One year after Dracula was destroyed, the villagers living in the shadow of his castle are still haunted by his memory. To allay their fears, a visiting Monsignor performs an exorcism over the castle, barring its doors with a huge, gold crucifix. However, when the local priest inadvertently resurrects the vampire with his own blood, Dracula seeks out the Monsignor and takes his revenge – through the man’s beautiful, virginal niece.
Christopher Lee’s third outing as the bloodsucking King of the Vampires is tense and frightening fun, well-acted and staged in typical Hammer gothic splendor. It is also the first of three Hammer horrors to feature blonde stunner Veronica Carlson, perhaps the most striking of the studio’s voluptuous scream queens of the period. Here she plays Maria, the ill-fated Monsignor’s niece.
Directed by former cinematographer Freddie Francis (EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN), DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE looks fantastic. The elaborate sets are beautifully filmed, and the action is shot and edited in a dizzying, frenetic style that enhances the savage fury of the titular antagonist. Francis displays a genuine talent for building tension in a sequence. The grisly opening involves the discovery of a body inside a church bell tower and is quite shocking, even by today’s standards. Later, a bawdy barmaid (Barbara Ewing) is relentlessly pursued by the vampire’s coach, driven by the priest (Ewan Hooper) who has fallen under his evil spell. Once he has the saloon wench under his power, Dracula uses her and the priest to bring Maria to him, quiet tension growing as the two servants of evil silently conspire to trap the innocent girl. The climactic chase to Castle Dracula and subsequent battle at its gate are thrilling and suspenseful.
Lee is a terrific figure of evil and terror in his most famous role, glowering and barking commands to his slaves, all the while outfitted with glistening fangs and blood-red contacts. The tall, gaunt actor towers over every scene he appears in, and each time he enters a scene there is a palpable, pervasive air of menace. His commanding presence is enhanced because he is given more dialogue than in his previous outings and does not really share the spotlight with another major star here, as he and Rupert Davies’ Monsignor (the closest to a “Van Helsing” character this entry has to offer) are only on-screen together for a few fleeting seconds. The only hindrance to Lee’s scene-stealing turn is the odd decision by Francis to create a yellow and red “aura” effect around some of his scenes. This halo is apparently intended to convey supernatural power, but it is more distracting than ominous, undermining the otherwise excellent cinematography. The effect is also inconsistent, appearing in some shots and not in others, with no discernable reason for its irregularity. Despite this, Lee dominates the film with a power and screen presence worthy of the legendary fiend he portrays.
Davies is likable and stalwart as the Monsignor, though he does not figure prominently enough in the third act. Barry Andrews does a fine job as Maria’s Atheistic boyfriend, Paul, while Ewing and Hooper are good as the vampire’s unwitting minions. Carlson is very sympathetic, her character not only victimized by the undead, but also caught in the middle of an ideological dispute between her uncle and her beloved. Though her physical charms are initially downplayed in the narrative in a deliberate move to emphasize her character’s virtue, her angelic beauty and simmering sex appeal make her the perfect target for Dracula’s wanton bloodlust. After her initial meeting with the beast, she seems suddenly prone to opening more buttons on her gowns and revealing more cleavage, her eyes conveying an animalistic quality not previously there. When the vampire drinks from her throat, she clutches a doll which slips from her fingers, bluntly symbolizing her loss of innocence.
The underlying theme of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is the power of faith over evil. The priest falls victim to the vampire’s influence because his faith has faltered in the wake of the creature’s prior reign of terror. Dracula takes up residence in the basement of the tavern where Paul works, an establishment symbolic of drink and promiscuity. Paul is initially powerless to help Maria because he does not believe in God (even finding a stake through the villain’s heart inadequate without a concurrent prayer), and must find faith in the closing moments to help defeat the monster. When Maria defies her mother and uncle to see this non-believer, she is almost immediately caught in Dracula’s snare. When the Monsignor begins to soften his position toward the Atheist, even he falls prey to the vampire. In the previous entry, Dracula was killed by the running water of a mountain stream. This film, however, opens with his body still completely intact in that frozen water and revived by the blood of a man of God who no longer trusts his Creator to protect him, suggesting that only those methods of killing vampires that are wholly rooted in Judeo-Christian doctrine can truly defeat the undead. This point of the power of strong spiritual conviction is driven home – quite literally – in one of the most creative, satisfying endings in the entire series.
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE marks a change in direction for the franchise. In the previous two Lee films (as well as the Van Helsing-centered BRIDES OF DRACULA), the vampire was portrayed as wholly focused on feeding and surviving, in the literary tradition of such creatures. This film sees Dracula intent on revenge against someone who has tried to destroy him, making this story somewhat more personal. Though perhaps not as sensual or nightmarish as HORROR OF DRACULA or DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the vengeance motif is dynamic and allows Lee to expand his characterization beyond the usual leering and snarling. This innovation also set the stage for the series to continue on into the 1970s, as nearly every subsequent entry involves Dracula seeking some type of retribution from those he blames for his prior setbacks. Visceral, atmospheric and thematically compelling, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is a topnotch chapter in the long-running Hammer vampire mythos. It delivers everything one can ask for in a Dracula film, and nicely bridges the gap between PRINCE OF DARKNESS and the underrated TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. No fan of Lee, Hammer or the lovely Veronica Carlson should miss this one.