Monday, October 04, 2010

When Vampires Were Scary

Last Friday, TCM showed four Dracula films by Hammer Films. Three starred Christopher Lee s Dracula. Two had Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. This was from back when vampires were scary. They didn't sparkle and if they made you into a vampire you became a souless monster instead of a brooding teenager.

The first of the movies, the Horror of Dracula is loosely based on the novel. There were significant differences. Johnathan Harker was an undercover vampire hunter and became one himself. Dracula attacked Harker's fiance, Lucy, as revenge after Harker destroyed his companion. They never said where Lucy lived but it was not England since Dracula was able to return to Transylvania by hearse.

When they made the movie, Hammer made several artistic decisions. Their vampires were more realistic - they could not change form. The movies were shot in color which was still unusual for horror movies so they made the best of it. There was lots of bright red blood. There was also a generous amount of cleavage. They were sensitive to how easily a horror movie can turn into camp so they were careful to understate the wooden stakes. These were short and business-like with lots of blood spatters.

At the time, Peter Cushing was Hammer's star. Christopher Lee was cast in lesser roles, often as the monster. Hammer's Frankenstein also starred Cushing with Lee as the monster.

The movie was a big hit. Hammer made two sequels that did not have Dracula. One of them was terrible and barely had vampires. The other one, the Brides of Dracula, featured Van Helsing and a blond Baron Meinster as the vampire. Meinster wasn't nearly as scary as Lee's Dracula but the movie does have some memorable scenes. In one, a vampire's victim is lying in state in a locked coffin. One of the padlocks falls off. The caretaker is trying to figure this out when the other locks fall off.

After that, Hammer revived Dracula but left Van Helsing out for several movies. In Dracula Prince of Darkness, a quartet of tourists gets lost and are offered shelter in Dracula's castle. That night one of them is killed, hung upside down over Dracula's ashes, and his throat slashed. Dracula revived and feasted on the tourist's wife then pursued the other couple. He ended up drowning in a frozen lake.

While Dracula was in this movie, he did not have any lines beyond snarls. Either the director thought that he was more menacing without lines or Lee refused to say the dumb lines written for him, depending on which version you believe.

In the following movie, Lee did have some lines although they were kept to a minimum. The movie was "Dracula has Risen From the Grave or You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" - a typical title from the late 1960s. While exorcising Dracula's castle, a priest falls down the mountain and his blood revived Dracula. Angered because of the exorcism, Dracula attacks the Monsignor's daughter. He is eventually impaled on a giant cross.

According to IMDB, this last movie was Hammer's most profitable. Feeling that there was an inexhaustible demand for vampire movies, they pushed them out as fast as they could film them. By the early 1970s they had flooded the market and Hammer went bankrupt.


puffdoggydaddy said...

As the stepfather of two high schoolers, I'm beginning to suspect that brooding teenagers are soulless monsters. :)

puffdoggydaddy said...

Also, my kids don't appreciate a good old vampire movie. I blame the sparkly effect. If they wanted to impress me, they should include a scene in one of those movies with Christopher Lee shaking his head disapprovingly as a sparkly vampire walks by. :)