I learnt about Europe from watching Hammer horror films.
This claim may seem merely ironic, even farcical, but I intend neither irony nor farce when I state: my early and lasting impressions of Europe were gleaned from viewing Hammer vampire films in the early 1970s.
I was 10 in 1970; over the next two or three years, I watched, along with my boyhood friends, as many of the Hammer films as were screened at the local cinema. We saw other films, of course, but none made an impact on me approaching that of the vampire films.
The lurid technicolour; the unnatural red of the blood; the lushness of the forest; the atmosphere of the village inn; the mystery of the castle on top of the mountain; the wolves and bats; the mist; churches and buildings made of stone; the villagers’ fear; the thrilling power of the Count; his lure of the village women; his fangs sinking into their throats; the climb up the mountain to confront him; the grim-faced man of God battling the arrogant Count; the ritual elements deployed in battle: garlic, holy water, fire, wooden stakes, ice, crucifixes; the superstition, the dread; the social order; the ancient customs of the village; the fearsome majesty of the castle; the thick woods at night.
The world created in these films was so foreign to my experience in small-town Australia, so strange, so old, so … European, that it became imprinted on my mind as a vision of Europe. And when, many years later, I travelled to Europe and spent time living there, that imprint remained.
I grew up in a NSW country town founded on coal-mining. The best word to describe the physical aspect of the town is: flat. There are no hills. There is one main street with shops; wide streets spread out across a flat terrain. The houses are weatherboard, mostly three bedrooms. Each has a veranda at the front, and a back yard within a quarter-acre block. The houses are all one storey. There is no elevation in the town, apart from the two or three steps up to the verandas. On a rare visit to Sydney, a friend of my mother’s once fell down the stairs at Central Station: she had never been confronted by so many steps. I didn’t experience a two-storey dwelling until my late teens, during a visit to student friends in a Sydney terrace house. I climbed repeatedly up and down the interior staircase, fascinated by this novelty.
In my hometown, the houses always face the road, their front windows like big eyes watching the cars drive past. The culture is: cars, television, beer, rugby league in winter, cricket in summer, pubs. There is a wedding most Saturday nights at the one reception hall, a large barn-like building. Prawn cocktail first course; beef for the men, chicken for the ladies; a keg of beer for the men, Moselle for the ladies. There are dances at the wedding receptions, always the same dances. There is a Saturday-night speedway a few miles out of town.
My grandmother told me of the town’s cultural life during the 1920s and 30s, even through the Depression. There were four local and regional circuses; three different town dances; five cinemas. By 1970, this array had dwindled down to one cinema – the Empire – in the main street. It was in decline, frequented mainly by the town’s teenagers. Its décor was faded and musty; the owners didn’t bother with renovations. The Empire closed for good some time in the mid-1970s, the building demolished. Like the Royal Cinema in Peter Bogdanovitch’s The Last Picture Show (1971), based on Larry McMurtry’s reminiscences of his home town in Texas, the Empire Cinema lingered fitfully for a time, then finally succumbed, the last cinema in a town culture now ruled by television viewing.
But before it closed for the last time, the Empire was where I saw the Hammer horror vampire movies.
The Hammer Canon
Hammer Films made a total of sixteen vampire films between 1958 and 1974. The first, Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, Terence Fisher, 1958), introduced Christopher Lee as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Doctor Van Helsing; it was probably the best, and certainly most influential, Hammer vampire film. From that æsthetic height, Hammer frequently dipped into prurient depths in search of commercial success. A small English company competing with the far greater resources of Hollywood, Hammer exploited the popular relish for salacious horror movies throughout the ’60s and early ’70s. Its peak vampire production year was 1970, when three different vampire films were released. The decline was swift in the ’70s, however, as the Hammer brand of Gothic horror lost commercial favour; this decline was hastened by misguided ventures such as The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (Roy Ward Baker, 1974). That was the last Hammer vampire picture; Hammer Films went into receivership and ceased production altogether in 1979.
The seven films featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula, culminating in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Alan Gibson, 1973), constitute a cycle at the heart of Hammer’s successful period. Lee redefined Dracula as suave, aristocratic, sensual; his Dracula is the face of Hammer horror. These were the films I saw at the Saturday matinees in the early ’70s. The more explicitly sexual vampire films – such as The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970) and Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster, 1971) – would have been barred as improper material for young boys. I didn’t see, either, the first film in the Dracula cycle: presumably a film from 1958 was too old to re-screen when there were so many other more recent horror movies. So, I must have seen roughly six of the cycle, beginning with the second film, Dracula, Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher, 1966).
My strongest memory, derived from one or more of these movies, is a scene, or rather two scenes. A man enters a village inn, somewhere in Middle Europe/Eastern Europe (probably Transylvania). The inn has atmosphere; the locals are chatting, drinking large glasses of beer. Everything is going well until the newcomer asks about the castle up on the mountain: instantly, the inn goes silent, all atmosphere deserts the place. The locals are stricken with fear, the innkeeper glowers disapproval. He instructs the newcomer never to mention the castle and, most of all, never to go there. In the second scene, the newcomer disobeys this instruction and climbs the mountain to the castle. He may have companions: perhaps an intrepid priest, or villagers who have sufficiently overcome their terror to join the mission, which is to destroy Dracula in his castle. They leave early in the morning, as it’s a long climb and they must reach the top of the mountain before night falls. But they run out of time: when they finally reach the castle, the sun is going down, night is descending, bats are swirling …
35 years later, I buy DVDs of the seven Hammer Dracula movies via amazon.com. I want to compare my memories of these films – the impressions of a 10-year old boy – with an adult’s perspective; I want to see them all again.
In my hometown, everyone is at the same level. No one is expected – or permitted – to be better than the rest, except at sport. This is the one activity where excellence is not only encouraged but wished for. The town’s dream is for one of its boys to one day play rugby league for Australia. At school, the boys’ subjects are metalwork, woodwork, maths and science. The girls’ subjects are ‘home science’, English and history. Languages are cancelled as a study option after I have completed two years of French. The culture is anti-intellectual, but not to a malevolent degree.
I am unaware of any social hierarchy. Everyone I know lives in the same kind of weatherboard house, some with an outdoor toilet. The only exception in my experience is a schoolmate’s grandfather who owns the local bus company. This grandfather lives in a brick house – bricks signifying affluence – in a large yard enclosing a swimming-pool. There must be other such residences, inhabited by owners of business or mining company executives, but they are not part of my consciousness. Authority is mocked from below; any pretension is ridiculed. It’s best for any boss to minimise the gap between himself and his workers; the pub, in this regard, is the great leveller.
There is a firm sense of community, bound by numerous factors: local knowledge of families and their histories; gossip; support for the local football team; pub camaraderie. There are fêtes hosted by the church and the school; every family has a backyard barbecue. There is a co-op store, to which all families in the town belong. There is only one public school, which further binds families together. The culture is fiercely Protestant, mingling Anglican with smaller denominations supporting the immigrant roots of mining families: Presbyterian (Scottish) and Congregational (Northern English). I am dimly aware of an alternative to this culture. Called Catholic, it has weird rites and strange practices, and their families have too many children. But I know none of them, as they attend their own school, removed from everyone else, possibly located in the hills outside the town.
These mysterious Catholics apart, the town is resolutely uniform. The miners have a solidarity drawing on decades of union strength, even militancy. Their wives uphold values of God, Queen and England, as formalised in the Country Women’s Association. There is a town show every February, part of the agricultural show network that culminates in the Royal Easter Show in Sydney. I am unaware of any serious crime; no one locks the door at night.
There are virtually no foreigners in the town, and that is how the town likes it. There is zero interest in non-British culture. Very few people even have a passport. I heard of one woman who secured a passport in the hope of travelling overseas, only to have it burnt by her alarmed husband. Bringing non-British immigrants into Australia is considered a big mistake. Foreigners import vice into the big cities; this is one reason those cities are un-Australian. Asians are viewed with great suspicion: if allowed, they will steal Australian jobs and then take over the country itself through rapid breeding.
Blood on the Stone
I open the box of Hammer DVDs sent from Amazon, and start at the beginning: Dracula, directed by Terence Fisher, released in 1958. This film set the template for all succeeding Hammer vampire movies; the opening title sequence establishes the mood and many of the tropes of the entire Dracula cycle. The titles are blood red in a Gothic font; the score is ominous – slightly discordant brass and clashing cymbals; the first image is a fearsome bird-of-prey statue, presumably a family emblem, adorning a stone castle. As the cymbals and brass reach a crescendo, the camera prowls within the castle to find a stone crypt bearing the name DRACULA. Here the music recedes and the camera is stilled, as blood drips silently onto the nameplate. This opening sequence mobilises the full effect of Technicolor, one of Hammer’s assets in distinguishing its Dracula from the black-and-white Universal Dracula (Tod Browning) of 1931. The blood decorating the stone is so lurid red as to be almost orange, an over-saturated version of colour that presides over the distinctive Hammer vampire style.
Hammer based the script of its first Dracula film on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, with some notable amendments. Here, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is not a hapless real-estate agent from England, but a scholar and vampire hunter, posing as a librarian so he can get close enough to Dracula to kill him. But this plan fails miserably. Harker is seduced and bitten by a female vampire – the first of a long line of busty Hammer vampires in négligées – then dispatched by Dracula within the first 25 minutes. Harker functions in this narrative as a precursor to his colleague Van Helsing, a more resourceful scholar and vampire-hunter who follows him to the castle.
Another significant modification of Stoker concerns the location. Stoker set Dracula’s castle in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania; Dracula then travels to England where he pursues Harker’s fiancée, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), while feeding on her sister-in-law, Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stirling). Hammer radically simplifies the action by inventing a location that is neither Transylvania nor England, but a distinctly German environs. Dracula’s castle is near the village of Klausenburgh (named in Stoker), while the town of Karlstat, where Lucy and her family live, is riding distance from the castle. While preying on Lucy and then Mina, Dracula takes up residence in Friedrich Strasse, Karlstat, in the premises of “Jack Marx, Undertaker”.
Most probably for budgetary reasons, Hammer has subsumed both Transylvania and Victorian England into a Germanic milieu. Harker’s voice-over diary entry sets the date at 1885; bizarrely, Stoker’s Victorian English characters, such as the Holmwoods, somehow live quite normally in their German environment. This Germanic setting is maintained in all the Hammer vampire films except those later efforts explicitly set in England. Perhaps the Hammer team considered a vaguely German location middle-Europe enough; perhaps a Transylvanian setting would have been too exotic, and too difficult to stage, in 1958. Or, perhaps a German location created a version of Middle Europe – Anglo-Saxon, beer-drinking – recognisable for British viewers. Whatever the reasons, the shortcomings of the Hammer treatment of Transylvania escaped me at age 10. The culture evoked in these films seemed old enough (even if set around 1900) and strange enough (even if only a Victorian setting with German names) to transport me into its mysterious world.
Dracula introduced the staples of the Hammer vampire films: sex and class. Dracula’s victims, Lucy and Mina, eagerly await his arrival in their bed-chambers; Dracula engages in erotic foreplay before moving on to their throats. Again, much of this behaviour in the Hammer films probably eluded me at the ages of 10 and 11, although it may account for a life-long fascination with Eastern European women. (1)
Dracula is sensuous in a commanding, aristocratic manner; Lee plays him as a mournful, almost soulful figure, the last of a noble family line. He is tall, handsome and cultured; this vision of Dracula quickly supplanted in popular consciousness the more ghoulish (and short) model presented by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film. He is a man of learning, with a collection of books large enough to need a librarian. Lee endows him with a dignified, elevated presence: “Above all,” the actor declared, “I have never forgotten that Count Dracula was a gentleman, a member of the upper aristocracy, and in his early life a great leader of men […]”. (2) But as a vampire, of course, he is also a great predator on men, and women. We see him stride down from his castle, returning later with blood dripping from his fangs. He literally preys on the villagers beneath him. This theme of the aristocratic vampire feeding on the lower classes is sustained through all the Hammer vampire movies, most notably in Countess Dracula (Peter Sasdy, 1971), in which the Hungarian Countess (Ingrid Pitt) preserves her youth by bathing in the blood of virgin peasant girls. In Hammer films, the vampire is associated with an aristocracy displaying a compelling brand of villainy: the vampire aristocrat is simultaneously lofty, socially superior, pitiless and monstrous.
Dracula has various antagonists through the Hammer cycle, yet the first film provides the most famous: Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Whereas this character in Stoker is an eccentric Dutchman with mystic tendencies, the Hammer version is a very British man of science, an arch-rationalist. Cushing’s Van Helsing is severe, gaunt, flinty. He is entirely lacking in humour or affectation. He is the model of Protestant rectitude: a believer in God (to combat the Devil) and upholder of moral (chaste) values. He is also a rigorous pursuer of empirical knowledge, which makes him the perfect representative of the middle class in its two-pronged battle: against both peasant superstition and the power of the aristocracy. Van Helsing records his accumulated knowledge of vampires into a Dictaphone, bamboozling the ignorant servants; he eventually deploys this knowledge to destroy Dracula. Several commentators have remarked on this class dynamic in Hammer (3): it is only through middle-class values and practices that a lingering, malignant aristocracy can be dispelled.
But it is never removed for long. Dracula is destroyed at the end of each film, only to be revived at the beginning of the next one. The second film of the Hammer cycle, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, did not appear until 1965, largely due to Lee’s reluctance to be typecast as Dracula. Having agreed to return, he was so disgusted by the poor quality of the script – which he considered too great a deviation from Stoker – that he refused to speak his lines. The result is a weak film, with the cultured Count reduced to a glaring, growling monster. Dracula is dispatched by a priest (Cushing did not re-appear as Van Helsing until 1972), who shoots a crack in ice, exposing the Count to deadly running water. This ludicrous dénouement – surely Dracula could simply jump over the crack – puts both the vampire and the film out of its misery; but I can’t remember seeing this movie at the Empire. I conclude that the films that made such an impression on me must have been the next three in the series, released in 1968 and 1971.
In Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (Freddie Francis, 1968), the Count’s antagonist is not a man of science like Van Helsing but a Catholic Monsignor (Rupert Davies), the senior church official for the province of Keinenburgh. The monsignor visits the village below the mountain where, a year earlier, Dracula was entombed in ice. He finds a terrified community, refusing to enter the church because it is touched by the castle’s shadow. The local priest is a coward, sheltering in the inn with the villagers but offering them no courage. The Monsignor declares that he will exorcise the castle, persuading the trembling priest to accompany him.
And here it is: a suspenseful climb up the misty mountain to confront evil. They leave at dawn, the Monsignor carrying a huge crucifix. Their journey takes the entire day; dusk is descending as they near the castle. The priest is afraid to go on; the Monsignor leaves him cowering on the mountain and performs the exorcism himself. But the priest slips on a rock, his blood dripping through the ice and reviving Dracula, who promptly enslaves him.
This film has more religion than science or sex. The object of Dracula’s attention is the Monsignor’s niece, who is protected first be her uncle, then by her student boyfriend. The monsignor opposes the boyfriend at first, worried he may be a Protestant, horrified to learn he is an atheist. But the boyfriend is soon enlisted in the fight; he rushes into the village inn, disrupting the jovial atmosphere with the announcement: “There’s a castle somewhere in the mountains here belonging to a Count Dracula.” Here is the scene as I remembered it: the inn is rough, homely, with thick wooden beams, stone walls and sturdy wood tables; the village men drink steins of beer, chatting and laughing – but mention of the castle stops the conversation dead; everyone glares at the newcomer. The craven villagers refuse to help him, but somehow he gets to the castle, acquires faith – and Dracula is impaled on a giant crucifix.
This film has all the elements that made an impression on me as a ten-year-old: the inn, the mountain climb, the lush woods. Dracula’s black horse-drawn carriage traverses the forest throughout the film; he preys on a village girl as she walks home through the woods at night; he leads the monsignor’s niece through the trees on the way to his castle. While the scenes in the town are stiff and Victorian, the village scenes are thick with atmosphere: the stone church, the old inn, the fear of the villagers, the strange customs and rituals – including exorcism. The Catholicism of the narrative – with its theme of faith, evil, strong and weak priests – must have enhanced the rustic old-world sensibility for me. In my memory, the film’s village scenario is near mediæval; yet now I notice, from a coffin inscription, that the story in set in 1905.
Much of this is re-iterated in the 1970 film Scars of Dracula (Roy Ward Baker): the same village, the same inn. The innkeeper and villagers are even more afraid: surely, they are the most fearful people in the world. An outspoken barmaid from another village decries their cowardice – and she is punished for her lack of fear: she is picked off by Dracula as she walks through the woods. This time the climb up the mountain is undertaken early in the film, as the villagers – outraged to find another local girl dead in the forest – summon the courage to burn Dracula’s castle. But the Count is unharmed and exacts a terrible revenge: he sends vampire bats to kill the village women and children as they shelter in the church.
This is a shocking scene, which terrified me – I now recall – when I saw it around 1970. The narrative of faith versus evil deployed in these films normally reserves a role for the church as sanctuary, a place that evil cannot enter. But here the villagers find their wives and children gored and savaged by monstrous bats; the church is spattered with blood and contaminated by death. The priest (Michael Gwynn) declares that “The Devil has won”; the villagers are tipped into a state of abject fear and submission.
This film is a re-working of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, which was a re-working of Dracula; but here all the familiar elements are given a sharper edge of fear – and violence. In The Vampire Film, Alain Silver and James Ursini note the stark differences between the later two films, scripted for Hammer by Anthony Hinds, and the original Terence Fisher Dracula. In Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and Scars of Dracula, Hinds discards the delicate Victorian sensibility established by Fisher and scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster – including the Protestant middle-class hero Van Helsing (Cushing) – installing in its place a more elemental scenario. There is no contest here of man of science with modern knowledge and technology versus suave and noble vampire; instead, a bloodthirsty Dracula is opposed by men of faith. Hinds constructs a hard dichotomy of simple good and monstrous evil, “like that of a Medieval morality play” (4), set within a brooding and violent environment.
In Scars of Dracula, when the stranger from the town comes asking about his missing brother (who had foolishly gone up to the castle), he is forcibly ejected from the village inn. Dracula is sadistic in this movie: he tortures his devoted servant, marshals his killer bats and displays an outright hostility to the villagers. He is described as the last remaining member of an ancient family; he is the old social order surviving – ferociously – into a modern age. The old-world ambience permeating the film – which I certainly imbibed in 1970 – is enhanced by the setting. Much of the action takes place inside the castle – with its candle light, stone walls and thick velvet drapes – and the village. There is one final climb to the castle: the young man sets off at dawn accompanied by the local priest; in the finale, Dracula is about to kill him when he is struck by lightning and destroyed – presumably divine assistance in the righteous fight against evil.
The Mountain and the Plain
I am now in a position to reflect on the enduring impression these films have made on me. Part of it can no doubt be attributed to the ritual of horror-movie viewing: I would be so scared every Saturday by the vampires, monsters and assorted ghouls that I would vow never to see another horror movie; of course, the terror always wore off by the following Friday, just in time for the next Saturday matinee. The Hammer vampire movies were my favourite of the horror genre, in part because their simple horror narratives of good versus evil were perfectly crafted to terrify – and captivate – a 10-year-old boy.
Yet, there is something more, suggested by my strongest recollections of these films, the memories that have persisted over 35 years: of rich colour, lush forests, old-world atmosphere. I can now attribute some of this to Hammer’s zealous use of Technicolor, generating a saturated palette replete with blood of unnatural red. Hammer also chose to emphasise the natural landscape – trees and greenery – in their vampire movies, unlike other film treatments such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), in which Transylvania is all rock and blood-red expressionism. In Hammer, the forest and woods – always dense, leafy, with varied trees, including the pale trunks of birch – were inviting and mysterious. They were dangerous, too – vampires lurked in the woods – but they were an essential part of the landscape, surrounding the village, separating the inn and the castle. It was exotic, European forest; it was quite different to the bush surrounding my hometown. The landscape I knew was dry, limited to gum and Casuarina trees, the ground hard and thirsty. Australian bush has a mythic aspect, a mystery; but in our imagination it is more forbidding than inviting. The national forest is a vast expanse where backpackers are murdered and buried by sadistic killers; we don’t generally venture there.
The Hammer films evoke a rustic, old-world ambience through their village setting; this ambience incudes local beliefs and superstitions – the villagers cowering in their inn. Most of all, there is the social dynamic, a class divide expressed in the bluntest symbolism: the Count descending from his mountain-top castle to feed on the peasants below. This was utterly alien to my experience: we had no visible class distinctions, we had no social strata, no mountain-top; we didn’t even have a hill. This was the wonder of the world displayed in the Hammer movies: people divided and weighed down by history, people adversarial in their unquestioned difference. These B-grade movies with their crude historical travesties were my first education on class, and on Europe.
When I travelled to Europe many years later, this education coloured my perception. I sought out forest and woods, castles, villages made from stone. When I found them, they provoked a thrill of recognition: the forest was lush, as I had been led to believe; the villages quaint and built from local stone. At times, I doubted my Hammer schooling, dismissing the travesty – but it always returned. In a small Yorkshire town in the late 1990s, I was talking to the owner of a pub, who told me proudly that the lord and lady were coming in on Saturday night. I didn’t understand at first, then was staggered to realise that a trace of feudalism remained: the local aristocrat still owned all the land, the village, the inn. He was paying a visit to the inn, and the villagers would offer their respects. As the publican told me this, I was invaded by imagery: of the Count sweeping down to the village, of peasants cowering or being bitten, of bats swarming into the stone church. The Technicolor show in my head subsided as I listened to the proud owner of this pub; but he was confirming what the movies had shown me. The aristocrat was coming; the subservient locals were gathering to greet him. I should never have doubted my Hammer Horror education.
- Another story.
- Christopher Lee quoted in Jack Hunter (Ed.), House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Films Story (London: Creation Books, 2000), p. 121.
- Phil Hardy, for example, remarks that part of the force of this film can be attributed to “its deep roots in British history where the aristocracy is a caste with considerable power, mostly exercised behind closed doors, which it should have lost long ago”, surviving as “a burden voluntarily assumed by the 19th-century middle class which was neither rational nor strong enough to get rid of it.” See Phil Hardy (Ed.), Horror: The Aurum Film Encyclopedia (London: Aurum, 1993), p. 112.
- Alain Silver and James Ursini, The Vampire Film (New York: Limelight, third edition, 1997), p. 126.