The local gentlemen’s club worships the devil: A review of Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Directed by Peter Sasdy
Starring Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Linda Hayden

This is a review of the version included in the Horror Classics Volume One Blu-ray set.

Discovering the catalog of Hammer Film Productions has been like finding an old trunk in the attic, whose contents are equal parts artifact, treasure, schlock, and guilty pleasure. The British production house’s films are very much an acquired taste, as they represent a curious backstep in the progression of horror cinema—a callback to the Universal and silent era of horror cinema, featuring “classic” monsters such as werewolves, vampires, mummies, and the creatures of Dr. Frankenstein. Hammer worked throughout the late 50s into the 70s to produce a huge volume of work in this vein, eschewing the more modern takes on horror in both content (atomic-age paranoia, psycho killers, aliens) and contemporary style (envelope-pushing Italian gialli, Night of the Living Dead) to remind audiences that old dark houses, spooky castles, graveyards, and men in black capes could still thrill. For this, Hammer’s heyday is often described as the Indian Summer of classic horror.

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Ya’ll need Jesus

Taste the Blood of Dracula, directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Christopher Lee as Dracula himself (Peter Cushing is curiously absent here), represents a strong entry in the voluminous Dracula catalog from Hammer. It’s not the first film in the series (see the excellent Horror of Dracula for that honor), but that doesn’t matter. You know who Dracula is: he’s a tall, menacing, charming (in movies, at least) nobleman who likes to use mind control and drink blood (he’s still deciding whether he should run as a Democrat or a Republican in this presidential election). In the film’s opening scenes, a traveling businessman witnesses Dracula’s death (there is no explanation given), and sees him decompose into dried blood. Then he collects the blood, signet ring, and signature amulet, because plot.

Cut to a vapid romance story about a noble young woman and her suitor, who are kept apart by the woman’s domineering, hyper-religious father. But lo! The father is no true Christian man, but secrets away in the night to join his savage friends for the company of whores, liquor, and ultimately, devil worship.

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Seriously guys, Jesus.

What starts out as a fairly clean-cut and boring Victorian romance soon degenerates into sensationalistic evil. A disgraced noble convinces them to sell their souls to the devil, and thus they purchase Dracula’s dried blood and personal effects from the aforementioned businessman. The young noble promises the men long lives of endless pleasure and power, if they but sell their souls to the devil. Of course these men of public virtue agree to the terms. Their secret group conducts a Black Mass in an abandoned church, which is one of the best scenes in the movie. We get burning candles, a spooky old chapel, a Baphomet on a blanket, and the re-animated blood of Dracula.

It is in this scene, especially, that the conspiracy-minded can begin to wonder: do pillars of the community really haunt abandoned churches late at night, drinking blood to raise evil spirits? What are the filmmakers trying to tell us, exactly?

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Ballin’, Undead-Transylvanian-Warlord Style

Illuminati messaging or otherwise, soon enough Dracula is back and out for revenge on the men who survive the secret ritual. It’s not long before he’s hypnotizing young buxom British babes, drinking blood, creating sub-vampire spawn, and being a general nuisance to all involved. The film drags in parts (it’s cheaper to shoot extended dialogue scenes rather than filling the film with special effects), but whenever Lee’s Dracula is on screen, things are equal parts ridiculous and exciting. He manages to be magnetic and revolting at the same time. This is Lee at the height of his powers as the famous vampire. However, the rules about how vampires function are fluid: they seem to be able to summon darkness, possess certain people, or can only be killed with a stake to the heart—or sometimes not. Just go with the flow, here, people. We’ve got a Dracula picture to make here, and we’ve only got five weeks to shoot the damn thing.

As always in these films, the death of Dracula (spoiler alert) is one of the best parts, even if it is ridiculous. But it suits the film, which on the whole is ridiculous, as it alternates between hopeful and nihilistic, creepy and campy. Hammer’s films of this period are often regarded as some of its best (until the early to mid-1970s). While many horror fans may find selections like Taste the Blood of Dracula to be dated, passé, or tame, I’ve come to appreciate the studio’s signature charm which is on full display here. The film is spooky (not scary) fun, with over-the-top performances, great sets and props, and curious social commentary. Oh, and glorious, bright Technicolor blood.

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When you’re in the mood for something creepy but don’t want to sit through a film full of cheap jump scares or gore, or if you have a friend with an interest in horror but a low tolerance for excess, Taste the Blood of Dracula will satisfy your thirst. You’ll either love it, think it’s ridiculous, or, if you’re like me—love it despite and because of its creaky, campy charm.

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