Original release: January 9th, 1966
Running time: 90 minutes
Director: Terence Fisher
Writers: Jimmy Sangster, Anthony Hinds, Bram Stoker
Cast: Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley
My initial – and only – Hammer horror experience prior to seeing Dracula: Prince of Darkness for the first time was the thoroughly enjoyable Quatermass and the Pit (1967).
I then saw Dracula at the end of a pretty awful movie marathon on a hung-over New Years Day when discovering it on late-night TV after Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories (2008), the hilariously naff Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus (2009), the nasty Antichrist (2009), and the weird and unimaginative Surveillance (2008).
It was undoubtedly true that the Hammer was my favourite film on that day but that isn’t really saying an awful lot. Having re-watched the film ahead of its Blu Ray release and in the wake of James Watkins’ creepy The Woman in Black, I can confirm that although there is much to admire in Prince of Darkness, I did not enjoy it much more than my initial watch.
The story is simple. Seven years after Christopher Lee’s debut as Count Dracula in which he was defeated by Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, he’s at it end again when he’s resurrected by his faithful servant (Philip Latham) with the sacrificial blood of an English tourist, Alan Kent (Charles Tingwell).
We’re reminded about the first film in a pre-credit sequence before we see Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) chastise locals for encouraging fear of vampirism and then the arrival in Transylvania of the Kents – Alan, his brother Charles (Francis Matthews) along with their wives Helen (Barbara Shelley) and Diana (Suzan Farmer).
After encountering Father Sandor who advises them not to visit Karlsbad, the Kents are stranded outside the village and seek refuge in the mysterious castle with the eerie butler Klove. After following the servant down into the crypt in the dead of night, Alan Kent is killed and his blood is used to revive the Prince of Darkness.
The scene in which that happens is a real shocker as the masses of Kensington Gore drip, like emulsion paint, into the coffin and slowly bubble to cross-fade, via a fleshy pulp, into a skeleton form which is then engulfed in smoke before Dracula’s arm reaches out. At the time I can imagine that this would have been a pretty alarming set piece and it’s still fairly gruesome today. Other than that scene though there’s little to be horrified by.
The performances are okay from everyone involved, with Andrew Keir being the real strong-point as Father Sandor along with Philip Latham’s turn as the committed butler, Klove. Christopher Lee is as interesting one – in his most iconic role of course – as I found that his was good, but lacked something. Lee has no dialogue at all in the film and there is a story, started by him, that the reason for this is that when he read the script the dialogue was so bad that he refused to speak the lines, so they took them out.
Whether or not this has an effect on my opinion of the performance, I cannot know, but I was definitely wishing that he would speak throughout. Perhaps those who have seen the original film are better placed to comment on whether Lee’s Dracula is better with or without his voice, but I felt he lacked impact in this film.
What the film also lacks is any real sense of suspense or horror. Coming to it with the point of view of a modern audience member, who was raised on modern horror and having seen this particular story play out any number of times in different locales it is a shame that in this version Dracula just feels a little toothless. Aside from the aforementioned scene where Alan heads down into the crypt and the Count is awakened there was very little to get the heart thumping – especially when compared to the recent, fairly scary, Woman in Black – this is a shame as it is clear what you can do with classic horror.
However, the film is not by any stretch bad and it includes a number of the classic characteristics of Hammer horror. By extension this means it involves many of the classic horror characteristics as Hammer came to somewhat define these.
It features Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir and Francis Matthews, actors from the Hammer stable; there is a nice splattering of Kensington Gore; it’s set in an Eastern European locale with a forest and large looming castle; there’s a hint of lesbianism; the climax involves a carriage chase through the woods and, of course, it’s got Count Dracula.
So if you’re after a film to chill and scare you, go and see something else, but if you’re after a classic old-fashioned horror in which you know what you’re going to get, then this is probably for you. Either way, it’s a fine way to spend a couple of hours and certainly made me want to see more of the studio’s output.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.