Thursday, 31 October 2019

Pointless List Making / October Horrors # 14:
Hammer Vampire Movies, in order.

Happy Halloween / All Hallows / Samhain / whatever everybody! I’m sorry that I’ve fallen behind on my self-imposed one-post-every-two-days October schedule over the past week or so. I was confident I could stick to it so long as I didn’t get to busy in real life, and provided nothing too unexpected or time-consuming happened... but guess what?

Anyway, having re-watched a few of Hammer’s vampire films recently, I thought it would be fun as an act of pure self-indulgence this October to rank them all in the order in which I like them, and to knock out some quick text to show my workings. The results are below, and I would like to think there are a few CONTROVERSIAL choices, so hang on to your suitably gothic hats, Hammer fans!

1. Brides of Dracula (1960)

Having not watched this one for a few years, I’d started to suspect it might actually be a bit over-rated, but revisiting it recently soon set me straight. [NOTE FOR NERDS: I finally acquired a version of the film sourced from the old Region One U.S. DVD which, unlike subsequent Blu Ray editions, is framed correctly at 1.66 and to my eyes still looks very nice – recommended.]

‘Brides..’ remains a masterpiece of gothic horror, especially during its opening half hour. Not only for its magnificent photography and production design, or for the brooding atmosphere of decadence and dread conjured by Terrence Fisher’s flawlessly classical direction, but also with regard to more down-to-earth matters of narrative and character drama. To my surprise, the story here remains gripping for a modern audience, and genuinely horrific in its implications. The script is rich with beautifully turned, evocative dialogue, and the entire supporting cast do fantastic work in bringing it all to life, with every single character who appears on screen enriching the proceedings in one way or another; far too many to list here, but to pick just one example, even the bloke manning the stable at the girls’ school gets to use his one minute of screen-time to deliver an evocative soliloquy about his collection of horse brasses reminding him of the seasons of the year.

It’s a shame then that things go a bit silly in the last few minutes – inaugurating not only Hammer’s long-running tradition of killing off vampires in really stupid, anticlimactic ways, but also of ineffectual vampire brides who dither about the place doing absolutely nothing – but until that point at least, this is Hammer Horror at its absolute finest, arguably the text-book example of the heights the studio could scale in their Bray-era heyday.

2. Twins of Evil (1972)

From October 2017: “Tudor Gates’ ultra-pulpy script drives things way over the edge of self-parody (perhaps the reason I’ve underrated the film in the past?), but the chaps in charge of production design, cinematography etc don’t seem to have noticed the shift in tone, instead delivering one of the best-looking and most atmospheric (not to mention most violent and erotically charged) films Hammer produced during the ‘70s. The result is a film that is really funny (the almost ‘South Park’-like antics of Cushing’s puritan witch-burning club), slyly subversive of the Hammer formula (no moral black & whites to be found here), and an exceptional example of straight up, late period gothic horror all round.”

3. Vampire Circus (1971)

One of the darkest (in both sense of the word) films to ever carry the Hammer name, ‘Vampire Circus’ goes off-brand in pretty hair-raising fashion, adding a brooding, Eastern European flavour to its grimly relentless and exceptionally gory reinvention of familiar “sins of the father” gothic tropes. With vampires who look like depraved ‘70s rock stars, disturbing intimations of paedophilia and nods to Camus’s ‘The Plague’ (and/or Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ – take your pick), this is a heady brew by anyone’s standards, and Robert Young directs with an intensity that sometimes boils over into a nigh-on visionary fervour, lending a hellish, hallucinatory feel to the film’s intense and spell-binding horror set pieces.

Patriarchal authority – aided by John Moulder-Brown from ‘Deep End’ as one of Hammer’s best ever juvenile leads - may win out in the end as tradition demands, but it takes one hell of a battering along the way, making for a pyrrhic victory that leaves ‘Vampire Circus’ feeling like an unlikely cousin to the nihilistic, post-Romero horror films that genre historians like to tell us were making Hammer’s efforts look old hat by the early ‘70s.

4. Taste The Blood of Dracula (1970)

Not only my favourite of the brace of ribald Victorian London movies Hammer made in the early ‘70s, but by far the best of the Christopher Lee Dracula films, ‘Taste the Blood..’ finds relatively young n’ fiery director Peter Sasdy breathing new life into the franchise, not just through the imaginatively rendered new setting, but by delivering what is arguably the only instalment in the series since the 1958 original to have been made with serious dramatic intent (the Dracula-free ‘Brides..’ notwithstanding).

Far stronger meat the any of the earlier sequels, ‘Taste the Blood..’ pre-empts the aforementioned ‘Twins of Evil’ by pushing back hard against the patriarchal authority and Manichean certainties of earlier Hammer horrors, introducing a transgressive note of moral ambiguity as its nightgown-clad young ingénues (Linda Hayden amongst them) find themselves pushed into a perilous spiritual interzone, forced the choose between the seductive and exotic evil of Dracula and the equally predatory depredations of their own morally bankrupt fathers - a cabal of depraved big-wigs and aristos whose private pursuit of perversion not only allows the Prince of Darkness an entry-point into the ‘modern’ era, but makes his no nonsense Satanic evil seem positively sympathetic in comparison to their own sweaty, corrupt and very British hypocrisy. (Heaven knows, there are certainly a few contemporary power-brokers viewers might enjoy super-imposing onto these sorry specimens as they face their grisly comeuppance…)

5. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

Ok, I know that production difficulties, cross-cultural confusion and general creative desperation may have prevented this one from being quite as earth-shattering as the full scale Hammer horror / Shaw Bros kung-fu crossover of our dreams, but it’s still at least 75% as good as the one in my dreams, so that’s something right? In fact, the very fact this film exists at all fills my soul with joy each time I think of it, just as the sight of Peter Cushing getting busy alongside David Chiang and Szu Shih in the middle of a chaotic, Chang Cheh directed vampire kung fu brawl does each time I watch it.

I also love the crazy, proto-‘Black Magic’ Hong Kong horror type shit going down here as the genuinely horrid, cadaverous, golden masked vampires chain down writhing naked virgins in the lair and drain their blood into a bubbling cauldron; I love witnessing the exultant return of wild, expressionistic gel lighting and moth-eaten, cobweb shrouded sets to the hammer universe (Shaw Bros certainly didn’t mess around when it came to ensuring their horror movies looked the part), and I love the way the British scriptwriters seem to keep trying to rip off ‘The Seven Samurai’ during the big, climactic save-the-village battle scene (was it the only Asian film they dredge up from the memories to use as a reference point?) – yep, there’s a lot to love here, that's for sure.

What I love somewhat less however is the fact that the filmmakers were forced to crowbar Dracula into the story at the behest of Warner Bros (who then never even bothered releasing the damn thing), necessitating the last minute employment of some truly hopeless geezer to play him in Lee’s absence (no disrespect intended to the late John Forbes-Robertson, for turns out it is he, but seriously, W and indeed TF). Also, Dracula’s presence here raises a question that has long haunted me in the dark hours of the night: if, as the prologue makes clear, Dracula upped sticks and buggered off to China one hundred years before the events of this film take place, then who the hell has Van Helsing spent his life traipsing across Europe fighting..? I’ve never quite figured that one out.

6. The Vampire Lovers (1970)

From May 2013: “Delivering pretty much exactly what you’d expect in terms of lavish Victoriana, nocturnal cemetery hi-jinks, furtive hints of lesbianism and craggy-faced puritanical ass-kicking, Roy Ward Barker’s initial take on the Carmilla mythos essentially defines the agenda for the ‘70s Euro-vampire movie, setting a bar that the continent’s other purveyors of such material could proceed to soar above or mambo under as they saw fit. Although it never really achieves anything exceptional (beyond a gentle bit of first-time-in-a-British-horror same sex petting), ‘..Lovers’ is solid as a brick shithouse - as generic and satisfying as horror movies get.”

7. Kiss of the Vampire (1962)

AKA, the one everybody always forgets, this modest production is another splendid piece of ‘60s gothic horror, its atmosphere of brooding decadence very much in keeping with ‘Brides..’ two years earlier. Though perhaps a tad over-lit in places, the scenes in the castle and at the masque ball nonetheless feature some striking, proto-psychedelic photography, whilst the plight of our honeymooning lead couple is actually quite affecting, and Noel Willman and Isobel Black are wicked sinister as members of the predatory vampire family. I’m also pretty sure this must be one of the first films to have ever directly connected vampirism with Satanism and black magic, and the latter element plays directly into a bat-shit crazy climax (no pun intended) which must be seen to be believed. Fantastic stuff.

8. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

Notorious for playing out more like a ‘70s pulp spy novel or an ITC action show than a traditional vampire movie, this tale of the diabolical Count using a Satanic coven as a front for manipulating a gaggle of weak-willed politicians and scientists into providing him with enough super-charged bubonic plague to blackmail the entire globe is…. well, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher, to be honest. It certainly left me happily confused when I videoed it off late night TV as a teenager, that’s for sure, but you’d be hard-pressed not to find it one hell of a lot of fun too. In retrospect, it’s wild tonal inconsistencies and cavalier approach to genre expectations kind of reminds me more than anything of Gordon Hessler & Chris Wickings’ wonderfully bizarre Scream and Scream Again from a few year earlier.

Cushing in particular plays a blinder here, proving once again that he could lend gravitas to an outer space volleyball match should the need arise, and, as I mentioned in the comments on this blog just a few months back, the scene he shares where the late Freddie Jones – playing a tormented bacteriologist – is a real highlight, a tour de force of thespian muscle, with a few fistfuls of ominous dialogue helping out too. Likewise, the desk-bound confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula is great, perhaps reigniting some of the fire of their original ’58 face-off for a stranger new age.

In fact, Lee gets some considerably more interesting stuff to do here than in most of the previous Dracula instalments, what with the Count passing himself off as some kind of reclusive Eastern European billionaire, more like a blood-drinking Bond villain than anything else, with the genuinely horrifying prospect of Count Dracula presiding over a global plague pandemic inadvertently returning the figure of the vampire to the rat-like death-bringer of Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’, perhaps.

Elsewhere meanwhile, we’ve got, oh, I dunno – motorcycle stunts, shoot-outs and moody, hirsute cops running around, loads of campy Satanic hoo-hah, plus a few moments of startling, mean-spirited gore and…. Joanna Lumley being consumed by the Sapphic attentions of the chained up vampire brides…?! Good lord.

It’s a shame the whole thing culminates in the most egregious you’ve-gotta-be-fuckin-kidding-me ending of any film on this list (hawthorne bushes, I ask you), but… that in itself was almost a tradition by this point, I suppose.

9. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

Oh, man…. I mean, what can you say? I mean, as bad as ‘1972 AD’ undoubtedly is, I don’t know if there’s a single fan of British horror who could refuse to unconditionally love it on some level. If you’re reading this, you know the score, I’m sure. Stoneground performing ‘Alligator Man’! Reversed tape recordings and Caroline Munro getting blood all over her cleavage at Johnny Alucard’s swinging Black Mass! And how about that opening prologue with Dracula getting a cart-wheel where the sun don’t shine? Beat THAT, Terrence Fisher!

10. Dracula (1958)

A bit of a shocker I realise, but, despite the impossibly vast scale of this film’s influence on genre cinema, as a stand-alone viewing experience, it’s never really clicked with me, despite numerous attempts to go back to it with a fresh eye.

Moreso than any of the other early Hammer horrors, ‘Dracula’ strikes me as having dated really badly, making it difficult to dredge up much contemporary relevance from it. All of the scenes that don’t directly involve Dracula feel dry and tedious, suffocated by those plush, Gainsborough interiors and formal, stiff upper lip acting styles. The dismissive treatment of the female characters within the film meanwhile plays as flat-out comical to modern audiences (even more-so than in Stoker’s novel, where Lucy and Mina are allowed at least a certain amount of agency), and, personally, I’ve always found the make-up and hair-styling in this one to be pretty disastrous too.

On the plus side however, marvellous performances from Cushing and Lee, obviously, and the final confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing is impossible to fuck with – an immortal and historic scene, still exhilerating to this day, without which this film would likely be languishing even further down this list, despite it’s having directly fathered all of the other entries.

FUN TRIVIA: I know everyone has heard this story before, but my dad was working in a regional cinema in South Wales when ‘Dracula’ was released, and he actually did once tell me that he remembered people screaming and fainting in the aisles, and complaining to the management that they hadn’t been able to sleep for a week etc. after seeing it. Imagine that! Incredible to reflect upon how thoroughly our senses must have been blasted over the subsequent six decades, given that this film is now barely able to keep most modern viewers awake, to be perfectly honest.

11. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968)

The boilerplate script for this ho-hum ‘Dracula’ sequel may be thoroughly uninspired, but I nonetheless have a soft spot for the film, based largely on the extravagant, fairy tale-like production design overseen and quite beautifully captured by master cinematographer turned uneven horror director Freddie Francis. Never has mittel-European fantasyland of pre-1970 Hammer looked as richly colourful and unreal as it does here, with the entire movie seemingly taking place inside some dark recess of Tim Burton’s fevered childhood brain, where he keeps the long-supressed good stuff. The climax, which as I recall sees Dracula impaled upon a massive stone cross on a windswept mountainside as lightning flashes above him, is pretty cool too.

12. Countess Dracula (1971)

Hungarian director Peter Sasdy’s under-stated take on the Countess Bathory mythos is a perfectly creditable historical drama, with fine performances from Nigel Green and Sandor Elès, but its dour formalism and pointed refusal to dish out the horror / exploitation goods soon becomes a drag. Despite her top billing, Ingrid Pitt has very little to do here, whilst the special effects brought in for her brief supernatural scenes feel silly and incongruous, and the sketchy vampire component has all too obviously been grafted onto the script for the sake of commercial necessity, creating a ruinous disjuncture between the film promised by Hammer’s marketing, and the one which Sasdy actually delivered.

13. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

Like a number of films on the lower reaches of this list, ‘Prince of Darkness’ has always struck me as simply playing like a realisation of the Hammer back office’s idea of what a bog standard, utilitarian vampire movie should look like. No spark, no invention, and certainly no unnecessary expense; just eighty-something minutes of the same old stuff, assembled in the customary order to appease the market. You’ve got some coaches rumbling through the woods, a big ol’ pasteboard castle, a few rubber bats, some bits with Dracula popping up in ladies’ bedrooms and rather comically enfolding them in his cloak… what more do you want, blood? (Sorry.)

I dunno – am I missing something here? I remain eternally disappointed that the Fisher / Sangster / Robinson dream team turned in a picture this uninspired. Basically the only things which really stick in my memory are Dracula’s initial resurrection scene (which is pretty damn cool), and Andrew Keir as the priest, warming his arse on the fire in the tavern.

14. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)

I know this one has its fans, so I’ll throw in a “I’ve only seen it once, quite a while ago” disclaimer, but I remember being decidedly underwhelmed by this one. In theory, the idea of letting Brian Clemens re-invent the Hammer vampire film as a swash-buckling, action-adventure type franchise sounds like a brilliant one, but sadly I recall the result delivering precious little action and a total lack of adventure. Perhaps budgetary constraints and production difficulties were to blame, who knows, but Horst Janson is certainly wooden as a box of stakes in the title role, little of interest happens in the script, and basically the cast just seem to spent half the movie half-heartedly trudging around in a patch of woods and some out-buildings. On the plus side, well…. Caroline Munro. That’s all I’ve got. Perhaps I should give this one another try some time?

15. Lust for a Vampire (1971)

The story of how Jimmy Sangster made the transition from an incisive and inspired scriptwriter to a frankly terrible director, crassly attempting to reinvent Hammer’s most iconic franchises as low-brow, self-parodic comic capers, may have been told many times, but you’ll get to revisionism from me on this score. ‘Lust for a Vampire’ is witless, embarrassing guff which can’t even seem to get the simple business of being sexy right, replacing the genuine eroticism of ‘The Vampire Lovers’ with woeful, sub-Benny Hill type tomfoolery. I’ll confess, I happily sat through this one a few times on late night TV back in the day and wasn’t too appalled, but woe betide anyone who tries to watch it sober.

16. Scars of Dracula (1970)

I think my review from last year’s October Horrors marathon probably already did a pretty good job of setting out the extent to which I hated this one. Let’s just say that it gets my vote as Hammer’s absolute worst (‘Holiday On The Buses’ possibly notwithstanding) and leave it at that.


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Nope, can't argue with that ordering of the films, frankly. Funny, as it always seems like theres more Hammer vampire films then there appears to be.

Still tend to reach for AD72 the most, oddly. I know its crap, but its the kind of crap I like! Suppose riding the Kings Road on my commute home probably keeps it fresh.......

Ian Smith said...

Wow. Looking at some of your rankings, I can only say: you're a brave man. Here are a few thoughts...

Firstly, it's good to see 'Twins', 'Circus', 'Legend' and 'Taste' figure so highly on your list. 'Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires' is a particular favourite of mine, as I got to see the trailer for it on my first ever visit to a cinema at the age of nine years old. A kindly uncle had taken me to a Disney double bill of 'The Island at the Top of the World' and 'Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too', and in those days (in Northern Ireland anyway) no one gave a toss if they showed trailers for upcoming X-rated movies in the middle of U-rated family ones. I don't remember much about 'Island' and 'Winnie the Pooh' now, but I do remember thinking the 'Legend' trailer's mixture of vampires, zombies and kung-fu was the best thing ever. I nearly punched my hand in the air and shouted "Yes!" when Peter Cushing yelled, "Strike at their hearts!"

Secondly, I'm glad that you placed 'Satanic Rites of Dracula' above 'Dracula AD 1972'. I mean, I quite like 'AD 1972', but it's not exactly what you'd call good...

Thirdly, I'd place 'Brides'. 'Kiss' and 'Lovers' further down the list. I'd always thought 'Brides of Dracula' was a bit lame, but I watched it again recently and was impressed by its fairy tale atmosphere. But I still wouldn't say it was the best Hammer vampire movie ever.

Fourthly, I'd rank the first two Christopher Lee Dracula movies and 'Captain Kronos' higher. I'm probably biased because 'Dracula Prince of Darkness' was the first proper horror movie I saw as a kid and it had a big impact on me, but having seen it again recently I think it still holds up pretty well -- the first half with the travellers trapped in the castle is as grim as hell, culminating in the splattery Dracula-revival scene (imagine watching that when you were ten years old!), and though the second half isn't as good, I enjoyed it because of Andrew Keir's gruff, Scottish-accented Father Shandor character. (I can understand why Dez Skinn gave Shandor his own comic strip in House of Hammer and Warrior magazines in the 1970s and 1980s.) With 'Captain Kronos', I just find it likable -- I agree that Horst Janson is wooden, but I like how he and Caroline Munro stick up for John Cater's hunchbacked character and Cater is allowed to save the day at the end.

Incidentally, the reason why I've watched so many of these films again recently is because my partner is American and, when I first met her, she was unschooled in the ways of old British horror movies. So I've been trying to educate her. Among her comments... Of 'Satanic Rites of Dracula': 'I really like how the actors are taking it all so seriously." Of 'Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires': "I feel really sad. Most of the 7 brothers died at the end." Of 'Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter': "You only like it because Caroline Munro's in it, don't you?" And of 'Twins of Evil': "Twins of evil? TITS of evil, more like!"