Cuma, Mart 02, 2007

Hammer's Dracula Franchise

The clever opening title to "Dracula."

England's Hammer studio made its name with horror, principally beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein--an updating of the Mary Shelley novel with more explicit gore that seemed utterly shocking for 1957--and its inevitable follow-up, Dracula (released in the U.S. as "Horror of Dracula" to prevent confusion with the Bela Lugosi film), which contained more action, more blood, and hints of sex. With these two films began the modern horror picture: explicit and scandalous. Both departed dramatically from their Universal Pictures counterparts, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (the protagonist and the monster, respectfully, in each film) took their place beside Lugosi and Boris Karloff as timeless horror icons. Hammer had a merciless eye toward low budgets and commercial prospects, and (sometimes distressingly) milked their franchises for all they were worth. No, the monsters did not meet Abbott and Costello, but the films did become more exploitative, more crass, and, ironically, out of date despite all the studios' efforts to keep them modern. Hammer's reputation became sullied in the 1970's with often insipid attempts to update their icons; they even briefly turned to adapting TV sitcoms into big-screen films before the money ran out and the studio closed its doors. But Hammer retains a loyal cult following--particularly for those early films from its golden period, which ran approximately into the mid-60's. Those films, many of them directed by Terence Fisher, were classy, exciting, and elegant, and though the chills were usually rooted in the fantastic, and therefore necessarily artificial, they were almost always worth the price of admission.

As Hammer was always willing to fund a sequel to any moneymaker, there are a few franchises scattered throughout their filmography, some of them brief and curious (such as their dinosaur films), some rather notorious (the Karnstein trilogy, loosely inspired by "Carmilla," which began with "The Vampire Lovers"), and others relentlessly enduring. To that last category belong the Frankenstein and Dracula pictures. Both of Hammer's stars, Cushing & Lee, launched each series, but after that--with few exceptions--each took was assigned his own franchise, with Cushing taking the recurring role of Baron Frankenstein, making a new monster in each film, and Lee playing Dracula multiple times, dying and resurrecting, in succession, again and again. Lee's Dracula films have been the most popular product of the Hammer studios (although Cushing's Frankenstein films might be marginally better, on the whole, with more substantial plotlines), and here's an analysis of how they hold up today, both as entertainment and as representations of Bram Stoker's original, exhaustively pillaged novel.

Vampirism's sex appeal: Lee seduces his victim in "Dracula."

(U.K., 1958) * * * 1/2
D: Terence Fisher

Prior to this film, the character of Dracula was embodied in the "I vant to suck your blood" parodies of Lugosi; it was impossible to separate the character from Lugosi's rich Hungarian accent. When he did "suck blood," it was with an uplifted cape, discreetly hiding the fang-penetration from the audience. Tod Browning's film was a talky adaptation--actually adapted from the theatrical production, and it showed. Sequel after sequel dumbed-down the presentation of the villain until he became merely a flapping bat on a string dissolving into a caped man with fangs. Terence Fisher's film, by contrast, is best seen as a deliberate attempt to reimagine the character and see the material from a fresh, more earthly point of view, instead of as a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel--which it definitely isn't. If sex was merely hinted at in the original film, here the subtext is brought to he fore and underlined. Dracula's victims eagerly open their windows for their night visitor, and then the necks of their nightgowns. Before Dracula strikes, he brushes gently against their neck as a lover might, and becomes so aroused that his eyes become engorged with blood (glass contact lenses)--then we see him bite, and blood courses down his chin; the woman sighs in ecstacy. (Tame now, but rated X in England when it was released!) When Lucy, awaiting Dracula, removes the cross from her neck and sticks it in a drawer, it's with the same import as if she had turned a photo of her mother so that it didn't face the bed. This film undoubtedly influenced nearly every vampire film that followed; there is even a reference to vampirism-as-drug-addiction. Peter Cushing, as Van Helsing, is far more dynamic than the elderly Dutch doctor of the original novel. He chases vigorously after his opponent, and when he defeats him in the famous climax, it's with the skill of a gymnast. Lee has less to do, but makes such an impact in the opening scenes in Castle Dracula that his presence is felt even when he's absent for long stretches.

But the film's "classic" status is compromised by an unnecessarily confused script. The twist of the opening scenes--learning that Jonathan Harker is a vampire hunter, not an unwitting victim--is revealed clumsily, and doesn't seem to serve any particular purpose for the narrative. Many of the other alterations to the novel seem to be random and pointless. Dr. Seward is now a hapless, doddering old man whose appearance is pretty much a cameo. Lucy is now Jonathan's fiancee and Arthur Holmwood's sister, although she was Arthur's fiancee in the book. In the novel, Jonathan was engaged to Mina, but now Mina is married to Arthur. Why? No reason. More understandably, Renfield is missing, and Dracula's castle is now just a carriage-ride away from the city where our characters live. Dracula is also robbed of certain powers granted him by Stoker. Van Helsing asserts that it's a myth that Dracula can transform into animals (presumably to tell the audience with a wink that there will be no bats on strings in this movie), so this is a Dracula that has to run on his own two feet to get from one location to another. Almost apologetically, scenes and characters from the original novel omitted from this film make cameo appearances in later entries in the series.

Actually, Lee's portrayal is very close to Stoker's creation, though he retains a dignified British accent. In Stoker's novel, Dracula really is a diabolical beast with blood on his lips and a scowl on his face, running from those who hunt him and taunting them from a distance. Therefore, after the opening scenes in Castle Dracula, Lee has very little dialogue, and almost performs his seduction scenes as though he were Rudolph Valentino in a silent film. The score by James Bernard is also worth mentioning. Bernard composed almost all of the "classic" Hammer scores, and his work was typically lush and memorable. His Dracula theme is memorable, but rather inanely composed, so that the three-note theme seems to shout "DRAC-u-la!" (This is intentional on Bernard's part.) In later films, the Dracula theme will recede into an almost subliminal presence on the score, while more romantic and gothic themes paint the foreground. Still, this film restored class and dignity to Dracula and, by extension, the horror genre, which was otherwise stagnant through the 1950's.

Cushing as a romantic, swashbuckling Van Helsing in "Brides of Dracula."

Brides of Dracula
(U.K., 1960) * * * 1/2
D: Terence Fisher

This is the On Her Majesty's Secret Service entry in the Dracula franchise: a perceived flop/miscalculation, filmed without the centerpiece actor (in OHMSS, George Lazenby replaced Sean Connery as James Bond; here, neither Lee nor Dracula is present), that nonetheless has attained cult status and offers a tantalizing possibility for what the series could have been. Lee, fearing typecasting (justifiably, as it turns out), vainly sought more romantic roles and turned down the chance to play Dracula in this sequel. Thankfully, Cushing returned as Van Helsing, the only returning character, and here becoming a vampire hunter of heroic proportions. The film opens with the spooky nighttime carriage ride to a vampire's castle which the first film inexplicably omitted, only this time the potential victim is a beautiful young teacher, Marianne (a French ingenue, Yvonne Monlaur). She's offered shelter for the night by the castle's Baroness, and told the rest of the property is deserted, but nevertheless steals a glimpse of the Baroness' son, Baron Meinster (David Peel), who is locked away in one part of the castle--actually manacled at the ankle. Understandably, she "rescues" him, only to be told what we suspect: that the Baron is actually a vampire, and his mother was doing the right thing by keeping him prisoner. Unmolested by the Baron so far, she takes up her teaching post, and encounters Van Helsing, who's been busy hunting down the remaining vampires in the countryside, a few of which lurk near the school. It's not long before the freed Baron turns up again, proposing to Marianne, gathering a harem of vampire women, and pursued by the dogged Van Helsing.

Oh, what this series could have been! Peter Cushing nails the cold-blooded intensity of Van Helsing's character while translating a humanizing vulnerability, as in one of the last scenes, inside a windmill, when he's bitten by the Baron and must improvise an agonizing treatment before he "turns." The swashbuckling climax is actually the best of the series, and is genuinely thrilling, though it involves a suspension of disbelief (why, for example, do only the windmill's blades cast a shadow?). And there are enough colorful characters and miscellaneous vampire activity to keep the middle stretch interesting. Despite Lee's absence, this is one of the best Hammer horror films. (It's available on DVD in the U.S. only as part of the "Hammer Horror Series: Franchise Collection" set from Universal, which contains 8 mostly-great Hammer horror and suspense films across two 2-sided discs--highly recommended.)

It should be noted that as the series progressed, rules established in previous films were broken or reversed in later ones. In Dracula, Cushing insists that vampires cannot change into bats--but apparently Baron Meinster can. It's unfortunate to see the return of the bat-on-a-string, which always looks ludicrous (no more so than in the late-period Dracula entry, Scars of Dracula), and here suggests that Jimmy Sangster, who wrote the original film, may have had the right idea in excluding that particular element. But there's no turning back now.

"Dracula, Prince of Darkness" has his first and graphically violent resurrection.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (U.K., 1966) * * 1/2
D: Terence Fisher

It's astounding to believe that rather than pursue a Van Helsing franchise, Hammer waited six more years before releasing this third installment, which restores Lee, but not Cushing. Not only does Lee return to the series, but so does screenwriter Sangster and composer Bernard, neither of whom partook in Brides of Dracula. The film opens sensationally: after a recap of the original film's climax--now eight years old--we see what first appears to be a funeral procession, but is quickly revealed to be a mob of villagers about to drive a stake through the heart of the woman they're transporting. The lynching is broken up by Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a monk who carries a rifle, and who will now disappear for a large stretch of the film as we're introduced to our dull protagonists, two married couples vacationing in the countryside who make the always-unwise decision of spending a night in Castle Dracula. The castle is attended by one human servant, Klove (Dracula always needs humans to watch over him during the daylight hours). Klove is a genuinely frightening figure: in the middle of the night, he abducts one member of the party, kills him, ties him by the legs and hangs him upside down above a sarcophagus, and then cuts open his throat so that the blood spills upon Dracula's ashes. Now we are treated to the first of numerous resurrection scenes, almost all identical to each other: a series of cuts showing the ashes turning into a human shape, then a skeleton, then a gray, mummified corpse, and finally Christopher Lee--usually smartly dressed, although here it's a more intelligent shot of a naked, grasping arm, the hand bearing the ring which the opening credits revealed to be all that was left of Dracula. This is a full forty-five minutes into the movie--half its running time has passed with little to no incident! In the remaining time, Dracula will glower menacingly from the shadows, ordering Klove around with fierce gestures, but he will not speak a word: Lee excised all of his own dialogue, finding it insipid. Still, it seems unnatural that Dracula would suddenly be a mute, and not bother to actually speak to either his underling or his vampire servants.

Although it's taken so long to finally get Dracula back into the story, we are pretty quickly taken back to the village where our survivors meet up with Father Sandor and another monk, the very Renfield-like Ludwig. Well, let's face it: Ludwig is Renfield, right down to the fly-gobbling and the rantings about his master's return. Typical of Sangster, Ludwig serves no real coherent function in the film, except to clutter up the narrative just when it should be getting lean and exciting. But everything about the film is anticlimactic and strangely diluted. It's only in the final scene, when Dracula is confronted upon his ice-covered moat, that we get a hint of the vitality of the first two films--this is when director Fisher is suddenly stirred from an atypical lethargy.

The film is noticeably more violent than the earlier two, most especially in the throat-cutting scene, and offers a strong hint of where the series will eventually lead, as it adjusts to the loosening standards of British censors. Yet the film is also as flavorless as a holy wafer.

The fairy tale imagery of "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave."

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
(U.K., 1968) * * 1/2
D: Freddie Francis

Paul (Barry Andrews) is in love with Maria (Veronica Carlson), but her father, the Monsignor, scorns his professed atheism. Zena, the bartender who loves him, works out her jealousy by attempting to deliver Maria to a newly-resurrected Dracula. Paul must overcome his atheism to confront the servant of the Devil, and he's assisted by a similarly conflicted priest (Ewan Hooper), who has fallen under Dracula's command.

The fourth entry switches directors to the more workmanlike Freddie Francis, although here Francis attempts some awkward experimentation by using different color filters, extreme angles, and odd lenses, all apparently to invoke the otherworldly presence of Dracula. None of them really work. Much more successful are the fabulous sets and matte paintings which create a dreamlike world of rooftop avenues used by Maria, Paul, Zena, Dracula, and the priest, as they seek out their nighttime desires. These sets provide a much more evocative treatment of sin versus Catholocism than the literal-minded script, which has got to be the most religiose treatment of the vampire theme in horror cinema.

Dracula has recovered his speech in this film, but Lee can be more embarrassed by his humiliating demise, as he squirms upon a cross (which has penetrated his chest) for what seems like an eternity, and reminds the modern viewer of Martin Landau, playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, getting drunk so he can flop around with an octopus puppet in a pond in the middle of the night. Neither does Dracula ever seem that frightening in the film--nor is he given much to do. But there's a good deal of charm in the early scenes, and another overqualified romantic score by Bernard, who is hitting his stride. Note that veteran character actor Michael Ripper makes one of his many prominent appearances in the Dracula series, each time taking on a different role. Another recurring character is the abundant female cleavage, ideally suited for displaying crucifix necklaces.

The daughters, staking their hypocrite fathers, in "Taste the Blood of Dracula."

Taste the Blood of Dracula (U.K., 1969) * * *
D: Peter Sasdy

Picking up directly after the ending of the last film, this has a pretty amusing opening, as Roy Kinnear--recognizable from such films as Help! and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and making a rare appearance in a Hammer film--is introduced unsuccessfully hawking his shoddy merchandise on a coach travelling through the countryside; he's subsequently booted off, staggers, lost and alone, through the woods, and unexpectedly encounters Dracula, in his dying moments, writhing on the cross (recycled footage from DHRFTG). Kinnear, recognizing a brilliant investment opportunity when he sees one, steals the cape of Dracula and places the blood of the count in a vial. Meanwhile, we meet young Alice Hargood (Linda Hayden), her boyfriend, Paul (Anthony Higgins), and Alice's father (Geoffrey Keen, recognizable from the James Bond series), who disapproves of their courtship. The father is supposedly an upstanding member of the community and an icon of moral fortitude, but on Sunday nights he sneaks off to a whorehouse with his two friends (one of whom is Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace in the Wallace & Gromit films). This company of upstanding hypocrites is intrigued by the possibilities offered by a young Satanist, Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates, being bred as a new Hammer star). Courtley wants to use their money to purchase Dracula's remains, for an ill-defined arcane ritual of some sort. When they are finally offered the chance to, well, taste the blood of Dracula, Mr. Hargood and his friends panic and beat Lord Courtley to death. It's Lord Courtley's blood which resurrects Dracula, who sets about avenging the death of his servant by turning the murderers' children against them.

All of this might sound convoluted, but there's a good reason: it was expected that Lee would not be returning for this film, and so a script was prepared for a Dracula flick without a Dracula. As it is, Dracula is pretty incidental to the plot, and could easily be written out again. Unexpectedly, all of the plot's contortions lead to a fairly interesting mix of satire and horror. The virginal young girl and her more vivacious friend seem to be stand-ins, once again, for Mina and Lucy (DHRFTG used the same dynamic, in "homage"), but the twist is a pivotal one: both taken under Dracula's spell, they kill their parents in vicious ways--one is even staked through the heart. Given this sensational plot, the inevitably chaste resolution, in which Dracula is killed by stumbling into a chapel (!), feels phony by comparison. Still, this is one of the most entertaining Dracula films since the first two, with a solid script, some tastefully handled exploitation elements, and a magnificent score by James Bernard. It was all downhill from here.

Dracula via the Marquis de Sade: "Scars of Dracula."

Scars of Dracula (U.K., 1970) * *
D: Roy Ward Baker

By now, the Dracula films had become an annual event. Director-for-hire Baker can usually be counted on for a watchable, if not exceptional, effort, and that's what this is--but it's unusually exploitative. At least the Dracula films have fairly accurate titles (Brides of Dracula notwithstanding), and this is one film that is obsessed with scars and disfigurations. Much has been made of a scene in which Dracula's servant, Klove (Patrick Troughton, replacing Philip Latham from DPOD), lifts up his shirt and offers his mutilated back for Dracula, who proceeds to scald it with a red-hot sword. The Dracula films have now moved from simple sex to sadomasochism. More nauseating are the close-ups when churchgoers are attacked by Dracula's bats (the bats look fake, but the shots of gore linger in a sickening way). The scar-fixation is curiously misguided, as though Baker wanted to make a hardcore Hammer film for his young audience to compete with the blood-and-sex-filled competition in the genre, but had no idea what made violence or sex appealing. There is a bit more nudity here than in the last film, as Hammer had just begun to dip its toes in those waters, but more memorable is the oddly leering tone which underscores everything. Perhaps Baker just had a disdain for his audience.

Still, there's at least one interesting touch: with more time spent in Castle Dracula than in any of the previous outings, we get to see more of it, including Dracula's secret chamber, whose only gateway is built into the sheer wall of the castle. This allows for some nice suspense as our heroes attempt to descend the wall to reach his abode, and a pretty decent special effects shot of Dracula climbing the castle wall like a ghost--a moment lifted directly from the original novel.

This was the last of the period Dracula films, and the aftertaste is that of missed opportunity.

The subtle mise en scène of "Dracula A.D. 1972."

Dracula A.D. 1972 (U.K., 1972) *
D: Alan Gibson

The Hammer studios in the early 70's split desperately in two directions: buying the cheap rights to TV sitcoms to adapt them into low-budget big-screen comedies, and running their horror franchise dry on a number of lowbrow flicks, most of them sexy vampire movies. Of the latter category was the "Karnstein Trilogy," inspired by the classic horror novel Carmilla: beginning with the borderline softcore chiller The Vampire Lovers, it continued with hasty follow-ups both bad (Lust for a Vampire) and good (Twins of Evil). Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter were clever variations on the theme, opening new possibilities for 70's Hammer horror; unfortunately, the Dracula films were continuing on their undying path, slouching and losing a bit more flesh with each outing. To call Dracula A.D. 1972 ill-conceived would be a gross understatement. The premise is right there in the title, and watching all 96 minutes of the actual feature will offer you nothing else. It opens in 1872, as Van Helsing (a returning--and visibly much older--Peter Cushing) battles Dracula (Lee) on a speeding coach. When the coach crashes, both Van Helsing and Dracula are killed (the latter being impaled on one of the wheel's spokes, of course), but the Count's ashes and ring are preserved by an acolyte who buries them outside Van Helsing's graveyard. One hundred years later, the acolyte's descendant, one "Johnny Alucard" (ugh), invites his hip young friends to a Satanic ritual in the church beside that same graveyard, reviving Dracula. Luckily, one of those youths is the great-granddaughter of Van Helsing, and her father (Cushing again) is an anthropologist with an interest in the occult--ready to spring into action and battle Dracula, accompanied by some funky music that seems more appropriate for a Scooby-Doo episode. How insipid is it that even though the century has changed, the plot unravels like another stale Dracula installment, utilizing almost nothing of the modern setting? Dracula never leaves his church, and is intent on corrupting the young Van Helsing girl, sending Alucard out to find her. Consider: Dracula has basically slept for 100 years, and when he's finally awake, he refuses to leave the living room. Can't he change into a bat or...something? Instead, he does next to nothing, and the film's running time is padded with scenes of a police inspector (Michael Coles) consulting with Van Helsing, even though that inspector won't even figure into the climax. I struggled to think of a single redeeming element in this film, but came up dry. I mean, this is a film where Van Helsing has to get out a piece of paper and draw a diagram in order to figure out that "Alucard" is "Dracula" spelled backward.

Death by thorn bush: "The Satanic Rites of Dracula."

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (U.K., 1974) * 1/2
D: Alan Gibson

After sitting through Dracula A.D. 1972, it's a little difficult to understand why a sequel was required, but here it is: The Satanic Rites of Dracula reunites Lee, Cushing, Michael Coles (the Inspector), and director Alan Gibson, once again having a romp in modern-day (i.e. 1974) London. Newcomer Joanna Lumley, now best known for Absolutely Fabulous, plays Cushing's granddaughter. I recalled this entry as being the absolute worst of the series, but watching the last two back-to-back has changed my mind: it's more entertaining than the last film, and actually addresses most of my criticisms about that movie. For one thing, it does take advantage of the modern setting--Dracula is now the CEO of a corporation, hiding under the pseudonym D. D. Denham, and secretly plotting to unleash a deadly plague upon the world. The Inspector, so useless in the last film, now gets to run around Dracula's mansion slaying vampire women. And this is anything but dull: the film opens with a Satanic ritual involving a nude woman who writhes in orgasm when a group of old men touch the bleeding wound in her stomach; then there's an undercover cop who gets into a fight with a motorcycle-riding hoodlum working for Dracula; and it gets wilder from there. This actually has the feel of a Fu Manchu movie, and not because of the dragon lady who guards the mansion, pulling levers at her secret console and guarding a dungeon of chained vixens. (Well, actually, yes--exactly for that reason.) But Christopher Lee still doesn't have a lot to do, and, as with the last film, hardly appears at all. The film is also howlingly funny, right down to Dracula's final, pathetic end: slain by a thorn bush in his own garden. Then Van Helsing picks up Dracula's ring, scrutinizing it in the moonlight, as though pondering taking us down this familiar route one more time. Let's hope he melted it down. Actually, there was one more film, though it hardly counts: Hammer collaborated with Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers to produce a hybrid horror and martial-arts film. Entitled The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, its alternate title was The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula. Peter Cushing appeared, but not as Van Helsing, and the villain wasn't really Dracula.

Watching all the installments of the series, in order, within the span of a month and a half has been a bit like running on a hamster wheel. The plot never progresses, it only repeats itself. You'd be hard-pressed to remember that in the Stoker novel, Dracula actually seemed to have a plan--one to spread vampirism, like a disease, throughout the civilized world. In the Hammer sequels, a great deal of time is spent in each film justifying his resurrection--and then, when he finally enters the picture, he spends a short time plotting payback upon one or two characters, before getting killed again. He never lives for anything but a petty revenge. He seems to have the forces of nature at his control, but rather than concentrating on spreading his evil throughout the world, he becomes fixated--usually on a plucky young man and his virginal girlfriend--and it's this tunnel vision which proves his undoing. You would expect a Dracula series to be a bit more like what Roman Polanski's Dance of the Vampires (The Fearless Vampire Killers) hinted at with its plot--which in itself was a parody of Hammer films (Kiss of the Vampire in particular): that our villain would have a grand scheme, and would play the humans like pawns through each installment. But no luck. The Hammer screenwriters instead decided to remake the same plot over and over again, with a few exceptions. Oddly, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, with its
poor-man's Fu Manchu antics, is the only sequel which serves up what its young audience probably wanted: a larger-than-life Dracula. Too many of these Hammer films feel imaginatively stunted, undoubtedly a flaw of a studio that placed classy Gothic melodrama--always on a tight budget--above complex or original plots. You'd have to look outside the Dracula series for satisfaction. I recommend The Devil Rides Out, based on the Dennis Wheatley novel, which offers Lee as a hero, and a more worthy and intelligent villain than Dracula in Charles Gray's Mocata.

But at long last Christopher Lee moved on from Dracula--forsaking this British series for the only one more famous: 007's (he played the villain Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun). Cushing had one final triumph ahead of him, playing a key role in Star Wars, but Lee's career submerged further into obscure B-movies until only recently, when it was revived by his appearances in two of the Star Wars prequels and the Lord of the Rings films. (Once again, he's an icon to kids.) All of the Hammer Dracula films are now available on DVD, as is Jess Franco's Count Dracula, which also stars Lee and is one of the most faithful adaptations of Stoker's book--it was an assignment Lee took because he felt the Hammer films just hadn't gotten the source material quite right. No kidding! I have a nostalgia for these films, but they are deeply frustrating. With so many of the right elements in place from the beginning (Lee, Cushing, Terence Fisher), how could an ideal Dracula picture never quite materialize? The novel continues to be elusive. Not Hammer's Dracula, not Lugosi's, not Francis Ford Coppola's, and not even Guy Maddin's, manage to capture the strange quality, humor, and tragedy of Stoker's book. But if Stoker had written a comic book with healthy doses of sex and gore, it might have been something like these peculiar entertainments.

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