October Horrorshow: Dracula: Prince of Darkness

After eight years, Dracula, the actual Dracula and not some misdirection with the title, is back in Hammer’s 1966 film Dracula: Prince of Darkness. 1958’s Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the US) is among the most well-known and revered of Hammer’s horror catalogue. It was also a moneymaker. So, for a company that was in the business to make a buck I find it surprising that it took Hammer eight years to put a sequel together. Part of the problem may have been Dracula’s recalcitrant star, Christopher Lee. He led a most interesting life, mingling with true giants on a regular basis. Sometimes it feels like he did all this cheap horror to pay the rent, but his heart was never really in it. Like many stars he often failed to do the decent thing and keep his mouth shut about a project after filming wrapped.

For example, Dracula has no dialogue in this film, much to my, and probably ever other viewer’s, surprise. There are competing stories as to why this is. In Lee’s version, he took one look at the dialogue and refused to say any of it. If that’s true, then he’s a dick. In another telling by the film’s screenwriter, the immortal Jimmy Sangster, he didn’t include dialogue for Dracula because, “Vampires don’t chat.” If that story is true, then Sangster was getting too creative for his own good and producer Anthony Nelson Keys should have stepped in to put a stop to that nonsense.

Vampires don’t chat? What vampire stories had Sangster been watching and reading? It’s hard to find a vampire flick where the vampires aren’t charming, urbane lady-killers. It’s hard to be any of those things without opening one’s mouth. That leads me to believe Lee’s story might be closer to the truth. It’s still clearly bullshit, though, right?

This film opens with a recap of the ending of Dracula, where the titular character meets his fate at the hands of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. That’s all the Cushing we get in this film, unfortunately.

Action then moves ten years down the road, where we meet a traveling quartet of English tourists on a grand tour of Europe. They are dining in a local inn where they meet Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), an abbot of a nearby monastery. When he learns that the group plans to travel near Castle Dracula, he warns them to stay away, but of course they don’t listen. There wouldn’t be a film if they did.

After the travelers are abandoned at the side of the road within sight of the castle, a mysterious horse-drawn carriage with no driver arrives, and carries them to the castle. There they are met by Philip Latham as Klove, the deceased Dracula’s manservant. He has kept the castle in working order while his master is a pile of ashes, waiting for the opportunity when some unsuspecting members of the aristocratic class would wander by. Klove then lures a pair of the travelers, Alan and Helen Kent (Charles Tingwell and Barbara Shelley) down into Dracula’s tomb, where some acrobatics on Sangster’s part lead to Dracula being resurrected and turning Helen into a fellow bloodsucker. As far as film resurrections go, this was among the more imaginative, involving lots and lots of blood (but no gore, funny enough — despite teasing viewers, the gore in this one is non-existent).

Dracula is now revived, although mute, and sets his sights on the remaining pair, Charles and Diana Kent (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer). Wherever they flee, Dracula and his new protégé follow. Denouement comes at Sandor’s monastery, where the priest shows no fear at confronting the undead.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness is a film that showed loads of promise, but is weighed down by some profound flaws. For one, Dracula’s lack of dialogue is bizarre enough to be noticeable. Wondering why he doesn’t talk was enough to yank me out of the film at times. But the biggest flaw was in Terence Fisher’s direction. Of all the Hammer flicks I’ve reviewed for this month so far, I’ve found the ones directed by Fisher to be the most competent at pace and storytelling. But with this film, Fisher seemed to have been making up for a thin screenplay by packing the film full of lingering shots. In fact, this entire film is very slow. The strange thing is, as slow as Fisher made things, it’s not poor pacing. Rather, he’s shamelessly padding the runtime.

Overall, Dracula: Prince of Darkness plays out more like an episode of Tales from the Darkside rather than a film. While not a bad film, it feels like those involved — Fisher, Sangster, Lee — were just mailing it in.