Taste the Blood of Dracula: A Hidden Hammer Films Gem

Christopher Lee’s fourth outing as the vampire count was in many ways his most radical.

Christopher Lee in Taste the Blood of Dracula
Photo: Hammer Films, design by Jessica Koynock

When I was a kid, I somehow inherited an 8mm film projector and managed to convince my mom to buy me a handful of movies on the format. Now when I say “movies,” I mean these little spools of 8mm celluloid that basically took various motion pictures and condensed them down to silent 10-minute highlight reels, mostly in black and white.

They were in many ways the earliest precursor of home video, and one of the films I convinced my mom to purchase was Hammer FilmsTaste the Blood of Dracula. While the format really prevented me from making much sense of the narrative, certain imagery–Dracula’s face emerging from beneath a cracking caul of dust, two beautiful young women driving a stake into the heart of an older gentleman, a younger man drinking a cup of blood and choking as it poured out of his mouth–stayed firmly with me.

Decades later, and after watching Taste the Blood of Dracula several times in its full 95-minute, color and sound-laden glory, the movie can safely stake its claim as one of the best of the eight films in Hammer’s Dracula franchise. The fifth in the series, and the fourth to star Christopher Lee in the title role, it was perhaps the first of the Dracula pictures to reflect the era it was released in and the first to begin breaking out of the series’ increasingly stodgy formula, which half a century later is all the more impressive on the film’s 50th anniversary.

Yet changing with the times, circa 1970, came at a price: for one thing, Dracula himself is reduced almost to an onlooker in the proceedings, which center around three families that are destroyed not necessarily by the return of the bloodsucker himself but by a generational clash of values and morals in Edwardian England. While the movie’s basic premise is an intriguing one–making it one of the more fleshed out of the Dracula movies–its structure belies the fact that Dracula was originally not going to be in the film at all.

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Taste the Blood of Dracula followed up 1968’s popular Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (did any studio come up with better titles?) and was written by John Elder, a.k.a. Anthony Hinds, son of Hammer founder William Hinds and writer/producer of many of the studio’s motion pictures. The director was Hungarian-born Peter Sasdy, who made his feature film debut on the project and went on to direct Countess Dracula and Hands of the Ripper for Hammer before continuing a long, prosperous TV career.

In addition to Lee, the cast featured veteran British faces like Geoffrey Keen (later to harrumph his way through six James Bond movies as Minister of Defense Frederick Gray), Michael Ripper (Plague of the Zombies), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), and Madeline Smith (Theatre of Blood). The film’s breakouts were the gorgeous Linda Hayden (who would follow this with a stunningly evil performance in The Blood on Satan’s Claw) and, making his feature debut, Ralph Bates, as the first of several anti-heroes in Hammer outings like Horror of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

In fact, Bates’ Lord Courtley was originally meant to be the primary villain of Taste the Blood of Dracula when Christopher Lee initially refused to appear unless he was given a raise. Lee had apparently gotten wind of how popular his Dracula movies were in America and quite reasonably demanded a larger share of the box office loot.

“By this time I had discovered just how successful Hammer films were in the  United States, and how well-known I was,” the legendary actor said in Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes’ The Hammer Story. “I told my agent to tell Hammer that if they really didn’t have any money then they could pay me a percentage of the American distributor’s gross.”

Hammer, always looking to lighten its financial load, decided that they could make a Dracula movie without Lee as they had done with 1960’s The Brides of Dracula. But the American distributor, Warner Bros., balked, insisting that it would not partner on a movie without Lee donning the cape and fangs again. So the script was hastily rewritten to re-introduce the Count into the story and reduce Bates’ involvement to the first 40 minutes of the picture.

Taste the Blood of Dracula opens with a clever bit of retconning, as the ending of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave–in which the Count crumbles to dust after being impaled with a large crucifix–is watched from afar by a horrified traveling salesman (Kinnear). The latter, seeing an opportunity, scrambles into the footage from the previous film to collect up Dracula’s ring, pendant, cape, and now-powdered blood.

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Fast forward to London (marking the first time the series makes it to the English capital) and we see three upstanding gentlemen–William Hargood (Keen), Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis), and Jonathan Secker (John Carson)–leave their respective homes on a Sunday evening to head to the rough East End and do charity work, but not before the repressive Hargood predictably forbids his fresh-faced daughter Alice (Hayden) from seeing her boyfriend Paul (the bland Anthony Higgins).

Hargood and his pals may seem like typically reactionary English patriarchs of their era, but our trio harbor a deep, dark secret: Their so-called charity work is actually a regular visit to a debauched brothel hidden behind a soup kitchen. But on this night, the threesome’s revels are interrupted by the smarmy Lord Courtley, who snatches away Hargood’s escort for the evening but ends up enticing the three rather bored men into participating in a ritual with the veiled promise of supernatural power.

Courtley’s plan begins with heading down to Kinnear’s shop and buying those rather expensive remnants of Dracula, of whom Courtley is revealed to be an acolyte. In the first of several impressive sequences that Sasdy brings to the film, Courtley and the others arrive at a desecrated church where Courtley gives each of them a cup of Dracula’s dried blood that he mixes with his own. As the blood in each cup bubbles to weird life, Courtley drinks and promptly begins choking on it.

The other horrified men throw down their goblets and beat Courtley to death, agreeing later to never discuss the evening’s events and leaving his body to rot in the abandoned church. Unfortunately for them, in another striking if rather nonsensical sequence, a patina of dust covers Courtley’s body after they leave and turns into a carapace that cracks open and reveals that Courtley’s corpse has been reconstituted into the revived Count Dracula. The Count, looking somewhat more youthful than in his previous outing, vows revenge on the men who killed his servant.

Those wheels are set in motion when Alice is caught by a drunken Hargood sneaking back into the house after an evening out with Paul. In a disturbing scene, the father threatens to beat his daughter with a riding crop–but it’s implied that he intends to punish her in even more unspeakable fashion. Alice escapes and runs into the forest where she stumbles into the arms of Dracula and, hypnotized by him, cracks her father’s head open with a shovel as the Count intones, “The first.” It’s also the second of his 10 or so lines.

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And so, using the bedeviled (but non-vampirized) Alice as his ally, Dracula goes after Courtley’s remaining two murderers through their children, turning the kiddos into bloodsuckers and watching triumphantly (or, perhaps at this point in Lee’s career, resignedly) from the shadows as they dispatch their dads in suitably gruesome manner–including that scene mentioned above in which Alice and Paxton’s daughter Lucy (Isla Blair) gorily drive the very stake intended for Lucy into her father’s chest as he dies agonizingly. Soon only Paul is left to save Alice and stop Dracula in his bloody tracks.

A certain tension between elder conservatism and youthful exuberance, with a persistent subtext of sexual repression and moral hypocrisy, lurked below the surface of every vampire movie Hammer produced, Dracula or otherwise, but Taste the Blood of Dracula placed it directly front and center. Released as the gates of sexual freedom had blown open (even while the flower generation was falling apart), Taste zeroed in on the battle between parents and children, with the parents (patriarchs in particular) unmasked as rank hypocrites pursuing illicit pleasures of the flesh and more, even while chastising their ripe female offspring for wearing an off-the-shoulder dress.

Make no mistake: this isn’t Hair. But there’s no question the standard figures of wisdom, stability, moral solidity, and tradition–the fathers–are clearly the primary villains, even more so than Dracula himself. The Count is ultimately just doing his thing and makes no bones about it. Hargood, Paxton, and Secker are reputedly pillars of their community, using the cover of philanthropy to disguise their indulgence into the kind of debauchery they no doubt rant about at local council meetings.

Linda Hayden in Taste the Blood of Dracula

By contrast, their kids aren’t exactly ready to run naked through the fields while tripping on absinthe and having sex with whoever they see fit. Both Alice and Lucy are clearly in love with their respective young lads and tugging–as young adults do–at the leashes their parents have tightened around them. But while Paul wants Alice to run away with him, she is reluctant to leave her typically suffering-in-silence mother–a sign of a far more decent and moral human being than her father could ever claim to be.

But Alice’s inner fury at her father is finally unveiled when she comes under Dracula’s spell, and one could argue that the influence of the amoral Count on the youngsters could be seen as a thinly veiled parallel to, say, Charles Manson. Alice and Lucy seem to enjoy becoming disciples of Dracula, with the latter even experiencing what is meant to not so subtly be her first orgasm as the Count sinks his fangs into her (Alice also appears to experience the same by proxy). What makes Taste different, however, is that the blame for the entire destructive sequence of events is laid squarely at the feet of the fathers who have been far more morally derelict than their children.

In the end, of course, it’s good old Christianity that comes to the rescue. In a confusing ending badly in need of a reshoot, Paul confronts Dracula in the desecrated church and somehow re-sanctifies it by barring the door with a large cross. This causes the Count (or his stunt double) to fall from the rafters and somehow dissolve into dust once again as Paul and a now-freed Alice walk out into the daylight. For a film that is heavy on atmosphere and pulls off a number of strong scenes, the Count’s demise here is among the weakest the Hammer series had to offer.

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That aside, however, Lee is always an imposing, magnetic presence, and even if he is a peripheral figure at times, Sasdy shoots him in ways that make him constantly loom (both figuratively and literally) over the proceedings. The rest of the cast is one of the best in a Hammer outing, James Bernard’s music is powerful, and the movie’s more coherent entwining of plot, character and theme make it one of the more compelling offerings of Hammer’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s period, when the studio was starting to lose its way amidst an onslaught of more modern and culturally relevant genre films.

To modern audiences, Taste the Blood of Dracula might still seem stodgy and dated, its effects tame and rather cheap compared to what we see in genre movies today. But for Hammer fans, the movie remains enjoyable and more ambitious than usual, and–considering the diminishing returns of follow-ups Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, and The Satanic Rites of Dracula–perhaps the Count’s last effective outing under the Hammer flag.

“At first, when I read the script for Taste, I thought, ‘What a load of rubbish!’” said producer Aida Young in Little Shoppe of Horrors #13 (via Jonathan Rigby’s English Gothic). “But then I got into it and realized that it was about hypocrisy in Victorian times and that there was a serious undercurrent… it wasn’t just a Dracula film per se. We made a film with a story that said something.”