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DVD SAVANT

Taste the Blood of Dracula


Taste the Blood of Dracula
Warner DVD
1969 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 91 min. / Street Date April 27, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Gwen Watford, Linda Hayden, Peter Sallis, Anthony Higgins, Isla Blair, John Carson, Martin Jarvis, Ralph Bates, Roy Kinnear, Michael Ripper
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Production Designer Scott MacGregor
Film Editor Chris Barnes
Original Music James Bernard
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Produced by Aida Young
Directed by Peter Sasdy

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Despite its creative title, Taste the Blood of Dracula is a confused effort that shows Hammer Films entering the 1970s not knowing how to keep its trademark gothic thrillers from going stale. With the new ratings system, horror films were turning the corner to more explicit gore and sex. The blood and sadism that shocked UK critics ten years before was already considered tame.

With new personnel at the creative controls, Taste began as a Dracula-free story of a three-way pact with the devil and then fell victim to commercial compromise. Christopher Lee's reprise of the Count is almost an afterthought, the first of several toothless Hammer attempts to squeeze one more film out of a dead franchise; the distributor-investor 7 Arts insisted on Chris Lee and the Dracula character as part of its deal. According to the actor, the Hammer people used every persuasion short of blackmail to entreat him into coming back repeatedly to save the studio, as if he owed the house of Hammer something for making vast fortunes from his work.

Synopsis:

Three successful London professionals (Geoffrey Keen, Peter Sallis, John Carson) run puritanical households but secretly meet at night in brothels. Desiring more thrills, they are counseled by a rake they admire, Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates). He offers to let them in on his deal with the devil, which involves drinking some of the remaining blood of Dracula in an occult ceremony. Disgusted by the ritual, they instead beat Courtley to death, inadvertently abetting the resurrection of the Count himself. The Count takes revenge for his servant by vampirizing the daughters of the murderers, Alice Hargood (Linday Hayden) and Lucy Paxton (Isla Blair), and using them against their own fathers.

Although Hammer maintained a consistent minimal quality in their films (Well, there's always Creatures the World Forgot ...) they neither grew their company nor put enough effort into developing their horror films to change with the times. They followed the Baby Jane trend fairly well but after 1961 or so repeated their initial smash successes only once or twice (I guess I'm thinking of One Million Years B.C. in this context). I don't know enough of the internal politics, but by 1969 Hammer was clearly in a bad way.

The Dracula character indeed seems to have been shoehorned in as an afterthought. The underused Roy Kinnear is a welcome sight, but his job is to connect the film with the previous opus Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. He wanders a few yards away from that green park Hammer always uses for carriage scenes, and lo, ends up at the foot of Dracula's castle that previously was at the top of a mountain. There he witnesses Chris Lee's impaling on that big crucifix. The demonic blood congeals into powder, after going through a stage that looks like a badly mixed diet supplement milk shake. Kinnear cleverly scoops it up along with Drac's remaining artifacts, as if he already knows exactly how to profit from it.

Much is made by film scholars of the basic theme of Taste the Blood of Dracula, which has almost nothing to do with Dracula. The older generation is a corrupt paternalistic dictatorship that must be overthrown! As if in response to the new "permissive society," the story has three rich London hypocrites abusing their families with their puritanic tyranny. Poor Linda Hayden is repeatedly grounded just for looking at boys, and her dates are thwarted at the last minute by Dad. Of course, she and her thoughtful boyfriend get around that obstacle by sneaking out a window in approved Hammer fashion. For this, Linda is beaten savagely. Daddy is bad.

He's also a pervert, running around to brothels to cavort (read: snuggle, drink and sit real close) with ladies of the night. There's even some fleeting nudity here, although it was 86'd for the American release and possibly the UK release as well. The three glum gents are unhappy with their level of debauchery and appeal for guidance to an aggressively rakish gentleman, Lord Courtley. As it turns out, Courtley's already made a deal with the devil and for some foggy reason helps the middleaged trio do the same. A small fortune procures more of Dracula's dried blood from Roy Kinnear (now a wealthy shopkeeper) but the depraved trio don't have the courage or commitment to imbibe. When Courtley drinks the crimson glop, they express their revulsion by committing murder.

I'm going to presume that in the original premise Lord Courtley character and the whole Faustian premise was employed because of Christopher Lee's unavailability. Having died in such a terrible state of Sin, Courtley would then join the living dead as a new "prime" vampire, one with an original license from Satan, like Dracula himself. When Christopher Lee and his Dracula persona became an essential part of the distribution deal at the last minute, Hammer took a crowbar to the existing script. That's why Taste the Blood of Dracula uses up fifteen minutes establishing the Kinnear and Bates characters, only to discard them and start from scratch when Lee shows up. The story moves along at a brisk clip, but it's still an awkward compromise.

Dracula's presence barely makes sense. Courtley transforms into Dracula, but without implying that Courtley was Dracula, or was even possessed by him. Why Dracula should want revenge for Courtley is unclear, unless he's suddenly become the traffic cop for every slight committed against loyal satanists. As the keepers of his dried blood and effects, Courtley and Kinnear were actually parasites profiting from Dracula. Courtley was feeding on the body of Dracula in a perverse kind of communion. The pair were preventing Dracula from being reborn, whereas the trio of gentlemen the Count wishes to punish are the ones who have unintentionally revived him. He should be sending them thank-you cards.

Courtley (or his ghost, or the vampire he becomes after "death") might originally have seduced the daughters and used them to exact his revenge on their fathers. Now we have Christopher Lee in a woefully mis-motivated situation, watching each paterfamilias bite the dust and keeping personal score in his dour baritone: "The First." "The Second." We have to wonder if Lee's performance here was perhaps the inspiration for Sesame Street's loveable blood-sucking undead puppet The Count, who has helped children learn their numbers for decades.

Hayden's boyfriend comes to the rescue after she's compromised by Dracula and has brought her girlfriend Isla Blair to a sorry end. Then we get a finale that shows the Count unable to prevail against one kid armed with a cross. Lee's reactions are dynamic (some great shots there, for sure) but he's put in ridiculous positions, like suddenly discovering there's a cross in the church'es stained glass window (how surprising). As in a Warners cartoon, these symbols only seem to have an effect after he's seen them and done a double-take. It therefore follows that Dracula's best plan to escape annihilation from spiritual artifacts would be to close his eyes and exit calmly, taking care not to bang his shins against anything.

Linda Hayden and Isla Blair are objects of rapture in Dick Klemensen's Hammer fanzine Little Shoppe of Horrors but their impact in this picture isn't all that memorable. Hayden's a trifle Sandra Dee-ish; the script doesn't allow her to do much more than suffer and then relish the joy of slaughtering her dad with a shovel. In the final confrontation she changes loyalties back to the side of her boyfriend, but it isn't very well defined.

I've always wondered about Christopher Lee's claims that Hammer begged and pleaded for him to come back and do these films, yet never paid him enough. Lee surely had an agent and any fool knows that an irreplaceable lead player has a sure wedge in negotiations in even the smallest venues. If Lee is saying that he gave in and played these roles just to make money for a bunch of English businessmen from the House of Lords, that's his business. At that time he hadn't yet been established as a quality character actor in non-horror roles (Billy Wilder did that for him). Lee was working off and on for Jesus Franco, which to Savant means he would take any role offered, no matter what the Franco-philes have to say. 1

But there's no criticizing Lee's dedication to the role. These Dracula turns must have been physically punishing. Carrying women as if they were weightless surely invites back strain for a tall man like Lee. I personally think wearing those custom bloodshot contact lenses and those full-orb red eye coverings looks like inhuman torture. Never having contacts and being very eye-sensitive, I blink with discomfort at the thought of him wearing those things. He should have been given triple hazard pay.

Taste the Blood of Dracula is one of the better Hammers by Peter Sasdy, a directorial victim of Hammer's waning days. His style is reasonably fluid and he does a good job of making cheap settings look better than they should. The art direction is handsome and there's some okay production value in the church and the brothel. Sasdy's work looks a lot less rushed than Dracula Has Risen from the Grave by the obviously less involved Freddie Francis.

However, no director could save this awkward picture after the pasted-together plot goes haywire. I never got through the remaining two or three Hammer Dracula sequels that followed this one, although I've seen bits of Dracula AD 1972 that sent me scrambling for the remote. Christopher Lee fans won't be deterred, but curious outsiders should be directed elsewhere.


Warners' DVD of Taste the Blood of Dracula looks fine for the most part, with good color and an extremely sharp image. Bright hues flood the screen in the titles, and at odd moments when Sasdy wants to express himself by bathing Linda Hayden in crimson. James Bernard's score here is considered one of his best, and the soundtrack is clear and bright.

This is supposedly the first time that Taste has appeared in the States uncut. This is parroting information read at The Mobius Forum, but the partially nude Snake woman and several shots of Ralph Bates dying and Chris Lee were reportedly snipped, even on Warners' mid-90s VHS version of the film. 2

The trailer is the only extra. The garish cover is from original UK art and features a close-up of Lee's fierce face that looks more like AIP's Count Yorga. The Linda Hayden image is authentic but unflattering - she's much prettier than that. A handsome still on the inside snapper cover shows her to much better effect.

Significant help and a Sesame Street joke for this review came from Gary Teetzel.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Taste the Blood of Dracula rates:
Movie: Fair ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: April 28, 2004


Footnotes:

1. From Gary Teetzel: Actually, Lee always says Hammer urged his cooperation by saying "Think of all the people you'll be putting out of work." So by Lee's account he was doing it for the "little people" and not Sir James.
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2. I don't acknowledge The Mobius Forum enough. They're the best resource for breaking news on Sci Fi, Horror, cult, art, exploitation and Asian DVDs, and a lot of informed and influential people post there regularly.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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