Hammer Time

In 1925, Universal Studios launched the first cinematic universe, rather accidently, with the release of Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. The unmasking of the Phantom kicked off a run of horror films that lasted all the way until 1956 with the third and final Creature from the Black Lagoon picture. Universal mined Gothic horror and early science fiction literature for much of their material with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, and Gaston Leroux’s Phantom as the most celebrated.

In 1957, a ragtag studio out of England called Hammer Films unleashed The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the monster. Terence Fisher directed Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay. Since this countdown is all about vampires, I’ll reserve my take on this film and its sequels for another time. Much like Dracula kicked off the talkie era for Hollywood horror in 1931, The Curse of Frankenstein signaled the beginning of Hammer Films’ substantive reboot of the Universal monsters. This film paired Cushing and Lee, and introduced us to Hazel Court and Valerie Gaunt, and set the stage for their next monster reboot.

I’m calling tonight’s eight-film discussion No. 11 in the countdown. Again, this is how I get more than 31 movies into the countdown.

Horror of Dracula – 1958

Simply titled Dracula in the United Kingdom, Horror of Dracula stars Christopher Lee as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing as Doctor Van Helsing. Once again, Terence Fisher directed a Jimmy Sangster screenplay. Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, and Valerie Gaunt also star.

Lee and Cushing set new standards for both characters as Lee emerged from the shadows to put his own spin on the Prince of Darkness after Bela Lugosi set the bar in 1931. Many find him to be the definitive Dracula, or at least their favorite. Michael Gough, who would go on to play Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton’s Batman films, plays Arthur Holmwood.

What I don’t like about this movie is the plot. It strays too far from the source material. Although Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931 didn’t adhere to Bram Stoker’s original novel either (it follows Hamilton Deane’s stage play), this film features an all-new screenplay. Characters are mixed up or blended or omitted.

Don’t get me wrong, it is stunning to see Dracula in technicolor for the first time and Lee is commanding as the Count. The film stands on its own with Jimmy Sangster’s original screenplay, but I would have liked to see a more faithful adaptation for Lee’s first turn in the cape. The funny thing is, when Dario Argento made his Dracula 3D in 2012, he used Horror of Dracula for inspiration for the screenplay and not the source novel.

Later on Lee would play Dracula in what was supposed to be a definitive and true to the source adaptation outside of Hammer Films, and the movie, to me, is almost unwatchable.

Brides of Dracula – 1960

Much like Dracula’s Daughter in 1936 didn’t have Dracula in it, the sequel to Horror of Dracula didn’t either. However, both had Van Helsing. David Peel takes a turn as the bloodsucking Baron Meinster. The plot is ludicrous, but Hammer was trying to find their footing as a major player in the genre. 

But it is a Hammer vampire film and the cinematography and rich set design make it a very watchable film. Plenty of fangs and blood. The set pieces are gorgeous, something Hammer would become known for during their run as the top horror film studio of the time.

Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan and Edward Percy combine on the screenplay and once again, Terence Fisher directed.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness – 1966

Christopher Lee returned as Dracula in this one, but Peter Cushing/Van Helsing do not appear. Two married couples on vacation get adventurous and end up at Castle Dracula. Lee’s Dracula, who doesn’t deliver one line of dialog in the entire movie, needs to be reconstituted by his servant, Klove. How does he do this you ask? With the blood of one of the travelers, of course.

Lee is particularly menacing as Dracula in this because of the lack of dialog. He uses his eyes and facial expressions to convey his malevolent message. Suzan Farmer and Barbara Shelley star as Dracula’s female victims.

The story takes place in a vacuum despite the appearance of Father Sandor who chastises the townsfolk for continuing to believe in the local superstitions after Dracula’s supposed demise.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave – 1968

Lee’s Dracula always seems to be out for revenge for some reason or another. In this film, Dracula seeks retribution for the exorcism of his castle by the regional monsignor. He turns a local priest to his cause indicating a level of corruption we have yet to see from the count.

One of the things I find interesting about the Hammer Dracula films, and perhaps it starts with Bram Stoker’s novel, is how Dracula has the balls to hide right under the noses of his would-be dispatchers. In the novel, he moves in next door to his intended victims. In Horror of Dracula, he takes up residence in the basement of the Holmwoods. In this, he invades the monsignor’s home and community.

Rupert Davies stars as the monsignor as Dracula sets out to claim his niece, Maria, played by Veronica Carlson.

Taste the Blood of Dracula – 1970

More freeze-dried Dracula. But this time, a trio of gentlemen thrill-seekers get bored with their run-of-the-mill debauchery and fall in with broke-ass Lord Courtley. Courtley convinces them to purchase the dried blood of Dracula and participate in a ritual to bring the count back to life. The gentlemen panic and kill Courtley, but not before Dracula is resurrected.

Linda Hayden stars as Alice, the daughter of the leader of the trio of gentlemen. Dracula takes his revenge on those who killed Courtley, for whom he has an affinity for thanks to the resurrection. The hypocrisy of the three lords who preach chastity and piety in their households yet engage in these occasional indulgences is the real ugliness in this film.

Apparently, Ralph Bates, who plays Courtley, was to be the next Dracula, but the American distributors insisted that Lee play the Count.

This is my favorite of all of the Hammer Dracula films, and probably all of Hammer Horror.

Scars of Dracula – 1970

This is the one of the series I have seen the least often and many regard it as underrated. I am not even going to begin to try to summarize this one in detail just to say it seems like more of the Stoker character is brought to bear here. Dracula’s ashes have somehow returned to Transylvania. Once again, Dracula has a servant named Klove. Shortly thereafter, we’re back in Kleinenberg, Germany. The story centers on Dracula’s torment of the locals and he is killed when lightning strikes a spike that protagonist Simon skewered him with.

This film was noted for being a possible reboot of the franchise but the Wikipedia entry for it mentions that it breaks the continuity of the previous Hammer Dracula films. This is where Hammer verily veers from the path Universal took with the character. 

I need to watch this again before I comment further. I include it here because it is part of the eight-movie arc.

Dracula A.D. 1972 – 1972

Lee is back again as the count, and Peter Cushing finally returns as Van Helsing. Devoted disciple Johnny Alucard (heh) brings the Count back from the grave and Dracula then turns his attention to Van Helsing descendant Jessica. In the prologue/flashback at the beginning, the film shows a fight between Dracula and Van Helsing’s ancestor, and the Count’s demise by the spoke of a wagon wheel. This time Dracula dies in a pit of stakes after feasting on London’s “mod” set, including the venerable Caroline Munro.

Satanic Rites of Dracula or Dracula and His Vampire Bride – 1973

Hammer got the band back together one more time. Cushing plays the descendant of Van Helsing, who vanquished Dracula in Dracula A.D. 1972, and now must match wits with him again. Joanna Lumley stars as Jessica Van Helsing. Quite a few horror pictures in the late 1960s – early 1970s focused on Satanism and devil worship.

This one brings Dracula into the modern era as Scotland Yard gets involved in the fight against the legendary and infamous vampire who now finally appears to have some kind of end game.

Many vampire films up to this point, regardless of studio, were period pieces set in Victorian times. The fight between good and evil is brought into the bright lights of modern London in this and the previous as the Lee/Cushing franchise winds down. Hammer Films hit many marks with their Dracula story arc, and I plan on writing a treatise on their entire monsterverse soon. With Dracula, the casting of Christopher Lee as Count Dracula redefined the character for many and introduced him to others. Cushing’s Van Helsing became his signature character. The continuity issues are maddening, as they were with Univeral’s Dracula, but at least in this case they didn’t have to recast the two main characters. For us fans, Hammer raised the bar with technicolor, fangs, blood, and plenty of sex appeal.

31a./31b. Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream
30. The Lair of the White Worm
29. Son of Dracula
28. Vampire Circus
27. Innocent Blood

26. The Hunger
25. Countess Dracula
24. Dracula (1979)
23. Count Dracula (1977)
22. The Vampire Lovers

21. Dracula’s Daughter
20. Kolchak: The Night Stalker
19. Salem’s Lot
18. Shadow of the Vampire

17. Interview with the Vampire
16. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
15. Twins of Evil
14. Lifeforce
13. Thirst
12. What We Do in the Shadows

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