Wow. Five films into the franchise and they're still going strong. That's impressive. Taste the Blood of Dracula is even more formula-busting than the equivalent Hammer Frankenstein film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. In fact it's barely a Dracula film at all, to the extent that one's almost tempted to wonder if it was originally written as such. The Dracula bits of the plot make no sense at all. Nevertheless it's a vibrant film, full of personality... not to mention lots of famous actors.
Goodness me, those actors! It's as if Hammer raided the treasure chest or something. Sadly there's no Peter Cushing, although it's been a while since we last saw him in this series. Instead everywhere you look is another star of British film and TV, often better known for comedy. The first person we meet is Roy Kinnear! After him there's also Martin Jarvis, Peter Sallis and even Madeline Smith in a cameo as a prostitute, later to return in better roles in The Vampire Lovers and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. I was particularly impressed by one of Sallis's scenes. I didn't know the wee chap had it in him. Then there's Geoffrey Keen, who played Sir Frederick Gray in every James Bond film for a decade, from The Spy Who Loved Me to The Living Daylights. He's quite good. They all are, in fact.
That's without mentioning Hammer stalwarts like Ralph Bates and Michael Ripper, who holds the record for having appeared in the most Hammer films (35), albeit not in lead roles. I must have watched a dozen Hammer movies in the last few months and I've only just noticed him.
What's more, Vincent Price was allegedly going to be here too until they cut the budget! Then there's Christopher Lee, who seems to get younger every film.
The film itself is doing something rather interesting for Hammer. Their Frankenstein and Dracula films tended to be set in a generic 19th century, but this is specifically Dickensian. Geoffrey Keen is the most ghastly Victorian prig and hypocrite, seeming to believe every dreadful word of what he's saying. I swear he sees himself as a pillar of integrity, despite the fact that he goes visiting brothels and worse while telling his wife that he's doing charity work in the East End. The film's full of such grotesques, such as the painted pimp or the useless policeman. It makes for a richer film than usual, in which the characters and their world are fascinating in their own right. You're not merely waiting for the vampire.
While I'm on the subject of grotesques, what's going on at the start with that freak in the coach? You could build a horror film around him alone, yet we never see him again! Wow. That's a disturbing opening, with this possibly retarded crazy person and strange howls in the mountains. It ends up with Roy Kinnear walking in on the final scene of the previous film, which comes across as horrific now they've edited out the unintentional comedy.
Ralph Bates is playing another supercilious aristocrat with the world's dumbest idea for decadent self-indulgence, ending with a church scene that's just plain funny. It's jaw-dropping to see his fellow idiots going along with him. What did they think was going to happen? They can't pretend they weren't warned. They'd even heard of Dracula before. Personally I couldn't wait to see what would happen next since everyone was obviously going to die horribly... and yet they're all male. This was a plot problem. Christopher Lee's Dracula only likes buxom maidens. Would Hammer break their own rule, or would they find some entertainingly contrived way around it? Heh. I'll give you three guesses.
This is where the idiocy comes in, incidentally. Dear old Dracula isn't well served by this one. "They have destroyed my servant; they will be destroyed," are his first words, which suggest to me that he got mixed with some drugs while in a powdered state between films. Regular writer Anthony Hinds is clearly trying to set up another revenge-based plot like last time, but unfortunately this so-called "servant" is someone that Dracula had never met. You could perhaps construct an elaborate retcon in which everything's a massive deception and Dracula had secretly been working with... no, actually you can't. It really is bollocks after all.
Almost as ridiculous is his death at the end, in which he's basically killed by a hallucination. They've come up with a clever crucifix effect, though. There's also a slight problem in that the eventual hero isn't anything of the sort, but just a minor character who happens to be the last one left alive. Nice chap, though.
All in all, I wonder if it might not be best to take this film's Dracula as being practically his own ghost. Is that such a stretch? Vampires, ghosts, whatever. Hammer's vampires are already in a sense more undead than any other kind, since when played by Christopher Lee they're unkillable. Whatever happens in one film, he won't stay down for the next one. Of course here he can still bite and so on, but I think there's a lot of mileage in the idea of making vampires more ethereal and fantastical. Hammer never gave us anything like that Universal shot of Bela Lugosi walking through a wall of cobwebs without breaking them. To my surprise I've just talked myself into defending the ham-fistedness of this film, but I'd have liked it better if I could have believed it was deliberate.
The filmmakers also do that lame thing of having light falling across a vampire's eyes, leaving the rest of the face in shadow. How did anyone ever think that a good idea?
There's nudity, for the first time in this series. It's 1970, after all. Romero's Night of the Living Dead had come out in 1968 and Hammer horror only had a few more years to go. The brothel scenes were heavily cut for the UK theatrical release, but it's all on the DVD. Unfortunately Madeline Smith doesn't flash her jubblies, but there's a redhead almost falling out of her corset and more. Oddly I don't remember the Frankenstein films ever going there, whereas Hammer's lesbian vampire series had tits galore. The "vampire = sex" angle gets another twist this time, with all the girls being madly in love with boys they're on the point of getting engaged to.
Overall, slightly daft but still rollicking good fun. The girls are as pretty as ever, with Linda Hayden being perhaps a tad on the chubby side but still cute. The style is there. The production values are there. The story is twisted, the actors are a surprising treat and somehow the whole thing just flies. It's deliciously confident, never even blinking even at its own ridiculousness but instead charging ahead with all the power of its roster of British thespians. Roll on part six!