Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970, Peter Sasdy)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: We begin in that Hammer favourite: an nebulous area of central Europe in the late nineteenth century. But then we cut to a little while later in London and the story plays out in leafy suburbs, the squalid East End and the fancy Café Royale on Regent Street.

Faithful to the novel? This is the fourth sequel to Hammer Films’ 1958 adaptation of Dracula, and follows on from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. It begins with a man called Weller (an always fun Roy Kinnear) accidentally witnessing the demise of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) – the vampire has been staked with a crucifix. After the body crumbles away, Weller collects some of the remains and leaves… Cut to England, some time later. Three stuffy, middle-aged businessmen – William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis) and Jonathon Secker (John Carson) – are telling their families that they’re off to do some charity work in the East End, whereas in fact they’re visiting a hedonistic, anything-goes brothel. While there, they meet a shady, arrogant aristocrat called Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who takes them to a shop run by Weller to acquire some of Dracula’s blood. (They’ve heard of the Count and know of vampires.) Wanting the thrill of interacting with the undead, the trio and Courtley perform a Satanic ritual but Courtley is killed when he drinks some of the blood. Terrified, Hargood, Paxton and Secker flee. Then the corpse transforms into a resurrected Dracula, who vows revenge on the three men for the death of his servant Courtley. The vamp starts by targeting the trio’s grown-up children – he hypnotises Alice Hargood (Linda Hayden) into killing her father, then turns Lucy Paxton (Isla Blair) into a vampire…

Best performance: Geoffrey Keen was later a regular in the James Bond films, appearing as the Minister of Defence in all six movies between 1977 and 1987. Here, he plays the grumpy, troubled William Hargood, who’s the ring leader of the three businessmen. His character’s trauma after the black-magic ritual is very convincing – he develops paranoia, drinks heavily, abuses his daughter…

Best bit: There’s some handsome location filming at Highgate Cemetery in London, most notably in the beautiful, Gothic, curved row of tombs known as the Circle of Lebanon in the West Cemetery. (Among many others, buried at Highgate are actors Corin Redgrave, Jean Simmons, Ralph Richardson, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Diane Cilento, Sheila Gish and Bob Hoskins, writers Douglas Adams, Anthony Shaffer, George Eliot and Carl Mayer, comedian Max Wall, punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren, singer George Michael, poet Christina Rossetti, scientist Jacob Bronowski, painter Lucian Freud, Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, and most famously Karl Marx.)

Review: This film was originally going to be Dracula-free because Christopher Lee was tiring of the role. Ralph Bates’s character would have taken over as the series’s new vampire threat, but distributors objected so Lee was coerced into another sequel. And it’s one of the best in the Hammer cycle: engaging, seedy, scary, complicated, and with a psychological depth that’s almost always missing from these movies. These characters suffer emotionally as well as physically.

Eight snakes out of 10

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The Wicker Tree (2011, Robin Hardy)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

Two young Americans travel to Scotland intent on spreading the word of Jesus. However, they soon fall in with the residents of a strange town…

How to classify this? Is it a sequel to the 1973 film The Wicker Man? Well, a case could be made for that. Christopher Lee has a tiny cameo, possibly as Lord Summerisle, so perhaps this is The Wicker Man: The Next Generation. Or is it a remake? It’s certainly a very similar storyline – the same kind of things happen to the same kind of people. Perhaps we should consider it a companion piece: another take on the same ideas. It’s also an adaptation of director Robin Hardy’s novel Cowboys for Christ (which itself was based on an earlier version of the film script after an attempt at making it fell through). But however we define it, The Wicker Tree is a truly mediocre movie.

It tells the story of American couple Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett). She’s a successful country-and-western singer; he’s her boyfriend. They’re both young, clean-cut, devout Christians who are waiting until they marry before having sex. Beth is also turning her back on her singing career to spend two years “bringing God’s message to the lost people of Scotland.” That’s right: two aw-shucks Americans are coming to do missionary work on the council estates of Glasgow. Not too surprisingly, they just get doors slammed in their faces.

At their lowest ebb, Beth and Steve then meet local landowners Sir Lachlan (Graham McTavish) and Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard). The Morrisons clearly have nefarious plans, and also tease the couple about their faith, pointing out contradictions and belittling Jesus. But despite this, Beth and Steve accept their hospitality. Meanwhile, we viewers learn that Sir Lachlan runs the local nuclear power plant. (Of course he does.) There was an accident there a decade earlier and now the whole village is infertile.

A huge problem with this story is that – unlike Beth and Steve’s equivalent in The Wicker Man, Sgt Howie – the two lead characters are just so dim. The script does them no favours, presenting them as dippy, childlike, naïve characters who you never feel any sympathy for, but the performances are nothing to write home to Texas about either. The Scottish characters are also burdened with bizarre, antiquated attitudes towards Americans, as if they’re a newly discovered race of people and not the globe’s most dominant culture.

Another issue is the old-fashioned-ness of the plot. Is it really plausible that a town on the Scottish Borders in 2011 could be entirely infertile and yet no one else has noticed? This isn’t an isolated island community like in The Wicker Man. There’s probably a Little Chef just round the corner. At least someone has spotted the town’s paganism: a copper called Orlando has been sent to the area to do some rooting around. But he gets distracted by a local woman called Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks, using a Scottish accent that needs subtitling at one point) who has sex with him multiple times to wear him out.

Anyway, various weird things happen to Beth and Steve. He’s spooked when a middle-aged woman sings a suggestive song in the pub; she’s nearly drugged by the Morrisons’ butler. We also get Christopher Lee green-screened into a 72-second flashback that tries to explain why Sir Lachlan is practising paganism. (Lee was originally going to play Lachlan, with Joan Collins as his wife, but then injured himself on the set of another film and had to drop out.)

When Beth learns that Steve’s been unfaithful – he couldn’t resist himself after seeing Lolly naked in a river – she ain’t happy. But worse is to come once we hit May Day. Steve is lured to a remote castle and then… torn to pieces and eaten by the townsfolk, who are now apparently cannibals. Meanwhile, Beth has been tricked into being the May Queen for the festivities and is lured towards a giant wicker tree. Lachlan plans to sacrifice her to the gods, hoping it will cure the community of its infertility. But when she figures out what’s going on, Beth pushes him into the tree and sets it on fire – perhaps the film’s one genuinely smart surprise. (Her victory doesn’t last long. She’s soon caught and killed by the locals, who are all dressed like post-apocalyptic zombies for some reason.)

This movie beggars belief. The dialogue is mostly either just laughable or ear-scrappingly off-key. The tone shifts all over the place, from po-faced philosophy to high comedy. The acting is extremely variable, ranging from doing-their-best (McTavish, Leonard, Clive Russell) to actually-not-good-enough. Some crummy visual effects and that’ll-do cinematography only add to the feeling that the film was made with precisely zero passion behind it. It’s an awful piece of work.

One stuffed cat out of 10

The Wicker Man: The Different Cuts

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The version of The Wicker Man that came out in 1973 was not what the director intended. Around 12 minutes of footage had been removed from Robin Hardy’s movie on the orders of his superiors at production company British Lion. They feared that it was too difficult a film for a general audience and also wanted a shorter cut that could be released as a B-movie. Running at 87 minutes, The Wicker Man was first released as the support for Don’t Look Now in December.

Then, in 1976, Hardy decided to release his original version in America. But there was controversy when it became apparent that his 99-minute cut had been junked, as had all 368 cans of the raw footage from the late-1972 shoot. Some people, including the movie’s star Christopher Lee, saw this as a deliberate, petulant ploy on the part of British Lion. Less paranoid people concluded that the footage has simply been misplaced. (Archiving the rushes and assembly edits from an unsuccessful horror film was not standard practice in the 1970s.)

It was then recalled that a print of the longer version had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman in LA when he’d been asked for advice on how to market the movie. Being a film geek, Corman had kept his copy – so it was now used for the basis of a rerelease in 1977. (Ironically, Hardy took the opportunity to take out a few scenes.)

I’ve already reviewed the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, so this is a look at the extra footage that’s contained in the original director’s cut. It’s not an extensive list of every difference; just a discussion of the interesting ones. Some of these moments were trimmed out for the 1977 release, but all three versions are now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

* Because any scenes that were cut out in 1973 are taken from Corman’s viewing print, the picture quality is not as strong.
* As originally released in 1973, The Wicker Man begins with policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arriving on the island of Summerisle. In the earlier director’s cut, however, that arrival is preceded by six minutes of storytelling… On the mainland, Howie chats to a colleague called McTaggart (John Hallam) and walks past some graffiti on a wall that reads ‘Jesus saves’. Howie agrees with the sentiment but still wants it removed. McTaggart then gently ridicules his superior after Howie asks how things are in the town: “Just the usual,” he replies. “Rape, sodomy, sacrilege.”
* Next, we see Howie attending and speaking at a church service (some footage of which was used in the theatrical cut as brief flashbacks). We get a closer look at his fiancée, Mary (Alison Hughes), while the minister is played by director Robin Hardy in a Hitchcock-style cameo.
* In the next scene, a postman (Tony Roper) delivers a letter to the police station and shares a joke with McTaggart about the uptight, prudish Howie. “Ah, poor old Mary,” says the postman. “When those two are married, she’ll spend more time on her knees in church than on her back in bed!” Howie then walks in on them laughing. The letter, of course, is the one telling Howie about the missing Rowan Morrison. He says he’ll visit the island of Summerisle and will be away overnight.
* We then cut to him flying to the island in his seaplane – ie, the opening scene of the theatrical version.
* The film’s first in-story song, The Landlord’s Daughter, has an extra verse in the longer cut. During it, the landlord (Lindsay Kemp) bangs the optics with a pair of spoons and we get a look at the musicians.
* Later in the same scene, after the landlord says that last year’s harvest-festival photo is missing because the frame broke, there’s an extra shot of him looking meaningfully at the space on the wall.
* A major bit of restructuring occurs now. In the longer cut of the film, Willow (Britt Ekland) doesn’t sing her sexy song at this point in the story. Instead, we see the musicians in the pub (including the film’s composer) singing a gentle, sensual folk song. Outside, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) appears under Willow’s bedroom window and introduces her to a boy called Ash Buchanan (Richard Wren). This is clearly a regular arrangement: Summerisle brings Willow young men for her to bed. Howie watches on bemused. Then Summerisle has a long speech about how he likes animals: “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to ‘God.’” Later, Howie is trying to sleep but has to ignore the sound of Willow and Ash having sex.
* The next morning, Howie and Willow share a quick scene and he asks where the school is. In the theatrical version it was replaced by a scene (absent from the long cut) where Willow wakes Howie with a cup of tea and says, “I thought you were going to come and see me last night.” (Because, of course, in that version of the film she’s already tried tempting Howie into bed.)
* A scene that was cut out in 1973 shows Howie questioning the island’s unhelpful doctor (John Sharp). Howie has been told that the missing Rowan Morrison has died and asks the GP how. “She was burnt to death,” he says. “As my lunch will be if I continue here talking to you.”
* Willow’s siren song happens now – during Howie’s *second* night on the island. As well as being moved, a verse was trimmed out when the film was edited down in 1973.
* In the longer edit Howie’s frantic search of the island has a couple of moments that were missing in the theatrical cut: he looks in the hairdressers, then falls down someone’s stairs.

REVIEW: It may be sacrilege to say it, but the shorter, butchered version of The Wicker Man is a better film than the original director’s cut. The theatrical print is leaner, tauter, pacier and jumps straight into the story, whereas the longer version has scenes that you just don’t need. The opening, for example, is six minutes of hammering home Howie’s puritanical, uptight Christianity. But cutting it in 1973 didn’t damage the film because later scenes (and Edward Woodward’s excellent performance) sell the notion perfectly well and more economically. The other major difference between the cuts is the shifting of Willow’s song from the story’s second night to its first. Again, the enforced change helps the movie. Not only does it pull Britt Ekland’s nudity forward – this is, after all, an exploitation film – but it means we lose Summerisle’s original introduction. His first scene in the director’s cut is a rather naff and redundant scene where we spy him standing him outside Willow’s window. In the 1973 release print, he gets a much stronger first moment: Howie thinks he’s in an empty room in Summerisle’s mansion, then Christopher Lee appears from behind a high-backed chair.

Nine slugs out of 10

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This website was incredibly helpful in providing information and context.

Ten Things I Love About The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The Wicker Man is sometimes cited as Britain’s best horror film. Here are 10 reason why I think that might be so… (Note: this review is based on the version of the film released in 1973. I’ll cover the longer ‘director’s cut’ in the next blog.)

1. The story…
…which (seriously, big spoiler coming up now) is a huge con trick. Every character but one is lying throughout, which makes a first viewing a gripping mystery and repeat viewings great fun. Policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on a small, isolated island in the Hebrides in search of a missing 13-year-old girl. He’s been tipped off by an anonymous letter, but no one on the island – not even the girl’s supposed mother – appears to have heard of Rowan Morrison. They also seem benignly disinterested in Howie’s investigation. As the copper asks more and more questions, he also becomes aware that the villagers have abandoned Christianity in favour of pagan rituals and beliefs, many of which centre around sex. Eventually, he uncovers the truth: the disappearance of the girl was staged in order to lure him to the island – and the entire village is in on the ruse. They need a pure, righteous virgin for a horrific sacrificial ceremony…

2. Sgt Neil Howie…
…who is the movie’s point-of-view character. Edward Woodward holds the whole film together, appearing in every scene and playing Howie with total sincerity (and a decent Scottish accent). The earnest West Highland policeman arrives on the island in a dapper little seaplane (he represents the technologically advanced outside world, you see) but soon faces a frustrated enquiry. He’s a deeply religious man who prays before going to sleep and who rallies against the island’s heathen community. He’s also, we learn, engaged to be married and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. Woodward’s measured performance is fantastic: just watch as Howie gets increasingly manic and angry and shocked from scene to scene. Howie’s a rather humourless man, yet you feel real sympathy for him during the harrowing final scene.

3. The music…
…which is vital to the movie’s eerie, unsettling vibe. The Wicker Man is essentially a musical in disguise. As well as mood-setting score, there are numerous scenes where characters burst into song. The first instance comes after just 11 minutes: Howie watches agog as a pub full of villagers serenade him with a lewd song called The Landlord’s Daughter. Even Howie himself gets to sing later on when he blasts out Psalm 23 as death approaches. Music is woven into the fabric of life on the island and the film’s many folk songs manage to sound both menacing and seductive at the same time.

4. The landscape…
…which gives the story a beautiful yet strange island setting. The movie was shot entirely on location in Scotland, which immediately differentiates it from, say, Hammer Horror films that were confined to sound-stages and Home County woodlands. In The Wicker Man, you can sense the fresh air blowing through every scene. We see the fishing village, the sea, cliffs and caves, the woods, fields and orchards, an abandoned churchyard and the stately manor – all locations with a bucolic, medieval, pre-science feel. Nature is so important to this story – it’s almost a character in itself – so images and discussions of it recur throughout.

5. The villagers…
…who are now the prime example of ‘happy yet creepy locals’ in a horror movie. When Howie arrives at the island, they’re reluctant to send a dinghy out to his seaplane. Then they pretend they’ve never heard of the child he’s looking for. Without being openly rude or aggressive, it’s clear that *something* is wrong. The scene also showcases some fantastically characterful faces: these are real people, not Hollywood extras. The action soon cuts to the village pub, The Green Man Inn, where we get one of the great the-music-stops-and-everyone-looks-round moments in cinema. But again a palpable sense of danger is being created because the villagers are being so *nice*: they smile, laugh, sing, dance; they never threaten Howie or tell him to get lost.

6. Willow…
…the beautiful, blonde barmaid at The Green Man who enjoys being the object of the villagers’ lusty affections. The film ekes out real menace because no one (not Willow, not her father) is at all concerned by a load of old men perving over her. Cast in the role was Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who brought both star power and sexual chemistry to what is actually a relatively minor role. (Britt had some help: not only is all of her dialogue dubbed by another actress, but a body double was brought in for some of the nudity.) The character’s showpiece scene comes during Howie’s first night on the island: he’s trying to sleep, but in the next room a naked Willow is singing a seductive song and rhythmically banging on the wall and writhing around. It’s an erotic temptation – an act designed to test the virgin Howie and make sure he’s the best possible person for the sacrifice. (Howie’s willpower holds. Somehow.)

7. The weirdness…
…which gives the film a relentlessly surreal, and often sexual, quality. Without ever going full-blown mental (and therefore losing the ‘truth’ of the situation), the bizarre behaviour soon starts to mount up… The local postmistress cheerfully denies her eldest daughter is missing, then later forces her youngest to hold a toad in her mouth as a cure for a sore throat. The village schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) teaches a class of 13-year-old girls about phallic symbolism. Howie stumbles across a midnight orgy going on in the middle of the village. The chemists has a jar full of foreskins for sale. A schoolgirl has a beetle tied to a piece of string attached to a nail, so the more it fights to get free the more it’s trapped. Women dance naked around some standing stones. Howie walks in on the local librarian (Ingrid Pitt, another bit of star casting) having a bath and possibly masturbating… and she just smiles at him.

8. Lord Summerisle…
…who is the leader of the community. He doesn’t actually appear until the 40th minute, but his entry into the story kicks Howie’s indignation into an even higher gear. It’s probably Christopher Lee’s finest acting performance: free of Dracula and co, he’s able to show charm, toss off quips (“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent”), affect nonchalance, and turn into an ever-smiling murderer. Lee was a prime mover in getting the film made and took it very personally when his studio bosses didn’t like it. 

9. The different edits…
…which mean this film has a fascinating production history and now exists in a variety of cuts. Basically, director Robin Hardy’s preferred version of the film was edited down by the producers before release. About 12 minutes were removed, much to the chagrin of Hardy and star Christopher Lee, then the unused negatives were junked. (The urban myth is they were thrown into a landfill site that’s now under a motorway – sometimes said to be the M3, sometimes the M4.) A few years later, however, Hardy remembered that a print of the longer edit had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman so he could give his opinion on how to market the film in America. And he’d kept it. So the long version was released in 1977 – ironically with a few trims. I shall look at how the versions differ from each other in the following blog.

10. The ending…
…which is where this horror film becomes truly horrific. Having deduced that Rowan Morrison is to be sacrificed to appease the gods who let a harvest fail, Howie disguises himself and joins the village’s May Day parade. There are strange rituals along the way, including a moment when it seems that someone has been beheaded, then Howie sees Rowan near some caves. He races to save her and they flee… But it’s all a ruse. Rowan deliberately leads him onto a cliff where Summerisle, Willow and others are waiting. It’s not Rowan they’re going to sacrifice; it’s Howie. The whole thing has been a long con: they staged the girl’s disappearance to draw the virgin Howie to the island, then frustrated his investigation until May Day. The entire village was in on the charade, even the children. It’s an astonishingly chilling plot twist, in part because of how numb Woodward plays the revelation scenes. Howie knows there’s no way out so retreats inward, quietly praying and reaffirming his faith in Jesus. But then he’s led further up the headland and sees it… an enormous wicker statue, in which he’s to be burnt to death. “Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ,” he calls out, as much a call for help as a scream of desperation. He’s a man of faith, who believes he will be reborn through Jesus. But aren’t the villagers also people of faith? There’s a cheeky piece of religious satire going on here. Earlier in the movie, Howie, shocked by the community’s heathen beliefs, asked, “Have these children never heard of Jesus?” and Summerisle pointedly replied, “Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” The difference, of course, is that the villagers are prepared to murder an innocent man for their beliefs… The Wicker Man is part of the ‘folk horror’ tradition – a series of stories set in isolated rural communities and featuring brutal, often violent behaviour. It’s the finest example, actually.

Ten apples out of 10

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973, Alan Gibson)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: London and the surrounding area. We’re told that the events of Dracula A.D. 1972, of which this is a sequel, were ‘over two years ago’. The climax takes place very close to 23 November, which is said to be the sabbath of the undead.

Faithful to the novel? This was Hammer’s eighth Dracula film in 15 years, so the book is now a dim and distant memory… A secret agent escapes from a country house where some prominent members of society have been taking part in strange rituals. His bosses Peter Torrence (William Franklyn) and Colonel Matthews (Richard Vernon) then recruit a policeman called Murray (Michael Coles) to investigate the cult further. He in turn ropes in occult expert Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who lives with his granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley). (Murray, Lorrimer and Jessica are returning characters from Dracula AD 1972, though the latter role has been recast.) Lorrimer realises that one of the cultists is an old friend and this eventually leads him to a businessman called DD Denham, whose shiny new office building was built on the site of the church from the previous film. Guess what: Denham is actually a resurrected Count Dracula (Christopher Lee, playing the vampire in a Hammer film for the seventh and final time)! He’s planning an apocalypse, using his own ‘four horsemen’ to distribute the bubonic plague. After a lengthy sequence at the country house – in which various female vampires meet their end – Lorrimer lures the Count into a hawthorn bush (go, biblical subtext!) and stakes him through the heart.

Best performance: Peter Cushing, who was always able to make hokum watchable.

Best bit: When the team first investigate the house, Jessica sneaks into the cellar, which is full of coffins. Then she finds Torrence’s secretary Jane (Valerie Van Ost) chained to a wall. We’d earlier seen her kidnapped by the cult and turned by Count Dracula. At first, Jess thinks Jane is dead – but we viewers know otherwise. Jessica creeps closer, feels for a pulse, and Jane turns to look at her. She smiles… then lunges with her fangs. Then other female vamps start to emerge from the coffins and close in…

Review: This starts out well. A Satanic cult are carrying out bizarre ceremonies in an English country house, while the British Secret Service are getting worried about it in their modern, brightly lit offices. It has the feel of an episode of, say, The Avengers or Doctor Who. (Incidentally, Don Houghton had recently worked on the latter when he wrote this film. Perhaps choosing 23 November as the plot’s key date was an in-joke: it’s the day Doctor Who began in 1963.). And the storytelling is often fun, with information being drip-feed during different scenes. However, the longer the film goes on the more it drags and the less it entertains. Few of the characters have much spark or life to them, especially Joanna Lumley’s Jessica, who’s a noticeably blander, older and less fun version of the character we saw in the preceding film.

Five Afghan coats out of 10

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968, Freddie Francis)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: A prologue is set in 1905, then the bulk of the film takes place a year later. The location is Hammer’s default, mid-European fantasyland. A lot of the story takes place in a village called Keinenberg.

Faithful to the novel? This is the fourth entry in Hammer Films’ Dracula series. At the start, Count Dracula is terrorising a village, but we then cut to a year later – ie, after the events of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). The count is dead but the villagers still fear him – so a visiting monsignor called Ernest Mueller (Rupert Davies) attempts to exorcise the abandoned castle. However, during the ceremony the local priest (Ewan Hooper) accidentally resurrects the vampire (d’oh!) when his blood drips into the vampire’s icy-moat grave. (During this scene, Dracula sees his own reflection in the water.) Unaware of any trouble, Mueller returns home. Dracula (Christopher Lee) follows, wanting revenge for what’s happened to his castle, and targets Mueller’s niece Maria (Veronica Carlson). Maria’s mother (Marion Mathie) and fun-loving boyfriend (Barry Andrews) get caught up in the mayhem, as does local barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing).

Best performance: Barbara Ewing as the flirty Zena.

Best bit: The prologue shows a young man discovering a corpse in the church: a woman hanging upside down in the bell tower.

Review: This film is hamstrung by all the usual Hammer limitations: the cast is tiny, we get very used to the same few sets, the locations are generic, and there’s some risible day-for-night shooting. But in a couple of ways it’s an interesting entry in the series. The nominal hero of the story, Paul, is an atheist. Admittedly, this detail doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s a nice change from the norm. And Freddie Francis (an Oscar-winning cinematographer as well as this film’s director) uses coloured filters on the edges of shots associated with Dracula. This gives them a strange, stained-glass-window quality, which is both unusual and effective.

Five rooftops out of 10

Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a short prologue set in London’s Hyde Park on 18 September 1872: Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) is killed by his arch-enemy Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). A disciple of the vampire (Christopher Neame) then collects his ring and some of his ashes… Cut to a hundred years later, and for most of the film it’s inescapably, joltingly, face-slappingly 1972. The story takes place in London, mostly around the King’s Road area of Chelsea.

Faithful to the novel? This is often assumed to be another sequel to Hammer Films’ 1958 version of Dracula, but not so. The events of the prologue don’t match up to any previous movie and this is actually a reboot of the series. In 1972, a man called Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame again) has inveigled himself with a group of young, happening hippies. He convinces them to go to an abandoned church and perform a dark-magic ceremony. Most of the friends are freaked out and flee before the ceremony is complete, but it’s successful and Count Dracula is resurrected. The next day, the friends are worried about one of their group, Laura Bellows (Caroline Munro), who’s gone missing. She was actually Dracula’s first victim, and after her body is found a copper called Murray (Michael Coles) is assigned to the case. The death especially upsets Laura’s friend Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham, sporting a very strange haircut). She’s the granddaughter of academic Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing again), who in turn is the grandson of the 1872 Van Helsing. Lorrimer and Murray soon team up and work out that Johnny Alucard is an acolyte of Dracula (the big clue: read Johnny’s surname backwards). Meanwhile, the Count and Johnny are killing other members of the gang. Dracula really wants Jess, as revenge for what the Van Helsing family have done to him, so uses Alucard (who’s now a vamp himself) to lure her to the church. Lorrimer, though, sets a trap and kills him.

Best performance: It would be needless to point out that Peter Cushing was an actor who knew what he was doing. (It might be less obvious to say that this was only his second Dracula film with Christopher Lee. After both appearing in the 1958 movie, they’d split the subsequent entries in the series until now.) Stephanie Beacham’s also impressive as Jessica. But the star of the show is Christopher Neame. With a sneering face and flamboyant outfits, he preens and glides through the film, like some kind of malevolent Doctor Who.

Best bit: The ceremony to resurrect Dracula… Johnny has drawn a pentangle on the floor of an abandoned church then switches on a tape recording of spooky sound effects and hypnotic, Pink Floyd-style music. While Johnny recites an incantation, calling out to the long-dead Count Dracula, the gang of pals get lost in the moment (all aside from Philip Miller’s Bob, who tries to cop a feel of Caroline Munro). Smoke swirls around Johnny… The camera zooms in on a terrified Jessica… Outside, a grave bulges as its occupant wakes up…. Johnny wants Jessica to play the ‘sacrifice’ of the ritual, but Laura insists on doing it instead. She lies back on the altar, both her eyes and her cleavage pulsing with anticipation, while Johnny cuts his own wrist and pours the blood into a cup. He then tips the thick, coagulated contents of the cup over Laura’s chest. The others are so freaked out that they flee the church. Then, in a swirl of smoke and scored by music that’s aping the crescendo of the Beatles song A Day in the Life, Count Dracula appears. He bites Laura’s neck as Johnny watches on. In a perverse sexual twist, Laura seems to enjoy the experience…

Review: This marvellous movie is a real treat – much more fun and vibrant than a typical Hammer film, it’s directed with panache, paced very well, and has some fine performances. Most noticeably, of course, it’s set in the modern day rather than the vaguely Victorian world of the company’s earlier Draculas. The 1970s-ness seeps out of every pore of the film: the fashions, the locations, the attitudes. The music, for example, could hardly be any more of its time. Mike Vickers’s score is all Blaxploitation wah-wah guitar and horn sections, while a forgotten pop group called Stoneground appear in an early party scene. Also, the main characters are young (maybe teens, maybe twenties), carefree and happy hippies. It’s a representation of early 70s youth culture – or at least a version of it cooked up by middle-aged filmmakers – and that’s not something Hammer was famed for. But whether or not it’s true to life, it works. The film has bags of charm and is enormously enjoyable. The key is that it’s not patronising anyone. The kids don’t come across as dull clichés (which they are, after all). The lead police character is a decent, smart guy who likes playing with executive toys. Van Helsing is far from a reactionary old man (showing concern for his granddaughter, he just looks uncomfortable when she assures him she’s never dropped acid). And most importantly the film assumes the viewer wants scares, style and storytelling – and they get all three. Fantastic stuff.

Eight tickets for the jazz spectacular at the Albert Hall out of 10

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005, George Lucas)

Revenge_of_the_Sith

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The galaxy is in chaos: a separatist droid army is waging war with the republic, and Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker is feeling torn between the two sides…

WHICH VERSION? The 2005 DVD release, which was more or less the same cut as the theatrical version. (Apparently Darth Vader’s infamous “Nooo!” is shorter on home video.)

GOOD GUYS:

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is often at Anakin’s side, especially during the opening action sequence.

* General Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is on Jedi business at the start, saving Chancellor Palpatine from the bad guys. Obi-Wan lets Anakin take the credit for the rescue, but can afford to be magnanimous because he’s now a member of the Jedi Council. Later, when droid leader General Grevious is located, Obi-Wan is sent to kill him – he does so by shooting him after a long lightsaber fight. (“So uncivilised,” he says, nodding towards dialogue from Star Wars.) However, Obi-Wan’s life is threatened when stormtroopers – under orders from Palpatine – start to assassinate all the Jedi. Obi-Wan then learns that Anakin has gone over to the Dark Side. He finds his old friend on the planet Mustafar, where they have an epic duel. After Anakin is defeated, Obi-Wan leaves – but only after collecting his padawan’s lightsaber so he can give it to Luke in 20 years’ time.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) coordinates the Jedis’ efforts in defeating the separatists. When he learns that Palpatine is a member of the evil Sith religion, Windu goes to arrest him but then realises the Chancellor is too deranged and must be killed. However, Anakin comes to his new master’s aid and helps him murder Windu.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is gold and shiny now. He’s seen by Padmé’s side a few times, then has his memory wiped at the end of the film (because in the original movies he doesn’t remember the events of the prequels).

* Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) gets more to do than in Attack of the Clones. He could hardly have less. He’s loyal to the Jedi, and they use his space ship – THE SAME ONE FROM THE OPENING SCENE OF STAR WARS! – as a refuge. At the end of the film, he takes the newborn Leia home to Alderaan.

* Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now secretly married to Anakin. She also tells him she’s pregnant, but they need to keep the news under wraps. If it were public knowledge, he’d be kicked out of the Jedi club, while she’d have to give up her job. She’s already showing, however, so maybe she’s telling friends that she’s developed a love of cake and beer. The character isn’t in the film a huge amount, goes missing for long stretches, and does a lot of wimpering. (Princess Leia must be turning in her mum’s womb.) When she’s told that her beloved Anakin has gone evil, Padmé goes off to find him – he responds by assuming she’s betrayed him and throttling her. She later goes into premature labour and gives birth to two enormous CGI babies. She has just enough time to make sure we all know their names before she dies. (So how come Princess Leia says she can remember her mother in Return of the Jedi, then? EH, GEORGE LUCAS?!)

* Yoda (Frank Oz) tries to offer guidance to a clearly stressed Anakin, but is unhappy when the young Jedi is given a seat on the Jedi council. Because he has an established relationship with the Wookies, Yoda then takes a battalion of troops to their home planet – Kashyyyk, last seen in The Star Wars Holiday Special – to reinforce a rearguard action. When the stormtroopers turn evil, Yoda senses the danger. With the help of ally Chewbacca, he manages to escape. He confronts Palpatine and they fight, but Yoda can’t beat him so has to go into hiding.

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) features briefly in the scenes on Kashyyyk, where the combined Wookie/republic forces are repelling the rebel droids. There were plans to feature a 10-year-old Han Solo in this sequence, but they were dropped. Probably for the best.

* Commander Cody (Temuera Morrison) is a featured stormtrooper. He’s Obi-Wan’s mate until Palpatine sends the coded message – order 66 – that turns all the clones into murderous brutes.

* Tion Medan (Bruce Spence, who was the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2) is an alien whose people are being held hostage by General Grevious.

* Luke and Leia are Padmé and Anakin’s twins, born near the end of the film. In order to protect them from their evil father, the babies are split up and hidden. The girl is given a home by Bail Organa and his wife (we skip over the conversation where he pitches *that* idea to her). The boy, meanwhile, is taken by Obi-Wan Kenobi. His brainwave is to hide the child… on Anakin’s home planet… with Anakin’s stepbrother… on the farm where Anakin’s mum used to live… growing up with Anakin’s surname…

* Captain Antilles (Rohan Nichol) appears briefly. He runs Organa’s ship and was also seen in the first Star Wars film, being throttled to death by Darth Vader. The process of writing this review has been the first time I’ve ever realised that the guy being strangled (“We intercepted no transmission… Argh! This is a consular ship!”) is the Captain Antilles that C-3PO later mentions to Luke Skywalker. It’s taken me over 30 years to spot that.

* Beru (Bonnie Piesse) and Owen (Joel Edgerton) appear when Obi-Wan shows up to give them the baby Luke. They’re not surprised to see him, so presumably he called ahead and asked them to spend the rest of their lives raising the secret child of the galaxy’s most murderous maniacal murdering maniac.

BAD GUYS:

* Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is more or less a good guy at the start of the film. He mounts a daring rescue of Chancellor Palpatine after the republic’s leader is seemingly kidnapped by the separatists. (It’s actually been staged by Palpatine.) During the mission, Anakin is ordered by Palpatine to kill head ‘kidnapper’ Count Dooku. Anakin’s conflicted… but does it anyway, severing Dooku’s head just to make sure. Later, after learning that he’s going to be a father, Anakin is dogged by prophetic nightmares about Padmé dying in childbirth. Meanwhile, Palpatine engineers it so Anakin gets a seat on the Jedi Council; but *they* meanwhile want him to spy on the chancellor. Palpatine drips poison in Anakin’s ears, stokes his anger, and also dangles the power to save Padmé in front of him. Anakin deduces that Palpatine is the Sith Lord they’ve all been searching for, but rather than hand him in he helps the chancellor kill Mace Windu. Anakin feels guilty, bless him, but still becomes Palpatine’s apprentice in exchange for the skill to save Padmé from an early death. So Palpatine gives him a new (Sith) name – Darth Vader, which he seemingly picks out of his arse. Off the deep end now, Anakin murders a load of Jedi (including some kids, though the one with dialogue is a precocious little shit so let’s not be too judgemental). Anankin also goes to the volanco moon of Mustafar and wipes out the separatist conspirators. But when Padmé and Obi-Wan arrive, Anakin thinks they’re against him so begins to throttle Padmé. After a long, epic, mostly green-screen-shot lightsaber duel with Obi-Wan, Anakin loses his limbs (he’s now more Monty Python Black Knight than Jedi Knight) and is burnt by lava. Obi-Wan leaves him to die (harsh), but Palpatine shows up, takes him back to Coruscant and encases him in a full suit of sleek black armour. Now recognisably the Darth Vader from the original movies, the character’s dialogue is voiced by James Earl Jones. (Or is it? He’s not credited and Jones himself was evasive when he was once asked about it.)

* General Grevious (Matthew Wood) is the leader of the separatist droid army. He’s a droid himself, though has organic elements (such as a heart and real eyes). He wheezes and coughs a lot. When Obi-Wan tracks him down, Grevious reveals his USP: he has four arms and can wield a lightsaber in each one. He’s a totally CG character.

* Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been captured when the film begins. But Count Dooku has only pretended to take him – it’s all a ruse, staged by Palpatine himself. As well as playing both sides of the war off against each other, the chancellor is plotting to make Anakin his new apprentive *and* manipulating events so he can have even more power. His to-do list must be massive. When his real agenda is discovered and Mace Windu tries to arrest him, Palpatine shows us he’s shit-hot with a lightsaber. But during the fight with Windu, the chancellor is aged by exposure to an energy beam so he now looks more like he does in the original films. Anakin finally becomes his apprentice (“You’re hired!” “Thank you, Lord Sidious!”) and gets a new name. Together they start to wipe out their opponents. Palpatine then declares a new Galactic Empire to replace the old republic, with himself as Emperor. After relatively minor roles in the previous two films, Palpatine gets a lot of screen time here – and McDiarmid is a terrific panto villain.

* Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is in one scene, just enough time for Anakin to behead him on Palpatine’s orders.

* Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) is on the brains trust of the separatists, but then Anakin kills him.

* Grand Moff Tarkin (Wayne Pygram) makes a mute cameo in a scene of the Emperor (as he is now) and Darth Vader looking at the shell of the under-construction Death Star. Hang on, so that means it takes the Empire 20 years to build the first Death Star, but then they knock up the second one in a few months. Perhaps the original involved a lot of R&D work.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The opening is pretty spectacular. It’s a tremendously detailed 74-second CGI shot, which takes us through an enormous space battle going on above Coruscant.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: R2-D2 gets some entertaining slapstick in the first act.

MUSIC: Another excellent score.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this movie on Thursday 19 May 2005. My pal Simon Guerrier had got us tickets to the first showing of the film’s first day on general release – at the ginormous Odeon Leicester Square. I was so nervous that morning, because we all assumed it was the last time we’d ever see a new Star Wars film. The 1,679-seat auditorium was full. When the caption ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ came up, someone shouted out, “I’ve seen this one!” and we all laughed. It broke the tension brilliantly. I really, really enjoyed seeing the film that day.

REVIEW: The drama is basic and clunky, but at least it’s there. This is a story based on character choices, which means that while not perfect the film is more watchable and engaging than its prequel cousins. There’s a vivid sense of events spiralling out of control; an awful inevitability hangs over everything. Meanwhile, as with every Star Wars film, the design work is really smart. It tells story just as well as dialogue or acting – better, probably. The good guys’ space ships are starting to precursor the Empire models, for example, while Anakin’s costumes are now from Gestapo’R’Us. Also, the series’s obsession with CGI is better handled here than it was in Attack of the Clones. The action feels weighter and a bit more physical, while environments seem less cartoony for the most part. (It helps that the whole film has a darker, moodier colour palette.) The same old problems remain – terrible dialogue, wooden cast members – but this is the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi.

Seven younglings out of 10

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)

Attack_of_the_clones_1

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Various planets are planning to leave the Galactic Republic, putting strain on the Jedi knights and threatening civil war. A republican army is proposed, but someone is trying to kill its main political opponent…

WHICH VERSION? The 2002 DVD release, which made some minor changes to the theatrical release.

GOOD GUYS:

* Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is no longer Naboo’s… Hang on a sec, her first name is actually Padmé? The name she was using when she secretly disguised herself as her own handmaiden in The Phantom Menace? It wasn’t a pseudonym?! That makes even less fucking sense now. Anyway, she’s no longer Naboo’s queen (which is actually an elected position). She’s replaced Palpatine as her planet’s senator in the galaxy-wide parliament and is said to be the leader of the opposition. She’s still using the decoy trick, though, and her unfortunate stooge is killed in the opening scene – it’s just the first of two assassination attempts. After going all the way to Coruscant to vote against the creation of a new army, the threat to her life means she flees home before the division is called. Old pal Anakin Skywalker acts as bodyguard and – despite his dialogue seeming like quotes from Fascist Nutjob Monthly – they fall in love. Disappointingly, Portman is astonishingly terrible in this movie. It’s a dull, listless, placid performance. When Anakin confesses that he’s killed some bandits and their children in a violent rage, she *barely reacts*. At the film’s end, Padmé and Anakin secretly marry: droids C-3PO and R2-D2 are the only guests. In the plus column, the character’s costumes and hairdos often echo Princess Leia’s from the original movies, which is a cute touch.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is still by Padmé’s side, even when she has to go into hiding. On Tatooine, he forms a double act with fellow droid C-3PO and they get some comic-relief action beats in the final third. In this film, R2 has hitherto unseen booster rockets, which means he can fly. Those would’ve been handy in the original series.

* Captain Typho (Jay Laga’aia) is Padmé’s latest head of security. And yes, his name is actually Typho. He can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though, because as soon as Padmé’s life is threatened, the job of guarding her is given to the Jedi.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) is deeply suspicious of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine and his politicking. Near the end, the Jedi turns up on the planet Geonosis – he’s brought the other knights with him to save the day. “This party’s over!” Windu says in an attempt to feature in the film’s trailer. He also unleashes his lightsaber, which is uniquely purple. Is this a hint that his loyalties lie somewhere between Jedi blue and Sith red? No, it’s just that Jackson wanted a cool-looking weapon.

* Master Yoda (Frank Oz) is now a totally computer-generated creation. It’s a remarkable achievement, which clearly took many talented people a lot of time and effort. But doesn’t everyone miss the puppet version? We see him leading the Jedi council and training a group of ‘younglings’ (kid students). For the climax, he goes and fetches the new clone army and leads them into battle against the bad guys: as he says, begun the clone war has. In a moment that is as gleefully wonderful as it is laughably ridiculous, we see Yoda draw his lightsaber and duel with the six-foot-plus Count Dooku.

* Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) is a politician from Alderaan. If you know your Star Wars, you’ll know he’ll later be Princess Leia’s adoptive father. But he’s a spectacularly redundant character in this film.

* Dormé (Rose Byrne… Sorry, my mind wandered there for a moment) is Padmé’s handmaiden.

* Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) has had his contribution reduced, presumably because the character went down so poorly in The Phantom Menace. When Padmé goes into hiding on the eve of a crucial vote, she asks him to take her place in the senate. (She can do this, can she? Just appoint a proxy?) Jar Jar fucks up his responsibility, however, when Palpatine cons him into kickstarting the vote that gives the Chancellor dictatorial power.

* Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) has, in the last 10 years, grown a beard, grown a mullet, and grown some balls. Ewan’s much better in the role this time round – he has fun with Obi-Wan’s wry humour, sarcasm and pensive anger. Kenobi is assigned to protect Padmé, but breaks off that mission to investigate her would-be assassin. He then gets a subplot where he plays private detective, following one small clue to the heart of the conspiracy. It’s maybe the film’s best element in conception, yet sadly consists mostly of McGregor staring into the middle distance and trying to act opposite aliens who’ll be added in post-production. His investigation leads to the rain-lashed planet Kamino, where tall, long-limbed, serene creatures are cloning a 200,000-strong army. The fully grown soldiers all look like Dr Ropata from Shortland Street. That’s because they’re being cloned from bounty hunter Jango Fett. They’re also being kitted out in white armour – THE CLONES REFERRED TO OBLIQUELY IN STAR WARS ARE THE STORMTROOPERS! What a great subversion of expectation that is. Obi-Wan then tracks Jango to a planet called Geonosis, where he overhears the bad guys spelling out their evil plan. He radios for help from apprentice Anakin – and after a lengthy Ray Harryhausen-influenced action sequence, our heroes fight back. Obi-Wan corners evil leader Count Dooku and they duel. Obi-Wan is about to be killed when Anakin saves him.

* Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has been Obi-Wan’s padawan apprentice for 10 years now. He’s in love with Padmé, but is gutted when she patronises him during their first meeting in a decade. He’s also been having nightmares about his mother. (Shouldn’t have abandoned her to slavery, then, should you?!) Anakin’s headstrong and impetuous, which doesn’t reflect well on Obi-Wan’s 10-year training regime; has been getting chummy with the clearly evil Palpatine; and has a nasty right-wing attitude to law and order. When he guards Padmé as she returns to Naboo, he wears her down with his stalkery whining and they fall in love. But he’s still having those mum-related dreams (paging Dr Freud!). On the basis of this, he risks Padmé’s life by taking her to Tatooine. He finds his mum’s new home, a farm run by the Lars family. Anakin’s old droid, C-3PO, is also there. But Shmi has recently been snatched by bandits and is presumed dead. Anakin hunts the bandits down and finds his mother in a bad way; she then dies in his arms. Going ape-shit, he murders the bandits, then risks Padmé’s life even more by going with her to rescue Obi-Wan. Anakin ends up fighting bad guy Dooku, but has his arm chopped off. Ouch. Hayden Christensen gives an atrocious performance in this film. When you see the list of actors auditioned or considered for the role – Paul Walker, Colin Hanks, Jonathan Brandis… *Leonardo DiCaprio* – it’s all the more mystifying what they saw in him.

* Sio Bibble (Oliver Ford Davies) is still doom-mongering on Naboo.

* Queen Jamillia (Ayesha Dharker, who was later in both Doctor Who and Coronation Street) is the new leader of Naboo. They like voting for teenage girls on that planet, it seems. Bit dodge.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) has been finished off by someone since the last film: he now has a metal casing, though it’s not yet the shiny gold we know and love. A thought occurs: given that the droid clearly spends time living with the Lars family, why doesn’t Owen recognise him in Star Wars? After hooking up with R2, 3PO gets dragged along to Geonosis for unexplained reasons.

* Owen Lars (Joel Edgerton), girlfriend Beru Whitesun (Bonnie Piesse) and invalid dad Cliegg (Jack Thompson) are Shmi’s new family. Cliegg bought her from slave-owner Watto, freed her and married her. When they sit Anakin down to tell him that Shmi’s missing, they do so at the same table that Luke has breakfast at in Star Wars.

* Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) has one scene before dying.

BAD GUYS:

* Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is in charge of the senate now. He has his eye on Anakin, who he reckons will one day be the most powerful Jedi around. As well as campaigning for a new republican army, he’s secretly growing a clone force as well. He wants a civil war so he can manipulate events and take absolute power. He’s aged visibly in the 10 years since he got the top job. So did Tony Blair, I suppose.

* Zam Wesell (Leeanna Walsman) is a bounty hunter hired to kill Padmé. When her attempt fails, Obi-Wan and Anakin give chase. Zam is a shape-shifter and we see her face go reptilian before she dies.

* Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) is a bounty hunter who wears the same kind of armour we saw Boba Fett sport during the original movies. That’s because Jango is Boba’s dad – well, his clone source anyway. You see, some aliens have paid Jango for his DNA, which they’re using to create a massive clone army. As well as the fee, he’s asked for one clone who he can keep for himself. Let’s be charitable and assume he’s feeling paternal. Probably the film’s best dramatic scene is between Jango and Obi-Wan when the latter comes to investigate: both characters know more is going on than they can admit, and their chat is frosty and guarded. Jango has a space ship, Slave I, which Boba uses in the original movies. During the final battle, Jango is beheaded by Mace Windu.

* Boba Fett (Daniel Logan) is a young clone – in effect, the son – of Jango. He witnesses his father’s death and we see him retrieve his iconic helmet from the battleground. Hopefully Jango’s severed head has rolled out beforehand.

* Watto (Andy Secombe) returns from The Phantom Menace.

* Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is the leader of the separatist movement, but is basically a puppet for Palpatine’s Sith alter ego, Darth Sidious. He’s been building a droid army, ready for when the republic votes to have one. After fighting with Yoda, he escapes so he can be in the next film.

* Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) also shows up again. He’s still the Trade Federation viceroy, despite numerous attempts to indict him.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Obi-Wan’s fight with Jango in the rain on Kamino. Obi-Wan loses his lightsaber, which means it’s more of a punch-up than is usual in Star Wars.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: It’s slim-pickings, but Ewan McGregor gets some dryly amusing lines. “Why do I get the feeling you’ll be the death of me?” he sighs prophetically when Anakin pisses him off. A moment later, he has a comedic chat with a black-market conman: “You want to go home and rethink your life,” Obi-Wan says, using a Jedi mind trick.

MUSIC: The score is most fun when it’s quoting stuff from earlier movies – such as the ‘Luke stares at the twin suns’ cue from Star Wars, the ‘Darth Maul fight’ theme from Phantom Menace or the ominous notes of the Imperial March.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film at a cinema in Derby on Tuesday 21 May 2002 with my ex-housemate Hilary and her friend Giles. But I’m going to use this category for a rant. Is it just me or do the Americanisms in these prequels seem really incongruous? In film one, Qui-Gon spoke of “an odd play for the Trade Federation”; in this film, we learn that Padmé had to stop being queen because of a presidential-style term limit; and in the next film, Anakin will refer to himself as a “poster boy”. In the originals, talk of senates and regional governors felt more Roman than Washington, but maybe that was my misplaced assumption. Did those films feature Americanisms too, but I was just so young I didn’t spot them?

REVIEW: One step forward, one step back. There *are* improvements from The Phantom Menace. This one gets going more quickly, with intrigue and mystery being set up straightaway. There’s a better plot here with twists and turns, and it’s basically a more engaging story. Also, there’s some lovely thematic rhyming going on. The same kind of events keep happening in this series, but in interestingly different ways. However, visually speaking, it’s all so bloody *artificial*. Watching Attack of the Clones is like watching a computer game play itself out. There are CGI backdrops, CGI sets, CGI creatures, CGI extensions to virtually every shot, at times 100-per-cent GC sequences… It’s exhausting and relentlessly distracting, especially for those of us who grew up on the physical, palpable, visceral special-effects movies of the 1970s and 80s. It’s also horrendously ‘indoors-y’ – only on location in Italy and Tunisia does the film get out of the green-screen studio and blow some real life through the scenes. Another perhaps unavoidable problem is the curse of the prequel. By showing us backstory, the mystery is considerably lessened. When Luke Skywalker casually mentioned the Clone Wars in the first movie, it felt so evocative. By not explaining it, it seemed huge. But now we can see it, and it’s CGI soldiers shooting at CGI robots, it’s rather less exciting. Most disappointingly, though, the drama is still brain-curdlingly dreadful. It makes it almost impossible to care about what’s happening. The writing is especially pungent during the stilted, sparkless romance between Padmé and Anakin. Two wooden actors trot out hackneyed lines and hammer away at any subtext until nothing is left but a desire to switch the film off.

Six death-sticks out of 10

Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher)

TITLE: DRACULA (1958) ¥ PERS: LEE, CHRISTOPHER ¥ YEAR: 1958 ¥ DIR: FISHER, TERENCE ¥ REF: DRA015CJ ¥ CREDIT: [ THE KOBAL COLLECTION / HAMMER ]

An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Jonathan Harker’s first diary entry is for 3 May 1885, the day he arrives at Dracula’s castle, which is near Klausenburg (modern-day Cluj-Napoca in Romania). After 30 minutes or so, we cut to German city Karlstadt.

Faithful to the novel? Roughly, though the chess pieces have been moved around the board somewhat. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is no longer a solicitor, but visits Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) to be his new librarian. In fact, Harker knows that Dracula is an evil vampire before he even arrives. Also in the castle is a vampire Bride (Valerie Gaunt), who claims to be the count’s prisoner. A few days later, Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) shows up looking for Jonathan; unlike in the book, they’re old friends. He searches the now empty castle and finds a vampiric Harker in a coffin… Van Helsing then returns to the city, where he tells his friend Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) about Jonathan’s death. Arthur’s sister, Lucy (Carol Marsh), is Jonathan’s fiancée. Unbeknownst to the men, however, Dracula is already seducing Lucy. As she falls ill, Dr Seward shows up: a major character in the novel, here he’s reduced to just a GP. Van Helsing and Holmwood have to kill Lucy when she turns. They then hunt down Dracula’s coffin. Meanwhile, Arthur’s wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling), is also being targeted by the count. Van Helsing chases Dracula to his castle and they fight – the vampire is burnt to death by sunlight when Van Helsing pulls down a curtain.

Best performance: Peter Cushing as Dr Van Helsing (not a professor, and sometimes called just Helsing). Like all his other roles, he plays it so sincerely that you forget what ropy old nonsense this is and believe in the terror.

Best bit: The nighttime graveyard encounter with Vamp Lucy. It’s pure psychological horror. (Carol Marsh as Lucy is hamming it up something rotten, though.)

Review: Of course, this film was Christopher Lee’s debut as Count Dracula – a role he returned to numerous times (for both Hammer and other film companies) until the mid 1970s. He’s actually not in it that much, but is a very strong presence. The script is pacier of plot than the book is – it’s a decent adaptation that makes plenty of economic changes but keeps the essence of the story intact. (The use of diaries and phonographs also nicely tie in with Stoker’s book.) Though why the bulk of the action is moved from Victorian London to a vague central European city is a mystery.

Eight crucifixes out of 10