Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 07 October 2010
Source Warner Bros. DVD
Categories 31 Days of Horror VII
In 2007, Hammer Film Productions announced that it had risen again: under new management and for the first time since it closed up film production in 1979 (and following a stint on TV in the 80s), the famed British production company would begin filming several new pan-European horror productions, including the remake of the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. This return from the dead ostensibly revives a tradition of horror filmmaking that began in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein and continued until 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter. While Hammer had flooded the B-movie market with an exhausting number of films during those interceding two decades (psychological thrillers, cave girl pictures, and even some science fiction), by far the most popular of its productions were its horror films, launched in a variety of successful franchises (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Jekyll & Hyde, etc.), as well as more obscure one-offs and mini-series (the Karnstein trilogy, zombie and werewolf films, and stories of witchcraft, satanism, and the black arts). Hammer’s films run the usual gamut of a production company keen on exploiting every possible facet of the macabre - from mad scientists and bosomy vampires to hippie satanists and kung-fu witch-hunters - but at their best, these films exhibit a remarkable self-consciousness and a flair for the gothic, even when the quick-and-dirty productions demand chunky stageblood, sets and effects that are less than fully realized, and absurdly exclaimed lines of dialogue from talented, but opportunistic actors like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, and Ralph Bates. Every Thursday throughout October, we’ll be peering into the vault of Hammer, highlighting some of our favorite films from its often sly, sometimes silly, but always sinister body of work.
In his third appearance as Count Dracula, Christopher Lee enters Dracula Has Risen from the Grave some twenty minutes into the film. From this point forward he says very little, the substance of his performance manifested in coercively seductive gestures and constant lurking, with his awful bloodshot eyes reiterated in closeup. The film is from 1968, and relative to the time of this writing occupies a space close to the center of the total chronology of all cinematic Dracula adaptations, benchmarking an attempt to graph the visual evolution of what is unquestionably cinema’s most seductive monster.
Dracula, naturally, is abruptly feared by the denizens of whatever Carpathian village is adjacent to his castle, but he isn’t feared so much by the audience to whatever film he’s in. He’s among the least misshapen, physically overbearing monsters in film, and his murderous advances are rendered with a certain magnetism. When Lee’s Dracula gazes upon the supple nape of one of his victims, he has this paradoxical tenderness, so capable in his seduction that not one of them makes even a meager attempt to dissuade him. It’s only moments after he enters that, to the viewer, he’s no more feared than anyone else in the film; rather, he’s so absolutely charismatic that the scenes without him exist to nourish a suspense in seeing him again.
Such is the indefatigable charm of Christopher Lee in his most famous role. This charm, however, is often incongruous within the subtext of a particular film. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, in particular, is so abundant with shocks of gooey violence, casual misogyny, and bosomy women that Dracula’s presence within this setting imbues it with elegance and sophistication. Otherwise it’d be a growling party all the time with no one to temper the flames of lust, which all of the young and beautiful central characters seem unable to tactfully contain.
The most heroic of these characters would be Paul. He is immediately confident, introducing himself with such smug literalness that you imagine he’s reading his very character’s outline description: “Young. Hard working. Good looking. Abstemious.” He exclaims rather than recites these traits, and immediately we know each one of them will be surpassed by an older, more laborious, better looking pursuer to his beautiful girlfriend.
The plot of the film inevitably concerns Dracula’s attempt to capture Paul’s beautiful girlfriend, Maria, and Paul’s valiance in his attempt to save her, but Dracula’s threat seems abstract and impermanent in comparison to the sexual advances of Zena, the young barmaid who Paul works with—this is not to mention that she is way hotter than his girlfriend. On one particularly momentous evening, Paul is invited to meet Maria’s mother for the first time, and in short order reveals to her paternalistic uncle - who is a priest - that he is an atheist. This occurs after he, outfitted in a wool suit that covers everything but his hands and head, enters his host’s house reeking of the beer he spilt on himself at a riotous pub gathering just prior. He is formally asked to leave, and he proceeds back to the pub where he opts, uncharacteristically, for schnapps. Zena is there to serve him, and, after a requisite few rounds, crutch him back up to his room. Paul, at his least abstemious, barely notices when she begins to undo his pants.
This scene possesses a deft sense of conflict (as Zena is undressing Paul, his girlfriend is right outside the window on her way in), whereas the ones with Dracula feel, however relished, obligatory. There’s never any sense that he’ll prove successful in his largely solitary, deliberate goal to capture Maria, nor is there any idea of what he’ll do with her and for how long. None of this, of course, should be criticized, because the film so clearly considers vampire mythology to be of some familiarity to the viewer. But nonetheless, it is notable that Dracula is in a film in which his villainy is undermined by a woman—one, tellingly, he disposes of in preference for another.
Of the plot’s various elements of bacchanalian and intellectual indulgence, Paul’s atheism will prove the only one that is challenged. Dracula is locked out of his castle at the beginning of the film, when Maria’s uncle wedges a cross between its enormous door handles. This very cross will serendipitously become a weapon against Dracula, but on a more conceptual level Paul - in order to overcome this foul and very obvious instrument of sacrilege - must reconsider his atheism. At the end, on a cliff above his defeated nefarious foe and his girlfriend pinned irretrievably in his embrace, he stands heroic but compromised. Dracula’s sophistication will remain, and the party, you sense, is over.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave will screen Saturday, October 30th, as a part of NotComing.com’s film series at 92YTribeca in New York City.
The Thin Blue Line1988
The Ninth Configuration1980
Dying Room Only1973
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave1968
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde1920
I Know What You Did Last Summer1997
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark1973
To the Devil a DaughterUK / West Germany
The Town that Dreaded Sundown1976
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later1998
Frankenstein Created Woman1967
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer1998
Let Me In2010
The Phantom of the Opera1925