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Posts Tagged ‘vampires’

Nostalgia’s a funny old thing, and it can get you in different ways and come at you from unexpected directions. I was a couple of years too young to see Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys on its initial release in 1987, but I was certainly aware of it and keen to actually watch it (1987 being the year in which I discovered Hammer and started actually watching proper horror films). Those were the days in which you actually had to wait for films to turn up on TV, and it wasn’t until the very end of 1990 (if memory serves, anyway) that The Lost Boys turned up on terrestrial UK TV. Back in those days the long gap between release and small-screen premiere sometimes meant the later was almost an event in its own right, and I do vaguely recall there being something of a boom in interest in The Lost Boys in early 1991: songs off the soundtrack being re-released, and so on. It was a strange and vivid time, for all sorts of reasons, both personal and historical, and watching The Lost Boys again brings them all back to me: I have no great associations connected with the actual theatrical release of this film, but I can get very nostalgic about its first couple of TV showings. As I say, it’s a funny old thing.

Happily, the film itself bears up well all these years later. After some preliminary scene-setting stuff in the small Californian town of Santa Carla (people being dragged into the sky by unseen monsters, etc), it settles down to being about the travails of the Emerson family, who are just in the process of moving to the town from Arizona: mum Lucy (Dianne West) has got divorced, and is moving in with her eccentric old father (Barnard Hughes), bringing with her her less than impressed sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim).

While Lucy gets a job working at the local video store – oh, it’s so 1980s! – and finds herself courteously wooed by her employer, Max (Ed Herrman), it seems that romance is on the cards for Michael, too, when he meets a mysterious young woman named star (Jami Gertz) – although she seems to be in the orbit of a slightly menacing gang of youths led by a chap named David (Kiefer Sutherland). No chance of any such amatory entanglement for Sam, however, although he does make friends down at the local comic book store (the fact that this movie was made by Warner Brothers, owner of DC Comics, means this the only 1980s comic book store in which there doesn’t seem to be a single issue of X-Men on display). His new chums the Frog brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) keep giving him horror comics, indicating they could somehow prove useful.

And indeed they do, as Michael’s various escapades with David and the gang have unexpected consequences: a sudden lust for human blood, a tendency to show up in mirrors as a translucent phantom, a distaste for sunlight, and so on. Sam is not impressed: ‘My own brother, a goddamn vampire…! You wait till Mom finds out…!’ However, Lucy is happily oblivious to all of this as she is courted by the mild-mannered Max, and it looks like the only help the boys can call upon is that of the less than impressive Frog brothers…

Historically, The Lost Boys is quite an interesting movie – it wasn’t quite the first vampire movie to be made by a major studio in the 1980s, as there was a whole batch of these around this time – the original Fright Night, Near Dark, The Hunger, and so on. Of all of these, The Lost Boys is probably most influenced by Fright Night in the way it manages to blend comedy with horror, but its innovation is to suggest that vampires can be young and cool and ride motorbikes – Fright Night is to some extent spoofing the conventions of the traditional vampire film, but The Lost Boys is doing something new, and its influence on later films and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is obvious.

That said, I would add that I think this is probably a better film than most of those others in the teen vampire-comedy-horror subgenre – Near Dark is, I would suggest, the best actual vampire horror movie made in America in the 1980s, while it’s a long time since I’ve actually seen The Hunger; too long to comment on it with confidence. The Lost Boys is funny when it’s trying to be funny, and – well, it’s not actually that scary, but does a good job of actually looking like it’s trying to be scary in the appropriate places.

Plus it’s much cleverer and more subtle than you would expect from what initially looks like an unusually slick and atmospheric teen comic horror. You expect the gag here to be that the parental figures stay secure in their world of misguided conservatism, leaving the teenagers to save the town from the vampires – but the great twist of the movie is the way that it subverts this. It is a surprisingly good twist, but then I may just be saying that because it took me by surprise the first time I watched the movie: knowing my vampire lore, I noticed the major clue that the writers drop into the script, but didn’t clock it as being significant. It seems to me that it turns the whole movie into a comment on the self-obsessed self-importance of teenagers, with much of the significant plot work being done by much older characters whom they tend to ignore or dismiss; it also sets up one of the funniest last lines of any movie that I can recall.

As I say, it is very 80s, which means gribbly special effects, interesting hairstyles, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, and some good-looking actors in the principle boy and girl roles who never ended up making much of an impression anywhere else. You can sort of see why Kiefer Sutherland was the only young performer to go on to significant stardom, although this is not to say that the more senior actors are anything other than capable in their roles. My memory of this film from initially watching it is mainly of the soundtrack, which stands up unusually well – there are a few songs which I will hear and instantly think of this film, most obviously the cover of ‘People are Strange’ which plays over the titles. Schumacher covers it all with his usual style: I still don’t think his Batman films were any good, but this one definitely was. I don’t think this is a guilty pleasure or even a Good Bad movie, really: it’s just a lot of fun, which manages to be both slick and clever.

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One fine day in the summer of 1995, I finished my university finals. Nearly everyone went off to get wrecked in celebration, but not I: even back then I find that I was dabbling with the abstemiousness which has now become my standard operating procedure, while other habits and tendencies were beginning to manifest themselves: I left my peers in the bar that lunchtime and went off to the cheapest of Hull city centre’s three cinemas, which was a place that gave one the chance to catch up on films that had come out a few months earlier at the now-unbelievable price of only £1.50 a ticket. So, you may be wondering, what did I see? Well, I caught the afternoon showing of Leon. And then, feeling almost dizzy with the heady knowledge I would never have to answer an essay question on epistemology again, I saw the teatime show of Interview with the Vampire. And finally, with the words ‘what the hell!’ distinctly resonating in my brain, I saw the movie version of Stargate in the evening.

My main recollection of that day is an inexorable decline in the quality of the movies, to be honest: Leon remains a film I really like (I still think it’s far and away Luc Besson’s best work), while I’ve never been able to get on with Stargate in any of its incarnations, to be honest (this despite generally being well-disposed towards Roland Emmerich’s SF movies). But what of Interview with the Vampire, first released in 1994 and directed by Neil Jordan. Well, I tend to like Jordan’s stuff, or perhaps it’s better to say I usually find things to enjoy in his films: I liked the visual style of The Company of Wolves and the sheer bonkersness of Greta, for example.

I have to say, though, that I found Interview with the Vampire to be slimmer pickings than most of his work – which was a surprise to me, as I have been a fan of vampire movies since discovering Hammer horror in 1987, at least. Mind you, I also found Anne Rice’s source novel to be pretty heavy going – I think I originally bought the damn thing second-hand in 1998, bounced off it a couple of times, found another copy in a ‘free books’ box outside the neighbours’ house fifteen years later, and finally ploughed through it then. (A review of the book is here.)

Any version of this story you care to mention concerns the life (brief), death (very brief) and thereafter (extremely lengthy) of a vampire named Louis (played by Bradley Pitt), who is telling his tale to a Studs Terkel-esque writer (Christian Slater). Louis, by his own account, is driven to the verge of suicidal madness by the death of his wife and child in 1790s Louisiana, at which point he crosses the path of a hedonistic vampire named Lestat (Tom Cruise). With Louis’ permission, Lestat brings him over to his side of the street, with the promise of immortality and eternal youth…

Yes, I suppose we’ve all wondered what we would do with such a gift. What Louis mostly does with it is brood and complain, although occasionally he takes a break in order to complain and brood. Apparently he doesn’t like drinking human blood, which leads one to wonder why he agreed to being turned into a vampire in the first place. God knows why Lestat puts up with him (this is not a healthy relationship). Lestat decides that having a child will save their partnership (not the first time someone has made this rather suspect decision) and turns a young plague survivor named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst, in her movie debut), and the three of them pass many years brooding, complaining, and thinning out the local population.

There’s a good deal more in this vein (sorry) but it has to be said that this is not a film with a particularly strong narrative line. The only thing that makes it a conventional narrative (as opposed to just a series of episodic vignettes) is the persistent focus on Louis’ relationship with Lestat. Possibly one of the reasons I’ve never been a particular fan of this film is that it takes all the trappings of a traditional vampire movie but uses them to tell what’s basically a story about a dysfunctional relationship – a bit like the Hunger Games movies, which come on like dystopian SF thrillers but turn out to be something more nuanced and introspective.

The thing that makes Interview with the Vampire rather unusual for a big-budget studio movie is that all those Gothic horror trappings are basically there to hide the basic subtext of the story: which is that of a man forming a relationship with another man, and becoming part of a hidden subculture which more traditional folk sometimes find either alluring or revolting. The main character feels terribly guilty about his new lifestyle. Needless to say both Pitt and Cruise look – how best to put this? Androgynous isn’t quite the right word – somewhat ambiguous in this movie, with lovely flowing long hair and clear complexions. In short, this is surely one of the gayest films to come out of a major studio in the 20th century.

I said something similar in the review of the book, and, as you may have seen, someone took issue with this, suggesting that Rice’s vampires transcend conventional notions of romance and sexuality. Hmmm, well, maybe. The thing is, any sane person writing about vampires is going to use them as a metaphor for something – to do anything else would be to perpetrate vacuous fantasy – and it’s worth mentioning that at one point Rice rejigged the story so that Pitt’s character would be a woman, to be played by Cher. Her reasoning? She assumed that Hollywood would be too homophobic for the story as she wrote it. I’ll just put my case down here, shall I?

The BBC showed Interview with the Vampire the other night, and the following evening their late movie was Behind the Candelabra, which is either one of those coincidences or evidence that someone in scheduling has a sense of humour, for if you do accept that the primary subtext of Jordan’s movie concerns a gay relationship, then the throughlines of both it and the Soderbergh film are strikingly similar, with Louis as the young semi-innocent and Lestat as the preening older man (Lestat does play the piano in a couple of key scenes, as well). Of course, what may keep the film from being wholly embraced by the LGBT community is that one of the main drivers of the plot is that Louis spends most of the movie feeling terribly guilty about being a vampire (i.e. gay) and most of the vampires (i.e. …oh, you get the idea) are nasty, bitter, bitchy types.

None of this is really why I’m not a particular fan of this film – there are lots of different ways of doing vampire movies, from Nosferatu to Near Dark to Captain Kronos, for the vampire metaphor is unusually adaptable. I think it’s mainly just the style of the thing, which feels very much like the work of a novelist rather than a screenwriter: a bit too much reliance on voice-over for exposition, and a fondness for characters telling each other things rather than doing things. All mouth and no trousers, really.

All the moments you remember from the film have much to do with the script: they’re visual rather than narrative. Jordan mounts a very impressive movie with a real sense of style about it, and gets a really good performance out of an eleven-year-old Kirsten Dunst. None of the performances are what you’d call actively bad; Antonio Banderas gets one of his better early English-language roles (now I think of it, it would be fascinating to see Almodovar’s take on this material). Tom Cruise is… well, he’s in his ‘give me an Oscar’ mode, which he is wont to slip into in this kind of prestige production (perhaps we should be grateful he mainly does thrillers these days), and his performance is just pitched a bit too high.

I feel obliged to say, though, that it’s still a damn sight better than the sequel. But if we’re going to look in that direction, it is interesting to note that if What We Do In The Shadows (both movie and TV show) is spoofing anything in particular, it’s this movie (the episodes with the vampire council make this particularly clear). Not many things this year have made me laugh as often or as hard as the What We Do… TV show, so I suppose Interview with the Vampire deserves credit for that. Fairly faint praise, I admit, but sometimes you have to take your damnation wherever you can find it.

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It wasn’t very often that Sagacious Dave, ursine chief of Advanced Self-Erudition at my last-but-two place of work, would venture to recommend a movie or TV show to me. Perhaps, given my part in taking him along to not one but two Jason Statham movies, he just felt it was difficult to make a suggestion of equivalent magnitude or quality. I don’t know. Pretty much the only things I remember him giving the thumbs up were a Ken Burns documentary series – possibly the one on the Vietnam War, I can’t be sure – and What We Do in the Shadows, which he said was very funny.

I made polite noises and never bothered to watch it. Looking back I am trying to remember why this was. Partly because it would probably have involved iPlayering the whole thing, which I only do in exceptional circumstances, but also, I suspect, because it was about vampires, which – despite my many-decades love of Hammer Films, the fact that the only fan letter I’ve ever written was to Kim Newman for Anno Dracula, and the huge pile of Vampire: The Masquerade RPG supplements in my storage unit – I am actually a little bit sick of vampires, post-Twilight. Vampires have got a bit dull and anaemic; I would quote Mr Newman’s line about vampires being to horror what Star Trek is to SF, but for the fact that I obviously do still rather like Star Trek.

However, everything has stopped, we are seemingly becalmed in this half-locked-down netherworld, and sooner or later I expect I will end up watching everything I can lay my hands on, if the electricity or my money doesn’t run out first. Thus I found myself giving my attention to What We Do in the Shadows, although it suddenly occurs to me that Sagacious Dave was probably recommending the TV sitcom, not the movie it was originally based on. Oh well!

The movie was made in 2014 and written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Both of these guys have had pretty respectable careers, one way or another, but Waititi’s has suddenly gone thermonuclear since he began his association with Marvel Studios (younger readers, ask your parents: back in the Old World they made many popular films), effortlessly transitioning from this to the acclaimed Jojo Rabbit from… good heavens, was it only the start of this year?

The premise and conceit of the movie is quickly made clear: this is a mockumentary about a group of vampires sharing a house in present-day Wellington, New Zealand. It seems they are there because the former lover of one of them, Viago (Waititi) emigrated to NZ and he decided to follow her there, taking the others with him. Viago is nearly 400 years old and a bit of a prissy fop; living with him are Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who was turned in the 19th century and is a bit of a rebel; Vlad (Clement), who was known in mediaeval times as ‘Vladislav the Poker’ and is an insane pervert; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is 8,000 years old, somewhat atavistic, and tends to keep to himself.

The film follows the vampires through the months leading up to the main event on the social calendar of Wellington’s unexpectedly extensive undead population: the Unholy Masquerade! The status quo is thrown rather out of whack when one of their intended victims, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), ends up being transformed into a new vampire by accident, leading to a fierce rivalry between him and Deacon and tragedy for the household (sort of). Meanwhile Viago pines over his former love (now a nonagenarian in a nursing home) and Vlad broods over his long-standing feud with his nemesis, a vampire known as ‘the Beast’…

It’s kind of implicit in the premise of the film that this is a spoof, not just of vampire movies but of the fly-on-the-wall documentary too, for there is something immensely silly about the whole notion of the film. The opening moments of the movie do nothing to dispel this: an alarm clock goes off, a hand emerges from a coffin to switch it off, and then Waititi very cautiously makes his way to the curtains to ensure the sun has indeed gone down. A mostly ridiculous ‘house meeting’ ensues in which it turns out that the vampire entrusted with doing the washing-up has been a bit remiss in carrying out his chores… for the last five years. It’s a very funny scene, and the performances by the ensemble are uniformly excellent and well-pitched, but I did find myself wondering just how they were going to sustain the film even for a relatively brief 85 minutes or so.

Well, the film continues to send up documentaries and reality TV shows (a scene where two very laid-back and matter-of-fact local cops have a look round the house is one of the highlights), but what makes the film really succeed is the fact that it isn’t just being played for laughs – there is still a real (if slightly odd) sense in which this is a bona fide horror movie. Partly this is due to the fact that it doesn’t skimp on the fake blood, but there are characters who really do get killed, and the pathos of some of the characters’ situations is handled relatively seriously. It has to be said, though, that these are really just grace notes in what is still essentially a send-up, but one of notable scope and intelligence.

Essentially, the good gags keep on coming: the visit from the cops, various encounters with an unusually well-mannered pack of lycanthropes (‘We’re werewolves, not swearwolves’), cheery spoofs of various aspects of vampire lore and other movies in this genre (Clement is basically doing an extended parody of Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula in the 1993 adaptation), and so on. It is all well-played and well put-together, and is another demonstration of how even a low-budget movie can include very polished special effects these days.

I enjoyed it all rather lot: I wasn’t exactly rolling off the bed laughing throughout, but it’s clever and engaging and does have that unexpected edge of darkness that makes it just a little bit more interesting than would otherwise have been the case. Possibly this may go down in history as an early stepping stone in the irresistible rise of Taika Waititi, but it’s a fun and enjoyable film in its own right.

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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 an 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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It comes as a bit of a shock to me to realise that I’ve been a fan of Hammer horror for just about thirty years, my personal satanic baptism following the BBC documentary The Studio That Dripped Blood and the accompanying season of films. What seems almost incredible, though, is the realisation that some of these films were less than twenty years old at the time. It’s impossible to be objective about these things, of course, but it feels like a great cultural chasm separated the early 1970s from the late 1980s in a way that isn’t quite the case when it comes to the late 1990s and nowadays. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Britain had a viable national film industry in 1970 in a way it doesn’t have now.

One thing I am sure of is that I was technically a bit too young to watch most of these films at the time – although I note that when older Hammer films get revived on the big screen these days, they often get recertified much more leniently (as a 12A rather than an 18, for instance). Well, whatever, I’m sure a steady diet of gore, nudity, and the occult never did me any harm (he says, looking around his tiny rented garret, conveniently forgetting his becalmed career and string of failed relationships). That’s not the same thing as saying all of these movies were actually any good, of course, but sometimes a really iffy Hammer film has fleeting pleasures of its own.

I first saw Jimmy Sangster’s 1971 film Lust for a Vampire at the back end of 1989, and even at the time I remember being rather unimpressed with it. This is another Fine-Style production, the sequel to The Vampire Lovers, and while a few of the supporting cast return, none of the featured players do (and everyone’s playing different characters anyway).

We find ourselves once again in early 19th century Austria – this is one of the comparatively rare Hammer films which is quite specific about its setting – where, to no-one’s particular surprise, the undead are stirring. A cheery, buxom village maid is kidnapped by the evil Count Karnstein (Mike Raven) and used in a dark, gory ritual to resurrect the comely female vampire Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard, on this occasion), although she spends most of the movie calling herself Mircalla. It’s obviously not made entirely clear, but it seems that Count Karnstein is supposed to be the Man in Black from the previous movie, up to his old tricks again (most of the impact of the character comes from the fact that Raven is being dubbed by Valentine Dyall, which is slightly ironic given Dyall himself famously played the Man in Black on the radio). The resurrection scene is interesting in the way it recalls similar moments from both Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula, but the striking thing is how much more explicit the satanic overtones become over the years – another example of standards changing (this trend really culminates with Dracula AD 1972, where Christopher Lee is restored at the climax of a full-fledged Black Mass).

Well, anyway. Next we meet novelistic aristo Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson), a bit of a charming rogue who’s in the area to research his new novel. The local landlord obligingly delivers a mighty slab of exposition concerning the Karnstein family and their vampiric activities, but this doesn’t stop LeStrange from heading up to Castle Karnstein to have a poke about. What follows is a genuinely atmospheric and slightly eerie sequence as he finds himself stalked by a trio of silent, robed young women, which actually recalls an episode from early in the novel of Dracula itself. This may be the single most effective bit of the movie.

The punchline, of course, is that the girls are actually pupils from the local finishing school, visiting the castle of the vampires on a school trip with their tutor (Ralph Bates). LeStrange swings by the school with them, finds himself engaged by the cornucopia of feminine pulchritude on display, and then absolutely smitten by the arrival of Mircalla as a new pupil. LeStrange promptly wangles himself a job as the school’s new English teacher in order to give Mircalla some real attention. Of course, when the school standards board get wind of this sort of behaviour, he’s bound to get it in the neck – but perhaps he has more pressing concerns to worry about…

Lust for a Vampire isn’t really very much more distinguished than its title suggests, though of course it does give good T&A (well, T, mainly). That said, there are moments which suggest a genuinely interesting film might have been made from Tudor Gates’ script, and it is worth noting that Hammer originally envisaged a movie where Ingrid Pitt reprised her role as Mircalla, Peter Cushing played the creepy school teacher, and Terence Fisher directed. As it turned out, Pitt declined to return (she made Countess Dracula instead), Cushing dropped out very late on due to his wife’s declining health, and Fisher ended up being replaced by Jimmy Sangster. For what it’s worth, Sangster and Bates do the best they can with some slightly rum material, but Stensgaard is definitely not in Ingrid Pitt’s league as an actress. The sense of a bit of a bodged job is just compounded by the producers’ decision (without the knowledge of even the director) to soundtrack the movie’s key love scene with the rather execrable pop song Strange Love.

The film falls down as badly as it does simply due to bad characterisation, poor scripting, and some uninspired performances. The fact that the protagonist is apparently an unprincipled rake who cons his way into a school in order to seduce one of the girls studying there is, well, not the sort of plot development you can imagine featuring in a modern film. It also robs the film of any overriding sense of morality – there’s no Van Helsing figure here, just a lot of people wandering about with extremely poor impulse control (they wheel on a Catholic cardinal, who just happens to be passing, for the climax). That said, it’s a fairly odd school, with much more casual nudity and implied lesbianism than one might expect to find on the curriculum. A stronger script might have made this a bit more excusable, but as it is, the film just comes across as leery.

This time around Mircalla seems a lot more interested in boys than on her initial outing, with the lesbian vampire aspects of the story toned down a bit (apparently at the behest of the BBFC). An awful lot of horror films contain not-very-thinly-veiled metaphors for and about sex, but on this occasion it looks rather like a cigar is just a cigar: you can give a rather sour interpretation to The Vampire Lovers, where lesbianism/vampirism is a scourge which must be stamped out, but in this case? Beyond the revelation that many men like blondes with large breasts, the film doesn’t have much to say for itself – it is purely exploitative in this regard.

Viewed from a modern perspective, there is a lot about Lust for a Vampire which is either creatively or morally suspect. It’s a slightly less iconoclastic vampire movie than its forebear, to be true, but most of the innovation is replaced by either half-baked melodrama or simple prurient exploitation. It entertains as a Hammer horror only really at the most basic level. Ralph Bates later regretted having anything to do with it, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I wouldn’t suggest this film to anyone but a Hammer completist.

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Early in 1995, I think, my local art house cinema ran an extremely short season of vampire movies – if you can call two movies a season, anyway. One of these was Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, which is a very untraditional example of the subgenre – I went to see it and rather liked it, unlike a friend of mine, who admitted she was only interested in vampire movies that were sexy. The other one was – a bit of a curve ball – Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, then about to enjoy its diamond anniversary. I can barely bring myself to admit it, but I passed up this opportunity to enjoy a Hammer horror revival on the big screen – it wouldn’t happen these days, obviously. I’ve no idea if my friend went along to see The Vampire Lovers, but if she did I imagine she would have been well satisfied, for this is definitely intended to be one of the sexy vampire movies.

The story, such as it is, opens in properly Gothic style with a portentous narration from Douglas Wilmer, playing a magnificently bewigged vampire hunter. The vampires in this movie are a weird, almost spiritual menace, though they still sleep in coffins some of the time and are strangely attached to their shrouds. Wilmer has an axe to grind, as his family has already suffered from the attentions of the undead. A predictably comely young bloodsucker shows up (played by Kirsten Lindholm, an extremely attractive young woman in a movie not short on them) only to get her head chopped off almost straight away. So it goes sometimes.

Inasmuch as any of what follows makes rational sense, we may surmise that the rest of the film is set some years later. The first section of the film basically constitutes another prologue, greatly extended this time, telling of how General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) comes to take into his home a mysterious and alluring young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Marcilla becomes very close to the General’s niece Laura (Pippa Steel), which may or may not have something to do with Laura’s sudden and rapid decline and death under mysterious circumstances, accompanied by some rather suggestive nightmares, not to mention vampire bites about the chest region.

It’s perhaps more rewarding to consider The Vampire Lovers as a succession of impressionistic set pieces than as a conventional narrative. It certainly goes some way to excusing repetitiveness of some of the plotting, as all the above essentially starts to happen again, only in the home of an Englishman named Morton (George Cole) – quite what Morton is doing in Austria in the early 19th century is never really established, nor is what language everyone is speaking, but I digress. Morton likewise finds himself taking Marcilla into his home, except now she is going by the name Carmilla. She seems just as keen on the company of Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) as she was on Laura, too, despite the misgivings of her governess (Kate O’Mara). Is history about to repeat itself? Will handsome local lad Carl (Jon Finch) realise what’s going on, and will Peter Cushing come back for the climax of the movie?

As you can perhaps tell, narrative rigour is not The Vampire Lovers’ strongest suit, for not only is it rather repetitive, it doesn’t really bother to keep the audience in the picture when it comes to some fairly basic plot elements, such as what’s actually going on. It seems to be the case that Wilmer’s vampire hunting at the start of the film was not that thorough, and at least one (and possibly more) of the beasties has returned, many years later, to ravage the daughters of the local aristocracy. But who is the mother of Marcilla (or Carmilla)? Is she a vampire too? Who, for that matter, is the Man in Black who occasionally pops up to survey Carmilla’s (or Marcilla’s) doings with such evident satisfaction? Both of them disappear out of the film without explanation.

An uncharitable viewer might conclude that the film is less concerned with trivial things like coherent plotting than it is with Ingrid Pitt getting her kit off and sinking her fake fangs into the necks and bosoms of various other cast members (many stories of said fangs falling out and having to be retrieved from the cleavage of Kate O’Mara by enthusiastic prop hands are in circulation). The film is very much a product of its time, an exploitation movie in the truest sense – calculated to fully exploit the more liberal censorship regime which came into force in 1970, by including more explicit nudity and gore than had been possible in previous Hammer horror movies. This is certainly a much more lurid film than anything from the company’s 1960s output.

How much of this new direction was forced upon Hammer by the general decline of the British industry and how much by the film’s producers, Harry Fine and Michael Style, is a bit unclear – another oddity of the film is that it is, uniquely, a co-production between Hammer and American International Pictures (noted makers of some of Vincent Price’s best horror films) – you would have to be a bit imaginative to see this film as a true synthesis of the two company’s styles, though.

Apart from the decision to go in a more brazenly exploitative direction, The Vampire Lovers’ greatest innovation is the casting of Ingrid Pitt in its main role. Pitt is a world away from the typical decorative, fragile Hammer starlet – she has a powerful, mature presence, and is a better actress than you might assume. Of course, she’s quite obviously considerably older than the character she’s meant to be playing, not to mention the young girls upon whom she preys (Pitt was over 30 when she made the movie), but this is excusable in the circumstances: it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

The various scenes of Ingrid Pitt wafting about graveyards in something diaphanous with a plunging neckline have acquired a certain iconic quality of their own, and it’s easy to see why she’s just as much a Hammer icon as Cushing or Christopher Lee, despite only appearing in a couple of films for the company. That said, it’s equally easy to discern a little discomfort on the part of film-makers when it comes to making a film about such a powerful, sexually aggressive woman – in the end, of course, it’s a gaggle of middle-aged men who end her reign of slightly kinky terror, but even before this, it’s strongly implied that Carmilla (etc) is really the pawn of the Man in Black and not nearly as independent a woman as she might seem.

It would be slightly ridiculous to try and claim The Vampire Lovers as some kind of feminist movie, anyway, given it was largely designed to incorporate as much soft-core lesbianism and nudity as Hammer could possibly get away with. These days it seems mostly rather tame, and as a result the shortcomings of the plot are laid as bare as the younger female members of the cast. But there is the reliable pleasure of a Peter Cushing performance to consider, and the perhaps unexpected one of Ingrid Pitt’s performance, too. In the end this is a landmark movie in the history of Hammer horror, regardless of how good or not you think the film actually is.

 

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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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Horror movies are a slightly culty genre as a whole, and within that genre the movies made by Hammer have a very healthy cult following of their own. Even so, some of these films have a particularly dedicated following far out of proportion to their profile or financial success – which makes them cult movies made by a cult studio within a cult genre. Cultiness cubed! Is this even possible? Well, anyway: one such film is Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (this is one of those films where no-one seems able to agree on how to punctuate the title), made in 1972 but only released a couple of years later (a fate which befell a few late-period Hammers). The only way to describe Captain Kronos is as ‘different’ (well, Sir Christopher Lee has gone on record as saying it was ‘the worst film Hammer ever made’, which surely only suggests he hasn’t seen Prehistoric Women, to name but one). I’ve always really liked it; it’s one of the very few Hammers that I recorded off the TV and kept, back when commercial VHS releases were beyond my pocket. (Happily the copyright holders have made it freely available to view over a popular video-sharing website.)

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Our story opens in the tiny village of Durward, somewhere in central Europe in the 18th century (according to the trailer, anyway: the film is typically vague about this, but we’re definitely in the heart of Hammerland). Durward is a tiny little place, as you’d expect from a very low-budget film, and its young people are living in fear: a dark figure has begun preying on the rosy-cheeked young maidens of the village, reducing them to raddled old hags who peg out from old age almost on the spot.

Luckily, local doctor Marcus (John Carson) knows someone who may be able to help, calling in his old army buddy Captain Kronos (Horst Janson, but dubbed – bizarrely retaining a German accent – by Julian Holloway) and his sidekick, hunchbacked professor Hieronymous Grost (John Cater). Kronos and Grost are professional vampire hunters and are quickly on the case, assisted by a young gypsy girl they’ve picked up on their travels (Caroline Munro, in probably her best role for Hammer). But, given the wide variety of vampires apparently on the loose in Hammerland, the question is not just one of finding the beast, but working out exactly how to kill it, too…

As I say, for a long time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter was a very obscure film, but its profile does seem to be rising: a novelisation was released a few years ago (the 39-year gap between film and book may constitute something of a record) and when Midsomer Murders did their Hammer-pastiche episode a while ago, it was two of the stars of this film that they recruited.

I think one of the reasons for its obscurity was that in many ways it inverts the traditional horror formula. It occurs to me that, structurally, the traditional monster or vampire movie has a lot in common with the classic superhero film, in that you’re waiting for the set-piece sequences where the central character appears and starts doing their thing, whatever that may be: these moments are pretty widely spread in the early part of the film, but slowly get more substantial until the climax rolls around. The main difference is that superhero films are invariably focused on and named after the protagonist, while horror movies tend to much more about the antagonist. When you get what’s purporting to be a horror, or horror-themed movie, but which is named after the hero, it’s usually a sign that you’re really in for much more of an action-adventure caper.

This is a rule-of-thumb I’ve just made up, but it holds true of Van Helsing, Solomon Kane, and Captain Kronos too. The film’s emphasis on action and colour over suspense and atmosphere probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the film is a product of the same creative team responsible for The Avengers and The New Avengers (it has been widely commented that Captain Kronos, which is relatively light on gore and nudity for a late-period Hammer, often looks more like a feature-length TV pilot than a proper movie). Certainly the film has some of the freewheeling style and offbeat humour of The Avengers, with an equally quirky hero – there’s a touch of the Man With No Names about Kronos, who smokes cheroots made of ‘Chinese herbs’ (yeah, right) and carries a samurai sword as well as a cavalry sabre.

Clemens directs with a huge amount of invention and energy, if not much subtlety: flowers wither with the passing of the vampire and the shadow of a crucifix warps as one attacks a young girl in a church. To be honest, he’s making a huge amount of the ‘vampire lore’ in this movie up out of whole cloth – different kinds of vampires attack and can only be destroyed in different ways, vampires have a resuscitating effect on the corpses of toads, and so on – but this is done with enough conviction and imagination to be convincing.

It’s almost enough to stop you noticing the clearly tiny budget on which the film was made – the village of Durward only appears to contain one family, who are progressively wiped out by the vampire as the film goes on (the script doesn’t play this for black comedy, which almost comes as a surprise). If the film is short on peasants, it sometimes seems a little short on plot too: the need for incident results in a large number of set-piece vampire attacks, which get a little repetitive, and a rather preposterous western-pastiche sequence in which a mysterious stranger hires Ian Hendry (who looks vaguely embarrassed to be participating) to pick a fight with Kronos down the local pub. Hendry’s dying-acting is extremely funny, but you have to be paying really close attention to note that the mysterious stranger is actually the villain’s butler (the viewer is bombarded with red herrings as to the vampire’s identity, but there’s never much doubt that the trail is going to lead to the door of the local aristos), rather than just some random bloke.

In the end, everything is resolved with a cameo from Wanda Ventham, a near-enough continuity reference to the Karnstein family from other early 70s Hammer vampire films, and a rather spiffy sword-fight between Kronos and the villain. The villain is played by William Hobbs, for many years the doyen of cinema fight choreographers (other works include the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, Excalibur, and Musical Chairs Game of Thrones) and so this duel is significantly better than you might expect from a low-budget genre movie. Kronos rides off into the sunset, heading for new adventures which never actually materialised.

How much the box-office failure of Captain Kronos was a result of poor distribution, and how much down to the quality of the film itself is a little difficult to say for certain. Perhaps a film as distinctive and strange as this one, with its peculiar juxtaposition of swashbuckling action, vampire horror, and deadpan black humour, was always going to struggle to find a mass audience. At least it seems to be more appreciated now. I could not honestly describe Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter as a classic Hammer horror, but it is still a hugely entertaining film.

 

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Time was when it was easy to generalise grandly and with a veneer of authority about what genres are actually about – ‘the classic horror story,’ one might say, slipping one hand to a lapel in a breezily academic way, ‘is all about sex. Specifically the enforcement of normative socio-sexual codes.’ This is all very well, when you’re talking about the normal socio-sexual behaviour of people who don’t spend all their time in a horror story. How are you supposed to talk about the socio-sexual behaviour of people living in a horror story which is, well, a bit different? Especially when the whole thing is so loaded down with metaphor that it’s blatantly obvious this particular horror story is actually talking about real-world lifestyles?

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Well, look, let’s stop beating about the bush, no pun intended – I finally managed to get through Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, the first time I’ve managed to stagger to the end of one of her books. As you may or may not know, it details the biography of Louis, a member of a secretive minority who exist at something of a remove from conventional society. He was drawn into this world by an older man, Lestat, who is extremely shallow and possessive of his younger friend. Wanting to perpetuate their relationship, but obviously unable to have children in the usual way, Lestat contrives that they adopt a young girl, Claudia, although the circumstances of her upbringing leave Claudia seriously messed up. Louis broods a lot; Lestat bitches, eventually they break up and Louis gets together with another even older guy called Armand who he genuinely loves, although Armand still seems a bit jealous of Lestat, and so on. (There’s a bit more to the plot of this book, by the way, but these are the key beats.)

Now, obviously I’m being selective in describing what happens in Interview with the Vampire, but even so – there’s not a lot here which distinctly screams ‘supernatural horror’. Saying this book has a gay subtext suggests a level of subtlety which quite frankly isn’t there – it’s right there in the text, in some ways the stereotypical gay lifestyle is what this book is about. Hence my queasiness about describing the sexuality involved, specifically in terms of contrast to the usual sort, as the danger of sounding inadvertantly homophobic is severe. I wouldn’t personally choose to describe homosexuals as deviants, aberrant, or abnormal – but in terms of the book, ‘alternative’ is gilding the lily a bit when talking about a lifestyle founded on murder on a massive scale.

It’s funny, really, if I sat down tomorrow and wrote a story where I used zombies as a metaphor to talk about, say, immigration, and through some horrible disaster/extraordinary miracle it got published, I’d probably get slated for being racist or xenophobic. And yet here’s Anne Rice writing a book about gay men which depicts them as soulless, vicious, monstrous killers, and it’s become some sort of classic and the foundation of her career. Then again, I suppose you could argue that the book isn’t explicitly intended to be read as a metaphor for being gay. The problem is that if it isn’t, it’s very hard to see what it actually is about – the ‘gay lifestyle’ stuff is so prominent, as I said, that it’s almost impossible to miss.

This may explain the curious deadness at the heart of the narrative (for me, at least) – this is supposedly a story about a being mired in sin and evil, whose very existence is predicated on it, and yet I got very little sense of genuine angst or moral pain when reading it. Louis goes on, a lot, about his wretched situation as a child of Satan, in terribly florid language, but I never really cared about it, mainly because I think I figured out quite soon that this guy was going to be a whinger, all mouth and no trousers, and he was going to carry on in this vein (boom boom!) for the entire book.

This book is brooding. This book is introspective. Not a great deal happens beyond various vampires bickering with each other about the nature of their undead existence at considerable length, and (some might say) overcooked descriptions of places and events. The prose is certainly sensuous and evocative, perhaps a bit too fulsome, but coupled to the vague sense of moral vacuum at the heart of proceedings the end result is a bit like getting stuck in Italy for a month. Actually, I’m not surprised this book did as well as it did – the overwrought pseudo-sexual stuff and obsessive detailing of emotions and so on probably makes it a killer potboiler for a certain type of person who just enjoys wallowing in melodrama, while the one-two punch of ‘safe’ transgressiveness (the occult and homosexuality) gives it a faint air of edginess it really doesn’t warrant.

Well, I made it through to the end, although I didn’t find it a particularly nourishing experience – most of the time I was just trying to remember the movie and spot the bits which were different. My favourite bit of the book, oddly enough, is in the middle where it genuinely (and rather briefly) goes all Hammer horror: needless to say, none of this is in the movie.

And I suppose one shouldn’t overlook how massively influential this book has been – the sympathetic vampire is now practically a stock figure and barely worthy of comment, which I suspect was very much not the case in 1976. If vampires in fiction have acquired some depth and intelligence in the intervening time then obviously Anne Rice and Interview with the Vampire deserve much of the credit for this. However, every bland and melodramatic ‘dark fantasy’ romance with a bunch of Goths mooning over each other is arguably their fault too. Didn’t do a lot for me on any level, but culturally and historically interesting.

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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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