THE UNQUENCHABLE THIRST OF DRACULA [Mayhem Film Festival 2015 Live Read]

PrintE-mail Written by Jon Towlson

In 1970 Anthony Hinds of Hammer Films wrote The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (originally titled Dracula – High Priest of the Vampires) as the intended follow up to Scars of Dracula, relocating the vampire count to India where he was to spread his evil influence. Writer-Producer Hinds devised the script primarily to take advantage of frozen assets that Warner Bros (who financed and distributed Hammer’s output) had in India at that time. Ultimately, however, financing proved to be problematic and Hammer dropped the script in favour of updating the series to present day London with Dracula AD 1972.

Unquenchable Thirst, along with another mooted series reboot, Vlad the Impaler, ended up in the Hammer vaults where it sat for decades until De Montfort University’s Cinema and Television Archive (CATH) became the custodian of the Hammer archive, a collection of over 300 scripts, as well as books, posters and other memorabilia. In 2014, CATH’s Director, Professor Steve Chibnall invited Mayhem co-programmers Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil to delve into the archive where they stumbled across Unquenchable Thirst, the Hammer Dracula that never was.

At this year’s Mayhem, Cooke and Sheil presented the unfilmed screenplay for the first time in a live reading on Saturday, October 17th. Unquenchable Thirst tells the story of Penny, a young traveler to India, who discovers that a whole village, its Maharajah, and her own sister, have fallen prey to Dracula who has set up lair in the Maharajah’s palace, where his victims are imprisoned to slake his unquenchable thirst.

Jonathan Rigby, author of English Gothic, narrated the screenplay, and a host of local actors, including Jonny Phillips as the Count, Lauren Carse as Penny, and Jas Steven Singh as the Maharajah were tasked with bringing Unquenchable Thirst to an audience. And what a superb job they did. Rigby kept the narrative moving apace, while Phillips created a very reptilian count, different to how Christopher Lee would have played it, but effective nonetheless. Harpal Hayer, Sabrina Sandhu, Shajait Khan and Som Kapila gave solid support in their multiple character roles; whilst Neil Tolliday and Lance Hume provided the music.  Wisely, Sheil and Cooke, who handled the adaptation and staging, did not attempt to overwhelm the production with visuals and sound effects, instead allowing the actors to bring the screenplay to life through their interpretation of Hinds’s words. Presenting a screenplay as a live reading is always a risky business – you’re never quite sure how it’s going to come over – but this was a total triumph, giving as near a movie experience as is possible to do in a reading.

So what would The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula have been like as a film? The story starts slow, as Penny travels by train through India, finally to arrive at the village in which her sister, Lucy (Sandhu) has been staying, where she is taken in by the friendly Prem (Hayer) and his wife (Kapila). Meanwhile, in the palace, Dracula selects his victim during a banquet, and we learn that the Maharajah and The Rani (Kapila again) are doing his evil bidding. Penny is inexorably drawn into danger as she attempts to find Lucy. It builds to a chase through the mountains and Dracula is finally destroyed when the villagers turn on him with wooden stakes; daylight turns him to dust. That scene, alone, with its hundreds of extras, possesses an epic sweep that probably made Unquenchable Thirst unfilmable for Hammer from a budgetary point of view. In short, there is no doubting Unquenchable Thirst would have made an exciting movie, but an expensive one.

The later entries in the Hammer Dracula series tended to sideline the character making him increasingly incidental to the plot, and Unquenchable Thirst is no exception. There’s no doubt it has more for Lee to do than he had in, say, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, but there is still the sense that Hinds wasn’t quite sure where to take the character or what to give him that was new. There is also the issue of the exotic setting and whether it would have sat well with the traditional gothic elements of the series. Although Unquenchable Thirst features caves and dark dwelling places redolent of Taste the Blood of Dracula and Dracula, Prince of Darkness, this may have contrasted strangely with the Indian palaces and robes. Maybe it would have worked, maybe not. One thing the Indian setting gives Unquenchable Thirst is a thematic continuity with the series, especially the original 1958 Dracula and Dracula has Risen From The Grave: in these films especially, Dracula is portrayed as a an evil aristocrat feeding on the serfs from the village below; Unquenchable Thirst provides an intriguing variation on this theme by invoking the Indian caste system; the Brahmins and Kshatryia (priests and Kings) provide Dracula with the peasant women and servants – the Sudra- whom he transforms into vampire pariahs and keeps in a cave under Maharajah’s palace.

One more thing makes us regret that Unquenchable Thirst was not made: in Penny, Hinds wrote what is perhaps the strongest female in any of the Dracula series. Indeed, she is the story’s central protagonist, the first time a woman would have taken the lead role in a Hammer Dracula. As written by Hinds and portrayed by Lauren Carse, Penny is resilient, resourceful and memorable, in fact possessing the very same qualities of strength, virtue and goodness that Bram Stoker gave Mina in his original novel (Hinds clearly based Penny on Stoker’s Mina). In a film series that is obsessively patriarchal, the character of Penny is to be sorely missed.

Alas, it was not to be. But thanks to Mayhem and all involved in Saturday’s production, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula came to life albeit for one brief, unforgettable night. The Count is dead. Long live the Count!

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