12 October 2008

FAITH AND SCIENCE AND SEX AND VIOLENCE

Though it's a perfectly fine vampire film, I'd have to admit if pressed that 1968's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is the moment when the first subtle hints of badness struck Hammer's Dracula franchise, hints that would blossom into full-on wretchedness in just a few years' time. None of the three prior films were flawless masterpieces, 'tis true, but something seems wrong on a more conceptual level in Risen from the Grave: like the filmmakers weren't absolutely certain what story they were trying to tell before starting.

To begin before the beginning, the notion of a fourth Dracula film was essentially a foregone conclusion as soon as Dracula: Prince of Darkness proved to be a hit, on the shoulders of Christopher Lee's celebrated return to the role that made him a star. There was just one catch: virtually the instant that Prince of Darkness hit theaters, Lee got busy badmouthing the film, which was just so horribly gory and deviated so badly from Bram Stoker's original treatment of the vampiric count, that nothing between Heaven and Hell could bring him back to the role for a third time. It's something of a parlor game for Hammer enthusiasts to wonder if Lee actually meant what he said, or if it was his way of increasing his salary, or if it was a bit of publicity the studio drummed up; at any rate, Lee was very much present two years later, and this charming cycle - Lee: "I will under no circumstances appear in such banal trash ever again"; Hammer: "Coming Soon, Christopher Lee in Dracula's Go-Go Beach Party" - would repeat itself for every film in the franchise until it was put to bed several years down the road. My own sense is that Lee did in fact hate playing Dracula just as much as he claimed, or why would he still be on about it some 50 years later? Though I love the man as an actor, I can't help but feel that he's a tiny bit of a whiny ass titty-baby. At any rate, nobody who found time to shoehorn a Dracula picture in between making two Fu Manchu movies for the spectacularly bad Spanish director Jesus Franco has much room to complain about anything.

Still before the beginning, Risen from the Grave was initially supposed to be handled by the superstars responsible for the first three films, director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster; unfortunately, before film started, Fisher was injured in a car accident, and handed over the reigns to Freddie Francis, who despite his many directorial credits was primarily a cinematographer (and an Oscar-winner, at that; once in 1960, and later in 1989). Meanwhile, Sangster was replaced - God knows why - by Hammer executive Anthony Hinds, under his pseudonym "John Elder" (he'd also written the story for Prince of Darkness). And while Francis and Hinds were hardly the same thing as Fisher and Sangster, they proved to be eminently capable replacements, for the most part.

And now, the beginning: a really nifty little stinger that probably counts as my favorite part of the movie. In some little Romanian town - theoretically Karlsbad, unless they're back to calling it Klausenberg, but I really didn't notice any place-names - a boy (Norman Bacon) heads into a church to perform his duty as a bell-ringer. Something is clearly wrong, for as he grasps the rope, blood starts trickling from above his head. We don't see what causes his screams, but he's loud enough for the priest (Ewan Hooper) to rush up to the belfry, where he finds an exsanguinated young lady hanging upside down in the bell. I would mention at this point, that the Hammer films were marketed primarily for their (then cutting-edge) gore, and the ample bosoms of the women involved; I bring it up now only because the particular angle at which the poor young lady is shot, coupled with the position that her body is hanging, provides us with an unusually prurient (and crass) view of her cleavage.

From there, the scene cuts to the belfry window, rain pouring down in the night. This dissolves to snow falling, then to bright sunshine, and so the film subtly indicates that a year has passed since that dreadful discovery (if we couldn't pick up on that, a character will very obligingly state it in about two minutes. The second time in two films that a neat bit of quiet storytelling is brought home in needless dialogue!

It brings up a tiny question, though: what is the continuity supposed to be here? Prince of Darkness plainly took place ten years after Dracula, and the only way to square Risen from the Grave with Prince of Darkness is if we allow that Dracula killed this unfortunate girl sometime during his brief time alive in the third movie. But it's awfully hard to square that with what we see onscreen in that film, which seems to indicated that the count is reborn and killed in the space of about 36 hours, most of which are spent hunting Diana Kent. And here's a bonus bit of discontinuity: Dracula takes place in 1885, if I'm not dreadfully mistaken, and a later scene in the present movie makes it entirely clear that the young woman died in 1905; which is of course twenty, not ten years later. As discontinuities go, that's no Friday the 13th, but it does suggest that maybe somebody - or numerous somebodies - didn't really care as much as they quite should have.

Back to the movie: Prince of Darkness ended with a particularly inventive but also weak undeath for the count: trapped under a frozen river, done in by the purifying powers of flowing water. Leaving an impeccably preserved corpse, ripe for re-animating. And here's how it happens: one fine day in *cough* 1906, Monsignor Ernst (Rupert Davies) arrives in that same small town, for unclear reasons although it appears that he gets much of his joy in life from drifting from town to town, yelling at the local priests for not doing their job. That's exactly what he tells our priest, who has been giving abbreviated Masses to an empty church for months now, despite the building's re-sanctification after the terrible murder. It's the shadow of Castle Dracula, comes the reply, and the Monsignor will have none of this. He drags the hapless priest up the side of the mountain, leaving him just out of sight of the castle's main door, where he starts to perform an exorcism just as a storm kicks up (it's hard not to assume that the storm is a direct response to the ritual; a Satanic burglar alarm, perhaps). The wind starts whipping so badly that the priest, armed with a flask to steady his nerves, tumbles down the rocks, cutting open his head and smashing through some ice. And gosh darn it, but who do you think is right below the priest's dripping head wound?

Now it's Dracula's turn to drag the poor priest to the castle, where he finds a giant golden crucifix wedged in the handle. This pisses the vampire off fiercely, and he forces the priest to tell him everything about the Monsignor, so that he might wreak his bloody revenge.

Here is the first of my conceptual problems with the film: Dracula, risen from the grave, decides to go after the holy man who put a cross on his front door, for what appears to be the very pettiest of motivations (one could assume that killing the Monsignor will break the exorcism, but this isn't really so much as hinted at in the film). And he takes his damn time about it, too. I don't know, doesn't that seem a little... tiny, for a vampire? It's a problem that the Hammer series never really fixed: in the first film, he's a centuries-old monster, terror of an entire countryside, killed through the efforts of the world's foremost vampire expert, whereas all of the subsequent picture show him getting resurrected and summarily offed by some yahoo peasant in the space of about two or three days, with only a dead buxom wench or two to mark his passing.

Back at home, the Monsignor has another problem to deal with: his niece, Maria (Veronica Carlson), is in love with a young student, Paul (Barry Andrews), who works in a boisterous pub and pastry shop (I don't know, it's Anglo-Romania). But that's not the big problem - indeed, the older man respects the young fellow's honesty on the subject. The big problem comes about at the dinner arranged for Paul to meet Maria's mother Anna (Marion Mathie): it seems that he's an atheist. This, rather than the threat of an angry bloodsucker, is the primary driving conflict of the film.

I'm a little torn about this. First, it's nothing less than amazing that this topic is carried off with such subtlety: after the initial outburst, there are no moments when the Monsignor and Paul directly attack each other about religion. Second, it serves as a nice capsule for the development of the series as a whole: in the first film, Van Helsing was the very model of the Victorian scientific spirit, but from that point on, the threat posed by the vampires - and the means to vanquish them - grew increasingly spiritual. Third, there's no clear favoritism here, and the film goes out of its way to establish that we don't actually know who's right or wrong: not only is the Monsignor a tiresome loudmouth, it's his cocksure faith that directly leads to Dracula's resurrection. Meanwhile, Paul is the very embodiment of prissy smugness, whose inability to fight the vampire is precisely a result of his refusal to accept the mystic elements at play.

The problem is that after a while, it becomes obvious that the film isn't hammering us with its perspective on this issue because it doesn't have one. The argument it makes is essentially tautological: reason and faith are in conflict because reason and faith conflict with one another. If this was just window-dressing between vampire attacks, it wouldn't be so annoying - but it's the meat of the story. The worst part of all (from the perspective of a genre fan, anyway), is that when the film oh-so-reluctantly comes down on the side of faith, in a scene that flatly contradicts all known vampire lore (and was apparently one of Lee's least favorite parts about the project): if you stake a vampire through the heart, you then have to pray in order to kill him; thus are we treated to the sight of Lee pulling a wooden pole out of his chest and leaping out a window. That's new. In all the vampire literature and movies I've encountered, the vampire doesn't really care if you're Christian, atheist, or Zoroastrian: you stake him, he's ash.

I bring this up only because the film insists on it; but of course we're all here for those precious ten minutes of Chris Lee vamping it up. And strictly as a vampire film, Risen from the Dead rarely disappoints (that staking scene is proper bullshit, though). Freddie Francis is no Terence Fisher, but he's not necessarily a worse director. He's just a different director, and his vision for the series is much less stately and Gothic, much more kinetic and hallucinatory. I swear, the camera moves more in the first ten minutes than in Fisher's three films all combined. It's not as dark, not as atmospheric - at least not in the same way. Instead, Francis had cinematographer Arthur Grant put some colored gels over the lens in all the scenes where Dracula is present, so that the vampire is always surrounded by a halo of oranges and yellows and greens; in one memorable scene, he stands in front of a boldly magenta sky. It's miles removed from the expected Hammer style, but it undeniably works. I'm not entirely sure what to compare it to, although my gut tells me that it makes the vampire scenes seem more Italian. And not just the Italian horror films of the period, either: my very first thought was of Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, for no particular reason I can fathom.

It's not the only break that the film makes from its forebears: for the first time, Dracula is presented as an unambiguously sexual predator. Granted, he spent a lot of time hunting ladies with skimpy dresses and improbably low-cut necklines, but nothing whatsoever has prepared us for the scene when he first attacks Maria. By this point, it's suggest that she and Paul have fooled around a bit, but nothing serious; in contrast, as Dracula nuzzles her face, her eyes roll back into her head a bit, and as he bites her neck, Francis cuts to a shot of her hand, clenching and unclenching in what can unambiguously be described as an orgasm. Nowadays, this is what movie vampirism is: but the Hammer series had been quite happy to present its vampires as animals, not lovers (the primary exception: Helen in Prince of Darkness). It's a bold move to keep the series fresh, with one tiny hitch: Christopher Lee clearly didn't know exactly what to do with it. His performance here isn't as good, across the board, as it was in the first two films (he has a lot more dialogue, which doesn't help), and except for his guttural snarling in his marvelous death scene, there's not much that he does besides stare balefully.

He's nevertheless the best part of a cast that, if not quite as weak as in Brides of Dracula, it still fairly undistinguished. We all know that Peter Cushing was always his greatest adversary, but Andrew Kier made a pretty good substitute in the third film; but nobody can possibly stand up to Dracula this time. Rupert Davies almost has the bullheaded presence to carry it off, but he just doesn't get that much to do with the vampire; the main protagonist, sorry to say, is the unfortunately boring Barry Andrews, making his feature debut as the hero whose primary qualification is seemingly that he has a pretty head of curly hair. Veronica Carlson isn't so bad as buxom Hammer damsels in distress go, but it's a thankless role

Frankly, the film props itself up mostly on Francis's often-thrilling visual sense, and the visceral impact of the first and final scenes. The first I've already talked about; what about the climax? On first blush, it's great stuff, with Dracula falling backwards off a rampart and impaling himself on a cross, writhing around snarling as blood gushes from the wound. Incidentally, this was the first film given a rating by the MPAA once the modern system was established, and it received a "G". So anyway, this is all very thrilling and beautifully shot, and it's only once the film is over that you realise: Dracula stumbled and fell to his death. Sure, it wouldn't have been believable for a second that the milksop Paul might have actually killed him, but it's kind a lame way for the prince of darkness to meet his demise, and it's the moment that I choose to label as the point of no return: though the series would continue to show flashes of brilliance, there was no stopping its descent into idiocy now.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Fisher, 1958)
The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Fisher, 1966)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Francis, 1968)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (Sasdy, 1970)
Scars of Dracula (Baker, 1970)
Dracula A.D. 1972 (Gibson, 1972)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1974)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Baker, 1974)

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