Sunday, August 27, 2017

Dracula: Prince of Darkness

(1966) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Based on the character created by Bram Stoker; Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Thorley Walters and Philip Latham; Available on Blu-Ray (Region B) and DVD

Rating: ****

“I hope people will not be disappointed by a greying Dracula. And, incidentally, as Dracula I never say a word. As I am already a vampire from the word go, there is nothing I can say – not even a courteous, ‘Well, here we are again…’” – Christopher Lee (excerpt from letter to his fan club, from The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes)

1958’s Horror ofDracula made such a huge splash that it was only a matter of time before a sequel surfaced. No one could have anticipated, however, that it would be nearly a decade before another proper installment, starring Christopher Lee in the titular role, was made. No offense intended to David Peel in 1960’s otherwise solid Brides of Dracula, but as Baron Meinster he couldn’t match Lee’s raw intensity. Lee returned to the role that helped put him on the map, without skipping a beat.

* Fun Fact: Budget-conscious Hammer Films shared the same sets and actors with three other productions: Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Reptile, and Plague of the Zombies.

The opening montage of scenes* from the first film’s conclusion, depicting Dracula’s defeat at the hands of Dr. Van Helsing, brings us up to speed. Of course, the implication is that evil doesn’t vanish, it simply lies dormant. Two English married couples traveling through Europe (played by Barbara Shelley, Charles Tingwell, Suzan Farmer and Francis Matthews) pause at a local tavern, where a priest admonishes them not to take any detours along the way, especially to a castle in the forest. Naturally, they do just that, because we wouldn’t have a story otherwise. They enter the castle, only to discover a dining table, with place settings for four guests, and its sole resident, a dour servant named Klove (Philip Latham). The only one who objects to the creepy atmosphere is Helen (Shelley), whose fears prove be warranted.

* The closing scene from Horror of Dracula is presented, as a recap, in a mist-swirled frame. Besides serving as a device to jog our foggy collective memories, the aesthetic choice had a practical explanation, since Horror of Dracula was filmed in a different aspect ratio, and the filmmakers had to accommodate the 1:66:1 image on a significantly wider 2:35:1 frame.

Hammer’s Dracula sequels find new and inventive ways to revive the count, and this film finds Lee making a grand entrance in baptism of blood. It’s no surprise that Lee settles back into Dracula’s cape with such ease. This time around, it’s a silent role, but Lee’s lack of dialogue doesn’t diminish his presence. He’s a powerful presence, a force of nature to be reckoned with. Depending on whom you believe, Dracula’s wordless performance is by choice or design. According to Lee, he excised his dialogue because it was so terrible, but script writer Jimmy Sangster offered an alternate explanation, claiming he never wrote the lines in the first place. I tend to believe Lee’s version, which seems to align with his long-running ambivalence toward a role that was at once his meal ticket and a curse.

Barbara Shelley* was one of the most underrated actors in the Hammer stable, who deserved to hold a place in the pantheon with Lee and Cushing. She never quite fit in the Hammer glamour mold – not to say she wasn’t easy on the eyes, but, but she always carried a more substantive air, and had the acting chops to perform with the best of them. Shelley demonstrates her formidable range as the repressed Helen, the most straight-laced member of her little group, finding fault with everything and anything that seems the slightest bit unsavory. Her husband and brother in law humor her concerns when they venture into Dracula’s castle, but feel she’s just being an alarmist. In a cruel twist of fate, she falls into Dracula’s trap, joining the uninhibited, licentious ranks of the undead,** Shelley provided some insight into the motivation of her character in the DVD commentary, stating Helen was so averse to Dracula’s castle because she was “feeling the call of evil.” We hate and fear most the aspects that we loathe in ourselves.

* Fun Fact: Shelley’s co-star, Suzan Farmer, provided Helen’s screams in the film.

** Another Fun Fact (SPOILER AHEAD):  During filming of the scene where her character is staked, Shelley swallowed one of her fangs. Due to the limited budget, there were no replacement fangs available. 

Dracula: Prince of Darkness sports a fine cast of supporting actors, starting with Andrew Keir’s commanding performance as Father Sandor. Sandor is a substitute of sorts for Dr. Van Helsing, but with a more brash demeanor and less self-importance. He’s a true believer, dedicated to wiping out the vampire scourge from humanity, but not above enjoying the simple pleasures in life. Keir expertly walks the line, endowing his character with equal doses of conviction and humor, adding much-needed levity to the film’s serious tone. Thorley Walters amuses and horrifies as the fly-eating Ludwig (essentially the Renfield role), one of Dracula’s loyal servants, now confined to a monastery. He vacillates from a doddering old fool one moment to a dangerous sociopath the next. Philip Latham also impresses as Dracula’s manservant Klove, who lives only to revive his master. He’s unnerving from the first moment he’s on screen (Latham’s introductory shot parallels Lee’s in Horror of Dracula).

Outside of Dracula’s bloody resurrection perhaps, there are few big surprises in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Arguably it’s the Dracula film we needed at the time, re-establishing the character for audiences, with good’s eventual triumph over evil a foregone conclusion. Dracula: Prince of Darkness signaled Christopher Lee’s overdue return to the screen in the title role, and he doesn’t disappoint. He slips into the role as if he’d never left. The film is also distinguished by other great performances, especially by Shelley and Keir. Arguably, the sequels could have stopped right here, but if we’ve learned anything from Hammer’s Dracula series, you can’t keep a good vampire down. Perhaps he’s only dormant, waiting to be revived once more by another incarnation of Hammer Films.

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