Taste The Blood Of Dracula R1 Review

The first half of Taste The Blood Of Dracula is sheer, bloody brilliance, containing one of the best sustained set-pieces in the history of Hammer films. It loses impetus slightly around the forty minute mark and dawdles – with some great moments - for half an hour before coming back to life, but there's enough evidence of originality and filmmaking flair to make it one of the better late films to emerge from the House of Horror.

Be warned, this review contains spoilers for the film

Set directly after Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, it takes place largely in Edwardian London apart from a brief prologue which reprises much of the climax of the previous film. After Dracula's remains have been scooped up by wide-boy Roy Kinnear, the action moves to England where three outwardly respectable thrill-seekers are looking for something to tantalise their increasingly jaded palates. Suitable sustenance is provided by the aristocratic wastrel Lord Courtley (Bates) who directs them to Dracula’s remains and organises a black mass to take place in a deconsecrated church. Terrified by what occurs, the three men beat Courtley to death and run away. But they fail to realise that Count Dracula (Lee) has been resurrected and intends to avenge the death of his servant.

What’s interesting about this, the fifth Hammer ‘Dracula’ film, is how different it is from all the others in the series. Not only is it atypically structured but it also brings the Dracula myth home to where it came from – the hypocritical society of turn-of-the-century England. The focus is brought away from Dracula himself – although he’s played with the usual saturnine panache by Christopher Lee – and onto three particularly unpleasant examples of the classic English double standard. William Hargood is the worst, played with frightening conviction by the great Geoffrey Keen; a bull of a man who paces his overstuffed drawing room like a wild animal in a cage. His outward hatred of sexuality is directed towards his daughter Alice’s (Hayden) relationship with Paul Paxton (Corlan) and the subtext suggests a sublimated incestuous desire that is rather disturbing. The scene where he invades her bedroom with a riding crop and an obvious drunken lust is very memorable. Samuel Paxton (Sallis), on the other hand, is a simpering fool who slips into the victim role as if he were born to it. Jonathan Secker (Carson) is the only one of the three with any redeeming features, an intellectual whose self-satisfaction is almost as great as his curiosity.

It’s quite remarkable to see Dracula returned to the society which created him, one which had an insatiable appetite for sex and blood but couldn’t bear to admit it. In this story, it’s as if he’s the dark side of society turning round to attack the hypocritical moralists who think that such things can be separated from ‘normal life’. Indeed, for much of the time, the Count stands around on the sidelines happy to influence events rather than embark on his usual rampage of terror. It’s as if he realises that this social construct is so fragile that it’s on the verge of collapsing under the weight of moral duplicity. He gets his necessary diet of blood, from the daughters of Harwood and Paxton, Alice and Lucy (Blair), but only when inflicting what screenwriter John Elder (Anthony Hinds) calls a ‘killing bite’ does he seem to become a real threat. Some people dislike this, considering that it weakens the character of Dracula but my own opinion is that Dracula had returned so often that it was time for him to do something a bit different. I feel the same, incidentally, about the final transformation of Lee’s Dracula into a property tycoon bringing forth apocalypse on the world he’s grown to despise in The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

This was director Peter Sasdy’s first feature film and it’s a superb piece of work. Well paced and atmospheric, it uses the low budget and typical Hammer backdrops with genuine imagination. I don’t think Sasdy ever managed to equal the quality of this film and his later work is genuinely, bafflingly awful. However, this is evidence enough that he was quite capable of good filmmaking under the right conditions and the highpoint of the film is the resurrection sequence. Previous scenes depicting the revivification of Dracula have tended to be very similar – blood dripping on the remains – and the pattern was repeated in 1970’s Scars of Dracula. Here, however, it’s part of an extraordinary set-piece in which the aforementioned double standards of the time break down into brutal violence. The three thrill-seekers begin as excited followers of Courtley but once the chalices fill with blood and the rhetoric becomes dangerously close to Satanism, they lose their nerve. Refusing to drink the ‘filth’, as Hargood calls it, they force Courtley to partake. When he falls onto his knees and grabs at their clothes for help, they beat him to death with their canes. This is one of the four or five best scenes in Hammer Horror and nothing else in the movie quite lives up to the shock value. Mind you, that’s not for lack of trying and the horrible death of Paxton – a nicely feminist twist on the usual misogynistic destruction of the female vampire – is almost as memorable, not least for Peter Sallis’s entirely believable distress and confusion at what’s happening.

The acting throughout is considerably better than found in either Dracula Prince of Darkness or the somewhat overrated Dracula Has Risen From The Grave. Although Lee tends to coast on his sheer presence – and admittedly hasn’t much to do – the other actors get their teeth into some surprisingly meaty parts. Geoffrey Keen is magnificent and his early exit is regrettable. Peter Sallis shows us the repellently slimy flip-side of his Wallace character and John Carson is typically solid. The younger actors do well too. Anthony Corlan is one of Hammer’s better heroes and Linda Hayden suggests the sensual eroticism which was fully brought out in Blood On Satan’s Claw. It’s rather odd to see sit-com favourite Martin Jarvis in this company but he acquits himself well enough. Isla Blair, even when vampirised, is as wonderfully sexy as ever and she can penetrate my neck any time she likes. The only false note is struck by Ralph Bates who is a little too louche for comfort as Courtney.

There’s a visual imagination here which is, for my money, an improvement on the somewhat stolid style of Terence Fisher. The early scenes set in the East End are wonderfully flavoursome, moving from poverty-stricken orphans to richly coloured sleaze with ease. Even the sloppy painted backdrops and familiar woodland locations seem to have a little more atmosphere than usual. The climax, somewhat surreal it has to be said, is one of the more imaginative Dracula destructions in the series although it took me a couple of viewings to work out exactly what happens. James Bernard, such an important element of Hammer’s success, obviously appreciates the chance to do something different and his score is one of his very best.

The Disc

When first released in America, Taste The Blood Of Dracula was quite heavily cut. The edited footage has been restored in this DVD release and the result is quite impressive.

The film is presented in a ratio of roughly 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Although suffering from occasional artifacts, the picture is generally impressive with very impressive, deep and true blacks and pleasant colours. There’s a reasonable amount of detail and the level of contrast is impressive. There is a small amount of print damage in evidence but nothing too serious.

The soundtrack is a direct transfer of the original mono track. This is perfectly fine and renders dialogue and music very satisfactorily.

The only extra feature on the disc is the original theatrical trailer which is much too explicit and gives away much of the plot. Sadly, there are none of the excellent extra features found on many of Anchor Bay’s Hammer releases. As the best of the Hammer sequels, a commentary would have been much appreciated.

There are 16 chapter stops and subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

Taste The Blood Of Dracula is a hugely enjoyable and surprisingly intelligent film which is essential viewing for fans of British horror. This DVD offers a good presentation and should be available to buy online at well below the recommended price.

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