And so, dear friends, we have reached the end of Schlock & Awe‘s Hammer Horror Schlocktober. I could do one of these every year (and I will, likely). If you’d like to catch up, please check out my looks at Frankenstein Created Woman, The Curse of the Werewolf, and The Plague of the Zombies. And now, without further ado, Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
By 1966, as Hammer Films forged a new distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, its decade of Gothic horror output needed a bit of a pick-me-up. While the Frankenstein movies were still going strong with Peter Cushing as the amoral baron scientist, there hadn’t been a Dracula movie since 1960’s The Brides of Dracula — and that didn’t even have Dracula in it. How do you have a Dracula movie without Dracula? To top line the first double feature with Fox against the B-feature The Plague of the Zombies, Hammer proved Dracula could come back with a vengeance in Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
Terence Fisher returned to direct (him being the studio’s A-picture stalwart, who else would they pick?) another script by Jimmy Sangster, who’d have to find out how to bring the titular Count back into the fore, and inadvertently set the stage for him to come back in five more films. Christopher Lee, now one of horror’s biggest stars, was asked to return to star, but he only appears for half the movie’s runtime and has zero lines of dialogue. There are conflicting reports as to why that is; Lee maintained he asked for his “terrible” lines to be cut and to just play it silent, but Sangster contends he never wrote any lines for Drac in the first place. Either way, Dracula is conspicuously stoic, but is still in fine red-eyed-shiny-fanged-sweeping-caped glory.
In many ways, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is the archetypal Hammer Horror film, with almost none of the particular weirdness that happened in a lot of later Dracula movies, nor the brilliant revising of original source material of the earlier films. Dracula: Prince of Darkness is straight down the line Hammer, but one that nevertheless still does what it does admirably with phenomenally visceral scenes of Kensington Gore (the general term for the bright, day-glow blood the studio spattered across the screen).
The story takes place in Transylvania ten years after Van Helsing sent Dracula to hell. Even still, villagers and townsfolk are terrified and treat every person who dies before their time as a possible vampire. The death of a young girl is met with near-staking, but is stopped by Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a monk with a rifle and a much more progressive attitude to Earthly pleasures like food and drink. He scolds the townsfolk for their superstition and rides on. Meanwhile, four wealth tourists from England are passing through on their way to the mountains. They are Charles Kent (Francis Matthews), his wife Diane (Suzan Farmer), his older brother Alan (Charles Tingwell), and Alan’s uptight wife Helen (Barbara Shelley), and they happen to meet Father Sandor at a tavern, where he extends an invitation for them to visit his monastery, anywhere as long as they don’t head up the mountain.
But, of course, they’re dumb and frivolous, and their coach driver refuses to take them all the way at night, and kicks them out at the base of the mountain, just down from a castle. Do they go to this castle, despite the Father’s earlier warning? Of course they do, and it’s just as creepy as they feared. The late master’s manservant Klove (Philip Latham) has things prepared for them when they arrive, as though they were expected, which is pretty weird. That night, Klove lures Alan out of his room and strings him up by his heels over the coffin and ashes of Dracula, using a ritual and Alan’s arterial blood to bring back the vampire, who quickly turns the repressed Helen into his new, much more permissive bride. As you might guess, Dracula wants a second bride, and Diane would be perfect. Maybe Charles and Father Sandor can save her.
This movie has the same problems a lot of Hammer movies have. The first half of the movie is a lot more set-up than is maybe necessary and the second half trucks along way too fast. The whole middle of the movie is just the Kent foursome either arguing or being made to nearly get killed or vampirized by Klove, Vamp-Helen, or Dracula himself. It’s such a long time before we see Father Sandor again, and he is easily the best character in the movie. I’ve always loved Andrew Keir (who later went on to play Professor Quatermass in Quatermass & the Pit) and his turn as Sandor is a perfect burly-cleric stand-in for Van Helsing.
But on top of Keir’s portrayal of a really great character, the other thing the movie has going for it is some truly excellent direction from Terence Fisher. The gory scenes pop in a way that few scenes had been able in Britain up to that point. The blood is nearly neon when it pours out of Alan’s hanging corpse, which sent the censors into a tizzy. And in a movie where Dracula himself is only in it for half the time, and acts much more like a monster than a true villain, the direction needs to be something special. Fisher directs several horse-carriage chase scenes with aplomb, and the final action sequence on top of the icy moat outside of Dracula’s castle is a fabulously frenetic and surprising climax.
While not the best in Hammer’s repertoire, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is perhaps the perfect Hammer Horror film, which signaled Lee’s return to his most iconic role, had some terrific performances, and lived and died by some excellent direction. Watch it this Halloween if you dare!
Images: Hammer/20th Century Fox