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Dracula: Prince of Darkness Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 18, 2012 at 6:50 PM

    Dracula: Prince of Darkness Review

    For myself and many fellow ghouls who will always owe a debt of gratitude to Hammer Films for making childhood forays into late-night horror movies a thing of eternal taboo-breaking, breath-baited imagination and titillation and frequently profound shock. Now this spellbinding nostalgia has made the leap to hi-definition with 1966’s Dracula Prince of Darkness spearheading a slew of restored Blu-ray releases from Studiocanal and Hammer Films of the studio’s celebrated bloodstock. 2012 will, indeed, be a busy year for them and an expensive one for their die-hard disciples.

    Written by John Sansom (actually Jimmy Sangster) from a story idea from John Elder (actually Anthony Hinds), Dracula Prince of Darkness is set ten years after the destruction of Count at the cross-wielding, curtain-wrecking hands of Peter Cushing’s valiant Van Helsing. Hammer had always wanted to return to the cursed character from the Carpathian Mountains, but had struggled with just how they were going to unearth him and put new flesh on his bones. Many still consider their 1958 adaptation of the Stoker novel to be the definitive one, so this follow-on, the first “official” sequel in the series although Hammer had produced the wonderful though Count-less Brides of Dracula in 1960, does have to aim quite high. Especially as with Horror of Dracula, to give its Universal US title,Hammer had ripped asunder the misty swoon and elegant vapours of Bela Lugosi’s stagey portrayal and delivered a vampire lord who was dynamic, animalistic and cruel. Plus, they had met fire with fire by enabling their Van Helsing to be just as action-packed and redoubtably heroic, and the resulting film was bravura and exciting. So how were they to build upon that audacious and crowd-pleasing variation? It was going to be difficult. Audiences now expected to be “wowed” by each new Hammer Film, they wanted plenty of blood and sensuality and horror. Eloquence and visual poetry weren’t looked for, although in the surprisingly capable hands of these low-budget masters, you often got them as part of the overall package. Not only would they supply the Count with a new adventure, but they would also find a way to fit in some elements of Stoker’s novel that they didn’t get around to the previous time. So now, we would have the bug-eating antics of an incarcerated Renfield, although he would be renamed Ludwig, and played by Thorley Walters, who would go on assist another classic Hammer character in Frankenstein Created Woman, and the uncomfortably sexual blood-pact between Dracula and a potential bride.

    In a wickedly cost-cutting and profit-maximising move, Dracula Prince of Darkness was the first of four films shot back-to-back and utilising the same sets and cast and crew. With Rasputin the Mad Monk following, and then The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile (all of which, incidentally, are next to be released on BD from Studiocanal), this was a revolutionary tactic. Hammer had just made an eleven-picture deal with Seven Arts Productions, Associated British Pathe Cinemas and 20th Century Fox, which would also see the Bette Davis starring The Nanny and the flesh-feasts of One Million Years BC and Prehistoric Women amongst others. The film was actually released on a double-bill with Plague of the Zombies, and was a great success, ensuring the bankability of Hammer and providing them with the impetus to make yet more Dracula films, though the series would inevitably decline in quality of the next few years and its main star, Christopher Lee, would come to regard his signature role with some understandable disdain.

    Four unwary fools.

    A branch of the Horror Film has always remarked upon the notion of the unwitting guest in a strange place – be it a simple house or cabin, a castle or a chateau, a town or an alien planet – and the awful secrets that they find within. It stems back to the Grimm’s Fairy stories about ill-advised sojourns into the forest. Bram Stoker utilised it for his novel of Dracula with poor Jonathon Harker trekking far from home to the Count’s dismal domain and, of course, Hammer depicted this in their first fang-filled outing. Then Yvonne Monlaur’s Marianne would arrive in the desperately eerie and dangerous old mansion of the tragically vampiric Baron Meinster in the immediate follow-up, Brides of Dracula. Here, they up the ante considerably with the arrival of not just one, but four foolish tourists … and this was a move that would be seen in later classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead.

    Aye, the fortune of the Brits abroad is frequently strewn with disaster … and the impeccably polite quartet that we encounter here are going to suffer more than most when their expedition through Eastern Europe winds-up at the foot of those Carpathian Mountains that seemingly everybody knows to avoid, yet still dwells just a stone’s throw through the woods from. But they won’t listen, will they? Advised by all and sundry not to venture into the isolated region of Carlsbad to find a castle that isn't shown on the map, they go anyway. Hang it all, they’re British! And they can go anywhere they damn well choose to!

    The always dapper Francis Matthews is the “adventurous” Charles, the ostensible leader of the holidaying Brits. On-hand at Bray to work alongside several other cast members, including Christopher Lee, in Rasputin The Mad Monk, which would commence shooting straight after Prince of Darkness wrapped, Matthews was a reliable fixture in films and dramas of the era. He wasn’t a great actor, but he was solid and charismatic, that debonair and upper-class air strangely empathetic when he was taken down a peg or two and put through the wringer. He’d been another of Cushing’s gullible assistants in the terrific Revenge of Frankenstein. Funnily enough, watching him in the film now, I was struck by how closely he resembles our own Brit-removed, Andrew Lincoln, star of the wonderful TV show The Walking Dead. All Matthews needs is some sweaty stubble and a Texan drawl instead of that Cary Grant-esque voice and the lookie-likie is complete. You also have to hand it him for getting stuck in with some of his own stunts. Okay, so there’s no mistaking the rather shameful body-doubles used during the speeding coach moments, but that’s Matthews getting hurled about the banquet hall and getting his wrist damaged in the middle of the final skirmish on the frozen moat. A bad landing during the earlier melee actually resulted in a back injury that he would carry for many years afterwards. It is refreshing to look back on characters such as those presented by Francis Matthews because they are not “haunted cops”, traumatised soldiers, beat-up, recovering-alcoholic detectives or supremely skilled martial artists. He’s an arrogant fop who is forced to go on the offensive with no useful talents or abilities whatsoever. It is somehow more reassuring to find someone like him fighting the good fight against the legions of darkness, however unlikely the outcome might actually be.

    Suzan Farmer plays Charles’ wife, Diana. You get that? Yep … Charles and Diana. Ahh well, as lovely as Farmer is, she is also quite, quite forgettable in the role, mainly because she becomes just another damsel-in-distress. The screenplay may see to it that one of Stoker’s more thought-provoking moments from the novel – the Count slicing open his own chest so that Mina may drink his own blood – is actually shown in the film, but Farmer brings little of substance to the role, and the scene, as transgressive as it is, falls rather flat as a result. Then again, I suppose that the censor’s objections to seeing Diana guzzle and lick her bloody lips afterwards has something to do with its strange and unsatisfying impact.

    Charles Tingwell plays Alan, Charles’ older brother, who is married to the constantly moaning and gloomy misery-queen Helen (Barbara Shelley). He may look like a little like William Shatner but he has none of the starship captain’s resourcefulness. This said, he comes to occupy perhaps the most important role in the story – the unwitting catalyst used to resurrect Count Dracula in the film’s most notorious scene. Thus, although he only gets a few lines and barely makes it to the halfway mark, he becomes one of Hammer’s most memorable bleeders.

    But the star-turn belongs to the great Barbara Shelley, Britain’s far too often unsung heroine of horror. The red-haired temptress had been seen just prior to this in The Gorgon, and she would return to the Hammer stable right after the film’s final location shoot, alongside co-stars Lee, Matthews and Farmer for Rasputin, and then again with Andrew Kier by her side once more for the classic Quatermass and the Pit. Whereas that other flame-head of horror Hazel Court was voluptuous and sexy, Shelley was often more prim and proper – and never more so than during her pre-vampirised state of Victorian repression here – but, rocking the conventions and creating the template for twisted and accursed transformations for lady-vampires forever, she would become one of the genre’s most fabulous vixens of frightful allure. Although she can barely speak over her plastic fangs, she switches so completely and entrancingly from fun-less shrew into wanton vamp that Helen becomes an indelible icon of lust from beyond the grave. With lesbian hints liberally tainting the atmosphere as she advances upon her sister-in-law not once, but twice, and her new master furious at her unchecked desire for the woman he, himself, has his sights set upon, the mould had been broken. Universal had made tentative inroads into potential girl-on-girl activities in both The Old Dark House and especially Dracula’s Daughter, but it would be Hammer that would realise the full power of such a trigger image of titillation. They would become extremely well-known for such proclivities in later films, not to mention extremely popular with a younger generation who caught up with late-night screenings on TV, but it is pertinent to remember that they dipped their toes into this potent pool of arousal here in Prince of Darkness. Although we don’t especially recall Suzan Farmer’s responses to this, the sight of Barbara Shelley’s open-armed, cleavage-revealing seduction remains another spicy flavour in this decadent stew.

    Shelley would also be pivotal to creating another now staple ingredient in the genre. When she raps on the monastery window to awaken Diana and urge her former friend to open it and allow her inside, she ushers in the “Danny Glick” moment of bewitching suspense that we saw so brilliantly evoked in the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot.

    Come on, Chris, we’re Counting on you!

    Having ducked out of Brides of Dracula citing that he didn’t want to be associated in audience minds with the same character, Christopher Lee seemed quite happy to return to the cape, fangs and red contact lenses seven years after first climbing out of the coffin. According to Hammer archives, the reasons behind his none-appearance is not actually recorded, but Lee had been very busy with the studio around the time of Brides, with The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Man Who Could Cheat Death and The Mummy, as well as a TV show and the nicely atmospheric black-and-white chiller The City of the Dead for Vulcan, so it is very possible that he viewed playing the Count again so soon afterwards would be a step backward. Now, as extraordinary a screen presence as the aristocratic Lee most definitely is, I’m afraid he is the least successful element in the film. This would become a typical trait of how Hammer would simply thrust Dracula into a plot and just assume that having their poster-boy suddenly appear to that skin-crawling theme from James Bernard would be enough to satisfy. It is a bold move indeed that ensures that the Count does not even appear for a full forty-five minutes, making his grand entrance literally at the half-way point, and this should be applauded, since our own knowledge of his impending return keeps our nerves justifiably frayed. But the sad fact is that once he has been resurrected he doesn’t actually do a great deal. His reign of terror is incredibly short-lived this time out and he only gets to put the bite on one girl. Conspicuously, Dracula doesn’t get to speak in this outing either. Now, you can choose to believe Lee about why this is, or you can opt for the Fisher and Sangster version of events. Lee maintains, to this day, that he took one look at his dialogue and personally excised every line until the Count was rendered a virtual mute. But his recounting of these supposedly awful lines sounds suspiciously like dialogue quoted from the scripts of Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula and not Prince of Darkness, at all. They don’t even fit the story. The makers, and Sangster in particular, who wrote the pseudonymous screenplay assert that there never was any dialogue for the Count to utter after a first draft fell short of the required gravitas. Either way, this reduces Lee’s performance to hissing and snarling, which he does very well, and lots of hypnotic stares, which he does even better. It also means that he performs a lot of rather pantomimic gurning when things don’t quite go the Count’s way … and this he doesn’t so well at all, I’m afraid.

    But he retains that all-important physicality that he brought to the role when he revolutionised it in 1958. There’s that spectacular flight down the stairs and across the great hall to snatch Diana from the thieving grasp of Helen. His subsequent grappling with Matthews is accomplished with devastating zeal – check out his pre-Darth Vader one-arm strangulation-hold of a struggling Charles! He snaps a sword cleanly in two! And then you have Lee carrying off a mesmerised Suzan Farmer with an expressionless and unbroken glide … something he did with an injured back, no less. Those searing red contact lenses look appropriately satanic and it is worth mentioning that the image of a grey-faced Count lurking in the shadows as he spies upon Helen for the first time, his eyes crimson-ringed, was poached wholesale by Lucio Fulci for his demonic undead priest in City of the Living Dead. He does look a lot older here than he did first time around … but then he has just been reconstituted from the blood of a starched Englishman. There would be a more consistent look for the next few outings.

    The ironically named Klove, a name that conjures up thoughts of gloves of defensive garlic, the film begins another now de rigour vampire value – that of the devoted human slave. Hammer would utilise this aspect again, most notably with Patrick Troughton’s poor beaten and tortured manservant to Dracula in the vicious The Scars of Dracula, but the notion would be carried on with Roman Polanski’s Dance Of The Vampires, Bob Kelljan’s Count Yorga, Vampire, Tom Holland’s Fright Night and the great Let The Right One In which, of course, Hammer, themselves remade as Let Me In. Familiar TV face Philip Latham brings a truly dark malevolence to the role of Dracula’s faithful retainer. Tall and imposing, he even gets to strut about in a similar dark swirling cape to his master, which is actually a nice touch. Why wouldn’t he try to assume something of the same style as the creature he so reveres? There is a noble demeanour to his characterisation that makes his nefarious motivations all the more despicable. In many ways, he is the most monstrous of the trio of villains in the movie.

    Get the flock outta here, Father!

    Naturally, we miss Cushing. But Van Helsing is presumably busy elsewhere, perhaps despatching more of the Count’s disciples, as he was doing in Brides, or maybe he was training his protégé, Captain Kronos, to be a vampire hunter. But Sangster manages to achieve the unthinkable in actually concocting a character that could possibly rival the crusading professor. With rifle-toting, buttock-warming Father Sandor (actually pronounced Shan-dor) on our side in the brusque and bearded form of soon-to-be-Quatermass Andrew Kier, we know that we are in safe hands. Big and bear-like, this man-of-the-cloth is like cassocked vigilante. The opening scene has him encroaching upon a foreign parish and ferociously reprimanding a lesser priest for practising what he considers to be a “barbaric” act upon the body of a recently deceased girl. (A great scene this may be, but it is slightly undone when we see that the dead girl is clearly breathing!) His subsequent meeting with the intrepid Brits at the inn is a special delight. Treating his faith with an endearing hangdog pragmatism and swapping amusing pleasantries with his new friends one minute, loudly berating the locals the next (“Not my flock! I wouldn’t tolerate them!”), he becomes the film’s immediate sackcloth saviour, brash, confident and raw. He takes no prisoners and no-nonsense. When Diana gets a risky bite on the arm, he’s quick to cauterise the wound with the flame from a table-lamp. He does look quite funny when seen riding a horse at high speed, though. Zorro, he ain’t.

    Raising the stakes.

    Hammer had been shocking the conventions for a good while by now. They’d shown a man becoming an alien mass in The Quatermass Xperiment. They’d thrown heads into vats of acid and given Christopher Lee a face full of buckshot in The Curse of Frankenstein. They’d even revealed the atrocities committed in a couple of Japanese POW films, as well as the evil depravities of the Thuggee in The Stranglers of Bombay. More importantly, they had depicted sadistic rape and graphic murder in The Curse of the Werewolf and even dallied with nudity in The Full Treatment. The red-eyed, gore-lipped feral snarl of Lee’s Dracula and his notorious crumbling to dust had been the bloodcurdling highpoints back in 1958’s cape-swirler. And now, with censor-baiting aplomb, they were to up their game considerably with the onscreen violence seen in Prince of Darkness. The film’s infamous set-piece ritual slaying of Alan is the undisputed powderkeg that fuelled many a palpitation and nightmare. Lured down into the castle’s crypt, he is knifed in the back by Klove who then, very calmly and with supreme dignity, trusses up his feet and, with a winch, hoists body up and over a waiting sarcophagus into which he pours the dreaded ashes of his master. Then, in a move that must have shocked so many people back then, and still does even today, he slashes the throat of the upended Alan and allows his blood to cascade down onto the dormant remains of Dracula, giving life to them. It is not just the graphic nature of the ritual (and in the original script, that censor John Trevelyan objected to most strenuously, Klove was to hack off Alan’s head and callously hurl it to one side), it is the noble solemnity with which it is performed.

    But as grisly as this sequence is, there is perhaps an even more horrific moment that Fisher was able to conjure. The censor may have initially rejected the idea, but this didn’t stop Hammer driving home the point that the best way to kill a vampire, once and for all, was to ram a good old wooden stake through its heart. Clichéd now, of course, but the execution of Shelley’s vampirised and highly eroticised Helen remains possibly one of the most shocking moments in the studio’s wonderfully taboo-breaking history. Found hiding in the barn after attempting to seduce her own sister-in-law, Helen is dragged by monks to a table upon which she is thrown, spread-eagled and pinned-down, to be staked by Father Sandor. Perfectly described by some as what looks like an “ecclesiastical gang-rape” this is extremely potent and electrifying stuff in a film that, for the most part, is actually quite restrained. The penetration of the stake, the orgasmic spurt of blood and Helen’s exquisite, agonised writhing is grotesquely sexual in nature and undeniably a symbolic subversion of religious purification and cleansing. Somehow the grasping monks who hold her down become more poisonous and sinister than the grinning redneck goons committing atrocities on intruders in the drive-in horrors of Herschell Gordon Lewis, which were doing the rounds right about the same time as Hammer’s most flamboyant films. The execution of Helen is also the poetic touché for the murder of Alan, though it cannot escape notice that both were a couple, and now both have been equally annihilated just for disregarding local superstition.

    From a technical standpoint the film is first-rate. Michael Reed’s camera prowls with the sort of gliding hypnotism that clearly helped to inspire Mario Bava, then Dario Argento and then John Carpenter. The plentiful scenes set in the castle as various characters go wandering during the first half boasts some wonderful compositions and fluid cinematography. There is a real flair for the framing of this film. Not only is it shot in gloriously wide 2.35:1, with both Fisher and Reed knowing exactly how to use that added width and dimensionality, but the duo also seek to create some startling imagery. Look at the resplendent use of the reflected stained-glass on the walls, or the intricate swathes of blood-red that punctuate the frame during Dracula’s first attack on Diana – the shot is especially gorgeous as she enters the castle. The use of such operatic colour schemes and the scope-framing would be something that Roger Corman would excel at with his Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. And a favourite shot would have to be when Ludwig first senses the presence of his former master in the wagon outside the monastery, and opens the barred window of his room to answer his telepathic calls. The angle that Reed employs has the captivating off-kilter allure of German Expressionism. Les Bowie’s visual effects are sublimely handled too. The actual rebirth of Dracula is achieved through dissolves that are aided by wafts of spectral vapour swirling inside the sarcophagus, but the icky, spidery tendrils that come to form the rejuvenated body are actually recalled by Bob Keen when he devised the resurrection of Frank in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, albeit swapping mist for dust-motes. The glass matte shots of the distant castle may look ropy – all blurred and obviously painted – and the painted-on additional height to the structure does not fit with the standing set at Bray, but that standing set, with its wacky stonework, arches and bridge is very well accomplished. Both exteriors and the Elstree interiors were redressed and decorated to become the Winter Palace for Rasputin.

    What consistently lets the side down is the thoroughly lousy day-for-night shooting. Hammer rarely could make this seem convincing, but here it is at its worst. And to compound things, have a look at the scene when Father Sandor and Charles have caught up with Klove’s speeding carriage during the pell-mell finale. After Dracula’s coffin goes dancing on ice, our heroes clambour aboard to free Diana from her own casket. “Hurry, it’s getting dark!” advises Sandor, and then a vast and golden ray of thick sunshine burns through the canopy covering the wagon to suffuse them all.

    “Ice” to meet you!

    But whilst we can heartily applaud the phenomenal production design and the fabulous lighting that makes everything so damn gorgeous to behold, the elaborate structures and facades that Bray threw up to illustrate the Carpathian retreat of Count Dracula, it has always struck me as really rather naff that the moat surrounding the castle was frozen. It’s a great idea, granted, but utterly unconvincing. Plasterboards that were painted and covered with salt are all well and good, but if the area is cold enough to have frozen the moat, then were is all the rest of the ice and the snow? Why isn’t the castle furnished with icicles? How come the English visitors are able to wander about without huge overcoats, and without stamping their feet and blowing into their gloved hands? Surely the unhappy shrew of Helen would have been complaining most bitterly about the cold when they arrived at the castle, I mean she’s moaned about everything else. But this smacks of Fisher and Sangster scratching their heads to come up with another elaborate death scene for Dracula. They were no doubt conscious of how Universal had ended each of their classic horrors with a grand and frequently earth-shattering finale. And, just as in those days, the old feller was never truly out for the Count. Whether smelted by sunshine, drowned in running water, transfixed by a giant wooden cross or hit by lightning, he’d soon be back for more. At least in Rasputin, they knew how to keep Christopher Lee for good!

    Lee was hurt by salt granules in the eye during the filming of this sequence and his regular stand-in and stuntman, Eddie Powell (who would go on to play the bandaged avenger in The Mummy’s Shroud) was almost drowned for real when he went under the fake ice. The final clawing shot of Dracula’s taloned hand trying to find purchase on the upturned slab of ice is a marvellous shot that arrogantly mocks the splendid earlier shot of the Count’s spider-like hand emerging from the mist-filled sarcophagus.

    James Bernard and his music of the night.

    By 1966, composer James Bernard was the most recognisable symphonic voice of Hammer Films. His vigorous and powerfully aggressive motifs had jangled the nerves of audiences throughout both the first Dracula and Frankenstein movies that the studio produced, and he had woven a mesmerising spell of the purest mystery and magic for 1964’s The Gorgon, just before applying his customary demonic flourishes and furious fanfares to Prince of Darkness. The main Dracula theme is very much in evidence, the chilling three-note motif would be one of the most consistent features in the series, although he would be surpassed in lieu of a more hip and contemporary vibe for the Count’s possibly ill-conceived modern day London forays by both Mike Carter and John Cacavas, but he would return with a vengeance for the bizarre Hammer/Sir Run Run Shaw collaboration The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (see CD review) in 1974. It is all too easy for modern listeners to dismiss the bravura style with which Bernard depicted these horrors, but the man’s output is one of the most reliable and impressive features of many a Hammer picture. For Prince of Darkness, he naturally takes the themes from 1958’s original adaptation of Stoker’s story and develops them with added fire and brimstone to those driving, propulsive action rhythms and yet more mysterioso for the more supernatural sections. People tend to think of Bernard’s music as being all about mounting brass and percussion crescendos, fierce cymbal clashes and shrieking strings and horns, but I would like to point them towards the beautifully melodic and lilting main theme for 1970’s colourful Taste the Blood of Dracula, which is one of his best all-round scores, boasting an amazing new evolution of his primal terror-tactics and many moments of sublime harmony. Interestingly, Bernard Herrmann-plagiarist Pino Donaggio would be influenced by some of this material in his score for Joe Dante’s The Howling. (If you want the hear the most blatant steal from a Hammer score, then go listen to Lolita Ritmanis’ main theme for the great DC animated show, Justice League, because it has been lifted, practically wholesale from Harry Robinson’s title theme for 1971’s Twins of Evil !!!!)

    With the news about the lost footage of Dracula’s face-clawing demise from the first film having been now reinstated, it is tempting to think that it may also have crept into the prologue to Prince of Darkness, since this showcases the finale of its official predecessor as a pre-titles sequence. But this is not to be. Since the sequel incorporated the sequence from the already “cut” Horror of Dracula, this material was never actually in there to begin with. We do, however, now have the full British theatrical release titles to complete the restored and uncut presentation.

    Postscript.

    Dracula Prince Of Darkness may not be quite the masterpiece that many of us wish it to be, but it certainly represents the studio at its most symbolic with its bold subversions of religious ritual and controversial imagery, and its most aggressive and most provocative with regards to its figure-head icon of the bloodthirsty Count. Don’t fall for moans of the naysayers who cite the leisurely pace of the first half as being slow and boring. It is an unusually long build-up for Hammer but this allows for nicely rendered, succinctly-drawn characterisations and a tremendous sense of growing unease and dread … and this is paid-off with that marvellously macabre centre-piece ritual murder and resurrection, a high point not only in this film but out of the entire canon of Hammer Horror. The further additions from Stoker’s novel add weight and relevance to the story, even if the decision – whoever you believe actually made it – to leave the Count speechless was, in retrospect, a bad one. It’s all too easy to claim that Christopher Lee provides a magnificent presence as Dracula, regardless … but this is not a good showcase for him. In fact, he is possibly the least compelling element of the entire film, a bit-part supporting player just wheeled-on to provide the audience with some panto-like boo-hiss villainy, instead of a fully-fledged character in his own right.

    But for many, this remains one of the select few films that hit them that a certain time and presented them with imagery so potent that they became instantly smitten acolytes.

    The bloodgates have now opened … and we can expect many more Hammer Films to sweep from Bray to Blu-ray.