Dracula, Prince of Darkness: Resurrecting the Best of the Hammer Horror Series

Blumhouse Productions rules horror today. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Universal Studios reigned with their monster lineup. But from mid-1950’s to the early 1970’s, Hammer Film Productions dominated the horror genre. The British studio made international stars of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. While Hammer Films rolled out dozens of Gothic horror titles, it was their Frankenstein and Dracula series for which they’re best known. Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, release back to back, gave birth to Hammer Horror. Between 1958 and 1974, Hammer Films produced a total of nine Dracula movies. In this edition of The Chopping Block, I re-visit, or resurrect, Hammer’s Dracula series, going from the worst to the best.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula

Hands down, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is the worst of the Hammer Dracula series. This sequel directly follows on Dracula A.D., leaving Dracula in 1970’s London. Though Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both return, director Alan Gibson wastes their collective talents. The Satanic Rites of Dracula mixes vampires with British spy movie tropes in a story with something to do with an occult group. Simply put, this boring entry lacks any of the kitschy fun that might define Dracula A.D.

Dracula A.D. 1972

By the early 1970’s, Hammer Films were struggling to maintain relevancy. More contemporary horror movies, like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby, were making Hammer look quaint. Looking to shake things up, Hammer took a couple of new directions. First, the British studio amped up the gore and lurid sexual content as seen most notably with their Karnstein Trilogy. And they dropped their Dracula series in the middle of the ‘70’s British counterculture. Dracula AD 1972 marks the first time that Lee and Cushing were onscreen in a Dracula movie since 1958’s Horror of Dracula. Lee’s resurrected Dracula finds himself battling Van Helsing’s descendent among British hippies. Not surprisingly, Dracula AD 1972 is as silly as it sounds. Regardless of the absence of Hammer’s winning Gothic formula, this series entry has enough kitsch and unintentional laughs to at least make it watchable.

Scars of Dracula

Scars of Dracula marks the turning point for Hammer’s long-running franchise. Though it retains the same Gothic formula, it’s a completely unremarkable entry in the franchise. If you’re a fan of Bram Stroker’s original novel, Scars of Dracula does make more of an effort to weave in some of tale’s mythology. Conversely, this sequel is even less concerned with continuity than the earlier movies. Peter Cushing is absent again, but Christopher is given more to do. Like later Hammer movies, Scars of Dracula is more graphically violent but perfunctory in every way.

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave

Following Dracula, Prince of Darkness, a hapless priest inadvertently resurrects Lee’s Count from his icy grave. But when Dracula finds his castle doors barricaded with a giant crucifix, he vows revenge on the Monsignor. As compared to lower entries on this list, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is a perfectly serviceable sequel. Longtime Amicus director Freddie Francis capably follows the series’ formula. Yet in spite of looking and feeling like a Hammer Dracula movie, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is a pretty boring movie. The middle part suffers from a lack of vampire horror and Peter Cushing’s absence is keenly felt. Fortunately, Barry Andrews’ ‘Paul’ is arguably the series’ most likeable protagonist not named Van Helsing. And the sight of Dracula impaled on a crucifix is one of the franchise’s better endings.

Taste The Blood of Dracula

You have to hand it to Hammer Films. While there’s an overall familiarity to this sequel, director Peter Sasdy still managed to tweak the formula just enough. With no Peter Cushing again, Taste the Blood of Dracula instead focuses on three debaucherous British gentleman. After their black mass ritual inadvertently resurrects the ‘Count’, Dracula vows revenge on the men. Somewhere in the story is a daughter and her hapless boyfriend. More lurid than earlier sequels and lacking much in the way of innovation, Taste of Dracula still retains enough of Hammer’s Gothic charm. And the opening prologue is a winner.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

The final Dracula movie that Hammer Films produced, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, shouldn’t work. It’s a crossover between Gothic British horror and the Shaw Brothers Studios’ kung fu action without the slightest trace of irony. Christopher Lee is missing in action and his replacement, an unremarkable John Forbes-Robertson, looks ridiculous with green-tinted face paint. And Peter Cushing looks lost amidst the kung fu scenes. Yet in spite of itself, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is still a fun vampire movie. For starters, Golden Vampires maintains that Hammer Horror vibe. Moreover, the ‘Golden Vampires’ cheap make-up effects still actually look creepy. And one scene where vampire slaves emerge from their graves should win over even the most cynical horror fans.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness

Christopher Lee was back, but Peter Cushing was absent. Though it’s the third film in the series, Dracula, Prince of Darkness directly follows Horror of Dracula. On the one hand, Terence Fisher turns in a more standard sequel. It follows many of the same plot beats of Hammer’s first Dracula movie. No one in the cast, including Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor, will make audiences forget Cushing’s Van Helsing. And Lee has no dialogue. Yet in spite of these weaknesses, Dracula, Prince of Darkness paces itself with plenty of vampire action for the era. In addition, Dracula’s resurrection here may be the best in the series.

The Brides of Dracula

Though it’s the first sequel in the series, The Brides of Dracula doesn’t actually feature Dracula himself. Christopher Lee sat out this one out, but Peter Cushing is back as Van Helsing. In addition, long-time Hammer Films collaborator Terence Fisher returned to direct. Filling in for Dracula, David Peel more than capably steps up as the undead Baron Meinster. In fact, Dracula’s absence actually works to the sequel’s advantage. Across its first 20 minutes or so, The Brides of Dracula benefits from mystery around its villain. Cushing is as charismatic and dashing as expected. And Fisher films a couple of stand-out series moments including the ‘birth’ of one bride and one of the best makeshift crucifixes in vampire movie history.

Horror of Dracula

No, you can’t beat the original. Following the success of Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Films resurrected another Universal Monsters property. Horror of Dracula brings together everything that made Hammer horror work so well. Lush Gothic sets. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. A dramatic, sweeping score. Literary purists may take issue with the liberties Horror of Dracula takes with the source material. Hammer Films always played pretty fast and loose with Dracula’s mythology. Yet it’s the different take on Stroker’s novel that’s half the fun. This is classic old-school horror and still one of the best of Hammer Horror.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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