01 October 2009

Movie review: Taste the Blood of Dracula

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Directed by Peter Sasdy. Starring Christopher Lee, Linda Hayden, Anthony Corlan, Geoffrey Keen, John Carson, Peter Sallis, Ralph Bates, Isla Blair, Gwen Watford, Michael Ripper.

Wow, October is here already. Time to watch a Hammer horror flick.

Although the Dracula series at Hammer was one of their longest-running, it had a slow beginning. After the huge success of 1958’s Dracula (titled Horror of Dracula in the U.S.), a sequel was a given—but Christopher Lee was afraid of typecasting and didn’t want to play the bloodsucking count again. I’ve also heard that it was Hammer that turned Lee down, fearing he would ask for more money. This comes from IMDb trivia, which isn’t exactly the last word on accuracy. But if I were Christopher Lee, I would have asked for more money.

Well, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes… Hammer forged ahead, and used Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing as the star of The Brides of Dracula (1960). Although this is one of Hammer’s best movies, Brides didn’t do anywhere near the business of Dracula. Hammer wouldn’t make another Dracula film until they managed to coax Lee back into the cape. The result, 1966’s Dracula—Prince of Darkness, is disappointing, and Lee has no dialogue in it except snarling. Two years later came Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, which gave Lee a bit more to do, but still was a minor effort.

But 1970’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (eeew, no thanks) is the best sequel starring Lee, and shows Hammer trying to deepen and darken their vampire mytholgy that was starting to go stale in the late ‘60s. Director Peter Sasdy, a Hungarian émigré, crafted a movie that overturned the Victorian values of the earlier films, showing them as empty and nothing more than façades. In this setting, Dracula is the “bloody truth,” ripping the hypocrisy apart. It’s a surprisingly black-hearted film, and it stands out amongst the mediocre sequels.

That still doesn’t mean that Christopher Lee’s Dracula does much in the film; he has a smattering of dialogue, mostly commands. He principally relies on his physical presence. But Dracula has excellent servants to do the heavy lifting: the beautiful children of three wealthy would-be sybarites who meddle in the affairs of black magic and get the reward of having their young ones nastily kill them. It’s a great core of an idea—Dracula helps youth rebellion to its extreme—and the film manages to carry it off after a slow beginning.

The opening gets right to the “Blood” part of the title. A traveling salesman (Roy Kinnear) chances upon the ending of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. He witnesses Dracula’s death throes after he fell onto a gigantic crucifix—the priesthood really shouldn’t leave those things lying around—and then collects up the quick-dry blood, planning to sell it for a huge amount of money once somebody invents Internet marketplaces. Until then, he’ll have to wait for an aristocratic evil magic dabbler or a Black Sabbath fan to pony up the dough.

He finds the former in Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates). Courtley is obviously designed as youthful version of infamous “magician” Aleister Crowley. However, the disowned Courtley doesn’t have the money to make the dried blood purchase with the bonus of a genuine Dracula medallion, cape, and secret decoder ring, but he finds three bored members of the landed gentry—William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis), and Jonathon Secker (John Carson)—who are willing to contribute the thousand guineas to buy the artifacts.

The three men, who have the outward display of paragons of upper class Victorian society, secretly wish to experience true decadence. Unfortunately, this just means prostitutes and opium dens, and they want something more. Something exotic and outrageous.

Apparently, reviving the King of the Vampires seems like the ticket to fun for them—although weak-willed Paxton needs convincing—so they buy the dried blood + Dracula accessories, join in a celebration in an abandoned church that is rented out on weekends for Satanic rituals, and then refuse to drink the blood-slushies that Courtley offers them. They instead beat Courtley to death after he drinks the blood, and go running home and hope this doesn’t pop up on the brothel’s charge account. Courtley’s corpse transforms turns into a cocoon that hatches Dracula, who vows to kill those who killed his servant. (Really, Drac? The servant’s death was how you got here in the first place. Oh well, you are the King of the Undead, why not slaughter some weak-kneed upper class idiots?)
If Geoffrey Keen looks familiar to you, and Peter Sallis sounds familiar, that’s only natural. Keen appears as the recurring character of the Minister of Defense in the ‘70s and ‘80s James Bond movies, while Sallis is none other than voice of cheese-loving inventor Wallace in the “Wallce & Gromit” films. Keen gives this film’s best performance: he makes Hargood a disgusting and abusive father and husband who uses a puritanical zeal to cover up his lecherous activities. Ralph Bates, whom Hammer was trying to establish as a new star—they tried to re-fashion the Frankenstein series with him as the lead, only to have it fizzle with a single film—rips into his small but memorable role. It’s a shame that he had to serve as the physical vessel for getting Dracula into the film, since a vampirized Bates would’ve been quite a sight.

Dracula sets about on “Project: Pervert the Kids.” Hargood has a lovely and suffering daughter, Alice (Linda Hayden), who is in love with Paxton’s son Paul (Anthony Corlan). Paul has a beautiful sister, Lucy (Isla Blair), who is engaged to Secker’s son Jeremy (Martin Jarvis). Nice how Drac has them all lined up in one place, eh? Paul will eventually turn into the film’s hero, once Dracula has gotten the other kids to turn on their dear old dads.

The murders are extremely well-done, and some of the scariest material that Hammer came up with in its later years. Paxton’s death is especially memorably, filmed in panicky hand-held shots, and since Paxton is the only truly sympathetic of the three men who caused all this mayhem, it’s painful to see him go in such a gruesome fashion. I have a feeling he’d rather have gone on a cheese tour than resurrect a vampire, but that’s how these films go. I wasn’t sorry to see Hargood go, stumbling around drunk and bellowing about how he’s going to whip his daughter, but—ouch!—he doesn’t go gently into that good night either.

It does take forty-five minutes for the film to get moving. The Hammer movies always had trouble simply getting Dracula back to un-death, but at least the nature of his resurrection in this film is the core of the plot. But Courtley’s Pinot Noir-and-blood ceremony seems to take forever, and the various scenes of the sprightly youths who will eventually do Drac’s dirty work aren’t that thrilling. Likewise, the ending is a bit light—mainly because I have no idea exactly how Dracula meets his demise. It might be fear of heights, or a flashback to a really boring high mass, but… I don’t get it. The King of the Vampires should re-consider hiding out in a church next time, and perhaps find a place with a few less sacred objects lying around handy.
Taste the Blood of Dracula rises up from the rest of the crowd because it has a thematic reason to exist, aside from simply as a sequel featuring a popular character. Sasdy’s direction and the script from John Elder really unleash the idea of simmering sexuality beneath a false Victorian front, and once Dracula unlocks the potential in the children (Lucy especially seems to find orgasmic fulfillment in the neck-bites) the movie goes into a mad hysteria. It has more energy in it than the other Christopher Lee sequels combined. Only Dracula and Brides of Dracula are superior. Unfortunately, the series would rapidly rot away after this.

I can’t pass up mention of James Bernard’s score. Bernard was the go-to man for Hammer horror films, and this is one of his best efforts. He uses the familiar three-note “Dracula Theme,” but really flourishes with a pastoral love theme that emerges as the dominant sound of the film. Bernard liked to match his themes to the syllables of the movie’s title, and it’s fun to sing “Taste the Blood of Dra-cu-la” along with the lilting love piece.