines were so poorly written that Lee refused to speak them), his performance is still mesmerizing. He uses tools of the trade mostly forgotten about nowadays – the expressions on his face, his piercing eyes and his body language – to become a powerful and seductive figure, towering over the rest of the cast. In taking a personal stance against the treatment of Bram Stoker’s novel, Lee turned the role into something more memorable than he could have envisioned.

Andrew Kier takes over the Van Helsing-like role as the local vampire slaying priest. He’s no Peter Cushing but Kier is an excellent deputy, more than matching up to Dracula and his minions. Barbara Shelley, one of Hammer’s most common leading ladies in their earlier days, is equally as memorable as the frigid Helen who is corrupted by Dracula and turned into an alluring sexual vampire slave. Finally amongst the cast, note must be given to Phillip Latham as Klove. His entrance alongside James Bernard’s haunting music tricks the audience into thinking it’s the Count himself. But he’s just as sinister and deadly, acting as the vocal piece for Dracula throughout the film.

 

Dracula, Prince of Darkness contains some truly classic Hammer moments which unfortunately mask over a flimsy plot and poor pacing. For these reasons, it will never be considered a true classic but for fans of Hammer or vampire films in general, this one should be compulsive viewing.

 

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, The (1974)

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

Deadly Horrors! Dragon Thrills! The First Kung Fu Horror Spectacular!

Renowned vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing is giving a lecture in China when some villagers persuade him to travel to their remote village and help them fight off seven vampires which have cursed their village. Unknown to Van Helsing, the head vampire is in fact his arch nemesis, Count Dracula, who has assumed the body of one of the Chinese vampires.

 

I’m not usually a big fan of martial arts films on their own but when combined with the horror genre, they make interesting viewing to say the least. The success of the likes of Mr Vampire and Encounter of the Spooky Kind is testament to the popularity of the combination. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is no exception. The last of the Hammer Dracula films, this was always going to be up against it after Christopher Lee swore he would never don the cape again….and I don’t blame him after Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Just as they had done after the first film when Lee didn’t want to reprise the role, Hammer decided to turn Professor Van Helsing into the main character of the series. Given that Van Helsing was always played by Peter Cushing, that’s welcome news to me.

It was during this time that Hammer was on the verge of financial collapse and, obviously seeing a market for kung fu (thanks to the popularity of Bruce Lee), they decided to try and cash in on it. Combining Hammer’s classic Gothic horror approach with Hong Kong’s legendary production company Shaw Brother’s appreciation for mysticism and martial arts, this is one unique trip from start to finish although the two genres never fully mesh together.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires tries valiantly to get around the lack of Christopher Lee but in all honesty, Dracula’s presence is not really needed and he seems like an after thought, book ended into the film with brief throwaway sequences either side of the martial arts mayhem. This works better as a Van Helsing-driven film where he sets off to confront more vampires across the globe. In reality the film is little more than a series of martial arts set pieces as Van Helsing and his group head off to the remote village, encountering bandits along the way before finally coming face-to-face with the vampires. It may not be structured very well but it’s never dull.

There is plenty of nudity and gore courtesy of Hammer as various topless females are stripped and bitten by the vampires in their ceremonial chamber, the fresh blood flowing into a large bubbling vat in the centre (reasons for the vat remain unknown but it looks cool). We get people being impaled on large wooden poles. There are also lots of spouts of blood during the martial arts scenes as various sharp implements are driven into and slashed across their unlucky victims. As for the traditional Hammer atmosphere, it is evidently lacking here. There are a few decent moments of inspiration including the scene in which the vampire’s undead army rises from the ground. It’s all done in slow motion to give it some sort of otherworldly feel. But there is no overall atmosphere or tone like previous films. The Gothic vibe is sorely missing here.

As for the rest of the film, Cushing is on top form as usual (how many of his films have I said that about?) and the Van Helsing character is his own. Despite the absurdity of everything around him, Cushing keeps the film firmly grounded with another excellent performance. Christoper Lee opted not to resume the cape of Dracula and instead some lesser known Brit tries his hand at the Count – thankfully he’s not on screen for long because he’s awful and looks rather like a drag queen wearing the worlds worst vampire make-up. They get over the lack of Lee by having Dracula assume the form of a Chinese traveller early in the film so for the rest of the running time he’s played by a sinister-looking Chinese actor.

For once though, this isn’t totally Cushing’s show. The real stars are the Asian martial arts actors who accompany Van Helsing to the village. Each of the brothers who assist Van Helsing has their own weapon – and this is the only thing we have got to distinguish them from one another. They get little characterisation (only the older brother and their only sister get anything near to characterisation or meaningful dialogue). But once they get down to dishing out some kicks and fists, they don’t need to speak. The martial arts scene are pretty crude for their day and if you’ve ever seen a more choreographed, stereotypical and obligatory massive martial arts battle than the fight with the bandits, please let me know. But the fight scenes do the business they need to do – it isn’t meant to be a pure all-out martial arts film after all and what we get is just enough to make the film work. Besides which, the film boils down to another confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula and we know who always wins those fights don’t we?

 

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a really enjoyable but bizarre mix of genres which sometimes meshes, sometimes doesn’t. It’s not perfect and has plenty of faults but it’s one of the best of Hammer’s Dracula series and finishes the series on a reasonable, if somewhat silly, high.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Twins of Evil (1971)

Twins of Evil (1971)

Which is the Virgin? Which is the Vampire?

In 19th century middle-Europe, orphaned twins Maria and Frieda go to live with their deeply religious uncle who heads The Brotherhood, a group of witch-hunters who burn any females they are convinced are vampires and have conflict with Count Karnstein, whom many suspect practises black magic. Although the twins are identical, Frieda finds herself drawn to the mysterious Count and visits him in his mountain castle. Bored of satanic rituals, Karnstein has become a vampire and proceeds to turn Frieda into one too.

 

One of Hammer’s later films, Twins of Evil goes back to their roots of creating effective, serious horror films instead of the campy, silly outings they’d turned into. Hammer’s later films were solid but not very memorable, mostly rehashing old ideas and dragging out tired franchises as much as they could. With Twins of Evil, the studio creates one of its finer films filled with sadism, violence and a generally more sadistic and bleak outlook than it had created for a long time. Hammer trademarks are all here: the quality score, the Gothic atmosphere, the authentic sets and the odd peppering of character actors to beef up the lesser roles.

One of the more noticeable differences with Twins of Evil over its earlier Hammer brethren is the nasty and sadistic tone that underlines it. This isn’t just your typical vampire film as it mixes usual vampire lore with more extreme parts from the witch-hunting exploits of the likes of Witchfinder General. Hammer saw how much they could get away with and decide to push their own boundaries a little further which makes a welcome change. The film opens almost too well as The Brotherhood find a young woman suspected of vampirism and brutally burn her at the stake. It’s a hopeful sign of things to come but the film rarely re-captures the intensity and imagery of this opening until the finale. It does lag a little in the middle but there are enough burnings and bitings to satisfy and the plot is involving enough not to bore you outright. The film then picks back up at the end as they find out that one of the twins is in fact a vampire and, although the plot device is a little too obvious (why have twins if you’re not going to have them switch?) it’s actually a pretty intense few moments as you’re not sure whether the innocent twin is going to get it. The film then ends strongly at the castle of Count Karnstein with plenty of gore effects and deaths, including a particularly nasty and very effective decapitation.

Mary and Madeline Collinson, the twins of the title, are both up to the jobs needed of them. By that I mean they look very nice in low-cut lingerie, one of them acts evil and dark and the other pure and innocent. That’s about all they need to do and they do that. If you think they’re here to act, you’re mistaken. Why else would you cast two Playboy centrefolds? Actually to say they’ve been cast for their natural attributes, the film does little to show us what all of the fuss is about!

It’s Cushing that steals the show as Gustav Weil, the cold and multi-dimension character who strongly believes that he is doing what God would want him to do but ultimately he’s just as hypocritical and corrupt as the man he despises. It’s one of his better roles in his later career and one that definitely anchors the film despite a script which totters all over the place at times. Damien Thomas just looks slimy and evil so he’s a good choice to play the Count, turning him into an arrogant and sadistic man who relishes the power he has. But he’s a strictly one-dimensional ‘boo me’ type character and he isn’t Dracula! The two men are supposed to play polar opposites but the script cleverly has both men crossing over into the other’s territory, with Weil posing more of a threat to the village at times than the vampire. To have such a character tow the line between hero and villain is not an easy feat.

 

Twins of Evil balanced the modern Hammer demands of gore and nudity with the great acting, well-rounded plot and solid cast that made the earlier horror outings so enjoyable. And of course, it’s got Peter Cushing burning witches and slaying vampires – what more do you want?

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆