Thursday, December 15, 2011


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*

I don't have current access to the Chris Lee Drac-film SCARS OF DRACULA, which appeared between TASTE and A.D.  But in theme these two films are mirror-images of one another.  Both posit the idea of common mortals foolishly summoning a deceased Dracula back from the dead with the use of a rite resembling a black mass.  But in the earlier film, the guilt falls upon the elder generation, and in the later one, the younger gen's to blame.

Though Satanism plays a minor role in Bram Stoker's somewhat variable origin of Dracula, Peter Sasdy's TASTE seems to be the first time a Hammer film strongly associated the vampire lord with Satanic practice.  British audiences of the 1960s apparently became more responsive to Satanic-horror films at a time when the Americans still hadn't made many such films in the subgenre. It's possible that the Hammer Draculas were being influenced by a "satanic panic" that wouldn't catch cinematic fire in the States until the 1970s.

Of the two Sasdy's film has a more overt moral stance.  It begins with a minor crime, in which a salesman is robbed and thrown from a coach.  Wandering the countryside, he just happens to witness the demise of Dracula as seen at the end of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE.  The salesman takes possession of the artifacts left in the wake of Dracula's dissolved remains.

Some time later the audience meets a threesome of middle-aged British family men-- Hargood, Paxton and Secker-- who are all men of means with adult children.  They also meet in secret to take nightly pleasures in the local whorehouse, for all that Hargood, the most hypopcritical of the three, chastises his daughter Alice for her supposed wantoness.  A chance encounter with a young Satanist aristocrat, Lord Courtley, offers a new level of decadent thrills to the jaded threesome, for Lord Courtley knows about the artifacts of Dracula and persuades the roues to purchase them.  Courtley then leads them in a black mass designed to revive Dracula, but when the three men chicken out, the ritual goes wrong and Courtley perishes.  Dracula manifests from the dead body of Courtley (reprising a similar motif seen in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS) and determines to avenge his dead servant.  Instead of going after the three offenders, Dracula enslaves the three adult children of Paxton, Secker and Hargood-- though Lucy Paxton is the only one Dracula literally vampirizes.

Hargood-- most despicable not just for hypocrisy but also because he cherishes a repressed desire for his daughter-- is killed by daughter Alice when he tries to molest her.  Secker is stabbed to death by his son (who is put in prison and whose final fate is not disclosed by the film).  Paxton, tearfully intending to end Lucy's undead life with a stake, is overpowered by Lucy and Alice under the will of Dracula, and so gets staked himself.  In some sense Dracula acts as an id-figure to these young people, giving them the excuse to "get out from under" their confining parents (though Hargood is the only one who seems actively bad).  Once the three conspirators are gone, Dracula reveals his own nasty nature by slaying Lucy.  Then Alice's boyfriend Paul manages to intervene, saving Alice from the vampire and killing Dracula with assorted Christian paraphernalia.

Most of the Hammer Draculas don't give their female fiends very much to do, but TASTE is a welcome exception, the staking of Paxton being a high point.  Still, the old "good girl/bad girl" dichotomy of the DRACULA novel is alive and healthy here, given that the film has to find some way to kill the bad girl but let the good one survive for future marriage.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 has some striking scenes, notably a similar black mass ceremony, but script and direction are both much looser and less evocative.  An opening scene shows Dracula perish in the 1800s at the hands of his enemy Van Helsing, with his remains being confined to sanctified ground-- perhaps to keep Satanists from fiddling with them.  However, a century or so later, the church where the remains lie has fallen into disuse, rendering it perfect for another black mass, led by modern London swinger Johnny Alucard.  (The film does not comment on whether he's a descendant of some branch of the Dracula family.)  Alucard persuades a gaggle of fellow young swingers to join him in the sport of calling up the devil (Dracula being essentially the same thing).  To his extreme good fortune, one of the members of their swingin'-set is Jessica Van Helsing, granddaughter of the current Van Helsing, descendant of Dracula's 1800s slayer (both Helsings played by Peter Cushing).  Prior to the black mass, Jessica establishes in conversation with her grandpa that she's a good girl (who hasn't even had sex yet!) but just likes to hang out with the happening crowd for kicks.

A.D. borrows TASTE's idea of the ceremony gone wrong.  Alucard tries to persuade Jessica to be his virgin sacrifice to the devil, but when she demurs, Laura (Caroline Munro) steps in, apparently trying to impress Alucard.  In the resultant chaos Dracula once more manifests but Jessica and her boyfriend escape to tell their tale to Grandfather Van Helsing.

As in TASTE Dracula then enslaves several of the swingers and uses them as his pawns, but the scenarios of A.D. are much weaker, sometimes rendered comic by the dorky-looking young men the vampire is forced to use.  When one of your vampiric minions is defeated by the running water of a showerhead, it's time to get new minions.  Alucard is a particularly weak secondary villain, even complaining to Dracula about his need for vampiric power to capture Jessica-- yet even when he gets such power, he doesn't seem formidable.  Finally it comes down to another match-up between Van Helsing and Dracula, with the expected outcome.  Dracula does get somewhat better dialogue during this scene than he gets anywhere in TASTE, however.

The most interesting symbolic aspects of the two films are the visual imagery they bring to their fictional versions of a black mass.  In TASTE, Courtley cuts his own hand and lets blood dribble into goblets which he and his three cohorts are supposed to drink, in a clear parody of the Catholic rite of transubstantiation.  The moment when the goblets magically fill with blood in reaction to the drops of real blood is a strong image. In contrast, A.D. juxtaposes the imagery of the filled goblet with that of the female breast, with Laura lying recumbent on an altar while holding a goblet on her chest: a goblet which also fills with blood after Alucard does the hand-cutting thing.  It's often been commented that the very concept of the European vampire may constitute a parody of the Christian resurrection, so on the symbolic plane at least, a similar pastiche of Communion seems no less up Dracula's blasphemous alley.    

Of the two films, only A.D. is a combative film, thanks to the opposition of Dracula and Van Helsing.

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