Taste the Blood of Dracula
How important is a good title? ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’ is, I think, maybe the best title of a Hammer Horror film. It’s a proper sleazy Times Square theatre in the 1970’s sort of a title and it’s pretty weird too when you think about it. I mean for the movie it’s describing it makes sense alright, but if you didn’t know anything about it you might reasonably ask yourself:
‘Now why would I want to taste anybody’s blood, let alone Dracula’s?’
It sounds disgusting but intriguing, and that’s a good horror movie title in my humble opinion. But this is also a Hammer film from 1970, so can it back up that title? There were plenty of sleazy 1970’s horrors in Times Square theatres which didn’t have the strength of their title’s convictions that’s for sure. Well, it might the best Hammer Dracula film, except of course for the ones with Peter Cushing. And that, a little sadly, is the problem in the end.
So, it has a good title, but what else? Well, first of all, it looks great. I didn’t recognize the director straight away, but it’s the same man as Countess Dracula and Hands of the Ripper, which explains it because those are two great looking movies. This particular one is great because it really enjoys how gothic traditional Hammer films were, and how good that can look. From the spooky alley that leads to the abandoned church, to the girl climbing down the skeleton tree to see her lover, the whole film is full of beautiful shots.
Secondly, the script is terrific, with Dracula not taking out idiots who wander up to his castle this time; instead he’s an instrument of revenge, and it’s a revenge with an extremely macabre sense of humour. The victims are not young, beautiful people, but old and rich blokes who have lived long enough to become bored hypocrites. If this one had been given a dull title instead, it would have been: ‘Dracula Comes to England’, because for the first time the venerable Count is in London, and boy are there some total Victorian bastards to eat.
It also has some great British thesps having a ball. Let's see, there’s James Bond’s boss as the worst and cruellest hypocrite of all, there’s Roy Kinnear as the comic merchant who brings Dracula’s remains to England, and there’s Peter Sallis who turns the whole thing into a sort of Last of the Summer Wine from Hell given he’s part of a three man group that like to have adventures and get into trouble, but instead of stealing milk floats and treading in cow pats, this group get drunk in brothels and make pacts with the devil. This pact is not your usual pact either because their motivation for raising Dracula from the dead is not a lust for power, or absolute loyalty to the Count. Nope, this lot sell their souls because they’re bored. Every bit of suffering and death in this film comes about for one simple reason; God help you if a rich Victorian Englishman gets bored. Still, they’re all having a lot of fun being bastards, the thesps, and that always gives a movie colour.
Incidentally, on the subject of thesps, the Last of the Summer Wine from Hell Club are persuaded to make the pact by Ralph Bates who is an actor I cannot make up my mind about. On the one hand he is an appalling ham, playing his role as if someone’s kidnapped his one true love and will definitely kill them unless Ralph ACTS as hard as he possibly can. There’s a sort of wild desperation about his over-acting that is on the one hand, quite off-putting, and on the other hand absolutely perfect in some Hammer films. And in this one it works because he has to give up his body and soul so that Dracula can live, and there has to be a believable mania about a man who will voluntarily, even greedily, drink a cup of pretty nasty looking bubbling bright red blood. Of course, it was not supposed to be this way. Ralph was supposed to be the movie's lead, and he was supposed to get his own revenge for the Last of the Summer Wine from Hell Club kicking him to death. But, in a perfect example of how sometimes people who want to make money know best, they said ‘Ralph Bates as Dracula? Are you having a laugh? Get Lee involved or sling your hook!’ Only, you know, in American.
And so one of Hammer’s finest actors of all turns up, and that’s one thing sure to do wonders when it goes above a title: ‘Starring Christopher Lee as Dracula’. And this time he wants revenge! However, in the only clumsy moment in the movie, Christopher Lee decides to get this revenge because the Last of the Summer Wine from Hell Club killed his servant. And any cursory examination of how Dracula has treated his servants up to this point does not reveal a tremendous depth of loyalty to them. Nope, old Chris pretty much wants to suck people’s blood, preferably good looking women’s. And that’s about all he wants. A nice coffin, and a servant to run around fetching him the young women would be nice sure, but he’s not usually in the business of putting himself out to honour an over-acting lunatic whose body he’s possessed. But, hey-ho, who cares when for the first time they use one of Christopher Lee’s greatest weapons as an integral part of the revenge plot? Because it’s not every Dracula movie that you get to even hear old Chris speak at all, but in this one his voice is key. Some of the best moments are when he intones, in proper giving it all the deep he’s got, ‘the first’ and ‘the second’ and so on, after the death of every old hypocrite. And the reason he gets to say it, because normally obviously he’d have a gob full of blood, is that he doesn’t kill the Last of the Summer Wine from Hell Club. Oh no, he’s got a much more grimly amusing end in store. These hypocrites all have children, all of whom are blissfully unaware of their father’s depravity. And, presumably, the old bastards all like seeing their own image of themselves as powerful, moral men reflected in the eyes of their children. And that’s where Dracula comes in, because he bites and turns each child, and sends them back to their homes to eat and kill their fathers, who not only have to deal with being murdered by their own children, and that their children will be lost to the clutches of evil forever, but finally that this… is all their fault! That’s cruel, that’s calculating, that’s good old Christopher Lee. And no disrespect to Ralph, but no way he pulls it off like Chris does. Because the last thing each one of the old men sees before they die is the tall, thin, evil Count. Which means the last thing they experience is not terror, or regret, but wonder. They almost marvel at witnessing the most evil man who ever lived, the man they wanted to bring back, a man they finally get to meet. You don’t get that kind of gravitas from anyone except Christopher Lee.
Unfortunately, and it pains me to say it, but you do need more than a good title, a good director, a good script, good actors, and Christopher Lee to make a truly great Dracula movie. What you need, to finish, is to kill Dracula in style. And sadly this one falls short. There is a nice idea here though. You see, the girl who the young hero has come to save, well she’s not been bitten yet, and he’s yelling at her that she has a choice, even though she’s under Dracula’s spell. And she does, it turns out, she does have a choice. And she chooses Dracula. Which is, OK, she’s under Dracula’s spell, I get it. But then Dracula sweeps past her on his exit-stage-right and informs her he’s not interested in her anymore, at which point she makes a different choice and forces him to stay in the Church; a Church which kills him through the medium of... flashback? I guess? It’s not really clear... But I suppose it’s a nice and dark little joke to end the movie with. That Dracula is basically killed by a girl not because she is good and pure, but because she does not like being dumped. Hell hath no fury, quite literally, it would seem.
But you can’t end a Dracula film with something unclear! You need a Vampire Hunter to do battle with Dracula, you need a Vampire Hunter to outsmart Dracula, you need a Vampire Hunter to dispatch Dracula to Hell in a new and incredibly imaginative way. You need, let’s face it, Peter Cushing. You stick Cushing in this one and you’d have a perfect Hammer Dracula film. An absolute belter that looks great and has a wicked sense of humour. And even though without him, you still have a great film, you’re left wishing that they could have gotten Pete in for one day’s shooting, just to run in at the end and, I don’t know, kill Dracula by sticking the Archbishop of Canterbury’s pointy hat in his eye.
So, I suppose in the end what I’m saying is that while a good title is pretty important, it’s not as important in a Dracula movie as ‘Also Starring Peter Cushing’. Still, this is a great Hammer traditional Dracula movie, and there aren’t nearly as many of those as I would like. And even though a Cushing cameo would have turned it into one of the all-time great Hammer’s, sometimes you just have to enjoy the good things you can get. Speaking of which…