Your Daily Dracula – Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) Christopher Lee
Originally published as a review of DVD releases of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and Taste the Blood of Dracula in Video Watchdog.
After delivering two (arguably, three) Draculas, director Terence Fisher left that series to a succession of other hands, with Christopher Lee’s increasingly-marginalised Count providing some physical continuity and, at least until DRACULA AD 1972, a run of John Elder/Anthony Hinds scripts furthering an overall storyline, picking up from Fisher’s DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS a tendency to pick up from Dracula’s death in a previous installment, explain how he comes to be up and about and mixed up with a new clutch of young leads (with heroes more often than not named Paul) and then dispatch him via some new method in preparation for a next resurrection.
Given that they are both scripted by Hinds/Elder and share many plot elements (a disciple for Dracula, generation gap squabbles that allow the vampire an ‘in’ to society, the Count’s need to avenge himself on rival father figures, Dracula tossing the original occupant from a coffin to provide himself with a resting-place, last-scene defeat by apparent divine intervention), it’s odd how different in tone Freddie Francis’s DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and Peter Sasdy’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA are (especially notable when the last scenes of the former are spliced into the prologue of the latter). Partly, it’s a matter of learning from mistakes: after the elaborate ritual of PRINCE OF DARKNESS, which requires the complete exsanguination of a victim, HAS RISEN (paradoxically, given the stress of the title) resurrects the Count with ludicrous ease as a mere trickle from the cut forehead of a cringing priest (Ewan Hooper) is enough to work the magic; TASTE spends a long first act working up to the resurrection and takes care to establish a corrupt world in which Dracula might flourish (this was recycled in AD 1972); much of HAS RISEN’s running time is deathly dull business with the cloddish student hero Paul (Barry Andrews) at odds with the Monsignor (Rupert Davies) who won’t let his niece Maria (Veronica Carlson) marry an avowed atheist, whereas TASTE takes a similar situation and plays it as a much-tighter, more intriguing set-up where another Paul (Anthony Corlan, later Higgins) is rejected as a suitor for English miss Alice (Linda Hayden) by her father (Geoffrey Keen), a Victorian patriarch who is ostensibly a pillar of the church but actually a hellraising hypocrite whose glance at his grown child has something of the incestuous lechery Charles Laughton implied when he played the similar father in THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET. Elder’s writing is sharper, but so is the direction and the playing: even the blander characters in TASTE are more vivid than the stick-figures of HAS RISEN.
Francis was never a director to bother with hashing over script problems, but could always be counted on to stage an impressive moment, and HAS RISEN is saved from stodginess by a succession of them: the drained corpse hung up in a church bell (Hinds’ Dracula has an especial grudge against the church), Lee’s visits to Carlson’s pretty-pretty bedroom (the girl clutches and then drops a china doll as she is bitten), a daring addition to the lore which requires religious faith on the part of the stake-driver to make the vampire-killing method work (it doesn’t quite make sense, but it is a jaw-dropping development when Dracula plucks the stake from his heart and throws it back at outclassed would-be slayers), a stretch of Lewtonery as the Count abducts the virginal heroine in a period hearse and walks with her through the woods, and Dracula’s death like a butterfly impaled on the business end of a cast-aside crucifix, weeping blood before melting away to a large red stain on his cloak. Elsewhere, there are signs of production problems: Lee, as often, is given little to do, and this Dracula is much reduced by having to spend most of the film lurking in the basement of a bakery-cum-pub; usually stalwart players like Davies (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, FRIGHTMARE) are just as tiresome as handsome haircuts like Andrews (his gormlessness plays much better in THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW); and, as in an amazingly high proportion of Hammer films, key players have been completely redubbed (Hooper and a grumbling villager both sound like David Graham, famous as ‘Parker’ and ‘Brains’ on Thunderbirds and a much-in-demand voice-over artist).
Considering that it’s sandwiched between HAS RISEN and Roy Ward Baker’s shoddy THE SCARS OF DRACULA (VW 78: 62), it’s easy to overrate TASTE – Lee’s Dracula still seems an add-on (literally so, the script was written so that Dracula could merely possess Ralph Bates’s Lord Courtley rather than replace him if Lee didn’t come to the table) and much as we enjoy snake-dancing brothel scenes modelled on those in Fisher’s THE TWO FACES OF DR JEKYLL we can understand that often-made snips in them weren’t so much censorship as an attempt to cut to the chase or at least the ritual resurrection of the main attraction. However, it’s also hard not to respond to a Hammer Dracula that is actually about something: the muddled religious themes of HAS RISEN (which do recur in the climax here) go nowhere, but TASTE sets forth a trenchant exposé of Victorian hypocrisy very much in key with the late 1960s. This Dracula becomes a more impressive, purposeful, evil character when set against three variously bad or weak fathers (Elder had used the ‘three must die’ theme recently in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN) and his tendency to stand around rather than do anything is here used to make him a more imposing villain – his mere presence can warp or destroy. Rather than unsubtly abducting the Monsignor’s niece, the Count avenges the impulsive murder of his cloak-swishing disciple by initiating the corruption of the fathers’ powerless children, acting in the Manson manner as a guru who sics dangerously liberated kids onto their rotten parents and relishes the outcome.
This is a film that really does turn the tables on the vampire-hunters, as dilly-dallying Peter Sallis (WALLACE AND GROMMIT) is staked by his own daughter (Isla Blair) after he has shot his own comrade (THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES’ John Carson) to protect the creature. Sasdy can deliver shock images that stand next to Francis’s (the red marble eyeballs of the newly revived Dracula) but also works a tighter story weave, incorporating more characters and playing on their complex interrelationships in a manner that harks back to the often-neglected (in a Hammer context) Bram Stoker. Even the comedy relief (traveling salesman Roy Kinnear) serves a plot function, as he spies a chance for profit in bringing a vial of Dracula’s powdered blood to London where it can be sold to the dashingly Satanic Courtley – then, like Russell Hunter’s foppish brothel-keeper, he gets out of the picture and lets the serious stuff predominate. Many Hammer traits are still in evidence, like the use of familiar Black Park locations (highly unconvincing as the ‘mountainous region’ of HAS RISEN) and Michael Ripper’s clueless policeman, but Sasdy shakes things up more than Francis. Especially striking are odd bits of visual trickery–the powdered blood seeming to come to life in the chalice, the backwards-run cocooning of Courtley’s corpse with dust (and then its cracking-across to reveal Dracula, a Gilliam-like effect), near-subliminal flash-cuts that show a glowing and richly-appointed church rather than a deconsecrated ruin and imply the divine presence which finally overwhelms Dracula when the guilty have been punished and only innocents remain.
These releases are important building blocks in several bigger pictures: Hammer horror, two auteurs, a major horror star/character, several supporting horror careers (Jones, Bates), fanboy girl-appreciation (Carlson, Hayden, a glimpse of Madeline Smith in TASTE), spotlights on valued contributors like composer James Bernard (his TASTE score is outstanding), the wave of rebelliousness that swept the genre in the late 1960s (even the staid HAS RISEN has an argumentative student as a hero), connections with cross-currents in cinema (compare the saucy Victoriana of TASTE with THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON or THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU, LTD).
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