Hammer Films' output of Dracula movies had previously been the sole property of their most celebrated director, Terence Fisher. By the late 60s, Hammer continued the series in rapid mode, but started to introduce "new blood" into the director's chair with DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. Both feature scripts by Hammer regular Anthony Hinds (aka John Elder), roaring scores be Hammer's in-house composer James Bernard, the usual high level of production values and acting talent, and of course, the eminent Christopher Lee donning the red-lined cloak and pointy fangs, not for the final times in his enduing film career. Now, these two long-awaited Hammer Dracula titles have been released on DVD thanks to Warner Home Video.
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was directed by Freddie Francis, a renowned cinematographer who was employed to helm a great number of genre films including many for Hammer. When the damage of vampirism still plagues a small village, a brave Monsignor (Rupert Davies) and an easily manipulated priest (Ewan Hooper) travel to Castle Dracula to exorcise it. Planting a huge gold cross on Dracula's door only makes matter worse when he (Christopher Lee) is revived from his icy coma, and enacts revenge on the Monsignor. The priest is made his lackey, and after putting the bite on a busty tease of a barmaid (Barbara Ewing), he sets his sights on the Monsignor's niece Maria (Veronica Carlson), who is in love with atheist baker Paul (Barry Andrews). Paul must look for his true inner faith in order to protect and save his beloved Maria from the most evil man alive (or undead if you will).
Freddie Francis injects much excitement, fascinating camera work, and some highly memorable scenes in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, and despite his limited screen time and limited dialog, Lee is an imposing figure who steals every scene he is in. Hinds' script has its weak points, even toying around with vampire lore in a would-be death scene, but this is prime Hammer gothic horror, and became one of their biggest money makers. Rupert Davies' Monsignor is a more than acceptable substitute for Peter Cushing's Van Helsing and as the heroine, Veronica Carlson proves to be one of the most talented and beautiful actresses that the company ever hired. She would prove this even more so in the following year's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED.
Although some collector's might still have the widescreen laserdisc, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE fairs far better on DVD, letterboxed in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The print source is in excellent shape, with only hints of grain on occasion. Blacks are pretty intense, and fleshtones are very good for the most part. Colors are strong, and Francis' use of special colored camera lenses really stand out in this presentation. The mono sound is also surprisingly strong for a film of its age, and there's an additional French track, as well at optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The only extra is the original theatrical trailer, but it least it now looks better than what we've seen of it in numerous horror trailer compilations.
TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA was the direct sequel, and it was directed by young Hungarian Peter Sasdy, a former TV director who would go on to do COUNTESS DRACULA and HANDS OF THE RIPPER for Hammer before the company's demise. For the first time in the series, the central action takes place in Victorian England which helps give the film a striking look to it. Using footage from DRACULA HAS RISEN, a goods dealer (Roy Kinnear) witnesses Dracula's deterioration into dust, retrieving his dried blood. Back in England, three thrill-seeking middle-aged gents (Geoffrey Keen, John Carson, Peter Sallis) run into the sinister Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates in his Hammer debut) during an evening of debauchery. Courtley convinces the trio to purchase the remains of Dracula in order to perform a satanic ceremony, but all goes wrong and they end up beating the rogue to death. Since Courtley drank his blood before dying, he is revitalized as Dracula (Christopher Lee), swearing revenge on the ones who killed his servant. Due to the "sins of the fathers," Dracula hypnotically brainwashes the children (Linda Hayden, Isla Blair, Martin Jarvis) to strike their dads.
TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA had a lot of production controversy, as it was almost shot without Lee and with Bates in the lead role--this changed after demands by Warner/Seven Arts. Ultimately, Dracula has less to do, and almost seems written in as an afterthought, but the film still works for many other reasons. The Victorian setting, which includes a richly gothic desecrated church, makes this one of the best-looking Hammer films, and Hind's revenge-based script is enacted by probably the best cast that they have ever assembled. Lee is commanding and looks better as Dracula than ever, teenage Hayden is marvelous as the sweet girl turned dominated no-gooder, and Anthony Corlan (who later changed his last name to Higgins) is a strong, likable hero and further proved his acting ranged with a dissimilar turn as the heavy in Hammer's VAMPIRE CIRCUS. James Bernard's score is powerful and romantic, and Sasdy's direction handles the vampiric myths and religious and revenge aspects with impressive flair.
Most impressive about Warner's DVD of TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA is that it restores over four minutes of footage that was removed from the U.S. theatrical version and previous VHS release (originally rated "GP," it now carries an "R"). Scenes that are now back are: shots of Dracula's oozing blood turning to powder at the beginning; extended footage during the brothel scenes, including a snake charmer's exotic dance and topless nudity, the violent, deadly beating of Lord Courtley, and; Dracula's violent, snarling attack on a female victim, which is probably the best bite scene in the entire Lee/Dracula catalog. Also, all the major death scenes have extended footage, including bloody facial close-ups, and more glimpses of Dracula himself!
Aside from thegreat restoration done to TASTE, the transfer looks superb. Letterboxed in its original 1.85: aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the level of detail is incredible compared to the old VHS versions; colors are bold and striking, and the source print (most likely the original, uncut negative from the faults) is as pristine as can be. The mono audio track amplifies the music and dialog brilliantly, and there are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The only extra is the original theatrical trailer.
Warner gets an A+ for these transfers, especially TASTE which is one of the most significant horror film restorations this year. It's too bad the studio didn't opt to include commentaries or other extras (which very easily could have been arranged), but at least Hammer fans can relish the perfect transfers on these two much-cherished vampire classics. (George R. Reis)
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