Dracula: Prince of Darkness, 1966.
Directed by Terence Fisher.
Starring Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles Tingwell, Philip Latham and Thorley Walters.
Four unsuspecting visitors are lured to Castle Dracula, paving the way for the resurrection of the fearsome Prince of Darkness.
Vampires don’t chat. They’re vicious, hungry predators who happen to be wearing their last victim’s body, like a perverse kind of trophy. Count Dracula, as written by Jimmy Sangster and portrayed by Christopher Lee, is far more animal than man. If you like your vampires buff and broody, go rent Buffy or Twilight, they’ve got you covered for hunks galore. If you’re after a horror film... look no further.
It all starts with a kind of ‘Previously on Dracula’ segment, where the climactic battle from Horror of Dracula (1957) is replayed, framed in a terrific burning eye effect. No sooner than Dracula is definitely absolutely dead forever, no come-backsies, we’re in that same Eastern European forest, where a funeral procession are taking a body far outside the parish lines. They’ve got a hammer and stake, ‘just to be sure’. Never fear, Andrew Keir and his magnificent beard ride to the rescue. Professor Van Helsing: say hello to your hirsute substitute, Father Sandor. There’ll be no staking of innocent dead people today, people of Karlsbad.
Some say Prince of Darkness is more or less the prototypical Hammer Horror, and it’s hard to disagree with them. We’ve got peppy English tourists, dismissive of local superstition. We’ve got the dark, gloomy forest and the traditional ‘stay away from the castle’ warning. Cap it off with your hero locked in a darkened room with the monster, and you start to see why Hammer’s comeback The Woman in Black struck such a chord with audiences this last month. They didn’t need to change the formula much.
All this works in Prince of Darkness’ favour, despite the familiar tropes. Terence Fisher’s confident, uncomplicated direction lends the whole production the air of a Grimm Fairytale, where danger lurks at every bend in the road for the unwary traveller. We know full well the Kents shouldn’t get in the driver-less carriage, or venture into the empty castle, or eat that delicious soup the creepy butler just happened to have warmed up ready for them.
Charles Kent (Francis Matthews) can shoulder the blame for pretty much all the reckless adventurousness. He is in fact stubbornly adventurous, so much so that everyone else has to come be adventurous along with him, or they get called a prude or a bore or whatever else Victorians called each other. Beef-witted footlicker? Mewling fustilug? Could be a missed opportunity there. Anyway, Kent doesn’t miss any opportunity to put his extended family in creepily obvious peril, so his poor sister-in-law Helen (Barbara Shelley) is a certified bag of nerves by bedtime. Come on Helen, it’s all been explained.
Of course she starts hearing things. Of course her husband Alan (who clearly gets this at home all the time) gets out of bed to see what’s going on with that creepy butler Klove dragging a trunk up and down the hall. Philip Latham is nothing short of fantastic as Klove. His skin is ever so subtly grey, his eyes a picture of untold crimes in the service of Dracula. Latham has a wealth of sly, telling lines, speaking volumes to us and barely registering a suspicious eyebrow for the Kents. Try this one for size: “My master died without issue. In the...accepted sense of the term...”
Alan explores behind a tapestry, discovering a not-very-secret passage. He finds a tomb, and a box of ashes, and a massive knife in his back. How did that get there? Oh, hello Klove. One ritual blood-letting later, a hand reaches out of that tomb. The sky splits with a crack of thunder. Dracula lives again – and he’s got his eye on the supremely tasty-looking Barbara Shelley.
It only picks up pace from here, with escapes and stakings and kidnappings and galloping rescues galore. Charles “Superstitious Nonsense” Kent pays for every foolhardy decision he’s made, as he discovers the pieces of his brother in a trunk and is forced to watch vampire Helen have a stake driven through her heart, to the sound of the Barbara Shelley’s blood-chilling, film-stealing scream.
Shelley really is the shining light of this film, which is no mean feat when you’re sharing the screen with Christopher Lee. Jimmy Sangster didn’t even write any dialogue for Dracula, knowing he could rely on Lee’s sheer physical presence to carry the performance. Say what you like about his later Dracula flops, the man moves like a predator, hurtling down those stairs like a leopard bounding down a mountainside after its prey. Even in close up, that hypnotic, unblinking gaze of his freezes you to the spot.
Andrew Keir is perhaps a little deprived of screentime, especially in comparison to his predecessor Peter Cushing. That’s a terrible shame, in the face of such a commanding performance from Keir. You almost feel the lack of a proper physical confrontation between Keir and Lee, especially since we saw such a brilliant example between Cushing and Lee in the flashback. Anything to see Keir pointing that beard in anger.
Perhaps it’s just as well we didn’t get what we thought we wanted, because what we get is something that fits the horror of this story perfectly. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. Only hints need suffice; of running water, of nightfall, and a face beneath the ice. Remember, this is a Hammer film. There’s no comforting smiles as the credits fade up over the final shot. The vampire might be gone, but that doesn’t help Charles and Diana forget about Alan in the trunk, or Helen walking around as a reanimated corpse.
We’re somewhat conditioned against ‘60s horror in this day and age. We’ve seen halls and corridors brim with blood. We’ve seen little girl turn their heads 360 degrees. We can tell what colour the blood pouring out of somebody’s neck should be, however disturbing that thought might be.
Treat Dracula: Prince of Darkness the way it deserves. Turn out the lights. The blu-ray conversion has done wonders for the picture quality, bringing out those rich, vivid colours in all their Techniscope glory. Turn up the volume. Take in the eerie simplicity of James Bernard’s score. Immerse yourself in this film, and just you see if you aren’t truly horrified by what goes on in Castle Dracula.
EXTRA FEATURES: Easily worth the space they take up on the disc, we’ve a few true gems hidden away here. Back to Black gathers up a formidable collection of talking heads; Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews represent the cast, recalling their best and worst performances of the film, swallowing fangs and chewing scenery. Sherlock and Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss heads up a trio of Hammer buffs, reminding us just how shocking the throat-slitting and chest-staking scenes were at the time.
A World of Hammer episode finally gets the sound mix right for this Christopher Lee special. Oliver Reed has immense fun cataloguing the Lee’s screen career, lapping up those famous Hammer beauties as he goes. Halfway through a quick rundown of To the Devil a Daughter, he’ll pause for a quick leer: “Nastassja Kinski is the young girl Lee tries to lure away. Not a bad idea...” You can hardly blame Reed. He does a wonderful job anyway, giving us more than ever an impression of Christopher Lee as a truly versatile actor, taking every performance above and beyond what was ever expected from a small budget horror film.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film **** / Movie ****
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.