Starring: Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Ralph Bates, Linda Hayden
Three English gentlemen — Hargood, Paxton, and Secker — are out for a thoroughly hedonistic time: drinking, smoking, visiting brothels, and ignoring their wives. Unfortunately for them, they encounter the dashing Lord Courtley, who promises them an eternity of debauchery if they will just help him with the special task of reviving Count Dracula. This, of course, goes horribly wrong. After Courtley dies during the ritual, Dracula stalks the three men to avenge the death of his loyal servant. But much like the previous film, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, he doesn't aim his fangs at three old, balding, overweight businessmen — he stalks their attractive children instead.
I tend to go back and forth on Taste the Blood of Dracula. It’s in a particularly difficult spot — located among Hammer’s less appealing mid-series Dracula sequels like Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and Scars of Dracula — but it’s easily the best of this group. There are a few exceptional moments, particularly the scene where a charming, insidious Lord Courtley enacts a Satanic ritual to resurrect Dracula, and this is actually a more substantial attempt at the theme of debauchery found in lukewarm British “horror” films like The Hellfire Club (1961). And there is a certain so-bad-it's-actually-really-entertaining flair, which kicks off right from the misguided opening scene that attempts to pick up right where Dracula Has Risen From the Grave let off. The less said about that, the better.
My main caveat with the film is something I can’t believe I’m actually writing: it might have been better without Christopher Lee. For a moment ignoring the fact that nothing in life is better without Sir Lee, when the script for this film was originally written it was assumed, a la Brides of Dracula, that Lee would not be returning to the series. The enjoyable Ralph Bates (The Horror of Frankenstein) as Lord Courtley was intended to be the primary villain — a disciple of Dracula somewhat like Brides’ Baron Meinster — which could have made a great addition to Hammer’s vampire output. After Courtley’s death during the black mass sequence, he would return as a vampire to seek revenge on Hargood, Paxton, and Secker, something that would have made a lot more rational sense. But apparently the American distributors insisted on a role for Dracula and as a result, Lee is on screen for about fifteen minutes, probably less, something that would plague the rest of the series from here on out.
And it’s precisely these script-based stumbles that make Taste the Blood of Dracula a lesser film in the series overall. For starters, it boggles the mind that Dracula scriptwriters continued to throw in loyal servants and sycophants that appear out of nowhere in random films in the series (I’m still not over Klove). It's also particularly amusing that Hammer made this script once in Victorian England with a bunch of stuffy male protagonists — this film — and then enjoyed the formula so much that they basically repeated the whole thing for the far superior Dracula A.D. 1972. Surprisingly, it works a lot better in the swingin’ seventies and has a major element that this film lacks: the wondrous, long overdue return of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. (There is also a more plausible explanation for the existence of a loyal servant who reincarnates Dracula.)
But I don’t want to completely rain on Taste the Blood of Dracula’s parade. There is an effectively bleak mood throughout and Hammer’s later era reliance on sleazy subject matter is in full effect here. The three would-be libertines are horrible people — yet another example of British horror’s commentary on the corrupt English class system — but through their children, Dracula gets sweet revenge. There are some surprising scenes of children, primarily daughters, killing their fathers, including one beating with a shovel, a stake through the chest of a non-vampire, and a stabbing. This also has more nudity and sexual content than much of the Hammer output before it, including some breast sightings.
Vincent Price, who appeared in a fair number of British horror films during the period, was apparently supposed to co-star as one of the three leads, but budget constraints prevented that. I really wish I could have seen that, though there are some nice performances from horror regulars like Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw), Geoffrey Keen (a Bond regular), the great Anthony Higgins (Vampire Circus), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), and Michael Ripper (Oliver Twist). In addition to the great cast, this is the first feature film of director Peter Sasdy, who had worked solely in television up to this point. He would go on to make some of Hammer’s best later era films like Hands of the Ripper.
Taste the Blood of Dracula is fortunately available on Blu-ray and does come recommended despite some of my misgivings. If you’ve read this far, you probably have enough interest in Hammer’s Dracula series to find it entertaining. Obviously it’s probably not a great starting point if you’re new to the Dracula series, but it is a solid entry in Hammer’s quest to continue their reign as horror champions of the ‘60s — in Lord Courtley’s words, to “prolong it to eternity.” While moments of the follow up film, Scars of Dracula, will actually make you ponder eternity, this one has a brisk pace and plenty for British horror fans to love.