Hammer Horror for Your Weekend

With the ebbing of the Universal monsters wave, cinematic vampires were rare on the ground until the late 1950s, when the UK’s Hammer Films resuscitated the archetypal bloodsucker, with a certain tall, dark and deadly Mr Lee in the lead role.

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Of course the story isn’t true to Stoker’s original, with all sorts of creative nomenclature, such as having Mina married to Arthur and Lucy as his sister, and Jonathan Harker is a vampire slayer, attacking Dracula in the opening scene but failing to win through. None of the inaccuracies matter all that much though. The joy of this film is in the imagery it throws at the screen, garish colours and minatory statues combining to create a gloriously baroque feel.

And, short as it is, the plot does manage to cover a lot of ground, with Dracula travelling away from his castle to attack his enemies on their home ground, albeit that home ground is not Whitby and doesn’t require a sea voyage.

While the supporting cast are excellent the film belongs to arch rivals Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Lee’s Dracula is every bit as menacing on his first appearance as Bela Lugosi, and while he doesn’t have that beguiling foreign accent Lee’s diction is perfect and his presence overpowering, the quintessential tall, dark stranger. Conversely, Cushing as Van Helsing is imbued with an almost avuncular charm, though he knows how to do harsh things and does not shirk from the bloodshed his role involves.

The final fight between the two is tense and dramatic, even if Lee does spoil it slightly by rolling over on his back before ever the tapestry is torn aside to let in the sun, rather like a puppy dog wanting its belly rubbed. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was trying to get into the shade by diving under the table.

A hugely enjoyable movie, Horror of Dracula breathed new life into the vampire subgenre, and heralded a battle charge from which, as yet, there appears to have been no retreat.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

Travellers are warned away from an isolated castle, and so of course they go there, only to find that manservant Klove is happy to help them make themselves at home. But Klove slaughters one of them, using his blood to revive his master Dracula, while another is turned. The remaining couple must take steps to protect themselves from the vampire, and they do so by sheltering in a monastery, but the woman is abducted, and so there is a return to Castle Dracula for the inevitable showdown.

Christopher Lee’s second outing as the Big D, this was an entertaining romp, though I took exception to the fact that the couple who were so gung ho to stay at the castle managed to survive while their reluctant counterparts were slaughtered: it all seemed so unfair. The characters were well drawn, especially the ghastly Klove and the monk who was Dracula’s nemesis, while Lee is tall, dark and nasty as ever, with the blood sacrifice ceremony in which he is revived the high light of the film, a nicely staged and minimal piece of sfx.

My only grievance is that the ending wasn’t really convincing, with the sudden onset of winter so that the moat could be frozen over, though until that moment everything had been perfectly balmy, and I’m not sure that a stagnant moat constitutes running water either, but to complain seems churlish.

Countess Dracula (1971)

Ingrid Pitt had already earned her fangs as Carmilla Karnstein the previous year in The Vampire Lovers, but I watched that last year to mark the occasion of the actress’ death, so for my Hammer fest chose this film instead.

Pitt plays the elderly Elizabeth Bathory, who discovers that bathing in the blood of virgins is the key to recovering her youthful good looks. She has her right hand man hold daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down) prisoner, while she masquerades as Ilona to pursue a young man, but the henchman has ambitions of his own, and ultimately it all goes pear shaped, with a wedding ceremony finale in which Bathory’s true appearance is revealed.

Not strictly a vampire film, this is nonetheless an entertaining piece, with some good interplay between the principals, even if I find the idea of instant love hard to swallow. I’m not sure feminists will go much on the subtext either – while male vampires represent archetypal evil, Bathory is just a poor, desperate woman afraid of losing her looks and refusing to act her age. Curiously, while the previous two films were ’15’ rated, this is an ’18’. I suspect the entirely gratuitous scene where Pitt is exposed standing up in a bath and naked except for the blood soaked sponge in her hand could have been responsible. 

And now a little something for the weekend to reward those of you who have no interest in vampires at all but have read this far anyway, though I do think Kate would have made a rather splendid vampire:-

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