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Posts Tagged ‘Dracula’

Werner Herzog is such a distinctive and idiosyncratic figure that it’s easy to sometimes lose track of everything that he’s done. Certainly, his is a CV of dizzying variety as an actor and director – documentary about cave art? Check! Role as villain in a Tom Cruise thriller? Check! Drama about a man dragging a steamboat over a mountain? Check! Studio Ghibli US dub voice role? Check! It almost comes as a shock to recall he ever did anything as straightforward as a serious adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

Then again, to describe the genesis of Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre as ‘straightforward’ is probably somewhat disingenuous. Nosferatu isn’t just an adaptation of Dracula, but a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Here things begin to get a little more tangled, as the Stoker estate refused Murnau permission to adapt Dracula for the big screen. Murnau went ahead and made his movie anyway, changing some of the character names in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what he was up to – Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Harker became Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this fooled no-one and Florence Stoker attempted to have Symphonie des Grauens destroyed (luckily, this did not happen, as it is a superb movie).

By 1979, Dracula was out of copyright and so Herzog was able to use the ‘proper’ names for the characters, but still retained Murnau’s version of the plot and the title Nosferatu (an etymologically problematic word which has effectively become a synonym for vampire; Nosferatu the Vampyre is rather tautologous). The movie is openly another take on the much-told story of Dracula; however, it is just as distinctive and idiosyncratic as its director.

As noted, Herzog sticks with Murnau and dispenses with the English-set portion of the story; instead, the tale opens in Wismar, in north-eastern Germany, where estate-agent’s wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) is troubled by disturbing, bat-filled dreams. Maybe she is right to be concerned, for her husband Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) is given the unexpected assignment of going to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious and reclusive Count Dracula.

It soon turns out that the only people wanting Harker to go are his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) and possibly Dracula himself; Lucy doesn’t want him to go, the Transylvanian gypsies he encounters don’t want him going anywhere near Castle Dracula, and neither do the local peasants. Harker ends up having to walk most of the last stretch of his journey, mist-wrapped mountains rising around him and the half-ruined castle creeping into view. (The journey from the ‘normal world’ to the place of horror is obviously something of a staple in movies of this genre, but Nosferatu handles it unusually well.) Soon enough he arrives at the castle and meets his host.

Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is delighted to meet him. Actually, delighted may not be the right word, as Dracula seems to exist in a permanent state of existential anguish, bordering on actual despair. Chalk-skinned, with rat teeth and ears like a bat, one wonders just how badly Harker needs his commission if he’s willing to contemplate staying at this guy’s castle. This is before Dracula starts musing on the horrors of eternal existence and how there are far worse things than death.

Well, eventually Harker puts zwei and zwei together and figures out that there’s something not quite right about his host. The sight of Dracula loading coffins onto a wagon preparatory to taking up residence in his new property may have something to do with this, to say nothing of Dracula’s nocturnal visits to Harker’s room, when the estate agent discovers that the price of staying at Castle Dracula really can be a pain in the neck.

Dracula eventually departs for Wismar, leaving Harker a prisoner in the castle. He escapes, weak and feverish, desperate to get home and warn everyone of the terror soon to be in their midst – but is it already too late…?

This wasn’t the only Dracula of 1979, of course: the same year saw John Badham’s version, with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. Both are recognisably adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a few character names and the basics of the plot. Badham’s Dracula is set entirely in England, dispensing with the Transylvanian section of the plot (the two films almost mirror each other in this way), and Langella’s Count is a suave, romantic anti-hero. The American film is a vivid one about passion and desire. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, opens with a series of shots depicting mummified human corpses, establishing from the start that this is to be a much bleaker and more morbid film about the boundaries between life and death.

Romantic is the last word you would choose to describe Kinski’s Dracula: quite apart from the fact he is physically hideous, he seems to exist in a state of existential torment. He is cursed as much as he is a curse, much given to doleful complaints about the terrible loneliness of immortality; Lucy Harker may dream about bats and the film may mention the vampire’s affinity with wolves, but for most of the movie Dracula is associated most closely with rats, which swarm around his various resting places and provide a visual symbol for the Black Death which he propagates wherever he goes. (Animal-lovers may wish to steer clear of behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of this movie, as the rats were apparently very poorly treated indeed.)

Kinski actually manages to find the pathos in this conception of Dracula as a miserable, rodent-like parasite, and he is never entirely unsympathetic at any point in the film – then again, most of the characters manage to retain a degree of sympathy, not least because they are all trapped in such an obviously bleak and horrible world. My researches have not revealed whether Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration on this occasion resulted in one of the director’s various attempts to murder his troublesome star, but it is a eerily powerful performance and easily one of the most striking screen Draculas. Herzog and Murnau’s amendments to the story also produce some interesting effects – Harker is never normally a plum role in Dracula, but Bruno Ganz ends up with some interesting things to do as the film goes on, not least during the twist at the end of the story. Likewise, Lucy is not just a passive, ornamental victim of the vampire’s lust, but a character with real agency and strength; Isabelle Adjani’s performance is as eye-catching as her ethereal beauty. Most of this comes, however, at the expense of Van Helsing, who normally gets all the best lines in any version of Dracula. Here, Van Helsing is a closed-minded, sceptical materialist, played by Walter Ladengast – his contributions to the story are minimal. The same can probably be said for Renfield – Roland Topor isn’t afraid to go way out there with his performance as a giggling madman, but one wonders what the character really adds to this version of the story.

You can tell this isn’t a movie which has been made on the biggest of budgets, and some of the scenes do lack the kind of atmosphere you get in the better Hammer horrors. It must also be said that this is not a film in which the plot moves along like a bat out of hell (or from anywhere else, for that matter). However, the pervasive atmosphere which Herzog generates has considerable power, especially as the film goes on and the scenes of a plague-stricken Wismar acquire a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality. At one point the soundtrack seems to include an excerpt from a Kate Bush album that would not be made until six years after the film’s release, and this does not feel entirely surprising (Herzog and Bush both decided to employ a snatch of the same Georgian folk song, apparently).

As I mentioned, this is not the most lavish Dracula, and it may lack some of the set-piece moments some may be expecting. But the strength and consistency of the film’s vision of the story is considerable, and matched by its execution. It is a bleak and morbid version of the story, entirely bereft of most of the comforting moments and touches found in other retellings of the novel. Nevertheless, Nosferatu the Vampyre is hugely impressive for its atmosphere and for Kinski’s performance; this is definitely one of the best versions of Dracula on film, and a worthy updating of Murnau.

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Alan Gibson’s 1973 film The Satanic Rites of Dracula is another of those late-period Hammer horrors that doesn’t hang around in getting to the point. No sooner have the opening credits (featuring a rather awkwardly-posed shadow puppet superimposed over various London landmarks) concluded than we are in the midst of some proper Satanic rites in full swing: sweaty acolytes gawp, ethnic actresses hired to impart a touch of low-budget exoticism declaim dodgy dialogue about Hell, young actresses who needed the money try to avoid showing too much flesh to the camera, and chickens look nervous.

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This sequence really isn’t all that great, but the film-makers clearly felt otherwise, as for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film they keep cutting back to it, often in defiance of chronology or logic. The Satanic rites are taking place in a stately house outside London, guarded by sinister goons whose uniform appears to be sheepskin tank-tops, which at least makes them distinctive.

It turns out this set-up has been infiltrated by the security services, and their man makes his escape at the start of the film. There is some political delicacy to this situation, as one of the Satanic acolytes is in fact the minister responsible for security affairs, with the power to shut down the department if he discovers the cult to which he belongs is being investigated. (The movie zips very smartly indeed past the question of what MI5 – which is what this very much looks like – is doing taking an interest in suburban occultism, even if it does involve senior establishment figures.)

Torrence (William Franklyn), leading the investigation, decides to bring in a detective from Special Branch as he is technically not under the command of the suspected minister: his choice is Murray (Michael Coles), previously seen in Gibson’s Dracula AD 1972. Learning of the occult angle, Murray in turn brings in an anthropologist and expert on such matters who he has worked with before – namely, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, of course).

Well, investigations by the trio, along with Van Helsing’s grand-daughter (Joanna Lumley, who makes less of an impression than you might expect), uncover that the basement of the stately house is infested with vampires. This is not really a surprise, as we have already seen Torrence’s secretary kidnapped by the tank-tops and molested by Dracula himself (Christopher Lee, of course) in a subplot that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. However, there is also the revelation that Dracula’s cult has recruited a Nobel-winning virologist (Freddie Jones), who has been tasked with creating a new super-virulent strain of the Black Death, supposedly to wipe out everyone on the planet. Van Helsing’s conclusion is that Dracula has grown weary of immortality (or possibly just being brought back every couple of years for another movie) and just wants to take everyone into oblivion with him. In any case, given that the new virus appears to spread only by touch and spectacularly and very nearly instantly kills anyone who comes into contact with it, I am not sure it has the potential to be quite the agent of genocide Van Helsing is worried about.

With all the exposition concluded (Cushing does his best to cover it with some business involving him ladling soup for all the other characters), we’re heading for the climax. Can our heroes uncover Dracula’s lair? Can the release of the killer virus be averted? And is Christopher Lee actually going to show up for more than a couple of minutes at a time?

Well, he does, but the impact of Lee’s main dialogue scene with Cushing is somewhat affected by his decision to affect a bizarre Lugosi-esque accent quite unlike his usual Dracula voice, which is especially confusing considering that Dracula is passing himself off as a British tycoon (living in Centre Point). I suppose one should be grateful that Lee showed up at all – in another one of those moments that would never happen nowadays, Lee showed up for the press launch of the movie, announced he was only doing it under protest, and declared he thought it was a fatuous joke.

This was partly a reference to the original title of the film, Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London, which was duly changed. Possibly as a result, this is one of those films which has popped up under a variety of different names at different times, said names ranging from the somewhat bland (Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride) to the peculiar (simply Dracula is Dead, not to mention Dracula is Still Living in London).

This isn’t usually a sign of a particularly strong movie, and it almost goes without saying that the main point of interest of Satanic Rites is that it was the final Hammer film to feature both Cushing and Lee, both of whom go through the motions with the usual commendable professionalism. It’s doesn’t have the gimmicky novelty of the previous movie’s conceit of bringing Dracula into a contemporary setting, but on the other hand this does seem to have made screenwriter Don Houghton work a bit harder: many of the trappings of the rest of the Hammer Dracula series are dropped, most notably the laborious structure where they spend the first half of the film contriving Dracula’s resurrection and the second half arranging his demise.

In its place, Houghton comes up with a script that feels more like a hard-edged contemporary thriller than a traditional horror movie, complete with the apocalyptic germ-warfare angle. (Am I the only one who would quite like to have seen the version of this film where the viral outbreak actually gets started, with our heroes fending off crazed plague-zombies while society collapses and the vampire cult takes over the world?) All this stuff is relatively good and interesting; it’s only when the movie gets into its Gothic horror drag that it starts to feel dull and a bit chintzy.

I suppose you could argue that if the best bits of a Dracula movie are the ones which feel least like they belong in a conventional Dracula movie, then something has gone wrong somewhere, and I can’t really disagree with you on that. The sense of what these days we’d call franchise fatigue is almost overwhelming – it may be the main reason that this film is so stylistically different is because they literally couldn’t think of anything else to do. Certainly, having had Dracula blasted to ashes by sunlight, frozen into a lake, impaled on a crucifix, struck down by the power of God, struck by lightning, impaled on a broken cartwheel, and impaled in a pit of stakes in previous films, coming up with a new way of getting rid of him at the climax must have been a problem, and the solution – he walks into a particularly prickly bush and gets tangled up in the thorns – is not really a great one (that barely counts as a spoiler: it’s in the poster for the movie).

The only positive things you can say about The Satanic Rites of Dracula are that it is a bit more interesting than Dracula AD 1972, and it still has Christopher Lee in it (Lee positively and absolutely refused to come back for Hammer’s final Dracula film, the kung-fu-tastic Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires). There’s a sense in which this is still cheesy, energetic fun, but if you compare it to one of the really great Hammer horrors like Dracula – Prince of Darkness or Taste the Blood of Dracula, it’s very obvious that this is an inferior and rather weak movie in every respect.

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There are easy targets, and then there are easy targets, and then there are people who call their movie Dracula Untold. Untold? Really? After dozens of various adaptations and sequels, with Dracula himself portrayed by actors ranging from Frank Langella to Adam Sandler, what exactly is there left to tell? Plus, given this is another one of those CGI-heavy mid-budget genre movies that never really get well-reviewed, the potential for people to be snippily punful is almost irresistible. Dracula Untold? I’ll see that and give you Dracula Uninspired, Dracula Unnecessary, and Dracula Unwatchable, just for starters.

Cheap shots like this are only available if Gary Shore’s new movie isn’t any good, of course. It might very well be good: you’ve got to keep an open mind, after all. But you must admit that the omens are not promising. The Lord of the Undead is played by Luke Evans, one of those actors hugely dependent on the quality of the script he’s given (and, by the way, the fact it’s all too easy to accidentally describe Untold as ‘the new Dracula movie with Lee Evans’ is another mark against it), while the rest of the film promises a lot of heftless CGI and lazy pop-culture steals.

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Anyway, proceedings get underway with an expository flashback of dubious historicity, describing the life of the young man known in his lifetime as Vlad Tepes, prince of Transylvania, but more noted nowadays as the Vlad the Impaler. As this is only a 15-rated movie, of course, Vlad’s impaling days are behind him and he is more concerned with being a good leader of his people and a good husband and father. (At this point we pause to deal with incipient nausea.) To be honest, it’s a bit unclear who our hero was impaling in his younger days – the historical Dracula’s victims, if indeed he’s not just the victim of propaganda, were Turks, but as the film opens he is effectively a client king of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (represented here by Dominic Cooper’s one-dimensionally sadistic Mehmed II).

Relations between Transylvania and Turkey take a turn for the worse when Mehmed decrees a thousand Transylvanian children will be conscripted into the Turkish Janissary corps, along with Vlad’s own son. Needless to say, our hero can’t bring himself to comply with this order, triggering a war with his much more powerful neighbour. Things look bleak for the Transylvanians, but Vlad embarks on a desperate search for help from an unlikely source: at the top of the movie he discovered an ancient and powerful supernatural evil was in residence in one of the remote mountains of his land, and so off he pops to see if it will help out.

Needless to say, this turns out to be an elder vampire (left nameless on screen, but according to some publicity it’s supposed to be the emperor Caligula), played by Charles Dance (who’s really quite good in the part). The vampire grants Vlad immense speed, strength, and some other useful tricks, but also an insatiable thirst for human blood. If he can resist the temptation to guzzle down some of the red for three days, he will return to his normal state – but if he fails, not only may the kingdom be lost, but he will be damned to eternity as a bloodsucking monster…

Or so it says here, anyway. I’ll be honest and say that while Dracula Untold isn’t utterly worthless, it does have serious problems, and – for me – one of them is the choice of story structure. This is ‘the tragedy of a man whose utter dedication to doing the right thing results in the destruction of everything he holds dear’, and the thing about this is that for it to be a tragedy, the protagonist has to retain his conscience and remain broadly sympathetic throughout: he has to realise just what a big mistake he has made.

The result is that we never really get Dracula as a relentless, terrifying predator, never as a genuine force of evil – he’s just a nice guy with a bit of a past who makes some mistakes, for the best of reasons. Luke Evans is by no means the least impressive Dracula in cinema history, but even he can’t really make much of an impression with material like this. The producers might well argue that this is an attempt at a revisionist Dracula, to put more of a human face on the fiend, but why would you bother? Who looks at a proper Dracula movie and thinks ‘Hmm, okay, but it would be better if he was a bit nicer’? This guy was born to be bad. Needless to say, it looks likely that any future outings with Evans as Dracula will see him as a brooding, romantic anti-hero rather than an unstoppable monster.

This is all the more ironic given that Dracula Untold has apparently been retrofitted to launch a potential franchise based on Universal’s stable of famous supernatural heavies, in which they will all cross over with each other, at least as long as the box office stays healthy. Yes, everyone wants a slice of Avengers-style pie, don’t they? Personally I hope the rest of the monsters are a bit more, um, monstrous.

But this isn’t even really a proper horror movie, just a fantasy action film with a debt to things like 300 and Lord of the Rings. The 300-ish stylings are particularly pertinent given just how much of the historical subtext this movie actively ducks – the historical Dracula was, if anything, a Christian hero, famous for helping to keep the Muslim Turks out of Europe. Exploring the ramifications of this in any kind of systematic way would be far too provocative (and possibly demand too much thoughtfulness from the audience), and so we get simple good guys and bad guys and barely any mention of religion.

The best you can say about Dracula Untold, really, is that it chooses a fairly solid story and tells it competently. It’s just not a good Dracula story or even a particularly good vampire tale. Moments with potential – Dracula taking on an entire army single-handed, for instance – are just fumbled, possibly due to the director’s lack of experience, while too many others lack even that – too often Dracula is reduced to a banal, pedestrian figure. Sex, death, blood, and style are the essentials of vampire cinema, and Dracula Untold comes up short in every department. It’s sort of vaguely enjoyable while you’re watching it, but in a week’s time you’ll have forgotten most of the details. I’ve just thought of another one: Dracula Underwhelming.

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Words like ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ get thrown around rather easily these days, but when one is talking about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appearing together in Hammer’s first Dracula movie, they are surely justified. This is Terence Fisher’s Dracula (known in the US as Horror of Dracula), released in 1958, and – for me – where the idea of Hammer horror as a brand really got started. Perhaps I’m being unfair to The Curse of Frankenstein, a movie I haven’t seen in many years, but it seems to me that Dracula is a more polished and confident piece of work from a company that’s quickly learning how to do this sort of thing.

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One of the notable quirks about Dracula is that it seems well aware of how familiar this story will be to most of the audience – this isn’t to say that it plays games or tries to confound expectations, but it does include a few plot surprises, and – tellingly – seems to assume the audience is already quite familiar with who and what Dracula is. It doesn’t try very hard to stick to the plot of Stoker’s novel, presumably for budgetary reasons – some characters are dropped, along with the English setting of much of the story, while others really only appear in name only.

We open with Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen), in this version a noted scholar, who has just secured the position of the new librarian at Castle Dracula. He receives the traditional warm welcome from the master of the establishment (Lee) and does not appear overly bemused by the odd hours the count keeps or the strange behaviour of his live-in girlfriend.

The reason for this some becomes clear – in the first of the film’s twists (one which rather speeds up the plot, if we’re honest) it’s revealed that Harker is really a vampire hunter who is here to put an end to the scourge of Dracula. As we are only about ten minutes into the movie it is quite clear his success in this venture will be extremely limited.

However, soon on the scene is Harker’s associate and fellow persecutor of the undead, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). After dealing with Harker, Dracula has vanished, and all Van Helsing can do is break the sad news of Harker’s fate to his family. Unfortunately Harker’s fiancee is too ill to be told – she appears to have developed a bad case of anaemia, which may or may not be connected to her new habit of sleeping with her bedroom window open…

I’ve seen this movie quite a number of times, but not for a long while, and watching it again now I’m struck by how much it isn’t the film you might be expecting – and yet, at the same time, it really does create the mould for so many of the studio’s subsequent films It’s a Cushing-Lee vehicle, for one thing, but what’s striking and perhaps surprising is how little Christopher Lee is actually in it – he’s fourth-billed, with an ‘and’, and while he gets a dozen or so lines in the opening section of the film, after this he barely appears until the climax, and has no dialogue when he is on screen – a lot gets made of the largely non-speaking performances Lee gives in movies like Dracula – Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula, but they’re just following the precedent established here. On balance, the real oddity is the articulate, rational Dracula we glimpse at the start of this film, someone capable of carrying on a conversation and (it would appear) interested in having his library catalogued – quite at odds with the hissing, slavering, atavistic fiend that seems to be, if not Lee’s, then certainly Hammer’s default take on the character.

Needless to say Peter Cushing gives it everything he’s got as Van Helsing – no matter how dubious or contrived a movie’s script (and this one has some peachy moments of duff plotting and ill-considered comic relief) you can lose yourself in the limitless conviction, grace, and charm of a Peter Cushing performance. One thing you don’t necessarily notice the first time you watch this film is that Lee and Cushing have no screen time together before the climax, and when they do it’s just a lot of running around and fighting. A real shame, because a verbal clash between Van Helsing and the rational Dracula from the opening of the movie would be a mouth-watering prospect given the performers involved.

That said, we do get a terrific and surely genuinely iconic climax, surely the finest of the many physical confrontations between Lee and Cushing that these two great friends would play out over the course of many years. That they are both in their prime here helps, as does a memorably frantic music cue from James Bernard – Bernard’s score here is less strong on lush delicacy than many of his others, much more interested in booming stridency, but you can see why it was recycled in so many other Hammer movies.

You can see the Hammer formula coming together in this film – you don’t turn up to a Hammer movie just for the horror, but the production values, the atmosphere, the performances, the sensuality of it, and all of these are here. That said, this feels like a better-behaved Hammer movie than most – all the men wear ties and are very civil to each other, the Kensington Gore is barely in evidence, and the eroticism, though still quite obvious, is much more implicit. I saw the 2012 restoration of this film, featuring more explicit material recovered from a print found in Tokyo (of all places), and I barely noticed the changes from the expurgated version I’d always previously seen. This still isn’t a film you’d really want to show a small child, but no sensible person would describe it as worse than tasteless.

Does Dracula still work as a horror film? 55 years on, I have to say it probably doesn’t, being rather too quaint and dated  and restrained. But that doesn’t make it a bad film and it doesn’t lessen the quality of its performances, direction, or production design. And, if nothing else, its status as one of the fountainheads of Hammer horror, one of the most influential series of films in the history of the genre, gives it a massive significance. One to cherish, savour, and come back to repeatedly.

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Oh, my friends, I feel a terrible sense of encroaching doom and rising dread. A dismal shadow is on the horizon, for I have inadvertantly made what feels like a deal with the Devil. The full details of this will become ineluctibly apparent in the fullness of time. For now, let me bolster myself and reaffirm my dedication to the right sort of genre movie, with a proper look at Freddie Francis’ 1968 Hammer offering, the arguably badly-titled Dracula Has Risen From The Grave.

Groovy psychadelic titles out of the way, we find ourselves in a familiar mittel-European setting, some time round about 1905. In a decent sequence, included mainly to establish the tone, a young altar boy discovers a buxom maiden stuffed into the local church bell – if there are bats in the belfrey, they are clearly of the vampiric persuasion. (This presumably happened off-screen at some point during Dracula, Prince of Darkness – not that inter-film continuity was ever Hammer’s strong point.)

One year later, the local Monsignor (Rupert Davies) visits the village to find the local priest (Ewan Hooper) is a boozer and church attendance has fallen virtually to nil: everyone is still living in fear of the King of the Undead, despite him having fallen into the lethal waters of the moat of Castle Dracula at the end of the previous film. Instantly winning himself a place on the all-time Counter-productive Stupid Ideas List, the Monsignor drags the priest off to the castle in order to exorcise it and plonk a crucifix in the doorway to stop Dracula’s spirit ever emerging.

Of course, what he is failing to take into account is that Dracula isn’t in the castle anyway: he’s frozen into the moat. The exorcism provokes a terrible thunderstorm (this is another quite well put-together sequence), during which the priest gets separated from his boss, falls onto the ice, and cuts his head: the blood conveniently trickling through the ice into Dracula’s mouth. (At this point Christopher Lee is dragged kicking and screaming onto the set to reprise his signature role.) Dracula is very annoyed to find himself effectively locked out of his own castle and, as usual, declares a terrible revenge on his enemies.

Completely unaware of what a total balls-up he’s made of his pastoral visit, the Monsignor heads home to the charming town of Kleinenberg: notable citizens thereof include his beautiful niece Maria (Veronica Carlson), her boyfriend Paul (Barry Andrews) and nice-but-trampy barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing). But Dracula is coming to town as well, and where he’s concerned beautiful nieces are always on the menu…

Well, as you can probably tell, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is not an especially accurate title, though it does score points for being evocative. Dracula Has Been Defrosted From A Moat would not look nearly so good on the poster. For a long time I was inclined to dismiss this film, coming as it does between the quintessential Hammer horror Dracula, Prince of Darkness and the fascinatingly different Taste the Blood of Dracula – and, to be fair, it’s not close to being as good as either of those.

The opening and closing sections around Castle Dracula itself are quite nicely done, even if the climax telegraphs its resolution in a painfully obvious way (my 13-year-old sister came across me watching this film, many years ago, and was able to accurately predict the denouement despite being a complete Hammer ingenue). However, all the stuff in town is bit ho-hum. This is not to say the film looks bad: the production values are strong and there is always James Bernard’s score to savour. And the script negotiates the stock characters and set-pieces of a Hammer Dracula with reasonable dexterity, helped by decent performances from nearly everyone in the cast. It just doesn’t have a single strong idea or really great piece of acting to make itself distinctive.

At least, not in what you’d call a good way. Barbara Ewing does sterling work making the Bad Girl something other than a total cipher, and the central young lovers are a bit less insipid than usual – but, by a cruel quirk of fate, Barry Andrews – both physically and in his performance – is astoundingly like Hugh Grant around the time of his rise to stardom. Hugh Grant Vs Dracula is a memorable idea for a movie, but not a memorably good one. And yet this is what Dracula Has Risen From The Grave turns into, for modern audiences at least.

Oh well – set against this we have a film which is doing interesting things with the concept of faith. The Church itself does not exactly emerge covered in glory – of the two ecclesiastical characters, one is an alcoholic thrall to the villain, while the other one is inadvertantly responsible for all the trouble in the movie – but, on the other hand, Hugh Grant Paul is an atheist and thus incapable of dealing with Dracula unassisted. The film’s most contentious scene has Paul staking Dracula, who is able to shrug it off and pull out the stake due to Paul’s lack of belief. An interesting idea – some people suggest that the climax shows Paul regaining his belief in God as Dracula is vanquished; personally I don’t think it’s that explicit. In any case it reminded me again of the irony that the only film genre which routinely accepts the existence of God is Horror – which, of course, is the genre actual believers are least likely to watch. Some moving in mysterious ways going on here, perhaps.

Anyway, this is not the greatest Hammer horror, nor even a particularly good Dracula film – but at least Christopher Lee has some dialogue. What the film doesn’t have is any new ideas about Dracula or new things for him to get up to. Later films would fix this, to considerable effect. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is really just marking time, but it does it in an atmospheric and very enjoyable fashion.

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Halloween looms once more, and without further ado let us try to establish something of a tradition by reviewing another classic old Hammer horror movie (not that I’m averse to going down this road at any time of year, of course). Roy Ward Baker’s Scars of Dracula, originally released in 1970, opens in majestic style with a rubber bat on a string vomiting fake blood onto the gritty remnants left after the Count’s last dissolution (in Taste the Blood of Dracula).

Lo and behold, Dracula reconstitutes himself (he is once again played by Christopher Lee, though this wasn’t the mortal lock you might have expected at the time). All this happens before the opening credits, which makes a refreshing change after a series of films in which Dracula doesn’t show up until quite a long way in. (There is a reason for this, which we will address in due course.)

Dracula gets back into his old routine by chowing down on the daughter of one of the local yokels. However, the villagers feel the need to nip this latest outbreak of vampirism in the bud and set off for Castle Dracula, flammable objects in hand. The village innkeeper (Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper, getting unusually good material) boldly launches the assault on the Count’s stronghold by walking up to the front door and ringing the bell. Luckily the villagers’ cause is helped by the fact that manning the entrance is Dracula’s dogsbody Klove (Patrick Troughton, in a wig and makeup that makes him look rather like Liam Gallagher’s granddad), who is an idiot. Klove obligingly lets them in and they proceed to set fire to a few bits of the castle, but don’t actually bother looking that hard for Dracula himself. (The damage to the matte painting of the castle seems to be much more severe than to the actual set.) Feeling the job has been done, the villagers toddle off home, only to discover that all their womenfolk have been killed by rubber bats on strings, despite taking refuge in the church. Blimey.

All this is, to be perfectly honest, largely immaterial to the actual plot of the film – although I suppose it does explain why the villagers are so bad tempered for the rest of the movie and why Dracula appears strikingly reluctant to leave his house throughout (clearly concerned about leaving Klove in charge). The proper story kicks off at this point as we meet fresh-faced mittel-European youths Simon and Sarah (Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley), who are in lurve. However, they are concerned by the roguish antics of Simon’s brother Paul (Christopher Matthews). In a slightly dodgy plot development, one of Paul’s conquests goes a bit bunny-boilerish and accuses him of rape, forcing him to flee across the border (which border is not elaborated upon). He pitches up in the village from the start of the movie, where the men are clearly still soldiering on despite everything (the local inn has a barmaid, who in the circumstances is not as well treated as you might expect). Anyway, he does not get a warm reception and – would you believe it? – finds himself heading castle-wards before much time has elapsed. Meanwhile, Simon and Sarah are still looking for him and their attempt to follow his trail inevitably sees them also heading into danger before too long…

Scars of Dracula is a movie which plays strictly according to the classic horror rulebook: inasmuch as any major character with a fondness for an immoral lifestyle is writing their own death warrant, while all those on the path of virtue are essentially untouchable. I think they probably overdo this element a bit: it’s okay to make your good guys nice people, but Waterman and Hanley are such an incredibly insipid couple that it’s impossible to really care about them. It doesn’t help much that, despite the period setting, all the young characters come across as well-brought-up present day kids in fancy dress – an impression only bolstered by an infelicitously-framed shot which reveals that Paul’s choice of sleeping attire is a pair of bright red Y-fronts.

That said, it’s not as if anyone turns up to a Hammer Dracula to see the supporting cast. You come to see Christopher Lee doing his stuff – and, as these things go, he gets a fair amount of screen time here. The script actually gives Lee the chance to play Dracula with a little more depth than usual – there’s a lot of material here which is, broadly speaking, derived from Stoker’s original novel, which means that Lee gets the chance to retain a little dignity and intelligence, rather than simply being a slavering fiend lurking in a ruined church (which he spends a lot of time doing in later Hammer movies).

Despite all this, as had become traditional, Christopher Lee really had to be dragged into the studio and (almost literally) blackmailed into participating. And even this was at the behest of the distributors, who weren’t interested in a non-Lee Dracula movie. Hammer had originally planned to recast and relaunch the series, much as they did with their Frankenstein series in the same year, but their backers insisted that this be, nominally, part of the same continuity that started in 1958.

(Inevitably, one has to wonder who Hammer had in mind to play their new Dracula: I’m not aware of any documentation on this being available. The obvious choice for me would have been Ralph Bates, were it not for the fact he’d been in the previous film as one of the Count’s acolytes (not to mention that he was also the new Frankenstein in Horror of Frankenstein). No-one else in the Hammer rep company really fits the bill for me.)

This is why the film opens in the way it does: the original script was to start with Dracula in his castle doing his thing. The vomiting bat sequence was the quickest way of restoring the character, but this is inevitably one of the things that draws criticism from hard-core Hammer fans – not because the bat is rubbish (though it is), but because at the end of the previous movie Dracula was destroyed in England, and this movie opens with his remains being back in Transylvania (not identified as such on screen), with no explanation given.

I expect it must have been Klove who did all the necessary travelling around and sweeping up. One of the consequences of keeping Scars of Dracula in-continuity with the earlier movies is that Troughton’s playing a character with the same name and job as someone who was apparently shot dead in Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Is this meant to be the same Klove, miraculously recovered?

Well, the first Klove (Philip Latham) was a lugubrious fanatic, but he dressed smartly and was a credible butler. Troughton’s Klove is an idiot who dresses like a yokel and quite frankly isn’t up to scratch as a domestic of any kind. Presumably the Klove family have some sort of ongoing contract with Dracula to do for him, and Troughton’s character was the only person available to do the work. Dracula seems to accept that you just can’t get the staff these days with commendable equanimity.

‘Feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic’, etc.

Nevertheless, Klove is really the pivotal character of the movie (honest), and on top of this as a result of his presence we get an unexpected insight into the domestic arrangements at Castle Dracula. Klove spends his days whiling away the time in his horrible quarters, getting tricked into opening the gates by passing vampire hunters, chopping up corpses and dissolving them in an old tin bath, removing crucifixes from the busts of visiting starlets, and being branded with a red-hot sword whenever he gets something wrong. What kind of money is he making? What must the initial job advert have looked like?

One’s mind inevitably wanders into territory such as this during Scars of Dracula. This is despite an attempt by Hammer to up the gore and sex quotient in an attempt to compete with the stronger meat provided by American exploitation movies of the period. To be honest it’s fairly mild stuff, compared to later movies – the nudity content consists of a pair of bare buttocks, and Baker doesn’t seem very comfortable in his handling of the gore. The importance to the plot of rubber bats on strings is also a problem: at various points the bats are required to savage people to death and wrest crosses from their persons, and all of this looks about as convincing as you’d expect.

The main problem with this film is not to do with the production values, however, as these are mostly pretty good: and there is of course a lush and atmospheric James Bernard score to be savoured. The problem is that, despite the fact that Dracula gets some good material and the film is occasionally striking and involving, it’s essentially bereft of new ideas. Taste the Blood of Dracula had interesting things to offer on the subjects of morality and the clash of generations – but Scars of Dracula isn’t really about anything beyond Dracula noshing on his guests and mistreating his staff. It’s simply a very mixed bag of elements, all present for different reasons, and as a result the film lacks the strong identity of the best Hammer Draculas. Still sort of fun, though.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 13th 2004:

Hello again, everyone – and here we are once more at the start of blockbuster season, a part of the cinemagoing calendar with pleasures and pains all is own. First off the blocks this year is popcorn auteur Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing – but then again you probably knew that already, given the saturation-level publicity it’s been given (the theatrical trailer alone seems to have been on nearly as often as the ‘Hurt me Gunter! Make me bleed!’ one).

Very much in the tradition of Sommers’ mega-grossing Mummy movies, Van Helsing kicks off with a loving pastiche of the Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s, depicting the terrible success of the unholy experiments of Dr Frankenstein (Sam West doing a pretty fair Colin Clive impersonation), and the sacking of his castle by the traditional mob of revolting peasants. But hang on! Who’s this lurking unexpectedly on the scene? Blow me if it isn’t Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, in a hairstyle and costume that unaccountably reminded me of Ricky Gervais in his New Romantic incarnation). Having backed Frankenstein’s experiments for reasons of his own, the Count now wants the Monster (Shuler Hensley)…

Fast forward one year and we get to meet our eponymous hero, played (rather well) by Hugh Jackman of X-Men fame. He’s a sort of extreme-prejudice exorcist for the Vatican, tracking down creatures of the night and giving them a good slap, armed only with crossbow, stakes, circular-saw-thingy, shampoo and curling tongs. For his latest mission he and his comedy sidekick Karl (The Lord of the Rings‘ David Wenham, doing exactly what the part calls for) are packed off to Transylvania to aid tight-trousered Gypsy princess Kate Beckinsale in her struggle against Dracula and his evil female minions (no, not the Cheeky Girls). But just what is Dracula up to? And how is it connected with Van Helsing’s own mysterious past?

Naturally, this milieu and these characters come with a considerable history of which Sommers seems reasonably aware. It’s quite well known that after the death of Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula and Van Helsing), his widow successfully sued the makers of the 1922 film Nosferatu for plagiarism and got nearly every print destroyed, on the grounds that it was an unlicensed rip-off with Stoker going uncredited. Well, Stoker isn’t credited on this movie either (certainly not prominently – and neither are Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson or Curt Siodmak, for that matter), but the studio needn’t worry as their film bears roughly zero resemblence to the original novel.

Obviously not keen on contending with fond memories of Lugosi, Karloff, Cushing, and so on, Sommers has crafted this tale as a camp, tongue-in-cheek, steampunk swashbuckler, which puts simply being outrageously entertaining ahead of making too much sense. The prologue aside, it doesn’t resemble the horror films of Universal or Hammer very much – although in some ways it is very similar indeed to Roman Polanski’s marvellous Dance of the Vampires, even down to stealing a few visual flourishes.

It’s also operating in narrative territory perilously close to last year’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, sharing several characters, the same actor in the villain’s role, and a virtually identical action sequence. (I suppose it also has quite a lot in common with Beckinsale’s last big movie, Underworld, too.) But this is by far a better treatment of this sort of material – winningly played, energetic enough to cover the holes in the plot, and very inventive – Sommers even crowbars in a Bond spoof without utterly destroying the credibility of the movie.

Admittedly, after an irresistible first half hour or so, the pace flags, and the way the film lunges from one headbangingly overblown CGI set piece to another gets a bit wearying before the end. (The special effects range from the impressive to the rather ropy.) It’s too long, and the final scene will doubtless be too appallingly schmaltzy by far for many tastes. But it’s wittily played by Beckinsale and the Australians (coincidence though it doubtless is, the fact that we can now have a blockbuster where 75% of the leads are Aussies shows just how much muscle the Antipodes now wields in the movie business), and skilfully put together by Sommers. It’s not deep. It’s not thoughtful. It has no aspirations towards seriousness or genuine art. But it’s a lot better than it looks on paper: I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. A good omen for the summer.

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