Skipping the Hammer sequels Warners don't have the rights to - the Christopher Lee-free Brides of Dracula, Dracula Prince of Darkness, Scars of Dracula and The Satanic Rites of Dracula - this is nonetheless an excellent collection of some of the best in the series.
Hammer's groundbreaking 1958 version of Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) is still one of the very best despite the many liberties Jimmy Sangster's concise and highly effective script takes with Bram Stoker's novel to whittle it down to an hour-and-a-half. It's not just the names that have been changed around and the cast of characters greatly reduced to Hammer's budget levels (admirably disguised here by Bernard Robinson's excellent production design). John Van Eyssen's Jonathan Harker is no longer a lawyer, but here is posing as a librarian to get into Dracula's castle with an ulterior motive - presumably on the grounds that the audience knows going in just what Dracula is so there's no point putting the hero through all that mystery when there's staking to be done. The budget doesn't stretch to the voyage and arrival of the ghost ship Demeter or even a Renfield for that matter, and this Dracula has no social interaction with his intended victims in Whitby or London - in fact, he never even leaves the continent. Nor is the vampire fascinated with Harker's intended - here he simply seeks her out as revenge. Yet the changes work surprisingly well, and even throws in a few good twists like the location of Dracula's hiding place.
Although he doesn't have much screen time, Christopher Lee is inspired casting, a feral, vicious creature rather than a Eurotrash smoothie while a very agile Peter Cushing makes a surprisingly physical Van Helsing, the final fight between the good doctor and the evil count surprisingly energetic and violent before the best of the studio's ashes to ashes, dust-to-dust finales. Although rather sedate by today's standards, this film still has a surprising degree of energy and it's easy to see why it made had such a profound impact on the horror genre for decades to come. The first colour version of the tale, it made a big selling point of being able to see the blood in all its vivid hues of red, although it also makes much play on the vampire's female victims being absolutely gagging for it (perhaps not so surprising with Peter Cushing and Michael Gough as the male leads), setting the groundwork for the tits'n'fangs formula that would become the studio's bread and butter over the next couple of decades. A surprisingly cheap picture, thanks to Bernard Robinson's elegant production design and fine direction from Terence Fisher before the drink got to him, it never looks cheap: if anything, it's rather seductively good looking. Unfortunately this is slightly compromised by Warners' widescreen DVD, which feels overcropped at 1.85:1 (the film was intended to be shown in 1.66:1) and there's also a slight wobble at the end of the closing credits.
For the US release of Hammer's fourth Dracula film (only the third to actually feature Christopher Lee, the Count sitting out Brides of Dracula), Warner Bros. used a one-sheet of a woman's neck with a sticking plaster on it, following the title Dracula Has Risen From the Grave with the single word 'Obviously.' The film itself, however, is anything but tongue-in-cheek, and played deadly straight with a conviction the series gradually lost over the years. It's probably the best-looking of all the Hammer Dracula sequels, and also the first where Christopher Lee actually speaks. As usual he's almost a background figure for much of the film, with the bulk of the film carried by Barry Andrews' atheist student romancing Veronica Carlson's niece of Rupert Davies' Monsignor, who inadvertently starts the blood flowing again when his attempt to exorcise Dracula's castle only results in the Count being revived from his icy grave by blood from a convenient cut. Finding himself cast out of his home and aided by Ewan Hooper's terrified priest (Renfield presumably being otherwise engaged), Dracula determines to take his revenge on Davies and his kin, stopping off en route for a light snack with Barbara Ewing's busty redheaded barmaid.
With a prologue that takes place before Dracula, Prince of Darkness and the main body of the film taking place a year later, it takes some liberties with the vampire mythology: the revived Dracula's first appearance is as a reflection, he has no problem removing crosses from willing girls' necks while a stake alone is no longer enough to kill him: you have to pray as well, which is a bit of a problem when your hero doesn't believe in God. Yet they're not as jarring as they might be, the latter resulting in one particularly memorably gory sequence. The change in director from Terence Fisher, sadly in decline at that time and unavailable due to a car crash, to Freddie Francis gives the film less of a production-line feel than most of the studio's Dracula series and, despite an awkward filter in some scenes and a distinctly jaundiced look for the Count, the film has a much more expansive look and feel almost unique in the series, with a striking and well-employed rooftop set courtesy of undervalued production designer Bernard Robinson and some relatively unfamiliar Pinewood standing sets rather than the overused backlot at Bray. He gets good performances too, with a particularly nice turn from Michael Ripper as an amiable innkeeper (as opposed to his usual miserable and terrified innkeepers).
Unfortunately while the DVD boasts excellent colour and definition, some shots look oddly distorted, as if stretched, and the sound wanders in and out of synch far too often for comfort. On the plus side it does restore the censor cuts of about half a dozen gallons of blood spurting from Dracula's chest after he gets staked and includes the original trailer.
Taste the Blood of Dracula follows on so directly from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave that, after one particularly bizarre piece of deus ex machina that borders on the inspired, it begins with Roy Kinnear literally stumbling into the last scene of the movie. On a less welcome note it also marks the point at which an increasingly reticent Christopher Lee was reduced to a cameo figure as the Count - it's not until the halfway point that he's resurrected in a less than convincing display of special effects. Until then much of the film is carried, and rather well, by Geoffrey Keen's Bible-bashing strict disciplinarian Victorian dad, the kind of man you can set your watch by as he sets off to do `charity work' in the East End with his respectable friends John Carson and Peter Sallis saving fallen women - about two each once a month in Roy Hudd's brothel discreetly located in the backrooms of a soup kitchen. It's there that he and his pals are surprised playing horsie by Ralph Bates' dissolute disinherited aristo who has sold his soul to the Devil and offers to broker the same deal for them if they'll buy Dracula's cape and blood for him, reasoning that "Having tried everything that your narrow imaginations can suggest, you're bored to death with it all, right?" Naturally it all ends badly with Bates getting a severe case of indigestion after drinking the blood of the title and getting kicked to death by his new friends, conveniently providing Dracula with a new body and a new mission - to destroy all three men through their children (a typical role-call of amply-bosomed totty, future BBC regulars and supporting actors who never made it to the major leagues in the forms of Linda Hayden, Isla Blair, Martin Jarvis and Anthony Higgins in the days when he was still calling himself Anthony Corlan) while Michael Ripper's ineffectual detective displays a pronounced lack of interest in the mounting body count.
The idea of the sins of the fathers being revenged by their children is a good one, offering both a neat twist and a reason for Lee's extremely limited screen time that keeps him very much to the sidelines until the disappointing finale, but it's certainly one of the more entertaining sequels and, a couple of lapses such as the resurrection scene aside, boasts superior and atmospheric direction from Peter Sasdy with some surprisingly graceful camerawork. It's also the last of the Hammer Draculas that looks like they spent some money on it - when they churned out Scars of Dracula the same year, it looked like they'd spent all their money on this one and had only pocket change and whatever was left over in the studio wardrobe for that!
Warner's DVD offers a good widescreen transfer with the original trailer as the only extra.
For reasons known only to the author, Bram Stoker's Dracula never included the line "Sergeant, I'll bet you a pound to a pinch of s*** that there's a little piece of hash at that party, and if there is, I've got them.", but the early 70s saw that particular oversight put right. Dracula A.D. 1972 saw Hammer trying to pump new life into the old Count with a new creative team whose big idea was basically to rehash the plot of Taste the Blood of Dracula in the 1970s with Christopher Neame in the Ralph Bates role as Johnny Alucard, here conning a thrill-seeking group of with it kids (Michael Kitchen and Caroline Munro among them) into making a date with the Devil with a Black Mass at the deconsecrated church that not only holds Lawrence Van Helsing's body (Lawrence? Whatever happened to Abraham?) and Dracula's ashes. "Okay, okay. But if we do get to summon up the big daddy with the horns and the tail, he gets to bring his own liquor, his own bird and his own pot."
As with the Godzilla films, the main attraction is kept off the screen for most of the running time - top-billed Christopher Lee's role is probably smaller in this than any other in the series, four brief scenes probably totalling no more than ten minutes. Worse still, looking more like Peter Sellers than Transylvanian aristocracy, he brings nothing except continuity to the part: he does what is asked of him with professionalism, but that's about it. Instead the bulk of the film is carried by Neame's Malcolm McDowell wannabe, second-billed Peter Cushing as Van Helsing's grandson Lorimar, Stephanie Beacham and Michael Coles' open-minded cop ("There is a Satan." "Of course. Otherwise we wouldn't need a police force, would we?"). Yet despite the clumsily handled prologue and finale it's fairly entertaining even if it is completely derivative, perhaps even more entertaining now than when it was released because its hip and happening trappings are far funnier than the intentional comic relief - not least Johnny Alucard urging "Dig the music, kids!" during the black mass - and it's a lot better than Dracula 2000.
The DVD also includes the wonderfully over the top trailer - "Are you ready? He's ready. He's waiting to freak you out - right out of this world!" - but not the short making of documentary from when the picture was still called Dracula Today (other rejected titles included Dracula Chases the Mini Girls and Dracula Chelsea '72!).