Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Written by John Elder and John Sansom
Directed by Terence Fisher
I was born over a decade after Hammer’s golden age, but I was certainly aware of it. There were children’s books about monster movies that I gravitated toward as a kid. My earliest memories of learning the Dewey Decimal System were memorizing where the movie books were (790s) and where the books about comic books were (741.5). I remember pouring through these books and coming across a section in one about Hammer Horror; an image of Christopher Lee as the fanged Count Dracula accompanied the text. Around this time, some local stations would do a pretty good job programming horror movies on the weekend afternoons during October. I vividly remember a promo for The Curse of Frankenstein but not being allowed to watch it, despite being censored for television. This solidified my desire to seek out horror.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness recaps the preceding film, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. It concludes with the death of Count Dracula. Sometime later, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a priest in the village below the infamous castle, shames the villagers for wanting to dispose of a woman’s corpse like she is a vampire. Sandor finds the locals overly superstitious and shares this thought with some English tourists passing through. The Kents are warned off of going to Karlsbad, Dracula’s estate, and their carriage driver abandons them on the road as night falls. A driverless carriage arrives, and the Kents hop in. They are brought to the castle and unknowingly become the missing ingredients to revive the vampire and resume his reign of terror.
This was my first encounter with Lee’s Dracula, and it was quite an interesting experience. He’s barely in the film; more a presence people worry about. His portrayal is also not what I expected, feral & never speaking a word. Having not seen the previous picture, I am guessing this is explained as his body still rebuilding itself from resurrection. The result is a Dracula that lacks the elegant charm & seductive power of Lugosi’s portrayal. Lee’s version is an animal with his own sexual magnetism but an entirely different character. I am guessing Lee doesn’t remain silent like this in the later Dracula films, but if he does, this has got to be quite an odd film series. For me, Dracula is separated from the other movie monsters because of that human element, the ability to lure his victims to him in a manner that frames them as choosing to come to him.
There are a couple lackey characters, Klove, a servant in the manor & Ludwig, who is essentially a pastiche of Renfield. They have more lines than Dracula in that they have at least one. But do they add much to the story? Well…they are basically plot devices to enable things to happen to the protagonists. Neither character has much of a personality or shape to them. I guess they never show back up in the following Dracula movies, just elements of a B-movie to make the story happen. Sandor is about the closest we get to a compelling character, a mad priest who wields a shotgun by the film’s end. Is he a well-rounded character, though? None of them are, but the movie never pretends that it wants to tell a good character-centered story.
My view on the classic monsters is that, like most iconic characters, they only have a handful of stories they can work within. Dracula, in many ways, is chained to a specific type of setting & plot that limits what you can do with the characters. Vampires outside this specific novel can work in multiple locations, but Dracula is always a regal vampire residing in a castle on a mountain, luring unsuspecting travelers into his lair. You can have his coffin transported around the world, but it will always pan out pretty much the same.
This is my singular encounter with a Hammer movie monster, and I can’t say I’m very impressed. I know there is certainly a fan base for B-movie horror. They have a genuine appreciation of the craft or the camp of it. Nothing wrong with that. I just don’t think these are my vein of horror. This film felt riddled with cliche and had the sort of plot I could have outlined after about 15 minutes of watching. I appreciate its economic runtime of 90 minutes; I think every film should be this by default, and then you have to earn more time by the quality of the picture. I’m not opposed to checking out another of these Hammer monster flicks and would be open to any suggestions you think I might enjoy.