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Bay Of The Living Dead: Beware The Stare Of Dracula: A Celebration Of Hammer Horror

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Welcome to Bay Of The Living Dead, a regular column about the horror genre.

For nearly twenty years beginning in 1957, England’s Hammer Films was the go-to studio for old fashioned Gothic horror. The company’s reign of terror began with The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), a full color, blood and thunder re-imagining of the classic tale. The film was a worldwide hit, and so Hammer went with the most natural follow-up, a retelling of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic Dracula.

Horror Of Dracula, newly out on blu-ray courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection, took the world by storm in 1958, and is now considered the 65th greatest British film ever made. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who played the mad doctor and his monstrous creation in the Frankenstein film, reunited for Horror Of Dracula, cementing their reputations as horror movie icons. The pair eventually co-starred in more than twenty chillers. They also appeared in films apart from each other.

Christopher Lee is sensational as the undead vampire in Horror Of Dracula. The actor turns the art of biting his victims into a sexual act, kissing them, practically licking them before he sinks his fangs in. The tall, imposing caped actor makes for a terrifying visage. His presence is felt throughout the film, a most impressive achievement when one considers that he appears on screen for less than ten minutes–the bulk of the film deals with the effect his reign of terror has on his victims.

Peter Cushing gives an equally strong performance as Van Helsing, the vampire hunter. The aristocratic actor commands the screen as he bravely does battle with his walking dead nemesis. Cushing’s performance is particularly strong during a lengthy, and quite creepy, graveyard sequence in which he confronts one of Dracula’s victims in her not-quite-final resting place. As the long haired Lucy moves in for the kill in her floor length white gown, Van Helsing whips out a cross and presses it against her forehead. She hisses like an animal as the cross burns her.

Horror Of Dracula is a stunning film to look at. Hammer was known for their low budgets, but that’s sometimes hard to believe when one gazes upon this film’s rich, expansive sets (especially the foreboding Castle Dracula)  and elegant period costumes. The film’s lighting is magnificent, creating eerie shadows where anything might be lurking. This movie is one helluva scarefest!

Warner’s Blu Ray offers a clear, vibrant print–the film was restored by the British Film Institute and so this 60-year-old film once again looks as though it were brand new. The blu ray includes the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.

Christopher Lee returns, sans Peter Cushing, in Hammer’s Dracula Prince Of Darkness (1965). This sequel has been released on blu ray by Scream Factory, the horror film subsidiary of Shout Factory. The second film in Hammer’s Christopher Lee Dracula series (there are seven of them) finds four travelers inadvertently stranded at Castle Dracula, though the Count is dead, having been destroyed by Van Helsing at the end of the previous film.

In a sequence which has not lost its ability to shock, one of the travelers is murdered by Klove (an uber-creepy Philip Latham). Klove then matter of factly strings his victim over Dracula’s ashes and slits his throat–buckets of blood pour onto the ashes, bringing Dracula back to life. The flowing blood is quite graphic–at the time of the film’s release no less than US Senator Margaret Chase Smith condemned the film, expressing her disgust that children were being allowed to see it.

Once resurrected, Dracula proceeds to make the three other travelers his undead disciples. As before he’s a terrifying figure, though it’s supporting player Barbara Shelley who steals the film. As Helen Kent, one of Dracula’s “guests”, she’s first seen as a prim, proper and quite repressed Victorian lady. But after Dracula transforms her she turns into a sexy, snarling beast. Shelley wonderfully portrays the abrupt changes in her character. Her performance suggests that many Victorian women were desperate to escape the chains of the sexual repression which was imposed upon them.

Andrew Keir gives a standout performance as Father Sandor, a gruff, kindly priest who takes it upon himself to battle Dracula and save the remaining travelers. Keir commands the screen with his deep, booming voice and makes for a worthy adversary to the vampire.

As with the earlier film, production values are superb.

Scream Factory offers Dracula Prince Of Darkness with a plethora of extras, including a commentary track featuring Lee, Shelley and other stars of the film. Back To Black, a documentary on the making of the film is also featured, as are the film’s theatrical trailers. As an added bonus, the disc gives you the option to watch both the British and American versions of the film. Again, highly recommended.

By the early 70s  Lee had played Dracula three more times. The formula had grown stale, so Hammer decided to try something new. They produced a pair of films, Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1974). Both films reunited Lee and Cushing, albeit this time in twentieth century London. Both films have sidebeen released on blu ray by Warner Archive.

Dracula AD 1972 is a campy little number about a group of swinging teens who are duped into taking part in a satanic ritual to resurrect the vampire by Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), a Dracula disciple who yearns to become a vampire himself–Alucard is Dracula spelled backward. Dracula (Lee) immediately proceeds to seek vengeance on the grandson of his old enemy Van Helsing (Cushing) and Van Helsing’s granddaughter (Stephanie Beacham).

Most of Dracula’s scenes are effective, set as they are in a decrepit, abandoned church, but the “London mod” dialogue given to the younger cast members is hilarious. It’s hard not to laugh at lines like “dig the music, kids”. Lee and Cushing are, as always, superb. By now old friends, the two play off each other beautifully during the film’s climactic battle scene inside the church.

The Satanic Rites Of Dracula is the better of the two films. The film tells a rather disturbing tale–Dracula’s plot to destroy the world by spreading bubonic plague. Once again its Van Helsing to the rescue as mega horror stars Lee and Cushing engage in one final battle. The old pros, though getting on in years at this point, are nonetheless as powerful as ever onscreen. And the film avoids the “hip” dialogue which added much unintentional, and unnecessary humor to AD 1972.

While obviously not nearly as good as the two earlier films, Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula are nonetheless fun to watch in a silly sort of way, and should please the still sizable fan base of the now deceased Cushing and Lee.

Warner offers decent prints of both films, with each film’s original theatrical trailer included on its disc.

BOO!

 

 

 

 

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David-Elijah Nahmod

David-Elijah Nahmod

I, David-Elijah Nahmod am a Queer, American/Israeli dual national of Syrian descent who has lived in New York City and Tel Aviv.
Currently in San Francisco, my eclectic writing career includes LGBT publications (news and entertainment) and monster magazines. In 2012 I was voted Film Reviewer of the Year at the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Film Awards.
Look for me in Bay Area Reporter, Hoodline.com, South Florida Gay News, Echo Magazine, Outfront, Scary Monsters Magazine, Videoscope, and, of course, Broke Ass Stuart, (I'm so broke it's SCARY!)
Now, let's watch a horror movie!