Hammer Studios went into decline as they skated into the 1970s. Their returns would rapidly diminish; they would begin replacing their brand of well-made camp horror with ever greater exposure of skin, blood and pointless violence. But there were a few remnants of the old Hammer as the studio went into the 70s, and none is weirder, or more enjoyable than Dracula A.D. 1972.
The year is 1972 (in case you missed it) and Count Dracula has been dead for 100 years. But his acolytes live on, and it’s time for the King of Vampires to return to wreak havoc on the groovy chicks of swinging London. Dracula is resurrected by a bunch of bored hippies, led by the nasty Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). While the others take the whole satanist ritual as a big joke, Johnny is dead serious. Dracula returns from the dead, looking pretty damn good for being dust and ash for the past 100 years. He wants blood, and he wants it now; cue Johnny running around procuring sexy girls to satisfy Dracula’s bloodlust. But Dracula is particularly interested in chowing down on Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), one of Johnny’s friends and the youngest descendant of Laurence Van Helsing, who staked the undead Count. Meanwhile, Jessica’s grandfather Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and a police inspector (Michael Coles) investigate the mysterious deaths of the young maidens that Dracula has been draining.
Dracula A.D. 1972 is the height of Hammer camp, with a groovy go-go soundtrack, crazy clothes and drug-addled hippies (what with their loose morals and blood-sacrificing ways). There are some uncomfortable parallels between Dracula’s murders and the Manson family killings that only took place a few years before; the film trades on the mainstream fear of the new generation, with the group of friends always looking for a new thrill. There’s an added fluid sexuality – Dracula’s acolytes are all men instead of brides – and, as always, the heaving bosoms and red-paint blood we all expect from Hammer.
But when you come down to it, no Dracula film works without Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee thankfully does not have to wander around swinging London or board a bus in his cape; he instead sticks to the de-sanctified churchyard while Johnny does his dirty work. Cushing and Lee are excellent adversaries, even when they barely spend a moment on-screen together: Cushing’s slight physicality, his solid Englishness, the quiet intensity with which he tries to protect those he loves, juxtaposed against Lee, tall, elegant, with booming voice and nearly black eyes. They make a great team, and Dracula A.D. 1972 brings them together once more.
Dracula A.D. 1972 might be the last great Hammer film. While it shows signs of wear and tear – and foreshadows the studio’s decline – it still has enough campy fun to go around, punctuated by some serious moments of true horror.
Without really intending to, I seem to be going through a schlocky old-school horror movie phase. I blame society.
The Curse of Frankenstein was Peter Cushing’s first Hammer film, but he goes into it with all guns blazing. He’s Baron Victor Frankenstein, the man with the penchant for charnel houses and the creator of one nasty Creature (Christopher Lee). He’s also perhaps the least sympathetic of Cushing’s roles, a man at once a coward and a villain, coldly sacrificing everyone he’s close to in pursuit of his monomania.
The plot is the familiar one, with a few Hammerian touches to give it extra oomph: Victor’s assistant is Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), not Igor; the good doctor is not particularly in love with Elizabeth (Hazel Court), but is having it off with his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt). The Creature only shows up part way through the film, and then promptly dies. There’s plenty of decapitation, heaving bosoms, and bright red blood that we come to expect from a Hammer outing. Victor’s cruelty is also on display: he viciously murders an old doctor for his brain, he imprisons Justine with the Creature when she reveals that she’s pregnant, and threatens to sacrifice Elizabeth if Urquhart doesn’t help him finish his work. Gone is the tragic doctor of Mary Shelley; this is Franky as the mad scientist.
And who can object to that? Cushing gives his character a cold, calculating gaze, his clipped accent perfect for a man obviously missing a mirror gene or two. Unlike some of the other actors – Hazel Court, for instance – Cushing rolls over the more ridiculous dialogue without letting it throw him off. Despite his cruelty, it’s something of a disappointment when he doesn’t get away with murder in the end.
The Hammer films seemed to get better as the 50s moved along, and finally really hit their stride in the early 60s, and this one still shows signs of being uncertain of itself. There’s an awful lot of build-up to the introduction of the Creature, and when it arrives I was sort of disappointed. No rampaging around the village, no angry mobs, no torchlit processions. The Creature sort of wanders around the woods, kills a blind man and then gets shot in the head. Even his final rampage is perfunctory. It’s a shame, because behind all that decaying make-up is Christopher Lee and it would have been nice to give him a bit more to do.
At the end of the day, while Curse of Frankenstein is not my favorite Hammer film, or even my favorite Frankenstein film, it’s still good fun. This was a film that basically resurrected classic horror, and brought Peter Cushing into the Hammer fold. There’s no way to argue with that one.
I cannot put into words how much I love 1) Hammer Studios and 2) Peter Cushing. So there is absolutely no reason for me not to love this movie.
Frankenstein Created Woman is a later entry in Cushing’s extended tenure at Hammer; a 1967 film coming after The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Evil of Frankenstein, making it the fourth (but not the last) time he played the mad doctor. And while I admit to preferring Cushing’s work as Van Helsing in the Dracula films, the Frankenstein movies have their own deliciously lurid cache, not least because the kindly blue-eyed gent transforms into one cold, evil sonofabitch.
Frankenstein Created Woman takes up about half its running time with the build-up: Hans (Robert Morris), the son of a convicted murderer who watched his father go to the guillotine, has grown up very good-looking but very angry. He’s Baron Frankenstein’s assistant and in love with the innkeeper’s daughter Christina (Susan Denberg), a lame young lady disfigured by a large mark on one side of her face. The opening scenes depicting Hans’s nasty temper, Christina’s gentleness, and the cruelty of three dandies, are all well and good, but I admit to waiting for the blood and sewing together of dead bodies.
I should not have worried. Despite being slow-burning at the beginning, the second half of this one erupts when Hans is wrongfully executed for the murder of Christina’s father – the dandies did it – and Christina kills herself. Enter the Baron, who has been wandering in the background talking about capturing the immortal soul of man and putting it into another body, a latter day expositionist. With the help of his faithful doctor friend Hertz (Thorley Walters), Frankenstein rebuilds Christina’s body, captures Hans’s soul and presto! We’ve got a dual-personality, bi-gendered and buxom monster!
Frankenstein Created Woman is not quite so lurid as even Horror of Dracula or the original (and best) Curse of Frankenstein. But it is a satisfying revenge story with the typical combination of very good actors speaking very bad lines that one comes to expect from a Hammer product. The rest of the film proceeds much as you’d think. While there are not buckets of blood, there are several shocking and grotesque moments as the new Christina sets about taking revenge for Hans’s death. The theology and philosophy espoused by the Baron especially and the film in general gets to be quite weird, as the soul of Hans apparently possesses some residual memory that turns Christina into a split personality. The Baron even begins paraphrasing the Bible, as we should have expected he would. Much is left unexplained, but if you came for cohesive philosophical constructs, you should really have read the plot synopsis first.
My one real quibble with the film is how long it takes to get going, and how little Cushing is utilized. Of the handful of British thespians who graced Hammer films – Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Herbert Lom, Oliver Reed – Cushing stands at the top. It seems criminal to give him so little to do in a film that proclaims our Franky as the creator of life.
That aside, Frankenstein Created Woman is good fun. I’m sometimes bothered by how much I enjoy Hammer films. Probably shouldn’t think too deeply about that one.
Confession time: I totally love Roman Polanski. I don’t mean that I love the man — I don’t know him and there are certain issues that I’m not exactly sympathetic towards. What I mean is that I love the director, the public artist. As far as I’m concerned, there are three great living directors: Polanski, Scorsese and Herzog. Everyone else is secondary. I also happen to greatly enjoy Polanski’s screen persona in the few films he actually appeared in, like Innocent Sorcerers, Chinatown, The Tenant and the subject of this article, The Fearless Vampire Killers. I often wish that he’d actually gone ahead and cast himself as the lead in Knife in the Water, just to have the pleasure of watching him act.
Right, so that’s out of the way. Now, onto what is perhaps my favorite Polanski film (although not, in my estimation, his ‘best’ work): The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth are in My Neck. As the title suggests, this is one of the few unabashed comedies that Polanski has made. All of his films have some element of absurd or grotesque humor — even the incredibly disturbing and nihilistic Macbeth. But Vampire Killers is pretty much a horror-comedy.
The plot comes right out of a Hammer film: Professor Ambronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski) arrive in a small Eastern European village in search of vampires. They find, naturally enough, buxom barmaids, wiley innkeepers, and well-dressed gents with long sharp teeth. The film floats along with a series of comic mishaps. Professor Ambronsius is the most useless vampire killer imaginable; he’s far more interested in proving the existence of vampires than he is in actually killing them. MacGowran gives Ambronsius a wild look, the very picture of an out-to-lunch academic and a far cry from Peter Cushing’s elegant and rational Van Helsing of Hammer Studios. Alfred, while far more gallant, is quite obviously a coward. The one opportunity he has to defeat the vampires he blows because he’s incapable of actually driving a stake through anyone’s chest.
The film in many ways is a send-up; the spurting, garish blood and heaving bosoms recall the films of Hammer Studios, as does the extreme costuming of Ferdy Mayne in the role of the Count, complete with rolling eyeballs and massive plastic teeth. All of the requisites of vampire movies are here: the elegant gentleman vamp, the promiscuous barmaid, the naive and lovely innkeeper’s daughter. As Shagal (Alfie Bass) states when Abronsius asks him about a castle in the neighborhood:
“A castle? No, no castle. There’s no more a castle here than there is a windmill. Are there any windmills in the neighborhood? … You see? No windmills, no castles.”
But Polanski, never one to be outdone in his social critique, also teases out the ancient notion of Jews as vampires. The innkeeper Shagal is transformed after the abduction of his daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate, more on her in a minute) by the Count. And he’s a ridiculous caricature; a vampire who, because he’s a Jew, is not permitted to sleep in the same crypt as the Count and his son; who is not repelled by a crucifix because, as he says, ‘Oy, have you got the wrong vampire!’ The whole subplot involving Shagal is a beautiful send-up of European notions of vampirism: Jews having been accused, in medieval times, of drinking the blood of infants; the use of Jewish caricature in films like Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula. That the victims of the vampires are primarily Jews and the vampires are all characterized as decaying Old World Teutons makes plain the project underlying this otherwise innocent, comic film: Polanski sends up, with characteristic viciousness, the very basis of the vampire genre.
What is adorable about The Fearless Vampire Killers is how marvelously innocent it is. And, oddly enough, that innocence comes straight from Roman Polanski himself. As Alfred, he’s a small, boyish figure, dressed in short pants and a cap that accentuates his youth. While Tate doesn’t have a great deal to do, her few scenes, imbued with a playful innocence, give the film an extra dimension. The scenes between Alfred and Sarah have a sexual charge, but there is a sweetness to their relationship, making it the kindest, gentlest romantic relationship in any Polanski film. It’s difficult to watch Vampire Killers without recalling that this the film that the couple met and began dating on. Anyone aware of Tate’s life and death cannot help but feel a level of sadness watching her on screen, and the two of them together.
The Alfred/Sarah relationship drives the second half of the film, where Sarah is
abducted by the Count. Alfred and Ambronsius go to great lengths to save her. Arriving at the castle, they become acquainted with Count von Krolock and his son Herbert (Iain Quarrier). In a sharp twist on the usual, Hammer-style vampire/damsel relationship, but quite in keeping with the shifting sexuality of vampires, Herbert is overtly gay … and thinks Alfred is pretty cute. The scene between them recalls films like The Brides of Dracula (Quarrier is a dead ringer for David Peel in that film), only Polanski (not for the last time in his own features) is placed in the position of the damsel in distress. It’s a weird, uncomfortable, funny scene.
I’ve called this my favorite Polanski film and it is. But it is far from his best. It drags quite a bit in the middle, dwelling on the meanderings of Alfred and Ambronsius through the castle as they search for Sarah. Certainly the most fun are the beginning scenes in the inn, the final scenes during the dance of the vampires (the original title of the film), and the haphazard, slapstick escape. Alfie Bass should get some serious credit for the characterization of Shagal, a role that could easily have become offensive. Polanski also removes much of the attractive sexuality of the vampires that is so typical in vampire movies. They are represented as decaying, decadent creatures, literally falling apart. They are, after all, the undead, and it certainly shows.
In some ways (and this is odd), The Fearless Vampire Killers is Polanski’s most hopeful, most playful film. While not shying away from some very trenchant commentary, it mostly delights in its own comedy. The tenderness of the love story, even with the tinge of sadness attached to it, from a director not exactly known for warm and fuzzy films, is something of a revelation. Which is not to say that this is not a Polanski film. It is. When watching it, there’s no possible way to forget that.