Monday, July 27, 2009

“If there was anything else I would do it” - Christopher Lee's Dracula in the seventies


Between 1958 and 1969, Christopher Lee played Dracula four times.
Each time he returned to the role, he did so with greater and more vocal reluctance.
Yet over the following three years he would end up donning the cape four times more - however much he wanted to give up the character, it seemingly had no intention of relinquishing him.
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By the time of 1969's Taste the Blood of Dracula - designed, like Brides of Dracula (1959) as a sequel in which Dracula himself did not appear, until Warners insisted otherwise at the last minute - he made no secret of his desire and intention never to appear as the character on screen again. Writing to the president of his fan club, he explained:
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You know how I feel about Hammer films in general and their presentation of the Dracula stories in particular. Imagine therefore my surprise when I discovered on my return from Portugal that my agent, with the very best of intentions, has virtually committed me to playing Dracula for the fourth time in yet another Hammer production, at present tentatively entitled Taste the Blood of Dracula. Words fail me... I have been assured by many people that the fact that I play Dracula does not in any way mean that I am taking a step backwards into further cheap horror movies.
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Though it in fact proved the most intelligent and original sequel so far, Taste the Blood gave Lee virtually nothing to do. Why then did he immediately accept another Dracula picture?
Therein lies one of the most interesting chapters of the saga, as Lee again explained to his fan club:
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On November 3rd I start what I hope will be positively my last film for Hammer. The tasteful title is Taste the Blood of Dracula. As usual, words fail me, as indeed they will also do in the film...
However, here comes one amusing aspect of the whole mess. I have long wanted, as you know, to do Bram Stoker's Dracula as he wrote it. I have now agreed to do this, for three weeks on location starting on October 13th. So I will be playing the role twice in the space of two months.

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At last he was to play Dracula exactly as Stoker conceived! What could possibly go wrong? (Answers on a postcard marked 'Harry Alan Towers'.)
El Conde Dracula (Count Dracula, 1970) is directed by Jesus Franco and it may be his best movie; certainly it is high among them. This is not to make any great claims, however.
The cult of Franco would have it that he is a true master of cinema, a neglected exploitation artist of great style and originality. True, he is sincere, and passionate, and a charming, enormously likeable and interesting character. But he's a hack, just like they always said. And as a creative artist he's pretty much inept, just like they always said. I can see there may be amazing things going on in his head when he conceives of his films, but he has far more than small budgets and limited opportunities stacked against him when the time comes to make something of them.
At his best, he doesn't quite spoil things. In Count Dracula he comes close to his best. In fact he deserves none of the blame for what is wrong with the film: that rests with profligate British producer Towers, who scripted the film under his customary pseudonym Peter Welbeck.
As if trying to build up poor Christopher Lee's hopes the better to dash them, he opens with this text:
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Over fifty years ago Bram Stoker wrote the greatest of all horror stories. Now, for the first time, we retell, exactly as he wrote, one of the first - and still the best - tales of the macabre.
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But he breaks his word almost instantly. Needless liberties are taken with the plot, many of the locations, costumes and performances are senselessly anachronistic, and the climax is simply thrown away. Franco, as is invariably the case, tries his very hardest with what talent he has. Towers, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of writing an entirely professional script (The Face of Fu Manchu, for instance) but unlike Franco he is lazy. And here he let his laziness waft away a project of the most enormous potential.
Having said all that, and I do stand by it, the time now comes to add that, wasted though it is, the potential of the project is so great, and the experiment such a fascinating one, that in the final analysis I have to say that I do love this film. It took me a few viewings to get past the clodhopping Franco touches and Towers's maddeningly half-hearted narrative, but once familiar with the film's debits I found that every viewing brought forth fresh pleasures. I now consider it a true favourite.
It gets everything wrong you'd expect it to. But it also gets things right. It remains the only film to recreate some of the creepiest sections of the book: the ride to the castle with Dracula commanding the wolves, the woman who comes to the castle begging for the return of her abducted baby, Dracula's brides preparing to feed upon it, squealing in a bag.
Lee seizes the chance to finally do Dracula just the way he wanted to and gives the best performance any actor has ever given in the role. "The blood of Atilla throws through these veins!" How he must have relished finally getting the chance to deliver all that Stoker dialogue, especially after coming from a Hammer film where the he says about a dozen words in total!
As with the Tod Browning film, the opening reels are the thing - once we're in Herbert Lom's sanatorium in seventies Budapest or wherever it is, it is obvious we've seen the best of it. But Bruno Nicolai's music score is terrific and entirely professional, Soledad Miranda and Maria Rohm are arresting indeed as Lucy and Mina, and in the Transylvania sequences - filmed in a seemingly genuine castle somewhere - Franco's hit and miss approach to locations scores a most definite hit. The long, wordless scenes of Dracula on the prowl, getting younger the more he feeds, as per Stoker, are better than anything in Hammer.
But for Lee, who seemed genuinely not to be expecting another business-as-usual Towers-Franco compromise, despite his experience with the pair in the past, the film was an inevitable disappointment.
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Back at Hammer, Scars of Dracula was rushed into production shortly after the release of the hybrid Taste the Blood. Like its predecessor, it was scripted as a possibly Lee-free affair, as the actor noted in his usual fan club letter:
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Think of it! Another Dracula! This is titled The Scars of Dracula, another subtle and intelligent title. I've read the script. I must admit it isn't bad at all. It's considerably better than the last one, but there's one extraordinary element in it and that is that no attempt is made at resuscitation. You remember that in all previous pictures he's been revived in various weird and wonderful ways after being, so to speak, destroyed in previous episodes. In this one there's no attempt at resuscitation/resurrection, none whatever. I think I know the reason for this... The reason they have brought the character back without accounting for his sudden appearance is, I'm quite certain, deliberately contrived in case I should say no and they can put in another actor (which they're always telling me they're going to do or will do one day) in which case there is no need for further continuity...
You probably are aware that the next Frankenstein they're making now is being made without Peter Cushing. I suppose they feel they can do without us now...
If there was anything else I would do it... I may have to do it, but I hope and pray, as I have for the last two pictures, that it will be the last time.
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Scars would in fact prove a different kind of film entirely to its predecessors, and with its extensive use of studio sets, including for some exteriors, it doesn't look much like a Hammer film at all.
As Lee surmises, it is as much a remake, or a rethink rather, of the original as a sequel, though the worst of both worlds was achieved when, after Lee signed on the line, a resuscitation scene was added, that did not follow from the previous film and made no sense at all. (Taste had ended with Dracula perishing in London; here his mortal remains are back in his Transylvanian castle - it has just occurred to me that Hammer never refer to Dracula's homeland as Transylvania: I wonder why - where a rubber vampire bat comes and dribbles blood on them. This causes him to reconstitute, via the simple expedient of playing his death scene from the previous film backwards.)
Director Roy Ward Baker brings a pre-Hammer sense of enchantment to the material, as he had to The Vampire Lovers, restoring Dracula's ability to communicate with animals and scale the outer walls of his castle, as well as giving him a nifty new trick of being able to open doors without touching them.
As if to underline that this is Dracula returning to his roots the film also reverts to the old 'unwary travellers' scenario, and makes Lee's Count again the sinister host - with more dialogue than even the first picture - and no acolyte responsible for his resurrection (unless you count the bat).
At the same time, however, the levels of gore and sadism are considerably upped; Dracula stabs a vampiress to death with a dagger and then (in stills, but no print I've ever seen) laps at her wounds, and tortures his servant Klove with a red hot sword.
Baker's misunderstood, deliberately artificial visual style tends to get the film dismissed as the weakest of the legitimate series, a judgement that overlooks the fact that it moves at a better than usual pace, and has in any case so unique an atmosphere that it is scarcely comparable. Only the effects prove beyond redemption, especially the rubber mask on the burning stuntman at the grand finale. "The Count is Back - with an eye for London's hotpants... and a taste for everything!"
Oh, pity poor Christopher Lee! Dracula AD 1972 (1972) was radical indeed. It revived the Count in nineteen-seventies Chelsea, brought back Peter Cushing to play Van Helsing's grandson and, to keep the recalcitrant Lee on his toes, set another potential replacement snapping at his heels: Christopher Neame, in the role of vampire disciple Johnny Alucard (an alias Van Helsing has to work out letter by letter with a pad and pencil).
The film begins with a prologue in which both Dracula and Van Helsing perish in Hyde Park in 1872. We then flashforward to Chelsea a hundred years later, where the Count is revived by a gang of thirtyish teenagers as part of a satanic ritual that begins with the solemn injunction to "dig the music, kids!" As luck would have it, one of the youngsters just happens to be Van Helsing's great-great-granddaughter (Stephanie Beacham) and, well, basically it all snowballs from there.
Curiosity, and a pre-release poster showing Dracula looming over a naked woman spreadeagled on the bonnet of a Mini Metro, made it a hit of sorts, but Lee led a chorus of protests against the liberties taken with mood and location. All subsequent critics have sided with him, but no matter how hard they try to deceive their readers and themselves, the fact is that nobody ever watches this film without thoroughly enjoying it. At one time it was illegal to say a good word for it at all; presently we are at that nervous, tentative, cowardly "it's rubbish, but I can't help liking it" phase. Ultimately the truth will out. It's a great movie. It's fast paced, it's exciting, it has a great score, it's creepy and it's inventive. Caroline Munro is in there. Nothing wrong with it at all.

The whole idea, we are forever being told, is so inane as to make the film impossible to take seriously. Dracula in the seventies! Oh please! But isn't the guy supposed to be hundreds of years old? So we might just as well say 'Dracula in Victorian London! Oh please!'
Universal had moved him to a contemporary setting, and so of course had Stoker. Then there's the contradictory complaint that he's stuck in an abandoned church and does not interact with modernity in any way, whereas Stoker's Dracula was well up on modern communications, railway timetables and the like. Yeah, but then, Stoker's Dracula hadn't just been revived, with a century of catch-up to do.
Intriguingly, however, the next film would not only abandon making even a token gesture of explaining how he has been brought back to life (opting instead for the Universal Wolf Man tactic of simply hoping, or more likely assuming, that you will have completely forgotten the ending of the previous installment you saw about six months ago), but would also make a thoroughly modern vampire indeed of him, with an office at the top of a London tower block and a network of acolytes at the heart of the British establishment.

"I'm doing the next one under protest. I just think it's fatuous. I can think of twenty adjectives - fatuous, pointless, absurd... " Once again, Christopher Lee was proving a Hammer publicist's dream with his public pronouncements on the subject of the next modern dress Dracula which, in fairness, was at the time provisionally titled Dracula Is Dead and Well and Living in London.
Bearing in mind that he'd been saying he would do no more Draculas for nearly a decade by this time, it's tempting to scan what eventually became The Satanic Rites of Dracula for some extra special reason why this was, in fact, the one where he stuck to his guns. And it's not that it was the last one, because it wasn't. He could have had a nice trip to Hong Kong with his pal Peter to do the Seven Golden Vampires gig.
So was there some extra special reason why Satanic Rites tipped him over the edge, when the pulling-the-stake-out from Risen From the Grave and the hanging-out-with-teenagers in AD 72 left him snarling but still open to offers? Well, the short answer is no, nothing obvious; Lee did say that he called it quits because he'd finally had enough and this this one was a new low in absurdity, but he'd been saying that forever, and it isn't.
I find the film hugely entertaining, and so do most people I know when they come to it for the first time, expecting more of the AD 1972 same. Dracula is masquerading as property tycoon DD Denham and plotting to destroy every living thing (and by extension himself) with a deadly plague virus. His campaign operates from an English country house guarded by bikers in sheepskin bodywarmers. The plot is intricate spy-movie stuff and there's a plethora of Bond-style gadgets and action sequences. It's all fun and highly inventive; the only problem, really, is that someone forgot to put Dracula in it: Lee gets a self-contained thirty-second biting-a-woman scene half an hour in, then that's it for him till the big ending.
It's an interesting one, though, and the first time in the entire series that he is killed in the traditional manner of having a stake driven through his heart. Before that, however, we see him react with horror at the prospect of a silver bullet, and learn that he lives in dread of the hawthorn bush, from which was (apparently) fashioned Christ's crown of thorns. To which Lady Bracknell might have observed, watching the climax, that to therefore have one growing in your own garden may be considered unfortunate, to walk through rather than around it when Van Helsing calls you from the other side looks like carelessness.

And here, perishing in his London garden from a surfeit of hawthorn, is where Lee said finis. Whatever the final straw was (and it may well have been a far better offer from the James Bond people), when Peter Cushing travelled to Hong Kong for The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), a collaboration between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers that came off looking like a collaboration between Hammer and the Ritz Brothers, he travelled alone.
Another in the 'impossible to dislike category', this 'first kung fu horror spectacular' boasts some impressive slo-mo demon-vampire-zombies and a wonderfully lurid vampire's lair, where topless girls are strapped to boards around a bubbling cauldron of blood, as just two of its many attractions. What it cannot boast is Christopher Lee. Instead it boasts John Forbes-Robertson. You may know him as Henry Possett in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Or you may not know him at all.
The gist is that a Chinese vampire travels to Transylvania in 1804 to seek Dracula's aid in restoring to their former glory the legendary but now weak and slumbering Seven Golden Vampires, one-time scourge and tyrant-rulers of a small Chinese village. Always happy to do his bit for struggling international vampire cults, Dracula enters the body of his visitor and high-tails it to China to help out his brothers.
A century later, Van Helsing, now making his living on the proto-David Icke wacko lecture tour circuit, agrees to lend his specialist assistance to an expedition intent on getting rid of the golden vampires once and for all. He travels to China with his son (played by Robin Stewart, Sid James's son from Bless This House), Julie Ege (as a wealthy aristocratic feminist adventuress with large breasts) and a crack team of kung fu vampire hunters.
In order to allow for the requisite number of martial arts sequences the team opt to wait until nightfall for the vampires to rise and then fight them, rather than, as you or I might do, kill them in the daytime while they are still asleep.
It's a shame Lee couldn't have been tempted. It's such a nostalgic film, with whole chunks of James Bernard's original Dracula score re-used and a screenplay that returns the films to the Victorian era, meaning that Cushing is again playing the original Van Helsing, and the film is chronologically incompatible with the rest of the series. (It also contradicts itself by setting its prologue a century before the main action, and thus making it impossible for the strictly mortal Van Helsing to have ever encountered Dracula before. Hammer really didn't care by this time.)
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And that was that. Requiescat in Pace Ultima.

Compared to those made in the sixties, these later Draculas, including the one Hammer in which Lee did not appear and the non-Hammer in which he did, are certainly a wilder bunch, and it is true that they lack the simple excellence in photography, design, and production value shared by their predecessors: Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (my favourite for all sorts of reasons, some of them verging on defensible) and Taste The Blood of Dracula. But neither should any of them be dismissed, and it's a pity that Lee found so little to enjoy about making them, understandable though his fear of typecasting was.
For better or worse, these films are a large part of the reason why his name and image and presence will endure long after the majority of his acting peers - including many of those on whose careers he must have looked with the utmost professional envy - are forgotten.

(The Christopher Lee quotes are taken from Wayne Kinsey's Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years, his highly readable follow-up to Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years, which is also highly readable, as well as easily the best book ever written on the company.)

16 comments:

The Headless Werewolf said...

Wonderful overview! Although it seems I like Franco's film (and his overall work) more than you do, I think you're spot-on in your comparison between EL CONDE DRACULA and Browning's film. Plus, those quotes by Lee never fail to amuse! Fascinating that he felt relatively positive about SCARS OF DRACULA!

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks for dropping in, HW!

I like El Conde very much indeed, and I don't dislike Franco, I just think there's a difference - as with Ed Wood - between enjoying films and claiming masterpiece status for them. He's a very nice and interesting chap, and the world of cinema's a more fun place with him in it - but a great artist? Hmmmm.

With Scars, I think Lee just liked the fact that he had lots of dialogue. He certainly reversed his opinion afterwards, though apparently he did a DVD commentary for it with Ward Baker recently and has grudgingly come around to liking it again! I think he's mellowing generally on these films, presumably in the light of his big Star Wars and Lord of the Rings successes, which is great.
Thanks for commenting and do look in again - it's always nice to hear from a headless werewolf!

Matthew

Radiation Cinema! said...

Matthew: Actually, I've been too busy over at my place, praising you to the heavens, to even read this post yet! - Mykal

The Igloo Keeper... said...

"I have been assured by many people that the fact that I play Dracula does not in any way mean that I am taking a step backwards into further cheap horror movies."

My God, you can just hear Christopher
Lee say that can't you? Lighten up buddy, someone should have said to him. Maybe they did and he resented being called buddy. Guess we'll never know.

Wonderful article by the way.

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, poor dear serious Christopher! Thanks for the comments; glad you liked the piece. It's always nice when someone stumbles across an old one and brings it back to life with a new comment. Cheers!

RoseOfTransylvania said...

1. El Conde is probably Franco´s finest hour and three quaters but small budget and lack of talent kill it. Maria Rohm and Soledad Miranda are not bad, though, and it TRIES to follow Stoker instead of... well, make typical Franco atrocity. I know Christopher Lee hated Bram Stoker´s Dracula because it came to his territory, bt let´s face it - Franco is no Coppola!
2. I enjoy Scars more than Dracula AD 1972 - in Scars Dracula is in my beloved Hammer milieu of pseudo-Victorian-Gothic-sets-completed-with-lovely-but-obvious-matte-paintings, a place where he belongs, yesss! I think it odd that Kim Newman who enjoyed Clockwork orange dismissed this film as sadistic and "nasty". However, Dracula AD 1972 is reasonably entertaining. Satanic rites is not total belly-up and they even used good old hawthorn-as-antivampire-plant folklore but I disliked that shoddy Fu Manchu/James Bond-like plot.

Matthew Coniam said...

I agree: it's easily Franco's best. Some of the obviously modern locaations let it down (though Dracula's castle is great) but it's a totally enjoyable movie. I love the music score too. I just wish someone else had been given the director's chair. Franco's an interesting figure in cinema, but he just can't be trusted...
As for the Hammer films: I love them all. Kim Newman will, I think, have much cause to reflect on some of the things he's written, just as he predicted in Nightmare Movies. I find it hard to compare the 'modern' Draculas with the others because they're so different.
I hate A Clockwork Orange because, unlike the book it is based upon, it is not sincere.

kochillt said...

Once I went through every Hammer Dracula, including the two with Cushing but not Lee, I found that SCARS OF DRACULA gave him the most screen time (14 minutes), DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS the least (a measly 7 minutes with no lines, while HORROR gave him 7 1/2), and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA offered the most dialogue. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE seems to be my favorite of all the sequels with Lee, the one that appears to maximise his brief appearances with the enthusiastic direction of Freddie Francis, whose previous entry in Hammer's Frankenstein series (THE EVIL OF ...) proved to be the weakest with Cushing. The mind boggling sight of Dracula removing the stake from his heart serves to heighten the vampire's power and strength, while further sequels at times made him look foolish, especially his last, leaving him bested by a bush (a painful scene to watch, and indeed, perform). I love them all unconditionally despite the flaws. Lee never lost his ability to present the character in imposing fashion, but was left just as puzzled as the audience as to the general lack of quality screen time. Unlike their Frankensteins, which allowed Cushing great range with the Baron, Lee was given little to do in picture after picture, despite the fact that the Draculas were bigger box office. RISEN proved to be the most financially successful of them all, inspiring a slew of vampire titles from the company through 1973. Sadly, in between Lee's 1967 Wheatley hero in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, to his 1976 Wheatley villain in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, he himself was hired only to do Dracula. At least Amicus offered some variety, allowing him to switch from the self spoofing vampire in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD to the seemingly cold hearted father hiding a terrible secret. HORROR EXPRESS was the Hammer film that should have been!

Matthew Coniam said...

That's really interesting, because we tend to think of the original Dracula as giving him far more to do than the others, but it's equally stingy in terms of screen time. Whereas Satanic Rites, in which an irrelevant scene has to be grafted in just so he's in it at all until the final ten minutes actually ends up giving him the most dialogue.
Like you I have an especial soft spot for Risen From The Grave, and love them all unconditionally.

Mark said...

I can't help it, I love AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites...even though the latter is sub New Avengers nonsense. Still, shame it's not on DVD

Matthew Coniam said...

Isn't it???
That's TERRIBLE! I had no idea. I thought they all were.

Mark said...

I think it may be on Rgn1 but not 2

kochillt said...

Both SATANIC RITES and 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES were issued in the US years later by Max J. Rosenberg's Dynamite company, and have slipped through the cracks as Hammer films. Apparently public domain, they are easily available in Region 1, letterboxed and uncut, decent prints considering the abundant nudity. I have the Alpha Video DVD of SATANIC RITES (2003 copyright, 87 minutes), with the Banzai Media Corporation DVD of LEGEND (85 minutes).

Matthew Coniam said...

Whereas I am still enjoying my Warners bib box VHS's from 1983...
I do also have a cheapo American disc of Satanic Rites, though, because the Warner tape cuts the brief flash of Valerie Van Ost's boob during the staking, and I like to get value for money.

Matthew Coniam said...

That's all very well, Matthew, I hear you cry, but just what is a bib box?

Well, it's either a special device for introducing Hammer Horror films to babies on the grounds that you can never start 'em too young, or it's what happens when somebody who has drunk too much wine tries to write the word 'big' and doesn't check before hitting Publish.

Singlem said...

I much preferred Christopher Lee's Hammer Dracula films to the Jess Franco one. Regardless of whether the great man was reluctant to keep on making another Hammer Dracula sequel, there's no getting away from the fact that nobody can hold a candle to him when it comes to playing the Count for Hammer.