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Friday, 22 June 2012

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


Cody has made his way through every Hammer Dracula film, and then some.


Last October, some fellow members on the F13 Community message board were surprised to find out that I had never watched the Hammer/Christopher Lee Dracula series. There were a few reasons why I hadn't gotten around to watching the movies yet, though I had always intended to. One reason was OCD - I didn't want to just watch the random entries as they were shown on TV, I wanted to watch them all in proper chronological order. And I had just never put in the effort to do so. But now I have watched them all, and I wrote down some thoughts on each one as they went along.



HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

The series kicks off with an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, a re-telling of the story that any horror watcher will see roughly fifty versions of over the course of their fandom. There are some twists to this one not present in others, though, and there has been some character shuffling.

As usual, it begins with a young man named Jonathan Harker coming to Count Dracula's castle on business, in this case he's been hired as Dracula's new librarian. Spotting a picture of Harker's fiancee, the Count seems to take an uncomfortable interest in the girl. Harker later goes snooping around the castle and encounters a woman who's desperate to leave the place... The biggest twist here is that Harker is actually a vampire hunter, in league with professional vampire killer Doctor Van Helsing. He knows what Count Dracula is and has come to destroy him. Harker tries to help the woman, but she reveals herself to be a bride of Dracula and bites him, so she too must be destroyed. Harker manages to stake the bride, but Dracula is too much for him to handle.

When Van Helsing arrives to check up on his cohort, he finds that Harker is a vampire and Dracula is gone. Dracula has gone to Harker's home, intending to replace his staked bride with Harker's own fiancee. From there the film is all about Dracula trying to turn an unlucky lady and Van Helsing's attempts to stop him.

I must admit that another reason why I've put off watching these for so long is that I had the impression that they'd be rather stuffy and dull, but this was a surprisingly fast-paced film. It always stayed on point with no messing around, telling its story in a brisk 81 minutes.


Christopher Lee is a very imposing figure as Count Dracula, feeling dangerous and creepy even from the first shot of him standing at the top of a staircase. The man also walks up stairs faster than anyone I've ever seen.




THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Doctor Van Helsing is a badass vampire killer and does his job so well that Dracula doesn't even appear in this sequel, in fact the opening narration clearly states that Dracula is dead. But his disciples "live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world".

Brides is sort of structured like the previous film, beginning with similar story elements but with some things switched around, including genders. A young female schoolteacher named Marianne finds herself stranded in a small village inhabited by some very nervous people and is invited by a Baroness to spend the night at the castle on the hill. Snooping around the castle, Marianne encounters a young man who's desperate to leave the place, the Baroness's son who is kept shackled in his room. The Baroness tells Marianne that her son is mad, but the girl is more believing when the son tells her that his mother is mad. Only after Marianne releases the Baron from his shackle does he reveal himself to the audience to be a vampire.

As Van Helsing arrives in town, called there by a priest to look into their vampire troubles, the Baron follows Marianne to the girls school where she works, intending to make her his lawfully wedded bride while also going on a sucking spree among the local females.

Brides was a decent vampire movie with a good set-up, and it's buoyed by some great performances, specifically those from Martita Hunt as the Baroness, Fred Jackson as maid-gone-mad Greta, and of course Peter Cushing as the definitive Van Helsing.

The title only really makes sense if, like the promotional materials, you refer to any male vampire as "a Dracula".




DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

Ten years after the death of Dracula, a monk who likes to berate people for still clinging to their vampire fears does hold on to one concern - he warns a pair of couples on a sight-seeing, mind-broadening vacation to stay away from Dracula's castle. But when their stagecoach driver strands them near the castle, they ignore the monk's warning and are welcomed into the Count's old dwelling by a strange servant named Klove.

They went for a slow build with this one. We spend a long time hanging out with these two couples who are neither particularly interesting nor likeable, and nothing really happens until forty minutes in. We're halfway through the movie before Dracula is resurrected, by way of Klove pouring a man's blood onto his ashes.

I was wishing I had another Van Helsing movie to watch on the side while waiting for this one to get on with it.

Eventually Christopher Lee is back in action as Dracula with no lines, making hissing sounds and dealing with the people who have been messing around in his house. Some of them manage to escape to the nearby monastery, where more people hang out for a while, then some vampire stuff happens...

So, I watched that one. Andrew Keir was cool as Father Sandor, that's about all I enjoyed. This was the type of movie I was worried they'd all be, there just wasn't enough there to hold my interest.




DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things about watching franchise horror movies was seeing how a villain would be stopped in one installment and then brought back at the beginning of the next. Lightning strikes, dream dogs urinating fire, telekinetic girls, voodoo rituals, blood dripping in the wrong place. It's fun stuff.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave has one of the goofiest villain resurrections ever. When a Monsignor and a priest climb up the hill to perform an exorcism on Dracula's castle and ease the minds of the villagers, the priest ends up taking a tumble down the rocks. He comes to a stop right next to where Dracula lies frozen in a lake and the blood from his head wound just happens to drip right into the Count's mouth... The silliness is heightened due to this being completely unnecessary. If a vampire is stopped by being knocked into a lake in winter, you don't have to go through the trouble of setting up this ridiculous coincidence to bring him back, all you have to do is say that he swam out in the spring thaw...

Anyway, Dracula is angry that the Monsignor exorcised his house and blocked the door with a cross, so he sets out to get revenge by making the Monsignor's niece his latest bride. Dracula has competition, as the Monsignor's niece is already engaged to a pub-partying atheist.

Aside from the resurrection scene, I enjoyed this one. It was much livelier, more interesting, had better characters, and was more fun than Prince. And Dracula could speak again instead of just hissing like a dweeb.

It seems that this is one in the series that I should have already seen, as it played at a 24 hour horror marathon I attended in 2002, but I have no memory of watching it aside from vague images. I must've slept through the majority of it back then. Due to wanting to watch the movies in order, I might've purposely made its running time a nap break.




TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970)

The opening scene takes a Back to the Future Part II approach, showing us that a man was just offscreen during the end of Dracula Has Risen, watching in horror as Dracula was reduced to dust.

Some time later we meet up with a trio of middle-aged men who get together on the last Sunday of every month. Their families think they're doing charity work, instead they're going out on the town to "enjoy the more unusual aspects of this life". Tonight's destination is a brothel, but they're running out of ideas. They need something more exciting. While at the brothel, they witness Lord Courtley, a young man who is known to have taken part in a Black Mass. The girls are so fascinated by Courtley that they pay him for visiting them. Gossip is that he may even be possessed by the devil. Intrigued, the men catch up to Courley when he leaves. Courtley suggests that they sell their souls to the devil... and/or buy Dracula's ring and blood-caked cloak from the man who collected them at the beginning of the film.

That's when the title comes into play, as Courtley now wants the men to all partake in some of Dracula's blood. But his elders chicken out and Courtley is the only one of them who drinks a goblet of blood. When Courtley has a bad reaction and pleads for their help, the men instead kick him to death. Quite rude.

And when Courtley's corpse morphs into Dracula later that night, he's not pleased that the men destroyed his servant. Though I'm not sure why he'd be mad about that, since Courtley was presumably just going to turn into him regardless. Whatever, it gives Dracula an excuse to kill, or cause the deaths of, some more people.

Luckily, the story also involves the beautiful daughter of one of the men and her star-cross'd lover, so we don't just have to watch old guys.

It's an interesting set-up that makes for a rather entertaining entry in the series.




SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)

This sequel came out just six months after Taste. It begins with an amazing mode of villain resurrection: Dracula was again reduced to dust at the end of Taste and nobody bothered to clean up his remains, so a bat flies in, vomits blood on the pile of Drac, and the Count regenerates. Less than two minutes into the movie, he's back in action.

Less than five minutes in, a group of angry villagers are already on a march of vengeance, fed up with the evil terrorizing them and ready to destroy it for good. I was liking the pace of this one.

The villagers detain Dracula's assistant Klove - healed from being shot at the end of Prince and now played by a bushy-unibrowed Patrick Troughton, who at this time was fresh off playing the Second Doctor on three years of Doctor Who - and set fire to Dracula's castle. The flames don't reach the resting Count in his stone tomb, so they've only managed to piss him off rather than destroy him. When the villagers return home, they find that every woman and child they left behind has been slaughtered. A hell of an opening 11 minutes.

The story that follows vaguely reminded me of Psycho - a young man on the run from the law (he's falsely accused of rape when he's caught with a burgomaster's nude daughter) ends up in the land of Dracula and, looking for a bed and breakfast, ends up staying at the (now fire-damaged) castle and being murdered. His brother and a love interest soon come looking for him. It also features some throwbacks to the franchise's roots with the man staying at the castle, a vampire bride begging him to be set free, and Dracula wanting to replace his bride with an acquaintance of his unlucky lodger.

This was definitely my favorite in the series after Horror and Van Helsing's solo project Brides. It moved along quickly and kept me involved more overall than the preceding sequels. The Prince-Risen-Taste-Scars run got progressively more enjoyable with each installment.




DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

This film opens in spectacular fashion, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing engaging in fisticuffs atop a speeding runaway stagecoach. That's right, for the first time in five movies and twelve years, Cushing is back as Van Helsing! Though it may not be the same Van Helsing as in Horror and Brides, or even the same Dracula, as a bit of narration throws continuity out the window by placing this final battle between enemies in 1872, thirteen years before the setting of Horror. It's a battle that costs both Dracula and Van Helsing their lives.

To be honest, one part of my reluctance in getting around to watching this series is the fact that when I watch something set in the 1800s, I don't generally want to see castles, civilized Brits, and beleaguered men of the cloth so much as I want to see dusty towns and gunslinging cowboys. If you couldn't tell by the title, the Dracula series now sheds the 1800s setting and brings the character into surroundings that I can fully embrace: the 1970s.

To further appeal to my tastes, they've cast Caroline Munro, one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen and one of the nicest people you could ever meet. Unfortunately, she plays a character who has picked the wrong group of hippies to hang out with and ends up being sacrificed by the group's leader Johnny Alucard (always be wary of someone with that last name, especially when they look like the evil twin of Chris Colfer from Glee) to his master Dracula... With the performance of a séance and the spilling of blood, Alucard has resurrected Dracula in the '70s and Bond fans get to see the villain from The Man with the Golden Gun sink his fangs into the henchwoman from The Spy Who Loved Me.

Peter Cushing also has a role in the 1970s as a Van Helsing descendant who's an expert in the occult and also the grandfather of an unnerved, Dracula-targeted member of the hippie group. The stage is set for a rematch one hundred years in the making.

The then-modern setting brought a refreshing change of pace to the series for me and the return of Cushing twelve years after his last appearance as Van Helsing was very welcome. I still have the feeling that I had during Dracula: Prince of Darkness, that I would've rather watched a series of Cushing Van Helsing adventures than have a series focused on Dracula. 1972 is a good time.




THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

For some reason, this particular installment of the series fell into public domain, which makes it the one of the bunch that gets regular play on horror host shows. So I took advantage of this fact and watched the movie as hosted (and regularly disrupted) by Elvira on her show Movie Macabre.

This sequel to AD 1972 finds a Scotland Yard inspector and British Secret Service agents investigating a human-sacrificing Satanic cult that counts a government official among its members. Being an expert on the occult, Van Helsing is brought onto the case to help them figure out what they might be dealing with.

The further the investigation gets, the more apparent it is that calling in Van Helsing was a good idea. There are vampire women locked up in a cellar, Dracula is behind the cult, an associated scientist has been developing a strain of Bubonic Plague that could wipe out the human race. Van Helsing theorizes that Dracula is longing for death, which he can finally achieve by using the plague to destroy his food source. And you may question that if Dracula wants to die, why doesn't he just get staked or step out into the sunlight, but really, that stuff has happened to him before and he keeps coming back. If dying once and for all requires ending the world, he may be prepared to give it a try.

This doesn't seem to be a popular entry in the series, Elvira certainly wasn't a fan, but while I didn't think it was an especially exciting watch, I did think mixing the supernatural horrors with a spy thriller mystery was a clever approach.

After playing Dracula seven times for Hammer over the course of fifteen years, this was Christopher Lee's last official appearance as the character. He did make one more "Dracula" movie after this, but not for Hammer, and he was unpleasantly surprised to find out after the fact that he had been playing the character. I'll cover that further down the page.




THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

After the departure of Lee, Hammer did make another Dracula film, but one that is largely an example of what I've wanted all along: a globetrotting vampire killing story with Peter Cushing's Van Helsing.

Martial arts films were booming at this time, so Hammer got in on the action by co-producing this film with Shaw Brothers Studios and sending Van Helsing off to handle vampires in China for "The First Kung Fu Horror Spectacular!"

Some time after Van Helsing's encounter with Count Dracula (almost twenty years, if we're back in the Horror of Dracula timeline), the doctor is giving a lecture on vampire legends at a university. He tells the story of a village "somewhere in the vast center of China" that has been terrorized through the ages by a group of vampires who command an army of the living dead. That night, Van Helsing is visited by a young man who says he is from the doomed village. The young man and his siblings, all skilled in martial arts, intend to wipe out the vampires once and for all, but they need Van Helsing's help, his experience and knowledge.

Van Helsing accompanies the ass-kicking siblings back to their home and much fighting ensues, with Van Helsing eventually discovering that Dracula is "dead and well" and part of the village's troubles.

In a prologue set in 1804 Transylvania, we see Dracula (played by John Forbes-Robertson, who does a fine job during his short time in the role) take on the image of Kah, the High Priest of the 7 Golden Vampires. He then goes to China to head up the group of gold-vamps. The vampires terrorize the village of Ping Kwei every year during the time of the seventh moon. I guess playing Kah in Ping Kwei is just Dracula's yearly vacation and he spends the rest of his time as himself in Transylvania, allowing for his confrontation with Van Helsing in Transylvania some time between 1804 and 1904... I'm trying to figure this all out here.

Overall, this movie is a lot of fun and makes it even more clear to me that focusing the series on Dracula was the less interesting avenue for Hammer to take. Van Helsing adventures, each set in different locations and done in different styles, pitting Cushing against different cultures' versions of vampires, that would've been cool.




COUNT DRACULA (1970)

In the midst of his Hammer Dracula run, Christopher Lee also played the character on the side in this film by Jess Franco.

This is another of the roughly fifty adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel that a horror fan might run across, but in this case the film's faithfulness to the source material was a big selling point, and a promise of faithfulness is how Franco convinced Lee to play Dracula in it.

It does stick closer to the novel than some - it gets mileage out of the bit of trivia that it's the first adaptation to show Dracula starting out as an old man and getting younger as the story progresses - but also branches out in its own ways. A moment involving taxidermied animals is one bit that makes Stoker fans scratch their heads. It's been too long since I've read the novel for me to be able to pick apart the details.

While it's certainly one of the best Jess Franco films I've ever seen,  and Lee is fantastic as the Count, Herbert Lom makes a good Van Helsing, and Klaus Kinski is reliably bugnuts as Renfield, the movie's languid pace was not for me.


Lee was Dracula in four movies released in 1970. In addition to Franco's Dracula and the Hammer sequels Taste and Scars, he also made a quick, uncredited cameo (along with Cushing as Doctor Frankenstein) in the Jerry Lewis-directed Sammy Davis Jr./Peter Lawford comedy One More Time, the sequel to 1968's Salt and Pepper. Before this viewing spree, One More Time was the only movie with a Lee-Dracula appearance that I had watched in its entirety. Since it's just a small, comedic appearance, I didn't rewatch that movie for this occasion.



DRACULA AND SON (1976)

Or, Dracula père et fils.

Christopher Lee played Dracula for the last time in this French production, though he didn't intend to be playing Dracula. His character was a vampire known only as The Count and he objected when, for marketing reasons, "Dracula" was put in the title.

In the mid-1800s a vampire, the title says he's Dracula, woos a young woman who arrives at his castle one night. He has plans for her: he will turn her into a vampire, but first he will impregnate her and keep her locked up in his castle until she gives birth. When their son is born, Dracula does indeed make the woman his vampire bride... But she doesn't take to it well, and is soon burnt to death in the morning sun.

Years later - 116, to be exact - the son of Dracula, Ferdinand, hasn't proven to be much of a vampire himself, refusing to bite people and only drinking blood from bottles that are brought to him. Father and son are driven out of their home when their country experiences a Communist revolution and then get separated during their escape, Ferdinand ending up in France and Dracula in England.

Things get self-referential for Christopher Lee, as Dracula finds himself employed playing a vampire in horror movies. But the troubles aren't over yet for Dracula and son, because when they are reunited, they find that they're both interested in the same woman...

There is a U.S. version of this film which dumbed down the humor, was dubbed with goofy voices and had 20 minutes cut out. I haven't seen that cut, but the original, 95 minute French version is a decent, stylishly made vampire story with a comedic bent that features Lee delivering a great performance while speaking French. Writer/director Edouard Molinaro is best known for the comedy he made a couple years later, La cage aux folles, which got a U.S. remake in the '90s as The Birdcage.


Watching all of these movies was an interesting time. A few of them I'll be in no hurry to revisit, others I'll gladly rewatch whenever the opportunity arises. Now when The Satanic Rites of Dracula comes on a horror host show, I won't have to turn it off because I haven't seen the films that came before, I'll be able to watch it and hear whatever the hosts have to say about it. Horror of Dracula in particular is definitely one to have repeat viewings of throughout the years from now on. The Lee-Drac gap in my horror fandom has been filled.

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