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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS

Terence Fisher, 1966
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews

Two English brothers and their wives are on holiday in Europe. Even though they are warned by a local monk, they accidentally arrive at Dracula’s castle. They find four table settings and two rooms prepared for their arrival, as well as an eccentric butler who tells them his master is dead. Queue scary music. Of course, their host is Dracula and the faithful butler (where the hell did he come from?) resurrects him by cutting the throat of the more boring, less attractive brother and leading his wife right into Dracula’s embrace. The other couple, who are mysteriously safe during the night, escape with their lives, but unfortunately Diana is Dracula’s new obsession. He follows them to the monastery where Diana’a husband and the monk must race time and the powers of darkness to save her immortal soul and nubile flesh.

Technically the third film in the Hammer Dracula series, Prince of Darkness is actually the direct sequel to Dracula and bypasses the events of 1960’s The Brides of Dracula, one of the only films in the series without Christopher Lee and the only film without Count Dracula. This marks Lee’s eight year absence from the role of the Dracula and the six year absence of the franchise and, despite the long delay, it stands as a solid example of Hammer’s visually opulent brand of Gothic horror — a subgenre film fans seem to either love or find dreadfully boring. There’s no denying Dracula: Prince of Darkness is a slow burn and director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster focus on a sense of gloomy style and carefully building suspense over flashy scares or gory violence.

Though this is a solid entry in the series, it’s not without its fair share of flaws. Lee is always fantastic as Count Dracula, but only appears halfway through the film and gives a silent performance. For a long time, there was a rumor that his lines were so terrible that he refused to say any of them — started by Lee himself — but according to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, Dracula never had any lines in the first place. The set and costumes are gorgeous, as always, but there are obvious acts of desperation on the part of Sangster. In some cases, he attempts continuity with the first film, but where did the butler come from? Why is there a Renfield stand-in named Ludwig? And where, oh where, is my beloved Peter Cushing?

The film’s biggest flaw — aside from Cushing’s absence — is the almost unforgivable horror movie sin where characters cluelessly wander around in a situation that is at best ambiguous and at worst, dangerous. The basic plot synopsis — British couples vacationing in the European countryside who lose their way — is the sort of fairytale premise that Hammer would use a few times over the years, but there are some nice central performances from the earnest, likable Francis Matthews (The Revenge of Frankenstein, Corridors of Blood) as the film’s hero, the lovely Suzan Farmer (Die, Monster, Die!), and Hammer regular Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon), who was undeniably one of the studio’s best actresses. Her death scene is a particularly memorable one, even though the film held back when it came to violence.

I do have to say that while Andrew Keir (Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb) is always enjoyable, his Father Sandor is a poor substitute for Van Helsing. In my opinion, the biggest fault of the mid-period Dracula sequels is that the script writers flounder around in their attempts to come up with a nemesis for the Count that is Van Helsing’s equal. Instead of landing on another rational scientific figure, we’re stuck with a religious figure. To be fair, Sandor is initially skeptical of vampirism, but comes around to help save Diana. Disappointingly, he never has a direct confrontation with Dracula and the Count’s coffin sinks into some icy waters, prepping everyone for another sequel.

Dracula: Prince of Darness is the kind of dependable Gothic horror that you will either love or have no interest in. Getting this film on DVD was tricky for awhile, but fortunately it’s finally out on Blu-ray. That release comes with a lot of the great special features originally included with the two-disc Anchor Bay DVD, such as a World of Hammer documentary episode,“Dracula and the Undead,” which shows clips from various Dracula adaptations and vampire films with Oliver Reed narrating. There’s also a behind the scenes home-video shot by the brother of actor Francis Matthews, a great cast commentary, and a brand new documentary about the making of and restoration of Dracula: Prince of Darkness. A must-see for all Hammer fans.

Monday, November 16, 2015

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA

Terrence Fisher, 1960
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel

“Transylvania, land of dark forests, dread mountains and black unfathomable lakes. Still the home of magic and devilry as the nineteenth century draws to its close. Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires is dead. But his disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world…"

A beautiful French school mistress is traveling alone through the Transylvanian countryside to an academy for young girls where she has an appointment to teach. She stumbles across the Baroness Meinster, who bribes the populace to ignore the fact that she procures young girls for her vampiric son, who is chained up in the castle to prevent him from spreading further evil. Marianne is intended to be one of these girls, but the young Baron convinces her he is being unjustly imprisoned and she impulsively frees him. Soon, he professes his love and they are engaged to be married. Van Helsing, who has been attempting to stamp out the “cult of the undead” since the death of Dracula, arrives in time to figure out that the young Baron is responsible for the deaths of local girls, but can he save Marianne in time?

It’s not understatement to say that — despite the absence of Christopher Lee, who neglected to return because he didn’t want to be typecast as a horror actor — The Brides of Dracula is every bit as good as Hammer’s first Dracula film and it remains one of my absolute favorite Hammer efforts in general. To clarify, this film’s title probably shouldn’t have anything to do with Dracula at all, as neither he nor his brides are involved with the plot (though admittedly calling it The Brides of Meinster is a lot less sexy). I really don’t even believe that this should be part of Hammer’s Dracula series and I think it would be better grouped with some of their other films instead. The studio made so many vampire films that they can loosely be gathered into two categories: the nine Dracula films and then a series of mostly unconnected films with aristocratic vampires that prey on the countryside: the Karnstein trilogy, The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil, as well as The Kiss of the Vampire, which is a loose sequel to The Brides of Dracula, among a few others.

The sole overlapping factor between The Brides of Dracula and the Dracula series is Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, who is somehow even more likable in this film. On the whole it’s nice to have an entry that sort of serves as a separate adventure for Van Helsing and I wish there had been more of them. He actually doesn’t appear in the film until about 30 minutes in, but he steals it, utterly. His role is even more physically demanding than Dracula and involves hanging from a mill, cauterizing a vampire bite, and staking a fair few vamps. And of course he kicks some serious ass, rescues the damsel in distress, and somehow remains 100% immune to any kind of feminine wiles.

The way that The Brides of Dracula is effective as a sequel to Dracula is that it furthers Hammer’s use of vampire mythology and is, in a sense, a world building exercise. It presents vampirism as something of a satanic society for initiated aristocrats — a theme that would continue in the Karnstein trilogy and The Kiss of the Vampire — and explores more supernatural elements than Dracula. Here, vampires can turn into bats, Meinster works to create a full brood of vampire wives, and possibly the film’s most effective scene shows a padlock eerily falling off the coffin of a woman who has become the undead. 

Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster, director Terence Fisher, and star Peter Cushing apparently all had a hand in rewriting the script once it was clear that Christopher Lee wouldn’t return, and they worked hard to include a number of gruesome elements not present in Dracula. Not only is there the suggestion of incest — Meinster bites and transforms his mother and it is suggested that she took part in the revels responsible for turning him into a vampire in the first place — but this is also Hammer’s first use of lesbianism within a vampire film, a theme they would return to in a big way a decade later with The Vampire Lovers (1970). Marianne’s friend and fellow teacher Gina is turned into a vampire by the Baron and Gina returns and wants to embrace the unsuspecting Marianne, begging to kiss her.

As with The Vampire Lovers, The Kiss of the Vampire, Vampire Circus, and even Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter, there is the implication that Meinster’s immoral, hedonistic ways have led him down this dark path and it’s implied that Dracula may have turned Meinster. Though he’s largely forgotten aside Christopher Lee, David Peel is excellent as the spoiled, but charming aristocrat with clearly wicked intentions. The twist that he primarily transforms women — building up what is essentially a vampire harem — means that his attempts to woo and marry Marianne don’t really make a whole lot of sense, but then… you can’t have everything.

Regardless, the film comes with the highest possible recommendation for anyone who likes vampire films. It has a lovely Gothic setting and is by far the best sequel in the Dracula series. The ending is a bit absurd (SPOILER: Van Helsing using the shadow of windmill, which he manipulates into the shape of a cross, to destroy Meinster…. come on), but overall this is one of Hammer’s finest achievements. Brides of Dracula is only available in the US in the Hammer Horror Series box set, which contains eight films on two double-sided discs. My hatred for double-sided discs aside, it’s a somewhat random but very enjoyable mix of a few of the more obscure Hammer titles: Curse of the Werewolf, Phantom of the Opera, Paranoiac, Kiss of the Vampire, Nightmare, Night Creatures, and Evil of Frankenstein. The set is worth it just for Brides of Dracula, but double-sided discs and a lack of special features indicate an intolerable cheapness on the part Universal. Or you could pick up the UK Blu-ray, which I’m dying to get ahold of.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

DRACULA aka THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Terence Fisher, 1958
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling

Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker are scientists studying the legend of vampirism. When they locate the castle of Count Dracula in Germany, Harker takes a post there (librarian?) to keep watch over the demonic lord. He slays one of the Count’s undead brides, provoking a deadly revenge: the Count bites Harker and then travels to find his fiancee, Lucy. The extremely dapper Van Helsing arrives too late to save Harker, but finds his diary and his diabolically preserved corpse, which he stakes. Van Helsing returns home to share the sad news with the Holmwood family — Arthur, his wife Mina, and his sister Lucy — but learns that Lucy has recently fallen ill with “anemia.” Can Van Helsing convince the Holmwoods of the truth in time to save Lucy and to keep Dracula’s attention away from Mina?

After their 1957 success with The Curse of Frankenstein and the ensuing franchise, Hammer Studio’s first foray into the vivid and bloody waters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula — which became known as The Horror of Dracula to U.S. audiences to avoid confusion with the Bela Lugosi film — is an over the top treat. Though some of the sequels took a bit of a nose dive (Taste the Blood of Dracula, I’m looking at you), this film is a strong start to what is admittedly one of my favorite franchises in horror cinema. It also helped set the very strong standard for vampire films that Hammer would continue with the Dracula series and beyond.

Similar to many other Dracula film adaptations, this has little to do with Stoker's novel and changes plot elements and characters at will. But if you’ve never seen a Hammer Studios horror film, this is a great place to start because it presents so many of their early trademarks with gusto: the sure, stylish direction of Terence Fisher, the weighty presence of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, lavish costumes and Victorian set pieces, plenty of buxom ladies, a heaping dose of sexuality, and even a bright red smear of violence. Fisher, Cushing, and Lee were reunited here after The Curse of Frankenstein and, in my opinion, are at their collective best.

Christopher Lee is a fantastic Dracula — and though he was not overwhelmingly fond of horror films, it was a career-making performance — and the tall, dark, and handsome Lee was probably the first to be overtly sexual or physical. I could be wrong about this, but he’s also probably the tallest Dracula, towering above everyone on set at 6’5”, a height that kept him out of leading roles early in his career, but got him cast as the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein. And while a lot of earlier adaptations of Dracula put an emphasis on the Count’s metaphysical abilities, but Lee’s Dracula is very earthbound and quick to put newly-shined shoe to ass.

Peter Cushing is a fabulous match in every way possible, retaining some the icy charm that leant itself so well to the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein. He’s also responsible for the single most stylish moment in any Hammer film when he walks on set wearing — I shit you not — an expertly tailored, three-piece red velvet suit. Cushing’s Van Helsing is cold, rational, and slaps the shit out of anyone prone to hysteria, while keeping in check the cruelty that fueled Baron Frankenstein. 

It’s strange to think of their partnerships in the two competing franchises. While Cushing appeared in every Frankenstein film save one in the seven film series (The Horror of Frankenstein, a loose remake of The Curse of Frankenstein), Christopher Lee is missing from two entries in the nine film Dracula series (yes, count ‘em, nine): the second, The Brides of Dracula, and the last, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a Shaw Brothers coproduction. Sadly, Cushing’s Van Helsing did not turn up nearly as often, only in The Brides of Dracula, and the last three fantastic efforts, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.

But Cushing, Lee, and Fisher aren’t the only things that make Dracula so fantastic. James Bernard's score is wild, dramatic, sinister and over the top, there are a series of great side performances from actors who would become regulars to the studio, and a thrilling conclusion that makes Universal’s Dracula look old and crusty. Of course it comes with the highest possible recommendation and you can finally pick up the complete, special edition version on the fantastic import Blu-ray.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL

Terence Fisher, 1974
Starring: Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, David Prowse, Madeline Smith

A young doctor, Simon Helder, is captured in the middle of some very unorthodox medical experiments. He’s imprisoned and sent to to an asylum, which is allegedly the resting place of his hero, Baron Victor Frankenstein. After meeting the corrupt asylum director and his cronies, Simon is called on to assist the asylum’s resident surgeon, Dr. Victor, though soon Simon learns that Victor is actually Frankenstein, hiding out and blackmailing the director in exchange for a place to experiment with human life. A number of the asylum patients become his subjects as he and Simon’s medical adventures spiral out of control.

After the failure of an attempted remake with the sixth film in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, The Horror of Frankenstein, the studio returned to the Baron one last time for Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. This burdensomely titled affair is something of a last gasp for the studio. It reunited aging star Peter Cushing with a number of Hammer’s stock cast and crew, namely producer Anthony Hinds writing the script as “John Elder,” composer James Bernard, and director Terence Fisher — one of the studio’s best — in what was to be his last directorial effort. I’m on the fence about this film and I both understand why some people feel like it’s a great last efforts and others are disappointed. It doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, but is a competently made swan song that proved Britain’s greatest horror studio still had plenty of juice left.

Peter Cushing is, as always, the reason to watch this film. Though pushing 60, Cushing looked far older here. His beloved wife had passed away in 1971, which he never really seemed to recover from, and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was actually shot in 1972 though it wasn’t released for another two years later. But he’s still full of vim and vigor, even accomplishing one heroic-looking stunt by himself, where he jumps from a table onto the monster. This film also restores the customary practice of pairing the Baron up with a close male assistant. Here it actually makes some rational sense, as the younger Dr. Helder (played charismatically by Shane Briant of Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter) has heard of the Baron’s reputation, followed his example, and is desperate to learn from him.

The film stumbles a little with Frankenstein’s monster, a consistent issue throughout the series. In one sense, Hammer really triumphed in focusing their series on the scientist rather than his creation and each film presents an interesting variation on the central experiment: often he is seeking to move and repair a damaged brain to a new body, repair a damaged, disfigured body, or synthesize multiple bodies. The latter case is true here in the ultimate form of Darth Vader himself, David Prowse (The Horror of Frankenstein), who was the only actor to play the monster twice. But even though this is a kinder, gentler Baron — in line with the character from The Evil of Frankenstein and also suffering with his burnt hands, which were damaged at the end of that film in a laboratory explosion — he just can’t leave things well enough alone.

The moral of the story is basically that even when he’s on the right track for some brilliant medical advancements, Frankenstein always takes things too far. He uses specific patients in his his experiments: a sweet tempered professor (Charles Lloyd Pack of Corridors of Blood) who happens to be a mathematical genius, a mentally challenged sculptor with beautiful hands (Bernard Lee of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors), and a huge man with super strength but very limited intelligence (David Prowse). Instead of harvesting corpses, the Baron harvests parts from these three men — as well as a few others — but the parts aren’t compatible and this mashup caused the creature to go insane when it realizes what it has become.

Overall, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell comes recommended, if only because Hammer nail the sympathetic monster trope the third time running (along with The Revenge of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Created Woman) and because it’s a fond, if bittersweet farewell to Hammer’s golden years, one of Cushing’s most iconic roles, and to the career of director Fisher. Despite the cheap effects, limited sets, and strange parallels with the fun but inferior Blood of the Vampire, part of me really loves Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell despite — or because of — it’s flaws. And even though not all the Hammer Frankenstein films are adequately represented on Blu-ray, for whatever reason there are multiple Blu-ray and DVD options for this one.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN

Jimmy Sangster, 1970
Starring: Ralph Bates, Kate O’Mara, Veronica Carlson, David Prowse

The young Victor Frankenstein wants his father to fund his science work and, when the greedy old man refuses, Victor casually kills him, inheriting the estate and the title of Baron. He goes off to Vienna and attends medical school, but an affair with the dean’s daughter drives him back home to his castle. He begins experimenting on dead animals — successfully bringing them back to life — and with the help of a local grave robber, he moves his work to human subjects. But the creature he creates is violent and unstable, eventually leading the police to his door.

I’m not really sure what Hammer Studios was thinking with this sixth entry in their Frankenstein series. Where the abysmal third film, The Evil of Frankenstein, ignored the first two and struck out on an entirely new path, this is a loose remake of the first, The Curse of Frankenstein. It’s not a terrible film, but I can’t fathom why the studio thought that a remake of their own formula would be necessary. It is also the only entry in the series not to star Peter Cushing, which is its most tremendous fault. The smug, sociopathic Ralph Bates (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde) isn’t bad in the role, but utterly lacks Cushing’s cold precision and captivating charm. Like Cushing’s Baron in The Curse of Frankenstein, this Baron’s crimes are flagrant, if always opportunistic, and he has frequent affairs with women. He uses the monster to his own ends, eventually to do away with those of inconvenience him, which is his undoing.

Directed and written by one of Hammer’s best writers, Jimmy Sangster, perhaps The Horror of Frankenstein’s biggest fault is that it’s not sure if it wants to be a straightforward horror film or a satire. It’s almost like the studio was attempting to recapture their fading glory and spoof themselves at the same time. I honestly have trouble understanding what’s humorous about the film, though are a few delightful moments. In my favorite scene — and probably the film’s funniest — Victor interrupts two highway robbers laying siege to his gorgeous school friend Elisabeth (Veronica Carlson). He calmly murders them and then casually doubles back to harvest their body parts. The early scene where he kills his father is also pretty ridiculous, as it’s so unexpected and also kind of unprovoked.

There are some welcome familiar faces in the cast, such as Kate O’Mara (The Vampire Lovers) as the Baron’s housekeeper and manipulative lover. In an echo of The Curse of Frankenstein, he does away with her when she entertains illusions about becoming the lady of the house. Dripping with seductiveness and menace, O’Mara arguably steals the film. Unfortunately the great Jon Finch (Frenzy, Macbeth) is sadly neglected in a small role as a local police inspector on the case and David Prowse (Darth Vader) is utterly wasted as the monster, though he fares better in the next and final film, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell.

I can’t really recommend The Horror of Frankenstein, though it will appeal to Hammer completists and anyone who just doesn’t get tired of Frankenstein adaptations. The lackluster monster and disappointing conclusion keep it on the same level as The Evil of Frankenstein, while the humor is sadly misguided. I wish I had better things to say about this one, but it’s a pretty clear example of how Hammer were floundering in their later years and 1970 certainly marked the beginning of the end. There are a variety of releases currently available, including Anchor Bay’s Hammer Collection DVD, but you’re better off with The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, and even Frankenstein Must be Destroyed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED

Terence Fisher, 1969
Starring: Peter Cushing, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson

In this fifth entry in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, the Baron has relocated to a boarding house run by a lovely young woman, Anna, who secretly works with her fiancé, a young doctor named Karl, to steal and sell drugs to support her dying mother. Baron Frankenstein slowly begins to blackmail them into assisting his latest experiment: he wants to replace the brain of an esteemed colleague who has gone mad and who is languishing in a nearby asylum. While the surgery is a success, things don’t go as planned. The man’s devoted wife suspects that Frankenstein is up to something and begins to interfere, while his associate is horrified to find his brain in a new form.

Hammer was at the top of their game in the late ‘60s, riding high on a lofty reputation and making the most of laced censorship standards when they churned out this fifth Frankenstein film. It’s a surprisingly strong sequel, and I would rank it just after the fourth film, Frankenstein Created Woman. Much like that film, this marks the return of director Terence Fisher, one of Hammer’s masters, and, as in that film, the issue here is not about creating a creature from reanimated dead tissue, but the successful preservation (and relocation) of brains from an unhealthy body into a healthy one. Baron Frankenstein had actually already performed this procedure at the end of the second film, the equally enjoyable The Revenge of Frankenstein, in order to save his own life.

And Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed actually unites some of the themes in Revenge and Frankenstein Created Woman. For starters, Frankenstein’s “monster” at first looks quite human and the monstrous aspect is more in the Baron’s intentions, the manipulation of science, and the effects on his test subjects. This is a plot element that actually directly parallel’s Shelley’s novel: Frankenstein believes he is making incredible strides for sciences, but his desired end result a ghastly concept with potentially horrifying moral ramifications. And like Shelley’s intelligent monster, which is so often passed over in cinematic adaptations, the Baron’s melding of two scientific figures — the superb brain of Dr. Frederick Brandt (George Pravda) and the useful body of Professor Richter (Freddie Jones) — results in a being conscious and intelligent enough to realize the horror of what he has become, hate his maker, and actively seek the Baron’s death.

And like Frankenstein Created Woman, this one does live up to its title — Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed — as here he becomes almost totally evil. The typically charming Peter Cushing looks older, gaunter, and more sinister, and his actions here — aside from killing his mistress in the first film — are at their most diabolical. It’s a shame the series’ worst entry took the title The Evil of Frankenstein, because that would have worked perfectly here, where in that film he is actually a heroic, sympathetic character. This film’s horrifying moment in question is a shocking a rape scene, a sequence that was added in at the very end, apparently to please American distributors looking for more sex and violence. Despite the protests of Fisher, Cushing, and co-star and Hammer regular Veronica Carlson, the scene was included, though it’s not again addressed by the characters, so it doesn’t make a ton of sense. It does sort of fit in with Anna’s mental deterioration and the Baron’s embrace of evil, as the rape is a blatant act of cruelty and control meant to terrorize Anna into complying with the Baron’s will. Whether it totally works or not, it’s certainly one of Hammer’s grimmest moments.

This is also one of the most violent films in the series. There’s an almost krimi-like opening where a doctor is decapitated with a sickle on his walk home. Just after this the killer — Baron Frankenstein — is interrupted by a would-be thief (Harold Goodwin of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb), who discovers the Baron’s secret lab and just barely manages to escape. He dashes off the inform the police, so Frankenstein, wearing an absurd mask to conceal his identity, destroys the lab and flees. He goes on to blackmail and manipulate a young couple into participating in his crimes and this human element — in the form of Veronica Carlson’s Anna and Simon Ward’s Karl — provides a necessary human element.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed comes highly recommended and, for anyone skeptical about a series of ‘50s and ‘60s era Frankenstein films, there are far more hits than misses. This is definitely a success thanks to a combination of effective violence, strong performances, a grim tone, and a well-written script. Pick this up on Blu-ray, just be prepared to witness the bleaker side of Peter Cushing, whose Baron Frankenstein truly becomes a monster.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN

Terence Fisher, 1967
Starring: Peter Cushing, Susan Denberg, Robert Morris, Thorley Walters

After witnessing his father’s execution as a child, the unfortunate Hans is framed for the murder of a local innkeeper and sent to the guillotine. Before his death, Hans was working as the assistant of Dr. Frankenstein, recently arrived in the village. Hans’ girlfriend, Christina, throws herself into the river and drowns after Hans’ death, but Frankenstein decides to use the dead bodies of the two young lovers in a wholly unorthodox experiment. He manages to put Hans’ soul into Christina’s body and brings her back to life. But the merging of two souls has a surprisingly violent effect and Christina is quickly driven towards murderous revenge.


In my opinion, this is the finest sequel in Hammer’s Frankenstein series. It is an unusual, odd film that may be off putting to those not already obsessed with Hammer. It is not simply another generic mad doctor film and focuses on metaphysical themes, blending sci-fi, horror, philosophy, love story, and revenge flick. The grim opening, where the young Hans witnesses his father’s executions, sets the stage for the film’s serious, bleak tone, which is not shared by many of the campier o more misguided Frankenstein sequels.

An improvement over the unfortunate third film, The Evil of Frankenstein, this fourth entry shows the Baron Frankenstein moving another step beyond in his experiments with life, death, and rebirth. He is equally ruthless here, not showing concern for his assistant, Hans, or Hans’s girlfriend, and gleefully experiments on both. It’s interesting to view Frankenstein Created Woman in comparison with a contemporary film, like Hammer’s Hands of the Ripper, another movie about a possessed female murderer, as well as against modern crime dramas like Hannibal, Sherlock, or Luther. These shows, like Frankenstein Created Woman, revolve around brilliant characters with scientific minds who -- due to narcissistic personality disorders or perhaps Asperger Syndrome -- are unable to relate to other humans. Baron Frankenstein certainly falls in with this theme and his amoral charm and near psychopathic experiments help make this one of the finest in the series. Cushing is excellent here, as always, and deftly balances the role of sympathetic hero and cold, reptilian scientist.  

Alongside Baron Frankenstein is, of course, Christina, who transforms from invisible, deformed girl into a seductive and murderous woman. Playboy model Susan Denberg (Star Trek) gives a fine, likable performance here. Unlike most of the other Hammer horror series, this has a strong sense of exploitation revenge film about it. As with the aforementioned Hands of the Ripper, Christina cannot help being a killer, but there is a sense of satisfaction as she generally only kills bullies and murderers. Again, as with Hands of the Ripper, this is another Hammer film that criticizes British aristocracy and puts an emphasis on the callous, uncaring nature of wealth and privilege. The script, credited to the pseudonym John Elder, is from Hammer producer and writer Anthony Hinds and I think this is his finest in the Frankenstein series.

The return of one of Hammer’s most beloved directors, Terence Fisher, is another major benefit. There is some beautiful photography, colorful period settings, well-made effects, and generally all the things that Hammer came to be known for. In addition to good performances from Cushing and Denberg, the film is rounded out with an excellent supporting cast made up of Duncan Lamont (The Evil of Frankenstein), Robert Morris (Quatermass and the Pit), Thorley Walters (Vampire Circus), and others from Hammer’s stock of regular actors. 

Hammer fans with be delighted with the excellent presentation Frankenstein Created Woman has received with a blu-ray release from Millenium. There are a number of nice special features, including two episodes of World of Hammer, “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Hammer Stars: Peter Cushing,” as well as an entirely new documentary, Hammer Glamour. This looks at some of Hammer’s female stars, including Caroline Munro, Madeleine Smith, and Martine Beswick. There’s also an audio commentary from actors Derek Fowlds and Robert Morris, along with horror scholar Jonathan Rigby. Also included is a restored trailer, an animated stills gallery and collectible cards. And fear not - if you aren’t already a Hammer fan, the films in the Frankenstein series are largely stand alone. Frankenstein Created Woman is a great place to start for fans of darker, weirder British horror. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN

Freddie Francis, 1964
Starring: Peter Cushing, Sandor Elès, Peter Woodthorpe, Katy Wild

After surviving the events of the previous two films, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein, the Baron returns to his ancestral castle in Switzerland. Along with his assistant Hans, he plans to resume his experiments, but is surprised to find his original creature frozen in ice. Though he revives it, it’s damaged, and he enlists the services of a greedy hypnotist, Zoltan, who has been performing at a local carnival. Zoltan is able to help animate the creature, but also controls it and begins to use it to his own ends — stealing from the townspeople and committing crimes — which again riles the citizens of Karlstaad against Baron Frankenstein and his creation.

This third film in Hammer’s Frankenstein series is arguably the most frustrating. Though star Peter Cushing returned, it marked the departure of director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster, and it’s hard not to blame the film’s faults on the new team of director Freddie Francis and writer John Elder. Part of what made the first two entries so enjoyable is that Hammer reimagined Mary Shelley’s characters — particularly Baron Frankenstein — and made him an ambitious antihero at best, murderous villain at worst. With these early films, Hammer had to be careful not to replicate Universal Studios’ Frankenstein, which is primarily why they made so many clever decisions in terms of character, plot, and visuals.

But The Evil of Frankenstein is the closest Hammer got to Universal’s world of classic horror in terms of story, the look of the monster, and the laboratory sets. Thanks to a new distribution agreement between Hammer and Universal, the British studio was free to roam unchecked into ‘30s and ‘40s territory. But the problem is that this film is not a reimagining of Universal at their peak, but a reimagining of Universal’s campy, delightfully dreadful B-grade sequels from the ‘40s — titles like Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula. Fortunately, this is really the only major instance of “Hammer does Universal,” and it’s particularly disappointing, because it doesn’t manage to evoke any of the campy fun of those films.

Instead, the plot is a total disaster. At first, it seems like Francis and Elder decided to backtrack a bit and return to the monstrous creation from The Curse of Frankenstein. As in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, the creature is found frozen — dormant, but intact — in a cave off the mountain where Frankenstein’s castle is based. The opportunistic hypnotist is also sort of stolen from a loosely similar character in The House of Frankenstein, a magician whose traveling act involves the skeleton of Dracula.

But The Evil of Frankenstein doesn’t stop there. There is a complete continuity break with the first two films and the ending of The Return of Frankenstein is ignored. The Baron magically has a new assistant (though both are named Hans, this is a different character and is played by Sandor Eles of Countess Dracula), and has abandoned the name Dr. Franck, the alias he chose. In an early scene, the Baron recaps past events to Hans and tells a totally different story — that he was a kind hearted, lonely scientist whose monster escaped accidentally and was killed after murdering some sheep, which resulted in the Baron’s banishment — and here he is sort of heroic and downtrodden, a completely different character than the sociopathic genius of the first two films.

I wish I could recommend The Evil of Frankenstein, but I really can’t. This film sort of exists outside the series and feels more like an attempt to tell the story in a totally different way — either rewriting Hammer’s Frankenstein legacy or pretending that the far more enjoyable first two films didn’t exist at all. Cushing is wonderful, as always, and there are some decent performances from familiar faces like David Hutcheson (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), Duncan Lamont (The Creeping Flesh), and particularly Peter Woodthrop (The Skull) as Professor Zoltan, the hypnotist. But there is no “Evil of Frankenstein” to speak of and the primary destruction is caused either by Zoltan, or by the monster who gets drunk (!?) and accidentally sets the laboratory on fire. If curiosity compels you, the film is available on Blu-ray.