Thursday, October 28, 2010

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: Dracula: Prince of Darkness

It wouldn’t be a Halloween countdown without a Hammer production or a vampire movie, would it? Well, whaddaya know folks, it’s two-for-one here at The Agitation of the Fangs Mind.

Terence Fisher’s 1958 adaptation of ‘Dracula’ – Jimmy Sangster’s script making huge diversions from Bram Stoker’s classic novel – was a relatively low-budget affair with stagey sets, functional dialogue and a generally pulpy approach to its material. It was a huge success, mainly due to the charisma of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both essaying roles which came to define them, and a balls-to-the-wall ending in which Van Helsing, almost overpowered by Dracula, drags a curtain from the wall, the beam of light striking his nemesis, then advances on him holding two candlesticks together in a makeshift crucifix. Iconic stuff!

Despite its popularity with audiences – and despite the fact that Hammer Studios eventually produced nine Dracula titles – it was eight years before Fisher and Lee reteamed for a direct sequel. (There was an in-name-only sequel in 1960, ‘Brides of Dracula’, in which Cushing reprises the Van Helsing role but the Count himself does not appear.) ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ opens with a re-encapsulation of the ending, then jumps ahead ten years. A group of fearful looking villagers are carrying a funeral bier through a forest. The deceased is a woman in her twenties. Her distraught mother is prevented from approaching the girl’s body. One of the villagers readies a wooden stake and hoists a hammer. A shot rings out. The stern figure of Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), rifle in hand, approaches the funeral party and warns that they are about to commit blasphemy. He examines the corpse; there are no bite marks. No evidence of vampirism. He counsels the villagers that the horror is past; that Dracula has been destroyed.

Nonetheless, the next time we encounter Father Sandor he’s conversing with two English couples on the Grand Tour and warning them not to go anywhere near the castle at Carlsbad. He doesn’t give a reason, but for anyone paying attention – ie. those of us who happened to notice that the movie had “Dracula” in the title – it’s painfully obvious.

Nonetheless, our quartet of know-it-all travellers – brothers Alan and Charles Kent (Charles Tingwell and Francis Matthews) and their respective spouses Helen and Diana (Barbara Shelley and Suzan Farmer) – head for Carlsbad only to be forcibly ejected from their carriage at the outskirts of the town by a distinctly agitated driver who refuses, at knifepoint, to go any further. They’re just contemplating the less-than-four-star accommodation presented by a woodshed when a driverless carriage comes pelting out of nowhere and comes to a halt right in front of them. They hop in and Charles takes the reins. The horses won’t respond to his directions, though, and the party wind up at the castle.

This is where the shit hits the fan. Or, more to the point, where the blood dribbles into the sarcophagus.

Fisher does several really commendable things in this film, but makes one huge mistake (and I’m not even counting the plot hole regarding crucifixes and coffins). Kudos where they’re do, so let’s accentuate the positive. Firstly, he plays absolutely fair by the ending of the earlier film. Dracula doesn’t just reappear, or pull some Saturday morning serial deus ex machina; there’s a properly exposited and unhurried build-up to his resurrection. Secondly, for a film that’s not ostensibly adapted from Stoker’s novel a la its predecessor, the sequel is arguably closer in spirit – particularly with regard to the brainwashed Ludwig (Thorley Walters), a stand-in for the novel’s Renfield. Thirdly, the filmmakers pay proper attention to vampire lore, most effectively in the denouement which is one of the few instances in the genre where running water is used against the bloodsucker rather than light, garlic, crucifixes or a stake through the heart.

(It might sound like I’m stating the obvious or preaching to the converted harping on about the running water thing, but you’d be surprised how many vampire movies completely ignore this rule. Think about the boathouse attack in ‘Twilight’ or the swimming bath finale of ‘Let the Right One In’ – the latter particularly annoying because so much attention is paid to the matter of a vampire having to be invited across the threshold. Bear this in mind next time you watch ‘Let the Right One In’ or read the novel. Who invites Ely into the bath-house?)

But I digress. ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ works well on many levels. It’s steadily paced, a slow-burn sense of the inevitable infusing the first half. The finale delivers the goods in proper race-against-the-clock style. The problem is, it’s a good 45 minutes into an 86 minute film before Christopher Lee shows up and, as effective a performance as Philip Latham turns in as the sinister manservant Klove, when the film has “Dracula” in the title as it’s a Hammer production, it’s Christopher Lee in a cape with sharp teeth and eyes like the fires of hell that we want to see.

Nor does the film grace him with any dialogue (according to Lee, the script was so bad he refused to say any of the lines!) This denies us the darkly charming aristocrat of the first film, but works well considering that ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ is about the resurrection of Dracula. The thing that comes back to (un)life thanks to Klove’s machinations is quite simply a feral beast, hissing and primal. If Christopher Lee charms and chills in equal measure in ‘Dracula’, he just plain terrifies here.


The Film Connoisseur said...

That was my main problem with this one, it takes more then 40 minutes for Dracula to actually make an appearance. They do manage to keep the suspense going for a while, even without the count.

My favorite is the one that follows this one, Scars of Dracula where Dracula is more viscious, on that one Dracula likes to torture and mutilate his victims and poor Klove whom were supposed to sympathize with. Dracula even uses swords and knives on that one.

Taste the Blood of Dracula is another really good one, with the rich dudes resurrecting Dracula out of boredom.

Prince of Darkness aint my favorite, but I dont consider it a bad Hammer Dracula, I leave that space for Dracula 1972 A.D.

Neil Fulwood said...

Agreed. 'Dracula 1972AD' is definitely the franchise at its lowest ebb. I've not seen 'Taste the Blood of Dracula' in years, but I seem to remember there was a good contrast between the decadent aristocratic types who decide to resurrect him and the real amoral villainy of Dracula himself.