For many, the first official sequel to Hammer’s groundbreaking Horror of Dracula, an oft-neglected film called Brides of Dracula, was little more than a pit stop on the road to this film, the second sequel but first to feature the return of Christopher Lee in the title role of Count Dracula. Hoping to avoid being typecast as Dracula, Lee resisted doing the sequel, and it was another eight years or so before he agreed to don the opera cape once again and reprise the role that made him famous. In that time, he’d built up a pretty solid and diverse career that would ensure he would not become “nothing but Dracula” to the audience. Of course, in the end, he was best known as Dracula, but what can you do? He would, I assume, remain cranky about people calling him Dracula until, some decades later, everyone just started calling him Saruman.
Christopher Lee’s return to the role was much celebrated, though fans were a bit disappointed to hear that Peter Cushing, who had appeared in the first two films, would not be returning in the role of Professor Van Helsing, dedicated thorn in the side of Satan’s spawn. Cushing, in fact, would not return to face Dracula again until Hammer’s vampire films started getting really weird with Dracula A.D. 1972. He’s sorely missed since none of the other fearless vampire killers could ever hope to measure up to his standards, but I reckon Hammer decided to make the Dracula movies a Christopher Lee affair in much the same way the Frankenstein movies belonged to Peter Cushing. The big difference is that in the Frankenstein movies, Frankenstein is on the screen and running his mouth for much of the duration of the film. In the Dracula movies, Lee often appears only slightly more regularly than he appeared in Brides of Dracula, and he didn’t appear in that at all.
But Horror of Dracula seemed to prove that, with the count, less is more. He was hardly in that film at all but managed to make an everlasting impression on people with just a few minutes of screen time and only a few lines. So if he could do that much with that little, well then heck, imagine how much more he could do with even less! Or so the thinking seems to have gone, because in Dracula, Prince of Darkness he may show up screen a few more minutes than when last we saw him, but he says even less. In fact, Dracula says nothing at all. Christopher Lee doesn’t have a single line in the entire movie unless you count that animalistic, seething hiss he does every now and then. According to director Terence Fisher and scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster — both of whom served in the same roles for the previous two films — it was because they thought the strong, silent approach made Dracula even more menacing, even more like an animal. Christopher Lee maintains that the script was full of dialogue, but that it was so ripe that he flat out refused to perform it, and so Dracula became a silent role.
It may be the case that Lee is telling the truth, but then, it’s not like he wasn’t uttering corny dialogue in other films. Hey, Chris, do I need to remind you that you’d already starred in Asian drag as Fu Manchu? And hell, it’s his job to say the lines. I know Lee takes the character of Dracula very seriously as a literary figure, but really now! Since Sangster is a good scriptwriter, and since no one else’s lines are bad, one has to assume that maybe Lee is taking a slight bit of liberty with the truth here, unless I’m mistaken and Sangster had Dracula popping up and saying things like, “Blah! Blah! I vant to suck your blood!” or “One, two, three! Three giant fake rubber bats! Ah ah ah ah!” or perhaps even, “Welcome to Castle Dracula. You must be weary after your long journey. May I offer you a bowl of Count Chocula? It is a fine source of iron. Iron enriches…your blood!” Short of that, I can’t possibly imagine what could have been so bad that it would cause Christopher Lee to throw a fit and refuse to say his lines. I prefer to believe Sangster and Fisher. It reflects better on the movie and makes Lee sound like less of a crank.
So when last we saw Christopher Lee as the count, he was crumbling into dust after Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) gives him the double whammy of blasting him with a room full of sunlight and harassing him with a cross. It would seem that would be that for the evil aristocrat, but ten years later we find the small burg of Carlsbad still reeling from the lingering specter of vampirism. Just about anyone who dies gets a stake through the heart just in case, at least until a wandering monk named Father Sandor (Andrew Kier, who’d starred in a couple Hammer pirate movies and would later play Professor Quatermass in the wonderful Quatermass and the Pit) happens by and tells everyone to stop being such a bunch of barbarians. He wanders without fear through this valley of darkness, for he knows he travels with beneath the protective mercy of the Lord, the mercy of the Lord taking, in this particular case, the form of a high-powered rifle.
Sandor later encounters two couples from England who are away on a holiday. Why exactly they’ve come to the blood-drenched middle of nowhere, Transylvania, is beyond me, but I figure they were probably taken in by some flashy brochure. That or they felt that a vacation isn’t a vacation unless you can eat in a tavern full of those dirty peasants who get silent and stare at you as soon as you walk in. Sandor pleads with the couples not to go to Carlsbad, but they seem determined to go take that cave tour. Well, Sandor says, if you must go to Carlsbad, then for God’s sake don’t go to the hellishly creepy old abandoned castle up on the hill.
Hey, guess where they go?
Once up at the castle they must under no circumstances even think about visiting, they encounter the groundskeeper, Klove (Philip Latham), who welcomes them with some food, beautiful old rooms, and the usual sort of ultra-creepy “butler of evil” behavior you expect from these sorts. Up until this point, the movie has been building a sense of dread in spectacular fashion, using all the requisite Gothic horror chestnuts: the menacing warnings and portents of doom, the superstitious locals who refuse to acknowledge the existence of Castle Dracula even though they can see it out the window, the misty woods, dark crossroads, stranded travelers, mysterious black coaches, and of course, the skulking butler in the abandoned castle. It all culminates in a blockbuster moment in which one of our weary travelers is strung up in a crypt by Klove and has his throat slit, allowing the blood to gush down into Dracula’s open casket, where Klove has lovingly piled all the ashes of his dead master. The result: well, you can probably figure that one out.
Unfortunately, the movie falters after this spectacularly gruesome scene and fails to maintain an even pace. There are plenty of stand-out moments in the second half of the film — particularly the transformation of Helen Kent (Barbara Shelley, Rasputin, the Mad Monk and Quatermass and the Pit) from an uptight ice queen into a wanton creature of the night (who utters one of Hammer’s earliest and most overt lesbian lines when she suggests to her female friend that they don’t need the men to have a good time together). Helen’s transformation from sensible, repressed Victorian woman to lustful libertine vampire is representative of the film’s underlying theme of Victorian-era primness giving way to a more modern, “continental” attitude about sex. When Helen is finally captured by Sandor and his brotherhood of monks, the dispassionate way in which they dispatch Helen, who writhes and hisses as if in mid-orgasm before getting the ol’ stake through the heart, is Hammer’s most potent sexual image, at least until Ingrid Pitt started making out with other nubile ladies in The Vampire Lovers.
The surviving travelers hole up in Sandor’s monastery, but Dracula is intent on making Diana (Suzan Farmer, Rasputin, The Mad Monk) his next victim, and as you know, once Dracula sets his mind on a girl, there’s just no stopping him. He sure is lucky that all the wayward maidens who stumble into his castle are big-breasted bombshell beauties. What are the chances? I’d imagine Dracula would be less persistent if Janet Reno showed up at his castle. Despite being a monastery full of religious icons, it doesn’t prove an entirely foolproof haven from the power of Dracula, especially when he is aided from the inside by a feeble-minded madman who falls under the count’s spell (Thorley Walters in a role that is obviously supposed to recall the fly-gobbling Renfield character). We are left, then, with the usual race against time to the castle so our heroes can rescue the maiden in distress and put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror once and for all and for the second time.
As seems to always be the case, Sandor and Alan Kent (Francis Matthews, who like lots of other people in this film, appeared the same year in Rasputin, the Mad Monk) end up confronting Dracula right at dusk. Now look, fighting a vampire is not easy, but there are certain things you can do that will make the task much simpler to accomplish. Chief among these would be to not try and fight him at sunset. Dracula, Prince of Darkness at least goes to some lengths to give the film a plausible excuse for having Sandor and Alan facing down the prince of darkness as night is falling and allowing him a chance to spring up out of his coffin and toss Alan around. In plenty of other films however, vampire killers seem to dawdle around all day and never get to actually trying to stake the evil one until it’s dark. It’s as if I was the one trying to kill the vampire. I know if it was me, I’d set my alarm for seven in the morning. That way, I could get up, have a good breakfast of Count Chocula, then get on with the killing of the vampire and be back home and finished with the whole sordid affair by lunchtime.
But then, you know, seven in the morning rolls around, and I hit the snooze button, figuring Dracula can’t even get up until after, what? Seven at night? So I have like twelve hours to kill before the killing. By the time I roll out of bed, it’s already noon, and well, I might as well wait for the mail to come at 12:30, then grab some lunch and run a few errands. Then, before anyone realizes it, it’s three or four in the afternoon, and Dracula’s castle is a good two hours from here, not even figuring in for traffic or murderous gypsies along the way. So I can see how vampire hunters would always end up fighting Dracula at night if they were like me, but they’re supposed to be better at this than I am. They should be able to time this stuff out. Still, like I said, at least Dracula, Prince of Darkness takes pains to explain why we’re facing off with the lord of the undead at sundown, which is more satisfying than something like in the first film where Jonathan Harker sneaks down to Dracula’s crypt just before dark and decides to stake the far less menacing female vampire before dispatching with the most powerful undead creature ever to befoul the earth with his presence.
This is another typically strong Hammer film that manages to get over the rough spots simply by having Christopher Lee show up. His portrayal of the count here, completely without words as I said, accounts for the most savage vampire we’ve seen on screen up until that point, and indeed for some time afterward. In fact, I don’t know that it’s ever been topped. Lee’s Dracula in the later Scars of Dracula is certainly more sadistic, but he’s never as menacing or terrifying on such a primal level. Lee manages to do quite a lot without dialogue, though I do think his character is undermined to some degree by the silence. A few lines here and there, as in the first film, would have lent more gravity to Dracula. However, even without uttering a word, Lee manages to outshine the entire cast except for Andrew Keir.
Keir was one of the strongest performers Hammer had, and while he’s no Peter Cushing, that fits the character since Sandor is no Van Helsing. Although he shares similar traits with Van Helsing — a respect for reason and common sense, an acceptance of unusual things not as the supernatural, but as ugly parts of the rational world, and a basic sense of compassion — he’s also very different from Van Helsing. Sandor is possessed of a certain self-righteous bombast that comes from the power of his religion. Where Van Helsing was soft-spoken but determined, Sandor possesses a bellowing voice and a big gun. Keir is perfect for the role. He’s not nearly as comforting as Van Helsing, nor as competent at killing vampires, but you could do worse when it comes to protectors. But then, he does manage to let the girl get stolen from right beneath his nose while in his own monastery, so maybe you could only do a little worse.
Compared to Keir and Lee, the rest of the cast hardly registers. Klove has a moment or two, and Barbara Shelley has her wonderful moment in the sun, but everyone else is imminently forgettable though the acting is uniformly solid. Dracula, Prince of Darkness was filmed back-to-back with the historical horror film Rasputin, the Mad Monk, and many of the sets and members of the cast appear in both film – including Christopher Lee, who also appears as the raving Russian holy man.
Terence Fisher’s direction is as strong as ever and lends a sense of continuity to the three films despite the absence of Lee/Dracula from the second film and Cushing/Van Helsing from the third. Sets and costumes are, as usual, gorgeous, and the gore quotient is racheted up another couple notches, especially during the scene in which Klove does his throat-slitting. Unfortunately, Sangster’s script stumbles between that scene and the finale on an ice-covered river. The film meanders from here to there after a tightly woven and smartly twisting first half, with too much time being spent doing too little in Sandor’s monastery. The final showdown between the forces of good and evil is compelling, though nowhere in the league of the finale from the first or second film. There’s just something about watching spry old Peter Cushing leap all over the set that adds that extra element of excitement to a battle with the undead. The showdown on the ice is also undermined by a horrible special effect which went unnoticeable in previous pan and scan versions of the movie. But seeing it for the first time in widescreen, the bit where the ice cracks beneath Dracula’s feet, sending him plunging to an icy death since vampires will drown if submerged in running water, features an obvious tilting platform where you can even see the mechanism pivoting it upward. Then the ice swings closed again as if on, well, some sort of hinge, which it is. Shoddy special effect there, but Hammer movies have never been about the special effects – and for some reason, that effect bugged me though I seem perfectly at ease with giant rubber bats flopping about on bits of string.
The rough patches aren’t enough to ruin what is an otherwise enjoyable film. Although it lacks the pace and excitement of the first two films, Dracula, Prince of Darkness is still a pretty rollicking good time. It’s great to see Christopher Lee back in action again as the count, and really, that alone is enough to make this film enjoyable. Lee swore this would be the final time he’d play Dracula for Hammer. He was, naturally, back again as the count very shortly there after, and several more times after that, each time griping more and more about the fact that he was playing Dracula. But we’ll come to those bumps in the road when we cross them. For now, we can lie back and enjoy Dracula, Prince of Darkness — an imperfect, uneven but never the less thoroughly enjoyable foray back into the world of Hammer horror.