Friday, June 25, 2010

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

The first Dracula movie of the 1970s is officially #1 on my list of "Movies whose title I mistakenly expected to have no relevance to the movie."

Taste the Blood of Dracula starts with a sleazy salesman (Roy Kinnear, overacting as usual) stumbling across the final sequence of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Once Dracula is gruesomely vanquished, Kinnear gathers up his ring, his cape, his monogrammed clasp, and the red powder of his blood.

We then go to three decadent chaps who have a secret society dedicated to the pursuit of hedonism, which basically amounts to them going to an upscale brothel. They encounter a young man who with a snap of his fingers is able to lure away the prostitute chosen by the leader. This throws them all into a kerfuffle, especially when they discover that he is the disgraced Lord Courtley, who was disowned and disinherited after performing a Black Mass, who is actually being kept by the women working in the brothel.

Taste the blood of Dracula - yum!

Intrigued, the men approach Courtley and propose that he tutor them in decadence. He enthusiastically agrees, provided they are willing to pay for the privilege, and promptly takes them to Kinnear to buy Dracula's belongings. Kinnear is reluctant, but after they meet his exorbitant price he agrees to sell. Courtley then takes them to a church, sets it up with the accoutrements for a Black Mass, mingles his own blood with that of Dracula, and orders them to drink. They are unable to bring themselves to out of sheer revulsion. Courtley mocks them as fools and drains his own glass - whereupon he immediately collapses to the floor, choking and pleading for help. The three men beat him to death and flee the scene.

After they have gone, Dracula is reborn from within Courtley's body and sombrely intones that they will pay for destroying his servant.

A bad case of the munchies

This whole first half of the movie is all great stuff. The three "gentlemen" are utterly loathsome, especially their leader Hargood, who lords over his family like a tyrant. Amusingly the most reticent of the three, Paxton, is played by comedian Peter Sallis, now known as the voice of Wallace in the Wallace and Gromit stop-motion animations.

Courtley is played by Ralph Bates with enormous arrogance and significant charisma. He is the best thing about the entire movie, and if he were given more good roles he probably could have eclipsed Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Hammer's top star. Unfortunately this was not to be - but if his role in this movie had continued as originally intended, it might have worked out for him.

From what I've read Bates was originally supposed to be the villain of the movie, with Dracula only appearing in the opening sequence; when the American distributors objected to a Dracula movie without Dracula, Hammer pressured Christopher Lee into returning and replacing Bates in the second half of the movie. In my opinion this is to the movie's detriment. Lee is clearly bored with the whole thing, giving a far less compelling performance than in the previous three Hammer Dracula movies he appeared in. Part of this can be traced to his having just starred in Jess Franco's Count Dracula, where he finally got to play the role as written by Bram Stoker, a movie he apparently immensely enjoyed making (even though it was neither a critical and commercial success). I'll get to that movie in a few weeks, but suffice to say now that I believe that Lee's performance in Count Dracula is the definitive screen version of the character despite the movie's other flaws.

Anyway. The movie would have been better if Bates was in the whole thing instead of just the first half.

The second part of the movie deals with Dracula's revenge, as he uses the men's children to torment and kill them. Chief among these is Linda Hayden as Alice Harwood. Hayden had the face of a cherub and was very good at playing villains - her performance in Blood on Satan's Claw is unforgettable.

Linda Hayden - yum!

Despite Hayden's great performance, the second half of the movie is far less interesting than the first. It basically follows this formula: Dracula mesmerizes one of the men's kids; the kid kills their father; Dracula intones "The First," or "The Second," or "The Third." Meanwhile Paxton's son Paul (who is left curiously unmolested) gets furiously frustrated at the police's idiotic refusal to connect the murders and the disappearance of the kids - they cheerfully insist that they are all unconnected events. Dracula is eventually destroyed simply because Paul takes the Black Mass gear out of the church where he's staying, and he just dies.

The only connection to Bram Stoker's book is that Hammer finally gets Dracula to London. Too bad he doesn't really do much except for taking revenge for the murder of Courtley. It's not terribly characteristic of him to give a damn about one of his servants, so I guess he's finally getting sentimental in his old age.

This all sounds like I'm bashing the movie, but I'm really not. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the second half - it's all very entertaining. It's just that the first half is so much stronger that it pales in comparison, and the ending is kind of weak. But it's no weaker than Dracula drowning in a moat. I wish there was some way to see it as it was originally written, but there you go.

What the hell, let's have the poster

This concludes the first week of my Hammer Dracula marathon. Tune in again on Monday for the next instalment - Scars of Dracula. Have a great weekend!

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