Continuing our Hammer Horror retrospective with a look at the second film in the iconic Dracula series.
Dracula – Prince of Darkness was the first horror film (excluding the likes of King Kong and other monster movies) that I ever saw – a pivotal life experience if ever there was one. I don’t quite know how I persuaded my parents to let me stay up to watch it at the time – I was eight – but a few school chums had done likewise and the next day was spent re-enacting the film on a bit of local wasteland, everyone taking turns to be Dracula apart from the one girl in the group who always had to be the victim. Hey, we didn’t write the story. Kids copying what they see in horror movies would become the centre of a moral panic within a decade, but readers can rest assured – everyone knew it was make-believe and no one was actually bitten or staked through the heart.
This was the first ‘proper’ sequel to 1958’s Dracula – a belated return to Hammer’s biggest hit after the Dracula-free Brides of Dracula of 1960 which itself was a compromise after Christopher Lee initially declined offers to return in the planned sequel Dracula 2. Quite what persuaded him to change his mind is unclear, but he would spend the ensuing years badmouthing the Dracula films even while they were being made, claiming that he had been essentially blackmailed by Hammer into making them. It’s an amusing story, but much like many of Lee’s claims about the films, a bit of revisionist history. It’s clear that Lee needed Hammer as much as they needed him at the time and as much as the series increasingly alienated him, he was in no position to turn it down until The Man with the Golden Gun and a move to Hollywood meant that he could briefly put all this behind him.
This 1965 movie is in many ways the archetypal Hammer Dracula. It has a simple yet iconic story (one so effective that, a decade later, it was effectively rewritten for Hammer’s spoken word Dracula LP), with four English travellers – Charles Kent (Francis Matthews), his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer), brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) and sister-in-law Helen (Barbara Shelley) – travelling across the Carpathian woods and ignoring the advice of Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) to avoid Carlsbad. Abandoned by a coachman in the middle of nowhere as night falls, they are picked up by a driverless coach and taken to a mysterious castle that no one will acknowledge the existence of, even though it looms over the village. There, they are greeted by servant Klove, who informs them that his master, Count Dracula, is dead, but has left instructions for entertaining any visitors. All this seems too good to be true – especially to suspicious, fearful and priggish Helen – and indeed it is, as Alan is quickly killed off (in a scene that remains impressively gruesome and brutal), his life-blood used to resurrect Dracula. Helen is quickly seduced and vampirised by the Count, and Charles and Diana only just make their escape. Rescued by Sandor, they quickly realise that they have to destroy Dracula – and Helen – before they themselves are made victims.
Watching the film again for the first time in several years, a number of things struck me about Dracula – Prince of Darkness. It’s impressive just how handsomely mounted Hammer films of the time were, and few more so that this – the sets are epic in scale, far in excess of what you would expect from a relatively low budget film. The film was, of course, shot back-to-back with Rasputin – The Mad Monk but it’s clear that the sets were produced with this production in mind and it is perhaps the grandest-looking of the Hammer Dracula films. It smartly opens up with a recap of the finale from the 1958 film – establishing it as a direct sequel and perhaps confirming Brides of Dracula as a side-product – and this provides a thunderous opening that then allows the film to establish its own pace without viewers becoming impatient.
The performances here are all spot-on and straight-faced. Barbara Shelley is particularly impressive as the tightly-wound Helen, fearful and distrusting of everyone and everything from the start – she’s a classic Little Englander with an inbuilt mistrust of foreigners and a distinct lack of adventure. She’s essentially Brexit in the flesh. It’s a shame that the film essentially shows her to be right in the end. Once she falls victim to Dracula, she becomes seductive and passionate, which I again suspect is supposed to be unnerving (Hammer, for all the controversy surrounding their lurid films when they started in the mid-Fifties, were a rather conservative company and their films of this time generally had very set ideas of good and evil) but it’s hard not to see her as being liberated from her own upbringing. Vampirism might have its downsides, but there’s no arguing that the undead don’t know how to enjoy themselves.
Andrew Kier is equally impressive as Sandor (pronounced Shandor). Some people have bemoaned the lack of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing in this film, but if he had been crowbarred into each Dracula movie, that surely would’ve led to the series becoming stale and repetitive. It makes more sense for there to be a new adversary for Dracula here and Sandor is a great character – his gruff nature and physicality definitely benefits the film and while the movie doesn’t have any set-pieces to compare to the climax of its predecessor, there is nevertheless a galloping fury to the film and much of that is down to Kier’s presence. Sandor would be adapted into a series of stand-alone comic strips by House of Hammer magazine in the mid-Seventies and it’s a shame that he didn’t get his own film series too. As with Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (who we’ll be discussing soon), this is a ready-made character for a continuing series that would work even now. Are you listening, Hammer?
Terence Fisher’s direction – his last for a Dracula film – is efficient without being flashy, and the story builds nicely. Lee doesn’t even appear in the first 48 minutes, but his presence is everywhere – while the viewer is certainly anticipating his appearance, there is no sense of the film dragging things out until he arrives and that isn’t something we can say about some of the other Hammer Dracula films, where it’s clear that no one quite knows what to do with the character and so sideline him to brief and ineffectual appearances. Lee, of course, continually claimed that the dialogue for the film was so bad that he refused to say it, which is a fun story but clearly nonsense, especially as he seemed to have no such qualms for the subsequent movies. Dracula was obviously written without dialogue and it’s actually an inspired moment – his silence makes him seem all the more sinister and inhuman, and allows Lee to give a much more physical, feral performance that suits the role. It was actually years before I realised that Dracula was not mute in all his appearances and I’m not sure that giving him dialogue – be it in Hammer films or elsewhere – is usually an improvement.
The story has a steady progression of building suspense in the first act before the action-packed second half. It’s to the film’s credit that assorted plot anomalies can be easily ignored. There are plenty of moments here that would become standard Dracula tropes – the sinisterly perverted slicing open of Dracula’s chest to allow a victim to drink his blood being the most significant. The ending, of course, remains a point of controversy. Given that – spoiler alert – Dracula effectively drowns in running water (the lethal effects of running water being a niche bit of vampire lore that filmmakers have generally and understandably not dwelled on), the finale is rather more dramatic and exciting than it perhaps out to be. Hammer did seem to struggle when it came to killing off Dracula at the climax of a movie and often things end with a whimper rather than a bang – other deaths include getting entangled in a bush and having a bit of a fainting spell. I understand that you might not want to keep having the same ending film after film, but the Lord of the Undead probably deserved a bit better than he usually got.
Dracula – Prince of Darkness holds up remarkably well. There are a few iffy moments and some ill-advised over-acting from supporting characters, but these are minor issues. In many ways, the film represents Hammer at its peak – all the elements of the Hammer Horror film that had been developing and tweaking over the years seem to come together here and this is perhaps the only film in the series after the first one to really use Dracula effectively; even in the best of the later films, you suspect that the story might work just as well, or perhaps even more effectively, if Dracula wasn’t actually involved.
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