When it’s on: Thursday, 2 July (10.55 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
Dracula: Price of Darkness is appearing as part of the Horror Channel’s evening of Christopher Lee films, a nice dedication to the late, great actor who was remembered recently on these pages. Clearly, the channel has the rights to Studio Canal’s Hammer catalogue, with this entry featuring alongside Lee’s two appearances in two Dennis Wheatley adaptations (The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter) and a further donning of the Count’s cape in The Scars of Dracula.
Of the quartet, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is possibly the best known and certainly stars Lee in his most famous and iconic recurring role for Hammer. I remember writing about this one for the gone but not forgotten Film Journal network a number of years ago, and at the time being rather sniffy about it. Despite the calibre of the cast and crew involved – the studio brought its A-Team to the table for this one – it just felt lazy, as though the very presence of a new Dracula film was enough without anyone needing to try hard in making it all work. Watching it again, I now realise I was overly harsh, in fact I would go so far as to agree with the most consensual comment made about Dracula: Prince of Darkness and see it for what it is, the quintessential Hammer horror experience.
I should note that isn’t a guarantee of quality. Hammer was capable of making really good films on limited budgets, as well as a number of outright stinkers. This straddles the two opposites. In places it’s fantastic, making you remember what it is you love about these cheap horror flicks from a more innocent time. At other times it misses the mark entirely, a fact encapsulated by the performance of Lee himself. Already bored with the role and refusing to play Dracula again before finally agreeing to this one, Lee puts in a sulky, ‘by the numbers’ body of work, refusing to speak the lines given to him in Jimmy Sangster’s (writing as John Samson) script, describing them as ‘literally unsayable’, and limiting his character to menacing stares and hisses. There’s a point at which it’s still Christopher Lee as Dracula, and all the natural charisma, physical imposition and sinister qualities such a playing implies, but the urbane Count he essayed during the early moments of 1958’s Horror of Dracula is gone, slain for the pantomime villain to which he’s been reduced here.
Lee doesn’t appear until the film is more than halfway through its running time. Everything up to that point is building up to the big reveal, a careful construction of suspense that really works because director Terence Fisher ekes out the tension for all its worth. The story returns to the fictional, mid-European village of Carlsbad, an area of thick woodland, dark secrets and suspicious locals. It’s been ten years since Dracula was smote and life is taking some time to return to normal, the people retaining their superstitions and unwilling to acknowledge the presence of an enormous Gothic castle dominating the skyline. Into this simple world come four unwitting English travellers, eager for adventure and obviously lambs to the slaughter. Before too long, they’re spirited to the castle, where they come across Klove (Philip Latham), the servant of a dead master with instructions to show hospitality to anybody who stumbles across these parts. Wined and dined, they go to their beds in the castle, but strange noises prompt Helen (Barbara Shelley) to wake her husband Alan (Charles Tingwell) and make him investigate. Big mistake. Klove kills poor Alan and dangles his prone body over Dracula’s tomb, opening up his veins so that the blood can revive his diabolical master. Helen then goes to find Alan and instead comes across the reanimated Dracula, who duly claims her as his first victim.
Until this moment, the film has been all about the foreshadowing, Helen’s pleas for the group to leave the castle, which go unheeded, their meeting with Father Sandor (Andrew Weir) who warns them to steer clear of Carlsbad, which naturally is precisely where they’re headed towards. It’s rather brilliantly done, the inevitability of their folly that will lead to Dracula’s reappearance, the complete contrast between Shelley’s prim and timid Helen, and the wanton siren she becomes after falling under the Count’s thrall. Latham’s Klove is exactly as ominous as you would want him to be. His first appearance in the castle is by means of his shadow appearing before he does, the camera taking a gleefully long time in order to transfer from the silhouette to the man himself, tall and gaunt, almost a Nosferatu figure before he’s finally revealed. And then there’s the castle, that superb use of Bray Studios with its dark recesses, stained glass windows casting strange lights and corridors that lead to goodness knows where. It’s just the perfect place for horrible deeds to take place within its walls, which often enough is exactly what happens there.
The two remaining survivors (Francis Matthews, playing the closest thing this film has to a dashing hero, and his pretty, virginal wife, Suzan Farmer) join Sandor at his monastery and plan the overthrow of Dracula. Also present is Ludwig (Thorley Walters), a kind of doddering inmate kept there for his own good and also becoming the film’s take on the Renfield character. Ludwig falls into helping the Count and Helen, as though under a hypnotic spell. Klove puts in the hard yards, protecting the carriage that contains their coffins. After some further encounters, the gang race back to Castle Dracula in order to vanquish him in an ending that feels rather rushed and thought out entirely with economy in mind.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness cost £100,000 to make, a a pittance by the standards of glossy Hollywood productions but a big deal for Hammer. It was made and marketed as a premier attraction, though to save time and money it was filmed at exactly the same time as Rasputin: The Mad Monk, Lee flitting from one eponymous starring role to the other whilst the same locations and studio sets were recycled to resemble either Carlsbad or St Petersburg. Elsewhere on the lot, even less cash was spent on the two films’ support features, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, an identical process of sharing everything between the two pictures cutting costs to a minimum. And yet, as though proving that budgets alone can count for little in terms of quality, this film’s twinning with John Gilling’s little zombie flick showed up the latter’s atmospheric thrills against the mixed bag served up here. Sadly, it loses interest with Lee’s appearances, appropriately enough as he displayed little pleasure of his own in the part. But until he arrives, it’s great stuff, the reanimation sequence a complicated series of special effect overlays that shows the Count returning to the world from a mere pile of dust, the ghoulish methods to bring about that moment chilling even now.
It’s a shame that Hammer produced to order, responding to demands and cash from America to make further entries in the series. Five more Dracula films followed, varying in quality, most featuring some memorable moments but ultimately casting a bored beyond belief Lee to do some disinterested terrorising before being dispatched within the customary sub-ninety minutes, in increasingly ridiculous and even easy ways. A pity also that Peter Cushing could not be called back to reprise his role as Van Helsing. Whilst Cushing took the starring role in that other long running Hammer series of Frankenstein features, here we get Andrew Keir, by no means a poor actor and carrying a good deal of authority, yet still something’s missing.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness: ***