Sir Christopher Lee became famous for playing Dracula in a string of Hammer Horror films (1958-1973). He portrayed him seven times, often with his friend Peter Cushing in the role of Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing. Lee also portrayed the bloodsucking count in a Spanish/German Jess Franco film and also in a french comedy. But it all started with the Hammer series. Hammer Film Productions is a company based in the United Kingdom, best known for a bunch of gothic films. Hammer was the first studio to produce a Dracula film in color with Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula in 1958. It is a bit different than the book by Bram Stoker – but like the book, the film begins with Jonathan Harker visiting Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. However, he is not a naive real estate agent who tries to sell Dracula (Lee) a house in London. Jonathan is actually a vampire hunter who works for Van Helsing (Cushing) and he’s on a mission to kill Dracula.
Harker is eventually bitten and transforms into a vampire. Van Helsing therefore has to kill him to free his soul. Bummer. In the book, Harker doesn’t die – and he was engaged to Mina not Lucy like he is here. Anyway, one day Lucy begins to behave strangely and Van Helsing suspects that Dracula has something to do with it. Horror of Dracula is fast-paced compared with the Bela Lugosi version from 1931. There’s a lot of blood and Lee looks creepy with his red contact lenses. Audiences in the 50’s weren’t used to that much red stuff. But compared to today’s movies, it’s quite tame. It’s also a low-budget film and they couldn’t even afford Dracula to transform into a bat. In the novel he can also transform into a wolf, a horde of rats and a mist, and he becomes younger when he feeds on blood – while in the film he doesn’t seem to have any special abilities. However, it’s a good film and it has that distinguished british look. And even if Dracula’s not a shapeshifter, it somehow just makes him more sinister. Lee only has 13 dialogues in the film – plus a lot of snarls. But he has such a powerful charisma that his presence alone says more than any words can describe.
Hammer’s second Dracula film was The Brides of Dracula. But it didn’t star Christopher Lee and Dracula isn’t in it. Peter Cushing returned as Van Helsing. However, because Lee isn’t in it, I’ll watch it some other time. Lee’s second Dracula film was Dracula: Prince of Darkness (also directed by Terence Fisher). I love this film and I can’t imagine life without it. The film takes place 10 years after Van Helsing killed Dracula in the first film. Some morons somehow end up in Dracula’s creepy castle, and for some dumb reason they think that it seems like a nice place so spend the night. Eventually Dracula rises from the dead, more grumpy than ever, and begins to bite beautiful ladies in the neck again. He doesn’t appear until halfway into the film. Prior to this, the film builds up to Dracula’s resurrection. Turns out Dracula had a servant (he wasn’t in the first film) who wakes his master by killing one of the morons and pouring blood over his ashes. Peter Cushing isn’t in it – but Renfield is – and the film’s gothic atmosphere gives me goose bumps. Lee is amazing here, but according to rumors, he found the lines he was given so stupid that he chose to play the role silent.
“There is evil in the world. There are dark, awful things. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of them. But there are dark corners; horrors almost impossible to imagine… even in our worst nightmares.”
-Professor Van Helsing
The Dracula sequels had little to do with the original novel, and Christopher Lee has said he didn’t really enjoy being in the following films. But hey, I’m glad he did them anyway, because I sure do enjoy watching them. The third film in the series is Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. After Dracula was killed again at the end of Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Transylvania has become a fairly pleasant place to live. But… There’s always a “but”. Just read the title again, and you’ll know what I mean. Yup, the count has risen from the grave. A priest travels to Dracula’s castle to banish the evil from the gothic castle once and for all. But it takes more than a silly exorcism to destroy the fanged undead. The previous film ended with Dracula falling through the ice outside his castle. He froze to death and drowned. Dracula is therefore not within the castle this time. When the priest leaves the castle, he cuts himself on a branch and blood somehow manages to drip down into Dracula’s mouth. Aw shit, you know what that means: Full resuscitation! That’s all that is necessary to say about the plot. But I really liked this film. It was Hammer Studios’ most profitable film. The camera angles make Dracula very menacing, and it’s perhaps Lee’s best performance as the count with an urge to bite.
Lee’s fourth Dracula film for Hammer Studios was Taste the Blood of Dracula (another great title, huh?). This time the ruthless count seeks revenge on those who killed his servant. I am a huge fan of the old Dracula films with Bela Lugosi, but I’ve always liked the Hammer films a notch better. Lugosi’s tuxedo-clad Dracula is perhaps the ultimate Dracula, but Christopher Lee’s interpretation is also great. When he looks at you, all he sees is food. He is a monster, and when he shows up there is never any doubt that he can hurt you. Dracula has less to do in this film than in any of the other films. But I dig that he’s not overexposed. It makes him scarier and mysterious. This film is a bit different though. You see, Dracula is almost like the hero of the film here. The same happened to Godzilla in the 70’s, but that’s another story. Dracula isn’t the most vicious characters in the film. For example: A guy gets drunk and abuses his daughter played by Linda Hayden. Dracula therefore hits him with a shovel. A heroic deed, if you ask me. Okay, so Dracula isn’t exactly the hero of the film. But it’s close enough.
Film number five, Scars Of Dracula, differs slightly from the other films. There is more sex, blood and violence here (Wii-hooo!) and Dracula has more screen time than usual and more dialogues than in any of the other Dracula movies combined. He is also more sadistic than ever. He doesn’t just bite hot women. He stabs people with a knife and takes pleasure in torturing people! Grrraaarrrr! This time Dracula is awakened when a ridiculous rubber bat spits blood on his remains. The film doesn’t really have a plot, but it is very entertaining. Let’s move on to the next film in the series; Dracula A.D. 1972. This funkadelic film is also quite different than the other movies. It begins in a classic way in the year 1872: Count Dracula and Van Helsing (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing!) are fighting each other in a cool scene. But they’re both killed and the film suddenly fast forward to 1972! We’re then introduced to a bunch of party crazed hippies. The leader of the gang calls himself Johnny Alucard (Dracula backwards) and he is a huge Dracula-fan. Alucard therefore decides to awaken Dracula back to life (“Master, I did it, I summoned you!”) There’s only one man in the world who can save us from the wrath of the modern Dracula, and that’s Van Helsing’s grandson Professor Lorimer (Cushing again).
Caroline Munroe (Starcrash) briefly appears (and completely steals the show – what a woman!) as a victim, and Stephanie Beacham plays Van Helsing’s daughter. The central characters in the film are, unfortunately, the hippies. Dracula only has a small part here. The Gothic tone, however, is well-preserved despite the fact that the film is full of acid music and dancing hippies (“Dig the music, kids!”). Dracula A.D. 1972 is the most trashy Hammer film I’ve seen, but still, quite entertaining. Lee’s final Dracula-film for Hammer was The Satanic Rites of Dracula. It too takes place in the 70’s, but there are no hippies or groovy music in it, and it’s darker and far more serious than Dracula A.D. 1972. It’s also the dullest in the series. At least Peter Cushing is back as Van Helsing, and here he confronts his enemy for the last time (in Lee’s case at least). The Transylvanian bloodsucker seems more like a Bond villain this time. He has a stylish office and he wants to exterminate humanity, instead of just biting annoying hippies in the neck. There is more action in this film than I’m used to. Dracula even employs an assassin! I am a big fan of Hammer Films, especially the Dracula series, so it’s impossible for me to say anything negative about them. So, for me, this is another cool movie even though it’s… you know, bad.
“Murder, Jessica. That’s what all this is about. Ghastly, horrible, obscene murder!”
-Professor Van Helsing
Christopher Lee also made two other Dracula films. A french comedy – which I haven’t seen yet – called Dracula & Son (1976) and an Italian film by Jess Franco called Count Dracula (1970). I liked Franco’s take on the series. It’s close to Bram Stoker’s novel and it begins with Jonathan Harker traveling to Transylvania to help Dracula with buying property in England. Jonathan gets a little intimidated by him and his spooky castle, and eventually he becomes Dracula’s prisoner. But he manages to escape, and he’s well taken care of by Professor Van Helsing (portrayed by Herbert Lom). Dracula then decides to travel to England to terrorize the recurring Franco starlets Soledad Miranda and Maria Rohm. Cool movie. The only thing I didn’t like was the sudden ending – probably because of a low budget. The wolves in the film are obviously just dogs, and all the bats are dangling in threads. Franco allegedly financed the whole thing with his own money. Still, the sets are nice and gothic, and some of the effects are really neat – especially Dracula’s fierce disappearing acts. The actors are very good, especially Klaus Kinski as Renfield, resulting in that the film feels more grandiose than it really is. I recommend the DVD edition of Franco’s Count Dracula from Dark Sky. It includes a cool special feature with Christopher Lee reading Stoker’s novel. And that’s that.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) Director: Terence Fisher
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) Director: Freddie Francis
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) Director: Peter Sasdy
Scars of Dracula (1970) Director: Roy Ward Baker
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) Director: Alan Gibson
Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Director: Alan Gibson
Count Dracula (1970) Director: Jess Franco