Dracula (1958) ****
The inevitable response to the worldwide success of Curse of Frankenstein, this would prove the most confident and efficient of all the Hammer horrors, a certain masterpiece of its kind, and one of those films where every moment of every scene is essential to the whole. Still exciting, and breathlessly paced (strangely, Hammer would almost instantly lose the talent for pacing they displayed with such casual mastery in these first two films), the film is also notable for the richness of its colour photography and the defining performances of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as vampire and vampire-hunter respectively. Every penny of a clearly low budget is brilliantly spent.
Brides of Dracula (1960) *
With Christopher Lee either reluctant or unable to reappear (depending on whose account you trust), and with Peter Cushing still viewed as the studio's principal star, Hammer went confidently ahead with the series, wisely opting to pit Cushing's Van Helsing against another vampire rather than recast the Count himself. The result is almost as highly rated as the original in some quarters, although it's certainly more sedately paced, and a little of Freda Jackson and Martita Hunt goes a very long way. Blonde David Peel makes an interesting antagonist, and after a rambling first half, the film builds to a very exciting climax.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965) *
Christopher Lee's official return to the role is a strictly by the numbers affair, with the film half over before his first appearance and not much for him to do even after that. Barbara Shelley is impressive as the prim English traveller who becomes a snarlingly uninhibited vampiress, and Andrew Keir's vampire-hunting monk Father Sandor is as good a stand-in for Cushing as could be reasonably expected, but the real surprises are Thorley Walters's Ludwig - basically Renfield, written out of the first film and belatedly inserted here - and Philip Latham's Klove, Dracula's dusty family retainer. But the pace is relentlessly dogged, and Dracula's demise is uncertainly designed.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) **
Stylishly directed continuation of the original, with some interesting new ideas and lively set pieces; a distinct improvement on its predecessor. Some fascinating theological angst involving a stuffy cleric and a cocky young atheist (borrowed, along with a couple of giveaway visual ideas, from the recent film of Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons), heavy use of amber-edged filters, and a grand finale involving Dracula falling off a cliff and getting impaled on a giant crucifix.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) **
Conceived as a Dracula film in name only, with Ralph Bates as a young devil worshipper who takes on the Count's mantle in Victorian London, the film was hastily rejigged when the American backers insisted on Lee's involvement. Apart from the somewhat messy results of that last minute change, however, this is one of the series' highlights, with Dracula finally arriving in Victorian London, and seducing the children of the three society wastrels who killed his servant. Very stylish, and full of fascinating ideas, but the series has still not resolved the problem of finding things for its central character to do.
Scars of Dracula (1970) *
A very different film from its predecessors, this was conceived yet again as a Dracula film without Lee, but more ambitious this time: this was to begin the series afresh with a new star, much as Horror of Frankenstein attempted to do. As before, however, Lee was grafted on at the last minute, and the film turned half-heartedly into a sequel by means of a revivification scene that makes no sense in the light of the ensuing film, makes no sense in the light of the previous film, and is ludicrous to boot. From then on it's business as usual with a more or less equal ratio of good things - much more screen time, dialogue and involvement for Lee, a much livelier pace than was customary by this time - and bad things - a much cheaper, studio-bound look, some bizarrely poor special effects. It's much gorier and more sadistic than the others.
Dracula AD 1972 (1972) **
A radical reinvention indeed, reviving the Count in nineteen-seventies Chelsea, and also bringing back Peter Cushing to play Van Helsing's grandson. To keep the recalcitrant Lee on his toes, there's set another potential replacement snapping at his heels: Christopher Neame, in the role of vampire disciple Johnny Alucard (an alias Van Helsing has to work out letter by letter with a pad and pencil). Critics tend to decry the film's flirtation with mod London and dismiss the film as a camp absurdity, but the fact is that nobody ever watches this film without thoroughly enjoying it. At one time it was illegal to say a good word for it at all; presently we are at that nervous, tentative, cowardly "it's rubbish, but I can't help liking it" phase. Ultimately the truth will out. It's a great movie. It's fast paced, it's exciting, it has a great score, it's creepy and it's inventive. Nothing wrong with it at all.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) **
A direct sequel to the above, and an entertaining, densely plotted horror -thriller, with a distinctly Brian Clemens flavour to it and style to burn. The only problem is how to fit Dracula into it all: apart from one brief appearance halfway through he is saved for the climax, where Lee does at least get to make up somewhat for lost time with some great dialogue (more, ironically, than in any other film in the series, despite the fewest scenes) and a flashy, splattery death in a hawthorn bush.
The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) *
The series bid a truly eccentric adieu with this collaboration between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers that came off looking more like a collaboration between Hammer and the Ritz Brothers, and with Dracula for the first and only time not played by Lee. Cushing, however, is back as another Van Helsing (though if we're pernickety about chronology it can't be either of the Van Helsings he's played so far).
Another in the 'impossible to dislike category', this 'first kung fu horror spectacular' boasts some impressive slo-mo demon-vampire-zombies and a wonderfully lurid vampire's lair, where topless girls are strapped to boards around a bubbling cauldron of blood, as just two of its many attractions. In order to allow for the requisite number of martial arts sequences, Cushing's vampire-hunting team opt to wait until nightfall for the vampires to rise and then fight them, rather than, as you or I might do, kill them in the daytime while they are still asleep. It's all undeniably good fun, and it's a real pity Lee couldn't have been tempted back to see the series to a close.