Including The Shuttered Room in a Lovecraft-themed month of reviews is admittedly a bit of a stretch. To the extent that its source story is considered by anyone to be part of the Lovecraft canon, it is thought of as being only very peripherally so, with many of the author’s followers disdaining to give it even that distinction. The story originally appeared in the 1959 collection The Shuttered Room & Other Pieces, which was compiled by author August Derleth and published under his own Arkham House imprint. Derleth, a longtime friend and supporter of Lovecraft’s during his lifetime, is a bit of a controversial figure among Lovecraft devotees. While his championing of Lovecraft’s work is inarguably responsible in part for the author being as well known as he is today, some of the liberties that Derleth subsequently took with that work is seen by many as being of a considerably less laudable nature.
One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.
At the end of the day, I have to shrug and surrender to my baser side and say that Michael Carreras probably needed to be kicked in the shin at least once. Possibly more than once, but at least once. Allow me to explain myself. Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer Studio founder James Carreras, and he used that relationship to finagle himself a more or less permanent fixture in the hierarchy of the studio, until eventually the reigns were passed to him entirely and the whole show collapsed. Now not everything with the name of Michael Carrereas on it was an embarrassing display of nepotism. In fact, there is much about Michael’s involvement with his father’s studio that is of high merit. He served as producer for most of the studio’s best films. As a director, he was a mixed bag, but he did manage to deliver The Lost Continent, one of Hammer’s loopiest and most hilariously daft adventure films. And after directing a decidedly pedestrian follow-up to Hammer’s smash hit The Mummy, he redeemed himself somewhat by stepping in to finish the job of directing the superb Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb when original director Seth Holt passed away. No, there is much about Michael’s tenure at Hammer that is worth celebrating. It’s just that at some point in the 1970s, he lost his fucking mind.
I think by now, we’ve covered the demise of Hammer Studio in the 1970s enough times that I don’t need to go into much detail here. You should know the drill by now. The Hammer formula, which had been so bold in the early 50s and throughout the 60s, failed to keep pace with changing social values and cinematic trends so that, by the end of the 1960s, their once fierce and rebellious content looked quaint and old-fashioned compared to what everyone else was doing. Studio head Michael Carreras was thus desperate to right a sinking ship and discover some way to keep the studio afloat. On top of that, however, was lumped the general collapse of the British film industry, meaning that Carreras suddenly went from trying to save a sinking ship to trying to save a sinking lifeboat tied to a sinking ship. It is not, obviously, an enviable position in which to have been. But it was not an unwinnable situation, as other studios would prove. The key was to adapt. But it was with the task of adapting that Carerras proved singularly untalented despite — and likely because of — all else he’d accomplished.
Horror films had changed dramatically, thanks in large part to the pioneering films of Hammer. With the release of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, horror showed a marked move toward not just Satanic-themed films, but toward more cynical “evil triumphs” films. While major studios were finally deeming horror a genre worthy of their attention, low-budget and independent film makers were turning out stuff like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, far more visceral and completely different from anything that had come before and certainly much more extreme than anything Hammer was willing or even able to produce with the BBFC looming over them. The focus of horror shifted significantly from England tot he United States, and since the United States had always been a major market for Hammer’s product, they found it hard to compete with the home team. Things were no different in mainland Europe, where the Italian giallo thrillers were also pushing the envelope far beyond what British censors would allow Hammer to get away with.
The boys from Bray may have pushed the envelope in terms of sex and violence for ten years, but by the time “The End” appeared, good usually triumphed and the creature, either tragic or evil, was vanquished. But these new horror films were happy to let evil win. There was no way Hammer could compete with that, just as there was no way they could compete with a major Hollywood studio taking an interest in horror. Lower budget American horror film, largely produced by American International Pictures and their imitators, surpassed in sex and violence the Hammer product that had helped inspire them so many years before. AIP, in particular, seemed to understand that while there would always be big studio horror films aimed at adults, for horror to survive as a whole, a shift had to be made away from adults and toward teenagers. Teens, since the early days of AIP, had played a central role in the success of the studios films. Post World War II, there was a whole generation of young people who began earning money not to help the family survive, but so they could spend it on the stuff they wanted. Most films, however, were aimed either at adults or children. AIP stepped in and made movies for teenagers, and the results were solid gold.
Hammer, by contrast, had never really targeted teens as an audience. When, toward the end of the studio’s lifespan and desperate for some new revenue stream, Hammer finally tried to throw a bone to the younger generation, it was generally pretty feeble and had the feel of old men trying to write in the persona of a younger person about whom they knew next to nothing. Thus you get the goofball but not unappealing mixture of 60s mods and early 70s hippies that show up in Dracula AD 1972. But even disregarding the screwy attempts at seeming young, Hammer wasn’t speaking to the kids. Whenever AIP made a movie for teens, they were keen on making sure there were as few adults present as possible.
Those who were, were often ineffectual authority figures, crackpots, or oppressive parents against whom we rooted for the kids to rebel. In the end, it was the younger generation that saved the day, usually in some way that involved a surfing competition or young hot rodders zipping around a small southwestern town in their dune buggies. Hammer, by contrast, could never really divorce itself from authoritative paternal figures. So while Dracula AD 1972 may have been full of hep kids spewing misguided attempts at youth slang, it’s stolid old Peter Cushing who sweeps in to clean up the mess and save the day. And as photos have proven and our friend El Santo has said, you can dress Peter Cushing up in a hip hop jacket and baseball cap, but there’s still the stuffiest stuffy old man suit in the word beneath it all.
So Michael Carreras was creating a no-win situation for himself. On the one hand, he wanted to find something new and invigorating for the studio to do. On the other hand, his ideas were terrible and all seemed to revolve around comedies about people tripping while going up the steps of a public bus. On the one hand, he said Hammer needed a new direction, something away from horror or more in line with what modern horror had become. On the other hand (Hammer had a lot of hands), at the end of the day, all he could think of was to do the same old, same old, but with more nudity. He wanted to do something different, then he complained when directors tried to do something different. In a word, Michael Carreras was lost.
I don’t know what blinded him exactly other than having too many fires to deal with while being too stuck in his old ways, because the remedy he needed was right in front of him. With the tanks of both the Dracula and Frankenstein films very nearly empty, Hammer turned to three other stabs at vampire films in hopes that something might stick and give them a new franchise that would keep the studio hobbling along for at least another year. The most successful of these attempts was the Karnstein trilogy, three films based loosely on Carmilla and notable for being the point at which Hammer finally shrugged and started showing boobs (thanks largely to the involvement of AIP as a production partner). The trilogy produced two of Hammer’s very best horror films (Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil) and one of their very worst (Lust for a Vampire). The second attempt was Vampire Circus, in which the studio attempted to put a twist on their vampire theme by looking toward the dreamier, more hallucinogenic horror films of continental Europe (specifically France and Italy). It’s a very good movie, but it was simply too weird for Hammer, and possibly too weird for most British and American audiences, or so thought Carreras.
The third attempt was a curious combination of the studio’s tried and true vampire formula mixed with a dash of the old swashbuckling “pirate movies without pirate ships” Hammer made in the early 60s, combined with something Hammer had never put in any of their previous horror films: a sense of humor. This was Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, and it remains my very favorite Hammer film and one of my favorite films in general. A pity that Michael Carreras didn’t see things the way I did.
While Hammer in the 70s may have been flailing, that doesn’t mean they didn’t produce a lot of great movies. In fact, it was likely because the studio was in such dire straights that they were willing to try almost anything — or at least claim that they would try almost anything, sort of like how I’ll claim to eat anything at least once, until someone actually calls my bluff and tries to stuff a grub in my mouth. This meant that an influx of new talent emerged from the long shadows of Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster, and the rest of the extremely talented but rather aged old guard. Among the men employed by Hammer to try to freshen things up a big was Brian Clemens, best known at the time as one of the integral parts of the hugely popular British television series, The Avengers. In that way, perhaps, Hammer had hired one of the very men who was helping to destroy the studio. The success of The Avengers was unparalleled, and while it may have started out initially as just a television show, by 1967, it was being shot in color and boasting production values that would rival many films. On top of that, the series had the perfect blend of old guard, represented by Patrick MacNee as John Steed with his bowler and suits, and new — as embodied first by Honor Blackman, but then taken to a whole new level by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. The scripts hewed to a basic formula, but they were highlighted by smart dialog and witty banter between the two incredibly likable leads. And even Steed, despite looking every bit the British gentleman, had a streak of rebelliousness and irreverence that made him appealing to younger viewers.
Production company ITC was quick to follow the example set by The Avengers, and before anyone knew it, British television was full of action and adventure series that were in color, trotted the globe (or at least parts of England made up to look like the globe), and took far more risks than more expensive, slower to adapt movies. If you were a bright young writer or director looking to do something unusual, you were much better off working on one of the many ITC shows — first espionage and, in the 70s, bad-ass cop shows. I don’t have the data to claim that these high production value shows were the main reason the film industry was hurting, but they certainly made a dent.
When Clemens got the chance to direct a film for Hammer, he went for it (The Avengers having wrapped up by that time). The story he brought with him was very much of The Avengers mode, with a sassier female character than Hammer had ever had before, a script full of wit and dark humor, and perhaps most striking of all, a hero. As Clemens described things, part of the problem he saw with Hammer’s Dracula films wasn’t so much that they were slaves to convention; it was that Dracula was the hero, or the anti-hero a the very least. Even though you knew he would die at the end, you still went to root for Dracula, because the people lined up as his nominal opponents were so incredibly forgettable and had been since the third film. Gone were the days when you had a hero as charismatic as Peter Cushing to cheer for. Dracula, Prince of Darkness had that gun-toting friar, but since him, who was there to go against Dracula? A seemingly endless parade of trembling clergymen and forgettable young blond guys named Paul. For lack of anything else, audiences began to side with Dracula — which is a testament to just how boring the heroes were, since Dracula usually had about five minutes of total screen time and spoke like three sentences.
Clemens wanted to change that, to give audiences a vampire movie where the vampires were the bad guys again and where there was a proper hero for whom people could root. For this character, Clemens drew largely upon the swashbuckling heroes of the past, and so was born Kronos, a vampire hunter — possibly immortal himself — possessed of a mysterious history, a knowing smirk, and a professor friend who, while older and wiser, is far away from the “knows what’s best for you” paternalism of Cushing’s Van Helsing. There was something of the counter-culture about both Kronos and his adviser, Professor Hieronymos Grost. Grost’s knowledge, after all, is of an arcane and in some cases profane nature, and if Kronos was a captain in some army, it must have been the same army as Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes. They seem both to have eschewed the traditional authoritative hierarchy of academia and the military in favor of just cruising around on their own, doing their own thing. This lack of respect for authority extends as well to other circles of the upper class: religious leaders, community leaders, the rich and powerful — Grost and Kronos seem happiest away from these types, camping out in a barn with a hot servant girl they rescued from being executed.
Clemens further twists the traditional vampire movie formula by proposing a world in which there are as many different types of vampires as there are types of dog, each with its own unique characteristics, powers, and weaknesses. In another nod to the film’s appeal to youth over tradition, the vampires against which Kronos finds himself pitted do not drain their victims of blood, but of youth. Likewise, the way in which you kill one vampire might not work on another (a conundrum which results in the film’s most devilishly funny scene, in which Kronos and Grost cycle through the entire array of ways they know to kill vampires, until they finally find one that works). In a way, this representation of vampires is a natural outgrowth of the theories on vampirism presented by Cushing’s Van Helsing way back in Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula. Back then, before Dracula became a Satanic prince of evil and conjured demon, Van Helsing framed the vampire in purely scientific terms. They were a part of our natural world, albeit a part that did not conform to the behavior one expected of creatures who looked like humans. Vampirism was a communicable disease rather than some Satanic curse or the result of corny rituals. Captain Kronos seems to pick this thread up and expand it, creating an entirely new species within which there are many natural variations.
Although I can’t say for certain if it was intended as such, it also works as a pointed satirical jab at the vast proliferation of ways in which you could kill and resurrect Dracula that were created out of necessity to facilitate yet another sequel. By the end of things, vampires were being killed by stakes, crucifixes, icy creeks, hawthorn bushes, lightning, windmills…who could keep track? So in the world of Kronos, you never quite know what will kill a vampire. Tradition does not work. Nor do you know exactly what effect its bite will have on you. As I said, I don’t think it’s an accident that the vampires in this film prey upon the young and drain them of their youth. In the climate of the 1970s, it’s the established powerbase exploiting the young, crushing them under the weight of an increasingly creaky traditional society, draining them of their vitality even as the vampires feed upon it for their own energy.
Although other Hammer films had taken swipes at certain established authority figures — witness, for example, the corrupt men in Taste the Blood of Dracula, or the ineffectual and cowardly priest in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave — this one the first time since perhaps The Pirates of Blood River that the studio gave audiences an uppity, charismatic, young firebrand willing to buck the system. Hell, Kronos even smokes the occasional 18th century doobie! At last, there was a Hammer movie and a Hammer hero that young people could actually get behind and perhaps even relate to. Someone who was more like one of them rather than like a parent, standing around waiting to disapprove and tell the whippersnappers how to properly do things.
Clemens’ movie is different right out of the gate. Just as he was a Hammer outsider, working with a cast composed largely of newcomers and outsiders, he also went outside the norm in searching for a composer and a style of music to accompany the film. He tapped Laurie Johnson, who had worked previously on The Avengers, among many other projects for film and television, to give the movie a theme that stood in stark contrast to the masterful but overly familiar “Hammer horror sound” created primarily by James Bernard. Bernard’s scores were heavy, bombastic, and thunderous. Johnson’s theme for Captain Kronos, however, is fast-moving and much lighter. It’s a combination of a theme from a swashbuckling film with the theme from a horror film, very much a reflection of Grost and Kronos themselves. Where as Bernard’s themes stalk and stomp, Johnson’s theme here gallops and parries.
Far away from the three piece Harris tweed and pocket watch look of most vampire hunters, Kronos is a mixture of pirate and soldier in appearance, with bushy blond hair and a rapier. Grost, by contrast, is a bespectacled, goateed hunchback, though he’s far from grotesque. They are two halves of a whole — the muscle and charm in Kronos, the brains and wit in Grost. For the lead role, they cast German actor Horst Jansen, and he certainly looks the part. Tall, confident, sexy, and swaggering. Even though they’re in the same profession, there’s very little of Van Helsing about the man. Kronos looks less likely to have been spending his days steeped in researching of arcane folklore and more likely to be lying on the beach, a tan young woman on one side and his surfboard on the other. What he learns, he learns through experience or via the wise counsel of Grost. Unfortunately, Jasen’s limited English results in something of a wooden performance, though for me it never really mars the film, as he’s carried by John Cater as Grost, a more than capable actor who is so good and so charming in his role that you don’t even notice most of the time that he’s a hunchback — though on occasion I mistook him for Lenin. Luckily, Grost is way more fun to be around and is a lot less likely than Lenin to have you executed for some trifle.
The duo is en route to a town that has been plagued by a series of mysterious attacks on young people who are found after the attack drained of decades and aged to the point of death. Kronos stops to liberate a beautiful young gypsy woman (Caroline Munro, recently featured in the studio’s Dracula AD 1972), who has been condemned for something Kronos and Grost find idiotic by men whom Grost and Kronos find equally idiotic. Thankful for her liberation, she swears servitude to the two adventurers, and while neither man seems overly keen on having a slave, neither does any man seem to find much fault in being accompanied everywhere by Caroline Munro in a peasant blouse with a plunging neckline. And later, when she offers herself to Kronos, he does what any man would do, and does not hesitate. A hero who smokes weed and enjoys sex? Where do they come up with this crazy stuff?
Kronos and Grost have been summoned by their old friend, Dr. Marcus (John Carson), who resides in the beleaguered town and knows that his two friends specialize these days in dealing with such peculiarities. Kronos, in particular, has it in for vampires, as both his mother and sister were killed by one. And while the process of draining a victim of youth rather than blood is slightly beyond the pale of a traditional vampire, Grost recognizes that tradition only accounts for a small percentage of what people know or don’t know about vampires. Soon the gang is on the case, sword fighting and riddle solving their way to the culprit behind the strange murders.
The overriding philosophy behind this movie seems to be that Hammer horror hadn’t been scary for a long time, and it wasn’t going to be scary anymore. So why not make one that was exciting? And that’s exactly what Clemens did. Captain Kronos moves fast and boasts plenty of action. Jansen may be a bit stiff with his lines, but he looks good in a fight scene, and he gets plenty of them. Clemens’ experience with television meant he knew a lot about taking a meager budget and limited sets and making them seem far more lavish and expansive than they actually were. The result is one of the best looking films Hammer made during the period. Clemens made a lot of use of outdoor locations, which when coupled with the tone of the story makes Captain Kronos feel much more epic than the largely soundstage-bound Dracula films. He pulls off an epic feel, or at least a mini-epic feel, in much the same way John Gilling did when directing the “pirate movies without pirate ships” for Hammer a decade earlier.
The supporting cast is top-notch. Cater and Carson are old hands, and they deliver the goods as all solid British pros know how to do. Caroline Munro was on the fast track to becoming an icon, and while her role here as the gypsy Clara isn’t as iconic as, say, the space bikini in Star Crash, it’s still a role that is both energetic and sexy. There’s something about the woman that simply transcends everything. They really don’t make them like her anymore, do they? While her role here may not be as meaty as the lads’, it’s still one of the best developed female roles Hammer ever had. There’s no doubt as to why she became an icon. She has more charisma than my brain can even process.
If Hammer was looking for something new, a franchise upon which to hang the fortunes of the studio, they had found it. Captain Kronos is just that good. Unfortunately, Carreras was waiting around like one the youth sucking vampires from the movie. In Carreras’ own words, he visited the set one day to see how things were going and was aghast at what he saw. Clemens and his crew, Carreras felt, were not handling the material with the proper gravitas. Instead, they were making light of things, having a bit of fun, injecting a wicked sense of humor into a previously humorless genre. Clemens did not, according to Carreras, get it. He didn’t understand the proper tone of a Hammer horror film the way the old guys did. In other words, Carreras hired Clemens to give him something fresh and inventive, and then he got pissed off when Clemens gave him just that.
As much as Carrereas’ attitude irritates me, and as much as it embodies everything that was wrong with Hammer’s attempts to adapt to the changing times, it’s hard to lie the failure of Captain Kronos to become a franchise player entirely at the feet of the floundering studio head. Audiences had already lost interest in Hammer. The studio was done for. It would have taken a miracle to save it, and while Captain Kronos is cracking good entertainment, it’s not a miracle. Along with audiences, distributors had lost interest in Hammer as well. One of the things that had kept Hammer afloat was their fruitful partnership with American distributors. But those days were over, because Americans were doing Hammer better than Hammer, and under a ratings code that was far more liberal than what the British Board of Film Censors wanted to be. As such, it took almost two years for Captain Kronos to get released, and by that time, the game was over. Hammer had used up the last of its audience good will, and viewers didn’t embrace the film despite the fact that the few reviews it received were generally positive.
It’s a shame, isn’t it? Clemens vision for Captain Kronos as a film series was pretty cool, with Kronos appearing throughout different periods across the centuries, carrying on his battle with the undead and revealing that there was a much longer history behind the man than has hinted at in the first movie. When it was evident that there was no way Hammer was going to make it, and thus there would be no second or third Kronos film, talk shifted to production of a television series. Nothing ever came of that, either, and with the exception of a few appearances in a Hammer comic book, Kronos faded from existence until more recently, when it was rediscovered and people started thinking, “Holy crap, this movie is great!” Now it enjoys a lace in many people’s top five Hammer films, making it sort of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of the vampire movie world.
Which is doubly fitting since that once-maligned entry into the James Bond Franchise was saddled with a stiff leading man and found itself situated in a time when the series was trying to recover from the loss of the iconic Sean Connery (and the rise of social discontent). Like Horst Jansen, George Lazenby was top notch in the action scenes though, and just as Horst had a cool sidekick and a gorgeous gal, Lazenby was carried by a cool ally and the best Bond girl of all time, The Avengers‘ Diana Rigg.
What’s more, it’s a shame Hammer couldn’t pull out of the collapse. Maybe if Captain Kronos had been a bigger box office hit, and maybe if Michael Carreras had shown a little faith in the film, then Hammer could have made good on that tantalizing poster art for movies they intended to make but never had a chance to get to. Don’t tell me you don’t want to see Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or didn’t hope Hammer wold make good on all that cheesecake nudie sci-fi artwork on the poster for When the Earth Cracked Open. Sure, they probably would have ended up less like the insanely awesome movies in my mind and more like one of those “lost world” films from Amicus Studio, but you know what? I loved those “lost world” movies from Amicus, so I would have been pretty psyched to watch something in which cheap looking little models of biplanes and blimps go head to head with wobbly pterodactyls on strings.
But those are exercises in what might have been, and while fun, the fact is there was never a Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or a Captain Kronos series. No Kronos fighting vampires down through the ages. What we have instead is a single Captain Kronos that happens to be an incredibly good film. It’s really everything I want from my entertainment. Fast paced, witty, irreverent but also a very good entry into the genre with which it is toying. I don’t think I’d argue that there aren’t flaws for people to find in the film, but if they are there, I’m not really all that concerned with finding them. Had this been the last film Hammer made, it would have been a perfect swan song. Our heroes, riding off beyond the horizon to face down evil. Would we ever see them again? Who knows?
Instead, Hammer ended up with a few more death twitches and even more misguided attempts at finding a new market. Among these were an ill-advised attempt to replace the lost American market with the exploding Hong Kong market by partnering with the Shaw Brothers studios to produce two films: the plodding action caper Shatter starring Stuart Whitman and Shaw Bros superstar Ti Lung, and the entertaining but ridiculous Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, starring Peter Cushing and Shaw Bros’ star David Chiang. Both were attempts to cash in on the rising kungfu craze, and both failed. In the case of Shatter, it was hard to convince audiences that they should stop watching Bruce Lee and Five Fingers of Death and concentrate instead on a movie in which Stuart Whitman wanders around. It was like trying to convince Hong Kong audiences in the 80s to stop watching Jackie Chan and embrace Steven Seagal. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires featured Cushing as Van Helsing, traipsing around China, but it never really feels like an actual Dracula film — possibly because venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee finally made good on his boast and refused to appear in the picture, even though Dracula transforms into a Chinese guy in the very beginning of the picture. Instead, it feels like a Shaw Brothers kungfu film into which Peter Cushing wandered by accident. It’s pretty fun, in my opinion, but there’s no mystery as to why it wasn’t the film that salvaged Hammer’s reputation.
The end to Hammer horror finally came in 1976, in the form of To the Devil…A Daughter, Hammer’s painfully horrible attempt to cash in on the devil worship movie craze that seized us in the 70s. Too bad the film was dreadful — in my opinion the only completely unwatchable horror film Hammer ever made. It’s too bad Kronos wasn’t around to put that one down before it sucked so much life out of us. But so it goes, and whatever might have happened doesn’t change how much I enjoy Captain Kronos.
I suppose I’m happy to be watching these films after the fact. I’ve never felt that Hammer films were stodgy or old-fashioned, or that they had dated poorly, but that’s probably because I’m watching them from a vantage point removed from the original cycle. If I’d been able to write reviews in the late 60s or early 70s, I probably would have been complaining about the lack of originality, so on and so forth. I love Hammer films. I love the old ones. I love the ones from the 70s. Heck, I even enjoy failures like Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Lust for a Vampire. In nearly two decades of film production, Hammer made one solitary horror film I can say I hate. That, my friends, is not a bad record, and I guess if I’d been in the shoes of Michael Carreras, I would have been as confused as he was. But then, I’m just a writer and a fan, not the head of a studio. I expect more from him than I would from myself, what with how it was his job and all. I appreciate everything the pioneers did — Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher, James Bernard, John Gilling — my God but they made some incredible films. And I love the years in which Hammer was trying to figure the strange new world out. I love Twins of Evil, Vampire Circus, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and I don’t hate Lust for a Vampire or even Horror of Frankenstein. So flailing or not, misguided or not, with the final credits having rolled on Hammer (I’ll believe the persistent “we’re back!” press releases and announced productions when I see at least one final product), all I can do is raise a glass of brandy to them (I prefer scotch, but what would Peter Cushing say?) and say, with complete earnestness, “Thank you.”
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.
But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963′s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.
Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.
Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.
The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.
However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.
Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.
Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.
And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.
To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.
And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.
Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.
Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.
Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.
But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”
On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.
Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.
When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.
I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.
At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.
Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.
Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.
This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.
Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.
It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.
So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trenchcoat and the bad poetry and the ill-advised appreciation of Pigface. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? I mean, yeah, there are drawbacks. I, for one, would miss the sun and a good day’s surfing. On the other hand, if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty sweet. A mummy or Frankenstein monster would be the worst, of course. Mummies only have one outfit, and they have to spend the entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame the mummy loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankenstein monsters have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at the very least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. As for werewolves — sure, cool power, but you have no control over it, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined by your transformations.
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Hammer Studio’s lord of the undead, the prince of darkness, the king of vampires, Count Dracula. When first we met him back in 1958, he was a snarling beast, a barely contained force of nature that ripped into his prey with lusty abandon and was explained by his arch-nemesis Dr. Van Helsing in purely rational, scientific terms. Dracula, and vampirism in general (as expounded upon by Van Helsing in Brides of Dracula), was nothing more than a disease, like any other disease, and what we regarded as “supernatural” was really nothing more than an explainable part of the rational world that humanity had simply not yet learned how to explain. As Hammer’s Dracula series progressed, however, Van Helsing faded from the picture and was replaced by a procession of forgettable guys named Paul, usually in league with some sort of religious authority figure. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, we have a monsignor who seems to have some degree of faith in faith’s ability to defeat Dracula, but he’s far more reliant on his trusty bolt-action rifle than he is on the Lord Almighty.
And so we enter the dire straights of Hammer Films in the final throes of a long, drawn-out death much like those experienced by Dracula himself. As has been detailed elsewhere and will be summarized here, by the 1970s, England’s Hammer Studios — the studio that pretty much defined and dominated the horror market through the 50s and 60s — had fallen on hard times. The old guard had largely retired or died, and the new blood was flailing about, desperately trying to find the direction that would right the once mighty production house. The problem was that everyone felt like they needed to update their image, but no one actually knew how. In retrospect, though they may have seemed painfully antiquated at the time of their release, many of Hammer’s releases during the 70s were quite good and often experimental (by Hammer standards, anyway). This movie isn’t really one of them, but it’s still pretty enjoyable in a completely ludicrous way.
And we were doing so well! Most movie studios can’t sustain the quality of a film series beyond two films — and quite a few have problems even getting that far. It was no small feat, then, that Hammer managed to produce not one, but two consistently good series. Their Dracula and Frankenstein films set the benchmark for quality horror during the late fifties and throughout the 1960s. And you know, they almost made it to the finish lines with both of them. The Frankenstein series featuring Peter Cushing as the titular mad doctor lasted six films, with only the third film being a misfire, and not a very bad misfire at that. By the time Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was released, it was clear that the series was at its end, both creatively and financially. Still, it managed to go out with a dash of class, and the final film features the second worst monster in the series (the honor of worst, in my opinion, goes to Kiwi Kingston’s shrieking slapdash Karloff wannabe from Evil of Frankenstein) but one of the best stories and finest performances from Cushing. Even if the final film was not a financial success, everyone involved could hold their heads up high and be proud of all six movies.
And then there was the Dracula series starring Christopher Lee.
Like Frankenstein, Dracula started strong and managed to maintain the course for five films. Had they stopped with Taste the Blood of Dracula, it too would have retired a successful and respectable series. It was clear, in fact, by the fourth film that no one had much of an idea left regarding what to do with the character of Dracula. Another film in which a group of travelers end up at Dracula’s castle and are preyed upon for the remainder of the film just wouldn’t cut it. With Taste the Blood, Hammer tried to go in a different direction and make a movie where Dracula was a presence without being an actual character. American distributors, however, refused to buy a Dracula movie that didn’t have Christopher Lee skulking about in an opera cape, and so the Count was forced into the story in a rather awkward fashion that gave him very little to do beyond stand in the shadows and count. And that’s not what his title is supposed to mean.
Still, Taste the Blood was quite a good film even if Dracula’s physical presence has little to do with the plot. Like I said, had they wrapped it up with this one, everything would have ended on a positive note. But where as the financial failure of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell sealed its fate as the final film in the Frankenstein series, Dracula had the artistic misfortune of scoring yet another box office hit with Taste the Blood. And so it was that a sixth Dracula film was to be made, regardless of whether or not anyone had anything interesting to put forward.
Scars of Dracula isn’t an abominably bad entry into the series. It’s just completely derivative and pointless, falling back onto the tiresome “doomed souls visiting Castle Dracula” and trying to set itself apart by giving Christopher Lee’s vampire count more lines in this one movie than he’d had in all the others combined. They don’t fool anyone, though, and while Scars boasts some memorable moments, the gestalt experience is one best forgotten. We have yet another Paul in this film, as well as another Klove (Patrick Troughton, best known to sci-fi fans as the second Doctor Who, or the Hobo Doctor as I call him). I think that’s two Kloves to four Pauls, and add them to the three or four Hans’s from the Frankenstein movies. Okay, two Kloves is one thing, but what’s the deal with Paul? Didn’t someone look back and realize they’d named the last three stiffs (you can hardly call any of them heroes) Paul, and thus they should go for a different name this time out, like Steven perhaps, or Beauregard? Well, by the time this series is over, a preponderance of Pauls will be the least of our concerns.
The movie wastes no time in letting us know we’re in for a bumpy ride as we go immediately to the lamest Dracula reincarnation yet. Now, if you recall the finale of the last film, Dracula was transported to London then disintegrates in an old church, leaving nothing but his trademark little pile of dust. When this film begins, however, Dracula is lying in his coffin back at Castle Dracula. A floppy giant rubber bat wobbles awkwardly into the room on visible wires and proceeds to drool a little of blood onto Dracula’s dust. Voila! The prince of darkness rises again!
Now you know, even ignoring the horrid continuity between this and the previous films (which went to great lengths to connect itself logically to the end of Dracula has Risen from the Grave), there’s no way to ignore that the ragged-looking bat prop is one of the single worst special effects in the history of Hammer horror. Someone wanted lots of bats in this movie; the least they could have done is check to see if anyone at Hammer could create them in a remotely believable manner. No hyperbole here — this thing would be embarrassing in a teenage goth’s shot-on-video horror short. How it managed to flop and wiggle its way into an actual professional production is a mystery to me. Maybe if they’d stopped at one bat, things wouldn’t be so bad. But we’re going to get lots of them, and each one will somehow manage to be more pathetic looking than the last.
Astoundingly, the scene manages to get even worse as Dracula (Christopher Lee yet again) sits up and the bat begins squeaking at him while Dracula nods his head and listens intently. I expect this sort of thing in a Lassie movie, maybe even in a tender scene shared between Godzilla and Anguilas, but Dracula? “What’s that, lad? You say a busty wench is down in the churchyard? Let’s go!” I mean, yeah, they stop short of having Dracula jump up, yell “Alakazam!” then shrink down to action-figure size so he can ride the bat around, but I’m sure if it had occurred to them, that would have happened too. When Christopher Lee complained about how dumb Dracula films were, it was usually unjustified in my opinion. This time, though — well, it’s pretty easy to see his point with this one.
Well, Dracula gets his busty wench kill in for the day, but this angries up the blood of the local peasants, and for once they don’t just sit around in the tavern staring ominously at each other. In fact, one almost has hope when Michael Ripper, appearing as “Angry Barkeep” for the nine thousandth time, decides they should round up a good old-fashioned torch-wielding mob and kill Dracula off once and for all for the fifth time. Now, this is all right! A torch-wielding mob of peasants within the first ten minutes of a film? That’s something I can live with. Unfortunately, they prove to be the most incompetent torch-wielding mob of peasants in the history of horror films, as they proceed to storm angrily up to Castle Dracula and knock on the door. I mean, they do it firmly and with stern looks on their faces, but if you’re going up the mountain to kill a murderous vampire and burn his castle to the ground, stopping to politely knock on the door sort of undercuts your entire message. It gets even worse when, despite the fact that they must be aware that Dracula and/or his hairy servant Klove noticed the huge mob of torch-wielding peasants coming up the road, Michael Ripper knocks again and says, “Open up! I’m quite alone!”
Since Dracula is asleep, I assume this all takes place in the daytime, so really, brandishing the torches angrily in the air probably lost some of its effect as well. But when you’re the kind of mob that can be stymied in its rage by a butler who refuses to open the door, torches in the daytime are the least of your concern, though you should probably be concerned regarding the efficacy of trying to burn down a stone structure. When they do gain access to the castle (I can’t remember if Ripper pulled the old “Okay, I guess I’ll leave then,” and made fake footsteps like he was walking away so that Klove would let down his guard and open the door), Klove doesn’t seem especially upset. He may be a hairy hunchbacked servant, but even he knows that trying to burn down a stone castle with torches may damage a few tapestries, but that’s about it. Still, the mob seems to consider it a job well done even though both Klove and Dracula survive. And, umm, the castle is still standing, too. Bravo, gents! Now let’s all go down to the tavern for a pint! When they return from their glorious triumph of getting a few walls slightly sooty (Klove will be scrubbing them for days to get them clean again), they discover that Dracula took the opportunity to send more floppy fake bats down to the town to massacre every last woman and child. This sort of puts a damper on their gaiety for the evening, and one has to wonder how a trio of floppy bats managed to massacre so many people and pull out so many eyeballs.
The story then shifts to another town, where the movie solidifies its place in the pantheon of bad films by featuring a wacky comedy sequence in which the philandering Paul (Christopher Matthews) gets chased around by the angry burgomaster after being caught in bed with the burgomaster’s daughter. Thankfully, the film stops short of piping in Benny Hill music, but then maybe this entire painful sequence would have been better if they’d thrown in a little “Yakkity Sax,” sped the whole thing up, and allowed Paul to pause for a second to pat an old man on the head. The Scooby-Doo style chase eventually leads to the birthday party of young Sarah (Jenny Hanley), who loves that rascally Paul even though his far nicer, less whorish brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) loves her. Eventually, Paul ends up at Castle Dracula, and yes, we realize we’re going to get another one of those “Whatever you do, don’t go to the castle” movies where everyone goes to the castle.
And that’s just the first third of the film. It doesn’t get any better from there despite the fact that Christopher Lee gets so much more screen time than usual. He hisses and seethes and screams and snarls his way through a series of unmemorable lines as he engages in all manner of brutality, including branding Klove with a hot poker, stabbing someone with a sword, impaling people on pointy light fixtures, and going nuts with the whip (once again on Klove). In fact, this is the first Dracula film where you expect the Count is more likely to just haul off and punch someone in the face than flash his mesmerizing red eyes at them and bite them on the neck. He seems to forget for most of the movie that he actually has vampire powers, and instead acts like a schoolyard bully, albeit a schoolyard bully with a tendency to wear a big cape for no discernible reason. This means Scars of Dracula has more gory action in it than any of the previous films, but none of it has much of an impact. Where’s the fun of watching Dracula slap Doctor Who around? Okay, maybe that sounds a little fun. Dracula also stabs a female vampire with a dagger. For some reason, this kills her. At this point, though, I don’t even care. I guess if Dracula isn’t going to bite people like a normal vampire should, then other vampires can be killed with daggers and so forth. I guess some vampires fear a wooden stake, and others fear a wiggling rubber dagger.
On the hero front, what can you say? This film gives you a milquetoast lead in Simon, and a standard issue cowardly priest (Michael Gwynn, who played the “monster” in the far superior Revenge of Frankenstein). You keep waiting for the priest to rise to the occasion and stop collapsing in his pew aisles and weeping, but that’s about all he ever does. The Dracula series had been following an interesting trajectory, starting with Van Helsing’s explaining Dracula in purely rational terms as a social disease to an increasingly supernatural demon to be combated not with science and reason, but with faith. Here, however, even that is chucked out the window in favor of having Dracula be nothing more than some asshole who happens to command a fleet of shaky rubber bats. Simon sort of drifts from one scene to the next until he eventually finds himself standing on the roof with Dracula, about to be killed until a bolt of lightning shows up to do his dirty work for him. Boy oh boy, we’re a long way from Van Helsing, aren’t we?
I did say that this film had some memorable moments, didn’t I? I mean, memorable because they’re good, not because they’re so awful. I guess what I meant to say is there’s the one scene worth remembering. One of the most notable sequences from the Bram Stoker novel involves Jonathan Harker observing Count Dracula entering and exiting the tower of Castle Dracula by crawling up and down the wall like a spider. For one reason or another, this scene had never been included in any theatrical version of the story, so scriptwriter Anthony Hinds and director Roy Ward Baker figured now would be as good a time as any. It does show, if nothing else, Dracula has learned the benefits of putting his crypt in an impenetrable tower with no entrance or exit save for the one window way up high that only a guy with spider climbing abilities can get to. It certainly makes more sense than keeping it on the ground floor with an unlocked door, as was his practice in previous films. Of course, once Christopher Lee went crawling up and down walls, there was no stopping Dracula. Frank Langela did it in hazy slow motion with billowing cape and romantic string music playing. Gary Oldman did it all herky jerky while wearing a big red robe. It just goes to show you that a scene of Dracula scurrying around don the wall may be cool, but it can’t save the whole movie.
Even the trademark Hammer look isn’t on display here, as cheap budgets make for cheap sets. Fire damage explains away the spartan appearance of Dracula’s castle, but that doesn’t make it interesting to look at. More than ever, the people who made fun of horror movies with cardboard characters and cardboard sets had plenty of ammo for their attacks. It can be fun, but you never once forget you’re watching a substantially lower quality movie than previous Dracula entries. There’s a reason this emerged as the goriest of all Dracula films, and one of the goriest Hammer films, period: they had to cover up the threadbare production with something.
Scars of Dracula isn’t quite a disaster, but it’s everything bad about Hammer films, and everything that critics unjustly accused Hammer films of being — only this time, there was no defending the product. Hammy acting, clumsy comedy, wretched special effects, weak characters — heaving bosoms is about all this one has going for it, and you can get those in any Hammer film, even the good ones. 1970 was simply not a good year for Hammer, with this, the awful Horror of Frankenstein (not part of the actual Frankenstein series, and not starring Peter Cushing), Creatures the World Forgot, and Lust for a Vampire overshadowing the studio’s two good films from that year: the wonderful Vampire Lovers and the acceptable Lady Bathory exploitation film, Countess Dracula. Scars of Dracula ends up being a highlight reel for anyone who ever wanted to showcase the lowest common denominator Hammer film.
Hinds was a good scriptwriter, and Baker was a more than competent director. So what went wrong? It can only be that, in the end, no one but the accountants gave a damn about making another Dracula movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Scars of Dracula once again made money, which meant that, impossible though it may be, yet another Dracula film would inevitably be made. Fans grew hopeful when they heard Peter Cushing was back in the game as Van Helsing. They grew suspicious when they found out Dracula would be visiting the year 1972.
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.
It didn’t take long for the genres of horror and science fiction to start mingling. It’s a natural marriage, after all, and the two often blend seamlessly, the best and among the earliest example likely being the first two Universal “Frankenstein” movies. Throughout the 1950s, horror and science fiction were frequent bedfellows as atomic terrors ran amok across assorted landscapes. Increasingly, however, it was the science fiction element of the films that was in the forefront, with the horror placed in the background unless one was genuinely terrified of superimposed grasshoppers. By the middle of the 1950s, science fiction was still enjoying the occasional big budget celebration a la This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) while horror films were becoming increasingly cheap, b-movie quickie affairs. Not that that means there weren’t plenty of gems in the mix, but compared to science fiction, horror was lagging.
It was in this setting, however, that England’s Hammer Studio decided to mix the two together once again in what they hoped to be a high-class concoction, first as a television series and then as the film The Quatermass Experiment. Although horror was often regarded as a dying genre, Hammer proved that handled properly and with respect, fans were still ready to turn out for a good horror-scifi half-breed. Two more Quatermass films were made, the latest being 1967′s superb Quatermass and the Pit, which sees the good doctor and investigator of all things extraterrestrial and paranormal grappling with an alien carcass discovered beneath London and possessed, seemingly, of a Satanic nature as well.
Which brings us nicely, if rather half-assedly, to Horror Express, a film that seems to draw from both the feel of a Hammer film as well as that of a ripping HG Wells story without actually being from either source. The idea of gods, angels, and devils as space aliens is no longer especially new and novel, though few serious (or even comical) studies of the notion exist in film. It’s a favorite of conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists, however, with the best-known proponents of the idea being those who believe that “ancient astronauts” visited Earth thousands of years ago and helped with everything from the erection of the Egyptian pyramids to the construction of Incan, Mayan, and Aztec pyramids to the carving and raising of the ominous heads on Easter Island. Apart from the notion that aliens were jetting through the cosmos showing off their masonry and stone-carving skills is the theory that so-called holy beings, your Jesus and your various angels and maybe even a Greek god or two, were beings from another planet whose miraculous powers were rather run-of-the-mill back home but really something here on Earth where we didn’t have the ability to turn water into wine. Thus these creatures would be perceived as gods and angels, and the naughty ones as demons and devils, by us backward shepherds here on planet Earth.
It’s not a completely daft idea, as far as such theories go, at least no more so than Jesus being the son of a supreme being who created everything out of nothing and, with the entire universe at his disposal, whiled away the centuries picking on Job and pulling stunts like, “Abraham, sacrifice your son! No just joking! Dude, I can’t believe you were really going to sacrifice your son.” The idea that these angels, that perhaps even Jesus himself were aliens isn’t entirely insane, especially when you take into consideration the power of Jesus to appear as a blond-haired, glowing white guy despite his Jewish-Arabic origins.
Horror Express is not a Hammer film, it could easily pass for one thanks to its quick pace, period setting, and the presence of Hammer’s two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and while it doesn’t present us with the scenario of our deities being space travelers, it does rely heavily on the notion that beings from other worlds have visited this planet long before the presence of mankind in our current form, and that if said beings were perhaps trapped in the body of a monkey for two million years only to find themselves awakened on a train going through Siberia, they’d be annoyed. Lee stars as Professor Saxton, an intrepid scientist-adventurer the likes of which we simply do not see enough of these days. On an expedition to the far north of china, his team uncovers the remarkably well-preserved mummy of an humanlike ape Saxton assumes to be the missing link, not to mention being one of the greatest anthropological or archaeological discoveries of all time. Hey, consider that some people think of a particularly nice chunk of pot shard to be one of the greatest discoveries of all time, and you can understand why Saxton is so excited about his Peking Man.
Sexton immediately returns to the city with his find and books passage to Europe on board the Trans-Siberian Express, only to discover that much to his chagrin his number one scientific and one-liner rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), is also along for the trip and keeps bugging Saxton about seeing what’s in that padlocked box. A Chinese thief at the station doesn’t see fit to badger Saxton and, assuming the crate is full of jewels or fine women’s lingerie, goes about taking a peek. When the police find him, he’s dropped dead with blood pouring from his sockets and his eyes turned completely white. Saxton, being a fine, condescending British scientist, doesn’t think much of the incident. The guy was a thief, after all. A mad Russian monk with wild unkempt hair and beard (is there any other kind of Russian monk), however, sees the entire affair as a sign that whatever is contained within the crate must surely be the work of Satan. To prove his point, he attempts to draw a cross on the box, only to discover that being the wooden container of all things Luicferian, the cross will not show up. Whether or not something less holy, like perhaps, “Springsteen 4 Ever!” would have showed up is one of the mysteries that shall remain forever unanswered.
Although the cross incident impresses the locals, Saxton dismisses it as a simple parlor trick, and points out that the guy is bugging his eyes out and ranting and raving about Satan. So all aboard the horror express, including Saxton, Wells, the crazy monk Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, who acted in Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and One on Top of the Other, among many European cult films), a suspicious Russian police inspector named Mirov (Euro-cult veteran Julio Pena, who also starred in films like Horror Rises from the Tomb, Werewolf Versus the Vampire Women, A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins and Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary), a mysterious female spy, two Russian nobles, and a whole host of other people whose only job is to fill up the dining cart. In other words, it’s a regular Agatha Christie gathering, the kind you always get on these old trains but rarely, if ever, on modern trains. See, therein lies the problem with modern rail travel: not nearly enough intrigue. Used to be that for the price of a ticket, you’d get spies menacing one another with stilettos, upper-class society types embroiled in murder mysteries, and alien-possessed monkey-men throwing things at Peter Cushing. No more. Maybe instead of offering the usual “first class, second class, et cetera” nonsense they should offer something like, “first class, second class, and turn-of-the-century intrigue class.”
Needless to say, it isn’t long before the ape-man claims another victim, this time a porter whom Wells had bribed to take a peek into the box and report back to him. Then the ape-man picks the lock and disappears, much to Saxton’s annoyance. Faced with no other reasonable possibility, Inspector Mirov and the two British scientists are forced to assume that a two-million year old ape man has somehow been revived, learned to pick modern locks, and is currently at large and turning people’s eyes white. An autopsy on the baggage handler also reveals that the brain is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, disregarding then the obvious statistically rare and dismissible occurrence of an ugly, pockmarked baby bottom. It’s clear that this is no ordinary two-million year-old missing link. As the list of victims grows, Wells, Saxton, and Mirov join forces to uncover the mystery at the heart of the creature’s rampage. Things only get harder when they realize that the creature itself is not the ape-man, but an entity inside the ape-man which is able to leap from one body to another when the need arises. This revelation prompts the best line in the entire movie, in which Mirov turns accusingly to Saxton and Wells and proclaims, “Even one of you could be the monster!” to which Cushing’s Wells replies indignantly, “Impossible! We’re British, you know!”
Eventually, it is discovered that the entity is a space alien, marooned on the planet millions of years ago and really keen on getting the hell out of here. The creature’s trump card in attempting to get Wells and Saxton not to kill it is that it’s seen millions of years of earthly history prior to being frozen and can provide them with knowledge immeasurable. It’s a tempting Faustian deal, but one the stolid British researchers resist, though the crazed monk, fearing that this beast is Satan himself, decides to cast his lot with the side whose physical manifestation is running amok on the train. AN impromptu stop at a remote Siberian outpost allows Cossack soldier Telly Savalas to board the train with his troops and either get to the bottom of things in a quick and efficient manner or provide more corpse fodder for the creature, who also reveals an ability to revive the bodies of its victims and send them, zombie-like, shambling through the claustrophobic train cars in a final horrific onslaught against the living. You guess which eventuality comes to pass.
Horror Express is a ripping good yarn with a fast pace and a snappy wit. Cushing and Lee are superb in one of their countless pairings, and each horror veteran crackles with energy as they dig deep into their characters and revel in the story around them. Though there are a couple tongue-in-cheek touches to the film, the film itself is never completely tongue-in-cheek. Rather, it simply relies on clever twists and a wicked sense of humor to carry the admittedly zany plot. There is plenty of ammunition on hand for those who wish to pick apart the logic of a film about an ancient alien consciousness riding the rails with Telly Savalas, but the spirit of the film is so high and the performances so winning that one scarcely has time or cause to pause and think about the absurdity of the blood from the eye of the creature acting as sort a microscopic slideshow. That the creature’s memory is contained in the fluid of the eye is in itself not a bad idea, but the fact that Lee and Cushing can extract a drop of blood and look at it under a microscope to enjoy various pictures of dinosaurs and the earth from outer space is, well, you know, as outlandish as the fact that people are only mildly surprised when a two-million year-old monkey mummy springs back to life and starts killing.
There are also a series of coincidences that the alien must have been eternally thankful for – such as the fact that it needs to figure out how to get out of the locked box, only to be able to absorb the skills of a Chinese thief. And it needs to learn some way of building a rocket capable of escaping earth’s atmosphere only to be put on a train alongside a female spy stealing a sample of an indestructible metal to be used in the construction of, perhaps, rockets. And that the creator of the metal, the formula of which is so secret that only he himself knows it, is also on board.
But honestly, none of this matters, because what Horror Express wants to be is a faced-paced, fun horror-scifi thriller, and that’s exactly what it is. Cushing’s Wells is hilariously pompous yet thoroughly likable, and Christopher Lee gets to play yet another stern but heroic man of reason, something he proved considerably adroit at in The Devil Rides Out. The supporting cast is comprised of Eurocult veterans, largely from Spain, all of whom have extensive experience in horror, historical adventures, and spaghetti westerns, among others. And then there’s Telly. Although a big enough name thanks to turns as Kojak on television and as Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service so that he’s never been identified as a horror film icon, there’s no denying that when Savalas made a rare appearance in such a film, it was usually going to be pretty good, not to mention pretty weird. In the same year as Horror Express, Savalas appeared in Mario Bava’s superb mindwarp of a horror film, Lisa and the Devil. He goes pretty far over the top here as a sadistic Cossack soldier, but his performance, while bordering on camp, works within the context of such a playful film. I only wish he’d shown up earlier, but I guess too big a dose of his character would have ruined the performance.
Part of the reason Horror Express got made was that the producer purchased the model train that was used in the bigger budget historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra and figured, heck, if he owned this really keen train set, he might as well make a crazed scifi-horror film around it. Exteriors are appropriately bleak and hopeless looking, bringing to mind when combined with the mind-stealing alien life form the sci-fi classic Thing from Another Planet, remade in the 1980s by John Carpenter simply as The Thing. Horror Express shares quite a bit with Thing from Another Planet, in fact. From the icy setting to the alien to the claustrophobic interiors and growing sense of paranoia that infects the passengers. Much of the film is beautifully shot, with exquisite sets and decoration, and some of the scenes are genuinely eerie, the most prominent being the horde of white-eyed ghouls shambling through the darkened train cars as the remaining passengers scramble for safety. Cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa has a ton of horror, science fiction, and spaghetti westerns to his credits, and he works wonders within the confined spaces of the train. Coupled with a superb score, the film has a nearly overwhelming sense of dread that is tempered only by the spriteful performances of Lee and Cushing.
The monkey man make-up is neither dazzling nor awful, and though we probably get too clear a look at it too often for its own good, it’s hardly of a quality that would destroy a film, especially one so heavy with wit and stand-out performances. There are some fairly gory special effects, but nothing out of the ordinary for what other studios, including Hammer, were doing at the time. Some bleeding eye violence, some gratuitous brain surgery, that sort of thing. If you miss the days when horror and science fiction, while not exactly being intelligent, were at least willing to play with lofty ideas and theories and mix them together with charm and drollness, then by all means hop on board the Horror Express and please forgive me for statements like that. I hadn’t sent he film until I sat down to watch it for this review, and the only reason I don’t regret having missed out for so long is that it gave me the chance to have such a wonderful, rollicking good time at the horror films to discover.