For any long running cinematic character, staying relevant and fresh is the key to success. Take Hammer’s version of Bram Stoker’s legendary vampire Count Dracula, who, by 1968 was on his third appearance in four films (he remained steadfastly dead in 1960’s Brides Of Dracula), but despite his numerous ressurections, you couldn’t help but wish that the eponymous bloodsucker would search for some new blood and change up his act a little.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s few portrayals of Dracula that remain as proudly iconic as Christopher Lee’s and there’s few men in cinema who can stand wordlessly in a doorway with such malevolence and Hammer’s sumptuous production values are still gothic visuals at their peak, but with the magnificently titled Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (in which Dracula does indeed rise from the grave), all these winning attributes are starting to feel noticeably samey.
A year after Count Dracula met his end after apparently drowning in the frozen lake by his castle, the neighbouring village is still gripped with fearful foreboding and superstitious dread (which, to be fair, is the baseline emotion of anyone living in a Transylvanian village in 1905) with the local church shut after the mangled body of a young woman was found stuffed inside a bell.
The local priest, a sweaty type with a grey horseshoe of hair framing his baldness in a way that makes him look astonishingly like Lobot from The Empire Strikes Back, has all but lost her faith, but has to suck up his emotions when Monsignor Ernst Mueller comes to town and is fairly miffed to find the place of worship closed and the village all but faithless. He resolves to change this by demanding the priest travel with him to bless Castle Dracula, but overcome with fear, the struggling holy man takes a tumble and blood from a gash in his head makes its way to the lips of the still submerged Dracula which naturally revives him once more.
With a million to one stroke of luck like that, you’d think the first thing on the Count’s agenda would be to spin down the local newsagents and pick up a Powerball ticket, but instead he resorts to his old tricks as he targets Maria, the virginial niece of Mueller as revenge for blessing his place of residence.
Meanwhile, Maria is experiencing a bit of family awkwardness when her atheist boyfriend, Paul, doesn’t exactly make a good first expression with the horrified Monsignor, but he’s still a far better prospect than the snarling count who has fixed his Bloodshot eyes on turning the people around her in order to claim her for himself. It’s time for the village to fend off yet another Drac-attack.
There’s not a lot wrong with Dracula Has Risen From The Grave; in fact in many ways it’s vintage Hammer with reliable direction by Freddie Francis, top notch scowls by Lee and the usual selection of busty actresses to have their necks nibbled; but there’s a distinct feeling that the vampire is in some dire need of some new material. Once again he targets a small group of people under the umbrella of revenge that has virtually has no real consequences to the world at large and if we’re being honest, it all seems rather small potatoes for a dude who styles himself as the Prince Of Darkness. In fact, you can’t help but wonder if the Count hasn’t fully realised his potential and that using all of his dark powers simply to creep on the town blonde may not be the most prudent use of his abilities. To put things in perspective, at this point in time we were still a fair few years away from things like the publication of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, where the vampiric stakes would often be quite high – but in comparison, this Dracula appears to be weathering a bizarre, undead type of a mid-life crisis that leads him to go rattling around in an open topped carriage all night, buzzing redheads as the walk home after dark.
In comparison, the human aspects of the story – which are usually the most predictable – actually add something new to the mix with the B-plot bringing in an overtly religious thread with both atheist Paul and the faithless priest struggling to make much of a dent in Dracula’s figurative armour due to their God-related beliefs needing a bit of a tune up. It adds an extra layer of depth that the protagonists of these kind of movies rarely get apart from being pious fang receptacles.
However, while Christopher Lee isn’t given much new to do aside from the highly publicised grave rising, director Francis manages to provide some memorable imagery, chiefly involving the gleeful damage inflicted on the antagonist rather than the good guys for a change. Taking an early stage to the chest when the climax kicks in, the lack of faith from those dealing it means simply doesn’t take (much like taking a shower during a heatwave) so we get the potent sight of Lee in his coffin, fangs bared as he tries to wrestle the protruding shard of wood from his bloody ribcage. Later he falls from his castle only to be impaled on a golden crucifix and as he chokes and writhes as he slowly expires, Francis goes to an extreme close up of Dracula’s face as he leaks blood from his eyeballs and the movie promptly becomes Dracula Has Returned To The Grave.
However, maybe it’s because I’ve been watching these movies in fairly rapid succession, but it really does feel that Hammer needs to change the record somewhat as the movie mainly is the same old stuff. In fact, if watched in a vacuum without any of the another Dracula movies around it, you could probably get away with adding another star to Dracula Has Risen From The Grave. Taken on its it’s own merits it’s a perfectly decent bout of gothic vampire shenanigans that totally gives you your money’s worth if you get your kicks from dank castles and crimson drips and even has a solid pace – it’s just that the previous entry, Dracula: Prince Of Darkness was a fairly comprehensive entry in the series that takes a lot of the shine off this one.
But there’s no escaping the notion that alongside crosses, running water and Peter Cushing’s cheekbones (conspicuous by their absence for a second film in a row), Dracula’s greatest weakness is that he’s stuck in a rut, dedicating all of his energies into small-scale, nefarious plots that don’t seem to have much consequence beyond wrecking the lives of four people before he’s vanquished once more. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, yes, if only he’d risen to the challenge of trying something different…