Review: Dracula - Prince of Darkness [1965]

Dir. Terence Fisher

Cast: Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley

Hammer Studios
conclusively redefined British horror films in the 50s and 60s with their innovative amalgam of high style, literacy, sophistication, and bloody intensity, commuting the irascible gothic of Universal’s insouciant horror films and the camp sensibilities of the low-budget indies. Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy, the werewolf, and all the other horror commodities were revamped and invigorated by Hammer, but none so categorically as Dracula.  In the first film, Horror of Dracula (1958) Christopher Lee shattered the anemic, deferential image of Lugosi’s count with a mixture of vehemence and sensuality lacking from any Dracula preceding or, debatably, since and made the role irrevocably his own

Dracula: Prince of Darkness
is habitually held in pretty low esteem by aficionados of the classic Hammer series, viewing it again makes it apparent to me that this is a comprehensively unjust condemnation. Maybe Prince of Darkness’ unorthodox change of pace is what engenders many to treat it as a lesser entity. As the second part of a series that would go on to yield Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Dracula AD 1972 (1972), Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), along with a cabal of non-series vampire films, it stands out for a number of reasons. Unlike its forebear, this Dracula does not co-star the irrepressible Peter Cushing as the vampire’s nemesis, Van Helsing. Lee has much less screen time and doesn’t utter a single word throughout the entire movie, and it is possessed of a more considered pace, with a very incremental build-up to its shocks. In other words, it’s a very disparate creature when contrasted to it's predecessor.

Prince of Darkness begins with a flashback of the flamboyant finale of the first film where we see Cushing's Van Helsing improvising a crucifix from matching silver candlesticks and then tearing down the lavish castle curtains to let in the dawn light, and in so doing diminishing the Count to a collection of vampiric dust. We then find ourselves in the shadow of the now derelict castle ten years later, as a stout priest, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), dissuades a group of Carpathian villagers from defiling a dead girl for fear of her return as a vampire. In a nearby tavern, the Father then runs into four travelers: Charles (Francis Matthews), his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer), his brother Alan (Charles Tingwell), and his brother’s wife Helen (Barbara Shelley). Sandor cautions them away from the nearby castle, so of course that’s precisely where they head to when a superstitious coachman refuses to take them any further. Stranded, they access a strange driverless carriage that whisks them to the castle, where dinner is set, presided over by a brooding manservant bent on restoring his desiccated master to the land of the undead.

The first third of the movie has a rather languorous, pedestrian build up, but the atmosphere never relents. All the Hammer trademarks are present, exquisite color-saturated photography, little moments of authentically creepy atmosphere, such as the somber procession of the villagers bearing the dead girl, the driverless coach that picks up the travelers, the dense forbidding woods and the imposing castle sets. It all works, quiescently, to build tension, culminating in the thunderous, bloody rebirth of Dracula from his ashes and a terse but bloody reign of terror.

Hammer productions rarely betrayed their diminutive budgets and the sets and costumes in Prince of Darkness are lavish and evocative of the period setting. The dialog is sharp and literate, giving the ensemble cast plenty to work with empowering them to flesh out their performances, with Lee’s silent intimidation as the ultimate highlight. As always Michael Reed’s cinematography is a commanding infusion of icy greys and feverish, vibrant colours and master Hammer director Terence Fisher weaves it all together, building small, eerie moments into a classic and noteworthy climax.  

Even without the presence of Peter Cushing, this film is well worth your time and effort... certainly a case of time better spent than watching Twilight!

Verdict: Christopher Lee's is the only version of Dracula you ever need spend time with...

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