Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews, Horror

A Passion from Hammer: ‘Dracula Has Risen From his Grave’

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

The tiny German village lies quiet in the early morning sunlight as a young boy enters the church, genuflects, crosses himself, and walks to the bell rope. With appropriate reverence, yet with the casualness of one who has performed this ritual many times before, he gives the rope a pull. Only this time, nothing happens. Confused, the boy braces himself for a mightier tug on the rope; but suddenly he yanks his hands away as if they have been burned. On the back of his hand is a drop of blood, and as his eyes move upward, he sees a scarlet band trickling down the bell rope. With a silent scream, he runs to fetch the village priest (Ewan Hooper). Though he is a mute, the boy expresses his agitation as best he can, and the priest follows him hurriedly to the church. Ascending the stairs to the belfry, the priest approaches the bell and pushes on it. Out swings, head-first and suspended from the clapper, the freshly killed body of a young woman.

Thus begins the most uncompromisingly religious vampire film I have seen, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Despite the fact that Terence Fisher gets all the publicity, and many assignations of auteurship, this lively film by second-stringer Freddie Francis gets my vote as the best of the Hammer Dracula films (though two more recent vampire ventures, Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970, and Scars of Dracula, 1972, have received limited distribution in the United States and have thus far escaped my viewing).

Not the least achievement of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is Christopher Lee’s strongest performance as the Count, far surpassing his competent but uneven portrayal in Horror of Dracula (1958) and the near hack-work of Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965)—both, incidentally, directed by Fisher, who also directed 1960’s Brides of Dracula, with Peter Cushing’s superb Van Helsing, but without Lee, and, indeed, without Dracula. The difference between Fisher and Francis, it seems to me, is that Fisher places more emphasis on the almost mechanical development of atmosphere, causing characterization and consistency of imagery to suffer; while Francis, more modest and more self-confining, relies on the controlled, often literary, rendering of an intelligent scenario (The Skull, The Psychopath, The Evil of Frankenstein).

The screenplay of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is by John Elder, who received an “idea” credit on Dracula, Prince of Darkness, and it is the most discerning and integrated of the four pre-1970 Hammer vampire scripts. It fits the classic Dracula mold, but with both the Van Helsing and the Renfield roles taken by priests. The former is Monsignor Ernst Müller (Rupert Davies), a spiritually and physically strong man of God who—like the monk in Dracula, Prince of Darkness—is impatient with the weakness of human fears and superstitions when they are unfounded, but leads the battle when the evil really appears.

As the second sequence of the film begins, there has been a lapse of time, but continuity of image and theme are brilliantly maintained. Monsignor Müller comes to the village to inspect and is horrified to find the church empty and fallen into disuse. In the village tavern he discovers the parish priest, who has turned to alcohol to escape the reality of his waning faith and his inability to keep his congregation in order. They will no longer go to the church because it is touched by the shadow of Dracula’s castle. Seeing that the old fears die hard, Müller determines to exorcise the castle, and persuades the village priest to renew his faith in himself by accompanying him on the journey.

The third sequence of the film presents an ascent of Golgotha along the rocky slopes leading up to Dracula’s castle. Burdened by a heavy metal cross, one of the film’s crucial images, the monsignor steps swiftly along while the priest, unburdened but exhausted by the climb, lags back, nips from his pocket flask, and at last refuses to accompany Müller the last few yards to the Count’s portals. A lightning storm rages while the monsignor bars Dracula’s door with the cross and chants the rite of exorcism. Even as he does so, however, the drunken priest stumbles and falls, hitting his head on the iced-over stream in which Dracula (Christopher Lee) has lain frozen since the end of Dracula, Prince of Darkness. The cracked ice permits blood from the priest’s head-wound to flow into the stream, and the Count rises. When the priest regains consciousness, he falls, Renfield-like, under the spell of Dracula’s murky hypnotic eyes.

These three opening sequences present in miniature the whole cycle of evil that become both theme and plot of the film. From the initial act of sacrilege (the bell-tower) and the collapse of the faithful under the sway of evil, we have moved through a phase of expiation and sacrifice (the ascent with the cross), and achieved the ultimate exorcism of evil through faith and suffering. But the cycle must begin again immediately because the village priest’s insufficient faith has allowed the reentry of evil into the world.

Monsignor Müller, unable to find the priest, descends to the village and departs thence to his home city. Dracula, accompanied by the priest, now his assistant, approaches the door of his castle, then shrinks suddenly away from the gleaming cross barring the door, and hisses, “Who has done this thing?” It’s one of Christopher Lee’s finest moments—and there are at least three others in the film.

Learning that Müller is his enemy, the Count vows revenge for the desecration of his castle, and we see the cycle unwinding again: his desecration of the church is met with the monsignor’s desecration of his castle, and the two must now enter into a blow-for-blow combat that can end only with the destruction of one or both. With the priest’s assistance, Dracula desecrates a cemetery to obtain a new coffin for himself, and travels to the monsignor’s city.

Once there, Dracula takes up clandestine residence in the basement of a bakery and inn. Here dwell a student, Paul (Barry Andrews), and a gold-hearted harlot, Zeena (Barbara Ewing). Zeena is a pathetic figure: she loves Paul desperately, but can never have him, for he is engaged to the lovely—though far less colorful and sensual—Maria (Veronica Carlson), niece of Monsignor Müller. Paul’s only reservation in the whole affair is Maria’s uncle; for, although he is a mere baker’s apprentice, Paul is also an intellectual, a student of philosophy, and an atheist, who will have no truck with religion. Nevertheless, he is determined to make Maria his own and she is receptive to his affections.

Zeena, loser in love, puts on a strong front and contents her impassioned soul with some mild flirtation with Paul as he joins his companions in the inn prior to dinner at the monsignor’s. He gets involved in a drinking game and arrives at the monsignor’s smelling like a brewery. With one mark against him already, he quickly fails the whole test by arguing against the existence of God, and gets himself expelled from the monsignor’s house. Returning to the inn, he becomes really drunk and Zeena helps him to his bed. This is the closest she will ever get to him. As she nurses the inebriate, Maria comes in and takes over the job.

Inevitably, Zeena falls easy prey to the spellbinding eyes and passionate bite of Dracula. At least, she thinks, someone is interested in her. But the whole pattern of rejection is completed when she learns that Dracula wants only to use her to obtain access to Maria for the subversion of that maiden spirit will be the Count’s full measure of revenge on Monsignor Müller. Zeena leads Maria to the Count, but the virgin escapes unscathed, thanks to a timely, though unwitting, intervention by Paul.

Zeena is embittered, for she is hopelessly under the spell of Dracula’s charm, yet sees that her success with him is no greater than with Paul or with other men: she will always be a whore. Still, she tries to dissuade the Count from his intentions against Maria (“What you want her for? You’ve got me.”) and for this ill-advised insubordination she pays with her life, albeit achieving the dignity of self-sacrifice in her last efforts to exert her free will in Maria’s favor against the Count’s fatal power.

The village priest, who has taken up residence in the inn, has the unpleasant task of disposing of Zeena’s body, and he does so by burning her in the bakery ovens (destruction by fire is one traditionally accepted means of releasing a vampire spirit from the undead, so we are not troubled, in this film, with more than one vampire making the rounds).

Introductions, however abortive, having been made, the Count begins calling on Maria by night. Their first embrace may well be the most graphically sexual of all screen vampire-kisses. In an exceptionally good touch, a closeup of Dracula’s face after his first consummation with Maria reveals that his eyes, previously yellowed with the murk of decay, are now glistening white.

Maria, of course, takes ill with that inexplicable anemia indigenous to vampire regions; but Monsignor Müller, no newcomer to the battle against the undead, soon discovers the horrible cause of her infirmity. Though he despises Paul’s atheism, he recognizes that her lover is the man who can save his niece’s life. After having been struck on the skull by Dracula’s priest after a Caligarian chase across the rooftops in pursuit of the fleeing Count, whom he has discovered in flagrante with Maria, Müller feels himself weakened, unable to go on. He calls for Paul and tells him what he must do.

Paul, unaware that the visiting village priest is in Dracula’s power, enlists his aid in protecting Maria’s room by night. The monsignor lies too near death to alert Paul to his mistake. The priest overcomes Paul and opens the carefully safeguarded bedroom to Dracula’s entry. Maria continues to fall victim to the Count’s visits and soon she, too, lies near death. Spurred at last into action, Paul seeks out Dracula’s coffin just before sunset and calls upon the faithless priest to assist him in dispatching the vampire. Just for a moment the priest gets the upper hand in his inner struggle. Paul and he drive in the stake—but neither the impulsive atheist nor the fallen priest is able to say the obligatory prayer (a part of the vampire-killing ritual that has been left out of nearly every vampire film), and soon it is too late. The Count awakens, tears the stake out of his heart, and flees into the night.

Abducting Maria, Dracula makes for his castle, and the tempo of the montage increases as one senses the onset of the customary chase sequence which climaxes all Hammer vampire films. Dracula and his victim reach the castle first. On the threshold, he again shrinks away from the monsignor’s cross, and commands Maria, “Get that that … thing out of my sight!” She removes the cross and throws it down the rockface; it lands with its base stuck in the earth very near the site of Dracula’s earlier emergence from the ice. The village priest is there, too, drawn somehow to the scene of his initial failure.

Paul climbs to the castle, and in a furious struggle with the Count manages to hurl him over the precipice. At the climax of his fall, Dracula is impaled upon the cross; and this time the weak priest finds the strength to intone a Pater Noster. Dracula’s writhing body deteriorates into putrefaction, and the priest, overcome by the strain of the ordeal, dies the death of a redeemed soul. The appropriately-named Paul, his experience with the Anti-Christ much more effective than the monsignor’s teachings could have been, makes a solemn sign of the cross, and embraces his rescued sweetheart on the threshold of Dracula’s empty castle.

The more one considers the film, the more its integral Christian imagery deepens. It is in my experience the only Dracula film that does not play down the religious motif in favor of the more sensational themes of pestilence and sensuality implicit in Bram Stoker’s original vampire characterizations. The Calvary overtone of Müller’s ascent to the castle early on marks him as a Christ-figure. His is one of three deaths that keynote the finale of the film. Though he dies quietly in his bed, he has sacrificed himself in defense of innocence against evil. In so doing, he has set the stage for the redemption of both Paul and the fallen priest. The latter also dies, the repentant death of the “good thief” Dismas. The third figure crucified on the film’s metaphoric Golgotha is, of course, the unrepentant Dracula—Satan and Anti-Christ in one.

Of Maria there is little to say that is not implied by her name. She is that paragon of purity who must be protected against evil by divine intercession and the struggles of Christian men. Zeena, by contrast, is the film’s only pagan, an amoral person partisan neither to Christ nor to Satan, but subject to the influence of both. She is a Magdalen, and we assume—perhaps because we want to—that her kindness of spirit will redeem her for her flirtation with the demonic. The burning of her body in the bakery oven suggests a release from the passions of the flesh; and the association with bread in this regard seems far from accidental. It might be pressing the point a bit to see in Zeena’s immolation a play on the bread-body imagery of transubstantiation, were it not for the fact that an earlier instance in the film also makes use of this pattern: The village priest, drunk with wine, falls onto the frozen stream and sheds blood, which in turn revitalizes the vampire. At the climax of the film, the priest reverses this fateful turn of events through prayer, setting the Count’s bloodlust permanently to rest. It is as he reaches the words “panem nostrum quotidianum” (“our daily bread”) that the vampire perishes.

It is no accident, either, that while Paul is a student of philosophy, he is also a student of the bakery. His progress from atheism through the recognition of evil, suffering, and the struggle against evil to ultimate faith is metaphorically underscored by the fact that he is an apprentice baker who has much to learn about bread.

It is the Christian association of the term “bread” with the Redeemer and the sacrifice of Calvary which gives to Zeena’s destruction in the bread oven the same dignity of sacrifice that attends the monsignor’s death in the service of Good. But if sacrifice is the keynote to the characters of Zeena and Müller, it is the “Fortunate Fall” that characterizes Paul and the village priest. These two lack the innate strength of character to recognize and embrace the Good for its own sake. They must be turned in the direction of God through a devastating confrontation with Evil. Each, early on, is characterized in terms of a weakness for immoderate drinking (reinforcing the film’s imagery of wine twisted into the vampire’s unholy bloodlust); each has his own lack of faith; and each is awarded his moment of grace. But while Paul undergoes a distinctly Pauline conversion and lives to learn and walk in the path of Goodness, there is something of the Christ in the weak village priest. Though he is the character we like least, it is his passion that informs the entire film, from the first shot in his church to Dracula’s climactic death. Even while under the vampire’s power, the priest agonizes over his lack of faith and his inability to extricate himself from the evil which has overwhelmed him. While Dracula sleeps, he suffers; when Dracula wakes, he obeys, but his eyes reflect the torment of his soul. It is, at last, his final act of penance which destroys the evil, and assures his own redemption.

When Dracula Has Risen from the Grave was released in the United States in 1968, it was heralded by an engagingly frivolous ad-campaign. One layout featured a head-and-shoulders profile of a woman with a Band-Aid prominently displayed on her neck, and bore the legend, “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave … obviously.” Another showed an empty coffin, flanked by the words: “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave … You can’t keep a good man down.” Whether intentionally or not, there is an underlying seriousness to this mirth. For the vampire has always represented the excesses of fleshly indulgence that underlie the all-too-real workings of evil in the world. Perhaps the thoughtful filmgoer who saw those posters might have considered for a moment the world around him and conceded, that, yes, maybe Dracula has risen from the grave.

If this supposition is not exactly supported by the film, it is nevertheless true that Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, in its imagery and the struggles of its characters from doubt to grace, embodies some real—and, in a Hammer horror film, most unexpected—truths about Good, Evil, religion, and human beings.

Direction: Freddie Francis. Screenplay: John Elder. Cinematography: Arthur Grant. Production Design: Bernard Robinson. Music: James Bernard. Production: Aida Young, for Hammer.
The Players: Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, Veronica Carlson, Barry Andrews, Barbara Ewing, Ewan Hooper.

© 1974 Robert C. Cumbow