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The Invisible Boy (1957)
There's not much excitement visible either...
This film remains of interest to sci-fi fans because of its reputation as the "other" Robby The Robot film, though forever in the shadow of the classic "Forbidden Planet" which gave Robby his impressive debut.
But although it gives Robby plenty of involvement, there's really very little to recommend it. I found the film exceedingly dull throughout, the only sequence that rises above the general tedium is that towards the end when Robby single-handedly engages a battalion (I pitied the poor actor in the Robby suit when all those explosions were going off right next to him).
The plot has some credible ideas, including its central premise of a super computer looking to usurp the human race as the dominant life form on Earth, but just meanders, and the boy turning invisible is a superfluous plot device to give the film some comedy - except that it really isn't very funny.
This isn't a cheap film; although lacking the colour of its more famous cousin, it looks quite polished with decent sets, acting, direction and (on the whole) special effects but it just lacks punch. And it can't seem to decide whether it's a light-hearted comic tale for kids, or a more dramatic sci-fi horror for an older audience: it's both, and yet it's neither. What audience was this film pitched at? The kids will find the serious stuff too technical and boring, the adults will find the film lacking depth with too much time devoted to the more whimsical elements.
Overall, "Forbidden Planet" fans may enjoy seeing this as a curio, but other viewers may find themselves switching off before the end.
When sci-fi takes a nosedive...
I'm never quite sure about "Star Wars", whether it really deserves its status as a classic film or whether it's actually not all that good once you cut through the above-average design, effects and musical score. But when I watch something like "Starcrash" one of the copycat movies rush-produced in its wake, I'm forced to conclude that "Star Wars" had a lot more going for it than its surface gloss. However much "Starcrash" may try and emulate its more famous predecessor, it falls desperately short in every respect.
There are a few token ingredients which "Starcrash" shares with "Star Wars", such as shoot-outs with hand-held laser weapons, dogfights in space, a laser sword or two, a robot sidekick with a human personality, a quest to find/rescue a person of noble origin whom the main protagonist subsequently falls in love with, and an evil empire bent on subjugating all other races, the leader of whom is in a space station ready to put his sinister new super-weapon into action.
But there the similarity to "Star Wars" ends and "Starcrash" goes off on its own tangent of banality. The plot casts a pair of space smugglers in the hero roles: Stella Star (Caroline Munro), described as the best pilot in the galaxy, and her alien (but human-looking) companion Akton (Marjoe Gortner) who, likewise, is supposedly the galaxy's best navigator. Despite their combined skills, the pair get caught by patrols and are sentenced to hard labour on a penal colony. Feisty Stella soon contrives an escape (running away, no less, while her fellow up-risers get slaughtered) only to then find she would have been freed anyway for the Emperor has need of her services he wants Stella and Akton to find his missing son who was on a top secret mission to stop the evil Count Zarth Arn from using a deadly new weapon to take control of the universe.
That is the catalyst for Stella to be propelled from one deadly situation to the next as she travels from planet to planet encountering a race of unfriendly Amazon warriors and their giant robot (which itself sports a pair of female breasts), nearly freezing to death on an ice planet, being trussed up by a band of babbling troglodytes (who either want to eat her or sacrifice her, it's not clear which) and so on. She ultimately locates the missing son who of course is a heart-throb even if he does wear the same amount of eye-liner as she does, and they return to the Emperor who launches an all-out attack on the Count's base, which proves unsuccessful. The one last hope for the galaxy is for Stella to wipe out the Count's fortress by engaging in a desperate kamikaze mission the 'star crash' of the film's title.
If that all sounds like exciting stuff, then don't raise your hopes: writer-director Luigi Cozzi completely wastes whatever potential this storyline may have had. The action sequences are perfunctory but lack impact because the whole film is devoid of soul. The characters are so bland and one-dimensional that the viewer never feels any real involvement with them. Worst in this regard is Count Zarth Arn, a snarling pantomime villain prone to frequent bouts of maniacal laughter. He even has the standard goatee beard to prove he's the baddie... He's so camp you have to wonder how anybody takes him seriously, let alone how he rose to such a position of power. And his ambition? Well, to conquer the universe, of course! Equally bad, and yet by some degree entertaining because of how lame it is, is the dialogue. Some choice lines include "I don't tolerate malfunctions!", "No one can survive these deadly rays!", "What in the universe is that?", "I'll fix you!", "Soon I will join you as your prince of darkness!" and, "Imperial Battleship: Halt the flow of time!" The script is also riddled with far too many token utterances such as "What's that?", "Hey, look out!", "Let me go!" and "Come on!" which demonstrate just how little effort was put into it.
As the main character, Stella may certainly look the part thanks to Munro's stunning physique, garbed in a series of outfits that Barbarella probably discarded on the grounds that they were too kinky, and she may be gutsy, but... Well, she doesn't actually do very much except blunder into a series of perils in the best traditions of Pearl White and get saved by one of her colleagues, often via a hitherto unmentioned special ability. These abilities know no bounds of credibility, such as freezing an entire planet in one moment of time, or being able to foresee the future whenever the situation calls for it! The special effects are variable, with nothing reaching the standards of even "2001: A Space Odyssey" which was produced a decade earlier. The spaceship models look decidedly chunky, almost like they're made from Lego. At one point in the movie Stella has been frozen and when she thaws out, the effect is achieved via a rather poor series of cross fades reminiscent of the the effect used for the transformations of Lon Chaney Jr's Wolf Man in the Universal films of over thirty years earlier.
Did I mention the acting? That's bad too, almost without exception, although it's difficult to blame the actors when they're equipped with such a bad script. Also, many of the cast have been overdubbed in the English language version, including Caroline Munro, so it's not actually her voice we hear.
Even John Barry, one of cinema's best composers, is operating below par on this one. He probably realised when he saw the rushes that it just wasn't worth the effort. If so, he was right. 'Starcrash' is beyond redemption.
Night Train to Murder (1983)
A sluggish ride
A successful double-act on stage for many years, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise eventually made a successful transfer to television after some initial teething troubles in the Fifties, and in 1968 joined the BBC for a ten-year spell which would produce their funniest and most enduring work, making them Britain's best loved comic pair.
Their rise in prominence had witnessed three rather weak feature film entries in the 1960s and in 1978, at their peak, they were lured away from the BBC to Thames Television with a more lucrative contract and an agreement to take them beyond their established variety sketch show format with the possibility of producing a made-for-television film.
The transfer to Thames did not go smoothly, as it took a while for Thames to also secure the services of their primary writer, Eddie Braben, and Eric Morecambe suffered a serious heart attack barely a year after signing the Thames contract. The TV shows eventually continued, though never quite with the same success as the earlier BBC ones. Even the ITV network seemed to be losing faith with the pair, as from 1981 their annual Christmas show was moved away from the prestigious Christmas Day slot where it had been a fixture since the late Sixties.
Morecambe, in declining health and possibly motivated by a desire to demonstrate his versatility before the end came, appeared to be tiring of the format and even, possibly, of the double act itself and was pursuing other projects including solo ventures such as writing novels and appearing (without Wise) in some film subjects for director Charles Wallace.
'Night Train To Murder' seems to have been a half-hearted concession by Thames to allow Morecambe & Wise to make another film subject. The immediate problem is that it is not a film, it is shot on videotape which immediately gives it a cheaper, more amateurish look. The script, apparently written by Morecambe & Wise themselves along with producer-director Joe McGrath, places the duo in the rather clichéd plot of travelling on an overnight train to the reading of a will in a big, isolated old house where surviving family members (including Morecambe's niece, played by Lysette Anthony in one of her earliest TV roles)stand to inherit a considerable fortune, providing they don't first get killed off by a mysterious figure who seems intent on being the sole heir.
Although hardly an original idea, the premise at least lends itself better to the duo's style of comedy than their earlier feature films. They're backed up by a pretty strong cast, too, including Richard Vernon, Kenneth Haig, Edward Judd, Pamela Salem and, particularly, Fulton MacKay, an actor of sharp talent who never seemed to be fully appreciated when he was still alive.
The script, however, all seems rather sloppy. The gags are rather hit and miss, and even though it's not meant to be taken too seriously, the plot still defies logic (why does the villain have to adopt all the disguises? And if he's a master of quick-change disguise, why wear a rubber mask at times?) But even when the jokes work on paper, McGrath's direction rarely maximises their potential and too many of them fall flat.
Eric Morecambe sadly died in May 1984, the tributes hailing him as one of Britain's greatest comics. 'Night Train To Murder' had still not been broadcast and was held back until the following Christmas period, but it is perhaps significant that ITV kept it away from the big nights, only screening it on the rather insignificant night of 3rd January 1985 with relatively little fanfare.
In this context, it is poignant that the production opens (even before the opening titles) with Eric and Ernie attending a funeral, telling the audience that one of the cast members died during production (setting up a gag that comes later on).
In summation, this production hardly shows Morecambe and Wise at their best and leaves one wondering what might have been. Even so, it gives us one final chance to see them doing something different, and the scenes early on where Morecambe momentarily drops the comedy and plays an avuncular figure opposite Lysette Anthony give us a rare, possibly unique glimpse of a wholly different facet of the man. It's tempting to wonder how this might have been developed had Morecambe lived and had time to explore further creative avenues. The sad irony is that he didn't, and that it was the BBC rather than Thames who were soon making feature-length versions of some of their top comedies shot entirely on film, such as Only Fools And Horses and Last Of The Summer Wine, for the Christmas schedules.
Like its star, this film is showing its age
As the years tick by, it seems that modern audiences have less and less time for the comedies of the earlier decades of motion pictures. Certainly here in the UK you'd be hard-pushed nowadays to find any of the output of Chaplin, Keaton, the Marx Brothers or Laurel & Hardy on television. As for Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon - forget it.
W C Fields has, perhaps, never enjoyed a particularly strong following on this side of the Atlantic but even so, there was a time when his films would populate the TV schedules. That time seems past and Fields is unquestionably becoming something of an obscurity. The image of an ageing, obese comedian fell out of favour when audiences turned their backs on once-popular stars of more recent times such as Benny Hill and Bernard Manning and the liquor-loving lechery of W C Fields in this context is unlikely to find much support.
Fields oughtn't be so casually dismissed. He was a strong identifiable and quite unique character on screen, and a comedian with a sharp repartee who knew his craft. "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" dates from the latter stages of his career as ill health was beginning to take a grip of him, but his wit is still on top form and he is still able to engage in a surprising amount of physical comedy.
The film betrays the notion that it had a rather turbulent production. The original script apparently contained scenes that are not even alluded to in the finished picture, which would have expanded upon the relationship between Fields and his niece (played by Gloria Jean). Several actors who allegedly shot scenes for this film are wholly absent from the final cut. And at one point even Fields himself breaks the fourth wall to actually tell the watching audience of a scene which was excised at the behest of the censors! What we are left with is a slightly disjointed mess. The plot, such as it is, involves Fields visiting a film studio to try and sell his latest script to a producer. Along the way we are treated to glimpses of the rather chaotic life at the studio where Fields' niece is employed as an up-and-coming star.
As the producer reads through Fields' rather far-fetched story idea, the events in the script are related through live action so we actually get to 'see' the movie as Fields' character envisaged it, albeit with interruptions from the producer.
This story-within-a-story approach is novel for the time, and is an interesting mirror of the true genesis of "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break", but it is also rather limiting. The 'Esoteric Studios' plot is simply too weak to hold up a feature film and is far more the sort of situation you'd expect to find in a Three Stooges short subject.
Much more interesting is the 'inner story', that is the plot of Fields' script that the producer reads, which concerns Fields falling out of an aeroplane and landing in the isolated mountain-top residence of a man-hating woman and her beautiful daughter who has grown to adulthood without even being aware of the existence of men. The arrival of Fields in this situation is ripe for comedy and has great potential, but that potential is barely tapped as too many possibilities are spurned and Fields leaves the scene all too quickly.
Fields is easily the most interesting character in this film. Unfortunately too many of the others are found wanting and the sequences where Fields is absent suffer badly because they rely on weak comedy from others (notably Franklin Pangborn as the film producer, and juvenile double-act Butch and Buddy) and rather superfluous musical scenes in which the very capable Gloria Jean sings numbers which are badly dated now.
The film ends rather abruptly after a lengthy car chase sequence which again has little relevance to the plot, and seems contrived to give the film a more spectacular conclusion, but in reality it's not a conclusion at all - whilst Fields' character was determined to reach a specific destination the rather thin plot, sadly, was not going anywhere and so the film just - well, ends.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Don't let this one go
I put this film on last night having no prior knowledge of what it was about, and I certainly hadn't read the book from which it was adapted. The intriguing storyline soon sucked me in and I remained completely absorbed throughout. As this is a spoiler-free review, I won't say too much about the plot, but it unfolds at an acceptable pace with a few nice twists and turns along the way. It raises questions here and there, but provides enough clues for the viewer to fill in the blanks without leaving him confused and, thankfully, without having to labour every point. The story is mainly centred around 3 characters, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, and follows their lives over a period of many years. It's debatable which is actually the main plot - the love triangle, or the sci-fi/moral element of the narrative, but these two strands are woven together well and as well as being handled sensitively and with refreshing subtlety, they are also thought-provoking. The characters themselves are believable, a far cry from the usual stereotypical protagonists of modern film. I was also relieved that as this film progressed it didn't descend into clichéd action-thriller nonsense with the main characters being relentlessly pursued as they try to escape their destiny, as is so often the case. The film is also well directed and boasts some lovely cinematography, showing off some excellent scenery throughout. All in all, my viewing of this film was a most pleasurable surprise. I shall file this one away under "Excellent - must watch again."
One Way Pendulum (1965)
Inventive surreal comedy that will linger in the memory
I watched this film with practically no prior knowledge of it and for the first fifteen minutes or so I thought it was shaping up into a typical farce or situation comedy of the era with one or two elements which seemed a little too far-fetched. However, the dialogue and the situations become even more bizarre and then, at about 40 minutes in, the film turns completely on its head with a wholly surreal twist.
This film is wonderfully bonkers, incredibly inventive with a small but excellent cast and a plethora of richly absurd lines of dialogue. The characters almost without exception see the peculiarities in their peers whilst being completely oblivious to their own eccentricities and in that sense is a wonderful observation of our own individual failings. It won't appeal to everyone, but if you like the humour of Monty Python, Spike Milligan or, especially, The Strange World of Gurney Slade, you should love this overlooked, and largely forgotten gem.
I see it flopped on its original release, maybe it was too ahead of its time, or more likely people watched it with expectations that this film would deliver a comprehensible plot with traditional gags. It doesn't. Like the main character, Mr Groomkirby, it exists in a world of its own - and we are privileged to be afforded a glimpse into it.
The Reptile (1966)
This reptile lacks bite!
This 1966 offering from the famous Hammer studios starts off fairly well, building up a nice air of mystery in spite of a pre-credits sequence which rather unnecessarily lets the cat out of the bag. It's all very clichéd stuff, really - Captain Harry Spalding and his wife arrive in a small Cornish village to take possession of the cottage that belonged to his late brother, who recently died in mysterious circumstances.
Spalding finds the locals very stand-offish, and they have an annoying habit (but convenient to the plot) of talking in riddles about a "black death" which is killing people, whilst also hinting that "they" are responsible for the deaths without elaborating further.
The Spaldings are visited in turn by their abrasive and evasive neighbour Doctor Franklyn and his considerably more affable daughter Anna, who seems to be frightened of her father and repressed by him.
Ultimately, of course, it turns out that the beautiful Anna is the victim of some curse from an Eastern 'snake cult' which causes her to transform periodically into a reptilian monster, whose lethal bite is causing the mysterious deaths in the village.
Unfortunately, the plot begins to unravel more and more as the film progresses and rather than explaining most of the mysterious things that have been happening, the subsequent events serve only to ignore them.
The locals' hostility towards Spalding is never explained beyond an initial "they don't like strangers in these parts" comment. The ransacking of Spalding's cottage is never explained. There's a shocking lack of exploration into the psyche of Anna/The Reptile - Why does she kill? What's her motivation? Is she even aware, when in human form, that she becomes this monster? It's just not made clear.
Likewise, her father's behaviour is a bit bizarre and seems to stem from a need to add drama and intrigue into the plot rather than any logical motivation. Supposedly he's keeping Anna repressed to limit the harm she can cause in her reptilian form, and you could understand him not wanting people poking their noses into his affairs, but even so, his rudeness to others seems extreme whilst wandering into other people's property uninvited is clearly going to make people curious about you, as does angrily smashing up a sitar in front of dinner guests because you don't like the way your daughter is playing it (an interesting sequence which again is left very ambiguous). Franklyn's treatment of his daughter suggests she's at fault for everything, he certainly doesn't show her an ounce of sympathy for the condition his actions brought upon her. This is at odds with the rest of the film which suggests Anna is the innocent victim.
Things get progressively sillier. For a start, is it really necessary to go digging up bodies just to see if they have bites on their neck? Where are the police in this film? Or the local doctor? You know, the sort of people you expect to arrive on the scene when people are dying mysteriously.
The reason the deaths are a mystery, of course, is that a bite victim dies quickly, before they can raise the alarm and explain what has happened to them. So why, when Spalding is bitten, does he have time to run all the way back across the moor to his house? Furthermore, with the deadly venom having had time to circulate around his body, how does making a small cut in his neck prevent him from dying? How does he even know to do this when, by his own earlier admission, he has absolutely no medical knowledge at all? Even more absurdly, reptiles need to keep warm so Franlyn's mansion has a convenient bubbling sulphur pit in its cellar. I wonder how long it took him to find a property on the market with such a facility? Still, it's not all bad. The cast are generally very good, with Michael Ripper (in a sizable role for once!) and Jacqueline Pearce being particularly worthy of mention. Sets, costumes and effects are mostly good, the exception being the rather weak appearance of the monster, though these are wisely kept to brief glimpses. Playing the story out as a mystery at least keeps the viewer interested in it throughout, even if the ending isn't very satisfying.
I'd much rather have seen a bit more depth to the relationship between Franklyn and his daughter Anna, and seen her more visibly locked in some struggle between her good 'human' persona and her evil 'reptilian' one, and Franklyn portrayed as a more sympathetic character torn between his love for his daughter and his horror at the murders she is responsible for. However, this is ultimately a film designed for 'surface' horror, easily-digestible set pieces which we're not supposed to think about too much.
Trial by Combat (1976)
When did you last see a knight like this?
Quite an oddity this one.
The premise is simple. In 1970s England, a cult of enthusiasts of medieval knights, led by Sir Giles Marley (Donald Pleasance), have become vigilantes, dishing out their own unique brand of justice to criminals who have managed to evade punishment by the police or law courts. After capturing their targets, they put them through a 'trial by combat', that is making them fight for their lives in the style of the old knights, primarily via a joust.
Now whilst that's not exactly the most solid premise, but it's certainly no worse than that which many other horror films are founded upon. Indeed, things start off quite promisingly. The images of heraldry and the colourful English countryside (back in the days when English summers used to be dry and sunny) give an interesting look to the film, then when you throw in actors like Donald Pleasance being suitably sinister and Peter Cushing as a concerned neighbour who discovers and opposes the dastardly goings-on, you think this could unfold as a dark, macabre game of cat-and-mouse between the pair.
Unfortunately that's not the case. Cushing's character is immediately bumped off, so instead of him we have as the leading good guys retired police chief Colonel Cook (John Mills) and David Birney as Sir John Gifford, the estranged son of Cushing's character returned from the USA to claim his inheritance.
Unfortunately Mills' character is made eccentric almost to the point of being ridiculous, for example he leaves the windows open so that pigeons can fly around his office whilst he's working. Well, actually it's not his office anymore, it's that of his replacement Oliver Griggs (John Savident), so perhaps it's all really Cook's way of winding him up since the pair are rivals. Whatever, it seems to be thrown into the film for comedy effect, and that's one of the main problems, there's too much comedy. Light relief ceases to become 'relief' when it dominates the rest of the proceedings.
Many British TV and film productions of this period felt a need to incorporate an American leading man in order to capture the overseas market. Whilst there's nothing wrong with that idea, in practise many of them failed because they had a bland, stereotypical American character played by a bland stereotypical American actor. The 1970s British TV series 'Thriller' suffers very badly in this respect and 'Trial By Combat' is another case in point. In a film littered with great British actors who are able to inject a real presence and character into even the smallest of parts (even down to the likes of Bernard Hill, George Sweeney and Kevin Lloyd who have early cameos here), Birney as a lead is so one-dimensional and uninteresting he just gets swallowed up. Furthermore, very early on in the film, his character comfortably defeats pretty much all of Marley's toughest warriors in a friendly contest, which completely undermines the suspense when they lock horns on a more serious level in the closing stages of the film.
Barbara Hershey plays the female lead and is given very little to do. Well, actually she does manage to knock down John Savident by pushing a cannon ball along the floor at him with her foot from a distance of 15 feet, but that's just symptomatic of the kind of film this is. I won't say how Pleasance's character meets his end, but that's pretty silly too.
The most frustrating thing about this film is that, with the ideas and resources at its disposal, it should have been so much better. Birney aside, it really does have a good cast, and there are some good ideas and images too, which at least keeps it interesting, but it completely fails as a work of horror or suspense due to a pervading air of silliness, and so it consequently leaves you wondering exactly what audience the director was trying to appeal to.
Dracula's Dog (1978)
This film was known in the UK as "Zoltan - Hound Of Dracula". Now, a 1970s horror flick with that sort of title would probably make you think of the Hammer films, but in fact this production has nothing of the look or feel of a Hammer film. In fact, I'm not sure it has the look or feel of *any* other horror film I've seen, because Zoltan - Hound Of Dracula is really something quite unique.
Much of it is shot in bright, sunny open countryside, a setting which tends not to lend itself very well to the horror genre, although to be fair most of this picture's suspense scenes are reserved for the night-time sequences.
The film's 'star' is a big black dog, Zoltan, a vampire in its own right. Through a brief flashback sequence we learn that many years ago he gained his vampire status after being bitten by Dracula, and thereafter served as the faithful companion to the famous vampire. And no, I've no idea why Dracula, a being that can supposedly adopt the guise of a bat or a wolf, would have need of a pet dog, but there you go. Maybe Dracula had a sentimental side to him where animals were concerned - after all, he did apparently pose to have his photo taken with Zoltan! Anyway, at some point in the past Dracula and his clan, including Zoltan, were stopped with the customary stakes through the heart, and laid to rest in an underground tomb in Eastern Europe. Military explosions open this tomb in the present day, and at this point the film is very vague as to why things happen - suffice to say contrived events lead to Zoltan coming back to life, along with his original owner, the semi-vampiric Veidt Schmidt, but not Dracula himself, which is probably just as well, because in the brief flashback glimpses we have of the Count, actor Michael Pataki looks quite ridiculous in the traditional Bela Lugosi attire.
Without the proper Dracula to serve, Zoltan and Schmidt apparently have to seek out a new master from the same bloodline (yes, run that one by me again, please...) and so head off to Los Angeles to track down his only known living descendant, to turn him into a vampire. And no, it's not explained how they know where he is. Luckily, local vampire expert Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer) realises what's going on and heads off in pursuit to stop them.
The descendant, Michael Drake, is a happy family man who is just in the process of taking his wife, kids and dogs off on a camping trip to get away from it all.
The bulk of the film consists of Drake and his family being terrorised by Zoltan and the other dogs, who get bitten and become vampiric themselves. Despite an overall air of cheapness and lack of depth, there are some good sequences, particularly when Drake finds himself trapped in first a hut, and later his car, surrounded by a pack of dogs clawing away at his defences, intent on getting to him, or also the brutal savaging of a lone camper. The titular canine, Zoltan, looks quite effective throughout, and certainly isn't an animal you'd want to cross on a dark night.
You have to give the film some credit for trying to come up with something a little different. The Dracula aspect of this film is more a marketing ploy and the plot might have benefited from having the Dracula references removed altogether. The character of Veidt Schmidt doesn't do very much either, but given that a dog can't talk, he's really just a lazy plot device to explain Zoltan's motivations at any given point.
The musical score is low key and unmemorable. This is a film that stretches credulity at times, but it is undemanding, lively and original. It's far from being a great film, but there are certainly worse ones around. If your expectations aren't too high, then you might find it enjoyable. And the closing shot is quite good!
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Stake and chicks
Dracula, the most famous vampire in literature, has cropped up in countless films over the decades. The original novel, written by Bram Stoker, is rightly regarded as a classic. Stoker at least had the sense to keep the character as a one-off and resisted the temptation to write sequels.
With the movies, it's a different matter. Any hit film practically demands a sequel, because any film project guaranteed to make a certain amount at the box office is easier to finance than an unknown original work. The problem with Dracula, though, is that he's a very limited character. Audiences know him so well that they have certain expectations, so you've got to have him sinking his fangs into the neck of a woman or two, you've got to have him avoiding sunlight, having an aversion to crucifixes and ultimately being dispatched with that stake through the heart.
In the 50s and 60s it was the Hammer studio which was producing the regular adventures of Dracula, but repetition was inevitably setting in. So, how to give the vampire fresh blood? Simple, transplant him from that very vaguely defined European setting of the past and drop him into (then) present-day London.
Of course, when Dracula was originally written it was essentially in a "present day" setting, just as the Sherlock Holmes stories were. Like Holmes, Dracula has tended to stay in his Victorian environs ever since, rather than move with the times, though there is no specific reason why this should have to be the case.
This film opens with a final battle between Lawrence Van Helsing and Dracula in Hyde Park, London in 1872, so well constructed that it could rightfully have formed the climax to any of Hammer's previous Dracula entries. Taking their usual respective roles, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee add that essential touch of continuity to the earlier films.
Then there's a sudden cut to a jet plane flying overhead, coupled with a more modern style of music (but still to the same basic tune) and we now find ourselves in the early 70s.
Hammer tried so hard to emphasise that the film was "now" that the 70s references are frequently glaringly over the top. Middle-aged men who make these sort of films are seldom finely in tune with fast-changing youth culture, and their attempts to capture it here result in some outrageous fashions (even by 1970s standards), plus lots of hip talk about 'shooting up', 'digging' things and calling everyone 'man'. The backgrounds of the group of young adults at the centre of this story remain sadly unexplored, one can only conclude they come from rich families and are free of any shackles of responsibility. Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) we know lives with her grandfather, Lorrimer Van Helsing (grandson of Lawrence - you can see where this is going), but her parents are never referred to. Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), a disciple of Dracula, has enough money at his disposal to afford a luxury apartment in London, but we never find out how.
Alucard soon has the group dabbling in the occult - they think it's a bit of fun, but he's really bringing Dracula back from the grave, and so the fun begins.
What follows is Cushing's Lorrimer Van Helsing having to convince the authorities that a vampire is at work in the neighbourhood, and then, ultimately, another duel to the death between him and Dracula in the ruins of an old church.
Whilst the plot doesn't stand up to close scrutiny - there is too much left unexplained - it is lively and entertaining. The settings are varied but work well, particularly having Dracula creeping around the old church at night, or Van Helsing setting off for his do-or-die mission walking along streets covered in graffiti.
Whilst the characters are mixed and generally shallow, we are at least treated to a first rate cast, several of whom (Beacham, Kitchen, Munro and Neame) went on to distinguish themselves.
What the film really lacks is a real threat from Dracula. His menace in this film is confined to a small group of 'trendy' young adults who, thanks to their loutish behaviour early on in the film, we have little sympathy for. Placing Dracula in the present day should have made audiences of the time feel unnerved that this monster could be within their midst, and to better achieve this Dracula should have been shown to have claimed victims from all cross sections of society. Instead, he doesn't actually do all that much in the film, but then that was a perennial problem with a character that is rather limited in scope.
I just wish that Hammer had had the guts to keep Dracula alive at the end, and maybe kill off Van Helsing instead. If there's anything that really undermined the whole Hammer Dracula series, it was the number of times Dracula was killed only to come back to life again in the following film.
Despite the niggles, I enjoy this film and can happily re-watch it. The 1970s are becoming more a part of history now rather than present day, so this film is taking on a new slant, and a very colourful one at that. Don't take it too seriously and you might just dig it!