There was little ambiguity concerning the existence and role of God in the films of Terence Fisher, the director whose vision for the Gothic helped shape ‘Hammer horror’ from the studio’s first colour period horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
Even the Universal monster films of the 1930s and ’40s didn’t generally wax too deep on the subject of God. In Dracula (1931) Van Helsing is very much the modern scientist (pictured); superstition and religion are left to the peasants, where the main vampire hunter tends to treat the cross as just one other mechanical means of defeating disease. Other than one or two vague mentions of the ‘soul,’ he doesn’t do God.
In Hammer’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958), Jonathan Harker lays out his and his colleague’s agenda from the beginning: ‘It only remains for me now to await the daylight hours when, with God’s help, I will forever end this man’s reign of terror.’
In the 1966 direct sequel, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Van Helsing’s replacement is a priest and monk, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), and there is no question of his authority or whether the fight against Dracula is a full-on battle of God versus the Devil. This struggle, in which God is always the victor, is very much the world the heroes and villains of Hammer’s Gothic horrors inhabited.
But even by 1966, this black-and-white view of good and evil, and especially God’s place in it, was the subject of public debate. In the academy, the very existence of God was being challenged not just by philosophers, but by theologians within the very departments and Christian seminaries set up to train ‘men of God.’ William Hamilton’s Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966) was among the seminal works to come out of this movement, and it inspired LIFE magazine to devote its cover to the issue in April 1966. The question of God has, of course, been a subject of discourse among philosophers and apologists for hundreds of years, but here it entered the public sphere in the English-speaking western world, where religion still dominated, and was seeping through into popular culture.
You might recognise the iconic LIFE cover from Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, shot in 1967 and released in April 1968. His previous film, Dance of the Vampires (1967) was a gorgeously shot homage to Hammer horror – and on a visibly higher budget – but while his affection for the company’s style is obvious, it is also a clear piss-take of the universe those films represented. In Dance, the vampire hunters are next-to-useless. (This is why I am an unabashed fan of the ironic US title, The Fearless Vampire Killers.) Their efforts are comedic (Alfie Bass laughs in the face of the crucifix – ‘You’ve got the wrong vampire!’ – because what good is a Christian symbol against a Jewish vampire?); and their eventual triumph over evil is shown to be false. The film may be wearing its comedic credentials on its sleeve, but it is very much on the same atheistic turf as Rosemary’s Baby; there is no God to step in and save us, so we may as well resign ourselves to reality.
And so into this new world steps Hammer. Under his usual pseudonym of John Elder, producer Anthony Hinds provided the script for Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), and had Terence Fisher directed, the finished film might have been much less ambiguous on the subject of God and the Devil, as it was not unknown for Fisher and his actors to make adjustments to dialogue on set. But with Fisher debilitated by an accident, Freddie Francis stepped in, and the results are fascinating.
It must first be said that the film looks stunning. Francis’s first love was always cinematography, and his visual flair is (almost always) apparent in the horror films he directed. His use of coloured gels, first employed when he photographed The Innocents (the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw), is famously striking here.
But with the film in Francis’s hands, we can no longer take for granted the distinctly traditional, theistic universe from which Fisher would likely have been less comfortable straying.
We are presented with many of the trappings of a Christian universe. The title itself is a play on the central event of Christianity, the resurrection. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave uses an unusual amount of stock footage for establishing shots, including the interesting choice below, where we appear to be looking outwards from some sort of cave or stony crevice. Although likely unintended, to the Christian mind it might suggest a dawn view from Christ’s tomb.
The film gives us not one, but two Christian priests. One is a dispirited, depressed parish priest, whose name we never learn (a poorly dubbed Ewan Hooper); the other is his senior, Monsignor Ernst Muller (Rupert Davies). On his arrival in a village haunted by the shadow of Dracula’s castle, the Monsignor comes across as austere, although we will see his less harsh side in his words of comfort to the priest, after the two have agreed to exorcise the castle: ‘Thank you, Father. I never doubted you.’
When Monsignor Muller returns to the inn following his rite at the castle, he will look quite the fool telling the villagers that Dracula’s spirit ‘will never leave there to trouble you again,’ for we’ve already seen Dracula’s return (Christopher Lee again) from his icy grave. And although we see a very tender side to the Monsignor – ‘Uncle Ernst’ – in his care for his brother’s widow, Anna (Marion Mathie), and her daughter, Maria (Veronica Carlson), we will also see him exposed as a hypocrite when he reacts to Paul’s atheism (Maria’s boyfriend, played by Barry Andrews). He scolds Paul for being ‘impertinent,’ despite having just said he welcomes truthfulness, bellowing, ‘Do you know who I am?’ and accusing Paul of blasphemy.
These warts-and-all depictions of men of the cloth – one cowardly and faithless, the other pompous and hypocritical – are telling of the time in which the film was made. Unlike Father Sandor or even Van Helsing (a believer, if not a priest), the Monsignor is not an easy character to admire or trust. But this is Hammer, not Polanski, so we are curious to see where the story will take these characters.
In fact, the Monsignor will have something of a change of heart. He prefigures the Peter Cushing character in Twins of Evil (1971) in his moral journey, although the witch-hunting Puritan Gustav Weil is far more ghastly and villainous, rather than simply pompous, and he is not so easily forgiven.
We are not invited to judge Paul harshly for his lack of belief in God. There is a beautiful quasi shot-reverse-shot where we see the believing, religious Monsignor and the atheist Paul, each at his books, suggesting that the young, non-Christian student of philosophy and the older, Christian cleric are both engaged in the same endeavour, perhaps as two sides of the same coin. They both pursue truth and an end to the evil of Dracula.
Before he dies, the Monsignor – a victim of his own priest, a type of Judas – will give Paul his blessing and entrust him with protecting his niece and destroying Dracula. Paul will immediately set about putting what he has learned from the Monsignor into action, laying out the crucifix and garlic to protect Maria. He seems, perhaps like Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing in the 1931 Universal film, to view these things as purely mechanical in their effect, as he has not found faith; he has given his ‘word’ to the Monsignor, precisely because he cannot ‘swear by God.’
When he and the priest later try staking Dracula, it is apparent that he does not believe, for Dracula – in a new spin on vampire legend – removes the stake, as there is no faith on Paul’s part or that of the priest. ‘You’re a priest!’ he screams, when the traditional method fails to do the trick. ‘You pray! You pray!’
The priest has been having an existential crisis from early on in the film, and now the atheist Paul must personally confront the question of his faith in God, or lack of it.
(As an aside – inspired by a conversation with some of my followers on @hammergothic on Twitter – there’s a fascinating shot earlier on, a cutaway to Dracula in the sewers below the bakery, where he stands in thought, almost meditating or pondering something. The purpose of the shot is unclear; it does raise the amusing question of what Dracula does to occupy himself when he’s just waiting around, and it almost feels like a rare glimpse at Dracula in the midst of his own existential crisis!)
Where The Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby confronted God and faith and settled on a bleak but arguably modern, realist conclusion, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave seems to retreat to the same and arguably old-fashioned conclusion that provided the foundation of Hammer’s earlier Gothic horror films. It may be that Dracula’s own clumsiness is to blame for the fall from his castle ramparts that leaves him impaled on a crucifix, but it is the priest’s faithful prayer to God that keeps him there and seals his fate.
As Dracula cries tears of blood (shades of Christ sweating droplets of blood in Gethsemane) and struggles to free himself, the priest prays the Our Father in Latin – Pater Noster, qui es in caelis, etc – the exact thing a good Hammer priest is expected to do. (In Taste the Blood of Dracula, just a couple of years later, a voice from nowhere will do the job in the absence of an actual holy man.) It seems that for all the wrestling with those distinctly twentieth-century questions of God and his existence, Hammer has reverted to type. The priest has found faith again, and even Paul appears to have found a faith of sorts, crossing himself as he embraces Maria.
A Terence Fisher film would likely have been bolder in its triumph of good over evil, and perhaps more hesitant to explore ambiguities, but it is interesting to see that even in the hands of another director the film resolved its questions with markedly traditional answers. In light of Polanski’s output around this time, some might suggest Hammer chickened out; others have suggested this reluctance to change with the times was part of the reason for Hammer’s eventual waning popularity, but this is a harsh assessment. After all, two of the most successful horror movies in the following decade – the American The Exorcist (1974) and the British-American The Omen (1976) – were set in distinctly traditional universes where the existence of good and evil in the form of God and Satan was taken for granted.
I think I’d argue that Hammer’s films became weaker on the occasions they abandoned that traditional framework, but while I don’t make a secret of my Christianity, my argument isn’t for any reasons of faith. Quite simply, a good-triumphing-over-evil framework with really strong adversaries of faith always made for great stories. Unlike Polanski, who had strong alternative ideas to put in its place, no one at Hammer, at least at that time, ever seemed sure how to handle a Gothic horror film outside that formula. A film like Lust for a Vampire (1971), for example, suffers not only from obviously poor production values, but also from the lack of an authority figure in the tradition of Van Helsing or Father Sandor. There is a priest, but he appears too late and does virtually nothing. Scars of Dracula (1971) suffers similarly from an embarrassingly cheap look, but it’s easy to see how the weak storyline could have been improved had Michael Gwynn’s decidedly milquetoast priest been replaced with a man of God with a bit of oomph about him.
There are other angles from which I could have approached this film, which is one I adore. I haven’t even mentioned Barbara Ewing as Zena, one of the great unsung female performances in all Hammer horror. Another angle, mirroring the conflict between faith and atheism, would be moral and generational conflict. As these themes became more central to popular culture, they would become more central to the Dracula series from this point.
Terence Fisher’s Hammer films were becoming fewer and further between, and he would not make another Dracula film. He would be slated to direct Lust for a Vampire (another fascinating what-if) but again bow out for health reasons. Pleasingly, he would make his exit from both Hammer horror and filmmaking with two formidable Frankenstein pictures: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).
This was to be Freddie Francis’s last film for Hammer. He’d do a great job of several other horrors for Amicus and Tigon; less so for Tyburn, his son Kevin Francis’s production company. Tales That Witness Madness (1973), for World Film Services, was an embarrassing low. Like Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, his films would often lack the thematic assurance that Fisher’s had, but they usually had an assurance in terms of style.
Many thanks for enduring – but hopefully enjoying! – these rather quickly assembled thoughts on an aspect of a film whose approach to God has always intrigued me.
Do check out the other entries in the 2021 Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, of which this is my contribution.
And if you enjoy Hammer, especially the horror films, please follow me on the @hammergothic account on Twitter.