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Another vampire film marathon

Yesterday, ms_siobhan and I hankered down with pop-corn, rose creams and mugs of our steaming hot drinks of preference for another vampire film marathon. We started out by carrying on where we had left off last time, with the next in Hammer's Dracula sequence, Risen from the Grave, but ms_siobhan had seen the film after that, Taste the Blood only a few weeks ago, and drew the line at carrying on to Scars of Dracula, so for our second film we watched a recent acquisition of hers instead, Vampire Circus. We'd both seen it before, but alas too long ago to quite remember what we were letting ourselves in for. By the time we'd dragged ourselves to the end of it, I think we'd both have welcomed Scars of Dracula as a masterpiece by comparison. That's not to see we didn't enjoy laughing ourselves silly over its utter shonkiness, though.

17. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968), dir. Freddie Francis

Despite the fact that this is my favourite of the Victorian / Edwardian Dracula sequels (AD 1972 wins if you include the Seventies ones), I have only reviewed it once before in this journal, so it's not too crazy to say a bit more about it here. Although in a way all I really want to say is "I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it." I shall try to be a little more articulate about why, though.

Everything I said in my last review still stands - the perfect contrast between the cheerful inn scenes and the properly dark Gothicism of the dank cellar or rocky mountainside; the sense of purpose given to the narrative by its central theme of faith vs. atheism; and the wonderful effectiveness of having Dracula spend so much of his time lurking in the shadows and manipulating other people into doing horrible things for him, rather than doing them directly himself. I don't think I really said anything about how great the direction is last time, though. I said that the sets were good, and they are, but good sets need good camerawork to really bring them alive, and this film very definitely has that. We get lots of interesting angles and nice compositions - like framed shots, or shots looking past a significant prop towards the main action. Apparently, Terence Fisher was originally lined up to direct this film, but was replaced by Freddie Francis due to illness (or injury, depending on what you read), but I think it's quite likely that the film gained a fair bit from this substitution.

Actually, one thing which I particularly love about the world-building for this film is that we don't just get some very nicely-made studio sets - we also get a proper attempt to convey something of the landscape which they belong within. The previous films in the sequence have given us long shots of Dracula's castle, but this one also inserts establishing shots of the little village at the foot of the mountain, the larger town where most of the action takes place, and the landscape of mountains and rivers around it. And yes, OK, those establishing shots are basically just postcards held up in front of the camera, but even this simple touch makes the whole thing seem so much more real and engaging to me. Since this was the first film in the sequence not directed by Terence Fisher, and suddenly we get this opening-up of the landscape, I assume it reflects Freddie Francis' input, and am very grateful to him for it.

I should also have said more in my previous review about the (unnamed) Priest, and how very much he adds to the narrative, but since I didn't it is perhaps best now in any case to point the way towards this excellent review which I've found since, and which I think really hits the nail on the head about the Priest. As its author points out in the fourth paragraph down, the Priest is the true protagonist of this film. It is his weakness which leads to Dracula's resurrection in the first place, and his eventual discovery of strength after a long and clearly very traumatic struggle which defeats him at the end. Where the Monsignor represents straightforward faith and Paul represents straightforward atheism, the Priest in between them represents a much murkier middle ground - a faith too weak to protect him against evil. He himself is a far more interesting character as a result, while his weakness also gives Dracula just the opening he needs for his manipulative evil, in turn making this film's Dracula one of the most deliciously domineering and chilling of the sequence. So the Priest-as-Protagonist is a very important device here, underpinning a lot of what I really like about this film, and I'm grateful to the author of the linked blog post for articulating that for me.

18. Vampire Circus (1972), dir. Robert Young

So, yeah - from the sublime to the ridiculous, eh? Like I said, we'd both seen this before, but in my case that was at least 15 years ago now, and while drunk, so I had remembered vague things about a circus of travelling vampires entertaining some villagers with tumbling acts before turning all fangy, but had not remembered how nonsensical the story as a whole is, how unconvincing the characterisation, how banal the script and how mannered the acting. The IMDb tells me that this was Robert Young's first go as a director, and I'm afraid it really shows. It's not like he hasn't done good things since - the first series of ITV's Jeeves and Wooster, for example, or the whole of G.B.H. (which is amazing!). But while the raw materials here (script, actors, sets) might have been knocked into shape by an experienced director, Robert Young clearly wasn't in a position to do that. You can tell, because there are actually some actors in this film capable of putting in a decent performance - Thorley Walters, for instance - but it just doesn't happen.

The result was that we spent pretty much the entire film in MST3K mode, laughing at the bad wigs and utter density of most of the characters, giving them advice which we knew they weren't going to take, and trying to figure out what on earth we were even supposed to think any of them were doing, or why. Which was fine, and we had a great time doing it, of course, because that is part of the charm of Hammer films - even when they are beyond shonky, they provide plenty of chuckle-fodder for anyone familiar with the conventions of the genre. Particular hilarity was derived from the obvious sock-puppet panther which at one point attacked some characters in a forest, and from the wobbly (though in fairness nicely-designed) Eastern Orthodox church set which was suddenly introduced out of nowhere at the end. Oh, and I also enjoyed spotting this (modern) bust of a youthful Augustus in the local doctor's house, as well as a set of Piranesi prints of Rome remarkably similar to ones also seen on Dracula's castle walls in Scars just a couple of years earlier.

The film definitely belongs to the era when Hammer was increasingly relying on shocks and nudity to rake in the audiences, rather than characterisation, narrative or atmosphere. The back of the DVD box reported that it was banned for a while due to its suggestions of bestiality, and the horror film reference book I've had since 1986 also mentions the 'hints of bestiality and incest'. It's certainly true that there is incest in it (a pair of non-identical twins who also seem to be lovers), and the fact that some of the characters can turn into animals does I suppose suggest bestiality of a sort, although none of them get up to sexytiems with human beings while in their animal forms - only ever their human forms. But neither my 1980s book nor the 1970s censors apparently seemed to think there was anything to say about the fact that almost all of the vampires in the film seemed intent on preying on children - an element which is played much more blatantly than the incest or the bestiality. Vampires feeding off children does go right back to Stoker's novel, of course, and it can be played non-sexually, with the emphasis on a more abstract form of evil vs. innocence. But in this post-Operation Yewtree world the sight of a male vampire with bad make-up and a frilly shirt advancing on a child with lustful eyes conjures up all-too-real horrors. The fact that no-one seems to have batted an eyelid over it at the time certainly tells a story of changed values.

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