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Hammer Horror Series: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

by Steve Habrat

Despite how awesome the final sequence of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave was, Hammer Studios just couldn’t allow Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula to remain dead and bloody for very long. In 1970, the studio unleashed director Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula, another satisfying but flawed entry in the delightfully gory vampire series. Picking up just a few moments after Dracula Has Risen from the Grave ended, Taste the Blood of Dracula is a bit racier than its predecessor and also a little bit more bizarre but that actually adds to its blood-chugging demonic charm. There is no doubt that Taste the Blood of Dracula is suffering from a weaker plot than what we have seen before and the scares are certainly not as spooky as they once were but its Lee’s presence and that welcome gothic chill that elevates the overall quality of this installment. If you can believe it, the film was originally not going to feature Lee’s legendary bloodsucker but at the last second, he joined the project and the filmmakers figured out a way to work him into the story. At times Lee seems unsure what to do with Dracula but his commanding presence is enough to make his fans go wild. While the film may lack the flirty romance and playful humor of the last film, Sasdy spices things up with exotic sights and sounds that certainly make Taste the Blood of Dracula a sexy slice of vampire pandemonium.

Taste the Blood of Dracula introduces us to three wealthy gentlemen, William Hargood (Played by Geoffrey Keen), Sam Paxton (Played by Peter Saccis), and Jonathan Secker (Played by John Carson), who get together once a month to indulge in sleazy debauchery in a back alley brothel. One evening, the three men are approached by the mysterious Lord Courtley (Played by Ralph Bates), who offers the trio a chance to participate in a satanic ritual that would bring Count Dracula (Played by Christopher Lee) back from the dead. The men accept the offer but when the ritual begins, they get cold feet when they learn that they have to drink goblets of Dracula’s blood. Courtley is the only one who drinks the blood and he promptly dies. As his body deteriorates away, Dracula emerges from the ashes and vows to track down Hargood, Paxton, and Secker for allowing his servant to perish. Dracula soon sets his sights on Hargood’s beautiful daughter Alice (Played by Cinda Hayden) and her boyfriend Paul (Played by Anthony Corlan). As Alice falls under Dracula’s spell, Paul races to figure out a way to save Alice from the clutches of evil.

The opening sequence of Taste the Blood of Dracula is certainly a fascinating set up as a husky businessman named Weller (Played by Roy Kinnear) stumbles upon Dracula impaled on the massive cross, the image we saw at the end of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. As Dracula withers away and finally melts into a red sludge that quickly turns to reddish sand, Weller collects Dracula’s cape, blood, rings, and more. It certainly is a nifty way to connect both films and it is neat to see the sequence revisited as it is a chilling vision. It’s almost like Sasdy knew the climax of the previous film was such a keeper that he wanted to figure out a way to work it into his Dracula installment. Sasdy then works overtime to cook up something just as visually enticing as what we saw at the end of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. What he comes up with is a smoky trip into a neon lit brothel where the men drool over an exotic lap dance that involves snakes and brief flashes of bare breasts. It certainly is a steamy and seductive sequence and finds Hammer embracing some of the sleaze of the 1970s. The rest of the film is all blood drenched confrontations that I’m sure pleased fans of the gritty hardcore horror that was becoming more and more popular at the time. The satanic ritual is certainly eerie enough but you get the feeling that this has all been done before and much creepier at that. Overflowing goblets of gore do make things just unpleasant enough but they just don’t make the heart pound like they should.

Then there is the acting, which is surprisingly forgettable for a Hammer horror offering. Lee is certainly enjoying himself as he slinks around the cobwebbed castle and bares his fangs. He doesn’t add anything new to the character but by this point, he really doesn’t need to. There are a few points where Lee’s vampire does seem a bit out of place and unsure what to do, especially in the final moments of the film. Bates also has a bit of devilish fun as Lord Courtley as he flashes his devil-may-care smirk at anyone who dares look at him. We don’t get much of him but what little we get is pretty entertaining. Then we have Keen, Saccis, and Carson, who all fly under the radar. We mostly see the action from Keen’s point of view but we have a hard time sympathizing with him because he is such a miserable old fart. There is also the disappointing Hayden and Corlan who don’t come close to matching the young couple in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. It isn’t easy to see their young love wedged apart by the nasty old William but the two lovers have a hard time finding the spark between them. It is especially hard to buy Corlan’s heroics at the end of the film but you won’t notice because you will be too drawn to Lee.

The plotline of Taste the Blood of Dracula is fairly up and down with plenty of slinky insanity thrown in for fun. The climax is a mixed bag next to what we saw in the last film but you could never expect Sasdy to live up to those expectations. At this point in the Dracula series, it doesn’t take much to realize that the series was starting to run out of ideas and fast.  However, it can be said that the film is fairly entertaining despite a choppy plotline and dry performances. I am still trying to figure out how Dracula never notices that he is hiding out in a desecrated church the entire time. I am still marveling at the fact that these three morons would decide to partake in such an outrageous ritual with a man they barely know. No matter, just marvel the thrilling vampire attacks and gothic cathedrals that that jut into the overcast sky. Dare to tremble when Dracula awakens from his deathly slumber and reveals deep red peepers that look like vats of blood (it is by far the most striking image in the film). Overall, it may not be the strongest film in the series and it is far from the worst but Taste the Blood of Dracula is trying to elaborate on a story that ended long ago. Somebody close the coffin lid already!

Grade: B-

Taste the Blood of Dracula is available on DVD.

Hammer Horror Series: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

by Steve Habrat

That evil Baron Victor Frankenstein is back and more hellish than ever in director Terence Fisher’s 1969 Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the fifth entry in Hammer’s brutal and bloody Frankenstein series. Back with a vengeance, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ushers in a pulverizing wave of emotion that will shatter your heart and a number of unbearably tense moments that Hammer’s Frankenstein series was noted for. A bit different than other Frankenstein films, this entry in the series lacks a grunting, groaning hulk of a monster and replaces him with a mad colleague who has undergone an icky brain transplant. Not as heavy on the horror and more of a thrill ride, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed finds Peter Cushing once again stepping in as the infamous mad scientist and playing him with such demented fury, it practically sends the viewer into shock. While the lack of a deformed corpse shuffling around the countryside may be a bit of a disappointment, the twisted story and the lack of a clean cut hero makes this installment one that really hits you right in the gut. And I dare you not to be downright mesmerized by the chilling opening sequence and that grim ending.

The monstrous Baron Victor Frankenstein (Played by Peter Cushing) has been prowling the streets in secret and gruesomely claiming victims for his terrifying experiments. After one of his victims survives and discovers the whereabouts of his secret lab, Frankenstein is forced to take shelter at a local boarding house that is run by young landlady named Anna (Played by Veronica Carlson). Under a new name, Frankenstein keeps largely to himself but after he discovers Anna’s fiancé, Karl (Played by Simon Ward), who happens to be a doctor at the local mental asylum, is stealing drugs and selling them, he blackmails the young couple into helping him with his macabre work. The couple soon learns that Frankenstein is attempting a brain transplant on a former colleague named Professor Richter (Played by Freddie Francis) who has been locked up in an insane asylum for many years. As the police close in on the trio, the experiment on Professor Richter doesn’t go according to Frankenstein’s plan and Richter sets out to make Frankenstein pay for his ungodly experiments.

Perhaps the strangest touch to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the fact that there isn’t the usual Frankenstein Monster that we are all familiar with. This creature is certainly sympathetic as everyone he stumbles across is terrified of him (he means them no harm) but he actually speaks and very intelligently at that. The only thing truly horrifying about his appearance is the slew of stitches that dot his forehead like a hellish crown. Later in the film, the Monster (or Professor Richter) goes to see his wife who is just sickened over what Frankenstein has done to her husband. It is emotionally intimate and touching as Professor Richter hides out of his wife’s sight and calmly tries to comfort her. Mind you, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed certainly asks for plenty of empathy but this isn’t all a pity party. Fisher opens the film with plenty of bloody, gore, and severed limbs to make us all a little queasy. The opening finds a masked Frankenstein prowling the shadows and lobbing off heads as blood splatters every which way. If that scene doesn’t get your heart pounding, surely the sequence that finds a water main suddenly bursting and a rotten corpses bubbling up from its muddy grave as Anna tries desperately to hide the body from onlookers will have you covering your eyes. It’s smartly conceived horror sequences like this that prove to the viewer that Fisher and Hammer may have been making a spin-off franchise film but they were determined to do it with plenty of style and fury.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed also gets a boost from the always-spectacular Cushing as the demented Frankenstein. If you think you’ve seen him at the height of his evil, wait until you see him here. He hilariously cuts down a group of over opinionated gentlemen who criticize his past experiments. As he overhears their conversation, the sullen Frankenstein turns to them and says, “I didn’t know you were all doctors!” They quickly explain that they are not doctors and Frankenstein hits them with, “Oh, I thought you knew what you were talking about.” When he is verbally ripping someone to shreds, Frankenstein commits other monstrous acts including a heartless murder and the stomach-churning assault of Anna. It is also terrifying the way he forces Karl into murder but what is even more chilling is that Karl doesn’t put up much of a fight, although he does squirm but mostly during the experiments. The climax of the film largely belongs to Francis, who really manages to get us on his side as Richter. Then we have Carlson and Ward as the young couple forced into terrible acts by their evil puppet master. It certainly isn’t easy to watch Karl get tangled in a web of death but there are points where he doesn’t seem to mind at all. Anna, meanwhile, is more of a prisoner than Karl, kept around only for Frankenstein to rape and make coffee.

In typical Frankenstein fashion, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ends with a fiery confrontation between Richter and his creator. You will be cheering as Richter unleashes charred revenge on the sick and twisted Frankenstein. In a way, the film is disappointing because we are so naturally used to seeing a decaying corpse brought back to life through electricity that it does come as a bit of a shock when this “Monster” begins speaking in a polite manner. The positive is that it does add a fresh spin on the material and it doesn’t resort to rehashing what we have already seen in previous Frankenstein films. The other disappointment is that most of the scares are found at the beginning and then the film transitions into a more of a suspense thriller with lots of bright red blood. Overall, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is certainly a strong installment in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, one that isn’t afraid to embrace plenty of extremely unethical behavior and plenty of fiery doom and gloom when the curtains fall on the climax. This is a nasty movie with infinite amounts of madness burning in its blood red eyes. An essential film for Hammer fans.

Grade: A-

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is available on DVD.

Hammer Horror Series: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)

by Steve Habrat

After Hammer’s success with Horror of Dracula, the British studio began whipping up multiple sequels that found Christopher Lee’s snarling Count Dracula rising from the grave in some way, shape, or form. One of the better sequels is 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, a snappy horror outing with plenty of blood dripping from Lee’s fangs and as much cleavage as you can handle. Hey, this is Hammer! With Hammer’s favored son Terence Fisher out of the director’s chair and director Freddie Francis taking control, there seems to be a reignited spark of enthusiasm throughout Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Lee seems just a little more devilish than usual and the bloodletting is a tad more extreme than some of the previous offerings (the film is hilariously rated G but don’t be fooled). Francis injects a captivating storyline and mixes it with attention grabbing melodrama and likeable characters, all which give the film a morbid charm, much like the monster we all fear. Francis takes things to the next level with a number of iconic images and a climax that more than delivers. It’s a gothic image so startling that you will never be able to chase it from your mind. The only thing missing here is Peter Cushing, who is sorely missed!

Set after the events of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, a year has passed since Dracula’s (Played by Christopher Lee) death but the local villagers are still jumpy and whisper about vampirism. They are convinced that Dracula still watches them from his castle high in the mountains and that he still emerges at night to drink the blood of the living.  Monsignor Ernst Mueller (Played by Rupert Davies) decides to perform an exorcism on Dracula’s castle to prove to the villagers that the evil is gone for good. The monsignor takes a local priest (Played by Ewan Hooper) with him up to Dracula’s castle but what he doesn’t know is that the priest is grappling with his faith. During the exorcism, the priest takes a nasty fall and cuts his head. The blood trickles down the rocks and finds its way through a crack in the ice. The blood flows into Dracula’s mouth and the evil one is revived from his chilly slumber. Unable to enter his castle due to a giant crucifix on the door, Dracula sets out to find the monsignor and make him pay for what he has done. He targets the priest and the monsignor’s beautiful niece, Maria (Played by Veronica Carlson), and her atheist boyfriend, Paul (Played by Barry Anderson).

Despite being a whole bunch of fun, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave does have one major gaffe near the end of the film. The scene finds atheist Paul attempting to drive a stake through old Drac’s heart but he refuses to pray so the attempt is useless and Dracula survives. It was news to this viewer that when one drives a stake through Dracula’s heart, you have to say a prayer or the vampire will survive. It may be goofy and completely out of place but the sequence does have tons of gore so that makes up for it. Other than this one flub, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave can be wonderfully funny, romantic, and terrifying. The opening sequence that finds a bloody dead body stuffed in the church’s bell tower is one to have you on the edge of your seat. The exorcism scene is also one that will give you chills as the winds pick up outside the gothic castle. Whenever Dracula’s presence is felt, Francis applies a filter that yellows the edge of the screen, an odd touch at first but as the film goes on, you may find yourself actually enjoying the effect as it suggests evil closing in around anyone who is near Dracula. And then there is the love story, a soft, melodramatic affair that will have the viewer rooting for young love.

Then we have the top-notch performances from Lee and the rest of the cast. Much like Horror of Dracula, we don’t see too much of Lee’s Dracula but when he does decide he is going to show up, he will have you trembling in your boots. When he sets his sights on a young gal he wishes to bite, his eyes turn that familiar shade of red and his lips curl in to a demonic sneer that spells death. When he approaches the crucifix that hangs from his castle doors, he commands one of his vampire slaves to get it out of his sight. The way he delivers the dialogue will send a chill, as he says it with heaping amounts of hate in his voice. Anderson is great as the honest and true Paul, who resists the seduction of a voluptuous bar maid named Xena (Played by Barbara Ewing). He just seems like such a good guy that you can’t help but root for him in his battle against Dracula. Carlson is easy on the eyes as Maria, a warm and innocent girl who sneaks out of her room at night and tip toes over the rooftops to check in on Paul. Then there is Davies as the stern monsignor who detests the fact that Paul is an atheist. Rounding out the cast is Hooper as the priest at odds with his faith. He is one of the first to fall under Dracula’s spell and he certainly is a sympathetic character. He can also seriously creep us out as he utters only snippets of dialogue and refuses to look anyone in the face.

The whole conflicted faith aspect of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is certainly an interesting touch to a Dracula film. It seems fitting but sometimes it seems slightly neglected as a plot point. However slack this plot point may be, Francis guides it smoothly into one hell of a finish that features a gothic image that has to be the king daddy of nightmarish visions. It’s epic, gruesome, terrifying, and strangely beautiful all at once as it rests against an overcast sky. There are a few moments where Dracula Has Risen from the Grave can be a bit cheesy, especially when a sped up Dracula zooms along in his carriage (I’ll wait while you chuckle). As the Dracula films began to slowly fall apart, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a commanding Hammer vampire film that doesn’t hesitate to entertain us and then get right in our face so that we can smell the blood on its breath. And we can’t leave out Hammer’s famous gothic atmosphere, which is once running rampant right through the action. It certainly has a number of small flaws and one weird moment in the middle but Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is still a vampire film you will want to scare the living daylights out of you again and again. You may even crack a smile at a few points.

Grade: B+

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is available on DVD.

Hammer Horror Series: The Mummy (1959)

by Steve Habrat

After Hammer Studios tackled such legendary monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, the English horror factory then wrapped their claws around The Mummy. Borrowing heavily from the Universal’s rebooted series (The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse) and stitching the best parts together under the direction of Terence Fisher, The Mummy is another solid horror release from Hammer. Released in 1959 and in Technicolor, The Mummy is a bit grander than The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, daring to hop from Egypt to London and back again. Even if the film was made on elaborate sets with fancy lighting, The Mummy is much more exotic than the previous two offerings from Hammer but the lack of a fresh spin on the material is what keeps The Mummy from reaching the level of greatness found in The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. It’s the same old shuffle and strangle from our bandaged baddie but you can’t help but get chills from his appearance. Despite being bogged down by the familiar, The Mummy is still a creepy horror film that completes a stunning cycle of horror that reintroduced the world to supernatural terrors.

The Mummy begins in Egypt in 1865, where crippled archeologist John Banning (Played by Peter Cushing), his father Stephen (Played by Felix Aylmer), and his uncle Joseph Whemple (Played by Raymond Huntley) are digging for the long lost tomb of Princess Ananka. Despite bizarre warnings of curses from a local Egyptian man named Mehemet Bey (Played by George Pastell), the group discovers and enters the tomb of Ananka where they also discover the mysterious Scroll of Life, which Stephen proceeds to read from. Shortly after reading from the scroll, Stephen is spooked by an unseen figure and sent into a catatonic state. Three years pass and John has returned to London where he father stays in a nursing home. One day, Stephen snaps out of his catatonic state and reveals to John that when he read from the scrolls, he accidentally awakened the mummified high priests Kharis (Played by Christopher Lee). As John waves off the ramblings of his father, the mysterious Mehemet Bey arrives in London with the undead Kharis, looking for the members of the group that disturbed the tomb of Ananka. By night, Bey sends Kharis out into the countryside and commands him to kill those who were part of the expedition.

A tad longer than The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, The Mummy has a slow build that really hits its peak half way through the film. The terror really roars in a sequence featuring Bey commanding Kharis to emerge from a murky swamp and begin his rampage. The scene is effectively lit, with a muddy and moldy Kharis rising out of the murky water as those atmospheric mists seen in Hammer’s previous offering creep silently across the frame. It is easily the most memorable and horrific moment in The Mummy and it certainly has to rank up there as one of the most frightening movie moments ever. The rest of the film resorts to what we have seen before, Kharis shuffling through the woods and fields towards illuminated mansions. He does get a nifty jump scare when he heads to the nursing home to find Stephen and he crashes through a window. You will thrill as John riddles Kharis with bullets and even blasts him with a shotgun, leaving two gaping holes in his chest, which add to his macabre appearance. It should also be noted that for a low budget horror film, The Mummy certain has some incredible effects on Kharis, a rotting corpse caked with mud. He certainly is a creature to behold.

Being a Hammer production, naturally Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are the ringleaders of the mayhem. Lee is almost unrecognizable under all the muck covering his body. He is forced to rely on the emotion pouring from his eyes, which dart around the face of Isobel Banning (Played by Yvonne Furneaux), who reminds him of his beloved Princess Ananka. We do sympathize more with this Lee creature than we did with his Frankenstein Monster, mostly because he is a monster because of his love and affection. We do get a chance to see Lee’s face in an extended flashback that reveals his back-story and even then, he is painted up with a fake tan and shrouded in robes. Cushing is given the heroic role and he does it admirably, especially as he drags a crippled leg around with him. There are times where Cushing looks a bit unintentionally hilarious as he flits around with a shotgun but he sells it pretty well. He gets a pretty nifty war of words with Pastell’s Bey, a secretly sinister man who wishes to punish all who dared disturb the tomb of Ananka. Eddie Byrne shows up as Inspector Mulrooney, who is skeptical of that a supernatural being could be responsible for all the madness that is taking place around him.

If you have seen Universal’s Kharis series, then you basically have an idea where Hammer’s interpretation is heading. The fact that the film is so predictable does knock it down a few pegs. After the sequence that has Kharis emerging from the swamp, the film has a hard time really topping that scene. The middle section of the film gets an extended look at how Kharis was transformed into the monstrous mummy that he is. While it is a very ornate and shiny sequence, it plays out a bit longer than it really needed to. It does, however, pack a seriously nasty gross out scare that will have you wincing. The climax of the film is appropriately grim and tragic to go along with the tragic feel of Kharis. The Mummy does find Hammer Studios showing some range outside of their gothic comfort zone but they still manage to sneak a few of those touches into the film. Overall, the film has two spectacular performances from Lee and Cushing and there are a number of moments to send your flying out of your seat, but The Mummy is never as atmospheric as The Curse of Frankenstein or Horror of Dracula. It may not stick with you like the other two films did but there is enough style and grace here to build The Mummy up into a film that will satisfy horror fans everywhere.

Grade: B+

The Mummy is available on DVD.