by Dawn Dabell
After three successful Dracula features, Hammer bring back everyone’s favourite blood-lusting vampire for a fourth instalment in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968). Only two of the previous three Dracula movies actually feature the title character. The second in the cycle – Brides Of Dracula (1960) – saw Hammer taking a new direction; replacing Dracula with the evil Baron Meinster, an urbane bloodsucking fiend who preys on the poor folk of Transylvania. The only linking character between the original and the first sequel was Peter Cushing’s tireless vampire-hunter Van Helsing.
After a six year hiatus Hammer revisited the series once again, bringing back the real Dracula for Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966). It sparked a new trend in the series, the tradition of starting each new entry with some inventive method of resurrection in which the Count is brought back from the grave to feast on the necks of nubile young ladies.
Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is no exception, featuring an early resurrection sequence in which a strange chain of events leads to the accidental reincarnation of the Count, and much ensuing mayhem.
The previous Dracula films were directed by Terence Fisher, but cinematographer Freddie Francis takes over the reins this time out. Francis previously helmed Paranoiac (1963), Nightmare (1964), The Evil Of Frankenstein (1964) and Hysteria (1965) for the company. As in Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, Van Helsing is not around to thwart Dracula’s evil scheme. However an interesting nemesis is created in the form of the Monsignor (Rupert Davies), another man of God -like Sandor from DPOD – who makes it his mission to exorcise Dracula’s evil from the land once and for all.
The film opens with an arty credits sequence, with a blood-red substance floating over striking purple backgrounds. The vibrant use of colour in the credits is indicative of the lush use of colour to come. In fact colour is emphasised throughout, a direct result of Francis’s work as a cinematographer; his trained eye for detail gives this instalment a more artful, striking ‘look’ than many of the series. A fantastic score is provided by genre regular (and Hammer favourite) James Bernard, who worked on many of their films including Horror Of Dracula, Frankenstein Created Woman, Kiss Of the Vampire and Plague Of The Zombies. Right from the opening notes, the score generates tension and drama in his unique and unmistakable style.
Things kick off with one of the most memorable scenes from the franchise. A young boy enters a church and proceeds to ring the bell. As he grips the rope he notices blood dripping down. He climbs the bell tower to investigate, and we hear him scream. A priest (Ewan Hooper) rushes in to see what has happened. When he reaches the bell a boot falls from inside; he stumbles, knocking the bell, and a female corpse flops down with bite marks on her neck. It’s a startling and beautifully handled opening.
The film jumps forward a year. Dracula is dead (presumably by the means depicted at the end of Dracula – Prince Of Darkness) but the locals continue to avoid the church where the corpse was discovered. They believe the building is tainted by evil and refuse to place a foot inside. The Monsignor (Davies) visits the church and is unhappy to discover it empty when mass should be taking place. He traces the priest to the local tavern, where he is prematurely hitting the bottle after performing mass to an empty church.
Shocked that people are still afraid of entering the building, the Monsignor vows to prove to the townsfolk once and for all there is nothing to fear. He declares he will perform an exorcism on the castle, and enlists the priest to help him. Naturally, things don’t go to plan… the priest accidentally resurrects Dracula while the Monsignor is busily carrying out his exorcism. After completing his work, the Monsignor fixes a cross to the door of the castle and returns to the village, oblivious to the fact the Count is alive once more and freely roaming the land.
Dracula returns to his castle but cannot gain access because of the cross on the door. He swears revenge on the Monsignor and pursues him to his home town of Kleinenberg, intending to bring misery and death upon his devout and saintly nemesis. Dracula sees an opportunity to strike at his enemy where it hurts most, stalking and vampirising the Monsignor’s beautiful young niece Maria (Carlson).
Christopher Lee speaks hardly any lines as the Count, conveying his intentions and all-round evilness by pointing, hissing and pulling scary faces. Despite this he manages, as usual, to essay a strong and commanding characterisation. He exudes an air of elegant dominance, plus a powerful hint of sexuality. With less than ten spoken lines in the entire film, one wonders if his performance would be even more effective if he had more to say. Or perhaps the lack of talk makes Dracula’s on-screen aura all the more mesmerising and menacing?
The moment in the bedroom where he bites into Maria’s neck is fuelled with erotic energy. The way he rubs his face against hers, savouring the sensuality and satisfaction of the moment, is highly charged. His victim Maria seems to experience something approaching sexual arousal at this moment, an awakening of sorts, symbolised in the way she discards a childhood doll as she gives in to his sinful spell. The entire scene is done wordlessly yet brilliantly, showing just how good an actor Lee could be.
Veronica Carlson had worked previously as a model and bit-part player in TV and film, and landed the leading lady role here thanks to a bikini picture which came to the attention of the studio bosses. They auditioned her for the role of Maria, and she got the part; a role which made her an instant and long-lasting hit with Hammer fans the world over. “Hammer’s new star discovery! Dracula’s most beautiful victim!” announced the film’s theatrical trailer. She is wonderful in the role, conveying vulnerability and innocence but also coming across desirable enough to make Dracula’s obsession with her credible.
The supporting cast are used very well. Barbara Ewing provides extra eye-candy for male viewers as the barmaid Zena, bursting out of revealing outfits in a manner which defies the laws of gravity. She plays one of Dracula’s unwitting minions with lip-smacking relish, compelled to do his bidding after being bitten earlier in the film. The underlying jealousy she feels towards Maria becomes increasingly apparent, but inevitably she meets her grisly demise at the hands (or should that be fangs) of the Count. Barry Andrews plays Paul, Maria’s lover and a strong-willed atheist. He is very creditable as an outspoken atheist who reluctantly puts his faith in God to save the woman he loves from an evil end. This was Andrews’ first film role, having previously worked in television. Michael Ripper is fun as Max – Paul’s superior at the bakery beneath the tavern – providing some light-heartedness to relieve the tension elsewhere. And Ewan Hooper is just the right side of creepy as the priest, accidentally responsible for resurrecting the Count and later placed under his hypnotic spell. As the film progresses the priest undergoes a fascinating battle with himself as he attempts to resist the pull of evil.
The gothic atmosphere is upped considerably in this entry, and more action occurs on the rooftops of the town. Francis enjoys shooting these elaborate rooftop set-pieces, using interesting angles and shadowy lighting to create plenty of excitement. These sequences are a direct result of the film being shot at Pinewood Studios, where stages were much larger than the cramped facilities at Bray, allowing more extravagant sets to be utilised and more extravagant action to be filmed on them.
The film emphasises sexuality more than the previous entries too. Maria starts out an innocent young woman but gradually becomes more sexually aware as the film progresses. Early on, there is a scene where she is embarrassed at getting Paul ready for bed after he has drunk himself into a stupor. She seems flustered at the thought of undressing him, and somewhat offended when Zena helps to take his trousers off. As things develop, she falls under the spell of Dracula; we see her inviting the evil Count into her bedroom and onto her bed, offering her neck to him in the film’s most erotic scene. We see her innocence waning as she casts aside her porcelain doll, the same doll she cuddled with child-like affection just hours earlier. This one simple gesture conveys so much to the audience; it effectively symbolises a farewell to innocence and a transition into sin. Another scene which focuses on Maria’s growing sexuality is when the coffin is being transported back to the castle. The priest pulls back a curtain to reveal Maria caressing the side of the coffin in a very sexual way. Plus Maria’s costumes change throughout the film – high neck-lines early on, exchanged for floaty nightdresses and almost see-through outfits later.
Another theme explored throughout is the strength of faith – or lack of – shown by some of the key characters. The priest symbolises a man of God brought under the spell of evil. After the discovery of the corpse at the start of the film, he finds his faith shaken, presumably making it easier for Dracula to prey on him and enlist him as one of his servants. It’s similarly interesting that Maria, the niece of a devout Catholic, falls in love with Paul, a man who rejects God and places her in the unenviable position of needing to choose between love and loyalty.
In one scene, Paul stakes Dracula but is warned he must speak a prayer to completely destroy him. He seems reluctant to say the words, unwilling or unable to take part in what he considers nonsensical mumbo-jumbo, and this gives Dracula enough time to pull the stake from his body. In the end, though, both Paul and the priest choose the light of God to aid them in their quest. The message is loud and clear: faith in God will save you in the end. The priest says a prayer and Paul gestures the sign of the cross on himself as the film ends and Dracula is once again sent to the grave.
The marketing campaign for the film was somewhat bizarre. American theatrical posters made the film look like a comedic addition to the series, showing a young woman wearing two bright pink band aids on her neck (band aids, of course, didn’t exist in the time period the film is set). A tongue-in-cheek tagline accompanied these posters: “Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (Obviously)”. Dracula doesn’t appear anywhere on the poster – just this black and white image showing a female victim, cleavage displayed, and those band aids highlighted pink Another ad campaign stated: ‘You just can’t keep a good man down’, again jumping on the more humorous marketing bandwagon.
One wonders if audiences came away from the film surprised at what they’d seen, having been led to expect something spoofy like Carry On Screaming. It wouldn’t be surprising if this offbeat marketing campaign, combined with the new ‘G’ rating awarded by the MPAA, added to the overall success of the film. In some sources, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is documented as Hammer’s highest grossing box-office hit (this is probably accurate in terms of American business, though elsewhere On The Buses and One Million Years B.C. battle it out for title of the studio’s biggest hit).
Critics were divided on the film. Halliwell declared it a “tedious, confined and repetitive shocker with little conventional action and an unusual emphasis on sex”. In contrast Derek Winnert stated it was “effective, gruesome horror fare, directed with some gusto and subtlety and led by the splendidly menacing Lee’s graceful performance.” I am inclined to agree with the latter of these.
Many people are quick to point out the flaws in this film: the way the Count’s reflection appears in water, or how he removes a stake from his own heart because the man who staked him is unwilling to say a prayer to finish him off. These are peculiar additions to the legacy of vampire lore, never used as plot points in previous instalments. Luckily, the film concentrates more on the visual aspects than the plot, presenting scenes in a picturesque way and lending attention to detail in terms of sets and costumes, colour and lighting. For me, these things help to forgive the film its flaws and its occasional lack of sense. The use of filtered lens whenever Dracula is on-screen, or nearby, are particularly effective in emphasising how he can hypnotise victims, mastering them with his dominance and sexual prowess.
Overall, I consider Dracula Has Risen From The Grave one of the best of the series. Horror Of Dracula and Brides Of Dracula perhaps pip it, but it’s certainly a strong entry and marks the last genuinely top-notch film in the series. Its successors are fun to watch, but this one easily secures a podium-finish as one of the top three titles in the entire Dracula cycle.