Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Count down part five: Tasting Notes

Hammer’s Dracula makes it to London at last, and meets Wallace!

“Words fail me” said Christopher Lee writing about his opinion of the latest film’s title to his fan club in 1969, “as indeed, they do in the film”
There is an additional reason for his typically unvocal performance in this film, however, and that is that Lee was never originally supposed to take part and was written-in at the last minute. Well aware of their star’s reticence to don the red-lined cloak once again, Hammer attempted to create a new vampire anti-hero, Lord Courtley, to be played by fresh young actor Ralph Bates. But the American distributors were having none of it, and Lee again was persuaded to return in what is in fact one of the best sequels in the entire range.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969)
An abandoned British traveller stumbles into the closing scene of the previous film, Dracula has risen from the Grave, and is somewhat startled by the screaming, writhing figure transfixed by a giant cross and bleeding profusely.  The blood quickly dries to a red powder which the interloper collects, and so the Count is finally Blighty-bound, as Bram Stoker always intended. And here he stays, as the Carpathians are completely abandoned for the following two productions in this series (although the next film, chronologically, is an exception and oddity, as we will see later.)
Transferring the action to Victorian London is a refreshing move, and we are introduced to a fascinating cast of characters whose affairs absorb our attention so fully that the fact Dracula doesn’t even appear until half way through is barely noticed.

Three brothel-frequenting gentlemen (including great turns from Gromit’s Dad: Peter Sallis and one of Bond’s original bosses, Geoffrey Keene), who also keep puritanical reins on their own daughters, bring Victorian hypocrisy to the forefront. Beautiful Hammer regular Madeline (Maddy) Smith (she over all the many other Ladies adorns the cover of the definitive book about the actresses of these films: Hammer Glamour) makes her debut as a Python-draped exotic dancer, who’s routine is rudely interrupted by a sneering Courtley.  
 Bates went on to do some great work with Hammer, most notably his Doctor Jekyll, but here I’m afraid it’s clear he was never going to cut it as a Dracu-Lee replacement. A surprisingly high voice makes you instantly miss Lee’s sepulchral, if rare tones, and it’s something of a relief when imbibing the imported blood literally transforms Courtley’s dead body into the Lord of the Undead. It’s worth noting that the satanic ritualism leading to this became inextricably linked with the Count’s revival in future films. No longer simply an undead European nobleman, he seems to have been elevated to fully-fledged demonhood.
Once up and about, the Count swears vengeance on Wallace and his two pals for the death of his ‘servant’ Courtley (although never having met him). Despite this tenuous motivation, the film really kicks off, as can be seen from our much higher than average victim tally at the end of this post. The most virtuous daughter, Alice, quickly comes under the Count’s spell and is actually directly responsible for two gruesome deaths, including straddling and staking Peter Sallis, which certainly never happened in The Wrong Trousers.

 Apart from turning and eventually draining Alice’s poor friend Lucy, Christopher Lee actually does very little until the final act.  He mainly lurks in the shadows and, like another famous Count (and acquaintance of Kermit the Frog), keeps solemn tally as those he has sworn vengeance upon meet their various ends.
The climax takes place in the abandoned Church where it all began and is more of a psychic confrontation than previously seen. After smashing a lofty stained-glass window and lobbing masonry down at our remaining heroes, the combination a scorned woman’s fury and a successful attempt to re-sanctify this former place of worship sees the spiritually-beset Count plummeting to his doom.

The same kind of script reshuffling which harmed Brides of Dracula seems to have worked in reverse here.  Taste the Blood of Dracula feels on the cusp of worthy original and modern exploitative Hammer, and manages to embody the best of both. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, perhaps its success was a factor in Christopher Lee putting on the red-lined cloak again in the same year for the next film: Scars of Dracula. But could it be that the Hammer Dracula series had reached its zenith with Taste, leaving only one way to go?

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