Hammer Films really did redefine horror films during their heyday. Between the late ‘50s and the early ‘70s, the studio’s Gothic horrors reinvented the classic horror characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and others. As a vintage horror fan, I find nearly all of Hammer’s films a pleasure to watch, so I thought that today I would rank some of their movies: specifically their Dracula series which began in 1958’s Dracula and ended in 1974 with The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.
So, beginning with their final, and ninth entry in the series, and counting down to one, let us begin.
9. The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) – Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is one of those films which you know will fail even before you watch it. It is hardly Hammer’s finest hour and makes very little sense. When the film was in production, Hammer was in financial straits so a partnership with Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong seemed like a good idea, and to Hammer’s credit, a kung-fu/horror film is at least original. But, the film is a plotless mess only redeemed by the ever welcome Peter Cushing playing the role of Van Helsing for the last time. As to the vampire count, he’s not played by Christopher Lee but by the very unthreatening and campy John Forbes-Robertson. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is to be skipped except for the ardent Hammer or Peter Cushing fan.
8. Scars of Dracula (1970) – Trying to contend with the blood and gore of films such as George R. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Hammer injected some needless extreme violence into Scars of Dracula. A cheap-looking film, the untasteful violence does not prevent the viewer from seeing past the paper-thin plot and the mediocre acting. Christopher Lee is on hand to play the Count, and Doctor Who fans may take interest in Patrick Troughton’s turn as the Count’s slave, but Scars of Dracula is an uninteresting and forgettable installment in the series.
7. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) – A direct sequel to the previous year’s Dracula A.D. 1972, this film once more found Dracula and Van Helsing matching wits in 1970s London. Unlike its predecessor, this film takes itself far more seriously; it’s plot revolving around Devil worship and strains of Bubonic plague. It’s not a bad film per se, but a certain oddity managing to combine Hammer’s traditional horror elements with the conventions of a spy thriller. Writers Alan Barnes and Marcus Hearn rather aptly likened The Satanic Rites of Dracula to an episode of the famed British spy series The Avengers.
6. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) – Without doubt the most atmospheric entry in Hammer’s Dracula series, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave has been described as “a minor triumph of style over content.” The simplistic plot is made up for by the film’s beautiful color scheme; director Freddie Francis bathing scenes in vibrant colored camera filters. Lee has seldom appeared as evil as he does in the film and he is supported by some of Hammer’s finest actors, including Veronica Carlson who was arguably Hammer’s finest leading leady. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is also boosted by some excellent, show-stopping set-pieces, most notably the failed staking of the vampire.
5. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) – Probably a bone of contention for many regarding this list, I am quite partial to Hammer’s first modern-day Dracula. It is campy and dated with characters quite calmly blurting out such cliché seventies lingo as “far out” and “dig the music kids,” but it’s a fun, entertaining romp – the sort of thing which Hammer did best. Christopher Lee looks great making the most of his limited screen-time and Peter Cushing is great as the modern-day Van Helsing who must come to grips with the evil which his family has fought for several generations. Be sure to look out for the, out-of-place but fun, musical score by Mike Vickers and the exciting prologue set in the Victorian Era.
4. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) – A moody and atmospheric film, Hammer’s first Dracula sequel to actually feature the Count, is a simplistic but bombastic horror film. Christopher Lee’s Dracula is at his creepiest, not uttering a single line of dialogue. The film has some of the series’ most memorable scenes such as Dracula’s resurrection (which employs a lot of blood) to the staking of the woman who has become a vampire at the count’s hands. Andrew Keir also turns in an excellent appearance as Father Sandor, the film’s make-shift Van Helsing and hero of the picture.
3. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) – Originally envisioned as yet another Dracula film which does not feature Dracula, the Count’s inclusion in the script is rather forced, but the story is without doubt the strongest of Hammer’s sequels. It is one of the few Hammer horrors to have something of a subtext which finds Dracula acting as something of an authority figure for the young people in the cast persuading the to rebel against their parents. Taste the Blood of Dracula also manages to combine the changing trends in horror films; there is an increased presence of violence and gore, but it never feels contrived and out-of-place. It’s a creepy, excellently executed film.
2. Dracula (1958) – Dracula is one of my favorite films and it is a fun, entertaining film. Christopher Lee has seldom been better as the Count and Peter Cushing is in rare form as Van Helsing. The movie is the perfect example of what Hammer did best with its grand set-pieces (the staking of Lucy, the final confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing), and performances which at times elevates the script. Dracula stands out as not only an example of Hammer at their best, but horror movie filmmaking at its best.
1. The Brides of Dracula (1960) – It’s rather odd that Hammer’s finest Dracula film doesn’t include Dracula at all. Nevertheless, Brides of Dracula is one of the most entertaining horror films the studio produced, and one of the most entertaining horror films of all time. Peter Cushing takes center stage as Van Helsing turning in one of his finest performances. Replacing the Count is Baron Meinster portrayed by David Peel whose screen presence is just as great as Lee’s and one must also mention both Martita Hunt as the Baron’s mother and Yvonne Monlaur as the young schoolteacher who Van Helsing swears to protect. Both women turn in fine performances in a film which is at once fun, bombastic, and at times quite creepy. Brides of Dracula is the Hammer film which I would invariably recommend to any Hammer novice.