Saturday, February 23, 2019

Hammered in the Neck: Hammer's Dracula Franchise Part II

There is a beauty, style, and look to classic Hammer horror films that only that studio contains. There are only a handful of times in the history of cinema that a studio has defined themselves so steadfast, even when they experiment, one can immediately tell who made it by the style and tone. Hammer is one of those. For this latest franchise article, we were asked to cover some of the major Hammer studio releases and it seemed only fitting to start with the one that most people recognize: Dracula. Spanning multiple decades, the Dracula series is often times as iconic as the original Universal series and it certainly helped solidify both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as genre cornerstones. Truthfully, it was a pleasure to be asked to go back and watch this franchise once again and write this series of articles. Not that my words do it much justice, but even if I can inspire one to revisit the films, then I will have done my duty.

Due to the length of this franchise, it only made sense to split it up into multiple articles to prevent having one massive piece that people will tire of reading by the time they reach the third or fourth film. Since there are nine entries, it made sense to evenly split the articles into three films each. For this second part of the article, we will be covering the fourth, fifth, and sixth entries into the series.


Director: Freddie Francis

Notable Cast: Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, Veronica Carlson, Barry Andrews, Ewan Hooper, Barbara Ewing, Marion Mathie, Norman Bacon

After the disappointment of the last entry and the loss of Terence Fisher from the directing chair, I was hesitant to just leap into the fourth Hammer Dracula installment, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Perhaps it was just smart to lower my expectations going into the film because in the end, despite some of its flaws, this film certainly entertained and showcased a lot of fantastic style and effective storytelling. It’s a film that, ultimately, wears most everything on its sleeve and doesn’t have a lot of depth outside of its plot and narrative. Even then, there is a sense that the film is embracing the adventurous tones like Brides and just running with it.

When the film opens, it very much attempts to do something fairly interesting by immediately throwing the film into a religious mindset. It has been a “year” since the end of Dracula: Prince of Darkness and a priest and monsignor aim to make sure they alleviate the local villages’ concerns by sealing up his castle. Naturally, they end up accidentally resurrecting Dracula from his icy grave. The film then cuts back to reveal that the religious slant is more or less just a way to get things started and that uncovers that the actual protagonists of the film are a young couple, a baker and his girlfriend. As Dracula’s presence seeps into town, it sets them as the ones to do battle with Lee’s iconic version of the character.

Although the film certainly follows a very formulaic narrative that hardly leaves much room for any real creativity in the film, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave does have a flair for embracing the elements that do work. The writing in the film, as structured as it is, does make sure that smaller details do come back and nothing is wasted here. Character arcs are effective, there is a fun romantic triangle that’s brought to light, and once again Lee’s Dracula proves to be a formidable presence on screen that director Freddie Francis utilizes fantastically in the third act. It’s not perfect though, particularly since the film takes a while to get things going. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave also lacks a bit of that thematic depth, particularly since they lightly bring religion up repeatedly – including having a lead character that is almost abrasively a proud atheist, but in terms of that straight forward Hammer entertainment, it delivers.

As for the franchise, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave adheres to a more adventurous tone like Brides of Dracula which is a huge selling point. In its own way, it’s more of a return to form after the stripped back and intimate aura of the third film and it finds a better balance. It has a couple of instantly memorable sequences, including a fantastic finale, which help it through some of the overall pacing issues. All in all, after the disappointment that came with Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a welcome and highly entertaining entry. Flawed, sure, but enjoyable nonetheless which makes going into the next entry, Taste the Blood of Dracula, rather exciting.

Director: Peter Sasdy
Notable Cast: Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Gwen Watford, Linda Hayden, Peter Sallis, Anthony Corian, Isla Blair, John Carson, Martin Jarvis, Ralph Bates, Roy Kinnear, Michael Ripper

There is a lot of love out there by fans for this fifth entry into Hammer’s Dracula series, Taste the Blood of Dracula. There are some great reasons behind that love, particularly in the first half of the film as it sets up Dracula’s return and how the film plays it pretty loose with the Dracula lore to present a fairly fresh tone compared to the more traditional narratives of the last handful of films. It’s also a film, now this is the big issue for me, that feels like it was forced into being a Dracula film. It’s not a huge problem, in the overall scheme of things really, but it does make it feel as though it might have been something more unique without the titular character. Maybe it’s just a personal thing, but it did leave its mark through the latter half of the film.

To start things off though, Taste the Blood of Dracula stumbles off on an odd note. It rapidly shifts between a series of potential protagonists for its narrative. This is a similar tactic to most of the Hammer Dracula series, although here it’s played with strong effect and establishes the ensemble and cast with relative efficiency without deterring the pacing. Even if it does feel a bit scattered. It introduces us to a salesman character that is, in a very odd sequence, thrown from a carriage by the passengers and stumbles his way to witness the final moments from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. The film then cuts forward to introduce us to the film’s real protagonists, a couple of young couples from some wealthy families in a nearby town. We get to see their interactions. There’s some great chemistry here, some decent performances, and plenty of the now usual youthful reluctant heroes that will come to battle our titular villain. It then takes a rather strange shift from the main protagonists to the various fathers of these couples as they go to town to “do business.” By business, I mean, they end up in some lurid entertainment that results in a wild night which ends up bringing back Dracula. If only one of the Hangover sequels used this idea, they might have worked.

There is a fascinating concept here that works on an interesting thematic level. The film toys, loosely, with themes about the sins of the father and how it affects the youth. Along with this, it also starts to create a new villain through a young and enigmatic fellow who convinces the older male, fatherly characters to buy into his scheme to live forever using, you guessed it, Dracula’s blood. It develops some new mythology to the Dracula lore and the film focuses on very unlikeable characters for a large portion of the opening including a rather unnecessarily long brothel sequence. It’s this first half that really works though. It moves briskly, features great characters, and the introduction to a new villain with his black mass schemes is a great direction for the series. If this carried over for the rest of the film, using this new villain, it might have been one of Hammer’s best vampire films.

Unfortunately, Taste the Blood of Dracula ends up completely throwing the new villain out of the window and resurrecting Dracula (again.) There is some stuff that works in the latter half, particularly as Dracula seemingly uses his hypnotized victims to commit the murders for him, but mostly the energy of the film starts to run flat. The performances remain great and there is a visual style to it all that brings a modern feel to the usual Gothic tones, but by the time the finale rolls around there is a sense that, despite its strengths, Taste the Blood of Dracula might have been something fresher and more appealing which was sacrificed to bring about a more formulaic approach and shoehorn in Lee’s Dracula.

It’s easy to see why fans love Taste the Blood of Dracula because the film has some great new additions, but still maintains the same core values of the previous entries for its latter half. It has some strong direction, solid performances, and key memorable scenes. The finale leaves a bit to be desired and the loss of a great new villain by the mid-way point is horribly disappointing, but the mixture ultimately works. There’s enough fresh material to gather some momentum into the next film, Scars of Dracula, but as you will soon see, most of it ends up wasted.

Director: Roy Ward Baker
Notable Cast: Christopher Lee, Dennis Waterman, Jenny Hanley, Christopher Matthews, Michael Gwynn, Michael Ripper, Patrick Troughton, Anouska Hempel, Wendy Hamilton, Bob Todd

Although the last two entries of the Dracula series have been quite effective in their own ways despite their obvious flaws, Scars of Dracula is the first of the series to really showcase the problem of pumping out films in the manner that Hammer did with this series. Dracula: Prince of Darkness might be a film that disappoints, thanks to its more intimate setting and cut and dry approach, but Scars is a film that feels undercooked in all categories. Quite frankly, this film just feels more like a cash grab than any of the others thus far. It’s uninspired, weakly developed, and often misses out on delivering for some of its better elements. It’s not a complete waste of time and there is certainly a sect of very vocal fans of the film, but Scars is a faint shadow of the former entries in so many ways.

One of the best parts about the series thus far is seeing to what ridiculous lengths the scripts will go to in figuring out ways to resurrect Dracula for the next go around. Magic blood powder, the fantastic resurrection sequence in the third film, or whatever it may be, each film has had its own fun way of bringing back Lee as the iconic character. Until this one, that is. The film wastes no time in resurrecting the titular monster and while the ‘bat resurrection’ idea is at least strange enough to be memorable, it just feels lazy and forced. Considering it’s the first sequence of Scars of Dracula, it does not necessarily set up the right tone for the rest of the film.

In fact, the terms lazy and forced are probably the best two ways to describe what Scars of Dracula is doing with its script and characters as the film progresses. It’s not a hard claim to make that the protagonists of this entry, a(nother) young couple in love and the main gentleman’s horny younger brother, are the worst protagonists the series has had thus far. There is no real depth to them, their narrative is formulaic and yawn inducing, and the performances seem uninteresting at best. This is a parallel to rather cheap nature of the visuals in the film and uninspired use of the period sets that betray the overall Hammer style that is being presented here. It’s obvious at the time that Hammer was on a bit of a down-swing in production and Scars very obviously shows the cuts in budget.

Granted, it’s not like Scars of Dracula is a total loss. There are a handful of things that it has going for it for fans to appreciate. The film uses Dracula’s human caretaker in a much more interesting manner here, particular as he seemingly falls for the beautiful young female protagonist, and there are some fun exploitative elements that move the series further into that territory. There is a bit more onscreen gore, provided mostly from Drac’s assassin bats, and a tad more nudity to appease the fans. These tactics do feel as though they are added in to provide something for audiences with the lacking atmosphere and missing fleshed out characters, but it is something of note at least. Unfortunately, it’s mostly hammy stuff and it lacks substance, but it is perhaps the one thing that that sets Scars apart from its predecessors.

All in all, as one goes through the series, Scars of Dracula simply falls short in all of the great things about them. The atmosphere is sorely missed, the great Gothic sets and visuals are lost to budgetary constraints, and the script and exploitative elements feel like forced gimmicks to make a quick buck versus having a real reason to exist. Sure, there are some fans that love what Hammer is trying to do as it shifted focus for this entry, but even when it entertains it feels as though it’s for all the wrong reasons. It leaves one feeling drained and hollow.

Next up for our Hammered in the Neck franchise review of Hammer’s Dracula franchise, we will be going over the last 3 films in the series. All of which are riddled with gimmicks including the move away from period films and even partnering up with the iconic Shaw Brothers. Until then, don’t hesitate to let us know what you think of the three films covered in this article and let us know what franchises you would like to see us cover next.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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