First things first: Happy 70th birthday, John. To think of all the music that you could have created for us over the last 30 years…
Okay, on to business. Halloween is coming up—probably my favorite holiday. Some of you out there no doubt remember my infamous Halloween horror movie marathons, and the extent to which I would go to celebrate the Day of Black and Orange. So from now until October 31, assuming I can stick to a weekly schedule, my blog posts will have some sort of Halloween theme.
Last week, I went to see the new vampire movie Let Me In, which was produced by Hammer Films, the recently resurrected British movie company best remembered for its classic horror movies starring the legendary Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Hammer’s heyday was from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, but the company all but ceased to exist by 1977. I’m glad to see it back, and with a film that is so well done. Let Me In is engrossing, intriguing, haunting, and heartbreaking, and I declare it recommended viewing.
But that’s not what I’ll be writing about here. I bring up Let Me In only because it was produced by Hammer Films, and coincidentally enough, my dear friend Nick and I were out to dinner just recently and we got into an extended conversation about all of the classic Hammer movies. You might even say we were geeking out about them. Go ahead, say it. Get it out of your system.
Anyway, that got me to thinking about the series of Dracula films that Hammer produced, starting in 1958 with Horror of Dracula and ending in 1973 with The Satanic Rites of Dracula. All but one of the films starred Christopher Lee as the vampire lord, and Peter Cushing appeared in four of them: two as Dr. Van Helsing and two as his grandson, Lorrimer.
The entire series encompasses eight films (not counting the true oddity known as The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, a 1974 kung fu/horror film co-produced by Hammer and Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio, featuring Peter Cushing as Dr. Lawrence Van Helsing and Dracula in a cameo appearance—though he’s not played by Lee, who by that point had tired of the role). Of those eight films, I own all but two on DVD.
And now seems like a perfect time for an overview!
Let me start off by saying: Boy, what a spotty series!
HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
Even this first entry, considered by most to be the best of the series, doesn't hold up all that well on close inspection. I understand the need to adapt the novel and make major changes to move things along—they only had 90 minutes to tell the story, after all. But the changes have to make sense. In the novel, Jonathan Harker is a young attorney summoned by Dracula to his castle in Transylvania to help him finalize the purchase of an estate in England. In Horror of Dracula, Harker arrives at the castle to begin his new job as an archivist for the Count’s library. Harker is really there to destroy Dracula, secretly working with Van Helsing, but Dracula doesn’t know any of that. Which begs the question: Why the hell would Dracula hire an archivist for his library? Why would a vampire care whether his book collection is in order? Did he want someone to come in and apply the Dewey Decimal System? From a character standpoint, and a logical one, this makes absolutely no sense. Still, Lee and Cushing are GREAT and the ending is satisfying enough.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)
I don't own this one. It's the first sequel to Horror of Dracula, and it features the return of Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, but Lee is a no-show—as is Dracula. Lee wasn’t ready to don the cape again, and steadfastly turned down Hammer’s offers to do so. I give Hammer credit for not hiring someone else to play the Count—they knew audiences would not accept anyone but Lee. To stand in for Dracula, Hammer brought in David Peel as undead pretty-boy Baron Meinster:
who kind of looked like a cross between a young Robert Wagner:
and Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs:
(Incidentlally, Veidt as Gwynplaine was the inspiration for the Joker.)
I’ve only seen bits and pieces of The Brides of Dracula over the years, but I hear it’s actually pretty good. One of these days, I’ll get around to watching it in its entirety.
DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)
This third film is okay. It’s not QUITE as good as Horror of Dracula, but it’s in the general zone. The most notable thing about it, of course, is that it marked Christopher Lee’s return to the role of Dracula after eight years. It’s essentially a haunted house story, with the haunted house being Castle Dracula. The arrival of hapless travelers who end up spending the night there serves as the catalyst for the Count’s return from the Great Beyond. As Dracula, Lee has absolutely no dialogue this time around. Supposedly, he was so disappointed in the lines that were written for him that he suggested that Dracula not speak at all, that he function solely as a silent, supernatural presence. (To be fair, the film’s screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, has claimed that it was HIS idea to keep the Count silent, and that he never even wrote any dialogue for Dracula in the script.) The film concludes with a somewhat hokey ending for Dracula, but the cast is good and Lee doesn't need to utter a word to be effective.
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)
The fourth film in the series, this one is unfairly maligned, particularly by Lee himself. I think it's a strong entry with interesting characters, interesting interpersonal conflicts, a really strong performance by Lee, and probably the most gorgeous female to ever grace a Hammer production: Veronica Carlson (shown above), who was a fairly effective actress too. Even the male romantic lead—usually the most bland, boring, and forgettable element in a Hammer film— is interesting and well developed in this one. Portrayed by Barry Andrews, our hero is likable, fallible, and relatable. Plus, he's a dead ringer for the young Roger Daltrey! I would argue that the plot has more substance than any other film in the series, as it is as much about the still-relevant conflict between faith and reason as it is about the struggle between good and evil. And the ending is a doozie, with a particularly gruesome death for Dracula.
TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969)
This fifth film is a step down. It gets off to a good start, but quickly starts to stumble. Ralph Bates chews the scenery, regurgitates it, and then chews it all over again. Lee is given virtually nothing to do with the barest minimum of dialogue. The characters and even the interpersonal conflicts are little more than watered-down, far less effective retreads of what we saw in the previous film. And the ending is both incoherent and unsatisfying. It's as if they suddenly realized they had to wrap things up, so they improvised the ending on the spot on the last day of shooting.
SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)
Sixth in the series, this one broke from the line of continuity established in the five previous films and told a stand-alone story that doesn't connect with anything that came before. And it's actually one of my favorites. This time around, Dracula is actually central to the plot, Lee gets a lot of screen time and dialogue, and there's lots of nice little nods to the Stoker novel—including a moment where Dracula scales the side of his castle. Former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton gives a fantastic, memorable performance as Dracula's manservant, Klove. The only real weak elements are the male romantic lead (bland, boring, colorless, stoic-to-the-point-of-being-a-walking-mannequin), the ridiculous vampire bat puppet that can actually HOVER in mid-air, and the silly, ludicrous death they concocted for Dracula. The lead actress, Jenny Hanley, is absolutely BEAUTIFUL:
(Too bad for her that all of her dialogue was dubbed in by another actress. I dunno—she seemed to give an adequate performance. Could her line deliveries really have been that bad?)
Christopher Lee bashed Scars Of Dracula for years, saying it was the worst of the bunch. But he did a running commentary for the DVD a few years back and admitted that he didn't even remember the film—that he didn't think he ever saw the finished work. He actually made some positive remarks about some of its elements as he watched it. It was funny—he was going on and on throughout the commentary about how the Hammer films had gone wrong over the course of the series: Dracula became less and less integral to the stories, there was not enough adherence to Stoker's novel... yet none of those criticisms apply to Scars! Lee did criticize the level of sadism displayed by Dracula in this film, but I think he's off the mark. This was the first time in the Hammer series where Dracula was really FRIGHTENING, really DISTURBING. I dug it. And Lee's performance is impeccable.
DRACULA A.D. 1972
The series totally went off the rails with this seventh film. I don't have a problem with moving Dracula into the modern age—as my undying love for Marvel’s 1970s comic-book series The Tomb of Dracula will attest to. But this... it doesn't work as a horror film, because it's not scary at all. In fact, it's downright BORING. Yes, BORING—even with the delectable Caroline Munroe in a supporting role:
It doesn't work as a Dracula film, because Dracula has less screen time than ever. It doesn't even work as a reunion of Lee and Peter Cushing, because they have barely 2 minutes of screen time together and their relationship in the modern age is never established or developed. (Cushing is playing a descendant of the original Van Helsing, one who’s never met Dracula before—and doesn’t come face to face with the Count until the closing minutes of the film.) But the biggest sin is that they establish that Dracula has been gone for 100 years, and yet when he's revived, he experiences no culture shock whatsoever. It's never even dealt with! What's Dracula's reaction to airplanes? Television? Cars? You won't find out here! Take away the 1972 aspect of this film and the same exact story, more or less, could have been told in a 19th Century setting. In fact, it was—in Taste The Blood Of Dracula. Lee and Cushing gave it their all, but it wasn't enough to save this sorry excuse for a Dracula movie. Remarkably, Hammer went back to the well the following year.
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)
This eighth and final film is even worse than its immediate predecessor. And it’s the OTHER movie I don’t own on DVD. Thoroughly boring with a silly, ill-conceived plot, I’ve never been able to get through this film. Seriously, I found it intolerable. Considering that this movie marked the last time that Christopher Lee would ever play Dracula for Hammer, and the last time that Peter Cushing would ever play opposite Lee as Van Helsing, it’s a travesty. Talk about ending on a sour note.
But I still get a real kick out of watching the better ones. Lee is just so damned good as Dracula— he’s the best there’s ever been, as far as I’m concerned. (Sorry, Bela). And when he’s working with even a semi-decent script, and he’s giving a substantial part to play in the story, and he’s playing opposite women as lovely as the aforementioned Veronica Carlson, well, there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes.