Our Hammer Films retrospective continues with a look at a classic vinyl horror story, with Christopher Lee making his final Dracula appearance for the company.
It’s 1974 and Hammer Films are very much on their last legs, unable to even get their films released in the American market and struggling to keep up with rapidly changing tastes. Nevertheless, the Hammer name still had some cache and with that in mind, the company set out to diversify its portfolio. If the films were not having the same impact as before, why not take advantage of other markets? After all, there was an entire fan base for the movies that had grown up watching the films on late-night TV but were not yet old enough to go to the cinema to watch new productions (not in the UK, anyway). There were no age ratings on records though and so Hammer decided to expand the brand to the world of vinyl. Of course, pretty much everything that Hammer did around this time went terribly wrong and this would be no exception.
The grandly-titled Hammer City Records was a project that aimed to recreate the classic Hammer Horrors as audio dramas and – of course – they started with Dracula because that was the character that they had very much run into the ground during the last few years and still clearly had faith in as their biggest draw. In this instance, they might have been right – certainly, the kids who loved Hammer also loved Dracula and for them, the character had not been exhausted because all those movies about the lord of the vampires that appeared in the first half of the 1970s had generally been inaccessible to them. I say this with absolute certainty because I was one of those kids. Of course, Hammer still managed to… erm… ‘hammer’ the character to death in their short-lived record division – the other Hammer LP of the year was the soundtrack to The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, another Dracula story presented in a narrated form.
For this LP, Hammer managed to persuade Christopher Lee to return, even though he had finally washed his hands of the Dracula character by this time. Perhaps the fact that he was reading a story about Dracula rather than playing the character made all the difference – though of course, the story by Don Houghton (who had written Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and so might not have been seen by many as a guarantee of success) is as removed from the work of Bram Stoker as any of the films were, and that had long been Lee’s most vocal complaint. In any case, this is his final appearance in a Dracula story for Hammer.
In fact, Houghton’s story is essentially a reworking of elements from Dracula – Prince of Darkness and Scars of Dracula along with parts of other films in the Hammer series, as a young couple finding themselves stranded after a coach accident the day before their wedding and taking refuge in Castle Dracula, where the Count at first seems a convivial host but soon swoops on the poor girl, turning her into one of his vampire brides. It is left to the young man to battle Dracula alone in what is a rather minimalist story – take out the sound effects and music, and this whole story might run for about ten minutes. But despite this and the fact that Dracula is despatched with undue haste and very little effort, it’s not a bad little story. it’s essentially the Hammer Dracula experience boiled down to the bare essentials, but Lee’s narration is breathlessly excited (those of you who have heard his audiobooks might be rather taken aback at his ‘enthusiasm’ here) and with James Bernard’s bombastic music (culled from various Hammer movies) and some impressively stereophonic sound effects, the whole thing is a lot more entertaining than you could have reasonably expected. As late-night listening, it works perfectly and is further enhanced by Bill Mitchell’s scene-setting introduction and coda that really gets you in the mood. I first received this album as a Christmas present and for me, it always feels like it has the atmosphere of a Christmas ghost story – creepy but reassuringly familiar winter listening.
The album itself is a mixed bag, however, as this horror story only takes up side one and the second side consists of musical suites from four Hammer movies that have seemingly been picked at random. It’s an unlikely foursome – I’m not sure anyone was really clamouring for a selection of music from Fear in the Night, to be honest, and She isn’t even a horror movie. Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde and The Vampire Lovers make up the other two pieces, all performed by The Hammer City Orchestra (which was not a real orchestra, in case you had any doubts). If the second side had featured music from Hammer’s Dracula films then it might have made more sense, but this feels like a very haphazard selection of titles. I’ve seen movie soundtrack purists claiming that this side is the only worthwhile part of the album but that’s only true if you really, really like cod-classical orchestral scores… which a lot of Hammer fans do, of course. For me, though, this album would be a pointless exercise without the narrated story.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Hammer Presents Dracula was a smash hit but the record certainly seemed to sell pretty well – it was something of a ubiquitous sight in record stores during the mid-Seventies and the EMI/Studio2Stereo release was popular enough to be reissued a few years later without the original version’s gatefold sleeve. It’s remained popular enough to be issued again a few years ago on collectable red vinyl. Unfortunately, any hope that Hammer might have had about the album launching a series of LPs vanished alongside the man who was running Hammer City Records for the company. According to Michael Carreras, he vanished with all the profits and the master tapes of the planned follow-up, Hammer Presents Frankenstein narrated by Peter Cushing. It seems a curious state of affairs – none of the story really makes sense (I mean, what was he going to do with these master tapes?) but the simple fact is that there would be no more Hammer recordings until the retro collector’s market began issuing standards soundtrack albums on CD in the 1990s. The Frankenstein album (which was apparently another narrated story, this time spanning both sides of the LP) has never emerged.
The album is once again out of print now, but you can enjoy the whole story below.
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