1969, UK, Directed by Peter Sasdy
Colour, Running Time: 95 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R1, Warner; Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: DD Mono
A travelling tradesman finds himself in the wrong horse-drawn carriage when he attempts to sell a couple of headcases an artefact that the men decide to take for nothing instead. Abandoned in the surrounding forest the tradesman follows a woeful screeching noise through the undergrowth to a dying Count Dracula, just in time to witness the notorious vampire turn to dust. Clearly acknowledging a potential profit the astute man collects up whatever’s left of the supernatural disintegration and heads about his way. Some time later a circle of aristocratic men are attending their covert weekly meeting of sex and debauchery when their enjoyment is interrupted by young Lord Courtley, whose freedom from employment has similarly led him to a life of hedonistic exploits, however, whereas the three aristocrats have reached the summit of their imagination the younger man has taken his experiments in life one step further to investigate the possible benefits of occult practices. Piquing their curiosity with his arrogant claims to know the way beyond mortal limitations they’re persuaded to part with large sums of money for Dracula’s cape, ring and dried blood, the tradesman who originally found them quite happy with the exchange. Locating an abandoned church the group of men congregate to perform a ritual intended to regenerate the remains of the evil count. Refusing to drink (or even taste…) the blood of Dracula the three elderly men lose patience and beat Courtley to death after the enthusiastic lord himself has downed a goblet full of the reinvigorated blood. Fleeing the church what they don’t realise is that the ceremony was actually successful and the ancient count now wants revenge for the death of his servant.
Almost a sequel proper to the colourful Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, this movie largely maintains the feel and quality of its predecessor. In fact I think this run of sixties Dracula movies was the best for Hammer, and highly imaginative entries they were despite possibly being a tad irreverent when it came to transferring Bram Stoker’s careful creation to screen. Then again even Hammer’s initial adaptation of the story was hardly 100% faithful, so what followed shouldn’t have been too surprising. Ralph Bates (here playing Courtley; the actor’s first movie appearance) was at one point intended to have a much greater role in the film due to Christopher Lee’s initial refusal to appear, in addition to the fact that the producers wanted a fresh face to reinvigorate the franchise, but when Lee was enticed into the production (something pursued because Lee’s presence was one of the conditions imposed by co-financers Warner-Seven Arts) Bates’s role was substantially reduced to what we now see. While I’ve heard complaints about Bates as an actor I have to say I love his performance in Taste The Blood…; it’s so emphatically melodramatic and obsessively focused it’s impossible not to be hooked just watching him - shame he doesn‘t get much screen time. Of course the aristocrats are similarly taken by his aggressive pursuit of divine insight, this leading to them parting with large enough sums of money to kill for once unsatisfied with the results. One of these men (Hargood, played by Geoffrey Keen) is an interestingly hypocritical character: religiously judging and oppressing his daughter (Linda Hayden) for displaying her affections for weedy Paul he spends his Sunday evenings indulging in adulterous activities with the local prostitutes, before of course engaging in a black mass with the more black and white Courtley, despite a penchant for church-going by day. The lives of the other two men in the circle are less revealed though Hargood’s prominence is relevant mainly because his daighter does become a significant feature of the story as the prim but assertive girl who attracts the fangs of the vampire (to become an altogether more alluring proposition). Christopher Lee barely has anything to say and pretty much does the same thing he had on the preceding entries in the series. Why he continuously refused to play the count, only to be persuaded again and again is beyond me - even after his reluctant involvement with Taste The Blood… he went on to play the count another three times for Hammer. His presence is fairly imposing, however, and he does induce a certain level of anticipation, this being embellished by a suitably long stretch building up to his eventual reincarnation (a tactic that worked so well in 1965’s Dracula - Prince of Darkness).
Aside from some corny use of lightning during the blood drinking ceremony, the count’s silly rising from death (including his proclamation of vengeance), and a climactic finale that is rather odd and inexplicable, we’re treated elsewhere to a consistently gothic-tinged atmosphere, with great sets/locations (utilising some filming at Highgate Cemetery, once a place reputedly haunted by its own vampire), a sexy turn by Linda Hayden, the manic Ralph Bates, and an overall stylish approach to shooting that makes this one of Hammer’s better movies at a time for the studio where the violence (highlight: the brutally evil and nightmarish staking of one of the aristocrats), sex, and terror were quite well balanced. Continuing to strike while iron was still relatively warm, Scars of Dracula was to follow but a year later.