The Hammer Films
by Jack Hunter
124 pages, Glitter Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Bram Stoker certainly hit on something good when he created the character of Count Dracula. Ever since the publication of Stoker’s novel in 1897, the titular character has cast an exceedingly long shadow on popular culture. According to Wikipedia, the bloodsucking Transylvanian nobleman has featured in over two hundred films. From Max Schreck’s creepy turn in 1922’s “Nosferatu” to Universal’s recent attempt to reboot the character in “Dracula Untold”, scarcely a year goes by without another incarnation of the Count gracing the silver screen.
It is interesting that with so many different Draculas to choose from, only two actors have become synonymous with the role. Ask someone to think of a cinematic Dracula and you can virtually guarantee they will either plump for Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. Lugosi’s aristocratic performance in 1931 gave the character some sinister gravitas and set the standard for the next 27 years. All changed in 1958 when Hammer studios cast the devilishly handsome Christopher Lee in the lead role and introduced the world to the sexy vampire. It’s hard to believe that up until this time, nobody had picked up on the erotic undertones in Stoker’s novel. Nowadays, we can’t move for falling over a sparkly, undead hunk who is just as likely to suck your face as they are to suck your blood. We still get the occasional ugly vampire (such as the freaky ones in “30 Days of Night” or the beast-like bloodsuckers in “From Dusk Till Dawn”) but sexy vampires are far more common. Lee’s commanding performance in “Dracula” (or “Horror of Dracula”, as it was known in the US) was so popular that he returned to the role a further six times for Hammer studios in the preceding sixteen years.
Jack Hunter’s pocket book, “Eyes of Blood” aims to be a “comprehensive visual tribute” to Hammer’s Dracula movie-cycle starring Christopher Lee. With over fifty production photographs from the seven movies and a very nice section featuring twenty colour reproductions of poster art, Hunter’s book is certainly eye-catching and fun to flick through. Although the production photographs are in black and white, they are all reproduced clearly and many take up the whole page. Better still, page numbers are only printed on pages of text so you can enjoy the pictures in all their gory glory. Whether you are looking for a close-up of Lee’s uncomfortable-looking red contact lenses or some stills of the grislier moments from the films, the small book’s impressive collection of images does not disappoint.
What lets the book down is the text. Each movie is provided with a detailed synopsis, a blow-by-blow (or bite-by-bite) account of the plot, and a few paragraphs of commentary. By modern standards, the plots to the Hammer Dracula films are rather hokey and Hunter’s inelegant prose plods through the various incidents of the films without capturing the pacing or tension of their cinematic equivalents. What we are left with is a simple account of the incidents of each film, and this does not make for a terribly interesting read. Being a die-hard Hammer fan, I was hoping that the commentary section would make up for the lacklustre synopses. Unfortunately, things aren’t much better here. Hunter’s comments tend to simply be his opinion on the skills of the director and cinematographer at work on the particular film and a few sentences detailing how the film was developed by the studio. Throw in a few typos and formatting errors and the book begins to look even more threadbare and amateurish. Those of us who have been spoiled by Marcus Hearn’s exhaustive “The Hammer Vault” will learn nothing new about each of the films and this is perhaps the biggest stumbling point of “Eyes of Blood” - who is it for? Fans of Hammer’s Dracula-cycle will be well-acquainted with the plots and so have little need of a plot summary. Those who aren’t familiar with those classic horrors will have their enjoyment of the films ruined by reading the synopsis. As I read “Eyes of Blood”, I found myself wondering exactly who the book was aimed at.
Hunter’s book is also curiously limited in its scope. It is a well-known fact that Christopher Lee grew to loathe donning the cloak and fangs for Hammer. He swore that each film would be the last time he portrayed the Count, and Hammer was forced to pay him more and more each time in order to lure him back. Hunter’s book makes a brief mention of Lee’s dislike of the films but seems too wrapped up in hero-worship to explore the subject in any depth. By focusing exclusively on the Christopher Lee Hammer films, the book excludes two movies that, by rights, should be included in the Dracula-cycle. The first is “The Brides of Dracula” (1960), considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best Hammer horror film. The second is “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” (1974), Hammer’s bold and not-entirely-unsuccessful attempt to meld kung fu and horror movies. Hunter acknowledges the presence of these films with a cursory mention, but I felt that the two most interesting films in the series were sidelined. There is no mention of Lee’s performance on the “Hammer presents Dracula” 1974 soundtrack album, in which Lee reads an all-new Dracula tale to the accompaniment James Bernard’s stirring score. Nor is there any word of Lee’s turns as the Count outside the Hammer-cycle in Jess Franco’s “Count Dracula” (1974) or the documentary “In Search of Dracula” (1975).
Being jam-packed with pictures, “Eyes ofBlood” is an attractive book that one could happily leaf through whilst browsing in a bookshop. However, at just over a hundred pages long, the high asking-price of £10.95 / $16.95 is unlikely to make this one an impulse-buy for the uninitiated. Fans of Hammer movies will most likely own other, weightier and more informative books on the subject. At first glance, “Eyes of Blood” promises much. Scratch the surface and it is unfortunately rather anaemic.
Hereward L.M. Proops