Saturday, 26 October 2013

Count Down part four: The Dark Knight Rises

In his third appearance as the immortal Count, Sir Christopher Lee brings new meaning to the expression ‘bloody students’

For many years this was ‘the lost Hammer Dracula’ for me.  I’d managed to catch up with all the others thanks to the good old Sunday Horrors, but it’s only because of the treasure trove which is Aro Street video that I finally saw this one.  I was very aware of the story, however, due to a pictorial synopsis in a Famous Monsters magazine special, which I picked up during a family holiday one year.  Richly illustrated with those famous publicity pics of Christopher Lee apparently helping Veronica Carlson out of her night gown, it looked great.

On seeing Dracula has Risen from the Grave, what strikes me is that the previous sequel featured decidedly middle-aged ‘heroes’, but here we see the first infiltration of youth culture into the series.  Keinenburg is a student town, and much like campus-neighbouring establishments today, its tavern is filled with noise, beer fumes and bizarre drinking rituals.  The town is also something of an ecclesiastical centre and both venerable institutions are about to suffer the red-eyed wrath of a recently risen revenant.

Dracula has risen from the Grave (1968)
This film has some wonderfully imaginative and gruesome scenes involving blood letting. Or, they would be, if the copious gore didn’t look like unstirred roof paint.  Whether this failure to accurately depict Dracula’s whole reason for existing is a deliberate move due to some strange censorship requirement, or well-meaning effort by someone who’s never actually seen the stuff is unclear, but somewhat frustrating.

With that niggle out of the way, there are scenes so striking peppered throughout this film that they have become almost compulsory in any book about horror films: the enraged, coffin-bound Count, grasping at a stake buried in his chest, a young girl hanging, drained of blood, from a huge church bell; and the mesmerised Veronica Carlson, barefoot in her night dress as she follows her new master through the equally dark forest.  Such stuff nightmares are made of.
 Lee, even by this relatively early stage, apparently required a great deal of coercion to return to the role. His reappearance had apparently been promised to the film’s distributors before the actor was consulted and perhaps some pent-up fury informs a performance which is electrifying despite almost no dialogue.  A feeling of real dread suffuses the ‘failed staking’ scene, which also has the gratifying effect of draining the insufferable smugness from young atheist hero Paul.  And no wonder, it’s bad enough having Lee’s Dracula after you, but when you’ve been stupid enough to really hiss him off first then it becomes terrifying

Having a corrupted priest follow at the heels of the Prince of Darkness like a whipped dog lends a blasphemous edge which surprises even now.  This peaks when the enslaved cleric unceremoniously dumps a mouldering corpse out of her coffin to provide a temporary home for his Master.  And the fact that the inhabitant is apparently ‘bell girl’ makes her one very unfortunate individual, even after death.
 And as a nod to my rightly-proud fifth-generation Kiwi friend Peter, I should also mention New Zealand- born actress and author Barbara Ewing’s wonderful performance as doomed barmaid Zena.  To paraphrase Steinlager: “They’re drinking our blood, here!”

This film has been described as “…a minor triumph of style over substance”, and it’s probably true.  The template of book-ending a story between an imaginative method of revival and destruction of the Count had been established in the previous film, and Risen really is just a revenge story which takes us from A to B, and back again.  But the powerful imagery can’t be denied.  An early scene of the Monsignor climbing towards Castle Dracula, at dusk, with a giant crucifix tied to his back is so iconic that it was used to open every episode of The World of Hammer, an excellent retrospective TV series which can’t be recommended enough.
Despite an unchallenging plot, Dracula has Risen from the Grave did great business, and the Count’s next return was assured.

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