Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

We begin with a Satanic ceremony being performed, in which a cockerel has its throat cut so that the blood can spurt all over a naked young woman lying on an altar. Is there ever a better way to start a movie?

(Too bad I decided on a "no nudity" policy for this blog - I could have put a really good picture here otherwise.)

While this happens, a man who is tied up in another room manages to escape. He runs a gauntlet of guys in sheepskin coats on motorbikes, who are gunned down by someone in a black car. The man manages to drag himself into the car and is driven back to a secret headquarters, where British government agents quiz him about what he's witnessed. He describes the ceremony in detail (even though he didn't seem to be in the room at the time) including how the woman was stabbed, seemed to die, then revived and her wound healed in seconds. He also has five photos taken with his secret-agent-wristwatch, which show that the leaders of the cult are a top scientist, a peer of the House of Lords, a general, and the government official who actually heads the department the secret agents are working for. The fifth photo shows an empty doorway - do you think it could actually be someone who doesn't show up on film?

I couldn't find enough good photos to illustrate this post, especially with that damned 'no nudity' rule.

Unsurprisingly, they are not pleased about this. They would be even less pleased if they knew that their secretary was being chased down and kidnapped by the guys on motorbikes.

They decide that the only course of action is to call in the same bumbling Scotland Yard inspector from the previous movie, who in turn calls in Lorimer Van Helsing. It turns out that the scientist is an old friend of Van Helsing, so he goes to see him and discovers that he has created a massively beefed-up version of the bubonic plague that will destroy all human life extremely quickly if released. The next thing you know he has been knocked unconscious by a bullet to the head (huh?) and wakes to find that his friend is hanging from a noose and the Petri dishes containing the plague have gone.

The inspector and two of the agents then proceed to head to the mansion where the rituals had taken place and knock on the door, seemingly without any sort of plan or even a coherent cover story, and set about making light banter with the woman who lets them in (who just happens to be the same person who lead the rituals at the start of the movie).

Meanwhile Van Helsing's daughter Jessica (this time played by Joanna Lumley) also sneaks into the building and heads straight to the basement, where she is promptly attacked by four female vampires, one of whom is the kidnapped secretary. Her screams draw the authorities, who rush down to stake their former secretary and rescue Jessica.

Joanna Lumley in not her finest role

It turns out that the cult is lead by someone called D. D. Denham, a mysterious recluse who has never been seen and who just happened to turn up at around the time that Dracula had been staked two years earlier and whose headquarters are on the site of the demolished church. The minute that Van Helsing discovers this, he heads straight to the lion's den and demands to be shown in. For some reason Dracula attempts to disguise his identity by shining a light into Van Helsing's eyes and putting on a funny accent, and he attempts to sway the vampire hunter to his side by explaining that he wants to use the plague to overthrow the governments of the world and set up a new order.

For some reason, Van Helsing doesn't seem to think that this is a very good idea. He promptly tries to shoot the Count with a silver bullet, but is stopped by the intervention of some of the other cult leaders. Dracula has him taken to the mansion, where Jessica has been kidnapped and laid out for sacrifice.

Ta daaaa!

It turns out that the whole plot is basically a huge suicide mission for Dracula: he plans to wipe out the entire human race so that, deprived of a food source, he will finally have his eternal rest. In the meantime he wants Jessica as his consort just to fuck with Van Helsing's head. The rest of the cult are disturbed to hear that they are to be infected with the plague and used to spread it, as they thought they were just going to use it as blackmail to obtain massive power, but Dracula controls their minds and starts forcing them to infect themselves.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint) the bumbling cop has managed to start a fire upstairs, which now spreads to this room. Van Helsing leaps out of a window, pursued by Dracula, and manages to lure him into a Hawthorn bush (supposedly what Christ's crown of thorns was made from), which messes him up enough that Van Helsing can stake him.

In my review of Dracula AD 1972, I expressed dismay that no effort was made to bring the Count effectively into the modern world, and also observed that the music made the movie seem like an episode of an ITV series. I guess I should be careful what I wish for. While this movie is energetic and fun, it's just about as far from what I want from a Dracula movie as I could imagine, with the Count reduced to the role of a corporate villain in a cheap spy movie.

The heroes are all bumbling idiots - even Van Helsing stupidly walks into a trap for no good reason - and are only saved by sheer dumb luck or (in one mind-boggling instance) because vampires can now apparently be killed by clear running water. Which means that turning on the sprinkler system does in a whole roomful of them. Joanna Lumley, who would go on to kick arse in The New Avengers two years later, spends way too much time here standing around and screaming hysterically.

On the plus side, at least Christopher Lee didn't go out of the series at its lowest point (that was Scars of Dracula, unless the next movie proves to be even worse), and it's still fun to see him and Cushing together. They would continue to be teamed up in movies until House of Long Shadows in 1983.

Japanese distributors really know how to market exploitation movies.

There's only one more stop in my Hammer Dracula marathon. Having failed to update the Count to swinging London or to a modern spy epic, it was decided that the obvious thing to do was to take him back to period (1904 to be precise), to pit him once more against the original Van Helsing (who Dracula: AD 1972 had showed as dying 32 years earlier), and - crucially - to put him in a kung-fu movie. Tune in tomorrow for the only collaboration between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers: Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dracula AD 1972 (1972)

This movie opens with the climax of the previous movie, where Dracula (Christopher Lee) fights Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) aboard a runaway horse-drawn carriage. This is an exciting scene, with both actors quite literally throwing themselves into it. The scene finishes with Dracula vanquished, and the triumphant Van Helsing dying from his wounds.

The only problem is that this is not how the previous movie ended. It is, in fact, the climax to a movie that does not exist. Damn shame really.

Anyway, one of Dracula's disciples rides onto the scene, collects his belongings and dust, and buries these in the same cemetery where Van Helsing is interred.

We then advance one hundred years to a party where some dirty hippie gatecrashers are annoying the hell out of the posh society types while a godawful psychedelic blues band plays. We get to hear two complete songs, intercut with the "hilarious" antics of the hippies and the "priceless" reactions of the toffs. Meanwhile, a cadaverous-looking young man stalks around looking slightly out of place. He is played by the same actor as Dracula's disciple from the opening sequence. Could there be a connection?

Man, it was a wild scene. But if they wanted to go that route, it was their bag.

Mercifully, after way too much footage of the shitty band playing, the police are called and the hippies scatter. Several of them converge on a coffee shop called The Cavern (presumably no relation to the Liverpool club where The Beatles used to play). The corpse-looking weirdo, with the not at all suspicious name Johnny Alucard, convinces them that the thing to do next is to go to a condemned church and have a black mass.

Johnny Alucard

Is it a coincidence that one of the hippies is the great-granddaughter of Dr. Van Helsing? Johnny seems particularly keen on getting her to attend the ceremony, but when she is reluctant to be involved in a blood sacrifice, Laura (the gorgeous Caroline Munro) enthusiastically volunteers.

Draw your own conclusions as to what's happening here.

Everybody freaks out (though not in the way they'd planned) and runs away, apart from Johnny and Laura. Soon enough, Count Dracula rises from the grave and makes a snack of Laura while Johnny looks on eagerly.

Back at the coffee shop, everyone decides that the best thing to do is to pretend none of it has happened. When Johnny turns up and tells them he's just put Laura on a train to her hometown, they're a little suspicious but decide to let it slide. Before long Johnny has coerced Gaynor (Marsha Hunt, inspiration for the Rolling Stones song Brown Sugar) into coming back to his place for a joint before heading to the church for another midnight snack.

When the bodies start piling up, the police head to famed expert on the occult Lorimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who is of course Jessica's grandfather. The chase is soon on to save Jessica from Dracula's revenge, as his mission is to punish the Van Helsing bloodline by using the young against the old. Hmmm, Dracula brought back from the dead, spending most of his time hanging out in a desecrated church, and using children against their parents (or grandparents).... Doesn't that sound like something I've seen before?

Bedroom eyes

This is a really dumb movie. It makes the fundamental mistake of keeping Dracula on the sidelines once again, as well as keeping him as an anacrhonism in modern times. In Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula went out of his way to familiarise himself with the modern world. Wouldn't an incarnation of Dracula who was able to make himself at home in the time he lived in be somewhat scarier than one who would probably be staked on sight if he dared venture out in public?

It also bears way too much resemblance to the tv shows of the time. The music is a big factor here, sounding a lot like the themes from various ITV shows. Then there's the fact that the hippie characters are somewhat anachronistic for 1972; the slang and fashion is already years out of date, as even a nerd like me notices. Compare this to the youth culture portrayed in the films of Roger Corman at the time (who was influence majorly by Hammer for his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations) and this looks pretty sad by comparison.

On the other hand it's really good to see Lee & Cushing matching wits again, even if only at the beginning and the end. (The music makes their final confrontation all the more surreal in this respect.) It's also a major step up from Scars of Dracula in every important respect.

Despite major script issues, the young cast acquits themselves nicely for the most part. Chrisopher Neame isn't bad as Alucard (it's amusing that Van Helsing has to go to quite a bit of effort before he realises what the name spells backwards) though he's no Ralph Bates, and Stephanie Beacham is fine as Jessica. The rest of the cast is a bit anonymous, but nobody is as terrible as Dennis Waterman in Scars.

Please Hammer don't hurt 'em

All in all this is a fun little movie. It's not as cringeworthy as I'd feared (apart from that party scene) but it's also not as "groovy" as I'd hoped.

Love that German title - Dracula Chases Mini-Girls

Tomorrow we have the final appearance of Christopher Lee as Dracula and the penultimate Hammer Dracula. Click back on over for The Satanic Rites of Dracula!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Scars of Dracula (1970)

We open with a slab in Dracula's castle on which rests his cape and powdered blood. Suddenly a squeaking rubber bat flutters into the room and drools a few drops of blood, which causes Dracula to regenerate. This marks the first time in the series that Dracula's resurrection has not been a direct continuation of the previous movie's finale. Unfortunately the lack of continuity, visual style, budget and common sense in this opening is carried over into the rest of the movie.

We then follow a man carrying the vampirised body of a young woman to the local inn, where the innkeeper stirs up the town into vigilante action. The women and children are all deposited in the church while all the men storm the castle and attempt to burn it to the ground. This accomplishes two things: 1/ it gives Dracula an excuse to not have many expensive things left later in the movie, and 2/ it royally pisses him off. When the men return to the church, they discover that all the women and children have been gruesomely killed by large rubber bats. The camera lingers over their mutilated faces as the men stoically grieve.

The gore the merrier

The movie then follows Paul, a young rogue who is caught in flagrante with the burgomaster's daughter and goes dashing about in a series of unfunny slapstick scenes, passing through his brother's girlfriend's birthday party for plot convenience, until he arrives at Dracula's castle (having been turned away at the inn). Despite being freaked out by Dracula and his hairy uncouth servant Klove (played by former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton and clearly not the same Klove from Dracula: Prince of Darkness), he elects to spend the night there. That night he is seduced by the young woman who had greeted him at the castle gates. Just as she is about to bit him (post-coitally - the first vampire nookie in one of these movies) Dracula barges in, knocks Paul out, and stabs the woman to death with a huge knife.

Yes you read that right - Dracula stabs someone, and despite being a vampire she dies.

Dracula forsees the '80s slasher boom

The next morning Paul finds himself locked in with the corpse, so he makes a rope ladder out of torn curtains and climbs out the window into the room below. This turns out to be Dracula's sleeping chamber, which has no doors. Meanwhile in the room above, Klove cheerfully whistles as he dismembers the woman's corpse, tossing the pieces into an acid bath (or perhaps a holy water bath) where they dissolve.

Paul's brother Simon and his girlfriend Sarah go looking for Paul, and after meeting a hostile reaction at the inn they head to Dracula's castle. They spend the night, but are able to leave relatively unmolested as Klove has taken a fancy to Sarah. When Dracula discovers that they are gone, he punishes Klove by searing his back with a red-hot sword.

Simon resolves to go back to find Paul, leaving Sarah in the church under the protection of the priest, and manages to end up trapped in Dracula's sleeping chamber with Paul's impaled corpse. Dracula awakens, climbs up the wall (in a sequence taken directly from the original novel - I believe this was the first time it was ever filmed) and goes after Sarah, who has come to the castle after the priest was killed by a squeaking rubber bat.

The goddamn Batman?

Everybody converges on the room of the castle, where Klove is thrown over the battlements to his death by Dracula. It seems that Dracula is about to get the upper hand when suddenly he is struck by lightning, catches on fire, and plummets off the battlements himself.

Divine justice? Lazy scripting?

Shit ending

If you haven't managed to work it out from the summary, this movie is absolutely dreadful. Christopher Lee gets more screen time and dialogue as Dracula than in any prior movie in the series, but Dracula is turned into a sadist who prefers stabbing and branding people to biting them. (He does get to bite two women over the course of the movie, and the sexual nature of these scenes are played up, but they are throwaway bits.) Most of the cast is pretty bad, especially Dennis Waterman as Simon. Patrick Troughton clearly has fun as Klove, and Lee injects a certain glee into his sadistic scenes, but this is easily the worst of the series so far.

Roy Ward Baker directs rather stolidly, with none of the style of Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis or even Peter Sadsy. The script is terrible, from the awful dialogue to the meandering nature of the plot, with too much to-ing and fro-ing. It was actually written by Anthony Hinds, under his usual John Elder pseudonym, who had written the previous two movies and is usually considered one of the real creative masterminds behind the company (as well as being the son of William Hinds - aka Will Hammer) but he had left the company by this stage and it's likely that his original script was monkeyed with.

Worst of all, it all looks so very cheap. All of Hammer's movies were low-budget affairs, but this is the first to lack the lush production design and cinematography that had distinguished their earlier gothic horror movies. Baker tries to compensate by piling on the gore, which has a certain camp charm, but it isn't enough.

That one brief sequence of Dracula climbing the walls is rather good, but it's the only part that suggests anyone involved had read Stoker's book. Despite some parts bearing a superficial resemblance to Jonathan Harker's visit to Castle Dracula in the novel, the character is further from his original conception than ever before.

Holy Moses, does this movie stink!

I don't really have much positive to say about it. I really hope that the series doesn't continue to get worse. The title of the next movie gives me some hope, though. It seems that it will be a period movie of a different sort.

Tomorrow, the one I've been looking forward to most. Dracula: AD 1972

Friday, June 25, 2010

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

The first Dracula movie of the 1970s is officially #1 on my list of "Movies whose title I mistakenly expected to have no relevance to the movie."

Taste the Blood of Dracula starts with a sleazy salesman (Roy Kinnear, overacting as usual) stumbling across the final sequence of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Once Dracula is gruesomely vanquished, Kinnear gathers up his ring, his cape, his monogrammed clasp, and the red powder of his blood.

We then go to three decadent chaps who have a secret society dedicated to the pursuit of hedonism, which basically amounts to them going to an upscale brothel. They encounter a young man who with a snap of his fingers is able to lure away the prostitute chosen by the leader. This throws them all into a kerfuffle, especially when they discover that he is the disgraced Lord Courtley, who was disowned and disinherited after performing a Black Mass, who is actually being kept by the women working in the brothel.

Taste the blood of Dracula - yum!

Intrigued, the men approach Courtley and propose that he tutor them in decadence. He enthusiastically agrees, provided they are willing to pay for the privilege, and promptly takes them to Kinnear to buy Dracula's belongings. Kinnear is reluctant, but after they meet his exorbitant price he agrees to sell. Courtley then takes them to a church, sets it up with the accoutrements for a Black Mass, mingles his own blood with that of Dracula, and orders them to drink. They are unable to bring themselves to out of sheer revulsion. Courtley mocks them as fools and drains his own glass - whereupon he immediately collapses to the floor, choking and pleading for help. The three men beat him to death and flee the scene.

After they have gone, Dracula is reborn from within Courtley's body and sombrely intones that they will pay for destroying his servant.

A bad case of the munchies

This whole first half of the movie is all great stuff. The three "gentlemen" are utterly loathsome, especially their leader Hargood, who lords over his family like a tyrant. Amusingly the most reticent of the three, Paxton, is played by comedian Peter Sallis, now known as the voice of Wallace in the Wallace and Gromit stop-motion animations.

Courtley is played by Ralph Bates with enormous arrogance and significant charisma. He is the best thing about the entire movie, and if he were given more good roles he probably could have eclipsed Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Hammer's top star. Unfortunately this was not to be - but if his role in this movie had continued as originally intended, it might have worked out for him.

From what I've read Bates was originally supposed to be the villain of the movie, with Dracula only appearing in the opening sequence; when the American distributors objected to a Dracula movie without Dracula, Hammer pressured Christopher Lee into returning and replacing Bates in the second half of the movie. In my opinion this is to the movie's detriment. Lee is clearly bored with the whole thing, giving a far less compelling performance than in the previous three Hammer Dracula movies he appeared in. Part of this can be traced to his having just starred in Jess Franco's Count Dracula, where he finally got to play the role as written by Bram Stoker, a movie he apparently immensely enjoyed making (even though it was neither a critical and commercial success). I'll get to that movie in a few weeks, but suffice to say now that I believe that Lee's performance in Count Dracula is the definitive screen version of the character despite the movie's other flaws.

Anyway. The movie would have been better if Bates was in the whole thing instead of just the first half.

The second part of the movie deals with Dracula's revenge, as he uses the men's children to torment and kill them. Chief among these is Linda Hayden as Alice Harwood. Hayden had the face of a cherub and was very good at playing villains - her performance in Blood on Satan's Claw is unforgettable.

Linda Hayden - yum!

Despite Hayden's great performance, the second half of the movie is far less interesting than the first. It basically follows this formula: Dracula mesmerizes one of the men's kids; the kid kills their father; Dracula intones "The First," or "The Second," or "The Third." Meanwhile Paxton's son Paul (who is left curiously unmolested) gets furiously frustrated at the police's idiotic refusal to connect the murders and the disappearance of the kids - they cheerfully insist that they are all unconnected events. Dracula is eventually destroyed simply because Paul takes the Black Mass gear out of the church where he's staying, and he just dies.

The only connection to Bram Stoker's book is that Hammer finally gets Dracula to London. Too bad he doesn't really do much except for taking revenge for the murder of Courtley. It's not terribly characteristic of him to give a damn about one of his servants, so I guess he's finally getting sentimental in his old age.

This all sounds like I'm bashing the movie, but I'm really not. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the second half - it's all very entertaining. It's just that the first half is so much stronger that it pales in comparison, and the ending is kind of weak. But it's no weaker than Dracula drowning in a moat. I wish there was some way to see it as it was originally written, but there you go.

What the hell, let's have the poster

This concludes the first week of my Hammer Dracula marathon. Tune in again on Monday for the next instalment - Scars of Dracula. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)

Apparently some time during Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the Count nipped out for a bite and stuffed his victim into a bell in a church, because this movie opens with a boy finding her. It drives him crazy, drives the priest to drink, and stops everyone going to church.

A year later, a Monsignor (complete with unnecessary voice-over) stops into town to see how things have been going since Dracula was vanquished. He's not pleased to find that the priest has said a quick mass to an empty church then nipped off to the pub to get plastered. It turns out that the congregation stay away because the shadow of Dracula's castle touches it, so the Monsignor drags the priest up the mountain to perform an exorcism. The priest, a sweaty coward, pikes out halfway up the mountain so the Monsignor goes on alone. As a thunderstorm rages, he chants some Latin and wedges an enormous crucifix though the door latch.

Meanwhile, the sweaty cowardly priest has managed to fall down a bank and hit his head on some ice - which just happens to contain the frozen body of Dracula. The ice cracks and the priest's blood trickles into Dracula's mouth. But when he gets back to the castle, he is royally pissed to find what's happened to his home.

Straight away the tone of this movie is very different to the earlier movies in this series. There's much more of an emphasis on the visual aspect of the movie, which isn't really a surprise because it's directed by the great cinematographer Freddie Francis (who was a genius to the end - his last movie was David Lynch's The Straight Story, which he shot when he was 82). Francis didn't pull a Mario Bava and shoot Dracula Has Risen from the Grave himself, but he did let Arthur Grant use the gear that had served him so well on The Innocents, allowing Grant to mimic some of Francis's trademark deep focus work. This movie always look good, but the scenes with Dracula all have a special edge with interesting lighting, filters and unusual camera placement.

The movie makes more out of religious iconography than usual, and is the only vampire movie I'm aware of where staking only works if you also pray over the body. This leads to a particularly spectacular scene near the end, much to the atheist hero's chagrin. It doesn't have a particularly coherent religious moral, though the "Dracula can't be killed by an atheist" idea hints at something pretty interesting.

The sexual aspect is pushed to the forefront even more than in previous movies, both in terms of Dracula himself and with the supporting characters. Barbara Ewing as Zena particularly makes a lot of her sexual appetite (as with Dracula: Prince of Darkness the movie edges into misogyny here) but the sexiest scene by far is Dracula's seduction of the seemingly-willing heroine Maria, played by Hammer regular Veronica Carlson.

'Yum,' said Dracula

It's just HOT

In this scene, Diana opens her window and then lays back passively on her bed waiting for Dracula, baring her neck languidly. He enters and nuzzles her face with his before leaning in for the bite. As she moans, the camera cuts to her hand grasping a doll and then dropping it to the floor in a pretty blunt piece os symbolism.

There's an unforgivable moment early on when the priest first sees Dracula as a reflection in the water. The day-for-night scenes, although quite lovely in their way, look even less like night than most day-for-night photography so that it often seems that Dracula is wandering around in the sunlight. Although these are all visually striking moments, they seem to indicate that Freddie Francis was less conscientious a director than Terence Fisher, and cared much more about visual effect than thematic consistency.

One thing I found very interesting is the change in attitude towards the authority figures in the movie. The village priest directly causes the resurrection of Dracula through his own spinelessness; the Monsignor, though in many ways a sympathetic figure, manages to bring danger to his own home through his attempts to exorcise the evil, and is portrayed as being unduly inflexible. Even though the movie emphasises that religious belief is necessary to defeat Dracula, the young atheist hero is the one who ultimately prevails - with the eventual assistance of the priest, who defies Dracula (his own authority figure) in the final act.

The gruesomeness of the ending also worked for me. Dracula is staked by Paul, but as he is an atheist and therefore cannot pray over him, Dracula pulls the stake out of his own chest with much spurting of blood. Then in the finale, he is impaled upon the cross that had been used to seal his castle; the priest prays over him, and Dracula bleeds messily from his eyeballs before crumbling to dust.


So what we lose in thematic richness we gain in sex and violence. It would be nice if we could have both in the same movie.

Tomorrow: Taste the Blood of Dracula. Yum!

I like how they say 'Obviously!' but if you watch the movie you find that Dracula has not risen from the grave, he's risen from the moat. Fucking stupid advertising copywriters.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965)

We open with the final sequence of Dracula (1958), showing the spectacular demise of Count Dracula at the hands of Van Helsing. This sequence is enclosed in a smoky frame because the earlier movie was shot in a different aspect ratio - Dracula: Prince of Darkness was a rare Hammer movie to be shot in 'scope.

We then go to a funeral, where a young woman is being prepared to be staked through the heart before burial, over the impassioned protests of her mother. The proceedings are thrown into disarray when an imposing figure appears, bellowing for them to stop and firing a rifle into the air. This is Father Sandor, and he's furious that the body is being subjected to this indignity when everybody knows that Dracula has been destroyed for a good ten years and there is no evidence that the girl has been bitten by a vampire.

We then go to a tavern where two English couples are taking a holiday. It is quickly established that one of the couples (Alan and Helen - yeah I know) is very prim & proper while the other (Charles and Diana - yeah I know) is quite modern & forward. Father Sandor arrives and proceeds to warm his posterior (as he calls it) by the fire, hiking up his vestments at the back to allow full access to the heat while holding forth on this as one of the great pleasures of life. One couple of shocked, the other is charmed. Could their respective personalities be relevant to the movie that follows, do you think?

Against the advice of Sandor the couples decide to head to their next destination. He is particularly adamant that they should stay away from the castle, which does not even appear on the map. The coachman decides to throw them out of the coach before they reach their destination (along with their luggage), abandoning them within site of the castle. As we've already seen in Brides of Dracula, coachmen love nothing more than to abandon travellers in the worst possible spot.

While they are trying to figure out what to do next, a coach without a driver just happens to ride up to them. They mount the coach to drive it to the next town but - surprise - it takes them to the castle. The more staid of the couples (particualrly Helen, played by Hammer regular Barbara Shelley) think that the best response to this is to turn tail and run, but they end up going inside to find a table laid out for four guests. They then discover that their luggage has already been laid out in the bedrooms.

While they are pondering this, a pleasantly smiling, genially welcoming man arrives to greet them.

This is Klove, who informs them that although the master of the house is dead he had left instructions for hospitality to be granted to any weary traveller. Klove was surely Angus Scrimm's inspiration for his performance as The Tall Man in the Phantasm series.

This build-up has taken up almost the entire first half of the movie. This is in stark contrast to the 1958 Dracula, where writer Jimmy Sangster and director Terence Fisher (who are also behind this movie) brought us into the action at a tremendous pace.

Having pussyfooted around for long enough, the movie now makes its move. Klove lures Alan down into the cellar, knocks him out cold with the hilt of a knife, then strings him up by his ankles so that he hangs over what appears to be a sarcophagus.

Klove then brings out a small casket that you will probably guess contains Dracula's ashes, and sprinkles them into the sarcophagus. He then slits Alan's throat, and his blood gushes into the coffin where it revives the Count. You might notice that this ceremony bears some similarity to a number of old legends; Odin and Osiris come to mind. It's also a sort of inversion of the crucifixion of Jesus. I'll let you sort out the meaning of this symbolism for yourself.

So you can imagine the shock Helen receives when Klove takes her down to the cellar. Her husband hangs upside down and Dracula waits for her, and he says...

...well, he doesn't say anything. Dracula does not speak at all in this movie, supposedly because Christopher Lee thought that the dialogue he was given was so poor that he refused to say it.

He's still a sex god, though. Helen is soon in complete thrall to him, and later when he slices open his chest and pulls Diana down to drink his blood, the implications of oral sex are blatant.

It's hard to get a coherent reading on the sexual politics of Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Dracula still represents pure unbridled sexuality, and is still evil. However the characters who suffer the most (Alan and particularly Helen) are the most sexually repressed. Perhaps Charles and Diana fare better because they are more balanced. Helen's fate is particularly hideous, as she is held down, writhing and hissing, and staked by a roomful of men in a scene that suggests (perhaps unconsciously) a gang rape. This scene plays as quite uncomfortably misogynistic.

Helen about to meet her fate

The movie also introduces, quite late in the day, a character called Ludwig, a fly-eating inmate of an insane asylum who first seems harmless but who turns out to be in Dracula's thrall. This character is obviously inspired by Renfield.

The movie ends in slightly baffling fashion, as Dracula fights Alan on the thin ice of the castle moat. Diana and Sandor figure out that a vampire cannot cross running water and start shooting the ice, creating cracks that trap him. He then slides into the water - and drowns. What the...?

This doesn't seem right to me

Despite its slow start, Dracula: Prince of Darkness emerges as a fine sequel to Hammer's first Dracula. Andrew Kier as Father Sandor makes a fine substitute for Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. It's kind of a shame that Hammer didn't run two series in parallel, one with Dracula against various savants and one with Van Helsing against various villains, but I guess Cushing was already quite busy with their Frankenstein series.

The scene of Dracula's resurrection almost makes up for the relative lameness of his demise. The supporting cast is a little bland, except for the versatile Barbara Shelley as Helen, who is compelling whether playing prudish, terrified or wanton. Christopher Lee is still in fine form as Dracula, despite his late appearance and non-speaking role; he's always been a fine physical actor, and his hands are particularly expressive.

This was the final outing for Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster as director and writer, respectively, in this series, though both would continue to work for Hammer on other movies. The next movie in the series, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (I guess that Dracula Has Risen from the Moat doesn't have the same ring), was written by Hammer bigwig Anthony Hinds under his John Elder pseudonym and directed by two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, who's probably best remembered now for shooting David Lynch's three least typical movies (The Elephant Man, Dune and The Straight Story).

More on that tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Brides of Dracula (1960)

An opening voice-over informs us that although Dracula may be dead, his disciples still live on to corrupt the world. Meanwhile, a young French woman named Marianne has come to Transylvania in order to take a teaching position. Her cowardly coachman abandons her during a stopover in a small village, and despite the warnings of the locals she accepts the invitation of the sinister Baroness Meinster to spend the night at her castle. It isn't long before she's discovered her son chained up in a secret part of the castle, and promptly sets him free. Before long he has killed his mother, and Marianne flees into the night. She is found by Professor Van Helsing, who has been summoned by the local priest.

Soon the new Baron Meinster is running amuck, with the aid of his mother's servant Greta. He kills a local girl, then (in a surprising turn of events) gets engaged to the impossibly naive Marianne. Meanwhile Van Helsing encoutered the vampiric Baroness Meinster, who is consumed by guilt. She confesses that she blames herself for the entire situation, which was apparently caused by her encouragement of (and participation in) his wild carousing. Van Helsing responds by driving a stake through her heart.

Meanwhile Marianne's roommate Gina expresses jealousy over her engagement. The Baron is apparently sympathetic, as he immediately turns up and bites her. David Peel plays the role of Baron Meinster with considerable glee, clearly relishing the chance to tear his way through the female population of Transylvania.

Mmm candy

I don't want to spend too much time on this movie, simply because Dracula is not in it and is barely even mentioned. But it is a lot of fun, and as far as I'm aware it's the movie that first established the idea that Holy Water is acidic for vampires. It's also the second of three Hammer Dracula movies written (or in this case co-written) by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Terence Fisher.

Peter Cushing is once again wonderful as Van Helsing, and Freda Jackson is absolutely brilliant as the insane, cackling Greta. The scene where she reveals the Baroness Meinster to Marianne is possibly the movie's highlight.

The movie also features an interesting "cure" for vampirism when Van Helsing finds himself on the receiving end of Baron Meinster's fangs (it seems that the Baron swings both ways, as he seems to relish sucking on Van Helsing just as much as he did any of his female victims).

Interestingly, any ambiguity about vampirism that I detected in the previous movie is completely absent here. Baron Meinster is portrayed as pure evil, and as mentioned earlier it was his decadent lifestyle that apparently caused his vampirism in the first place.

There are a few oddities. Marianne is supposed to be a French visitor to Transylvania, and she has a strong French accent (presumably Yvonne Monlaur's actual voice). This serves to draw attention to the fact that the "Transylvanian" characters who all call each other Herr and Fräulein in fact all have British accents. Marianne is also disappointingly dense, failing to connect the murder of Baroness Meinster to her release of him from chains - to the point of quite cheerfully accepting his proposal of marriage scant hours after having first met him. Oops.

Also, what actually happened to the Brides of the title? Do we just presume that they died in the climactic fire? Not a lot of closure there.

It would be another five years before Hammer returned to Transylvania, next time with Christopher Lee returning but without Peter Cushing. Stay tuned for tomorrow's entry in my Hammer Dracula odyssey, Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dracula (1958)

After an introduction that splatters a little blood onto a coffin, Jonathan Harker arrives at Count Dracula's castle in Klausenberg to begin his employment as a librarian. He is met first by a young woman who begs for his help and claims that Dracula is holding her prisoner, but then the genial Count himself arrives and gives Harker a warm welcome. After showing him around Dracula tells Harker to treat the house as if it were his own, but he has an unusual idea of what this means because he promptly locks Harker inside his bedroom.

Harker, who until now has seemed like the ultimate patsy, then sits down and starts writing in his diary that Dracula seems to have fallen for his ploy and that soon he will be able to bring his reign of terror to an end. He manages to escape from his room and encounters the young woman again, who pleads for his help once more but then bites him on the neck. In a moment that must have embarassed people with weak bladders in 1958, Dracula suddenly reappears.

Dude, I am so stoned right now.

Harker now finds himself in dire straits. Having been knocked unconscious and slept through most of the day, he heads downstairs shortly before sunset to deal to the Count and makes the mistake of staking the woman who has bitten him first. By the time Van Helsing arrives on the scene, Harker is already a vampire and has to be dealt with most harshly...

This entire opening sequence seems specifically designed to confound expectations. Instead of Jonathan Harker slowly coming to realise that Dracula is a vampire, he already knows this and is actually there to kill him. Instead of Harker barely escaping with his life, he is actually vampirised himself. And instead of this all being a slow build-up to horror, the entire sequence takes less than ten minutes and features a sudden appearance of Dracula looking as fearsome as he ever has in a movie.

Jimmy Sangster's script often doesn't make sense (e.g. why exactly does Dracula tell Harker to make himself at home if he's going to blatantly lock him up five seconds later? And why does Harker leave himself wide open to being bitten by someone he must already know is a vampire?) but director Terence Fisher keeps the pace brisk and the proceedings energetic. Christopher Lee plays Dracula first as informal and charming, and then as animalistic and terrifying. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, far from the fussy old professor of earlier versions, is immediately presented as a no-nonsense man of action. And the movie's just getting started.

The rest of the story mixes and matches the characters from the novel in fairly random fashion. Now it is Lucy who is Harker's fiance; in this version Mina is Lucy's sister, and is married to Arthur Holmwood. Dr. Seward has only a small walk-on as Lucy's physician. The story is presented as a battle between Dracula and Van Helsing.

That opening sequence probably plays rather differently now than it did when the movie premiered 52 years ago. When Dracula bounds into the fray all red-eyes and snarls, it seemed to me that he was pissed off that his girlfriend was fooling around with the hired help. When he deals to Harker, it doesn't seem too unreasonable - after all Harker had just murdered that same girlfriend. There is no real hint that Dracula wanted anything more sinister from Harker than someone to organise his books.

Anyway, having staked Harker but failed to find Dracula, Van Helsing visits Harker's fiance Lucy to find that she is mysteriously ill. Although she seems too weak to stand, the moment she is alone in her bedroom Lucy leaps up, disposes of her crucifix, opens her bedroom windows, and lays back on her pillow where she starts panting in anticipation.

Do you think that she could be waiting for someone?

The rest of the movie features some familiar scenes as Lucy dies and is staked, at which turn Dracula sets his sights on Mina. She proves to be just as receptive as Lucy; soon she is clutching a fur collar tight around her neck and smiling like the cat that got the cream. Given that Arthur Holmwood is portrayed as being about as dynamic and sexy as a tin of spaghetti, it's little wonder that Dracula is able to charm his way into her affections.

On reflection, I think the spaghetti has the edge.

It's interesting that the battle in this movie is between the sensual and seductive Dracula and the dynamic but almost asexual Van Helsing. This being a British movie made in 1958, of course it's the the stiff upper lip that gets the upper hand. When Dracula is vanquished (in an exciting scene that's surely the first incarnation of Van Helsing as action hero) the status quo is restored, but I doubt that Mina was entirely happy with the situation; she would probabyl have preferred to keep Dracula in the basement in perpetuity. (Yes, in the basement. All anyone needed to do was open the door and there was his coffin, not even hidden. I guess it didn't fit in the wardrobe.)

The story is simplified even more than usual. Despite appearances (and accents) the Holmwoods seem to live not too far from Castle Dracula, so the journey to England (and the race back to Transylvania) is completely omitted along with all trace of Dracula being an unwholesome foreign influence. Renfield is completely missing, along with Quincey Morris and any trace of Lucy being courted.

Lee is a magnetic presence, and though he bears no relationship here to the character as written by Stoker, it doesn't matter in the slightest. His comparatively short screen time is all put to excellent use, and every time he appears the movie catches fire. Cushing matches him as Van Helsing, and it's a shame that they would not play these characters together again for another fourteen years. More on that next week, when I get to the end of my Hammer Dracula marathon.

Tomorrow, Brides of Dracula. I almost considered leaving that one out as Dracula does not actually appear, but he's in the title so what the hell.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nadja (1994)

After the death of Dracula at the hands of Dr. Van Helsing, his daughter Nadja and her companion Renfield show up to collect his body. Nadja, who hopes that her father's death has broken the curse on her, then sets her sights on bewitching Van Helsing's daughter-in-law Lucy. Van Helsing recruits his son Jim and Nadja's twin brother Edgar to hunt down Nadja and destroy her, though she still has a few tricks left up her sleeve.

Nadja is basically a remake of Dracula's Daughter, the 1936 sequel to the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. The main changes involve the addition of twin brother Edgar, a much more reluctant vampire. But the movie isn't really about story but about style, atmosphere and mood. Firmly set in 1994, complete with a soundtrack by My Bloody Valentine and Portishead, it is shot in a combination of rather lovely 35mm black & white film and the distorted Fisher Price toy video camera known as Pixelvision.

Two of the main cast members, Elina Löwensohn as Nadja and Martin Donovan as Jim, are familiar from Hal Hartley movies of the period and Nadja shares a deadpan humour with his work.

The most inspired piece of casting is Peter Fonda, who plays Van Helsing as an aging acid casualty. Fonda is always a vapid actor, but that's completely appropriate to this role; in switching the character from the grey-haired fuddy-duddy of the earlier film into a long-haired hippie on a bicycle, it reinforces that though the "older generation" has changed it is always just as out of touch with youth, even when the "youth" in question is hundreds of years old. As with Dracula's Daughter Van Helsing has been arrested for the murder of Dracula, but as played by Fonda he seems seriously delusional and paranoid.

The rest of the cast is solid with the exception of Galaxie Craze as Lucy, who seems just as somnambulant before meeting Nadja as she is after falling under her vampiric spell. Susy Amis is particularly memorable as Edgar's nurse Cassandra, who turns out to be another of Van Helsing's children. David Lynch (who "presents" the movie, which is produced by his frequent collaborator Mary Sweeney) has a small role as a morgue attendant, but the movie owes little to his style.

Dracula himself appears in flashback, played by Bela Lugosi in stock footage from White Zombie. Lugosi is the iconic image of Dracula for most people, though I don't rate his performance (or the movie) at all. The images they've chosen are striking, in my opinion the best ever taken of Bela, though I suspect the main reason for them is simply that White Zombie is in the public domain while Lugosi's Dracula is not.

Writer/director Michael Almereyda seems completely unconcerned with coherence, and large patches of the movie are hard to figure out as the story leaps about (quite how someone on bail for murder manages to get from New York to Transylvania is glossed over). The overdone use of Pixelvision also obscures some scenes; sometimes this is striking, as with Nadja's psychic flashes of her father's death at the start, but more often it's annoying.

The lesbian aspect is played up somewhat; Dracula's Daughter was the first of many "vampire lesbian" movies. I'd like to say that it was more enlightened in its view of sexuality than the earlier movie, but despite almost sixty years of changing attitudes the movie still shows homosexuality as a predatory impulse to be "cured" or exterminated. It's also hard to see what the genuinely bewitching Elina Löwensohn sees in the uninteresting Galaxie Craze.

I found it hard to tell how much of the pretentious dialogue was intended to be a joke and how much was serious angst. I watched this movie probably half a dozen times when it was new, and though Fonda always amused me I think I took the posturing more seriously. Most of the "deep and meaningful" stuff basically amounts to a couple of wealthy goth kids whining that their privileged lives are unsatisfying. "The pain of fleeting joy" indeed.

Only sixteen years after it was made, Nadja has aged quite badly. Or maybe that's just me - it feels so much like a specific period in my life (and reminds me uncomfortably of a specific relationship). I can't say that I'd recommend it. It does make me want to revisit Poppy Z. Brite's vampire novel Lost Souls, which I was seriously obsessed with at the time, to see what I think of that now.

Here's the trailer.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Nosferatu (1922)

The first film version of Dracula was made in 1922, twenty five years after the publication of the novel and ten years after Bram Stoker's death. As far as I can ascertain, it was the first movie to ever feature a vampire. The production company did not acquire the rights to adapt the novel, and so changed all the characters' names. The movie was almost lost forever after Stoker's widow sued, but fortunately some prints survived the court's destruction order.
The story follows Stoker's novel reasonably faithfully for the first two-thirds. However, this only covers the very first part of the novel - Thomas Hutter (Jonathan Harker in the novel) travels to Transylvania to sell a property to Count Orlock (Dracula), and runs afoul of the vampire's machinations. The vampire then travels to Hutter's home town, the fictional German city of Wisborg (London in the novel).

Nosferatu then departs sharply from the original text. The vampire brings to Wisborg rats that carry the plague; this combined with his own blood-drinking proclivities lead to many deaths. Hutter's employer Knock (loosely based on the novel's Renfield) is driven insane by Orlock's influence. Meanwhile, Hutter's wife Ellen (equivalent to the novel's character Mina, who was engaged to Harker) has uncovered the secret to killing the fiend: a woman who is pure of heart must delay him with her blood, so that he loses track of the break of day.

This is an amazing movie. Obviously like most silents the storytelling seems alien by modern standards, the acting seems over-done, and the special effects have a hand-made quality; but the movie is stuffed with memorable and creepy images, Orlock is one of the most grotesque of all screen vampires, and the level of imagination is high. The influence of Nosferatu on subsequent vampire movies cannot be overstated; you will notice throughout scenes that have been imitated many times since.

This version of Dracula almost completely erases the sexual undertones of the character. He is portrayed as the personification of disease, with a rodent visage to match the rats he brings with him to spread the Black Death. There is a sexual element to Orlock, especially in his obsession with Ellen, but there aren't many people who would consider him to be erotic. This is also the first version of Dracula (and I believe, the first vampire of any sort) that can be destroyed by the sun. There is no mention of the vampire being bothered by crucifixes or other religious symbols, or by silver or garlic, and there is no hint of destruction with a stake. Orlock is not seen to shapeshift (though there is the hint of a werewolf in an early scene) but great importance is given to his shadow, which some subsequent vampire movies would make more of.

Most of the supporting characters are absent, e.g. Dr. Seward, Quincey Jones and Arthur Holmwood. Van Helsing (here renamed Bulwer) has a very small supporting role, and is mostly shown teaching his students about carnivorous plants and likening them to vampires. Hutter/Harker is portrayed as a buffoon; the main conflict is between Orlock and Ellen.

 The movie is long since in the public domain, so free downloads are everywhere (for example here. If you're going to watch it for the first time, I'd recommend the the 2007 F. W. Murnau-Stiftung restored version, which looks amazingly sharp and restores the original tinting as well as some missing scenes. If you live in NZ, this is available on the Umbrella dvd that your local library or rental store must have; elsewhere it's available from Image in the US and Eureka Masters of Cinema in the UK.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Below (2002)

In 1943, an American submarine receives an order to pick up adrift survivors. There turns out to be three of them, a British nurse and two sailors, fugitives from a . The men complain about the "bad luck" of a woman aboard. Soon, while they are being tracked by a German warship, strange things start happening, such as a Benny Goodman record turning on by itself while they are maintaining silence. Is it sabotage, or is it a ghost?

(It's a ghost.)

Below started life as a script co-written by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), who planned to direct. The reins were eventually handed to David Twohy (Pitch Black), who re-wrote Aronofsky's script. I would have rather seen the earlier version, but this is still a fun movie. It doesn't do quite enough with its claustrophobic setting (and the depth charge scenes are obviously not a patch on similar scenes in Das Boot, which just about gave me a heart attack) but it's an effective ghost story.

As far as I'm aware, this is the only haunted submarine movie to date. H. P. Lovecraft's short story The Temple was set on a U-boat in 1920, but it's so long since I read it that I don't even remember whether it was any good or not (and I'm pretty sure that there were no ghosts in it anyway). It's such a great idea that it now seems strange to me that nobody had thought of it before; surely there must be other stories with this theme, if not other films.

What we're dealing with here is a vengeful ghost. I won't say who the ghost is or why it is vengeful, but you'll probably figure it out pretty quickly if you watch the movie. The ghost itself is handled quite well; it's always ducking around a corner, or just a flash of a reflection in a porthole. There were maybe a couple too many loud noise "Boo!" moments, but I can deal with that when the rest of the movie is surprisingly low-key and subtle. I haven't seen any of Twohy's other movies, but I gather that they are action-oriented; this is not. In fact, it's probably the only movie I have ever seen where an explosion that kills multiple characters happens completely off-screen: we only see the build-up to it and the (incredibly creepy) aftermath.

It also contains one of the best "mirror moments" I've seen. You know those scenes? They happen a lot in supernatural movies: someone looks in a mirror and what they see isn't quite right.

There are some definite down-sides. I know next to nothing about the military & navy (hate war, hate most war movies) but even I spotted some of the no doubt rampant anachronisms, which I won't bother listing. The submarine is not mined enough for claustrophobia. There are too many cheap jump scares - the subtle creep-out moments are far more effective. The story is too predictable. Too many of the crew are interchangeable grunts. It should have been scarier - it's creepy throughout but never terrifying.

The best performance by far was Olivia Williams as the nurse, brilliant as always. Zach Galifianakis is endearing as the beardy guy who reads pulp horror stories to the crew. The rest are, ehh, ok. I'm sure I'd seen some of them in other movies, but none were memorable enough to register.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Below was a wasted opportunity, because I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I hope that it inspires other filmmakers to say "I've got a much better idea for a haunted submarine movie!"