More Christopher Lee Madness!
By Kristin Battestella
I can’t help myself. I’m neck deep in more Christopher Lee blood, gore, and mayhem!
The Crimson Cult – Boris Karloff joins Our Man Christopher in this 1968 witchfest more properly titled Curse of the Crimson Altar. Director Vernon Sewell (The Blood Beast Terror) lets the onscreen excess speak for itself rather than having headache-inducing camerawork get in the way. The girls, boobs, whips, dreamy colors, and heady action look great along with the real locations and a spooky English countryside. A wonderfully kooky performance by the late Michael Gough (Batman) and a great in joke- “It's like a house from one of those old horror films. Yes it's like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment.”- keep the tone relaxed amid the simmering sorcery. The tactic smartly catches the viewer off guard when the scares jump out, and yes, there are some great shock moments. Lee is his usual perfect as the suave speaking unassuming English uncle- but we should know better! Likewise, Karloff-in one of his final film roles- is a classy, cranky Professor who collects torture devices. Surely, he must be up to foul afoot, right? The voice effect for Barbara Steele (Shivers) is a little annoying, a faithful DVD is tough to find, and leading man Mark Eden (Coronation Street) isn’t really modern star material, I grant you. However, the smart suspense and sexy scares win out here.
Horror Express – The DVD transfer on this 1973 co-Peter Cushing fright fest is damn bad, ripe with too dark to see images, background noise, and ridiculously soft dialogue and dubbing. The turn of the century Asia locale looks cheap, the archaeology and science of the time stinks, and the editing is poor in my cut up 85 minute print. Nevertheless, Lee is young, juicy, and rockin’ the porn mustache! This cargo gone wrong tale with a splash of religion and aliens has a fun train bound cast of characters, all of them with something to hide. Sure, the effects are a little hokey, but the less is more mystery does well- and the scary red eyes work. There’s rapid isolation for the evil monsters to run amok, kinky implications, betrayal, tension among passengers, and ambiguity among our boys. Lee and Cushing- both good guys working together for a change! Add an unexpected and fun appearance by Telly Savalas (Kojak), humor and great quips, even some genuinely scary and jumpy moments along with the contained paranoia and you’ve got a damn fine little horror movie. This one definitely deserves to be cleaned up- hopefully the recent blu-ray does some justice. As much as I’m against modern remakes- and Lee would have to make a cameo appearance in any update- in the right hands, this contained, fearful formula could work anew.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)– Well, in this Hammer’s fifth Dracula themed film, Big C has a sweet intro tying into his previous entry, 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. The occult circumstances leading to Dracula’s resurrection here are also lovely horror treats- creepy organ music, lightning crackles, and bright red oh so delightfully fake blood! Even if Lee only has about a dozen mostly one-word lines, he’s still enchanting, suave, and lays on the kinky with Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw) and Isla Blair (Battle of Britain). What can I say; he knows how to dominate a picture! While this outing suffers a little bit from lack of other stars- it’s tough to enjoy all these Brit blokes who all seem the same- the Victorian flavor, gore, and underlying cheeky are just right. So what if the cult rituals in the titular quest are over the top. You can read into all the blood, life, and naughty symbolism if you want, but Taste is also a lot of fun; everything we expect in a good old midnight movie. I do grant that the plastic gardens are hokey, but I like that something special and stage-like intimacy where nothing but a good cape, red eyes, and pimpin’ fangs are needed.
Dracula A.D. 1972 – Numero 7 brings Dracula back once again-and this time, the titular year is where all the juice happens with Stephanie Beacham (The Colbys) and Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me). The swanky scoring is a lot of fun, but director Alan Gibson (also of the follow up Satanic Rites of Dracula) wastes time on dated onscreen band performances. We don’t need lengthy 1972 establishing, and the now retro styles would have look cool old school if they weren’t so dang garish. We poke fun at the psychedelic, sure, but imagine how ugly current slasher horror films brimming with kids in the latest fashions are going to look in 40 years! The annoying hepcats wannabes here make things too bad English; Scream and Scream Again does the formula just a little bit better. Thankfully, Peter Cushing’s return as Grandpa Van Helsing is classier and action pimpin’ then all of the little boys put together! Of course, things kick up when Lee is resurrected and Cushing takes up the fight, but who knew Dracula was down with the swirl? Pity he is only in a reluctant handful of scenes with another dozen obligatory lines.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula – This direct sequel and number eight in the Hammer Dracula cannon sticks to the contemporary designs from its 1972 predecessor with more faux Bondian opening titles, breasts, and bad zooms. Though the sets and scenery are a little bland, drab, and not as colorful as the previous outing, the blood, kinky vampire brides, and disturbing rituals get all the horror across just fine. It’s also neat to see tapes, slides, and old style investigations instead of high tech CSI. The modern spy angle and same old Scotland Yard inspectors are, however, a little ho-hum in overtaking the expected vampness. Van Helsing’s credentials change to fit the themes here, but PC is still sweet- slapping people around to get his answers and taking long contemplative drags on his cigarette. Big C commands a lot of attention with his strong, distinctive voice and speech, yet his silent and brutal sweeping in and conquering works in his handful of scenes here. There’s something so sensual about not always seeing the actual taking bite, just the fear before and the deadly euphoria after. Yes, perhaps the ‘spies saving England from vampires’ plot might not always work, but the latent lesbian vampire action and orgasmic stakings go a long way for old school male audiences.
Yes, some of these Lee classics are for definitive fans only. Most of his massive catalog does indeed fall into the realm of low budget at best and so bad it’s good at worst. But who’s complaining? As one gladiator famously asked, “Are you not entertained?” I sure am!