As a kid, I was a sporadic comic book reader at best, thanks mostly to growing up pretty far from just about anywhere. Within biking distance, as long as I didn’t tell my parents I was riding that far, was a Convenient food mart where my friends and I could exchange our hard earned chore money for the currency of American youth — baseball cards, squirt guns, superballs, and on occasion a comic book. As a monster kid who grew up staying up late and watching the classics on “Memories of Monsters” and the sometimes less-than-classics on WDRB’s “Fright Night” featuring The Fearmonger, my favorite comics weren’t the superhero fare upon which the industry was built. Instead, I always favored the monster comics like Marvel’s Frankenstein and Werewolf By Night. The closest I would come to superheroes was Dr. Strange, who occasionally tooled around in a dune buggy with a green bodybuilder in purple pants, a naked silver guy, and an elf in Speed-O’s. Easily my favorite comic above all others, though, was Tomb of Dracula.
In 1948, French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut, a phrase which became “outsider art” in 1972 when critic Roger Cardinal imported it into the English language. It referred to works of art created outside the boundaries of general culture. Specifically, it was art created by someone like an inmate in an insane asylum. Over time, the term was applied to a broader audience, but the key element remains that the art is a reflection of a mental state beyond that of even the average crazy guy. This is not the same as an established art movement that is consciously seeking to do something “outside the mainstream.” An artist can’t rationally decide to make art brut. As Dubuffet himself describes it, art brut can’t be created by anyone who functions as part of regular society, even regular art society, and so this form of fierce and feverish creativity remains the sole purview of madmen and terrifying backwoods hillbillies who make sculpture out of cat skins, metal drums, and human skulls.
In 1958, Dracula would return in name but not with the familiar face of cinema’s best-known and most beloved Dracula, Bela Lugosi. Bela would return to the screen several times as a vampire, but never again as Dracula. So Dracula returned in Return of Dracula without Bela, and Bela returned in Return of the Vampire, without Dracula. Granted, Return of the Vampire pushes Bela’s character, Armand Tesla, as close to Dracula territory as it possibly can without getting slapped with a lawsuit, but that’s all part of the fun of vamping in the aftermath of Universal’s 1931 landmark Dracula, to say nothing of the need to occasionally satisfy/pay the estate of Bram Stoker. And Dracula or not, Return of the Vampire feels like the legitimate sequel to Dracula, even if intellectual property says it isn’t. Disentangled from all that, however, we are still left with an exceptionally enjoyable horror film with a unique setting and interesting lead character.
England, 1918. The countryside is terrorized by a vampire, his well-spoken werewolf assistant, and a preponderance of creepy mist-enshrouded graveyards. Two scientists — Dr. Walter Saunders and Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) — are struggling to figure out why so many local women are turning up bloodless and/or mad. Despite their commitment to science and the rational mind, it soon becomes undeniable that a vampire is stalking the misty moors. The two of them track the bloodsucker to the local creepy, abandoned cemetery and stake the fiend, ending his reign of terror and freeing the werewolf Andreas (who had apparently popped down to the dry goods store for a bit) from the vampires eldritch thrall.
Years later, and London finds itself under siege from the German Luftwaffe. A bomb unearths the vampire Dr Tesla’s grave. Two well-meaning grave diggers, thinking that the corpse they discover is a fine English gentleman impaled by a bit of rubbish from the Nazi bomb, remove the stake from the body’s heart and re-bury the corpse. Dr. Saunders has also passed away, and upon his passing had published his papers detailing his thoughts on vampirism and the quest to kill the devilish vampire, Dr. Armand Tesla. Unfortunately, this admittance of murder lands Lady Ainsley in some hot water. Police officer Sir Frederick Fleet commands her to attend the exhuming of Tesla’s body to determine just what sort of monkey business she and Saunders involved themselves in some two decades prior. But when they arrive, they find not only Tesla’s original grave empty, but also the new grave into which he was placed. While this seemingly absolves Lady Ainsley of murder, she is considerably more troubled by the realization that Tesla the vampire is apparently returned from the grave…again.
Around the same time, scientist Dr. Hugo Bruckner (Bela Lugosi) arrives in town and takes an interest in the work being done by Lady Ainsley and her assistant, the now reformed werewolf Andreas. We, of course, know that Dr. Bruckner is really the vampiric Dr. Tesla, and frankly, his penchant for the gratuitous donning of opera capes should have clued everyone else in as well. Before too long, the crafty vampire has re-enslaved Andreas and set his sights on destroying everyone close to Lady Jane before destroying her as well. Lady Jane, however, is not one to sit around doing nothing. She soon deduces the true identity of Bruckner and is determined to stop him, despite gruff dismissal of her opinions by skeptical Sir Frederick.
Released in 1944, Return of the Vampire finds itself comfortably placed in the tail-end of the Universal horror cycle. Most of the good sequels had run their course, and Universal was starting to crank out increasingly cheap sequels to The Mummy and increasingly silly (but still entertaining, in my book) monster team-ups like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Return of the Vampire not only could have passed for an official part of the Universal horror cycle; it could have passed as one of the better examples of such a film. Unlike other horror films of the time, it takes the classic mood and overall look but many things in a different and more innovative way than its higher profile contemporaries. Chief among these would be divorcing itself from the usual assembly of heroes — a wise older man, a strapping younger man, and a young and useless damsel in distress — and instead making the central hero a middle-aged woman. Frieda Inescort’s Lady Jane Ainsley is a welcome digression from the expected. She’s smarter, more rational, more caring, and more open-minded than any of the others around her. And to go superficial, at age 43 or so (which is not actually old, mind you) when she appeared in this film, Frieda Inescort still makes for a very elegant beauty.
In appearance, behavior, and slicking back of the hair, it’s pretty obvious that Bela’s Dr. Tesla is meant to resemble his Dracula as closely as it could without getting everyone sued by Universal Studios. Bela is solid here, though his performance lacks some of the charisma and menace he had been able to conjure in his earlier roles. Dr. Tesla is considerably less suave and much crankier than Dracula. Bela’s still an able performer though, and it’s great to see him back in the cape, biting people on the neck and drifting into the open windows of susceptible young women. His dialogue isn’t great, but Bela still delivers it to the best of his macabre ability, and despite some so-so writing the movie still affords Bela a level of respect and dignity that would be absent from his subsequent movies. Even if he was not allowed by law to be referred to as Dracula, this movie still makes for the most legitimate feeling sequel to the 1931 film that was produced, certainly more so tan the token Dracula appearances in the Universal House of… movies where the infamous bloodsucker was tangential to the plot and played by different actors.
Most of the rest of the cast, including the pair of young lovebirds on whom Tesla has set his eyes and fangs, is largely disposable. The only other character of note besides Lady Ainsley and Dr. Tesla is Andreas, the tortured werewolf who finds himself at the beck and call of the vampire despite his revulsion at everything he is commanded to do. In the original Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr. aced the pathos of a good man cursed to become a murderous beast. Matt Willis’ Andreas is similarly sympathetic, though the nature of his lycanthropy doesn’t seem to conform to any known werewolf lore and is instead a state that can be turned on and off by his vampire master. Some of the scenes of Andreas in werewolf form, looking sort of like Michael Landon’s teenage werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, are a little on the silly side. Bela seems to love to shift Andreas into wolfman mode than send him out to do menial tasks and run errands around town that would probably have been better and more successfully accomplished by someone who didn’t look like a werewolf. But Matt Willis’ performance is enough to win you over and make you brush off the occasional absurd shot of the werewolf, in his suit, casually carrying packages of dry cleaning or whatever through the streets of London.
One of the other interesting things Return of the Vampire does is adapt the look of the old Universal horror films for a new decade. The original films were influenced by the German expressionist horror films of the silent era and the look of Europe after the first World War, which is why you get so many scenes of monsters staggering across misty wastelands littered with dead trees and crooked cemetery crosses. It was meant to invoke the look and desolation of the Western Front’s No Man’s Land. Set in and made during World War II, Return of the Vampire is able to recall that sort of set design then augment it with very real, very current scenes of the devastation of London during the Blitz. Bombed out churches, ruined city blocks, and air raid sirens combine with the iconic creepy tombs and foggy graveyards. From time to time, the film comes up with some stunning compositions worthy of being compared to the best the Universal horror films or even the old, visually mesmerizing silent films had to offer. Specifically, a scene near the end of the film that sees the vampire, the werewolf, and a seduced young woman moving as shadows and shrouds in a misty cemetery is fantastic.
I went into Return of the Vampire with expectations that, while not high, were still expectations. The idea of Dracula — even if he has a different name — skulking around Blitz-era London seemed a concept rife with potential. And I was thoroughly pleased with the results. Lady Jane makes a great and unique hero in the pantheon of horror film good guys (and women), and even if Bela isn’t at the top of his game, he’s still playing a pretty good game. The film is light on genuine scares, but it musters some OK chills and an exciting level of tension. Add to that some striking visuals and a quick pace, and you have quite the enjoyable film. It’s only real misstep comes at the very end, with an ill-advised breaking of the fourth wall. That is pretty easy to ignore though, and the rest of the film delivers. It may not be a sequel to 1931′s Dracula, but it’s still a pretty good sequel to 1931′s Dracula.
Release Date: 1944 | Country: United States | Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, Roland Varno, Matt Willis, William Austin, Jeanne Bates, Billy Bevan, Harold De Becker, Leslie Denison, Gilbert Emery, Stanley Logan, George McKay, Clara Reid | Screenplay: Griffin Jay | Director: Lew Landers | Cinematography: L.W. O’Connell, John Stumar | Music: Mario C. Tedesco | Producer: Sam White
In the wake of the success of Universal’s 1931 shocker Dracula, there were many attempts to continue and/or cash in on its success, but for one reason or another, Universal itself was never able to capitalize on Dracula the same way it did when it turned both Frankenstein and The Mummy (and later, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) into franchises. Even in the later monster team-up House of… films, Dracula was at best a supporting player, even when his name was in the title, and the vampire prince of darkness didn’t really interact with the other monsters (or the main storyline). The fact that Dracula was so closely identified at the time with Bela Lugosi, and that Lugosi himself never returned to the role (at least in an official capacity), probably hindered Dracula from becoming the same sort of series as did the other Universal monsters. But where Universal failed, others were ready to step in and try to hitch their wagon to the Dracula gravy train…err, or some metaphor like that. Dracula liked gravy, right?
Released in 1958, Return of Dracula comes many years after the Dracula craze in particular and the Universal monsters in general had been relegated to the past in favor of atomic terrors and science fiction. Long enough, I suppose, that someone was thinking it was time for a revival, or that they were feeling nostalgic about the old films. But a lot had happened both technically and stylistically to films in those intervening years, resulting in Return of Dracula having one foot in old style horror and the other foot in something more like the police procedurals and quasi-noirs of the forties and early fifties. It’s a cheap movie, low-key, and boasting no big stars or established horror film icons, which is probably part of the reason the movie was more or less forgotten. It’s not bad at all, though, and it achieves a fair amount of tension rather than scares thanks in large part to a likable heroine in Norma Eberhardt’s Rachel Mayberry and a menacing “monster” in Francis Lederer’s Bellac Gordal, better known perhaps by his older name: Count Dracula.
Dracula, forever harried by vampire hunters in his native country, kills an artist on a train and assumes his identity, immigrating to the united States and settling in with the dead artist’s relatives (who have never met nor seen a photo of their foreign-born relation). Living now under the name Bellac Gordal, Dracula does his best to adapt to suburban American life, attributing his curious demeanor and odd hours to being an artist and a European. All the while, however, he is laying the foundation for turning the quiet, dull town into the focal point of a new vampire empire. When the vampire hunters track him to the town, they have a hard time convincing rational, salt-of-the-earth Americans that these tales of vampires are more than nutty Old World superstition.
Although there is probably plenty of comedy to be mined from a high concept like “Dracula moves to the California suburbs,” this is not the movie in which to go looking for such comedy. Return of Dracula plays it straight, with a Dracula who adapts to his new surroundings with the proficiency of a creature that has had to adapt to new eras and new surroundings many times before. Part of what makes the horror work in this movie is the choice to avoid the yuks and explore, instead, the idea of Old World horrors seeping into the clean, ordered, and thoroughly modern world of the mid-American suburb. As a kid seeing this movie (which I was not), it must have been exciting to think that no matter how manicured the lawns and sterile the environment, there could still be a vampire lurking around the corner. The infection of such familiar and boring a setting with the affectations of ancient evil — ghostly figures, billowing fog, menacing shadows — makes for an effectively chilling juxtaposition of old and new.
I suppose given the era in which this movie was made, one could force a Cold War paranoia subtext into the mix: mysterious Eastern Europeans coming to threaten whitebread, wholesome America. That Lederer comes across less as a monster being pursued by monster hunters and more as a spy on the run also makes it easy to see a Red Menace theme beneath the vampire tale. At the very least, the difference in cultures is exploited as Dracula’s every quirk is attributed to his foreignness by his American “family,” who are welcoming and warm but also ignorant. The arrival of Cousin Bellac gives them — especially young daughter Rachel, just starting to become a woman — a taste of the exotic and non-conformist in sharp contrast to the familiar order around them. Bellac senses this and is able again to cover his tracks and his unfamiliarity not just with being an American, but with being a human, with the anti-authoritarian air of the artist, which only makes him more appealing to the dissatisfied Rachel. His attempts to set up a new vampire “hive” is tantamount to small-town American being infiltrated by an agent seeking to establish Communist cells. It’s also no accident, I would imagine, that Dracula assumes the identity of an artist, with circles of such creative and oddball persons being regarded as hotbeds of Socialism and Communist sympathy.
Dracula movies usually live or die on the merits of their Dracula. Francis Lederer takes a very weird, very different, and for me very successful approach to the legendary count. There is in his portrayal a hint of the “ancient monster awkwardly trying to mimic a human” that underlies Bela’s Dracula, but he is not doing an imitation of Lugosi. Far more than that, Lederer has the paranoid fidgeting and darting eyes of an early Eurocrime villain, like someone who might have wandered out of a Dr. Mabuse film or one of the early Hitchcock espionage thrillers. By all accounts, Lederer was not overly excited to be involved with the film (although not a star, he was a seasoned actor by this time), but whatever disdain he might have had for the low-budget production either didn’t affect his performance or did so in a way that actually benefits the film. He’s weird, disaffected at some times and overly passionate at others, consistently off-kilter and always creepy and threatening without resorting to the obvious.
On the other side of the coin is Rachel. Pure of heart, fresh-faced, giving and kind, yet also starting to question her surroundings. She is not as happy with her dorky all-American boyfriend as she could be. She aspires to be both an artist (fashion designer) and humanitarian (nurse). She is given all the personality tools she needs to be an easy seduction for the vampire/Communist spy as well as the one who can resist him. There is real tension regarding which way she will go. Norma Eberhardt turns in a good if somewhat stilted at times performance, and the fact that Rachel is a genuinely nice and warm character makes the danger looming over her in the living room much more effective. Modern horror has for quite some time depended too much on the assumed desire of the audience to see despicable people punished, which can have its moments I grant you. But I miss when horror would also create real tension by taking someone you like and putting them in a dangerous situation. For me, anyway, that’s a much more sustainable sort of tension (and a lot less irritating to watch than 90 minutes of horrible people sniping and bickering before someone just shoves a pipe through their face).
At the beginning of this article, I posited that a film like this got made because someone thought we were due for a resurgence in supernatural horror after years dominated by atomic age terrors. And they were right, even if it wasn’t Return of Dracula that sparked that revival. Director Paul Landres and screenwriter Pat Fielder were on a vampire kick. Before teaming up for Return of Dracula, they had also worked with each other on the previous year’s The Vampire. It’s not surprising that their vampire films would be very different takes from previous versions of the vampire movie. Landres’ experience was almost entirely in westerns and crime television, and Fielder was new at the game, with only one credit (he co-scripted The Monster that Challenged the World) to his name before he and Landres concocted their vampire tales. Their takes on vampires and vampirism were exceptionally interesting, but audiences weren’t as interested as Landres hoped. They wanted vampires again, just not his vampires. The same year Return of Dracula was released, England’s Hammer Studio released Horror of Dracula, starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as an animalistic, force-of-nature interpretation of Dracula. That film, with its more familiar take on the legend, brilliant color filming, exquisite period sets and costumes, shocking bloodshed and sexuality, overshadowed the comparatively low-key Return of Dracula. The classical horror revival happened then, but it happened Hammer’s way and in Hammer’s image.
While I love Hammer horror, it’s too bad Return of Dracula got buried and forgotten. It’s a deceptively fascinating and complex vampire-turned-thriller movie. Being of liberal and artistic leanings myself, I don’t necessarily agree with the message about swarthy Eastern European types infecting wholesome America with their socialist ideas, artistic history, and interesting suits; but I also don’t think this is a cut and dry “foreigners are dangerous” morality tale. After all, it’s the ignorance of the Americans that Dracula is able to exploit to cover his crimes. He plays on stereotypes and expectations. Similarly, it’s more Eastern Europeans who show up and convince the American authorities that something supernatural is in their midst. And the most annoying character is the most gee-whiz all-American boy: Rachel’s well-meaning but lunkheaded boyfriend. Whatever the case, Return of Dracula has a lot to offer. It is, as I said, more satisfying as a thriller than straight horror film, though its moments of horror are eerie and effective. The whole thing is infused with enough menace, paranoia, and lurking menace to keep it tense even when Dracula is just hanging out in his bedroom. Return of Dracula is well worth rediscovering, or if you are like me, discovering for the first time.
Release Date: 1958 | Country: United States | Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wengraf, Virginia Vincent, Gage Clarke, Jimmy Baird, Greta Granstedt, Enid Yousen, Robert Lynn, John McNamara, Norbert Schiller | Screenplay: Pat Fielder | Director: Paul Landres | Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie | Music: Gerald Fried | Producer: Arthur Gardner, Jules V. Levy | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
World, you spoil us. No matter how much we’ve seen — and we have seen a lot — you always have something else waiting in the wings to delight and make jaws hang slack. Martial arts films are especially fecund soil for stories that operate in the far margins of loony concepts, made all the stranger by the fact that the most surreal and outrageous scenarios are usually handled with the utmost banality of attitude, as if Chinese skinheads kidnapping Abraham Lincoln during World War II is the sort of mundane shit that happens every day. What’s more, there’s something so astoundingly crackpot in the sorts of weirdness with which these films confront the viewer that it’s difficult to fully grasp the sort of thinking that led to such ideas in the first place. This is an honest, sincere wierdness, not the same as, say, the sort of predictable, labored, and juvenile weirdness of a Troma film or one of the endless stream of Japanese splatter-comedies that plague the exploitation film market of that once proud industry. The sort of mind that dreams up, “how about she’s a naked schoolgirl, and then a chainsaw shoots out her butt?” I know people rank that high on the “what the hell?” meter, but to me it’s a very rote sort of goofiness, the kind of thing that any decently perverse or stoned teenager would dream up.
Generally, it only takes a fella like me sticking his hand into the fire a few times to learn to stop sticking my hand in the fire. Sometimes, though, learning whatever lesson life, pain, and horrible blistering has to teach me just doesn’t happen, and laughing like a buffoon, I just keep sticking my hand into those warm, enticing flames. And few flames are as warm, enticing, and unbearably painful as the films of zero-budget Indian horror director Harinam Singh. His movies are made with a disjointed stream of consciousness that James Joyce would kill to accomplish, and many others would kill to not have to experience. He assembles his footage with an apparent total disregard — and perhaps even disdain — for the linear narrative, splicing together scenes in a random order, reusing the same scene multiple times, or spending some time with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and may, in fact, have been stolen from another movie just to pad out the running time. His films fail miserably not just to be good films, but to be films at all.
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.