Thursday, December 31, 2015

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB

Seth Holt, 1971
Starring: Valerie Leon, Andrew Keir, James Villiers, Hugh Burden

A group of archaeologists searches for the cursed tomb of beautiful Princess Tera, an evil witch who turns out to be miraculously preserved despite the thousands of years since her death. (Concerning her appearance, perhaps the writers don't understand what the process of mummification actually entails.) Fuchs, the professor in charge of the expedition, takes her sarcophagus home to study it and becomes obsessed. Almost two decades later, his daughter Margaret comes to bear a striking resemblance to Tera and begins to have strange dreams that seem like they come from another time and place. Ancient Egypt, perhaps?

Soon Tera's dormant consciousness bleeds into Margaret's personality and she fears she is going mad. Corbeck, a member of Fuchs' archaeology group, wants Margaret to help him restore Tera to life. He convinces Margaret that Tera was wronged all those millennia ago by the priests that cut off her hand and then murdered and mummified her. Bodies begin to pile up and Fuchs realizes that he will have to choose between Princess Tera and his own daughter.

An average, if silly entry into the Hammer horror canon, it should come as no surprise that they had to explore their own version of The Mummy, but the script by Christopher Wicking is a bit of a mess. Based on Bram Stoker's novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, Blood from the Mummy's Tomb is the first film to actually adapt this novel, though it was a direct influence on several earlier mummy-themed horror films. And to its credit, it’s undoubtedly the best film in Hammer’s four-film Mummy series, leaving The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Shroud in the dust (a little desert humor for you) and nearly going toe-to-toe with The Mummy.

There are plenty of worthwhile elements to this film, namely the lovely cinematography and trademark Hammer atmosphere. If you are a fan of mummy films or Hammer productions in general, this is a worthy entry in the genre and it manages to be a lot more fun than any number of other mummy-themed films that spring to mind. Also, if you are a fan of boobs this is the movie for you. Valerie Leon's rack is so prominent as to be completely distracting. There were actually moments I was unable to focus on plot or dialogue and had to rewind.

You aren't even reading this review anymore, are you?

This was a rare starring role for the busty Leon, though she also appeared in The Italian Job, The Spy Who Loved Me, Revenge of the Pink Panther, Never Say Never Again, and several Carry On films, though it’s really a shame Hammer never used her again. 

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb was intended to be a companion piece for the superior late-era Hammer film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which in turn was riding the coattails of the very creepy Hands of the Ripper. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb had a troubled production history, namely the re-casting of Peter Cushing who originally signed on as Fuchs, but left due to a family illness. It is undeniable that the film would have benefited from his presence — he actually could have helped this to be even better than Hammer’s original The Mummy. There was also the sudden death of director Seth Holt, who had a heart attack during filming. Mummy's curse indeed...

There's a nice Hammer Collection DVD from Anchor Bay that is out of print, but readily available online. It includes some trailers and interviews, but what more can you expect from a latter day Hammer effort? Out of all the Hammer Mummy films, I think I would have to recommend this one the most highly. While the first does include Christopher Lee (as the titular mummy) and Peter Cushing as the protagonist, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is colorful, fun, and very campy, and no doubt was at least a little inspired by Bava’s Black Sunday.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

THE MUMMY’S SHROUD

John Gilling, 1967
Starring: André Morell, John Phillips, David Buck, Maggie Kimberly

In Egypt in 1920, a group of archaeologists uncover the tomb of Kah-To-Bey, a child Pharaoh who was spirited away by a servant after a violent palace coup. Though a local warns the men — including scientist Sir Basil Walden and entrepreneur Stanley Preston — to stay away from the tomb, the mummy, and its sacred burial shroud, they ignore this advice and disaster strikes almost immediately. Sir Basil is bitten by a snake and, while he is ill, Preson has him committed to an asylum to take full ownership over the find. But the mummy — Prem, Kah-To-Bey’s guardian — awakens and goes on a killing spree.

Released as a double bill with the superior Frankenstein Created Woman, it’s a shame that this doesn’t measure up with some of director John Gilling’s other efforts for Hammer. Not only did he write the script for one of my favorites,The Gorgon, but he helmed unusual later-period entries like The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies. This was Hammer’s last film shot at the legendary Bray Studios before they moved over to Pinewood and in this sense it’s sort of an early “beginning of the end” film. Though it’s not a terrible film, perhaps its biggest offense is a sense of just going through the motion, phoning it in to flesh out the studio’s Mummy series.

The third out of four films in Hammer’s Mummy series is better than the deplorable second film, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, but it’s still too run of the mill and not far enough outside of the standard Mummy formula. In general, Hammer’s Mummy series had two main problems. For starters, it’s not a cohesive series and none of the films have anything to do with each other, unlike the Dracula and Frankenstein series. Even most of Hammer’s vampire films unrelated to Dracula were loosely connected to each other, which makes this choice with the Mummy films so baffling. While The Mummy is the most solid of the bunch, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Shroud are tired riffs on the same formula. 

Another issue is that — again unlike much of Dracula and Frankenstein — different directors were used on all four of the Mummy films, giving a widely out of whack sense of style. While the story hits a wall, hard, and is packed with cliches, Hammer can usually be counted on for breathtaking visuals. This one isn’t terrible in that regard, but it’s definitely not a success, even though the mummy costume is based on actual mummies taken from the British Museum. The budget seems to be relatively low and the film gets off to a sluggish start with a lengthy opening sequence that takes up almost 10 minutes of the film to explain the identity of the mummy and the boy king.

With that said, there’s a surprising amount of gore and some enjoyable death scenes, including one where someone is immolated with photographic chemicals and another where the great Michael Ripper (a Hammer regular) is defenestrated. He, of course, steals the film, even though he is only in a side role. The acting is hit or miss and again suffers from a lack of any really charismatic stars. Roger Delgado (Doctor Who), the Egyptian local who warns them not to disturb the tomb, has a great scene where he raises the mummy, but overall the performances drag a bit. Hammer regular André Morell (The Shadow of the Cat, The Plague of the Zombies) disappears all too quickly and the villainous John Phillips (Village of the Damned) and innocent David Buck (The Dark Crystal) are not an adequate substitute.

And — surprise — the women of the film fare even worse. Though she has a commanding presence, Catherine Lacey (The Sorcerers) is stuck with a role that’s little more than a fairly racist depiction of a vengeful fortune teller, while Elizabeth Sellars (The Barefoot Contessa) is a melancholic wife and mother who has an intuitive sense of impending doom. Maggie Kimberly (Witchfinder General) fares worse as archaeological assistant Claire. Kimberley is strangely aloof and often seems like she’s wandered onto the wrong set and is surprised about the dialogue she has to deliver. The character’s psychic abilities are admittedly confusing, though this sort of nonsense is often thrown into Mummy films with no explanation.

I can’t recommend The Mummy’s Shroud — though at least this time the title makes sense — and I honestly can’t wait to be finished reviewing Hammer’s Mummy films in general. Frankly, today the only thing I really care about is the fact that Lemmy passed away yesterday and now the world will never be the same. The Mummy’s Shroud cannot compare, but if you’re really gaga about horror films set in Egypt or you’re a Hammer completist, this will be up your alley. Otherwise it’s only worth watching for the sequence where Michael Ripper is thrown out a window to his death. Love you Michael. Pick up The Mummy’s Shroud on DVD, if you dare.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB

Michael Carreras, 1964
Starring: Terence Morgan, Ronald Howard, Fred Clark, Jeanne Roland

Archaeologists Eugene Dubois, John Bray, and Sir Giles Dalrymple uncover a mummy in Egypt. With the help of Annette, Dubois’ daughter and Bray’s fiancee, they take the whole find — including a number of artifacts — back to London to display and for further study. But during the grand unveiling, the mummy turns out to be missing, has somehow revived from death, and begins killing off the archaeologists and other exhibition members one by one. And a mysterious man begins to woo Annette away from John, but may have sinister motives…

Produced, written, and directed by Michael Carreras — usually just a producer for Hammer — this second film in their four-film Mummy series is completely unrelated to The Mummy and, honestly, is one of my least favorite out of all the studio’s output. I wish I had nicer things to say about it, but, really, it’s dreadful. For starters there is just no making up for the absence of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing who teamed up for The Mummy, and between Terence Morgan (Hamlet) and Ronald Howard (Sherlock Holmes, son of Leslie Howard), it’s hard to imagine someone being a less likely romantic lead than either of them. 

And don’t get me started on Jeanne Roland (You Only Live Twice), who is adorable and nice to look at, but who is also one of Hammer’s flattest actresses. She has a cloying French accent apparently dubbed over her own voice for some reason that is the equivalent of nails on a chalk board every time she delivers some of her inane dialogue. Her character, Annette, effectively dumps her fiancee because her wealthy, mysterious beau — Adam Beauchamp — tells her that while he sympathizes with her brains and drive for a career in archaeology, her real place is in the home (!!!). She agrees and says that this is something John, her work obsessed fiancé, has never been able to understand. ¡Ay, caramba!

The film is essentially another retread of the standard Mummy formula — white, upper class archaeologists are told not to unearth a tomb, so they do it anyway and disaster strikes, while the murderous mummy is inexplicably obsessed with one of their wives/daughters/girlfriends — but this one has a particularly insane twist that must be seen to be believed. SPOILERS: It turns out the Adam Beauchamp, the wealthy art collector who woos Annette and has an inexplicable knowledge of Egyptian history, is actually the brother of the mummy. I’ll give you a second to wrap your head around that one. His father, the Pharaoh, cursed him with eternal life and for some insane reason, only his brother can kill him.

This headache inducing twist is actually pretty hilarious, once you manage to absorb where the plot is trying to go — and all in the last five to ten minutes of the film. Like most Hammer productions, it looks fantastic and the colors and set design are the most memorable aspects of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. The mummy is far less compelling that Lee’s portrayal of the creature in the previous film, but this has a bit more gore, including two sequences that bookend the film where hands are chopped off.

The dialogue is truly terrible — including a hilarious moment where someone says something to the effect of, “The legend has passed down through the centuries, therefore it must be true.” The standard flashback sequences that occur in literally every film about an undead mummy also show up here, but this is one of the worst I’ve ever seen and manages to be visually unimpressive while also running roughshod over Egyptian mythology. I can’t recommend The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, but if you’re compelled to see the bizarre twist at the end — or you’re just a Hammer completist — pick it up on DVD here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

THE MUMMY (1959)

Terence Fisher, 1959
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, Eddie Byrne

In 1890s Egypt, archaeologist Stephen Banning teams up with his son John to attempt to uncover the lost tomb of the legendary Princess Ananka. Thanks to an injury, John isn’t present when his father opens the tomb, which he does despite stern warnings from a local named Mehemet Bey. Apparently there is a curse on anyone who desecrates the tomb. John’s father accidentally awakens a mummy, Kharis, a high priest who loved Ananka thousands of years ago. And Kharis has one mission: to kill all those who desecrated the tomb. With some help from Mehemet Bey, Kharis follows the Bannings to England and begins to prey on them one at a time.

After Hammer tackled Dracula and Frankenstein, they turned their attention to The Mummy. And fortunately, like those first two films, The Mummy isn’t a mere remake of Universal’s film, but a new take on familiar, beloved material. It also borrows far more from some of Universal’s Mummy sequels — like The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb — but doesn’t descend quite as fully into camp as those oft derided ‘40s films. Honestly, Universal’s original version of The Mummy will always be my favorite and it’s confusing to me that — perhaps more than any other monster to get a film series — studios seem to be unable to nail any satisfying formula when it comes to horror movies about mummies.

All of these Mummy films — including Hammer sequels The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964), The Mummy's Shroud (1967), and Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (1971) — essentially follow the formula of a local Egyptian saying “guys, don’t to the thing,” and the upper class British characters exclaiming, “OK, let’s do the thing!” Here it makes a certain amount of sense, as rational men probably wouldn’t believe in an ancient curse, but there is definitely subtext about whether or not the archaeologists have any right to desecrate Egyptian property and remove items of historical value. A lot of Hammer films have subtle class commentary and this one is no exception, leaving behind the faint understanding that maybe these callous plunderers got what they deserved.

But nonsensical plot aside, The Mummy does have plenty working for it. It’s fast paced with lots of different elements to keep things interesting. Director Terence Fisher puts an emphasis on suspense and atmosphere over blood and gore, while production designer Bernard Robinson keeps things stylish and lovely, as always, with some wonderful visuals — though I’m a sucker for anything related to ancient Egypt. There’s a nice contrast between Kharis’s Egypt, the present day desert, and swampy, Victorian England, with a few choice flashback sequences, including a funeral rites presided over by a forbidding-looking Christopher Lee. An keep an eye out for some nice cinematography from Jack Asher, which includes a Bava-like sense of color in some scenes.

As with Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein, the real draw of The Mummy are performances from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Cushing’s John Banning is a cold bastard more interested in science than human emotions, like so many of Cushing’s early characters for Hammer. His struggle to overcome his father’s legacy provides some effective drama, while his relationship with his wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) is just unbearable. She’s an example of Hammer’s occasionally pitiful attitudes towards its female characters, as she has basically no role here other than to be a damsel in distress. Of course Isobel happens to look exactly like Princess Ananka, Kharis’ lady love, which provides some frustrating tension. Technically, Isobel is the only protagonist in the film to wield any power, as she is the only one who can keep Kharis from snapping spines; because he thinks she is Ananka, he obeys her every command. But she’s so pathetic and hysterical that it makes Cushing seem like the hero instead and she has to be rescued by a host of policeman who shoot Kharis until he dissolves into a swamp. Sigh.

Though Lee’s mummy is the most recognizable monster in the film, Mehemet is the real villain. As with Frankenstein’s monster, Kharis is just a powerful tool that falls into the wrong hands and despite being swaddled in makeup and bandages, Lee makes him wholly sympathetic. He’s also incredibly fast moving compared to Karloff’s mummy and Lee’s performance was so athletic that he was apparently injured multiple times on the set. Fortunately this is one of the last times that Hammer’s tallest star would be stuck with lots of makeup and little dialogue, but he is definitely compelling.

The Mummy is far from being a bad film, but it’s also really not one of Hammer’s best. The conclusion in the swamp is just baffling — thank Universal’s absolute bonkers The Mummy’s Ghost for that one — but if you like mummy films or you’re a Hammer fanatic, there’s plenty here to make this worthwhile. And it was recently given a fantastic Blu-ray, complete with lots of special features and an informative commentary track from British horror scholars Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CAPTAIN KRONOS – VAMPIRE HUNTER

Brian Clemens, 1974
Starring: Horst Janson, John Carson, Caroline Munro, John Cater

Two professional vampire hunters — Captain Kronos and his sidekick, a knowledgable hunchback named Hieronymus Grost — are called upon to examine a series of strange deaths in a small village where the victims are young women found rapidly aged. Kronos and Grost believe that the perpetrator is merely another type of vampire, one who feeds on youth instead of blood. With the help of their new assistant, a girl named Carla that they rescued, Kronos and Grost are led to the trail of an aristocratic family who may not be what they seem.

Written, directed, and produced by The Avengers primary scriptwriter Brian Clemens, Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter was yet another, late in the game attempt by Hammer to revitalize their vampire films. After they tried moving Dracula to present-day England (Dracula A.D. 1972), adding kung fu to the mix (Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), lesbian vampires (The Vampire Lovers), and even Satanism (The Kiss of the Vampire), this blend of swashbuckling adventure flick and supernatural horror film is surprisingly one of the studio’s last great efforts. It’s a shame that Hammer’s financial situation didn’t allow them to make any sequels, because I imagine the further adventures of Captain Kronos could have been a lot of fun — sort of a precursor to something like Hellboy.

And one of its best elements is the completely new use of vampire folklore. Grost, a font of supernatural knowledge, explains that the world is full of many types of vampires and part of the challenge of hunting them is that it’s necessary to discover their vulnerabilities. He says, “There are as many species of vampires as there are birds of prey.” Their friend Dr. Marcus is actually turned into a vampire and there is a scene where they run him through a gamut of tortures, trying to figure out what will kill this particular variety of the undead. Of course Marcus begs to be put out of his misery, but the scene is absolutely hilarious, as he’s tied to a chair with some flimsy knots and run through conventional ways to kill a vampire with a near farcical tone.

Despite — or maybe because of — its unintentional humor, Captain Kronos is light-hearted and entertaining. The stern Kronos is little more than a comic book character that bests monsters and beats up bullies and there is plenty of sword fighting, decent effects, and fun action sequences. There’s also a fair amount of gore and Hammer’s trademark lush visuals, complete with lovely rural shots and ornate period scenery. This is also one of Hammer’s most visually poetic films, with moments that build off the supernatural aspects of the plot, such as flowers shriveling and dying in the path of the vampires, time slowing down when they attack their victims, and blood inexplicably dripping from inanimate objects.

Prolific German actor Horst Janson has gotten a lot of guff for his wooden acting and lack of charisma, but I actually love him in the role of Captain Kronos. That could be mostly nostalgia based, but I also find his performance to be a mix of endearing bravado and a pleasing source of unintentional humor. Caroline Munro (Dracula A.D. 1972) basically steals the film as Carla, the girl Kronos rescues from the stocks. She had been imprisoned by her own village for DANCING ON A SUNDAY and while she does become his love interest, her courage and tenacity keep her from being another milquetoast Hammer heroine. There’s also a nice supporting cast that includes Wanda Ventham (The Vampire Beast Craves Blood), Shane Bryant (Demons of the Mind), and the always enjoyable Ian Hendry (Theater of Blood).

Despite the messy plot, accidental humor, and plenty of campy moments, Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter is one of Hammer’s best final films. This unique take on vampire mythology should please anyone tired of the same old formula and chances are you might find a lot to love even if you don’t consider yourself a typical Hammer fan. Pick it up on DVD or Blu-ray, particularly if you like a healthy blend of action and horror.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

VAMPIRE CIRCUS

Robert Young, 1972
Starring: Adrienne Corri, Anthony Higgins, John Moulder-Brown, Lalla Ward

In an Austrian village, a woman leads a little girl to the castle of Count Mitterhaus, a vampire, who kills the girl. In revenge, a group of villagers attack the castle and kill the Count, putting a stake in his heart. Before dying, Mitterhaus curses the village, vowing that their children will die and restore him to life. Anna, his human lover, is whipped by the villagers, but runs back into the castle to be with Mitterhaus, who tells her to find his cousin Emil. The villagers make sure the castle burns to the ground. Fifteen years later, the village is quarantined due to plague, but they receive a visit from a small, traveling circus. It turns out the circus is full of vampires, including Emil, who vows to get revenge on the villagers by killing their children and resurrecting the Count.

This stylish, imaginative film eschews typical vampires tropes -- for instance, vampires are unharmed by sunlight, their victims don’t return from the grave, and many of them shape shift into animals. This is also one of the sexiest productions with plenty of nudity, particularly the circus’s erotic tiger woman, who dances while only wearing body paint. The eroticism is intertwined with more gore and violence than any of the Dracula series: decapitations and impalements abound and the majority of characters are killed, villagers and circus performers alike. The tremendous opening scene with Mitterhaus is a perfect example of this powerful blend of sex and violence. In fact, the opening scene is so successful it almost detracts from the rest of the film, which is unable to fully reach this robust level of spectacle again. 

Though there aren’t many familiar faces from Hammer, there are some solid performances. Robert Tayman (House of Whipcord) steals the film as Count Mitterhaus, the best lead vampire in a Hammer production since Christopher Lee. It’s a shame his Count Mitterhaus was never reused, though this makes a fun double feature with Pete Walker's House of Whipcord, where he plays a seductive sleaze ball named Mark E. De Sade (yes, they went there). The normally charming and film-stealing Anthony Higgins (The Draughtsman's Contract) does his best as Emil, but is unfortunately fighting an uphill battle against a flimsy script and weak role. There are some great supporting roles from Skip Martin as the circus dwarf (Masque of the Red Death), David Prowse (who would go on to play Darth Vader) as the strongman, Lalla Ward (Doctor Who), and the lovely Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange).

Vampire Circus suffers from a few flaws, most of which are overshadowed by the imaginative visuals. The set is cheap, but director Robert Young makes the most of it, leaving behind a brooding, bloody, and sometimes grotesque atmosphere. The plot inconsistencies and early abundance of exposition is drowned out by the fairy-tale like tone, which puts as much emphasis as possible on the circus characters and their magical, strange performances that spell doom for the isolated village. 

Vampire Circus is one of my favorite Hammer productions and is surely the most bizarre and colorful of their vampire films -- or any of their films in general -- and it comes highly recommended. Once upon a time, all I was able to get ahold of was a grainy bootleg VHS tape, as this film sadly languished in obscurity for several decades. Synapse recently rescued the film with a lovely 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo from Synapse Films. This was Synapse’s first Blu-ray release and the first Hammer horror film available on Blu-ray (which is a little baffling if you think about it). I applaud Synapse for rescuing such an obscure, wonderful film and for the excellent treatment. There’s a solid visual transfer and a slew of extras, including a making-of, “The Bloodiest Show on Earth,” a short about circus-themed horror films, another about The House of Hammer magazine, an interactive comic book, a trailer, and an image gallery. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

COUNTESS DRACULA


Peter Sasdy, 1971
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Eles, Maurice Denham

Based on the story of Erzsébet Báthory, the "blood Countess" who bathed in the blood of hundreds of virgins to keep herself young, Countess Dracula tells of an aged noble who has discovered that the blood of virgins will make her young again. After her husband's death, she discards her old lover, the faithful Captain Dobi, for the newest member of court: the lovely Imre Toth. The cruel, selfish Countess becomes obsessed with him, stopping at nothing to appear young and beautiful. Her daughter Ilona is due to return home from abroad, but the Countess assumes the younger woman’s identity to cover for her altered appearance. This, of course, leads to problems for the real Ilona, who must be kidnapped and hidden away. But the castle historian grows suspicious and the local villagers soon notice that their daughters are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Countess Dracula is a later Hammer effort, certainly one of their last gasps, and while it’s enjoyable, it’s far from one of their best. The unfortunate title is a cheap attempt to tie the film to Hammer's Dracula series — or possibly to its Karnstein trilogy — but Countess Dracula is far more of a historical melodrama than it is a Gothic horror film. Bafflingly, most of the running time is spent on the Countess’s romantic drama — particularly her love triangle with Dobi and Toth — and slight political intrigue in the sense that that she is a single woman trying to maintain control of the court and her own fortune.

I think this is a real missed opportunity, because the story of the historical Countess Bathory is far, far more gruesome and horrific. Responsible for the torture and deaths of hundreds of young girls around the Hungarian countryside over a period of 20+ years, Bathory is undoubtedly history’s most famous female sexual sadist. She’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific female murderer. While Pitt’s portrayal of Countess Nadasdy is certainly cruel, there are only a few shots of her committing acts of violence. Compared to later era Hammer films like Hands of the Ripper or even To the Devil a Daughter, it’s oddly restrained and, more than anything, frustrating.

The supernatural twist — where the Countess is magically transformed into a younger woman when submersed in virginal blood — is also never further explored or explained, which is a little confounding. It’s equally strange that none of the other characters experiment by taking a dip in a bathtub full of virginal blood, despite the fact that several of the major characters are of advanced years. For instance, it would solve a lot of Captain Dobi’s problems with the Countess if he could suddenly be young again too. These sorts of plot holes and lazy writing peppers the film, leaving many questions unanswered or unexplored.

Even more frustratingly, it’s also unclear who the film’s real protagonist is. Countess Dracula doesn't have a proper focus and struggles with making the Countess evil and sympathetic in turns, with focus also thrown on Imre Toth and the Countess’s daughter Ilona. But Ingrid Pitt is always enjoyable and gives the dual roles — the old and young Countess — plenty of charm and color. It was Pitt's last film for Hammer Studios, which is unfortunate, as it clearly marks the end of an era. It’s also a little strange not to see the cast packed with Hammer regulars, but there are solid supporting performances from Nigel Green (The Masque of the Red Death) and Sandor Elès (And Soon the Darkness).

Despite its flaws, Countess Dracula is still enjoyable and actually makes a solid double feature with the somewhat superior Rasputin, another of Hammer’s efforts that straddles the line between historical drama and Gothic horror. Like most Hammer films, Countess Dracula is a lovely production full of vivid color and lush costumes. It greatly benefits from borrowing sets from Anne of a Thousand Days, which helps to gloss over the film’s lower budget. Countess Dracula is available as part of the MGM Midnite Movies double feature with The Vampire Lovers, or on Blu-ray. Both releases contain some nice special features including commentary from Ingrid Pitt. If you aren't a seasoned Hammer fan, skip this one, but otherwise it is at least worth a rental. There's nothing quite like seeing Ingrid Pitt give herself a nude sponge bath in a tub full of blood.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

TWINS OF EVIL

John Hough, 1971
Starring: Peter Cushing, Mary Collinson, Madeleine Collinson, Dennis Price

The final film in Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy focuses on the town of Karnstein, the new home to orphaned twins Maria and Frieda, who have arrived to live with their puritanical Uncle Gustav. Gustav and his friends are witch hunters and persecute local women that are deemed too immoral — or simply too beautiful — often burning them at the stake for vague crimes against the “Brotherhood.” Frieda, desperate for a break from her stern uncle, finds her way into the arms and castle of Count Karnstein, a libertine and vampire. Frieda becomes part of his undead cult, but Gustav is unsure which girl is the evil twin.

Though this was made towards the end of Hammer’s reign of terror — and it’s the conclusion to the trilogy — it’s one of Hammer’s better vampire films and includes some of the best of what the studio had to offer: lush settings, debauched aristocrats, sex and nudity, blood and gore, and more than a few campy moments. The film is surprisingly gory — though it’s something of a teaser for the more extreme nudity and gore in the admittedly superior Vampire Circus, with which it shares set pieces and themes — and expertly uses Playboy’s first twin Playmates, the lovely Mary and Madeleine Collinson. In these later years, the studio often made misguided bids to restore their former glory (The Horror of Frankenstein and Countess Dracula, here’s looking at you), but in this case they were dead on.

The twins perfectly represent the overriding themes of sexual repression and good vs. evil, the latter of which is handled in a surprisingly complex fashion. From it’s grim opening sequence, where a young woman is burned alive, it’s clear that Twins of Evil has no real hero or happy ending. Between Karnstein and the Brotherhood, no young, reasonably attractive woman in the general area is safe, and the film’s only “hero” is the milquetoast Anton (David Warbeck, whose acting is really put to the test in The Beyond), who has the bad taste to fall madly in love with the corrupt Frieda, even though he’s loved by the innocent Maria.

The grief-stricken Peter Cushing, whose wife had just passed away, was apparently supposed to play Count Karnstein, but fortunately took the role of Gustav Weil, a character that is uniquely protagonist and villain. He is so obsessed with stamping out evil that he is completely misguided. He’s a particularly well-written, complex character in the loose “diabolical witch hunter” subgenre, and he’s hollow yet driven, sadistic yet sympathetic. It helps that Cushing looks particularly unlike himself here; within a few short years, he seemed to age considerably and his face looks exceptionally gaunt and haunted. The dichotomy of good and evil that exists within Weil is even more literally present in the twins themselves, one of whom is sweet and innocent (Maria) and the other of whom is wanton and undead.

Hammer would occasionally change up the rules of vampirism over the years — for example, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave really goes out on a limb — and here there is no attempt at continuity whatsoever. Like Lust for a Vampire, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and a few others in the series, the film assumes that if you perform a Satanic ritual and pour blood over a vampire’s remains, it will arise. In addition, daylight doesn’t bother the vampires in the slightest and for a human to be transformed, they must be inherently wicked, part of the Satanic cult seen in The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire, and Vampire Circus. 

Count Karnstein, who begins as merely a libertine with economic and political protection like characters in The Brides of Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and The Kiss of the Vampire, does exactly this: he enacts a Satanic ritual that raises his ancestor, Mircalla Karnstein, from her grave and it is she who turns him into a vampire. This is one of the film’s best Gothic horror sequences, with plenty of shadowy crypts, fog, and ritual paraphernalia, but disappointingly Mircalla is not heard from again. In turn, Karnstein is able to transform Frieda because she is inherently wicked. And the joke is on the puritans, who burn women they believe to be immoral, which doesn’t work on the vampires at all. And though I love films like Witchfinder General and Mark of the Devil, I tend to prefer this sort of plot that pits witch hunters against the supernatural. The previous year’s Cry of the Banshee, with Vincent Price, is another solid, if lesser seen example.

Of course Twins of Evil comes recommended. There’s a clever trade where the Count switches an imprisoned, doomed Frieda with the innocent Maria, and a bloody conclusion sequence where Weil and Anton team up to fight the Count, involving a beheading and a vicious axe wound. The highly underrated John Hough (The Watcher in the Woods, Witch Mountain, The Legend of Hell House) assuredly handles the proceedings and has a special way with woodland shots, giving this sort of a fairytale feel that contrasts perfectly with the violent, sexual subject matter. Pick it up on Blu-ray from Synapse.

Monday, December 7, 2015

LUST FOR A VAMPIRE

Jimmy Sangster, 1971
Starring: Ralph Bates, Yutte Stensgaard, Barbara Jefford, Suzanna Leigh

Though Carmilla Karnstein is killed in the events of The Vampire Lovers, her family resurrects her in this second film in Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy. Now known as Mircalla and unaware of her true identity, the young noblewoman arrives at a girls’ finishing school located near Castle Karnstein. A horror writer and new staff member, Richard Lestrange, falls desperately in love with her, but others become suspicious of her identity when local girls are found dead, drained of their blood. Lestrange, who is an expert on vampirism, is one of the few who can stop the Karnsteins.

The silliest of the three films in the Karnstein trilogy — smack in the middle of The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil — is this campy delight that makes little sense compared to the more serious and sultry The Vampire Lovers, but will please any Hammer fanatics or anyone who delights in female vampire films. Like the others in the series, this includes mild themes of lesbianism — Carmilla feeds primarily on young women — and the concept of an aristocratic vampiric cult that Hammer also used in The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire, and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter among others.

Though based loosely on Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “Carmilla,” this has little to do with the great Irish horror author’s work aside from the use of the titular character. It’s also a complete mess, despite some very fine moments. There are some well executed nude scenes, a great sense of atmosphere — particularly at Castle Karnstein — and some pleasant moments of gore. Though Carmilla is nowhere near on the level of Ingrid Pitt’s portrayal in The Vampire Lovers, Swedish actress Yutte Stensgaard is wide-eyed and lovely, convincingly talking her classmates into late night swims or seductive massages. The best scene of the film is Carmilla’s resurrection, where blood is poured on top of her bones and she rises — in all her nubile flesh — to walk across the room wearing nothing but a bloody sheet.

But there’s also plenty about the film that doesn’t make any sense. It’s unclear why Carmilla sometimes doesn’t know who she is — it’s sort of implied in the first film that she is resurrected or at least reappears regularly through the centuries. She also implausibly falls in love with Lestrange, despite her preference for victims of the female persuasion. They have one of the most ridiculous sex scenes in any Hammer film, with a bad pop song imposed over awkward shots of Carmilla’s orgasm face. And her girlish victims are all clearly too old to be attending a private school for girls, with most of them obviously in their mid-20s.

When director Terence Fisher was forced to step down due to an injury, regular Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster assumed duties. While I think he’s the studio’s best writer (and probably its most prolific), he just can’t compare with Fisher in the director’s chair. There are also a number of average and occasionally substandard performances. Peter Cushing was supposed to appear, but was absent as his wife was ill — though he had starring or costarring roles in the other two films of the trilogy. Mike Raven’s Count Karnstein is a poor stand-in for Christopher Lee, while Michael Johnson (Anne of a Thousand Days) isn’t quite on the same level as Hammer’s other leading men.

While I really enjoy Lust for a Vampire, it’s only recommended to more die-hard Hammer fans. Pick it up on DVD to check out some nice supplementary features from Anchor Bay, though this is really more of a rental than a purchase. It’s a shame Yutte Stensgaard wasn’t a bigger presence in British horror, but she’s certainly eye-catching here in one of her most prominent starring roles. Sadly she was probably better suited to comedy, appearing in some of the Carry On films and the On the Buses TV series, and some of her moments on screen are unintentionally amusing… though that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the film at all.

Friday, December 4, 2015

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS

Roy Ward Baker, 1970
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Madeline Smith, Jon Finch, Douglas Wilmer, Kate O'Mara


A Baron stalks a beautiful vampire through a graveyard and kills her. Elsewhere, a mysterious Countess and her daughter, the beautiful Marcilla, arrive at the estate of General von Spielsdorf during a party. Due to an emergency, the Countess leaves Marcilla in the General's care. She becomes close friends with the General's daughter, who soon takes ill and dies just as Marcilla strangely disappears. The same Countess and her daughter, now called Mircalla, later have a carriage accident and the Countess leaves Mircalla at the home of the General’s friend Mr. Morton, who will care for the girl along with the help of his daughter Emma. History predictably repeats itself and Emma soon falls ill. Mr. Morton crosses paths with the General, but can they figure out Mircalla's evil intentions and save Emma in time?

If memory serves me correctly, The Vampire Lovers was the first Hammer film I had the fortune to see, well over a decade ago at this point. It’s considered one of the studio’s classics for a good reason — and not just because it ushered in a wave of lesbian vampire films. Over the years I’ve heard a variety of complaints from some horror fans that Hammer is too reliant on staid costume dramas heavy on the cleavage and light on the violence, but if The Vampire Lovers is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. It doesn’t hurt that it’s based on the work of one of my favorite horror authors: Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu’s excellent novel Carmilla, which also comes highly recommended and was originally included in his collection In a Glass Darkly.

The film concerns the dreaded Karnstein family, vampires intent on spreading their bloody legacy throughout Europe. This is a reasonably faithful adaptation of his story, which is unusual for Hammer, and it would become the first in their “Karnstein Trilogy,” which includes Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971), about the further adventures of Carmilla and her kin. The Vampire Lovers can also be linked to other Hammer films like The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire, and Vampire Circus, where aristocratic vampires plague the countryside, generally preying upon buxom, innocent young ladies.

Famous for its use of lesbianism and casual nudity, this is actually a pretty restrained film and implies far more than it actually shows. Star Ingrid Pitt — who would go on to become one of Hammer’s most recognizable and beautiful faces — absolutely gushes sexuality and even though some of the scenes between she and Madeleine Smith (Emma) feel a bit forced, she's the perfect Carmilla. Aside from Pitt’s huge contribution to the horror films of the '60s and '70s, she led an incredible life. Born in Poland as Ingoushka Petrov, she spent her formative years in a concentration camp. After marrying and moving to the U.S., she eventually landed roles in Hollywood, but made her career with Hammer, which is where she will always be remembered. Her dark looks and exotic accent made an indelible stamp on the cinematic female vampire.

It is also an unusually female-centric film. Though men do save the day in the end, namely Peter Cushing, most of the film is concerned with the interactions between Carmilla, Emma, and the governess (the vaguely threatening Kate O’Mara), who are left alone in the house when Mr. Morton goes away on business. This is an unusual angle for Hammer, but the women's chemistry and lack of overt heterosexual romantic subplot works in the film's favor. The only really random element in The Vampire Lovers is the inclusion of a weird vampire in black who rides around the countryside on horseback doing nothing other than baring his slimy fangs and observing. Sinisterly, of course.

The Vampire Lovers comes highly recommended and if nothing else I've said attracts your attention, it's absolutely lovely to look at. There are beautifully atmospheric shots of the crumbling Karnstein castle and cemetery, night-time strolls, and the Germanic woods. There is an excellent use of color, costumes, and cinematography, though that is business as usual for Hammer. There are a number of solid performances — such as small roles from Peter Cushing and the underrated Jon Finch — it really belongs to Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith.

I'm reviewing the great MGM Midnite Movies release, which is a double feature with Countess Dracula, another Pitt vehicle. The commentary was a bit long winded and occasionally dull, but is worth a listen for the wonderful sections with Pitt, who enthusiastically relates her experience on the film. In the special features section she also narrates part of Carmilla. You can also pick it up on Blu-ray, though I have yet to check out that print.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE

Don Sharp, 1963
Starring: Edward de Souza, Jennifer Daniel, Clifford Evans, Noel Willman

A newly married couple, Gerald and Marianne, are honeymooning in the German countryside when their car runs out of gas and they are forced to take refuge at a local inn. A nearby aristocratic family, led by the charming Dr. Ravna, invites them for dinner and becomes particularly fond of Marianne. Unfortunately it turns out that Ravna and his brood are a cult of Satan worshipping vampires. They abduct Marianne, intending to initiate her, and try to convince the distraught Gerald that he is going mad and his wife never existed. He is forced to turn to the frequently drunk Professor Zimmer for help.

Conceived as a loose sequel to The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire is a strangely neglected, though very solid entry in Hammer’s vaguely connected series of non-Dracula vampire films and remains one of their finer efforts. While a film like The Vampire Lovers is celebrated as one of the studio’s best, it makes me sad that The Kiss of the Vampire is so little seen — it makes a great trilogy with The Brides of Dracula and Vampire Circus, tied together by the absence of Count Dracula and a focus on an aristocratic vampire cult.

Helmed by Don Sharp — who directed a number of Hammer films, some of the Fu Manchu series, and Psychomania — and written by Hammer co-owner and producer Anthony Hinds, The Kiss of the Vampire further explores themes presented in The Brides of Dracula. Vampirism seems to be related to an aristocratic, debauched lifestyle and, like the Dracula films, the vampire mythology is kept purposefully vague. Ravna fortunately is not a Dracula figure, but he’s a riff on The Brides of Dracula’s charming but sinister Baron Meinster and is the charming leader of a Satanic cult. The incredible finale, originally meant for The Brides of Dracula, involves Dr. Zimmer banishing the vampires with a Satanic ritual that summons a massive swarm of bats from hell. Say it with me: a swarm of bats from hell.

This stylish, energetic horror film is one of the most interesting experiments in group vampirism. Unlike the wonderful, though much later Near Dark, this is not a group of throat-ripping blood slurpers. The Ravnas merely want to be fancy — for all eternity. There’s lovely cinematography from Alan Hume, who makes every frame seem poetic despite the cheap set. There are some key set pieces, including a wonderful, blackly comic opening scene where Zimmer — who has essentially become an alcoholic out of grief — crashes his daughter’s funeral and cuts her head off with a shovel while she is still in her coffin. There are plenty of stylish sequences at the Ravna’s castle, particularly a masquerade ball that seems like an obvious inspiration for Polanski’s horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers made only a few years later in 1967.

Though the film suffers from a lack of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, there’s a strong cast made up of a mishmash of lesser seen Hammer actors, including Clifford Evans from Curse of the Werewolf, Edward de Souza from Phantom of the Opera, and Noel Willman, who would later star in The Reptile. The incredibly seductive but way underused Isobel Black, who appears as the innkeeper’s daughter who has been “adopted” by the Ravnas, would certainly have stolen the film if she were given more screen time. Sadly she only made a brief mark on British horror with films like Hammer’s Twins of Evil and 10 Rillington Place.

Though The Kiss of the Vampire is a near classic, there are some flaws. The middle section of the film is a bit plodding, whereas the conclusion is rushed, occasionally comical, and lacks an actual climax. Unfortunately some of the effects are appallingly cheap, namely the final sequence with the swarm of vampire-eating bats. Zimmer is given little screen time and is transitioned into a Van Helsing-like character too quickly. While the vampire coven starts out elegant and mysterious, by the end of the film they are sniveling, panicking, and acting not at all like powerful creatures of the undead. But this charming little film makes it easy to forget its flaws, sit back, and enjoy the ride. 

There was originally a barebones Image release, but that is now out of print. It was replaced with a vastly improved transfer, now only available in the eight-film Hammer Horror Series box set. Avoid the U.S. version, Kiss of Evil, which was cut so extensively that new scenes with additional actors had to be shot, creating a new subplot and making the film nonsensical in parts. It comes highly recommended, particularly for anyone who loves unusual vampire films.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES

Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh, 1974
Starring: Peter Cushing, John Forbes-Robertson, David Chiang, Robin Stewart, Julie Ege

The Hight Priest of the Seven Golden Vampires, Kah, tracks down Dracula’s castle in Transylvania and asks the Count to go to China to help restore the glory of the once renowned Golden Vampires. Dracula agrees, but takes Kah’s form in order to travel undetected. Professor Van Helsing happens to be at Chungking University giving a lecture on Chinese vampire legends, in particular the story of the cult of the Golden Vampires. Hsi Ching, a student, tells Van Helsing the legend is true and that his grandfather is from the village terrorized by the Golden Vampires. Van Helsing agrees to accompany Hsi to his village and they are joined by Van Helsing’s son Leyland, Hsi’s seven brothers and one sister, and a young widow they rescued from the Tongs. They face off against six of the seven remaining vampires and a small army of the undead until Dracula arrives to raise the stakes. 

This is the ninth and final film in Hammer's Dracula series and, incredibly, it’s a coproduction with the Hong Kong-based studio Shaw Brothers, best known for their kung fu films. It’s amazing that this exists at all, but somehow it’s actually a delightful film and remains one of the most entertaining of the Dracula sequels. The returned of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing — continuing from Dracula A.D. 1975 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula — is one of the film’s high points, though Christopher Lee’s absence as Dracula is conspicuous. This is the only time in Hammer history that Dracula was played by someone else (the character was absent completely from The Brides of Dracula), and in this case he’s briefly replaced by John Forbes-Robertson (The Vampire Lovers), though when Dracula takes the High Priest’s form, he’s played by the prolific Shen Chan (Five Fingers of Death, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold). Chan is obviously not Lee, but he’s captivating for his few scenes.

The film’s premise is every bit as ridiculous as it seems, but it’s also just as entertaining as you’d expect — especially if you’re a diehard fan of Shaw Brothers kung fu films. This unselfconscious blend of genres is played straight and legitimized by the always wonderful Cushing, who mostly leaves the kung fu fighting to trained professionals, but occasionally enters into the fray. I have a deep love for kung fu films, the Shaw Brothers in particular, and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires certainly benefits from dual direction by Hammer’s Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember, Quatermass and the Pit) and Chang Cheh, one of Shaw’s most popular and talented directors. Chinese horror is also represented, so keep your eyes peeled for jiangshi, or hopping vampires.

Though I love it passionately, there’s no way to deny that the film has its flaws. Don Houghton returned after Dracula A.D. 1972 to pen a script that is a messy attempt to blend Hammer horror and kung fu tropes. He conveniently avoids continuity issues from The Satanic Rites of Dracula (itself a mashup of spy, sci-fi, and horror tropes) by simply setting Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires some time in the 1800s — sort of an alternate storyline adventure for Dracula and Van Helsing. Though there are some nice special effects from Les Bowie, a lot of the vampire make-up is dreadful, particularly Dracula’s at the start of the film. Dracula is barely present in this film, but it’s unclear if that’s a good or bad thing. Forbes-Robertson had some impossibly large shoes to fill, so perhaps it’s for the best that he was given little screen time. His few lines of dialogue are frankly appalling.

But there are plenty of things about that film that make it a worthy final entry in the series. There’s some great cinematography from Roy Fords and John Wilcox, particularly in the Chinese countryside. There are some very entertaining fight scenes between the Hsi family and the undead and anyone on the lookout for some martial arts won’t be disappointed. Probably the best thing about Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is that it is wholly energetic and unafraid to simply be a campy, almost cartoonish kung fu-vampire-action-horor film. 

It comes pretty highly recommended, though my review should give you an idea of whether or not you’re the target audience. Anchor Bay released a nice DVD as part of their Hammer Horror collection. It includes The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, the sadly truncated U.S. version that no one needs to watch. There are a few special features, including a somewhat bizarre recording of Peter Cushing telling the film’s story with musical accompaniment and sound effects. Must be seen to be believed.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA

Alan Gibson, 1973
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joanna Lumley, Michael Coles

The British Secret Service uncovers a secret society performing Satanic rituals. Unfortunately for them, the society includes key members of the government, so Scotland Yard is called in to quietly investigate. Inspector Murray (Michael Coles reprising his role from Dracula A.D. 1972) consults occult expert Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). When a secretary from the Secret Service is kidnapped and turned into a vampire, a few agents and Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley, who is replacing Stephanie Beacham from Dracula A.D. 1972) investigate and discover a basement full of Dracula’s brides. Van Helsing contacts a scientist friend, Julian Keeley, who is developing a new strain of the Black Plague. Before Van Helsing can help his friend, Keeley is killed and his research, including active cultures of the plague, is stolen. A mysterious businessman funded the project and the savvy Van Helsing believes a reincarnated Dracula is behind the diabolical plot.

For years, I passionately hated The Satanic Rites of Dracula and I can honestly say that I have no idea why. It’s a loose sequel to my favorite film in the series, Dracula A.D. 1972, and while it has nothing on that gem, it’s about a million times better than I remember it being. Which is a real shocker, considering that it’s the eighth film in Hammer’s Dracula series and the last to star Sir Christopher Lee — though “star” is a bit rich, because he’s in all the films but the first (and second, Brides of Dracula, where he totally absent) for between five and ten minutes of total run time. The wonderful Peter Cushing also returns, along with much of the cast of Dracula A.D. 1972, and it’s honestly refreshing that Hammer kept the setting to (then) modern day England.

Like the whimsical Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula was an attempt to revitalize the franchise and prove that Hammer can do more than atmospheric, Gothic horror with plunging necklines and period costumes. Unfortunately this absurdly complicated plot attempts to include too many new elements at once: spies, government conspiracy, Scotland Yard, an end of the world plot involving a new strain of bubonic plague, science fiction, a scheming, Fu Manchu-like Dracula who has a serious death wish, vampire “brides” for the first time in the series, and new vampire mythology, including susceptibility to hawthorne and silver bullets. The last time Hammer included new mythology — the misguided Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, where allegedly only “true believers” can kill Dracula — it went over like a lead balloon and it doesn’t fare much better here.

This mix of sci-fi, horror, and espionage penned by Doctor Who scribe Don Houghton would probably have been a great film if Dracula and Van Helsing hadn’t been included, because — as with Taste the Blood of Dracula, which was supposed to be about one of the Count’s disciples rather than the man himself — these two characters feel like they were added as an afterthought, merely to please some money hungry studio executive. This is not helped by the fact that Dracula has minimal screen time, probably less than 15 minutes, though at least he has dialogue in this one. I do have to admit that it’s great to see Lee and Cushing together again, even if they feel a bit out of place in an a plot that belongs to either The Avengers, James Bond, or Fu Manchu (another role mastered by Lee). The surprisingly bleak, apocalyptic theme moves away from the Gothic elements of most of the series and far, far away from the fun, campy romp of Dracula A.D. 1972, which will likely please the many viewers that hated that film.

With that said, the film comes recommended, much to the chagrin of my 16 year old self. It’s a solid entry in the series, even though it comes so late. It should especially please fans of Blacula and Count Yorga, Vampire. Though there are several cheap versions of The Satanic Rites of Dracula that should be avoided, Anchor Bay presents a nice region 1 disc as part of their Hammer Horror series. This release includes trailers and a documentary, Dracula and the Undead, narrated by Hammer-regular Oliver Reed. Avoid any prints under the stupid U.S. title, Count Dracula and His Vampire Brides, which has several minutes shaved from its running time — though I have no clue why you want to censor any parts of this film.

Monday, November 30, 2015

DRACULA A.D. 1972

Alan Gibson, 1972
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame

“Dig the music, kids.”

After defeating Count Dracula and dying in the process, Abraham Van Helsing leaves behind his descendants to keep the world free of vampires. In 1972, Professor Van Helsing and his buxom granddaughter Jessica encounter an ancient (or at least medieval) evil when Dracula is resurrected by the descendants of one of his henchman in the form of Johnny Alucard, a friend of Jessica’s. He holds a Satanic ritual in a desacralized church and wakes up the Count with the hope that he will be made immortal as a reward. Dracula, in turn, begins to prey upon the youthful members of Jessica’s circle, leaving the police mystified and Van Helsing determined to vanquish his family’s formidable foe.

I took nearly all of Thanksgiving week off — a much needed break — but I’m back and more excited than ever to discuss one of my favorite films of all time, Dracula A.D. 1972. This seventh film in Hammer’s Dracula series marks the welcome return of Peter Cushing, whose Van Helsing sadly only appeared in Dracula and The Brides of Dracula before disappearing for the ensuing sequels. Now, listen carefully. Basically every review of this film writes it off as terrible, boring, cheesy, with a horrible soundtrack, and a ridiculous lack of continuity. I don't know what movie those people saw, because this is easily the most fun entry in the Hammer Dracula series. 

Though it lacks the somber mood and Gothic atmosphere of the beginning of the series, it is ridiculously fun and has more of a sense of humor than probably any other Hammer Horror effort. I might have to give in and admit that this is my favorite, even though Peter Cushing doesn't slap any hysterical women (or men). Not coincidentally, this is among the first of Hammer’s Gothic horror films to have a contemporary setting — a direct result of the success of Count Yorga, Vampire, another film I adore. Though this breaks continuity with the earlier films of the series — the intro shows a spirited fight atop a stagecoach, which involved Van Helsing killing Dracula — it’s wonderful to see Lee and Cushing back together again.

Much like The Brides of Dracula and the remainder of the series from this point on, Dracula A.D. 1972 is Peter Cushing’s film. It may be unclear whether or not Lorrimer — yes, that’s his name — Van Helsing is a doctor, anthropologist, or just nebulous “occult expert,” but he has all the best dialogue and most of the best scenes… That is, when they aren’t being stolen by Christopher Neame’s Johnny Alucard. I’ve always loved Neame in this role and wished that his character could return for more films, but alas. Actually, he was resurrected by author (and horror aficionado) Kim Newman for part of his great Anno Dracula novel series. I love the first book and can’t wait to catch up with this one.

Alucard brings to mind plenty of similarities with Taste the Blood of Dracula — a spectacular black mass sequence and a servant attempting to use the tools of his master (especially Dracula’s ring) to attain eternal life — and it’s clear that Hammer had some success with this formula, I would say so much that I don’t know why recent directors don’t do more films about Dracula’s charismatic servants, rather than resurrecting the old boy over and over again. Of course, some opportunities are also squandered. For instance, the lovely Caroline Munro — one of Hammer’s sexiest starlets — is given a spectacular death scene via satanic ritual, but then she’s later discovered in construction rubble as a corpse. Why not resurrect her as a vampire bride and give her a chance to return with Johnny?

Its few flaws aside, Dracula A.D. 1972 is colorful, endearing, and fun. This film is full of some amazing and hilarious set pieces. There are ridiculous clothes, '70s lingo, and bored “teenagers” (everyone in the film is clearly in their mid to late 20s) desperate for a laugh. Don't forget about the completely random musical performance in the beginning of the film from Stone Ground (this was allegedly supposed to be Rod Stewarts’ band Faces), where a group of kids crash an upper class dinner party and time themselves to see how long they can linger before the bobbies arrive. It's a shame they forget the couple under the dining room table still having sex. 

Fortunately this film is still in print, though Warner Home Video did put out the cheapest DVD imaginable. It comes with the highest possible recommendation. Though there are no special features, there is a swingin’ trailer. It makes a great double feature with the follow up film The Satanic Rites of Dracula, which is also set in the present and continues the storyline of Lorrimer and Jessica Van Helsing teaming up against the Count.

Monday, November 23, 2015

SCARS OF DRACULA

Roy Ward Baker, 1970
Starring: Christopher Lee, Dennis Waterman, Jenny Hanley, Christopher Matthews

Incapable of meeting a girl without taking her clothes off, a young man named Paul gets himself into a bit of trouble and runs from the arms of the law right into Dracula's somewhat restored castle. After more sex and misadventure, he stupidly wanders into Dracula's private chamber, which is a room with a lovely view looking down over hundreds of feet, a coffin, and no doors. Paul’s loyal brother Simon and his beautiful girlfriend Sarah go in search of Paul. They get no help whatsoever from the local villagers and somehow make it through the first night alive, but Simon soon realizes what kind of diabolical force is between the rescue of his brother and the well-being of his lady love. Will he save them all in time?

If you’ve been following along with my Hammer review series, you’re probably wondering how much longer the studio can stay on this gravy train? And yet Scars of Dracula is only the sixth film out of nine. Despite its position near the end of a long list of Dracula Hammer films, this is a fairly entertaining entry in the series and is representative of the middle three (Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Scars of Dracula) in the sense that it expresses how obviously confused the studio was about what to do with the character. There are plenty of low moments — including an obviously a lower budget and much cheaper production values than previous Dracula productions.

Despite these issues, there are also some bright points. Aside from the next and best sequel, Dracula A.D. 1972, Scars of Dracula probably has the most imaginative — or at leas the most brazen — plot. Though he died for the fourth time in Taste the Blood of Dracula, His Unholiness is resurrected again in this film because — wait for it — a vampire bat vomits a mouthful of blood onto the Count’s dusty cape. Et voila. This film actually involves bats more than any other entry in the series. The beginning is a tour de force of bat-related violence: the local villagers launch an impromptu march on the castle mere hours before dark and burn most of it to the ground. Dracula avenges himself by slaughtering every last man, woman and child hiding in the local church by way of a group of vampire bats. This shocking act of violence is really just an exaggerated version of a much tamer scene from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, but it’s one of the finest in the entire Dracula series.

And for those of you who remember Klove, the completely random manservant in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, he's back, hairier, grungier, and more inexplicable than ever. Scars of Dracula in general is sort of a plot break from the previous films, as the action is moved from England to Transylvania and Dracula’s servant from the third film, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, is inexplicably present here. The Count also has a mistress, Tania, who he stabs to death when she betrays him by trying to feast on Paul. She’s then destroyed by Klove, who dismembers her and dissolves her in a vat of holy water in another surprisingly violence sequence. This film also arguably has the most sex of the series. There is actual sex for the first time, naked girls running about, and the camera can't keep off of Sarah's (Jenny Hanley of The Flesh and Blood Show) well-proportioned bosom. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are also the usual plot holes and faux-pas, including the fun Hammer tactic of shooting night scenes during blatant daytime hours, which is worse than ever in this film. And forget Klove’s random reintroduction, by this point actor Michael Ripper has been in so many of these movies that it doesn’t even make sense — he’s like the Dwight Frye of Hammer horror. It’s easy to see this as the beginning of the end for Hammer, but the last three sequels are — and I’m not ashamed to say it — fantastic. It’s clear that director Roy Ward Baker was making the most of cheap production values and a script that the studio obviously ran roughshod over. Some of his bright touches include Lee scaling the walls of Dracula’s castle, a scene from Stoker’s novel that doesn’t often make it to filmic adaptations.

I am reviewing the two-disc, U.S. Anchor Bay DVD with impressive extras, though that version sadly seems to be out of print. On the same disc as the film are two trailers and some photo galleries. The real treat is the commentary track with director Roy Ward Baker, Christopher Lee, and Hammer film historian Marcus Hearn. The second disc includes The Many Faces of Christopher Lee and two music videos. Words cannot express — there is nothing the man can’t do. The Many Faces of Christopher Lee has one major flaw: it's too damn short. Lee graciously gives an hour of his time to discuss some of his most famous roles and usually introduces each segment with a prop from the film.

Friday, November 20, 2015

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA

Peter Sasdy, 1970
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.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE

Freddie Francis, 1968
Starring: Christopher Lee, Veronica Carlson, Rupert Davies, Barbara Ewing

In another attempt to preserve continuity following Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the Count has supposedly been dead a year, thanks to being buried in a frozen mountain stream in the last film. A skeptical monsignor is tired of the vampire phobia that grips the town of Kleinenberg, so he marches up the nearby mountain to Castle Dracula and, in an incredible act of hubris, performs an exorcism and bars the Count’s entrance from his own home with a huge golden cross. This leads indirectly to the Count waking up majorly pissed off and declaring unholy war on the monsignor and his family: a widowed sister-in-law and beautiful young niece, Maria. When Dracula kills the monsignor and kidnaps Maria, it’s up to her skeptical boyfriend, Paul, to save her.

Hammer’s fourth Dracula film and its third to star Christopher Lee as the titular Count is admittedly one of the more uneven entries in the series. The screenwriters really did a number with the film’s moral message. The majority of the runtime seems to be staunchly anti-Christianity, though this takes an inexplicable, weirdly reactionary twist. The obviously Christian characters are presented as ineffectual buffoons — like the drunk priest too terrified and useless to even enter the local church — or self-righteous, power-mad leaders — like the smug monsignor. In the excellent prologue, a young boy enters a church and finds blood dripping from the massive bell above. He soon makes a grisly discovery: Dracula has killed a young woman and stuffed her broken body into the bell, effectively desecrating the church. And it is the unnamed priest who sets the events in motion. Too drunk and afraid to help the Monsignor exorcise Dracula’s castle, he injures himself and his blood brings the Count back to life. In turn, he is transformed into this movie’s version of Renfield.

The film’s moral center is the upstanding, decent Paul, who faces early conflicts with the monsignor because he is an atheist. While Dracula and The Brides of Dracula don’t specifically posit Van Helsing as an atheist, he is a firm rationalist, a man of science who views vampires not as creatures of folklore, but as real evils set loose in the world. Paul is of his ilk and his future plans involve going to study at a university. It would then stand to reason that his inevitable showdown with Dracula would involve some sort of science-based way to put the Count to rest yet again, but Dracula Has Risen From the Grave makes a sudden, alarmingly conservative switch. Hammer snuck in another pointless, plot-driven detail to the Dracula mythology in a move that I can only describe as embarrassing: in order for the Count to stay dead, you have to pray over him with firm religious belief while he is dying. Convenient. Also never used again. To no one’s great surprise, Paul, rejects his “ignorant” atheist views by the end of the film, just in time to save Maria.

Gag me.

Probably the best thing about Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is the introduction of the absolutely gorgeous Veronica Carlson. She went on to star in a couple of Hammer Frankenstein films after this, but I don’t know why they didn’t use her more. Carlson is also a strong example of the film’s reliance on style over substance. Though Dracula stalwart Terence Fisher was intended to direct, a broken leg forced Hammer to replace him with cinematographer Freddie Francis, who may not ratchet up the tension, but who introduces a dazzling sense of visual style. Many scenes involve characters coming and going across Victorian rooftops. These moments, along with the Gothic sets and stunning opening sequence in the church — visual proof of Dracula’s sadism — make this one of the loveliest films in the Dracula series. It doesn’t hurt that there is also more sexual innuendo and a few dangerously plunging cleavage lines.

Other than that, it’s business as usual. Thankfully, Lee is around more in this film and actually has dialogue. He’s hypnotizing as always, but when Dracula realizes someone has exorcised the castle, it leads to plenty of unintentional hilarity. Nothing can make up for the absence of Cushing, though Rupert Davies (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Oblong Box) replaces him as best he is able and gives a solid performance. There are also nice supporting performances from the wonderful Michael Ripper (The Creeping Flesh) and Barbara Ewing (Torture Garden), while Barry Andrews (Blood on Satan’s Claw) is a likable enough lead.

I’m not sure if I can recommend Dracula Has Risen From the Grave to anyone except for die-hard Dracula, Christopher Lee, and Hammer fans, but if you decide to check it out it’s definitely not a waste of time. Weirdly, it’s one of Hammer’s Dracula films with a wide number of releases: a Blu-ray, DVD, and as a four-pack with Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Dracula A.D. 1972.