Terence Fisher, 1966
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews
Two English brothers and their wives are on holiday in Europe. Even though they are warned by a local monk, they accidentally arrive at Dracula’s castle. They find four table settings and two rooms prepared for their arrival, as well as an eccentric butler who tells them his master is dead. Queue scary music. Of course, their host is Dracula and the faithful butler (where the hell did he come from?) resurrects him by cutting the throat of the more boring, less attractive brother and leading his wife right into Dracula’s embrace. The other couple, who are mysteriously safe during the night, escape with their lives, but unfortunately Diana is Dracula’s new obsession. He follows them to the monastery where Diana’a husband and the monk must race time and the powers of darkness to save her immortal soul and nubile flesh.
Technically the third film in the Hammer Dracula series, Prince of Darkness is actually the direct sequel to Dracula and bypasses the events of 1960’s The Brides of Dracula, one of the only films in the series without Christopher Lee and the only film without Count Dracula. This marks Lee’s eight year absence from the role of the Dracula and the six year absence of the franchise and, despite the long delay, it stands as a solid example of Hammer’s visually opulent brand of Gothic horror — a subgenre film fans seem to either love or find dreadfully boring. There’s no denying Dracula: Prince of Darkness is a slow burn and director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster focus on a sense of gloomy style and carefully building suspense over flashy scares or gory violence.
Though this is a solid entry in the series, it’s not without its fair share of flaws. Lee is always fantastic as Count Dracula, but only appears halfway through the film and gives a silent performance. For a long time, there was a rumor that his lines were so terrible that he refused to say any of them — started by Lee himself — but according to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, Dracula never had any lines in the first place. The set and costumes are gorgeous, as always, but there are obvious acts of desperation on the part of Sangster. In some cases, he attempts continuity with the first film, but where did the butler come from? Why is there a Renfield stand-in named Ludwig? And where, oh where, is my beloved Peter Cushing?
The film’s biggest flaw — aside from Cushing’s absence — is the almost unforgivable horror movie sin where characters cluelessly wander around in a situation that is at best ambiguous and at worst, dangerous. The basic plot synopsis — British couples vacationing in the European countryside who lose their way — is the sort of fairytale premise that Hammer would use a few times over the years, but there are some nice central performances from the earnest, likable Francis Matthews (The Revenge of Frankenstein, Corridors of Blood) as the film’s hero, the lovely Suzan Farmer (Die, Monster, Die!), and Hammer regular Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon), who was undeniably one of the studio’s best actresses. Her death scene is a particularly memorable one, even though the film held back when it came to violence.
I do have to say that while Andrew Keir (Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb) is always enjoyable, his Father Sandor is a poor substitute for Van Helsing. In my opinion, the biggest fault of the mid-period Dracula sequels is that the script writers flounder around in their attempts to come up with a nemesis for the Count that is Van Helsing’s equal. Instead of landing on another rational scientific figure, we’re stuck with a religious figure. To be fair, Sandor is initially skeptical of vampirism, but comes around to help save Diana. Disappointingly, he never has a direct confrontation with Dracula and the Count’s coffin sinks into some icy waters, prepping everyone for another sequel.
Dracula: Prince of Darness is the kind of dependable Gothic horror that you will either love or have no interest in. Getting this film on DVD was tricky for awhile, but fortunately it’s finally out on Blu-ray. That release comes with a lot of the great special features originally included with the two-disc Anchor Bay DVD, such as a World of Hammer documentary episode,“Dracula and the Undead,” which shows clips from various Dracula adaptations and vampire films with Oliver Reed narrating. There’s also a behind the scenes home-video shot by the brother of actor Francis Matthews, a great cast commentary, and a brand new documentary about the making of and restoration of Dracula: Prince of Darkness. A must-see for all Hammer fans.