Sunday, October 18, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 18: Taste the Blood of Dracula!

Hammer's fourth Dracula film, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), runs a close second to Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter as my favorite Hammer horror film. That's because Taste... represents the quintessential Hammer horror film for me, and it comes just as the Dracula series dips into the ridiculousness and excesses of the last three Hammer films: The Scars of Dracula, Dracula AD 1972, and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Taste... is definiitely more decadent than previous outings, and it's clear that writer Anthony Hinds (credited as "John Elder") has cut loose on this film in ways that he didn't on the previous one, and director Peter Sasdy makes this film look like a high budget period production.

The film opens with the great British character actor, Roy Kinnear, travelling by carriage through an unidentified European forest, on his way back to England with new wares to sell in his shop. He offers to sell some fellow passengers a new snow globe he picked up, but one of the passengers turns out to be a mentally damaged, violent individual, in dress resembling a Victorian undertaker, who takes the globe and throws Kinnear from the carriage. We never see the characters in the carriage again, but we can imagine that they go off into another Hammer movie of their own.

Kinnear is knocked unconscious, and when he wakes up, he begins to walk through the woods in order to find a way back to civilization. He hears, however, some unearthly screams, and when he goes to check out the noise, he discovers Dracula, impaled and writing on a cross, which occurred during the climax of the previous film.

I like how Anthony Hinds binds these two movies together, but he does have to cheat a little to get there. Kinnear walks very easily from the road, through the woods, to Dracula's castle, while characters in the previous movie had to go through some pretty exhausting climbs in order to reach the same goal.

Kinnear witnesses Dracula dissolve into a red, bubbly, jelly-like substance, but as a merchant, he quickly sees an opportunity for profit. He leaves the scene with Dracula's clasp, cape, signet ring, and blood.

After the title card, the film moves to a bucolic English church, where several of London's prominent citizens and their families are leaving after Sunday service. Several of the young people also discuss their plans for later. We then follow one young woman, Alice Hargood (Linda Hayden), as she returns home with her family. Her father, William (Geoffrey Keen), is none too pleased with his daughter, who he witnessed flirting with a young man, Paul Paxton (Anthony Corlan). The father accuses the daughter of acting like a harlot in church, and he forbids her from seeing young Paul anymore.

This sets the stage for the exposure of some good old Victorian hypocrisy. One evening, Hargood gets into a carriage along with two other prominent citizens: Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis) and Jonathon Secker (John Carson). They head off to do their weekly "charitable work," which takes their carriage to a London soup kitchen. The three men are usured through the establishment, where it's revealed that the soup kitchen is merely a front for an elaborate, decadent brothel, where all three are welcomed as regulars by the flamboyant host.

These three men are self-defined pleasure seekers who get together every week at this brothel in order to be exposed to some new kind of thrill. However, it seems that the new thrills are not bringing the same level of unique excitement, and the men are getting bored. Even the snake charmer that the host produces for them only barely gets a rise out of them.

Meanwhile, into the brothel bursts Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who rudely goes from room to room searching out the prostitute he wants, much to the host's distress. Courtley bursts into the room where the three men are watching the snake charmer, and he quickly snaps his fingers, drawing to him the prostitute that had previously been serving Mr. Hargood. She and Courtley then depart, leaving the host to make his apologies.

The men, however, have become curious about this bold, extravagant lord, and they quiz the host on his identity and situation. Lord Courtley has been disowned by his father for dabbling in the dark arts. Secker inquires as to how Courtley could then afford the services of these prostitutes, and the host explains that none of them charge Courtley; in fact, they seek him out for the intense pleasures he provides! The men then decide that they need to get to know this guy in order to take them to the next level.

They take Courtley to dinner in order to enlist him as their guide in the dark arts. Courtley makes them an offer: they can provide financial support for his new effort to revive the greatest evil of all, Count Dracula!

Courtley takes the men to Kinnear's shop, where they are shown the relics of Dracula that will be needed for the ceremony. Despite some early resistance from Paxton, the three agree to pay for the items, and the plan is set for the resurrection ceremony.

It is during the resurrection ceremony that the film's title becomes all too literal, unlike the previous movie. Courtley performs a ceremony in which his blood is mingled with the fine red dust that had been Dracula's blood. This mixture then bubbles and overflows the goblets of the three men, who are then instructed to drink up. At this point, they all get cold feet and refuse, leaving Courtley to drink it himself. This proves to be a bad idea, as he begins to choke and gag. The three men, fearing what they've done, proceed to kick Courtley to death and escape the deconsecrated church where the ceremony was taking place.

Unlike the previous film, where Dracula's resurrection is handled quickly and efficiently, this movie takes a long time with the resurrection, and Dracula doesn't even appear until about the halfway point. This is perfectly fine, though. One of the reasons I've spent so much time here just describing the film's first half is because this story is so well done here. I love the way the film delves into this dark underbelly of Victorian England, with the strict, proper, religious father hiding a secret life as a closeted decadent. And Ralph Bates, who's great some of the later Hammer films, like The Horror of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, is wild and unrestrained as the Crowley-esque Lord Courtley. And while the film loses some steam when he leaves it, it's too the filmmakers credit that the movie manages to maintain its quality through the end, which is not something that can be said about all Hammer films.

Dracula (Christopher Lee, naturally) emerges from the chrysalis of Courtley's corpse in the only scene of the movie that betrays the film's low budget. Dracula then vows revenge on the three men who destroyed his "servant," but this vow raises some questions. Clearly, that "servant" was going to die anyway once Dracula burst forth from his body, so this revenge does seem a bit misguided. However, it is the revenge plot that, as in the previous movie, drives the rest of the film.

The three men each experience a different level of stress and near breakdown from their guilt and nervousness over Courtley's death. Even when they become convinced that no legal harm will come to them, they are still quite nervous. Dracula, then, gets his revenge against them by doing what he does best--turning their women into his servants. That revenge works out in some particularly effective and shocking ways, and a genuine sense of dread kicks in to the film when it becomes apparent that Dracula may not be stopped. The filmmakers really tap into one of Dracula's characteristics that makes him such a particularly horrifying figure: he can manipulate your loved ones to turn against you, making even the home an unsafe place and turning normal, intimate family situations into opportunities for murder. No one in the film knows how much danger they are in until it's too late, and victory is achieved only with great cost.

The series really peaks with this film, and Christopher Lee even felt strong dissatisfaction with the scripts he was given for the following films. It seems that, on this film, Hammer got its mix of ingredients just right. The sex and violence that marked the studio's horror output has progressively increased from previous films, yet this film does not rely entirely on those kinds of shocks as the later films do, and it manages to still be inventive and fun.

Here is the trailer for Taste the Blood of Dracula, which features many of the film's highlights. Enjoy!

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