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DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

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Reviewed by Ken Begg of
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension

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Interminable Background Detail:

OK, this is a little complicated, so try to follow me here. The first Hammer Dracula film was 1957’s Dracula [a.k.a. Horror of Dracula, in the USA]. The movie was massively successful, and is still considered the best Dracula picture by many and perhaps most horror buffs. Christopher Lee famously assayed the Count with the inimitable Peter Cushing as a particularly dynamic Dr. Van Helsing. In what is still the most famed ending of any vampire picture, Van Helsing runs down a long table and, leaping, pulls down a curtain, letting sunlight into Dracula’s lair. An impromptu cross is then employed to force Dracula into the sunbeam, with spectacular result. The final image is a close-up of Dracula’s crested ring, his ashes blowing away in the wind.

Hammer never equaled this film (Well, OK, maybe Quatermass and the Pit), especially with its vampire pictures. This was partly due to that fact that Lee’s Dracula and Cushing’s Van Helsing weren’t reunited until many years had passed, years rather unflattering to the actors. This finally occurred sixteen years later, in the desultory Dracula A.D. 1972. Brides of Dracula, the ‘official’ second in the series, is Hammer’s next best vampire movie but remains a bit of a cheat. Most notably, while retaining the still vigorous Cushing as Van Helsing, it lacked Dracula entirely. The villain is instead an acolyte of the Count, played by the blond actor David Peal. Lee was conspicuously absent, though the reason why varies in the telling. Some maintain that Lee didn’t want to be typecast in the part, and so refused to don the cloak again for a number of years. Another story is that Hammer was too cheap to pay Lee’s newly inflated salary.

The second theory is somewhat substantiated by the fact that when Lee did initially return as the Count, Cushing was not to be seen. Luckily, an equally forceful actor, the marvelous Andrew Keir, was on hand as a replacement foe. Hammer’s Dracula movies would never again feature such a forceful protagonist. This would ultimately prove much to the detriment of Dracula’s villainous integrity. By the next film in the series (Dracula Has Risen From the Grave), Lee’s Count was already perishing through his own clumsiness, and whilst battling a rather callow college student at that.

Our Feature Presentation:

Dracula Prince of Darkness opens by replaying the climax of Dracula. This makes sense for three reasons. First, it’s a great opening for a movie. Second, it reacquainted the contemporary pre-VCR/DVD audience with the ending of the prior film, then eight years old. Third, the sequel maintains strict continuity with Dracula, hence the recap makes especial sense. Said continuity works well here, with Dracula revived in a particularly nifty, if repulsive, manner. Later, though, this trait of the series would woefully work against it. In Dracula, the Count was a horrific monster who had terrorized Europe for over five centuries. Starting here, Dracula would get revived, run around for a week or two, vampirize one or two people, and then get knocked off again. This, as you’d imagine, tended to make him look rather ineffectual. By the last Hammer Dracula film, Dracula and the Seven Golden Vampires, the Count (now played briefly by Lee look-alike John Forbes-Robertson) materialized and then pretty much dispatched himself in the space of perhaps a minute.

Unlike the first film, Dracula Prince of Darkness was shot in a widescreen format. Hence the climax of the earlier picture is framed to disguise this. We then continue to a funeral procession, carrying the body of a buxom young woman (this is a Hammer film) through the woods. Soon the woman’s mother appears, pleading with the attending priest to give her daughter a Christian burial. The locals are superstitious, however, and plan to stake and burn the body, lest she return as a vampire. They are interrupted by the crack of a rifle, announcing our protagonist, Father Sandor.

Sandor is a vigorous, earthy figure who clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly. "You are an idiot, Father," he tells the priest. "Worse than that, you are a superstitious, frightened idiot." A quick examination confirms that the girl died of natural causes, and he roughly orders the dithering priest to give her a proper burial. This proves a forceful entrance. As Cushing’s Van Helsing was a scientist evincing the faith of a cleric, Sandor is the reverse, and fully his equal. Sandor knows that vampires exist, but unlike the foolish priest, he knows that a systematic knowledge of their powers and limitations is possible. It’s a shame that this character was never utilized again.

We now cut to two English brothers and their wives, traveling through Hammer’s generic, vaguely 19th Century Middle Europe. The older, stuffier couple is Alan and Helen. Helen is one of those who seem to live in a perpetual state of disapproval. The younger pair are the livelier Charles and Diana (!), obviously destined to be our leads. Unsurprisingly, we are introduced to these characters in a small village tavern, a favorite locale of Hammer Studio pictures. Here Father Sandor meets our leads. He comes in for a drink to fortify against the cold, another clue that he’s more earthy and knowledgeable than pious (much to Helen’s patent disapproval). Sandor’s knowing and scornful reaction to the cloves of garlic decorating the tavern is a small but amusing touch. He rudely informs the locals that such precautions are no longer necessary, alluding to the Count’s current state of rest in a meaningfully oblique fashion. Sandor’s presence here is a nice touch. It allows him to sternly suggest that they skirt the area around Castle Dracula (advice obviously doomed to be ignored), as well as explaining why the survivors will later seek out his protection.

Inevitably, the travelers end up stranded. A driverless carriage appears and takes them to the castle. There they are met by Klove, the rather overtly sinister manservant of the presently deceased Count. Only Helen really seems to comprehend the danger they’re in, and her terror at the fatal nonchalance of her companions is well realized. When her husband tells her that things will look better in the morning, Helen’s resignation and bitterness bubble up. "There won’t be any morning for us," she presages. Later, Alan learns just how right she is, as he becomes the centerpiece in the nicely imagined and quite gruesome resurrection of Dracula. (This leads to one of the highlights of Christopher Lee’s commentary. Seeing a hand emerge from the Count’s stone coffin, Lee notes with surprise that it’s his own. "I’ve been denying doing that bit for years," he admits.) The survivors ultimately manage to escape the Castle, and seek refuge with Father Sandor. Now the battle begins to end Dracula’s reign forever…

Such is the charisma of Christopher Lee that he dominates the film despite two evident drawbacks. First, he’s on screen for well under ten minutes. This tended to be true in all his Hammer Dracula movies. Lee was always one of the more expensive elements in the films’ budgets, and his participation was kept to a bare minimum. In order to facilitate this, Dracula’s resurrection here doesn’t even occur until the film is basically half over. Moreover, or so the story goes, Lee found the dialog for his character so ridiculous that he supposedly refused to speak it. (Lee repeats this assertion on the film’s commentary track.) Therefore the Count is restricted to guttural, animalistic utterances. One doubts that the producers complained overmuch, as this undoubtedly further reduced the amount of time necessary to get Lee’s scenes in the can. Despite this, though, Dracula’s evil presence is palpable throughout the proceedings.

Juicy parts are provided for Hammer perennials Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley (Helen) and Thorley Walters (playing a Renfield type), although I personally find the latter a bit exaggerated here. Keir, in particular, makes his mark. A bluff, forceful actor, he’s perhaps best known for playing Professor Bernard Quatermass in the sci-fi classic Quatermass and the Pit. If anyone can carry the mantle of the sadly absent Peter Cushing, it’s Keir. The rest of the cast is solid, per usual for Hammer product of this period. Meanwhile, I’d like to take a moment to mention Terence Fisher, Hammer’s best director. His work here is typically splendid, and he has a real handle on action sequences. Also of note is the superb music of James Bernard, including heavy usage of his classic ‘Dracula’ theme.

The script ranges from serviceable to inspired, particularly in the grisly ritual used to reanimate the Count. The manner in which Dracula again meets his temporary demise here is also refreshingly novel. Meanwhile, the characters, in a bracing change from most recent horror flicks, are occasionally foolish -- and then only because, unlike us, they don’t know that they’re in a horror picture -- but not stupid. Well, OK, Diana’s pretty dumb, falling as she does for the same ploy twice, but maybe she’s just supposed to be scatterbrained. And if the characterizations something appear rote, they yet evince more depth than in most horror flicks.

Helen, for instance, might be dismissed purely as a shrew. Still, we’d do well to remember that life during this period (somewhere in the late 1800s, I’d guess) was a lot more uncertain than it is today. Then, if misfortune struck, you were pretty much screwed. No social safety net to catch folks then. Hence, Helen may be an alarmist, but with rather more reason than we might tend to give her credit for. Ironically, it may be her constant complaining that causes the others to ignore her when she’s actually on to something. It’s also interesting that while Helen sniffs at Sandor’s manner, she’s yet the most intent on obeying his injunction regarding Dracula’s Castle. The others might treat Sandor in a more friendly manner, but they still more or less laugh off his warning as faintly quaint. Also not to be overlooked is the obvious and genuine affection between Helen and Alan, no matter how long-suffering he appears. Meanwhile, the repressed Helen’s transformation into a sensuous vampire woman is one of the hallmark characterizations in vampire cinema, influencing films yet made today.

Adding dimension to Father Sandor is that, for all of his wisdom, he’s a bit of a jerk. As entertaining as he is up on the screen, you can well believe that actually sharing the day with him might be a bit of a trial. Unsurprisingly, it’s the leads, Charles and Diana, who prove to be the blandest characters on display here. They look pretty and get into danger and mostly wait for Sandor to come bail them out. Still, I must admit to a longstanding irritation with characters whose unreflective behavior dooms others. I find it especially galling when filmmakers, as they do here, allow such characters to emerge unscathed without having the ramifications of their actions rubbed in their faces.

The dialog is fairly strong for this kind of picture. I’m particularly fond of the line Klove uses when asked if anyone now holds the Count’s title. "My master died without issue – in the accepted sense of the term," he dryly notes. Actually, Klove appears to quite enjoy playing with his doomed guests. Referring to the prepared dinner awaiting the foursome at the Castle, he announces that "My master’s hospitality is renowned." Indeed.

Like most Hammer vampire films, the movie is rather short on special effects. In the early Dracula pictures especially, the vampires were more physical than supernatural. Most obviously, Lee’s Dracula habitually lacked the ability to change form. And while exceptionally strong, he was hardly superhumanly so. Still, the standout f/x sequence here, detailing the reanimation of the Count, is very nicely done and still looks pretty good today.

How The Disc Looks:

While occasionally soft and washed out looking, the overall image is quite gorgeous, and showcases the deceptively sumptuous look typical of the early Hammers. The picture is quite sharp, with a minimum of visual noise (i.e., snow, pops, white spots or creases, etc.). Over all, the widescreen presentation of the film is probably the DVD’s biggest selling point.

How The Disc Sounds:

The sound is mono, but crisp and clear. James Bernard’s score, including his ‘Dracula’ theme, comes off particularly well, as does Andrew Keir’s gruff and forceful voice. The foley effects are also quite nice during the climatic scene, as Father Sandor blows holes in the ice on which Dracula is treading.

EXTRA, EXTRA:

Anchor Bay, the company that put this DVD out, will often bend over backwards to deliver a quality product. They’ve provided a cornucopia of extras on this disc, although their overall quality is less than we might hope.

The big gun here is a commentary track, featuring Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, and the actors who played Charles and Diana. This is intermittently informative and/or amusing, but not consistently so. Lee comes off a little stiff, and any buff who’s studied his interviews and such will hear much that’s been said before. Meanwhile, the bulk of the comments consist of someone asking, "Oh, who’s that on the left?" with everyone then squealing about what a nice chap he was. For the real aficionado, I’d rate the commentary a C. Perhaps it’d be more interesting for those aren’t as up on Lee’s remarks over the years.

Next is an episode from the documentary series World of Hammer. Narrated by Oliver Reed, this one centers, naturally, on Hammer’s vampire films. Unfortunately, the format of the show leaves something to be desired. It merely showcases a chain of scenes from various Hammer films, without establishing any sense of continuity or progression. Particularly noticeable is how the featured films skip around without reference to when they were made. Hence we might go from, say, Brides of Dracula to Vampire Circus, two films made many years apart. As well, the segments presented are often merely the climaxes of the various films. Taken out of context, the sequences aren’t at their best. Especially silly looking is an extended bit featuring Lee’s death scene from Scars of Dracula. Here the enhanced crispness of the image is anything but a plus. Meanwhile, Reed’s narration is spotty and not particularly informative. Overall, I’d give this a D.

Next are a couple of theatrical trailers. The first one, for our feature presentation, is fairly amusing. The second one, however, is significantly better. A trailer for a double feature of Dracula Prince of Darkness and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies, this one reproduces the narration of the solo DPoD spot, only in a much more bombastic (and hence amusing) fashion. Especially riotous is the announcement of promotional "Dracula Fangs" for the boys and "Zombie Eyes" for the girls. (Just the kind of thing to drive Liz up the wall -- yep, the boys always get the cool crap.) Spot 1: B-. Spot 2: B+.

The best extra is some ‘home movie’ footage of the shoot taken by the brother of Francis Matthews (Charles). Lee, Shelley, Matthews and Suzan Farmer (Diana) provided remarks for these few minutes of film, as they did for the commentary track. This is rather fun stuff, and it’s nice to put faces to some of the production and technical people, including director Terence Fisher and Lee’s stunt double Eddie Powell. The footage was shot during the rehearsal of the film’s climax. It’s pretty neat, and the group commentary works a little better here. B+.

Overall, I’d give the extras a B, with extra points for the honest good effort to load up the disc for the fans.

In Toto:

If you’re a huge Hammer-Head, then you don’t need my recommendation. For myself, I’d say the disc is definitely worth a rental, although maybe not a purchase.