Thursday, December 9, 2010

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) & Scars of Dracula (1970) & Dracula AD 1972 (1972) & The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) & The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

          By the mid-’60s, a dreary formula was in place for Hammer Films’ long-running Dracula series: Each movie contrived a laborious new mechanism for resurrecting the titular bloodsucker (Christopher Lee), and each movie ended with Drac suffering an elaborate demise. As the series progressed, Lee’s characterization became more robotic, and the filler scenes depicting various supporting characters became more tedious. By the time the ’70s arrived, even Hammer’s lush Victorian-era costumes and locations felt stale. As a result, Taste the Blood of Dracula is a routine but well-photographed entry notable only for introducing Satan worship into the series, although comic actor Roy Kinnear enlivens a few early scenes. The movie takes forever to get started (an hour passes before Drac bites his first neck), and the formula of blood, cleavage, and Gothic atmosphere is overly familiar; furthermore, Dracula’s overreliance on henchmen makes him seem more like a Bond villain than a legendary monster.
          Scars of Dracula features more of the same, but instead of Satan worship, the story pays rudimentary homage to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel with scenes of an unfortunate European fellow imprisoned in Drac’s castle. Reflecting how dry the creative well was at this point, the opening scene depicts a bat reviving Dracula by drooling blood onto the count’s bones. Really? Although Lee spends more time onscreen than usual in this entry, Scars of Dracula is one of Hammer’s shoddiest productions, complete with fake bats that wouldn’t pass muster in a student film.
          After a two-year hiatus, Hammer shook up the formula with Dracula AD 1972, which resurrects Dracula in present-day England, and the always-entertaining Peter Cushing returned to the series for the first time in 12 years, playing Lorimer Van Helsing, a descendant of the count’s old nemesis. The movie retains a bit of Gothic flavor by giving Dracula an abandoned old church as a lair, but most of the story takes place in the London youth scene, so lots of with-it kids party in tacky early-’70s fashions (leading lady Stephanie Beacham rocks a fierce mullet hairstyle). Campy dialogue, kitschy musical interludes, and slick camerawork make Dracula AD 1972 a guilty pleasure, and watch for raven-haired cult-favorite starlet Caroline Munro in an early role. It should also be noted that Beachams mesmerizing cleavage is such a focal point in Dracula AD 1972 that her breasts shouldve gotten special billing; this movie may represent the apex of Hammer leering, which is saying a lot.
          Hammer continued its new modern-day continuity with The Satanic Rites of Dracula, a Cushing-Lee romp enlivened by the presence of costar Freddie Jones, who plays a twitchy Satanist/scientist, and future Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley, taking over Beacham’s role as a Van Helsing descendant. The movie boasts an energetic score (proto-disco funk passages, lots of stabbing horns), plus slickly atmospheric wide-lens photography. There are even a couple of genuine jolts (rare in any Hammer flick), like a slo-mo attack on Lumley by several distaff vampires. The fact that the first hour of the movie plays out like an occult-themed conspiracy thriller sets the stage nicely for Lee’s dominance in the last twenty minutes; for once, Lee gets to do more than lunge at people and recoil from crosses, and he seems energized. Satanic Rites is easily the best thriller of this batch, even though it’s barely a Dracula movie in the classic sense.
          In 1974, Hammer’s Dracula series reached a bizarre conclusion with the kung fu epic The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a joint effort from Hammer and chop-socky specialists the Shaw Brothers. In two brief scenes, John Forbes-Robertson unimpressively stands in for the absent Lee as Dracula, while a tired-looking Cushing reprises his Van Helsing shtick for the whole dreary flick. Boring nonsense about noble Chinese martial artists engaged in brawls and swordplay against decaying vampire ghouls in ornate gold masks, 7 Vampires is the series’ absolute nadir. Plus, who knew Dracula spoke fluent Chinese?

Taste the Blood of Dracula: LAME
Scars of Dracula: LAME
Dracula AD 1972: FUNKY
The Satanic Rites of Dracula: FUNKY
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires: SQUARE

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