They had faces back then, certainly. More importantly they had titles. You could tell a Hammer film came from the land of Churchill just from their strong titles, fit for a debating society, really: "Resolved: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed." As it happens, the Shock It To Me! fest in San Francisco at the Castro Theater October 5-7 is showing both Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) with Hammer star Veronica Carlson flying in for a visit. They've also got three by the great Joe Dante (Matinee, The Howling, and the very witty Gremlins 2).
Bay Area horror movie luminary John Stanley will be visiting, and they'll be reviving the best movie made in Santa Cruz ever--and don't tell me about no Lost Boys!--Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Let us focus, though, on Hammer's third Dracula movie (not counting its 1960 The Brides of Dracula, which Dracula doesn't even bother to show up for). For the the third time, the tall and remote Christopher Lee fills the opera cape, in a horror adventure that deals with the rage of the Count; you could argue that Lee was one of the last people to take Dracula seriously.
Lee says so himself, in the book The Horror People by John Brosnan: "Dracula is a great role and very difficult to play. I find him a stimulating challenge to make him convincing to today's cynical, worldly audiences. I see him as aloof, dignified, and austere, exploding into tigerish activity when necessary." How an audience of today accepts that kind of dignity--which they might just see as stagey--is essential to any revival of Dracula. Lugosi's classic Dracula is very quiet and very measured. He has the weight of eternity on his side. His performance is all about courtliness and dignity. Lee brings in a post-war violence to his performances as Bram Stoker's bloodsucker. And the poster above accurately captures the fury, fierceness and physical strength Lee brought to the part in the many times he played it (once, a cameo parody in The Magic Christian). I thought I'd spend this October's columns looking over the better modern vampires, starting with the gore-era's rewriting of the legend.
"No coffin can hold him! No door could bar his way!" The ads show Lee with blood in his eye, as he deals with the puny humans who oppose him. In a small village at the foot of the dread castle, the locals still go through the old rituals of keeping the Count at bay. The undying monster is believed dead, since he was frozen in a block of ice at the end of 1965's Dracula, Prince of Darkness. But "the shadow of his castle" falls on the local church, and the peasants refuse to come to mass. When a corpse is discovered in the church's belfry, a priest (Ewan Hooper) and his superior Monsignor Muller (Rupert Davies) ascend to Castle Dracula, bearing a huge metal cross, They intend to read a ritual of exorcism. During a storm, the priest falls, hitting his head; blood leaks out and falls upon the lips of the frozen count.
Hiding behind the scenes, the risen Dracula and his coffin slip into the nearby city of Cannenberg to work their will. He seduces a bosomy barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing), only to use her to lead him to his main target: the Monsignor's blond niece Maria (Victoria Carlson). While Dracula helps himself to a variety of necks, leaving behind disgusting boil-like scars, it's actually Dracula's interactions with Zena that seem like the most ruthless moment in the film. We rather like her; she's a jolly English barmaid type of the music hall sort (even if she's out there in Central Europe somewhere.) We feel sorry for Zena, when she whimpers "You've got me, you've got me," as Dracula commands her to prepare his next mate for him. Furious at her pleading, he knocks her sideways with a slap.
Funny to watch this with my wife, because this is the scene that lost her completely: I think she was expecting a more civilized, operatic figure, and not a willful, rapacious and really quite hateful monster. Emotional violence isn't what one expects from a vampire movie, and yet shouldn't it be there? As Dracula makes his assaults on Maria--slipping in through her window at night, pouncing on her in the cellar--her atheist boyfriend (Barry Andrews, the weak link here) has to resolve his own crisis of faith to exterminate Dracula.
Never having been to Transylvania, I can only hope it looks this way; dappled forests with narrow trees just large enough to conceal a vampire; open roads in which plumed purple-black horses pull funeral carriages, and the aforementioned bosomy barmaids joshing with you as they bring you a tankard. Something tells me the place is actually full of vor plug-uglies and German skiers on discount holiday, but we can dream, can't we.
The element director Freddie Francis most often brings to this horror film is color. I can't dispute the majority opinion that the late Francis was a brilliant cinematographer and a second-rate director, but his use of color here is almost as flamboyant as Michael Powell's techniques. The particularly saturated color was something that persisted in England after the studio systems in America were going in for more muted pastels and naturalism. Here, working photographer Arthur Grant, a Hammer regular, Francis uses color to express what the dialog doesn't. For instance: Dracula's moods: his eyes are white when he's in love, blood-shot as a conjunctivitis case when Dracula is merely in heat. The contact lenses, Lee admitted, were every bit as painful as they looked.
"Hammer liked a bit of color," Lee said, and the floridness of the hues can get almost tropical. The gold-green-gray light in his face rises in Dracula's face when he's ambushed by the priests. And the old art-school motto, "If you can't make it good, make it red" is really born out in the way the blood vibrates out of the screen: it's as hot red as crimson lipstick. Very disturbing in its day, and even when we're used to it now, it has some echo of the original affect. When Dracula is at last staked it's not something you'd like to watch when you're eating.
Here we see a May press release claiming that Hammer is going to rise from the grave. Cinematical's own Scott Weinberg gets into a bit of analysis here. A studio that had been around in various forms since 1934, it turned to the lucrative field of horror via science fiction, about the same time that Great Britain unveiled the "X" certificate for violence in the mid 1950s. If Hammer Studios is too evil to ever really die, let us hope that they come up with a new Dracula: a figure who provides the gorehounds with what they want, while returning to some of the Satanic poise and seductiveness of Lee's monster.