Hammer was one of my first cinematic loves and this article is long overdue. Founded in 1934, U.K. based Hammer Films got its start with a series of noir productions, though later moved to science fiction, psychological thrillers, adventure epics, comedies and television series. They became famous for their lush, atmospheric horror films, which dominated American and European film markets throughout the 1960s. The success of Universal adaptation The Curse of Frankenstein gave them the freedom to explore more adaptations, and after a lengthy legal agreement with Universal, Hammer released Dracula in 1958.
Stars Christopher Lee (Dracula) and Peter Cushing (Van Helsing), director Terence Fisher and set designer Bernard Robinson would continue to influence and regularly work on the nine-film series, which gave Universal’s Dracula a completely new look and tone, adding blood, sex and a lavish Victorian set. The film’s success ensured frequent entries in the series, which continued until 1974. Though there are an equal number of hits and misses, the series comes highly recommended to fans of classic ‘60s horror.
1. Dracula aka The Horror of Dracula (1958)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling
Hammer Horror’s first foray into the vivid and bloody waters of Dracula, also known as The Horror of Dracula to U.S. audiences, is an over-the-top treat. Though some of the sequels took a bit of a nose dive, this film starts the series off right and sets the standard for further Hammer vampire films. If you have never seen a Hammer horror film, they are known for lavish costumes and sets, plenty of buxom ladies, some of the red stuff (in this case, very bright red) and a penchant for period settings. Dracula presents all this with gusto. The holy triumvirate of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher are together again after Hammer’s first true horror film, Curse of Frankenstein, in similar roles. Lee is the monster, Cushing is the doctor and Fisher films the proceedings with expert vision.
Similar to other Dracula film adaptations, this has pretty much nothing to do with Stoker’s novel. This particular film takes place in Germany and Van Helsing and Harker are “scientists” studying the vampiric legend. Somehow they find the Count and Harker takes a post at his castle to keep watch over the demonic lord. He slays the Count’s lady and the Count gets revenge by biting Harker. The extremely dapper Van Helsing comes onto the scene in search of Harker, but only finds Harker’s diary and his diabolically preserved corpse, which he stakes. Van Helsing returns home to share the news of Harker’s death with the Holmwood family. Arthur Holmwood and his wife Mina are caring for Holmwood’s sister Lucy, who was engaged to Harker and has recently fallen ill with “anemia.” Can Van Helsing convince the Holmwoods of the truth in time to save Lucy and to keep Dracula’s attention away from Mina?
This comes recommended, though will likely only appeal to viewers with a certain taste, particularly those who appreciate older horror films. The acting is good, though very… British. Christopher Lee is a fantastic Dracula and probably the first to be overtly sexual or physical. A lot of earlier adaptations put an emphasis on the Count’s metaphysical abilities, but Lee’s Dracula is very earthbound and quick to put newly-shined shoe to ass. Peter Cushing is fabulous, particularly in that red velvet suit. James Bernard’s score is wild, dramatic, sinister and over the top. Do yourself a favor and at least see this film and Curse of Frankenstein. Who knew that British remakes of Universal monster films would be so good?
Check out the Warner DVD. This deserves something a lot fancier, which we’ll never get on region one as long as Warner has the rights.
2. The Brides of Dracula (1960)
Directed by Terrence Fisher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel
What does Dracula have to do with Brides of Dracula? Absolutely nothing. Aside from a few references to the old boy (in the narrated opening it is made clear that Dracula is dead, but his disciples remain), he, and his brides, are absent from this film. I have no idea why Hammer chose this title, other than an attempt to connect it to the first Dracula film. Despite that, this is one of the greatest in the Hammer canon. The scenery is beautiful, the well-constructed plot has globs of gothic perversity, the ladies are as lovely as ever and Peter Cushing is at the top of his game.
Though it is technically the sequel to Dracula, the only true unifier is Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. He has taken up a life of solitary wandering to stamp out any evidence of the “cult of the undead” began by Dracula. He arrives on the scene just in time to save the beautiful Marianne. She is traveling alone from France through the countryside to an academy for young girls where she has an appointment to teach. On the way, she stumbles into a perverse and complicated situation where the local Baroness Meinster pays the populace to ignore the fact that she procures young girls for her vampiric son, who is chained up in the castle to prevent him from spreading further evil. Marianne is intended to be one of these girls, but the young Baron Meinster convinces her he is being unjustly imprisoned and she steals the key to free him. In a weirdly incestuous scene, he sinks fang into Mommy dearest, and Marianne has a chance to run away, hysterical and unsure of what she has seen.
Van Helsing arrives in time to figure out why young girls in the village are dropping like flies. By the time he links the deaths to the Baron Meinster, the Baron has several undead brides and has proposed to the still living Marianne. Van Helsing must convince her of the true nature of her gentlemen love before it is too late. On the way, he kicks some serious ass and somehow remains 100% immune to any kind of feminine wiles.
Brides of Dracula is only available in the pseudo-box set The Hammer Horror Series, which contains eight films on two double-sided discs. I hate double-sided discs. The set is worth it just for Brides of Dracula, but double-sided discs and a lack of special features indicate an intolerable cheapness on the part Universal.
3. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews
Technically the third film in the Hammer Dracula series, Prince of Darkness is actually the direct sequel to Dracula. It concerns two very English brothers and their wives on holiday in Europe. Even though they are warned by a local monk (the excellent and sometimes hilarious Andrew Keir), they accidentally arrive at Dracula’s castle. They find four table settings and two rooms prepared for their arrival, as well as an eccentric butler who tells them his master is dead. Queue scary music. Of course, their host is Dracula and the faithful butler (where the hell did he come from?) resurrects him by cutting the throat of the more boring, less attractive brother and leading his wife (Barbara Shelley) right into Dracula’s embrace. The other couple, who are mysteriously safe during the night, escape with their lives, but unfortunately Diana (the beautiful Suzan Farmer) is Dracula’s new obsession. He follows them to the monastery where Diana’s husband and the monk must race time and the powers of darkness to save her immortal soul and nubile flesh.
Though this is another solid entry in the series, you can see it beginning to go downhill. Lee is always fantastic as Dracula, but only appears halfway through the film and gives a silent performance. Apparently his lines were so terrible that he refused to say any of them. The set and costumes are gorgeous, as usual, and the acting is tight, but there are obvious acts of desperation on the part of the writer (the great Jimmy Sangster, who wrote many Hammer films and directed a few). Where did the butler come from? Why is there a Renfield stand-in named Ludwig? And where, oh where, is the beloved Peter Cushing?
Getting this film on DVD is unfortunately tricky or would be without the cunning use of the internet. The US two-disc Anchor Bay version, which I am reviewing, is sadly out of print, as is the US Anchor Bay double feature DVD, which bafflingly comes with The Satanic Rites of Dracula. I highly recommend the Anchor Bay two-disc, which is double-sided and comes with a smattering of extras. Many Anchor Bay releases come with relevant episodes of the World of Hammer documentary series and this includes “Dracula and the Undead.” I was expecting a lot from this episode, but it only shows clips from various Dracula and vampire films with Oliver Reed narrating the transitions. The best extra is a behind the scenes home-video shot by the brother of actor Francis Matthews. It is only a five-minutes glimpse of a day on the set, but someone had the foresight to get commentary from a few of the actors. Lee’s booming voice dominates and he even gets out a few jokes.
4. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
Directed by Freddie Francis
Starring: Christopher Lee, Veronica Carlson, Rupert Davies, Barbara Ewing
In another attempt to preserve continuity after Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the Count has supposedly been dead a year, thanks to being buried in a frozen mountain stream in the last film. A skeptical monsignor (Rupert Davies) is tired of the town’s vamp phobia, so he marches up the mountain to Castle Dracula in an incredible act of hubris, performs an exorcism and bars the Count’s entrance from his own home with a huge golden cross. This leads indirectly to the Count waking up majorly pissed off and declaring unholy war on the monsignor and his family, a widowed sister-in-law and beautiful niece (Veronica Carlson). His niece Maria is trying to marry Paul, who happens to be an atheist. To no one’s great surprise, he comes around and rejects his ignorant views by the end of the film. When the monsignor is attacked and dies, it’s up to Paul to save his lady love and defeat the beast. Hammer also attempts to sneak in another pointless, plot driven detail to the Dracula mythology: in order for the Count to stay dead, you have to pray over him with belief while he is dying. Convenient. Also never used again.
The best thing about Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is the introduction of the absolutely gorgeous Veronica Carlson. She went on to star in a couple of Hammer Frankenstein films after this, but I don’t know why they didn’t use her more. Other than that, it’s business as usual. Thankfully, Lee is around more in this film and actually has dialogue. Nothing can make up for the absence of Cushing, though Davies replaces him as best he is able as a holy man, rather than a scientist. This film somehow seems brighter and more visually stunning than earlier efforts in the series, though that could be because of the lovely rooftop set with Veronica Carlson prancing around on it. There is also more sexual innuendo and dangerously plunging cleavage lines.
Luckily, this is still available on DVD in multiple versions. I am reviewing the bare-bones Warner Home Video DVD, where the only extra is the theatrical trailer. It is also available in two different Warner Home Video box sets – a random, 6 film best-of and another random 4 film Dracula collection.
5. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Directed by Peter Sasdy
Starring: Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Ralph Bates, Linda Hayden
I can happily say that this is not as bad as The Satanic Rites of Dracula, but it’s also not a particularly great entry in the Hammer Dracula series, aside from a few exceptional moments and a certain so-bad-it’s-good flair. Lee is on screen for about fifteen minutes, probably less, something that would plague the rest of the series from here on out. Attempting to beat themselves at the continuity game yet again, this picks up where Dracula Has Risen from the Grave let off. The less said about that, the better.
Taste primarily concerns three English gentlemen out for a thoroughly hedonistic time – drinking, smoking, visiting brothels and ignoring their wives. Unfortunately for them, they encounter the dashing Lord Courtley, who promises them an eternity of debauchery if they will just help him with a special task – reviving Dracula. This, of course, goes horribly wrong. After Courtley dies during the ritual, Dracula stalks the three men, possibly to avenge the death of his loyal servant and possibly just because he’s as bored with this franchise as we are. Of course he doesn’t aim his revenge or fangs at three old, balding, overweight businessmen – he stalks their attractive children instead.
It boggles the mind that Dracula scriptwriters continued to throw in loyal servants that appear out of nowhere in each new film later in the series. It’s also particularly amusing that Hammer made this script once in stuffy, Victorian England with a bunch of boring male protagonists, failed, changed a few elements and tried again with Dracula A.D. 1972. Surprisingly, it works a lot better in the swingin’ seventies and has a major element that this film lacks: the wondrous, long overdue return of Cushing as Van Helsing.
Taste is available on a double disc DVD from Warner, alongside The Curse of Frankenstein. Why they wouldn’t pair it with another Dracula film, possibly in some sort of chronological succession, I have no idea. The transfer is decent, though predictably there are no extras other than a trailer. The film is entertaining, but is probably only worth buying for collectors or Hammer enthusiasts. There’s also a single disc with the same print.
6. Scars of Dracula (1970)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Christopher Lee, Dennis Waterman, Jenny Hanley, Christopher Matthews
How much longer can we stay on this gravy train? Despite its position near the end of a long list of Dracula Hammer films, this is a fairly entertaining entry in the series. And aside from Dracula A.D. 1972, this one probably has the most imaginative plot. Though he died for the fourth time in Taste the Blood of Dracula, His Unholiness is resurrected again because a vampire bat vomits a mouthful of blood onto his dusty cape. Et voila. The beginning is a tour de force of violence previously unseen in any film in the series. The local villagers launch an impromptu march on the castle mere hours before dark and burn most of it to the ground. Dracula avenges himself by slaughtering every last man, woman and child hiding in the local church. For those of you who remember Klove, the completely random manservant in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, he’s back, hairier, grungier and more inexplicable than ever.
The core plot revolves around the beautiful Sarah, her boyfriend Simon and his missing brother Paul. Incapable of meeting a girl without taking her clothes off, Paul gets himself into a bit of trouble and runs from the arms of the law right into Dracula’s somewhat restored castle. After more sex and misadventure, he stupidly wanders into Dracula’s private chamber, which is a room with a lovely view looking down over hundreds of feet, a coffin and no doors. Predictably, Simon and Sarah go in search of Paul. They get no help from the villagers, but somehow make it through the first night. Simon soon realizes what kind of diabolical force is between the rescue of his brother and the well-being of his lady love. Will he save them all in time?
Scars of Dracula is surprisingly entertaining. There are a lot of relatively violent scenes, especially for Hammer, who usually focused more on atmosphere. There is a particularly brutal scene detailing the “clean up” of a rogue vampire involving a meat cleaver and a bucket of holy water. This also arguably has the most sex of the series. Actual sex is implied for the first time, naked girls run about and the camera can’t keep off of Sarah’s well-proportioned bosom. There are also the usual plot holes and faux-pas, including the fun Hammer tactic of shooting night scenes during blatant daytime hours, which is worse than ever in this film.
I am reviewing the two-disc, U.S. Anchor Bay DVD with impressive extras. There’s a great commentary track with Baker, Lee and Hammer film historian Marcus Hearn. The second disc includes The Many Faces of Christopher Lee and two music videos. Words cannot express. In the documentary, Lee graciously gives an hour of his time to discuss some of his most famous roles and introduces each segment with a prop from the film. This edition is out of print, but there’s a good single disc from Anchor Bay.
7. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Directed by Alan Gibson
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame
Peter Cushing is finally back! Now, listen carefully. Basically every review of this film writes it off as terrible, boring, cheesy, with a horrible soundtrack and a ridiculous lack of continuity. I don’t know what movie those people saw, because this is easily the most fun entry in the Hammer Dracula series. Though it lacks the somber mood and gothic atmosphere of the beginning of the series, it is ridiculously fun and has more of a sense of humor than probably any other Hammer Horror effort. I might have to give in and admit that this is my favorite, even though Peter Cushing doesn’t slap any hysterical women (or men).
A.D. concerns Van Helsing’s descendants – Grandpa Van Helsing (played with aplomb by Cushing) and hot ‘70s babe Jessica Van Helsing – who are plagued by a descendent of Dracula’s servants. Johnny Alucard (the tremendously awesome Neame) is intent on resurrecting his family’s master. Dracula, in turn, is determined to rid the world of Van Helsings once and for all by killing the good doctor (or anthropologist, whatever he is) and sinking his fangs into Jessica’s ample bosom.
This film is full of some amazing and hilarious set pieces. There are ridiculous clothes, swingin’ ’70s drug lingo and bored teenagers desperate for a laugh. Don’t forget about the completely random musical performance in the beginning of the film, where a group of kids crashes an upper class dinner party and time themselves to see how long they can linger before the bobbies arrive. It’s a shame they forget the couple under the dining room table still having sex. The best moment in the film involves Dracula’s resurrection, which is an incredible Black Mass scene. Johnny Alucard is one of the swankiest villains/henchmen outside of a James Bond film. And who doesn’t want to see Dracula stalk through “modern” London to a disco beat? “Dig the music, kids.”
Fortunately this film is still in print, though Warner Home Video did put out the cheapest DVD imaginable. Though there are no special features, there is a swingin’ trailer.
8. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)
Directed by Alan Gibson
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joanna Lumley, Michael Coles
Fortunately better than I remember it being, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is the eighth film in the series and the last to star Lee as Dracula. The wonderful Cushing also returns, along with much of the cast of Dracula A.D. 1972, to which this is a loose sequel.
The British Secret Service uncovers a secret society, including key members of the government, performing satanic rituals. Scotland Yard is called in to quietly investigate. Inspector Murray (Coles from A.D.) consults occult expert Professor Van Helsing. When the Secret Service secretary is kidnapped and turned into a vampire, agents and Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica (Lumley, replacing Stephanie Beacham) go to investigate and discover a basement full of Dracula’s brides. Van Helsing contacts a scientist friend, Julian Keeley, who is developing a new strain of the Black Plague. Before Van Helsing can help his friend, Keeley is killed and his research, including active cultures of the plague, is stolen. The savvy Van Helsing believes a reincarnated Dracula is behind the diabolical plot.
Like Dracula A.D., Satanic Rites is an attempt to revitalize the franchise and prove that Hammer can do more than gothic horror. Unfortunately this absurdly complicated plot attempts to include too many new elements at once: spies, government conspiracy, Scotland Yard, an end of the world plot involving a new strain of bubonic plague, a scheming, Fu Manchu-like Dracula who has a serious death wish, vampire “brides” for the first time in the series and new vampire mythology, including susceptibility to hawthorne and silver bullets.
This mix of sci-fi, horror and espionage penned by Doctor Who scribe Don Houghton would probably have been successful if Dracula and Van Helsing hadn’t been included, seemingly as an afterthought. This is not helped by the fact that Dracula has minimal screen time, probably less than 15 minutes. At least he has dialogue in this one. Though it is great to see Lee and Cushing together again, they feel out of place in an a plot that belongs to either The Avengers, James Bond or Fu Manchu. The bleak apocalyptic theme moves away from the gothic elements of most of the series and far, far away from the fun, campy romp of Dracula A.D., which will likely please the many viewers that hated that film.
Though there are several cheap versions of Satanic Rites that should be avoided, Anchor Bay presents a nice region 1 disc as part of their Hammer Horror series. This includes trailers and a documentary, Dracula and the Undead, narrated by Hammer-regular Oliver Reed. Avoid any prints under the stupid U.S. title, Count Dracula and His Vampire Brides, which has several minutes shaved from its running time.
9. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh
Starring: Peter Cushing, John Forbes-Robertson, David Chiang, Robin Stewart
It’s incredible that a Hammer and Shaw Brothers co-production even exists, but fortunately or not, here it is. This is the ninth and final film in the Dracula series, and though Cushing makes a welcome appearance, Lee’s absence is conspicuous. This is the only time in Hammer history that Dracula was played by someone else, in this case John Forbes-Robertson (The Vampire Lovers).
The Hight Priest of the Seven Golden Vampires, Kah, tracks down Dracula’s castle in Transylvania and asks the Count to go to China to help restore the glory of the once renowned Golden Vampires, who are getting their asses kicked by peasants. Dracula agrees, because he is trapped in his castle, but he takes Kah’s image in order to travel undetected. Professor Van Helsing happens to be at Chungking University giving a lecture on Chinese vampire legend, in particular the elaborate story of the cult of the Golden Vampires. Hsi Ching, a student, tells Van Helsing the legend is true and his grandfather is from the village terrorized by the Golden Vampires. He backs up his claims with a bat-shaped amulet owned by one of the seven vampires (now dead) and Van Helsing agrees to accompany Hsi to his village. They are joined by Van Helsing’s son Leyland, Hsi’s seven brothers and one sister, and a wealthy widow rescued from the Tongs by Leyland and the Hsis. They face off against six of the seven remaining vampires and a small army of the undead until Dracula arrives and raises the stakes.
The film’s premise is as ridiculous as it seems, but it’s also quite entertaining. This unselfconscious blend of genres is played straight and legitimized by the always wonderful Cushing, who mostly leaves the kung fu fighting to trained professionals, but occasionally enters into the fray. I have a deep love for kung fu films, the Shaw Brothers in particular, and Legend benefits from dual direction by Chang Cheh, one of Shaw’s most popular and talented directors. Chinese horror is also represented – keep your eyes peeled for hopping vampires.
There is no way to deny that Legend is flawed. Don Houghton returns after Dracula A.D. to penn a script that is a messy attempt to blend Hammer horror and kung fu tropes. He conveniently avoids continuity issues from Satanic Rites of Dracula by simply setting Legend some time in the 1800s. Though there are some nice special effects from Les Bowie, a lot of the vampire make-up is dreadful, particularly Dracula’s at the start of the film. Dracula is barely present in this film, but it’s unclear if that’s a good or bad thing. Forbes-Robertson had some impossibly large shoes to fill, so perhaps it’s for the best that he was given little screen time. His few lines of dialogue are frankly appalling.
But there are plenty of things about that film that make it a worthy final entry in the series. There’s some great cinematography from Roy Fords and John Wilcox, particularly in the Chinese countryside. There are some very entertaining fight scenes between the Hsi family and the undead. Probably the best thing about Legend is that it is wholly energetic and unafraid to simply be a campy, almost cartoonish kung fu-vampire-action-horor film.
Anchor Bay released a nice DVD as part of their Hammer Horror collection. It includes The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, the sadly truncated U.S. version that no one needs to watch. There are a few special features, including a somewhat bizarre recording of Peter Cushing telling the film’s story with musical accompaniment and sound effects.
Though this series isn’t perfect, it’s close to my heart and will provide an open-minded viewer with hours of delight and entertainment. Happy Halloween!