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Blood of Dracula Review


    Hammer Films have been known far and wide throughout the film world as the leading company behind the majority of Horror Films through the 50’s to the 70’s. Hammer Horror is practically a genre unto itself, with beyond 80 films in their catalogue (I counted, TRUST ME) and themes and stories reflecting the spirit of the times.

    Despite its reputation of Horror, Hammer in its infancy actually started with Mystery and Noir films, with titles like What the Butler Saw (1950), A Stranger Came Home (1954), and The Glass Cage (1955). Hammer’s first venture into horror was The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), exploring the idea that Mankind was, is, and always will be, influenced through our evolution by extraterrestrial life. The success of Quatermass was followed by two sequels encompassing a trilogy (Quatermass 2 (1957), Quatermass and the Pit--better known as Five Million Years to Earth (1967)), and the first of the Gothic Horror that Hammer would become famous for: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

    The Curse of Frankenstein was lambasted by the British public upon release, considered to be disappointing and “depressing and degrading for anyone who loves the cinema" (Tribune Magazine). Of course, critics and audiences are leagues apart from each other in opinion, and the film proved to be a box office success and a favorite among Horror Fans. The unexpected success of The Curse of Frankenstein gave Hammer leeway to make more Gothic horror films, and launched the careers of Peter Cushing (who played the Creator) and Christopher Lee (who played the monster) into the stratosphere of Horror. A studio with a previously unknown catalogue of films became the toast of the Horror community.

    By 1970, Hammer was at its peak. The 60’s counterculture had come and gone, with the images of peace and love seeming irrelevant amid a political climate. Namely, the generation gap, which showcased a misunderstanding between youth and elder, with neither of them understanding the other's view, values, or traditions. The Generation Gap, previously talked about with my review of Shock Waves (1977) was bigger than ever, and it seemed like the world was waking up from a hangover of old traditions and values. If youth and their parents/elders didn’t understand each other before, by 1970, the mutual prejudice and hatred was blown out of proportion, with the young generation seemingly controlled by chemicals and otherworldly forces (not literally, just being artistic), and the old generation trying to assert any control they could, often resorting to extreme methods. These beliefs and assumptions were the backbone of what was Hammer’s next Gothic Movie, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970).

    Taste the Blood of Dracula is a very different movie from the one Hammer initially set out to make. Christopher Lee had become extremely frustrated by both his popular association with Count Dracula and the studio’s handling of the character from the moment Horror of Dracula (1958) started throwing off sequels. He sat out The Brides of Dracula (1960) in an attempt to avoid getting typed as a horror star, but that was all in vain; he nixed all his written dialogue in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), resorting to hisses and snarls throughout the film; he complained both privately and publicly about the wildly inconsistent and non-standard vampire lore in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (in which the count casts a reflection and is invulnerable to attack by atheists). By 1969, Lee was well aware of his value as a box-office draw, and felt that it was past time for Hammer to start paying him accordingly. So James Carreras, founder of Hammer did what studio bosses usually do with stars who get too big for their britches, and ordered Lee replaced. However, Carreras hadn’t figured on the executives from Warner Brothers, who had distributed the previous Dracula movie in the crucial American market, and were slated to handle this one too. In their reckoning, it was Christopher Lee who sold the tickets to Dracula pictures, and not just the character name. Lee’s britches, that is to say, fit just fine, and it was Carreras who ended up needing another pair.

    We begin the film by flashing back to the events of the previous entry, but with a different perspective looking in on the action. A seller of knicknacks and paraphernalia by the name of Weller, played by Roy Kinnear (Help! (1965) The Three Musketeers (1973), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)), is shown riding east as he attempts to sell his worthless wares to his two passengers.

    After his behaviour gets him thrown from the carriage, he runs into the woods, with the mist coloring the forest in dark blues and greens, placing forth a sense of foreboding and dread. This sequence alones illustrates the visual spectacle that I love from Hammer Productions, or any Horror film from the late 60’s to Early 70’s. The visuals are simply amazing. By accenting the spirit of the times, when color would spring to life via psychedelic posters and acid trips, Hammer’s visuals find themselves showcasing hues from bright blood reds, to ocean blues, to jungle greens. Every color seems to pop, and helps set the scene by giving each setting an identity. Passion purples, oranges and reds set the scene of a brothel. Chromatic greys and browns illustrate an abandoned church. For any artist, having scenes filled with colors that establish a mood and vary throughout the film’s runtime, it’s quite simply a treasure to marvel.

  After fleeing for his life, Weller comes across a clearing, where he finds Dracula, caught in excruciating agony as he dies from a comically large crucifix stuck through his chest, recapping his fate from the previous film. Of course, for newcomers who hadn’t seen the previous film, me included, one wonders how long the Count had the crucifix stuck in him before it finished him off. Dissolving into a pile of red goo that itself dissolves into powder, Dracula is no more. Ah, but if he was, we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?

    Flash forward years later, as the movie transitions to a pleasant Sunday afternoon in London, far more welcoming than the environs of Castle Dracula. Church services have finished for the day, where we’re introduced to our main characters, teenaged Alice Hargood, played by Linda Hayden (Night Watch (1973), Madhouse (1974)) saying a simultaneous hello and goodbye to her boyfriend, Paul Paxton, played by Anthony Higgins (Vampire Circus (1972), The Bride (1985)), before joining her parents for the ride home. Alice should have been more circumspect, as her father,William Hargood, played by Geoffrey Keen, (Horrors of the Black Museum, (1959), Holocaust 2000 (1977)) notices them from afar. Back at the house, Hargood throws a hissy bitch fit, accusing Alice of profaning the Sabbath with ungodly whoredom, by which he means speaking to a boy he doesn’t like, in public. Even Alice’s mother, played by Gwen Watford (The Ghoul (1975), The Fall of the House of Usher (1950)) thinks Daddy is wildly overreacting, but he’s not about to let her opinion rein him in.

    Hargood, for lack of a better description, is quite simply a bastard. Throughout the film, he constantly asserts his control on others he deems weak-minded, and displays absolute disdain towards anything, even the things that give him pleasure. After Alice retreats to her room for a rightly justified sulk, Hargood informs his wife that his philanthropic society is meeting for the evening, and he won’t be back until well after the womenfolk have turned in for the night.

    Absolute Poppycock! Balderdash! Pure rubbish and tommyrot! (Don’t you just love British swearing?) Hargood’s society, consisting of his lackeys Samuel Paxton, played by Peter Sallis (The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Wallace & Gromit (1989-2008)) and Jonathan Secker, played John Carson, (The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), The Plague of the Zombies (1966)), are a wannabe Hellfire Club (I will call them the “Heckfire Club”, because it relates to their pitiful status of codgers seeking pleasures of yesteryear., and their destination is a high-end whorehouse where pleasure is served 24/7. The men’s private party does not go quite according to expectations, as Hargood is displeased with the latest entertainment provided for them, and their privacy is intruded upon by the notorious wastrel Lord Courtley, played by Ralph Bates (Fear in the Night (1972), The Devil Within Her (1975)).

    Courtley is supposed to be the foremost hell-raiser in town, but Ralph Bates, being quite the little twerp, plays his role like a fairy dandy. He seems less like a man who would dabble in the dark arts and more like one who would sing The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s “I’m the Urban Spaceman” and tap dance in pixie shoes. Nevertheless, Hargood, Secker, and Paxton are intrigued by all the fucks Courtley doesn’t give as he barges into their suite and offers them a deal that could grant them pleasure and thrills beyond their wildest dreams.

    Oscar Milde doesn’t take long to figure his guests out. Gourmands of sin and dissipation, the men have grown bored with the ordinary sort of bad behavior, and now wish for someone to tutor them in advanced ways of wickedness. It’s all well and good, but Courtley doesn’t like having his time wasted by anyone but himself and himself only. He challenges Hargood and the others to go big or go home and implies that going big will not come cheap. But he isn’t interested in money or payments of any kind. His interest is for paraphernalia, a little something that he saw at an antique shop, but couldn’t afford on his own resources. You’ll have an idea of what Courtley has in mind when the proprietor of the shop in question turns out to be Weller from the prologue. The merchandise His Lordship covets is Dracula’s cape, his signet ring, and a vial of red powder that used to be The Count’s blood. The Heckfire Club still don’t entirely get Courtley’s objective and motivations, but a jar full of dehydrated Nosferatu (the German word for Vampire) certainly seems to promise enough exotic thrills to suit their jaded sensibilities.

    From the shop, the foursome trek to the half-ruined mausoleum of the Courtley family, where the altar of the funeral chapel has already been prepared with Satanic trappings. Courtley means to offer their souls to the Devil in trade for unspecified supernatural boons, but the process has to stem from a ritual demonstrating the petitioner’s good-faith commitment to bad faith. Something like reconstituting Dracula’s dried blood and drinking it, for example. Taste the Blood of Dracula! The title is to be taken literally! At this point in the ritual, Hargood, Paxton, and Secker all sensibly conclude that this whole soul-selling thing is actually a terrible idea. Incensed, Courtley downs his own goblet of vampire blood, hoping to shame the others into doing what they came here for. However, the way he immediately doubles over in distress doesn’t exactly render his case more convincing. The other men lose their heads as Courtley writhes on the ground in their midst, pleading and begging for help. They beat him with their canes in an effort to put this foolish boy in his place, not stopping until he ceases moving altogether. Courtley appears to be dead. Or is he?

    It turns out that drinking Dracula’s blood has effects above and beyond currying favor with the forces of Darkness. It also allows the vampire to reincarnate himself within Courtley’s body. Dracula comes back from the dead rather irritated, though, at the details of his resurrection. I gather that he expected to be greeted by a fawning coven of evildoers, not an empty chapel and that Courtley’s death was supposed to have come simply through the toxic effects of the vampire’s accursed blood, not beaten to death by men who think highly of themselves. Not the sort of monster to tolerate being slighted, Dracula dedicates himself to the downfall of Hargood, Paxton, and Secker.

    Meanwhile, the Pityfire Club find themselves consumed with fear, guilt, and suspicion. Hargood stays drunk around the clock, rendering his already winning personality even more delightful and charming. Paxton is paralyzed by worry that Courtley’s body will be discovered by the police, and their crime along with it, yet he can’t bring himself to return to the mausoleum and destroy the remaining evidence. Only Secker keeps his wits about him, but even he is anxious that one of his “friends”, the eternally-sloshed Hargood especially, will blab enough of the story to bring the rest of it into the open. You can imagine how he takes it when Hargood is found dead in his own garden while Alice goes missing.

    Alice disobeys her father on the night of his death, and later her disappearance by sneaking out to attend a party with Paul. But when she returns, her father is waiting for her in her bedroom, nursing a stuporous fury and brandishing a riding crop. Hargood is unable to make good on the threat in his impaired state, but pursues Alice out into the garden, where Dracula happens to be. Rather than descend upon his enemy himself, he imparts to Alice a hypnotic suggestion that there is no time like the present for having it out with her old man once and for all. In the end, it is Alice who kills Hargood, striking him down with a shovel and then willingly accompanying the vampire to his lair.

    Alice is a uniquely good choice for an accomplice too, because she is connected to all of Dracula’s current targets. Not only is she Hargood’s daughter and the girlfriend of Paxton’s son, but her (Alice’s) best friend, Lucy Paxton, played by Ilsa Blair, (The BBC remake of The Quatermass Experiment (2005)), is dating Secker’s son, Jeremy (Martin Jarvis. (I couldn’t find anything else he was in)). Through her, the notorious Count can get to all of his foes’ children, and through them to the remaining members of the Heckfire Club. On the very day of Hargood’s funeral, Alice coaxes Lucy along with her to the Courtley mausoleum, setting Phase II of Dracula’s revenge in motion.

    Meanwhile, Paul, after butting heads with a nitwit police inspector (Michael Ripper, of Torture Garden (1967) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967)) about the significance of Alice’s vanishing act, receives a note from Secker instructing him about what has happened and what to do to vanquish the evil that has settled in the abandoned church. Secker has a little more to go on. Proceeding on the assumption that Courtley survived the beating that was given to him, he leads Paxton on a much-belated mission back to the crypt, where the two of them stumble upon the now-undead Lucy. Her father is too distraught to work up the courage to do what needs to be done, and the next thing you know, Phase III is enacted.

    Interesting sidenote: When I first heard Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace from Aardman’s award winning series speak in this film, I didn’t hear the trademark voice that Wallace is so well known for. But as the film progressed, as Saxton became more and more paranoid, I began to hear the high-pitched panic tone of voice that Wallace would splurt out whenever he & Gromit’s inventions would go haywire.

    From there, it’s an endless progression of deaths and betrayals, having these three cursed curmudgeons receive their rightly deserved deaths, and Paul’s efforts to save his beloved from Dracula’s clutches.

    Hammer’s tenure in the 70’s started out as a rough patch. With its main star nearly being replaced, to a cinematic landscape being changed as much as the political and cultural landscape, you’d consider such serious behind-the-scenes wrangling a bad omen for the completed film. So it’s doubly remarkable that this easily-overlooked movie is not only a strong contender for best in a series, but also the apparent developmental prototype for everything Hammer would get right during their 70s tenure, before fading into obscurity to being revived in the latter half of the 2000s with films such as Let Me In (2010), The Woman in Black (2012), and The Quiet Ones (2014).

    By starting with Dracula melting into a pool of bloody ooze, and by introducing Lord Courtley in a whirlwind tour of the brothel, Taste the Blood of Dracula raises the gore-and-titillation ante to a level competitive with contemporary productions overseas. By inserting Dracula into the middle of a conflict between hypocritical elders and unjustly vilified youth, it creates for itself a framework in which to engage the issues of its day without getting lost in doomed attempts to portray a youth culture that its makers don’t understand (a technique that would be repeated to even greater effect in Twins of Evil (1971)). And with its handling of Alice and Paul— especially during the regrettably muddled and bewildering climax— it takes up in a much more thoughtful and sophisticated way its predecessor’s question of what it means to be good or evil in a society that can no longer trust its institutions.

    The crux of the film, and the moment which best demonstrates its strengths, is the sequence culminating in the death of William Hargood. Knowing what we do of him, it’s impossible not to recognize the corrupt lust spilling out on a wave of alcohol as he advances on his daughter with the whip. This confrontation has been building, we sense, since the day Alice’s figure began to develop. When she flees into the garden and runs straight into Dracula’s arms, it plays out not like a capture, but like a narrowly won reprieve. The scene grows more subversive still when the vampire doesn’t lay a finger on Hargood, but rather directs Alice to pick up that shovel and come to her own rescue. Dracula knows what girls like Alice needs. Right up until he brushes off her requests to turn her into a vampire like him in the final act, Dracula acts more like a father to Alice than Hargood ever did. You know you’re a man of sin when your actions make you more of a monster than the actual monster himself. Even more startling is the realization that Alice is never punished for killing her father, nor for any of the other things she does under Dracula’s influence.

    Taste the Blood of Dracula might be my favorite of the Hammer films I’ve seen so far. It balances political, cultural, and generational misunderstanding of its day beautifully with the usual tropes seen in Gothic Horror. It knows what it wants to be, and delivers its message in a big way.:namely, the cultural misunderstandings between the old & the new.

Taste the Blood of Dracula
Story: A
Writing: A-
Characters: B+
Imagery: A
Message: A+
Overall: A