Tag Archives: hammer studios

Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy” – Review

20 Feb

I absolutely love the horror films that were produced by Hammer production company from the 1950s through the 1970s. Now me saying I love them means I love quite a few of them, while others are absolute crap and don’t even qualify as being so bad that they’re actually good. By the 1970s, Hammer was running out of steam and began to get tired of releasing sequel after sequel instead of creating something new. The answer to their problems (sort of) was found in a novella Sheridan Le Fanu called Carmilla. The result is the uneven, but totally Hammer-esque, Karnstein Trilogy.

The first of these films was released in 1970 and titled The Vampire Lovers while the other two were both released in 1971, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil.

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While these movies are called a trilogy, it’s kind of hard to find any sort of continuity among them. The only real connection is that all three implement the Karnstein family of vampires as the villains. In The Vampire Lovers, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) is a bisexual vampire who begins to prey on the young women of Styria, turning entire households against the people who know what she truly is. After his daughter falls victim to Marcilla’s bloodlust, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) gets a band of men from the town together to march on Karnstein Castle and put an end to the evil once and for all.

Lust for a Vampire tells the story of the vampire Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard), who may or may not be the same vampire from the first film. I really can’t be sure. Anyway, Mircalla finds her way to a finishing school where she once again(?) begins preying on the students. Meanwhile, the school’s new English teacher, Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) begins falling in love with Mircalla, which begins an unholy and forbidden relationship that can only end in tragedy.

In Twins of Evil we see twins Maria and Frieda (played by Playboy centerfold models Mary and Madeline Collinson) arriving in the town Karnstein after losing their parents. Their new guardian is the uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), a strict puritan who is also the leader of the “Brotherhood,” whose mission is to hunt the witches and other servants of the devil and burn them at the stake. While Maria begins settling in, Frieda becomes more and more attracted to the mysterious Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), an evil count that has recently been turned into a vampire. As Frieda becomes mixed up in his evil, Maria must try and protect her from the wrath of Gustav and his Brotherhood.

Let’s start with The Vampire Lovers. Like I said before, at this point in time, Hammer was running out of steam and their ideas for their movies were getting stranger and stranger. Just look at Dracula A.D. 1972 which came out a few years later. The good thing about The Vampire Lovers is that it still has that classic Hammer feel to it. There’s plenty of great scenes and the atmosphere is spot on with the traditional town inns, to the foggy cemeteries, and the ominous castles lit in the moon light. That and also the obscene amount of sex and nudity. That was Hammer’s draw with this movie, and it works to a point but begins to get pretty silly with its gratuity. All in all, this is a good entry and a fine start to the trilogy.

Then there came the sequel, Lust for a Vampire and… oh man… it’s something. It’s almost as if the film makers didn’t know if they were doing a softcore porno or a horror film. I get that they were trying to draw people in with the promise of boobies, but this is just ridiculous. The movie starts off cool enough with the creepy architecture and vampire horror stuff, but it soon goes away. Instead we get a cheesy love story between man and vampire, horrible music, and a stupid amount of gratuitous nudity that was thrown in just to get people in to see the movie. This isn’t a horror film, it’s too funny for that. Some of the actors who worked in this movie have even said it’s the worst movie they ever worked in. I can believe that.

You would think that after a movie that bad, the third film would only be worse. What if I was to tell you that it’s not only the best of the trilogy, but one of the best Hammer films I’ve seen. Twins of Evil combines vampires and witch hunting and features Peter Cushing as a violent puritan who burns “witches” during the night. We also get a fantastic vampiric villain played by Damien Thomas who seems to relish hamming it up any chance he gets. This is a super entertaining horror film that actually poses a lot of good points about the gray areas in morality and also has two villains working at opposite ends of the spectrum. Cushing’s character is a zealot for God while Thomas’ vampire is a zealot for Satan. It’s surprisingly smart and has its fair share of creepiness and gore.

The Karnstein Trilogy certainly isn’t the greatest work that Hammer film studios came up with, but for the most part it certainly is entertaining. The first film is fun, the second is the closest thing to career suicide you could see, and the third is an un recognized masterpiece. Fans of Hammer films should really get a kick at seeing how far they were willing to go in the final days of their productions. These movies certainly aren’t going to convert anyone who doesn’t like their other films, but for those of us who do they provide the creepy, gothic atmosphere that we’ve come to expect and the horror and gore that we’ve come to love.

Hammer’s Dracula Films – Series Review Part 2

15 Nov

After Taste the Blood of Dracula, the films in this Hammer series took a wrong turn and left them in a really weird place. From this point on, all of the movies had easy to follow continuity and I never felt confused about where the story was going. Let’s be honest, these movies aren’t very difficult. Then Scars of Dracula was released in 1970 with the intention of being a reboot, but at the same time it wasn’t a reboot. This causes a great deal of confusion and sort of sours the movie experience.

 

After being reanimated by blood dripping from the fangs of a bat, Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) is back to his bloody business with the help of the bat and his servant Klove (Patrick Troughton). Soon Dracula preys on a passerby, Paul (Christopher Matthews), leaving his more responsible brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) to go to Castle Dracula himself and have his revenge on the undead Count.

If you’re looking for gore in this franchise, then this is the film to look at. It’s pretty over the top for the time period and the beginning is especially shocking. Christopher Lee also has a lot of great dialogue and delivers his lines in such a way that I thought I would overdose on the menace. Those are really the only two redeeming qualities of this movie leaving the bad outweighing the good.

 

Scars of Dracula is such a disjointed mess. The beginning scene with the vampire bat was tacked on at the last minute so I can’t really tell for sure if this is a reboot or a sequel. Klove is in it, but wait… didn’t Klove die in Prince of Darkness? But wait, according to the prologue, this is a sequel and not a reboot. What is this movie supposed to be? The characters are so uninteresting that anytime Dracula wasn’t onscreen, my interest flew right out the window. I don’t even want to get started on the ending. It’s preposterous. Watch this movie only for some awesome Dracula scenes and gore, but prepared to be confused and bored for a good portion of the film.

In 1972 the series really went off the rails with the release of Dracula A.D. 1972.

 

 

After a fatal duel between Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in 1872, Dracula’s ashes are buried by one of his servants by the church where Van Helsing was buried. Cut to 100 years later where a group of bored partiers led by Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) conduct a black mass at the very same church where Dracula’s ashes are buried in order to resurrect him. Soon the group is started to be hunted by Dracula with only  the descendent of Van Helsing (also Cushing) to stop him and save his grand daughter.

Well, what do I have to say about this? The major plus is the retro vibe that radiates from the screen. What’s not to love about watching Dracula chase Van Helsing through an old gothic church to funk music? It’s also great to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together and at each other’s throats once again. Saying that this is a quality movie on the other hand would be a flat out lie.

 

A lot of stuff happens really quickly in the middle without a lot of Dracula screen time, which is a little disappointing after the massive amount of time he had in Scars of Dracula. There are also a few characters in the young group of friends that just disappear without any explanation, which is a little weird considering they’re main characters. Why even have them in the story at all? There’s not a lot of specific things I can call out to critique. The movie is just not solid whatsoever, and the retro vibe almost turns it into an unintentional comedy. I would classify this in the category of so bad it’s good. For the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee finale and the silliness in between, it may be worth a watch.

1973 brought a whole new layer of awful, however, with what I and most people consider the last of the Dracula series, The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

 

When a British secret service agent discovers a group of societal elites engaging in black mass rituals, the police once again bring in Lorrimer Van Helsing to help with the investigation. He ultimately discovers that these rituals were performed for Count Dracula, who is back and planning to release a new strand of the bubonic plague with the goal of painfully wiping out the human race.

Wow. Really?

Yes, really. Dracula can now be compared to a Bond villain. I have no idea what Hammer Studios were thinking when they passed this movie to be shot and released. I almost don’t even consider it a Dracula movie since he’s only in it for like 7 minutes, and the rest of the time is spent talking about espionage and science. I was shocked when I saw this out of the sheer audacity of it all. You think Dracula A.D. 1972 was strange? Well believe it or not, there were times during this movie that I wished I was watching Dracula A.D. 1972.

 

The only time this ever felt like a Dracula movie was at the end when Van Helsing and Dracula have their show down. Thank goodness Peter Cushing is in most of the scenes, and Dracula’s monologue at the end is great, but the rest of the movie is absolutely terrible. It’s not scary, unintentionally funny, or even that rewarding. It is, without a doubt, the worst entry in this series, and quite possibly one of the worst Hammer films.

Well that’s Hammer’s Dracula series. All in all, it’s a mostly positive series with an excellent beginning, shaky middle, and an unfortunate tragedy of a movie as its finale. For any horror fans, this is a great series to watch for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and also the emphasis on blood and gore that was never really in any Dracula fins up until then. If you haven’t seen any of these films, give them a watchband enjoy the gothic horror that is Dracula.

Hammer’s Dracula Films – Series Review

13 Nov

Arguably, the most popular version of Bram Stoker’s infamous vampire is Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula in the 1931 Universal film. For modern audiences, there’s Gary Oldman as the title character in Francis Ford Coppola’s rendition. For me, the best version of Dracula was produced by a British company, Hammer Studios, and featured Christopher Lee as Dracula. This will be the first of two parts for the review of Hammer’s Dracula films, the first being Horror of Dracula, or just Dracula for European audiences, which was released in 1958.

Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is supposedly Count Dracula’s (Christopher Lee) new librarian, but is soon revealed to have ulterior motives. Those being to destroy Dracula. Harker is soon killed leaving the mission to be completed by his ally, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Dracula is closer than he thinks and begins terrorizing those closest to Harker and himself. As the clues to Dracula’s location begin to pile up, Van Helsing prepares himself for a showdown with the Count, hopefully bringing an end to the evil once and for all.

I am absolutely in love with every aspect of this movie from the sets, to the performances, to the story. This is also the first Dracula film to really showcase blood, and showcase it it does. Terrance Fisher, the director of this film, really can’t get enough of the red stuff. It looks pretty fake, but I still enjoyed seeing the early use of “gore”, and I’m sure audiences were shocked. The final showdown is even so intense, that there is footage that had to be cut out. Apparently, this footage has been found in Asia. Hopefully we’ll be seeing that at some point.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing’s chemistry is what really drives the movie. Paradoxically, they aren’t onscreen much together, but it plays off this kind of overt chemistry that culminates in an epic finale. This is a beautiful looking film with outstanding performances and memorable scenes. To me, it is the perfect Dracula movie. Check this movie out. It’s awesome.

Hammer released  Brides of Dracula in 1960, but there’s no Christopher Lee in it, so I can’t really call it a direct sequel. Audiences had to wait almost 10 years for the sequel. It wasn’t until 1966 that the second film was released, Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Was it worth it?

When the Kent’s carriage driver refuses to drive them any closer to Karlsbad, a mysterious carriage with no driver arrives to pick them up and bring them to the looming castle on top of the hill. They choose to go there despite a priests warnings earlier in the night. Turns out they are staying the night in Castle Dracula. Using the blood from one of the Kents, Dracula’s servant, Klove (Phillip Latham) brings his master back to “life” to terrorize the world once more.

Horror of Dracula is a tough act to follow, but Prince of Darkness holds its own. Much like in the previous film, Dracula doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but when he does, it’s awesome. Rumor has it that Christopher Lee HATED the dialogue he was given, and refused to speak it. This only makes his character more animalistic as his only drive seems to be blood and all the sophistication that comes with the character goes right out the window.

My gripe with this movie is that the pacing is just a tad slow. The first one isn’t a race at all, but this was bogged down with some over the top dialogue that tried too hard to be interesting. Once the film gets its footing, there’s no stopping it. I just wish we got there a little bit faster. The costumes still look great and the performances are still top notch, and there’s more blood than ever. I really liked this one, but can’t quite say I loved it as much as its predecessor.

In 1968, Hammer Studios released it’s third Dracula film, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.

In an attempt to exorcise Castle Dracula from the evil that still possesses it, a priest (Ewan Hooper) inadvertently releases Dracula from his icy grave. Now Dracula and his priestly servant go to the nearby town for some blood hunting. Now it’s up to Monsignor Mueller and his atheist partner Paul (Barry Andrews) to save the beautiful Maria (Veronica Carlson) from becoming Dracula’s bride.

While this may not be the best entry in the series, it is arguably the most memorable. What I mean by that is that this film contains some of the best scenes, but overall doesn’t always feel to good. For instance, a major issue I have with this is filming in the forest during the day, but trying to make it seem like it is night time. Just film at night. It’s really distracting seeing Dracula walk around the forest with sun peering through the leaves. Sloppy film making with sloppy results. There’s also this weird orangish glow that shows up on the sides of the frames every now and again which can be cool at times, but also a bit overbearing when it isn’t necessary.

Still, this movie is iconic when it comes to vampire movies. The staking scene is surprisingly horrific and Dracula’s demise via impalement on a cross is excellent and will never get old. Christopher Lee is as good as ever, and he even speaks a little here and there in this one. I guess the dialogue improved a little bit. I’m even interested in the relationship between Paul and Maria. The film makers understand that these stories are about more than just Dracula killing people and sucking blood, it’s also about human relationships and the strengthening of them through the conquering of evil. Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is a great entry in this series.

Moving on to 1970, Taste the Blood of Dracula was released.

After three Englishmen who are bored with their aristocratic lives decide to join the infamous Courtley for a black mass ceremony to summon his master, Dracula, they are faced not only with the possibility of murder charges, but also one very angry vampire who wants revenge. Yes, that’s right. Dracula is back with a thirst for blood and won’t stop until all responsible for the death of his servant are killed. That is unless Paul (Anthony Higgins) can stop him and save his girlfriend, Alice (Linda Hayden).

I don’t want to say that this is where the decline of the series began because this isn’t really a bad movie, but unfortunately I’d be lying. This is the beginning if the end. Much like the previous film, Taste the Blood of Dracula has plenty of good scenes, but isn’t too well constructed all around. The violence is certainly brought to the next level and there is of course much blood and gore to be had. The black mass scene is creepy and memorable, but that’s about it.

I have two major problems with this movie. For one thing, nothing new is brought to the table. The structure of the plot can be related to all of the other films in the series that has come before and the whole Paul/Alice relationship is exactly the same as the Paul/Maria relationship in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, which is a far superior movie. This is also one of the most anticlimactic movies I’ve ever seen. Right when the final showdown is getting good, it ends.

This review has covered films 1-4 in this series. My next review will cover films 5-7. Things only get weirder and weirder for Hammer’s Dracula series from this point on, so I’ll have  a lot of material to talk about. Stay tuned.