The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974, Roy Ward Baker)

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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 prologue in Transylvania in 1804. The main bulk of the movie is set in China 100 years later, firstly in Chongqing (or Chung King as the caption spells it) then in the countryside.

Faithful to the novel? Not in the slightest. This was Hammer Films’ ninth Dracula movie in 16 years. It ignores the modern-day reboot of the previous two entries in the series, and heads back to a turn-of-the-19th-century setting. After the prologue, in which a Taoist monk (Chan Shen) awakens a docile Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson, taking over from Christopher Lee, who’d finally jacked it in) to ask for his help, all the action takes place in China. This was because this film was a co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers Studio of Hong Kong. Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) – seemingly the same version of the character seen in Dracula and Brides of Dracula – is lecturing at a university in China. He talks about his encounters with the famous vampire Count Dracula then recounts rumours of seven vampires who have been terrorising rural China. Most of his students are cynical, but a man called Hsi Ching (David Chiang) believes him and tells him he knows where the vamps are. Eventually, a team is assembled: Van Helsing and his son, Leyland (Robin Stewart); a rich Scandinavian woman called Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), who agrees to fund the expedition because she needs to leave town quickly; and Hsi Chiang and his kung-fu-proficient siblings. They head to the village, intent on destroying the vampires. Various fight scenes ensue, then at the climax Van Helsing realises that the vamps’ leader is Dracula is disguise.

Best performance: As always, Peter Cushing plays his part with total commitment. You never get the sense that he’s phoning it in or just doing a film for the fee, do you?

Best bit: More than a Dracula movie, this is a Hong Kong-produced martial-arts flick. There are crash-zooms and whip pans and loud fake sound effects for every punch or slap. Great stuff.

Review: You have to admire Hammer for trying different things. After setting two Dracula movies in the modern day, they then tried to breathe new life into this series by moving the action to China and blending their house style with the kung-fu phenomenon. The result is by no means a masterpiece, but it passes the time well enough and is a fun little vampire film. Written by Don Houghton – a true Sinophile – the plot is simple beyond belief. But the mythological context (and non-European landscape) gives the story a interesting setting, while shots of zombies rising from the grave are as striking as any image in a Hammer Dracula. The film is also lit with bold, expressionist colours. Only some gnarly special effects and poor monster make-up really disappoint.

Seven bat medallions out of 10

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

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

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

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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: Transylvania as the ‘ninteenth century draws to a close’.

Faithful to the novel? No, it’s a sequel to 1958’s Dracula. The Count is dead, but his disciples lived on. When a French girl called Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) gets stranded in one of Hammer’s stock rural pubs, noblewoman Baroness Meinster (Maritita Hunt) finds her and takes her home – where she’s keeping her son locked up for his own good. When Marianne helps him escape, things don’t go well… Thankfully, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) soon arrives to help out.

Best performance: Peter Cushing knew what he was doing.

Best bit: Well, it’s certainly not the stuff at the girls’ finishing school. Definitely not.

Review: A low-urgency Hammer film, with little vamp action. Peter Cushing does a lot of dull sneaking around.

Four lands of dark forests, dread mountains and black unfathomable lakes 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

Scars of Dracula (1970, Roy Ward Baker)

scars-of-dracula

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Another vaguely turn-of-the-20th-century time period, again in Transylvania. It’s about a year since the events of 1970’s Taste The Blood of Dracula.

Faithful to the novel? This is number six in Hammer’s series of Dracula movies, so we’re quite far removed from the source material now. The count (Christopher Lee) is resurrected by the dripping blood of a bat, but some locals burn down his castle, so he takes revenge by killing their loved ones. We then cut to Simon (a poor Dennis Waterman) and Sarah (a sexy Jenny Hanley), who are having their wedding reception at the Café Mozart. Perhaps it’s the same one from Carry On Spying. The film actually has a Carry On feel next, as we then meet Simon’s brother, Paul (Christopher Matthews), in a sequence that involves bed-hopping, comedy nudity and a father finding his daughter in bed with a man. When Paul is chased out of the town, he ends up at the fire-damaged Castle Dracula and becomes the count’s prisoner (not unlike Jonathan Harker in the book). Simon and Sarah’s search for him takes them to the castle too.

Best performance: Patrick Troughton, less than a year after quitting Doctor Who, is all ruffled hair, stubble and shabby clothes as Dracula’s dogsbody, Klove. The character was played by a different actor in previous film Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

Best bit: A dryly comedic scene with two slovenly policemen who question a barkeeper and his daughter.

Review: On the whole, the cast aren’t very good, but nevertheless this film has a bit more energy to it than most Hammer stories. The leads feel more like everyday people with reasonably modern sensibilities: for example, sex is no longer deep subtext; characters want it. It’s enjoyable-enough hokum with a disturbing way of killing off Dracula: he burns alive (or undead, I suppose).

Six steins of beer out of 10

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966, Terence Fisher)

Dracula-Prince-of-Darkness1

Setting: Kalsbad in what is now Germany, 10 years after the events of the 1958 Hammer movie Dracula.

Faithful to the novel? In effect, it’s a sequel to the events of the book. Four travellers from England are warned to avoid a certain castle, but arrogantly ignore the advice. Dracula himself – once resurrected – has no dialogue. Actor Christopher Lee claimed it was because the character’s scripted lines were so dreadful he refused to say them, but writer Jimmy Sangster said he deliberately didn’t give the Count any dialogue. Late on in the story, there’s a Renfield-like character called Ludwig, who eats flies and is under Dracula’s thrall.

Best performance: Francis Matthews is okay as Charles Kent, the heroic lead. He’s forthright and earnest, but fun too.

Best bit: The impressive special effects as Dracula is resurrected through a series of smart dissolves. We see him go from nothing to full-bodied in seemingly one shot.

Review: After clips from the first film in the series act as a kind of ‘Previously on…’, we get a story high on atmosphere but low on drama. Howling wind is liberally dubbed onto scenes and the tension is eked out as much as possible – but there’s precious little plot.

Six coach and horses out of 10