Last time we saw the prince of the undead, he was impaled on a cross and turned into that pink sawdust bus drivers sprinkle on the floor when kids throw up. For just about anyone, even the common vampire, that would signal the end, once and for all. But this is Dracula we’re talking about, and if Dracula Has Risen from the Grave proved to be a financial success for England’s Hammer Studio, then you could bet good money on the fact that they’d find yet another way to bring the Count back from the dead, even if he’d been impaled on a cross and even if series star Christopher Lee was back out on the streets again telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the Dracula movies were awful and he would absolutely, positively, under no circumstances ever play Count Dracula again. Anyone who knows the cycle knows that means that the next film in the cycle, Taste the Blood of Dracula, stars Christopher Lee as the titular count, and that in turns means we’d have to read even more quotes from Lee about how he was practically forced to do this film, but that he’d sure as heck never do another one.
There are two common paths of thought regarding Lee’s frequent and increasingly irritating complaints about Hammer’s Dracula movies. The first is that, well, Christopher Lee is just sort of cranky and overly pompous about the whole thing. The second is that he made these statements with the full blessing of Hammer and with every intention, despite what he was saying, of reprising the role so long as the movies proved profitable. Having the star of a film out there talking about how horrible it all is and how he never wants to do another one is a surefire way to get people curious. Certainly Hammer seemed to have suspiciously peculiar luck with convincing Christopher Lee to go back on his bold proclamations. So either Lee is was a talker who never lived up to his own assertions, or he’s just a cog in a clever Hammer marketing ploy, or Hammer has some bundle of pictures or other bunch of material that they use to regularly blackmail Lee.
In fact, Taste the Blood of Dracula was originally scripted by Anthony Hinds on the assumption that Lee would make good on his boasts and refuse to appear. Much like Brides of Dracula before it, Taste the Blood of Dracula was going to employ the threat of Dracula and his disciples without actually featuring the bloodsucker himself. As originally written Taste the Blood was going to be a showcase for Hammer’s great young hope, Ralph Bates, the man they hoped would serve as the banner star for a new era of revitalized Hammer output. It seemed like a good idea. Christopher Lee was becoming more difficult by the day, and one has to assume that despite the man’s marquee value, Hammer would be happy to just move on without him for a spell. And Ralph Bates was certainly an able man around which to structure the faltering studio. Where as Cushing and Lee and the previous generation of Hammer actors had represented an older, more distinguished presence, Bates was young and handsome and would appeal, Hammer hoped, to the younger kids who were fast becoming the bread and butter of the movie industry.
As the studio entered the 1970s, they were beginning to feel the weight of a faltering British film industry, a dearth of ideas for new movies that would keep Hammer fresh, and most of all, the feeling that Hammer films were simply outdated and old-fashioned. Behind the scenes, Hammer was rudderless and without any real leadership or idea of where the studio was going. As a result, Hammer’s output during the 1970s was notoriously uneven, though several high points managed to rise above the widening pool of substandard Hammer fare. One of the keys to Hammer succeeding in the 1970s involved a serious update of the stodgy and old-fashioned reputation. This meant, among other things, more daring scripts, less naive looks at life, and above all, some new blood in the acting department that would appeal to existing horror fans as well as those shaggy-haired hippies and burn-outs with their bell bottoms and their Sergeant Pepper albums.
Unfortunately Warner Brothers, who distributed the films in the important US market, wasn’t going to buy any of this. They didn’t know who Ralph Bates was, and more importantly, they didn’t care. If Hammer wanted their Dracula film distributed in the United States, then it damn well better have Dracula in it. American audiences wouldn’t put up with a bait and switch (the success of Roger Corman and Al Adamson disproves this assertion), and if Warner couldn’t have Christopher Lee in the film, then the film couldn’t have distribution in the United States. Hammer scrambled to appease Lee in the same way but for much less money than the producers of the James Bond films begged and bought Sean Connery back into the Bond series (at roughly the same time. Diamonds Are Forever came out in 1971, but given the speed with which Hammer films were made versus the more liberal schedule of a Bond film, it’s likely this sort of desperate buying back of established stars was happening at around the same time). With Lee on board again, under protest as he couldn’t stop reminding people, a hasty rewrite of the script was in order so that Dracula could actually appear in the film to see who it was that going around tasting his blood.
Taste the Blood begins with a clever intro that signals the film’s intention to put more work than usual into the process of reviving Dracula. A merchant traveling via coach with a couple of your standard issue gruff, superstitious villagers is bragging about the rare wares he has acquired during his recent antiquing sojourn through the Carpathian hills. While he may be proud of his knick-knacks, the villagers aren’t as impressed, and when the merchant mentions a certain village, they just haul off and kick him out of the coach. Stranded in the woods at night, the merchant begins to hear the standard “stranded in the woods at night” sound effects. Owls, scurrying, and a howl that may or may not be Oliver Reed from Curse of the Werewolf. When a blood-curdling shriek fills the air, the merchant realizes that some seriously foul things are afoot in this cursed forest. By and by he falls off a ledge and comes face to face with the thrilling climax of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Once that movie finishes up, the merchant twists up his courage and sneaks down to collect the remaining artifacts, which include, as the title suggests, the blood of Dracula, or at least the powdered “just add water” variety we’re used to seeing once Dracula finishes dying.
Some time later, we meet three upstanding citizens of Queen Victoria’s England, and as you can guess, all three of them aren’t nearly as pious as they pretend. Ring leader William Hargood (Geoffrey Keene, who appeared in Cromwell every James Bond films beginning with The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and concluding with The Living Daylights) is the most despicable of the bunch as he beats and berates his daughter for smiling at a boy and engaging in other acts of harlotry while, the very same night, gathering his cronies together for a night of exotic pleasures at the local brothel. Hargood and his fellows form sort of a mini Hellfire Club, though their indulgences in the forbidden pleasures of the world consist almost entirely of going to same brothel every month under the guise of “charity work” and then sitting in a room, drinking liquor, and watching foreign women dance naked. I’m not saying that isn’t a fine night out on the town, but as far as experiencing the taboos from the farthest reaches of the globe go, it’s pretty pedestrian stuff.
Hargood seems to realize this, and their boredom with their panty-waist sin leads them to seek out eccentric dandy Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who is one of those broke counts who gads about town in the finest high society frippery, scamming free meals from expensive restaurants and mooching off exquisite looking women of loose morals and poor judgment as he twirls his walking stick, doffs his top hat, and snaps his hankie about. In other words, a perfectly fine role model. Courtley is rumored to have dabbled in the black arts of Satanism or voodoo or something sinister, and so the three upstanding gentlemen seek out his company, though they never stop insulting him — which seems to me a poor way to treat the madcap young fop you’re asking to initiate you into the next level of debauchery. Courtley sees in the gentlemen the perfect opportunity to get enough money to do something he’s always wanted to do: namely, visit that merchant from the pre-credit sequence, buy Dracula’s stuff, and mount a ritual to return the count to life. Reason? For the hell of it, it seems, which is as good a reason as any, I suppose.
As one would imagine, the ritual goes awry when Hargood’s friends balk at actually guzzling down the thick, foaming blood of Dracula milkshake with which Courtley presents them. The ensuing argument results in Courtley’s murder as he thrashes and writhes about after drinking the blood himself. Hargood and Co. high tail it out of the ruined old building in which the fun was taking place, and Courtley, not surprisingly proves to be just the vessel Dracula needs to return from the dead once again to wreak his unholy vengeance upon those who murdered his assistant, which doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense when you remember that Dracula has no idea who Courtley is, and that Courtley’s death was necessary for Dracula to return to the land of the living. But what do you want when the script gets rewritten at the last minute?
The remainder of the film sees Dracula (Christopher Lee) gaining control over the sons and daughters of the three men against whom he bears this grudge, so that he can have them murder their own parents, which frees Dracula up to stand nearby in the shadows and count down the number of people against whom he has successfully extracted his revenge. Considering there’s only three of them, it’s not much of a countdown.
One of the things that sets this film apart from previous Dracula films is that Dracula is arguably the hero of the film. Though we still have to see him destroyed in the end, there’s little doubt that he’s no more vile than the men he’s hunting. When he manipulates Hargood’s battered daughter Alice (Linda Hayden, Blood on Satan’s Claw) into smashing her wretched father’s head in with a shovel, one almost feels like cheering, especially since this comes after a grotesque scene in which a drunk and leering Hargood viciously beats his daughter and looks on the verge of flat out raping her. Previous Dracula films have had gray characters — the self-righteous blowhard Monsignor from the last film springs immediately to mind — but those characters always had redeeming qualities. Hargood possesses no such qualities. He is despicable from beginning to end, and the audience has no problem feeling that he got what he deserved. The only thing wrong with his death, as I see it, is that it’s the first, leaving the other two far less revolting characters to carry the plot when, if you ask me, Hargood’s death should have been the climax of the story. Instead, we get Dracula hunting down the remainder of Hargood’s cabal while milquetoast Paul (yet another Paul — nearly as many of these in Dracula films as there are Kloves, or Hans’s in the Frankenstein movie) tries to save the soul of his beloved Alice Hargood and, in the process, send Dracula back from whence he came.
Taste the Blood represents a more savage critique of Victorian society than any previous Dracula film. There has always been an undercurrent in the films of the ongoing struggle between enforced morals and repression and the wild animalistic abandon represented by Dracula. But in previous films, the scripts always came down on the side of society, preferring its ordered repression to the lust and passion of Dracula. Here, however, the tables are turned and if Dracula’s lifestyle isn’t exactly championed, it’s at least shown as being no worse than the hypocrisy and deceit of modern society. The point is made in rather a heavy-handed fashion, but so it goes. Although a more counter-culture, youth-friendly message about freedom triumphing over repression was nothing new in 1970, Hammer was still a relative neophyte studio when it came to tapping into the anti-authoritarian trends that had defined and all but escaped Hammer during the 1960s. With Taste the Blood, they’re attempting to play a bit of catch-up, so one can forgive the ham-handed way in which they deliver the message.
Dracula is, once again, little more than a supporting player, a sort of shadowy puppet master with very little screen time who does precious little more than lurk in the shadows rattling off the body count like the Count from Sesame Street. But then at the same time, he doesn’t have any less screen time or involvement in things than he did in most of the previous films. What Taste the Blood does is the same thing that Horror of Dracula and Prince of Darkness attempted to do, which is to keep Dracula constantly present as a threat, an ominous atmosphere of dread, even when Christopher Lee himself is nowhere to be seen. Only in the finale, which is admittedly half-baked, does Lee get to do his crazed thrashing about, though one has to wonder if the lord of the undead couldn’t think of a better way to fight off a weak opponent like Paul than standing on a balcony and throwing garbage at him. It’s just one step away from having Dracula swoop down and whack Paul on the head, then flutter up into the rafters to taunt him.
The rest of the cast is spectacular. Paul (Anthony Higgins, Vampire Circus as well as a small part in Raiders of the Lost Ark) is more boring than the previous Paul, but no more boring than any of the other straights we’ve had on parade. Linda Hayden acquits herself well as the other half of the boring romantic couple. The real strength of the cast lies in everyone else, an impressive assembly of solid character actors that perform above and beyond the call of duty, with Geoffrey Keen and Ralph Bates in the lead. For the couple scenes where he’s allowed to spring to life, Christopher Lee is as good as he always is. Michael Ripper, who seems to have appeared in just about every movie Hammer ever made, gets promoted from the role of “suspicious barkeep” to “lackadaisical inspector.” It’s probably one of the best casts ever assembled for a Dracula film, and although it’s common to bemoan the lack of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, there’s really no place for him thematically in this film, where the humans are generally so contemptible. Van Helsing’s compassionate authority figure would have stood out like a sore thumb.
Taste the Blood continues to take Dracula further and further away from Van Helsing’s theory that Dracula is is a perfectly explainable creature well within and soundly defeated by the powers of human reason. In fact, by Taste the Blood, Dracula is hardly even a vampire any more so much as he is some kind of supernatural demonic force. If ever he was the human-made monster, you wouldn’t know it at this point. The more secular means of dispatching a vampire — garlic, running water, so on and so forth — that were previously employed have, by this movie, been dispatched almost entirely in favor of religious iconography. Although Taste the Blood is as steeped in religious imagery as Dracula has Risen from the Grave, it doesn’t have any particular comment to direct toward religion the way that previous film did. Religion is simply a matter of necessity as Dracula has become less the prince of darkness and more the Antichrist himself. Or wait, are those the same? Whatever the case, Taste the Blood again presents us with a monster which, unlike Dracula as we knew him in the first couple of films, exists entirely within a religious — or sacreligious — realm where bravery and reason have less to do with destroying him than do faith and Christ.
Despite the weak ending, Taste the Blood is an exceptional entry into Hammer’s Dracula oeuvre. Director Peter Sasdy eschews the ultra-vivid palette that characterized the Terence Fisher films and goes for a more subdued hue to the film, something more akin to reality and less stylized. Buildings and street are dark rather than brightly lit, and there is a palpable sense of decay in everything. Even Christopher Lee grudgingly admits that it turned out to be a good film, though to this day he won’t stop going on about how corny the title is — and at least on this, one kind of has to agree with him, though I’d pay good money to see something under the same title debut on the Food Network.