Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fresh Blood

DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE (1971)
CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974)

CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER was adapted into comic form for Hammer’s Halls of Horror #20 (May 1978), and an original strip featuring the character also appeared in the first three issues of the magazine.
 
AS Hammer entered the 1970s, new ideas were sought to revitalise their outdated mythologies. A potential saviour came in the form of THE AVENGERS alumni Brian Clemens, who created free and fresh adaptations of two renowned horror themes. The first, DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE - directed by Roy Ward Baker - sees Jekyll (Ralph Bates)’s obsessive quest for the elixir of life make him change sex into Hyde (Martine Beswick). A decidedly kinky reversal of the familiar tale, Bates’ creepy austereness is countered perfectly by Beswick’s blatant full-bodied sexuality. It has the look of Oliver! (1960), with its cheeky street urchins and gin-swilling tarts, but Clemens’ off the wall approach encompasses too much: the jovial threads of Jack the Ripper, Dorian Gray, Burke and Hare and Sweeney Todd jar somewhat with the disturbingly frenzied stabbings of Betsy (Virginia Wetherell) and Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim).
 
Clemens’ second Hammer screenplay proved to be every bit as iconoclastic as his first. The sleeper CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER - directed by Clemens himself - has the swash-buckling, eponymous hero (Horst Janson) seeking to destroy a vampire clan who drain youth rather than blood. Although dubbed by Julian Holloway, Janson gives a brooding performance for what is an outstanding creation; the character of Kronos is fleshed out by an intriguing back-story (his mother and sister were vampires) and memorable sidekicks (hunch-backed Professor Grost (John Cater), gypsy Carla (Caroline Munro)). The film also created a whole new vampire lore; not only are victims emaciated, different methods kill specific breeds, dead toads buried in boxes will spring to life if a vampire walks across it, and flowers will wilt in the undead’s wake.

Martine Beswick and Ralph Bates were perfectly cast for DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE.

CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER effectively portrays the English countryside in perpetual autumnal decay. Clemens seems set on desexualising his vampires (their quest for youth is not so much driven by their unchecked libido as it is by a self-admiration), and his direction is also of note, which makes the film move with an agility that many latter-day Hammer’s lacked. Yet both these brave attempts didn’t appeal to the cinemagoers of the day. While Hammer’s own feature version of ON THE BUSES (1971) was breaking house records during its first days of release, the double bill of DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE and BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1971) managed only a meagre showing in its opening week at London’s New Victoria. Similarly, with no assured distribution, CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER - whose principal photography actually wrapped nearly two years previously - was barely released.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rising from the Moat

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

Christopher Lee's Prince of Darkness is again reduced to petty revenge, this time lusting after Veronica Carlson's Maria.

DIRECTED by Freddie Francis and scripted by Anthony Hinds, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is set a year after the vampire’s death by drowning at the end of Terence Fisher’s DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965). A priest (Ewan Hooper) finds a woman with bite marks hanging dead inside his church bell, a discovery that further convinces the parishioners that this place of worship – which is touched at dusk by the shadow of Dracula’s castle – is tainted by the unholy. A visiting Monsignor (Rupert Davies) - disgusted by the townsfolk’s fear of an already vanquished monster - takes the priest to the Count’s castle and places a giant golden cross across the door, though not before a storm causes the priest to fall down the mountain and bleed, conveniently, on the shattered ice that has imprisoned Dracula (Christopher Lee). Free to resume his demonic business, the Count seeks revenge on the Monsignor and his blond niece Maria (Veronica Carlson), who’s in love – much to the Monsignor’s disapproval – with God-denying baker Paul (Barry Andrews).

Like most Hammer Dracula’s, The Count is given little to do, here lurking in the basement of the bakery-cum-public house, staring imperiously and baring his fangs on cue. Being a Francis film, its weak script and continuity errors are offset by a series of exquisite set pieces - none more effective than Paul’s attempted staking of Dracula - and a miscellany of visual splendour. Francis and cinematographer Arthur Grant utilise a dour, restrained tableaux, which gives the films’ one big colour (red, inevitably) maximum impact. At the climax, after falling - in a slightly unlikely manner - onto the golden cross, Dracula cries tears of blood and, for once, has the tragic nobility of the character in Bram Stoker’s source novel. Francis also makes the most of the lenient censorship which was extant by 1968: there is ample blood, and the liberal approach to sex is illustrated by lower necklines and more orgasmic shrieks.

Carlson’s mix of good looks and pale complexion made her one of Hammer’s most striking leading ladies.

Although DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE dabbles with intolerance and Christian discovery, the film lacks the tension and dynamism that Fisher habitually brought to equally poor scripts. But perhaps Fisher’s overall reputation was enhanced by his lesser involvement as the Hammer empire was running out of steam; his earlier masterpieces were certainly made when the studio was more clear-cut and less commercially confused. This change from Fisher-like efficiency to the stylish dashes of Francis seems to mirror Hammer’s shift from their confined, spiritual home of Bray Studios to the more sprawling Elstree and Pinewood. The intimate feel and tone of such Bray-filmed classics as THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1965) is ultimately lost on the bigger sound stages, and such releases as LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1970) and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1972) typify a certain loss of soul.