❉ Fangs for the mammaries: The first time I tasted the blood of Dracula.
“Taste the Blood of Dracula is one of the most overtly sexual entries in Hammer’s Dracula series but its underlying theme is domestic abuse, and it’s a strong paean to women taking control back from their abusers.”
When I was a little kid, we didn’t buy sodas very often, so to get one was a real treat. I have fond memories of my mom and me getting in the car in our pajamas and driving down the road to our little country store to get one of the coveted cans out of the machine and take them back home to enjoy with popcorn and movies on weekend nights. It was on one of those nights, along with other delicious treats, that I got my first taste of Hammer horror.
I was nearly six years old (I’ve done research, it was September of 1981) when the CBS Late Movie ran Taste the Blood of Dracula with Christopher Lee and Linda Hayden. I had slipped down to the den after everyone else was asleep and, drunk with the freedom of the moment and jittery from the caffeine from the soda, turned on the television. There it was in all of its Technicolor glory. I don’t actually remember the film itself from then, just the imagery: Christopher Lee with red eyes; the yellow letters of the CBS titles on screen; a glowing stained glass window in a church; the red dust of Dracula’s blood. Most of all, however, I remember that evocative title.
“When other little girls wanted to be princesses and ballerinas, I wanted to be a vampire.”
Taste the Blood of Dracula: it spoke volumes in and of itself. Tasting a forbidden treat. And blood – icky and kind of scary, but even a little child knows how important it is even if they don’t understand the symbology. And Dracula, such a part of the pop culture lexicon that even at five I knew who he was. So I sat in the dark alone, my eyes glued to the set, not daring to look away, in thrall to the images on the screen.
Rather than scaring me, Taste the Blood of Dracula made me want to be a vampire. At that age, I had no concept of sexuality and only the vaguest idea of adult relationships, but something impressed upon me that a vampire was something to emulate – something powerful and exciting. The girls were beautiful and they had such pretty dresses, but most of all something drew me to the tall man with the deep voice and the mesmerizing eyes. I just knew that to be a vampire would be pretty much the coolest thing ever. So in a way, you might say Christopher Lee took my virginity.
The next day at school, I started the game of “Vampires.” The playground had a large concrete culvert that the kids used to play in, and I used it as my vampire lair, luring my friends in and biting them on the neck. At that age, I had no concept of the inherent sexuality of the vampire; it was just a new way to play tag. The person bitten was ‘it,’ but for some reason I always wanted to be ‘it.’
After a few days, someone went home with marks on their neck and their parents complained, and that was the end of the “Vampire” game. But the idea stayed with me that being a vampire, having control over people, and even being a monster, was way, way better than being a princess. My Barbie dolls all got white dresses and red pen marks on their faces and necks, and Ken got his temples colored a bit with a white pencil and received a spiffy cape to go over his Dream Date tuxedo.
I read vampire books (those orange-covered books about old horror movies, remember them?), had vampire games (the boardgame I Vant to Bite Your Finger, look it up!), and read Bram Stoker’s Dracula as soon as I was able to convince the librarian, Mrs. Metz, to let me take it out. She meant well and was probably afraid my mom would be mad or that it would give me nightmares, but there was no stopping me; I was a thrall of the vampires and there was no going back.
“It’s said that well-behaved women rarely make history; in Hammer, the badly-behaved ones don’t make old corpses.”
As I grew older I sought out more Hammer films: Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter; Dracula A.D. ’72; The Vampire Lovers; Twins of Evil. I loved them all, but as I became more politically aware as a woman, the more the idea of the Hammer vixen began to bother me.
The trope starts off well enough. A woman decides for whatever reason to throw off the shackles of society and get free and freaky with the Lord of the Undead, and everything is beer and skittles until the forces of good come to vanquish Dracula or other blood-craving night bound fiend. They then at the very least require the woman to relinquish her newfound power and step back in line (if she’s the lead), but more likely she’s destroyed along with Dracula in punishment for daring to break the mold (if she’s anyone else).
It’s said that well-behaved women rarely make history; in Hammer, the badly-behaved ones don’t make old corpses.
But Taste is different. It’s special. Not just because it’s “my” Hammer movie, but because it’s a rarity – it allows its female lead, Alice, to be empowered by Dracula to avenge herself on an abuser and come out the other side unscathed (well, maybe). Taste is one of the most overtly sexual entries in Hammer’s Dracula series – everyone in it seems to be interested in scratching sort of forbidden itch – but its underlying theme is domestic abuse, and underneath the titillating aspects it’s a strong paean to women taking control back from their abusers.
“With the aid of Dracula’s power, Alice is able to kill her father and take control of her life. Of course she also goes on to facilitate the death of her friend Lucy, but who’s counting?”
The true villain of the piece is Alice’s father, an “upstanding Victorian gentleman” by day and by night a patron along with two of his friends of London’s more exotically-staffed brothels, all whilst keeping up the pretense to his wife and the rest of the world of being involved in ‘charity work.’ He prevents Alice from seeing or even speaking with her fiancé, a nice boy named Paul who just happens to be the son of one of his fellow club members.
When the whores become bores, the three gentlemen take up with Lord Courtley, who talks them into buying Dracula’s personal effects for the purpose of staging a black mass. Courtley, as part of the ritual, drinks Dracula’s reconstituted blood in a sort of Strawberry Quik of the Damned, and appears to die, leading the gentlemen to believe they’ve murdered him. They flee, and after their departure stage right, Dracula resurrects out of Courtley’s remains… and then the fun really begins.
After Courtley’s apparent death, Alice’s dad really gets nasty. He becomes openly alcoholic, and verbally and physically abusive to both Alice and her mother. He prevents Alice from going to a party by locking her in her room. Alice climbs out her window to go anyway and is found out on her return. Her father lurches into her bedroom to beat her, tearing her dress and pawing her, an act with overt tones of implied sexual abuse. Alice flees again, right into the arms of Dracula. Our hero, folks!
Weeell, not really; Dracula is an abusive asshole too. But with the aid of his power, Alice is able to kill her father and take control of her life. Of course she also goes on to betray and facilitate the death of her friend Lucy and orchestrates the deaths of the members of her father’s club, but who’s really counting?
“It’s the ultimate coming of age story. Kid rebels against parents, falls in with a bad crowd, achieves power over circumstances, and becomes a woman. Vampirism is symbolically Alice’s first step toward adulthood.”
Initially, Alice revels in Dracula’s power over her, calling him ‘Master’ and mooning over his coffin while he sleeps. Dracula’s powers provide an explanation for this, but it should be noted that those powers work best when he’s taking advantage of desires that are already there and not implanting completely new ideas. Thus, the suggestion is that when Alice kills her father, it’s not really far from her mind.
Poor Alice. It’s really out of the frying pan and into the fire for her. Dracula, after using her to get his revenge on her father and the members of his club for Courtley’s death, casts her aside and tells her he’s done with her. And boy, hell hath no fury. Dracula’s open dickery breaks his hold over Alice, but she now has the strength and motivation to work against him and to destroy him. Again.
So to sum up, Alice flees an abusive home for an abusive lover, then awakens metaphorically and literally, throws off her shackles and becomes her own woman. She slays her dragons (see what I did there?) and settles down with her nice boy. Cue credits. Drop curtain. The end.
Or is it?
In one sense, it’s the ultimate coming of age story. Kid rebels against parents, falls in with a bad crowd, achieves power over circumstances, and becomes a woman. Vampirism, or at least thralldom to a vampire, is symbolically Alice’s first step toward adulthood.
Alice’s character is a paradox. Though she’s abused, she’s strong and independent, but not quite enough to break free. With Dracula’s help, she gets her revenge on her abusive father and his cronies, throws off the bonds of society, and becomes freer and more powerful… but only in servitude to the Prince of Darkness. She then breaks free of Dracula and defeats him… only to be subsumed back into Victorian society, presumably to deal with the death of her friend at the very least, not to mention the deaths of her father, future father-in-law, and the others she’s killed with Dracula’s help.
“Alice gets away with murder. And I love her for it.”
It’s important to note that Alice isn’t made to suffer the fate of other notable Hammer vixens, like Madeleine Collinson’s Frieda in Twins of Evil, or Kate O’Mara’s Mademoiselle Perrodot in The Vampire Lovers, who are killed for their crimes. Even Caroline Munro’s Carla in Kronos – who is after all a “good” girl who does little that’s sinful except dance on Sundays, spends the entire film doing anything Kronos wants up to and including putting her life on the line as bait for his schemes, and then gets discarded for no reason other than they presumably didn’t plan her to come back for a sequel that never happened. She’s not killed in this case, but she is abandoned. The stocks aren’t looking too bad at that point; at least they were something to do.
“I found a kindred spirit in Alice that sparked a lifelong love affair with vampires and their power to simultaneously subjugate and liberate.”
Alice, however, is so completely a sympathetic heroine who takes vengeance against her wicked father that this prevents her from being punished with anything other than having to marry the boy she loves and face her own conscience, despite having been Dracula’s beck-and-call girl and general whore for Satan… oh I’m sorry, that’s in Blood on Satan’s Claw. But the point is that Alice gets away with murder. And I love her for it.
I was lucky never to have had to deal with abuse as a kid, but as a dyed-in-the-wool rebel who never fit in, especially at school, and got bullied as a result, the idea of having power over the herd resonated with me strongly. And it all goes back to that first night when, fueled by caffeine and sugar and a desire to break out of bed and boundaries, I found a kindred spirit in Alice that sparked a lifelong love affair with vampires and their power to simultaneously subjugate and liberate.
So yes, I still want to be a vampire. I even carry a pair of custom-made fangs obtained from a store in Salem, Massachusetts in my wallet at all times. I’m not kidding; they’re there right now, and yes I bite… if you ask nicely. And yes, I still love Hammer horror. It’s true, the movies are sometimes sexist but I still love them and everything they represent. And I’m not going to apologize or even call it a ‘guilty pleasure;’ it’s just pleasure, like chocolate, caramel sauce, or strawberry wine sipped out of a paper bag in the bed of a pickup truck under the stars.
You never forget your first taste.
❉ Dedicated to the memory of Kate O’Mara.