[Written by co-conspirator P. G. Bell]
Last week, a bunch of intrepid film fans abandoned the comfort of Vampire Awareness Month‘s official movie list and struck out on an expedition into the gothic vaults of the Hammer archives.
Like many people of my generation, I was born too late to experience Hammer’s films at the cinema but was just in time to catch late night screenings on the BBC. Plague of the Zombies, Taste the Blood of Dracula, To the Devil a Daughter… Years of watching Doctor Who had taught me that I enjoy being scared but these were my first glimpses into the hitherto forbidden pleasures of genuine screen horror.
They shared the same homespun charm as classic Doctor Who, with their fluorescent orange blood, underexposed day-for-night scenes and endlessly recycled sets and props. But they had a darker, harder edge that was impossibly exciting to my impressionable teenage psyche.
So it was with a sense of real anticipation that I settled down to watch a trilogy of films that encompass the entirety of Hammer’s vampire output; Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.
More than anything, I was looking forward to Dracula (1958, Dir. Terence Fisher). This, after all, was the film that redefined the character and cemented Christopher Lee’s and Hammer’s stars in the show business firmament. It’s not much of an exaggeration to call it the Godfather of vampire movies.
And perhaps it was, once, but I’m sorry to say that my first reaction was one of disappointment.
For a start, it suffers from the perennial blight of most classic British cinema; it never feels very cinematic. The theatre-on-screen approach may add to the sense of homely nostalgia but it all too often keeps the audience at arm’s length when we should be standing in the thick of the action, resulting in a film that is rarely tense and never scary. Some of the performances don’t help – John Van Eyssen’s portrayal of Jonathan Harker is so asphyxiatingly straight laced that you begin to wonder if he’s capable of any facial movement whatsoever.
Bram Stoker’s story was getting a little worn even before Hammer picked it up, which probably explains Fisher’s decision to re-wire the plot. While the main beats of the original tale are left intact, he throws in some welcome surprises – dispatching the central hero so ignominiously in the first act is a master stroke although it makes many of the subsequent changes feel superficial by comparison.
Thank goodness for the double-whammy of Lee and Cushing. The entire film (and, by extension, the whole gamut of Hammer vampire movies) hangs on their performances and they don’t disappoint. Cushing enjoys the most screen time, of course, and is never less than engaging while Lee uses his fleeting appearances to maximum impact. The film is, ultimately, their show.
The film’s second sequel, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966, Dir. Terence Fisher) throws off the shackles of Stoker’s text almost entirely and weaves a far more confident, engaging story as a result.
The characters are more immediately arresting, particularly the coarse but warm hearted Father Sandor played by Andrew Keir (the big screen Quatermass) who replaces Peter Cushing on slayer duty. His world weary monk is a good counterpoint to the bickering British travellers who stumble into Castle Dracula. Also of note is Barbara Shelley, who morphs from Victorian prude into femme fatale without resorting to the tawdry excesses of the later Hammer movies.
Most importantly, the film makes better use of Lee, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear for the first 40 minutes and has absolutely no dialogue. (Lee was so disgusted with Jimmy Sangster’s script that he refused to speak any of his lines, preferring instead to hiss like an angry swan. The fact that this makes no appreciable difference to the plot or the character suggests that he was right to do so).
It’s really a film of two halves though. The first is an exercise in atmosphere, as Fisher steadily (and sometimes mechanically) builds tension – the terrified locals; the ominous warnings; the abandoned castle; the mysterious servant with a sinister agenda… It’s all familiar stuff but it’s handled well and does an admirable job of signposting Dracula’s grand entrance.
Sadly, things fall a bit flat in the second half when, after a disastrous flight from the castle, our surviving heroes take shelter in Father Sandor’s monastery. What could have been a claustrophobic base-under-siege tale is hamstrung by a laconic pace and an over-reliance on tried and tested plot devices, including an entire sequence from Stoker’s novel that was dropped from the first movie.
By the 1970s such lack of innovation was costing Hammer dearly, as audiences abandoned the studio in favour of more contemporary horror. Hammer responded with a slew of updates, most notably bringing the Prince of Darkness into the modern age with Dracula AD 1972. But they were the same stories re-told in modern dress and didn’t perform well at the box office.
My friends and I were already suffering a similar level of vampire fatigue, so a lot was riding on our third film, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974, Dir. Brian Clemens). Luckily for all of us, it didn’t disappoint.
Blending the sensibilities of a spaghetti western with the rolling fields of British period drama, Captain Kronos feels light years ahead of its predecessors. Crucially, it plays out as a murder mystery – a shadowy figure is draining the life from buxom young maids with nothing deadlier than a kiss, leaving them as wizened old crones. Who is carrying out the attacks, and why? Steely-eyed war veteran Captain Kronos is summoned to find out. The whodunnit structure is a simple conceit but it keeps things sharp and fresh, as do the periodic bouts of swashbuckling sword play.
Clemens’ stylistic approach is also bang up to date. Although he’s best known as a writer and producer (his back catalogue includes The Avengers, The Professionals and Bugs, among many others), he proves adept behind the camera. Despite a modest budget, the film looks infinitely more polished than previous Hammer offerings, with some terrific lighting, beautifully framed shots and notable performances from many of the cast. The weakest link is probably Captain Kronos himself. Leading man Horst Janson makes a decent fist of the sub-Eastwood adventurer, but his good looks makes him pretty rather than handsome, and his stoic reserve is a little too complete at times.
I was lucky enough to hear Clemens discuss the film at last year’s FantasyCon in Nottingham, where he claimed it was a direct influence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can’t testify to the truth of that, but his film certainly heralded a bold new direction for Hammer.
Alas, it’s a direction that was never pursued. The prospect of yet another vampire movie failed to excite the public and Captain Kronos struggled at the box office. The studio never produced another vampire film.
I’m glad Vampire Awareness Month prompted me to dig these titles out. While Dracula may have established a formula that dated very quickly, it’s still been fascinating to watch the evolution of the British vampire story over the course of a generation. If only changes had been made sooner, we might still be watching the adventures of Captain Kronos (the film was intended to generate a string of sequels, in the manner of James Bond or, er… Dracula). But with news that Hammer Films has once more risen from the grave, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the vampire genre tastes fresh blood.
Watch this space…