Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hammer Dracula: The Van Helsing Papers

I'm a bit of a continuity freak. So much so that one of my jobs involved creating a line bible to help straighten out the tangled and badly maintained continuity of one of the creative properties it owned; and that my comic book collection was not sorted by title, but by storyline and characters appearing in certain issues.

For this reason, I view the classic Hammer Dracula films not as one series but as two. It prevents me from having a nervous breakdown while watching them, because "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave" is not a sequel to the movie that preceeds it in release order, and the date for Van Helsing's final battle against Dracula in "Dracula 1972 AD" doesn't fit with the date given in "The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires."

I break the Hammer Draculas into "The Van Helsing Papers" and "The Satanic Rites of Dracula." Here are reviews of the films that make up "The Van Helsing Papers." The rest will follow in a similar post next week.

Horror of Dracula (1958)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Carol Marsh
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

This is where the "Van Helsing Papers" cycle of Dracula films starts. It is also the first vampire movie produced by Hammer Films.

"The Horror of Dracula" starts out looking like a straight adaptation, but ten minutes in, it takes a hard left when its revealed that Jonathan Harker has come to Castle Dracula not as a hapless victim but as an agent of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing and that Harker is fully aware of Dracula's true nature.

But it all works, because when Van Helsing appears on screen (played by the late, great Peter Cushing), we get a different interpretation of him than offered in Stoker's novel, and a different spin on vampirism as well. In the Hammer version, Dracula is devoted to spreading a cult of undeath that consists not only of vampires but of human minions who thirst for everlasting life and who are committed to turning the world into a cesspool of evil and corruption. Van Helsing is a man both of action and letters who is the center of a network of brave men and women who have dedicated themselves to eradicating this sinister evil, which, by the close of the 19th century, is viewed as so much superstitious poppycock.

As "Horror of Dracula" unfolds, Dracula claims Mina and Lucy as victims, mostly because he wants to take revenge against Harker and Van Helsing for being pains in his rear... but this vindictive streak becomes his downfall, as Van Helsing penetrates Dracula's lair and confronts him in one of the neatest climaxes of any of Hammer's Dracula films.

While Cushing's energetic, action-hero Van Helsing is a sharp departure from how the character comes across in Stoker's novel, the Dracula in this and subsequent films in what I designate as the "Van Helsing Papers" is truer to Stoker's portrayal of him than any other film version I've come across. He's not the incongruously eveningwear-sporting-but-decaying-castle-dwelling Bela Lugosi, nor is he the pathetic whiner that Gary Oldman portrayed in so so-very-inaccurately named "Bram Stoker's Dracula"... no, the Lee Dracula is a blood-thirsty monster who preys on the life and emotions of the living. He is a strange and alien fearsome outsider, just as Stoker wrote him.

It's over 50 years since "Horror of Dracula" was released, yet it's still a an exciting item to pop in the VCR or DVD player when you're looking for a chilling, adventuresome diversion.

Brides of Dracula (1960)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, Martia Hunt, and David Peel
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

The second film in "The Van Helsing Papers” cycle, it opens with a bit of voice-over that informs us that although Dracula is dead, his cult of vampiric corruption lives on. Yes, although he is invoked in the title, Dracula is very much a pile of ash back in his castle.

We are introduced to Marianne (Monlaur), a young French woman on her way to take up a teaching position at a Transylvanian boarding school. She is forced to spent the night at an isolated castle where she concludes Baroness Meinster (Hunt) is a mad woman who is keeping her handsome young son (Peel) prisoner. She helps him escape, but learns to her terror that the madness is the castle wasn’t limited to the baroness and that there was a good reason why she was keeping her son locked up—he is a master vampire who has been preying on and torturing peasant girls in the area for many years.

After fleeing the castle, she encounters Dr. Van Helsing who has come to the area following reports of vampire attacks. When the vampire comes to prey on the staff and girls at the boarding school and to ultimately claim Marianne as his bride, Van Helsing takes up his mallet and stake to end his unnatural existence.

Van Helsing has a harder time with this vampire than he did with Dracula. While Dracula beat the tar out of him in “Horror of Dracula,” the Baron Meinster nearly makes Van Helsing himself into one of his vampire minions… and Van Helsing must take extreme measures to stop the vampiric disease from spreading through his blood. His creativity and resourcefulness is also stretched to the limit when he stops Meinster from making good his final escape with the largest improvised cross in the history of vampire hunting.

“Brides of Dracula” is superior to “Horror of Dracula” is several ways, making it among the rarest of sequels.

First, the Baron’s castle from the first part of the movie features some spectacular sets (some of which are redressed in “The Gorgon”); the sequence in the castle is also one of the most deeply creepy in any of the Hammer Films, as Marianne comes to realize that she is trapped in a house of madness and evil.

Second, Cushing is at the top of his game here. His performance is full of zeal and it is the best he gave in any of the Hammer Films he was featured in. The mixture of horror and steely determination that he gives Dr. Van Helsing as he confronts the vampires and their twisted human servants is very well acted. He is also served well by a plot that allows the Van Helsing character to shine, fantastic sets, and excellent lighting and camera work that constantly reinforces the film’s gothic horror tone.

Finally, the climax is one of the most thrilling of any of Hammer’s vampire movies, and Baron Meinster’s doom provides the best death of any vampire in their productions.

All in all, “Brides of Dracula” may be the best film director Terence Fisher ever made. It is certainly the best of all Hammer’s Dracula movies. (And it’s quite possibly made stronger by the fact that Dracula is nowhere in it. I think Peel’s evil, bug-eyed Baron Meinster comes across as far more sinister and evil that Lee’s staid and rather distant Count Dracula ever did.)

And speaking of Dracula, while Van Helsing is busy with Meinster, something is stirring elsewhere…

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, and Andrew Keir
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

“Dracula: Prince of Darkness” is a direct sequel to “Horror of Dracula.” It starts with a recap of the dramatic finale where Van Helsing finishes Dracula off with a surprising dash and leap toward the rising sun. It’s his only appearance in the film, but as it continues the theme of Dracula at the center of an evil pagan cult of spiritual and undead corruption, I’m treating it as part of this cycle.

In “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” two English couples vacationing in Transylvania ignore a warning from the eccentric Father Sandor (Keir) to change their touring plans to give the region around Castle Dracula a wide berth. They don’t take his advice, so they inevitably find themselves abandoned by superstitious locals in the mountain wilderness. Luckily, a coach comes by, and they are taken to Castle Dracula where the caretaker offers his hospitality. Before the night is out, one of the tourists is sacrificed in a bloody ritual to restore life to Dracula’s ashes. Will any of them escape the house of horror, and Dracula’s lust for blood and female flesh?

Director Terence Fisher once again helms a gorgeous production with lots of gothic horror moments and fine acting on the part of the entire cast. However, I must say that the usually delightful Barbara Shelley plays a character so whiny in this film that I found myself wishing that Dracula or his knife-wielding human follower would put her out of my misery!

"Dracula: Prince of Darkness" is also the first time in the Hammer films that Dracula suffers a truly embarrassing death—and it sets the standard for the climax of just about every Hammer Dracula movie from this point forward. Basically, after being cornered at sunset by Father Sandor and surviving tourists turned vampire hunters, Dracula falls through the ice on the moat around his own castle and is rendered inert and helpless by the running water underneath it. It’s a shame that the final confrontation between good and evil in this film is so weak, because the menacing presence of Dracula and the chase scene that leads up to the climax makes for very dramatic and satisfying viewing.

Dracula isn’t exactly destroyed at the end of this film, and his death-by-ice-water leads to the best Hammer vampire resurrection in “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.” However, I do not include that film in “The Van Helsing Papers”, because there are numerous bad fits continuity-wise with other Dracula films.

While “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” has a lot of elements that make it worth seeing, but there are also many things in the film that just don’t match up with what we’ve seen in “Horror of Dracula” and “Dracula: Prince of Darkness.” Most obviously, the geography around Castle Dracula, not to mention the structure itself, have changed. So, the movie gets set aside. (You can read my review of it by clicking here, however.)

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires
Starring: Peter Cushing, Julie Ege, David Chiang, and Robin Stewart
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The year is 1904. Decades have passed since Dr. Van Helsing first took up arms against the cult of vampires, and his struggle has brought him to China. While guest-lecturing at a university, Van Helsing is approached by His Ching (Chiang), who, together with his brothers and sister, have dedicated themselves to ridding his native village of the Seven Golden Vampires which have terrorized it for centuries; they require Van Helsing’s expertise in vampire-killing to augment their own considerable martial arts skills, however. Van Helsing and his son Leyland immediately offer their expert services. After wealthy Swedish adventuress Vanessa Buren provides funding, they embark upon the long and dangerous trek to the isolated village of Ping Kuei, facing both bandit lords and vampire minions before the final apocalyptic showdown between the vampiric army of the Seven Golden Vampires and Van Helsing’s band of heroes. Then, as the smoke is clearing, and heroes and villains alike are taking stock of their dead, Van Helsing’s arch-nemesis Dracula makes his presence known—and only one of them will walk away from this final confrontation.

When it was released, “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” was something new and spectacular. It was the first serious effort to mix the horror film genre with the martial arts genre. With everything from “The Bride With White Hair” to “Blade” to “Vampire Effect” on our shelves, this movie may not seem like a big deal, but when Hammer and the Hong Kong-based Shaw Bros. production company teamed up, they were blazing new territory.

“The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” is a film with great potential and an even greater premise, but in the final analysis it fails to live up to both. While there are some great touches in the film surrounding Chinese vampire lore—the lesser vampire minions of the Seven Golden Vampires are “hopping vampires” and shrines to Buddha repulse the evil undead, not just the typical cross—and Cushing and the rest of the cast deliver fine acting performances, the martial arts side of the film is quite lackluster, even by the standards of Shaw Bros. movies of the 1970s. The big battle between the vampire army and the vampire-busting martial artists might have been more exciting if the martial arts displays had been. Certainly, that climactic battle had plenty of horror—with some quite unexpected twists and deaths as it unfolds—but its Kung Fu is weak.

On the upside, Cushing is a joy to watch as always (despite the fact that the actor was dealing with health issues and severe depression following the death of his wife), and his Van Helsing is again a fun mix of scholarly dedication and grim, determined action. He has great on-screen chemistry with everyone in the supporting cast—particularly Ege and Stewart. The addition of Leyland Van Helsing, the son of the great vampire hunter, is a nice addition to the mythos, and it’s too bad that nothing more came of that. (Hammer was always throwing in great characters in the Dracula films that never developed into anything—such as Father Sandor from “Dracula: Prince of Darkness.” But in the case of the younger Van Helsing, primed to take over the vampire-busting franchise, if the character was added simply because the film was deemed to need a vibe younger than the ailing Cushing, or if there were ideas of plans for a new Dracula/Van Helsing direction, “Legend” was destined to be among Hammer Films’ final productions.

Speaking of Dracula, readers have probably noticed that he’s only been mentioned in passing during this discussion. That’s because when Baker and the actors and the rest of the crew were all done with “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires,” Dracula was nowhere to be found in the story. In fact, it was Hammer executives who insisted that Dracula be added to the film, so Cushing was called back for an additional scene. An opening sequence featuring Dracula (played by John Forbes-Robinson) was hastily thrown together, along with a denouement that had Van Helsing dispatch Dracula without even being missed by his companions who stepped outside a moment before the Prince of Darkness revealed himself. I really can’t imagine what the people at Hammer were thinking; I think the pointless presence of Dracula in “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” weakens the film rather than strengthens it.

By the way, I recommend you get the version of “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” that Anchor Bay released as part of their Hammer Collection. Both the DVD and the VHS versions contain the US release of the movie that was titled “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula.” The bit of film butchery is an example of how editing can make or break a film—and in the case of this movie, the editing definitely broke it. They took an entertaining, straightforward vampire/kung-fu hybrid adventure film and turned it into a confusing mess. When the Americans were done transforming “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” into “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula,” they had a movie that even Ed Wood and Uwe Boll would describe as crap.

For all its flaws, “The Legends of the Seven Golden Vampires” is a very enjoyable film. Cushing’s performance alone makes it worth seeing, and it’s a nice end to the grouping of Hammer Films that I refer to as the “Van Helsing Papers.”


  1. Hey Steve,
    That's a helluva break down and all for reading this Halloween weekend. I don't know that I have anywhere near the organizational prowess to keep up with your breakdown of the Hammer films but it is an interesting approach nevertheless. I'm making the rounds from LAMb, saw your thread and wanted to say hey to a fellow blogger and movie enthusiast. I'm still working on an entry for Halloween - I just wrote about Snakes on a Plane which was not only disappointing but not a film that should be celebrated during any holiday, much less the pumpkin night.

    Being a classic horror aficionado I'm curious what you thought of Coppola's Dracula (1992) since it seems that people either love it or hate it. I found a lot to like, actually, and while Keanu was stiff and the weakest link, you can't go wrong with Gary Oldman and Winona is often watchable.
    cheers and happy Halloween!


  2. Looking forward to the films not included in "The van Helsing Papers":
    Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1966)
    Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
    Scars of Dracula (1970)
    Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
    The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

    A.D. 1972 is the one I recall where the continuity broke.