(1970) Directed by Peter Sasdy; Written by: Anthony Hinds; Based on the character created by Bram Stoker; Starring: Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Gwen Watford, Peter Sallis, Roy Kinnear and Ralph Bates; Available on DVD.
Rating: *** ½
“The tasteful title is Taste the Blood of Dracula. As usual, words fail me, as indeed they also will do in the film.” – Christopher Lee (from The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes)
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Taste the Blood of Dracula was Hammer’s fifth Dracula film and Christopher Lee’s fourth outing as the title character. At this point, Lee was tiring of the role that had earned him so much notoriety, and initially declined the offer to star in the follow-up to Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Public demand (and more than a little cajoling from Hammer brass) persuaded Lee to reluctantly sign on once more as the eponymous vampire. While his enthusiasm for the material waned, and his cynicism grew, he soldiered on with yet another memorable performance, proving any appearance by Lee as the bloodsucking count is cause for celebration.
Despite the star’s pessimism, the latest Dracula film had much to offer from a content and thematic perspective. Taste the Blood of Dracula represented a new sort of Hammer film that pushed the boundaries for depictions of overt sexuality and spillage of blood. Although the film wasn’t quite the groundbreaking paradigm shift that The Vampire Lovers (released four months later) signified, Hammer Films had clearly moved into the modern era.
One significant difference distinguishing this film from its predecessors is the implied conceit that Dracula isn’t the most unsavory character this time around. That dubious honor goes to a group of upper-crust men, led by William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen). Hargood present a pious façade, as an upstanding patriarch and citizen, which belies his baser self. He’s joined in his hedonistic pursuits by associates Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis*) and Jonathon Secker (John Carson). The brothel they frequent is accessed through a secret entrance inside a soup kitchen, a fitting metaphor for their duplicitous lives. Hargood and his friends are bored by the sameness of their illicit adventures, however, and thirst for something on the wilder side. Enter young Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates**), who presents the men with a unique proposition, which involves reviving Dracula from a vial of dried blood. How this will benefit Hargood and his cohorts is never made clear. The scene that follows features what might be one of the most contrived exits and entrances, as Bates transforms into Lee.
* Film fans might be more familiar with Sallis in his inimitable voice role as the absent-minded Wallace of Wallace and Gromit.
** Bates was originally slated to play Dracula after Lee bowed out of the role. After Lee had a change of heart, the filmmakers hastily concocted a means of eliminating Bates from the film.
Lee commands respect with his imposing presence and laconic, nearly silent performance. In this case, less is more. After Dracula’s demise at the beginning of the movie, which picks up where Dracula Has Risen from the Grave left off, he doesn’t re-appear until the halfway point. His first order of business is vowing revenge against Hargood’s circle of friends for killing his servant Lord Courtley. He finds a new servant from an unlikely source, Hargood’s daughter Alice (Linda Hayden) – Why he doesn’t bite her, to join his undead minions (as he does to her friend Lucy), is anyone’s guess.
In the context of this film, Dracula serves as a criticism of Victorian society, with a nod to the changing mores of late 60s culture. Dracula represents a liberating force in the straightjacketed lives of the oppressed. He reveals the inherent hypocrisy of the “boys club” mentality, in which men have license to do as they please, while their wives are expected to be subservient and their daughters chaste (feel free to draw your own parallels to the current political climate).
My only major gripe about Taste the Blood of Dracula is that it lacks a worthy adversary for the title character, such as Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. In his place we have a feeble substitute, Alice’s love-struck boyfriend (Anthony Higgins). Nevertheless, it remains a solid, enjoyable entry in the series, and stands out as one of the best sequels to Horror of Dracula. Taste the Blood of Dracula wisely eschews the cartoonish moralism that plagued many of the productions that preceded it, in favor of a more complex dilemma, rife with gray areas. It remains an essential entry in the unending list of Dracula films, and an important addition to the Hammer library.
This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Go to www.classicfilmtvcafe.com to view the complete blogathon schedule.