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Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer

Written By: John Sansom Directed By: Terence Fisher

The Short Version

Christopher Lee gives Count Dracula the silent treatment in his second turn at the fang for Hammer.

Hammer begins to play fast and loose with vampire lore here.

Terence Fisher’s direction is excellent.

The Dracula bait is rather annoying.

Though not without problems, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is a worthy sequel to Horror of Dracula, and worth seeing.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

VALENCAY.

A cheese that is coated with ash and which has a surprisingly mild finish.


Pairs Well With...

MOUNT ST. HELENS SYRAH.

Blood red wine made near a volcano… hmm, mix the ashes and the wine and…

“Fortunately, my calling still allows me the pleasure of a warm posterior.”


It took eight years of real time and ten years in the fictional world, but in 1966, Christopher Lee finally came back for his second turn as Dracula for Hammer Studios.  (Though technically, it is Hammer’s third Dracula movie; the second focused only on his brides.)  That return, however, was not without its points of contention.

What happened before the camera began to roll is a question for debate, but the result is there for all to see and most pointedly not hear: Christopher Lee may have come back, but he wouldn’t say a word in the film.  Some have said that Hammer chose not to give the character any lines as a means of allowing them to pay Christopher Lee a smaller salary for his work.  Lee, on the other hand, has said that he thought the dialogue originally written for him was stupid and he simply refused to deliver any of it.  In the end, though, the reasoning matters little.  While it may seem odd to people who hadn’t seen the first film, the silence actually makes sense when compared with the original Horror of Dracula, for there, Lee did speak when presenting himself as the Count, a living nobleman, but once reveled as a vampire, he didn’t say another word and limited himself to hissing.

While watching Dracula: Prince of Darkness, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps other parts in the film might have played better given the silent treatment, as well.

The film begins with a quick recap of the ending of Horror of Dracula, complete with an unnecessary voice over narration to explain what otherwise seems quite obvious.  It’s no real spoiler to say that Dracula is defeated, and crumbles to ashes under the light of the sun.  Roll the opening credits.

With the credits done, we find ourselves watching what looks to be a funeral procession in the woods.  Given the fact that we’ve seen the title of the film, it takes little imagination to figure out what one of the pallbearers who is carrying a mallet and a stake looks to do with his tools before the funeral’s over.  As the dead girl is placed upon a ready-to-go pyre, a woman we quickly learn to be her mother begs the priest in charge not to allow this to happen and to please just give her daughter a normal, decent burial.  The priest insists that he must do things this way “to be sure,” and is about to carry things out when he’s interrupted by a gunshot fired into the air.  The gun has been fired by the area’s Abbott, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir, The Viking Queen), who chides the group for their superstition, calling them idiots and barbarians and reminding them that the evil they fear ended ten years before.  He then demands that the girl be buried decently in the cemetery, and if the priest won’t do it, then Sandor himself will.

Flash on to the interior of a tavern in town, where we find four travelers from England on holiday: couples Helen and Alan Kent (Barbara Shelley, Rasputin: The Mad Monk, and Charles Tingwell, The Secret of Blood Island), and Charles and Diana [yeah, I snickered, even though this is 15 years too soon for that; the real Charles and Diana were children when this was made] Kent (Francis Matthews, The Revenge of Frankenstein, and Suzan Farmer, Die, Monster, Die!).  They are in the midst of squabbling when Father Sandor comes in and warms himself near their table.  He invites them to visit his own town during their visit, but suggests strongly that they steer clear of one called Carlsbad.  Helen insists that Carlsbad is in fact where they are set to travel the next day, and that they will not be deviating from their program.  Sandor begs them to reconsider, but if they must go, they should at the very least, he insists, avoid the castle.

Anyone care to place bets on where these four end up spending the following night?  Yeah; thought so.

Countless horror fans were thrilled at the thought of Christopher Lee’s return as Dracula, but ironically, most of what’s best about Dracula: Prince of Darkness occurs before Lee even shows up as anything but a flashback.  As that flashback reminds us, Dracula was reduced to a pile of as at the end of the original film, so how could he possibly come back for this one?  The script for Dracula: Prince of Darkness takes fully half the movie to set that up, and Director Terence Fisher (The Curse of Frankenstein) does a superb job of realizing that vision on the screen.  Indeed, it can be said that ultimately, it is Fisher who is the true star of this picture, for this is one film that absolutely lives or dies on its pacing and on its ability to maintain the audience’s interest.  The slow buildup as the victims are put into place to bring about Dracula’s return is brilliantly achieved, and culminates in one of the single most memorable scenes in the history of Dracula filmmaking: the vampire’s resurrection. 

Not only is the visual effect of the resurrection itself marvelous even forty-five years on, but the anticipation that is created while Dracula’s henchman (Philip Latham, Force 10 From Navarone) gets everything into position is a masterstroke of suspense.  Yes, the audience knows what’s coming, and indeed has for quite some time now, but even with that knowledge, one can’t help sitting on the edge of one’s seat waiting for it to happen.  This is the genius of Terence Fisher at work, and he deserves every bit of praise that can be mustered for it.

This is especially true since the group of Dracula bait that has been assembled has been up to this point singularly annoying.  By and large, this is the fault of the very same screenplay that has thus far been brilliant with its handling of the plot.  Alan Kent is written as the sort of whipped tool of a husband that both men and women tend to dislike for mousiness; there’s really little the actor could have done.  Similarly, Diana Kent is written to this point as the bubbly cheer muffin whose vocabulary seems to be made up entirely of words indicating that she agrees with someone else.  Again, not much actress Suzan Farmer can do.

Diana’s polar opposite in terms of characterization (think “Sure, I’ll try anything!” contrasted by “Missionary only, and never on Sunday”) is Helen, who is written as what can only be described as a haughty, disagreeable bitch for the first quarter of the film, and a sniveling, disagreeable coward for the second.  In one of those ultimate “no-win” situations, Barbara Shelley proves to be far too good at her job, putting in such an excellent performance that even before anyone makes it to the castle, much of the audience is hoping she’ll be bled out first just to shut her up.

Meanwhile, as the boisterous adventurer (as well as the man obviously being set up as the film’s hero), Charles Kent is given the greatest potential by the screenplay, but actor Francis Matthews hams it up to such a degree – and sounding suspiciously like he’s trying to be Cary Grant and failing miserably at it – that his character ends up being even more annoying than Helen.

In the world of good news/bad news, Barbara Shelley gets to make up for having to read for such a bitchy character in the second half of the film, as she turns to absolutely luscious dynamite once Dracula wakes up.  On the other hand, Francis Matthews remains just as insufferable.  Ah, well.

Returning to the script, Dracula: Prince of Darkness marks the point where Hammer starts to play fast and loose with vampire lore.  The means by which Dracula is resurrected is fascinating and very well done, but it is by no means traditional (and indeed, the very method by which he was killed in the first place had only been invented from whole cloth in 1922 in the screenplay for Nosferatu).  With that said, because of course fans want Dracula back to wreak havoc again and because it’s so well done, we give it a pass.  However, turning the semi-traditional but always highly suspect idea that a vampire cannot cross running water and turning it into “a vampire will immediately drown dead under running water” is a bit much.  (Besides, if running water is such a problem, in theory, Dracula’s resurrection should have been impossible.  What, exactly, do you think blood is made of, anyway?  Half of it is running water.)  Indeed, it is this convenient addition to lore that makes for the weakest scene in the film; I’ll leave you to guess where in the story it lies.  In the end, though, what it amounts to is a certain variety of laziness that once employed, Hammer would go to again and again over the coming years whenever it was more convenient than working around established lore.  How do you kill a vampire?  The answer, to Hammer, is “whatever’s most convenient to the director and the writer at the time.”

One must also wonder at the fact that given the vampire’s fear of the crucifix as adhered to by Hammer, why would Dracula even want to try going to an Abbey?  And isn’t it damn convenient that none of the priests or monks wear crosses on their person, and that the Abbey itself isn’t heavily decorated with them?  Is that not the least bit odd to anyone?  Damn convenient for the vampires, though, I must say!

Nevertheless, despite its problems and the convenient roads it takes, Dracula: Prince of Darkness does stand as a very good direct sequel to Horror of Dracula.  Terence Fisher’s direction is simply too good to ignore, and the resurrection scene truly is one of the most memorable of all Dracula scenes ever put to film.  That alone would make this movie worth seeing, even without its other merits.

Bottom line, if you enjoy vampire movies at all and Hammer films in particular, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is definitely worth an hour and a half of your time.  Yes, it plays fast and loose with the rules, but the results are solid overall, and sometimes, one classic moment really does make everything else worth it.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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