This is a spoiler heavy review.
‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’ is the most hit and miss of all the entries in Hammer Films’ vampire series starring the magnificent Christopher Lee in the title role. It does not quite sink to the depths of the inferior instalments that followed it but this is the start of the rot. The fourth film with Lee as the bloodthirsty embodied essence of pure evil (he was absent from the second 1960’s ‘The Brides of Dracula’) it is though a passable piece of Gothic horror entertainment despite its flaws.
A direct sequel to the Freddie Francis directed ‘Dracula Has Risen from the Grave’ (1968) the movie starts with a cleverly executed prologue sequence taking place during the demise of Count Dracula in that previous entry’s climax. Seamlessly edited together is the footage of this ending with the new scenes of a travelling businessman Weller (the late great Roy Kinnear) stumbling upon the Prince of Darkness’ destruction. Weller collects the fiend’s dried up blood, cloak, pendent and ring. Flashing forwards during the opening credits to Victorian London William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Jonathan Secker (John Carson) and Samuel Paxton played by Peter Sallis (“No cheese, Gromit! Not a bit in the house!”) are three upper class gentlemen who have formed a circle pretending to be devoted to charity work but are actually cheating on their wives spending nights in a brothel to escape their mundane lives.
During one such night in the brothel while a cabaret show is being put on for them an arrogant young man Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates) bursts in and despite the objections of the brothel keeper he is immediately tended to by one of the girls with a click of his fingers. Intrigued by this the three gentlemen inquire about him with the brothel keeper who tells them he is the son of a wealthy lord who had disowned the spoiled aristocrat several years ago cutting off his allowance for celebrating black mass in the family’s chapel. Not working he is kept by the girls of the brothel who are under his spell. Meeting with him over dinner in the hope of learning more extreme pleasures Courtley persuades them to part with a considerable amount of money promising them an experience they will never forget. Taking them to Weller’s shop, they purchase Dracula’s blood and belongings.
They all meet up later at an abandoned church for a ceremony in which Courtley putting on Count Dracula’s cloak empties the tube containing his dried blood into goblets mixing it with his own. After the blood rises up spilling over the brims of the goblets, he tells the three gentlemen to drink. Scared they refuse but Courtley downs it with no hesitation and screaming he falls to the ground. Pleading with the three of them for their help, they instead kick and beat him to death. Fleeing they go back to their homes to get on with their lives keeping what they have done secret. Meanwhile back at the church the dead body of Courtley transforms into the resurrected Dracula who vows revenge on the three men who killed his servant. This is one of the film’s faults. Count Dracula’s motive makes no sense at all because why the hell would he want to go after three men who caused Courtley’s death that enabled him to return. If they had not of killed Courtley, Dracula could not have come back.
The screenplay was originally written to not have included Count Dracula at all due to Christopher Lee’s increasing reluctance to keep on reprising his part (he went on to make three more out of continuity sub-par instalments after this). When Hammer eventually managed to persuade Lee to return to the role that made him famous the script was rewritten to include his character… and it shows. Dracula is not given much to do here except to turn up and be imposing with his menacing elegance using the men’s children as tools for his revenge.
He hypnotises Hargood’s daughter Alice (Linda Hayden) controlling her mind and forces her to kill her father who is unable to cope with what he has done and is drinking heavily taking it out on her as he disapproves of her seeing Paxton’s son Paul (Anthony Corlan). There is a theme of hypocrisy here with Hargood indulging in prostitutes but yet condemns the innocent love between his daughter and Paul accusing her of being a cheap harlot. This perfectly captures the behaviour of Victorian London’s society making for an effective period piece in this respect. After a fight he chases after Alice in a drunken rage and finding her in the garden after Count Dracula has put her under his hypnosis she hits him over the head with a shovel.
Now missing and under his command Alice brings her friend Paxton’s daughter Lucy (a nod to the character in Bram Stoker’s original novel) played by Isla Blair to the abandoned church where Dracula bites into her neck turning her into a vampire. Later he forces his slaves Alice and Lucy to kill Paxton with a stake through his heart (a stake that was supposed to be used for Lucy). After Lucy turns her boyfriend Secker’s son Jeremy (Martin Jarvis), she commands him to kill his father as Count Dracula looks on. Walking back to the church not needing her anymore he bites into Lucy’s neck and drains her dry leaving her dead. When he returns he is about to end Alice’s life as well but is interrupted by the sunrise and retires to his coffin.
This is all Christopher Lee has to do here in quite a limited role for a major villain. In the original screenplay, Bates’ character Lord Courtley was intended to be the central antagonist rising as a vampire after his death with all of Dracula’s powers. However, Hammer’s American distributor would not release the movie without the title character in it so the production company had to get Lee back. Therefore, the wonderfully hammy over the top performance of Ralph Bates is cut way too short and Christopher Lee is criminally underused.
Paul Paxton is handed a letter by a police inspector after Jeremy’s arrest. It turns out to be instructions Secker had left for him on how to battle vampires as he was with Paxton when he tried to kill Lucy only for Paxton to shoot Secker in the arm when he tried to drive a stake through his daughter’s heart as she was laying asleep in a coffin. Paxton and Secker went to the abandoned church to see if Courtly was still alive or not after the murder of Hargood and with both Alice and Lucy missing. This leads to Paul’s showdown with Count Dracula in the church to rescue Alice. Another downside is this terrible illogical ending with Dracula just chucking stuff at Paul and Alice off the balcony of the church only then to realize that he has been in one for the majority of his time in the film and weakened by all the Christian imagery he sees he falls to his death on the alter. Utter nonsense.
Aside from all these shortcomings, there is a fair bit to like here too. The whole mood of the movie is dripping with a bleak atmosphere of dread and Peter Sasdy’s direction is energetically inventive incorporating many unique visuals and offering some very memorable scenes especially that of the cabaret sequence in the brothel featuring a snake show and the black mass ceremony that ushers in the return of Count Dracula. The times Lee is on screen, he has an undeniable physical presence oozing charisma portraying anger and evil with his threatening stances and just the slightest of gestures and he effortlessly delivers some minimal cool dialogue with naturally sinister ease. The supporting cast is solid all round as well. The usual high quality of Hammer’s production design is also evident here with lavish sets and fantastic costumes along with their trademark of abundant displays of women’s cleavage.
This entry is a dip in quality in the franchise. It is not too good but not too bad either sandwiched between the superior ‘Dracula Has Risen from the Grave’ and the much maligned yet underrated Scars of Dracula also released in 1970. The series went further downhill after that. ’Taste the Blood of Dracula’ is a mess albeit an enjoyable one and is worth investigation for a one-time watch especially for any Hammer completest.
** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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