Although the legendary British film studio produced hundreds of movies including such unlikely stablemates as One Million Years BC and On The Buses, Hammer Films are best known for their vampire movies which made international stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Introducing worldwide audiences to technicolour blood and sexualising the vampire’s bite, these films left an indelible impression on cinemagoers and continue to entertain with the advent of DVD and now Blu Ray.
We asked prolific British film producer Jonathan Sothcott, one of the world’s leading experts on the Hammer Horror films, to talk us through his top 10 fangtastic movies from the studio that dripped blood.
After the huge success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer reassembled their ‘dream team’ of stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, writer Jimmy Sangster and director Terrence Fisher to tackle arguably the most famous horror novel of all time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sangster’s pared down screenplay did away with a number of the book’s set pieces – there are no bats or wolves, no stormy sea journey and no asylum full of expensive extras. Instead we get a sleek, pacey horror film which changed the face of the genre forever and remains the definitive version of the book. Lee simply radiates malevolent power, gliding around the shadows like a satanic shark, while Cushing is cool and steely as the unflappable vampire hunter. James Bernard’s thumping iconic score and Jack Asher’s luscious cinematography make the film an assault on the senses which remains as powerful today as in 1958. A bona fide British film classic.
Dracula Prince of Darkness
Peter Cushing was unavailable for the ‘official’ sequel which has a uniquely claustrophobic, uneasy quality amongst Hammer’s oeuvre. Director Terrence Fisher creates a much more confined fairytale world, where Lee’s Dracula (now silent but no less effective for it) can appear anywhere at anytime. Four English tourists on a hiking holiday in the Carpathians unwittingly aid Dracula’s sinister servant Klove (!) in resurrecting his demonic master. Thankfully underrated character actor Andrew Kier is around as the gun-toting local abbot, Father Shandor, to rally the troops and lead the fight back against the forces of darkness. Dracula’s icy demise is brilliantly staged and Hammer heroine Barabara Shelley almost steals the film, making the most of an unusually strong female role. A worthy, creepy sequel.
Brides of Dracula
Hammer placed little value on Christopher Lee’s star appeal in the late fifties and early sixties, so constructed this semi-sequel around Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (much as they did with their Frankenstein series, which had no recurring monster), predating Hugh Jackman by half a century. This time out he’s after one of the Count’s disciples, the sinisterly camp Baron Meinster, effectively played by David Peel. This may well be Hammer’s best-looking film, and the striking set pieces (a vampire clawing her way out of her grave, a burning windmill roasting Meinster with its cross like shadow) are amongst the best the horror film has to offer. Cushing is on his best swashbuckling form, and makes you realise just what a big star he could have been had not he fallen into the genre type casting that would define his career until Star Wars.
Kiss of the Vampire
Perhaps the most overlooked of Hammer’s vampire films because it doesn’t star Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee this remains perhaps their best-paced thriller, with its almost Hitchcockian missing person plot. This one makes no bones about vampirism being the ultimate perversion, as a kinky cult of bloodsuckers assemble for a lavish feast and an orgy, before a grieving professor unleashes a swarm of vampire-killing bats on them. Its epic stuff, beautifully directed by Australian Don Sharp and with the best opening scene of any Hammer film. Worth seeking out and proof that Hammer could make powerful horror films without their most famous stars.
Twins of Evil
It always puzzled me that the first 2 instalments in the so-called ‘Karnstein trilogy’ – the pedestrian The Vampire Lovers and the hokey Lust For A Vampire – get such heat from genre fans – aside from an injection of brief nudity they brought little new to the genre and haven’t aged as well as any of Hammer’s other vampire films. The third episode in this loose triumvirate though is different. Twins of Evil is one of Hammer’s hardest-hitting, most powerful horror movies, pitting Peter Cushing (looking utterly haunted in his first film since his wife’s tragic death) as a puritanical witch finder against Damien Thomas’s hedonistic vampire count Karnstein. Throw in Playboy’s first twin playmates as Cushing’s nieces and the scene is set for a colourful ‘which witch is witch?’ movie. A thumping soundtrack, strong supporting cast and fluid, pacey direction from John Hough make this a latter day triumph from the studio that dripped blood.
Dracula AD 1972
A controversial choice for sure but Dracula AD 1972 has found its audience amongst those born after 1980, to whom the contrived 70s stylings and dialogue are no less irksome than in any other period film. After a spectacular confrontation with Van Helsing aboard a moving carriage, Dracula is revived 100 years later in Chelsea where he squares off against Van Helsing’s descendants. Lee looks better than ever as the Count but has surprisingly little to do, confined as he is to an eerie abandoned church on the orders of Hammer chief Michael Carreras. Peter Cushing saves the day however, with a typically intense performance as Lorrimer Van Helsing, who seems every bit as uncomfortable in the 1970s as the Count. There’s strong support from Michael Coles as the copper investigating the Count’s bloody murders and the young cast, lead by Stephanie Beacham and Christopher Neame play it straight and are all the better for it. The anachronistic title works better now than it did upon release and I’ve no doubt the upcoming Blu Ray release will find this fun film a whole new audience.
Taste The Blood of Dracula
The most interesting and intelligent of the Dracula sequels begins with a terrific opening scene as Roy Kinnear’s opportunistic travelling salesman stumbles upon Dracula bleeding out with a huge gold cross stuck through him. Sneakily scooping up the demon’s effects and dried blood, he takes them back to London where he sells them to Satanist Lord Courtley and three thrill-seeking Victorian gents. Of course it all goes wrong and they end up killing Bates (who is fantastic) and resurrecting Dracula, who kills them and their families one by one. The script takes a more grown up approach to the hypocrisy of Victorian family life and director Peter Sasdy directs the action with aplomb. James Bernard’s score is one of his best and the supporting cast lead by Geoffrey Keane and Linda Hayden is superb. Lee was, by the point, becoming fed up with the series which treated Dracula more like a Jason Vorhees or a Michael Myers, popping up just for the kills, but he brings dignity and his unique dangerous stillness to the role.
Dracula Has Risen From The Grave
The most successful of the Hammer vampire films in America, where it was a drive-in blockbuster aided by tongue in cheek ads with the strapline ‘boy does he give a good hickey’ this is the most generic but also the most visually impressive Dracula film Hammer made. Two priests trying to exorcise Dracula’s castle inadvertently release him from his icy tomb. He enslaves one and causes the death of the other, having taken offence that they have barred the door of his castle with a huge gold cross. Worse than fly-tipping if you’re a 400 year old undead king. There’s a fairly perfunctory tale of young love interwoven between the blood sucking but Lee really is ferocious in this one, particularly in the scene where he rips a huge stake from his own heart, blood gushing everywhere, because his would-be assassin cannot say the required prayers to finish him off. Oscar winning cinematographer Freddie Francis is in the director’s chair this time and focusses on the visuals as much as the story, using coloured filters left over from The Innocents to give the film a unique, dream-like look.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula
This sequel to Dracula AD 1972 picks up not long after that outing, with a resurrected Count masquerading as property tycoon DD Denham in a plotline seemingly pilfered wholesale from Diamonds Are Forever. He has MI5 after him too, as spycatcher William Franklyn brings in Michael Coles and Peter Cushing to help him investigate things going bump in the night as a mysterious cult of high society dabblers attempt to bring about a vampiric Armageddon by unleashing bubonic plague on the world. At times it feels like an adult version of The New Avengers and it’s hard not to see budgetary constraints hampering the film-makers’ ambition, but this bizarre spy/horror hybrid is surprisingly compelling viewing and Lee and Cushing have fun in their last proper horror film together. Dracula’s climatic death by hawthorn bush is both ignominious and inventive.
Hammer made 3 very interesting vampire films as they were winding down in the 70s. This, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter are all flawed but entertaining movies that tried hard to do something new with the genre. All three have merit but Vampire Circus is definitely the best, with its confined, plague town siege mentality and exotic vampires which turn into animals. The film’s ‘Circus of Nights’ is a creepy concept and the mortals who become its victims never seem to have much of a chance in this bleakly kinky shocker. Had this film been made in the 80s it would’ve fitted in well with the zeitgeist of The Howling and Cat People. As it is it remains a stylish curio for fans of the macabre.