Spoiler Alert – My blogs are mainly suited to those who are already familiar with the films being reviewed. Tread carefully!
Director: Terence Fisher
Produced by: Anthony Nelson Keys
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Starring: Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Thorley Walters
“There’ll be no morning for us”
Wonderful idea by the Hammer folk to open this one by giving us a delicious prologue, a recap of the climax to their earlier Dracula (with the even more provocative title Horror of Dracula, if you’re in the States). Captured within a misty halo, it throws us into the action straight away, whilst also providing us with a brief glimpse of Peter Cushing’s wonderful Van Helsing in his best ever scene. As a child, I still remember the huge impact of these few minutes, as two men (I still had no idea who they were) run up stairs and along corridors in a wonderfully scary-looking castle. The scene features a nice bit of candlestick-throwing and a lot of attempted strangulation, and it is a truly splendid old riot of a scene, culminating in Van Helsing’s leap for the drapes.
The Scary Priest
Sadly, there’s no more Cushing beyond this opener; he was off playng Doctor Who at the time. Instead, we are treated to the stentorian Andrew Keir as pragmatic Father Sandor (nope, nothing to do with Game of Thrones!), who is wholly unimpressed by the superstitions of the huddled villagers. We’ve shifted forward ten years, and he’s certain there are no more vampires around to eat the citizens of Carlsbad. There will be soon, though!
Happy to chug the odd drop of claret, and comfortable in the belief that the Almighty doesn’t mind him keeping his posterior well-warmed, Sandor is pretty rough on the long-suffering locals, calling them barbarians and blasphemers as he tears down their little clumps of protective garlic.
Four English Wanderers
En route to Carlsbad are four peripatetic English types. They’ve left the comforts of London in order to broaden their minds (and their veins, as it turns out) with a trip abroad. Clearly not Brexiteers, they have chosen some far-flung parts of Europe for their adventures, and wind up as guests in the vampire’s castle. Soon, two of them, married couple Alan and Helen (Charles Tingwell and Barbara Shelley), have been violently dispatched, and the others, Alan’s brother Charles and Charles’s wife Diana (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer), are in a gig, fleeing for their lives and their immortal souls. An alliance between themselves and Sandor results in a super confrontation with Dracula on the icy mote of his castle.
In the role of the vampire, Christopher Lee returns for the first time in eight years. The original was in 1958, and this is 1966. In the earlier film, he is introduced almost immediately, his suave, gracious figure sweeping down the stairway to greet Jonathon Harker. In that film, he speaks some lines of dialogue throughout the earlier Harker scenes, before reverting to the silent, snarling creature that he will play for the remainder. He continues in this silent “vein” throughout Prince of Darkness. This time – aside from the prologue – we initially see him seconds before he claims his first victim, his face bathed in a sick bluey-grey light.
Dracula receives creepy support from Philip Latham as Klove (not at all hammy), his mortal manservant, left on his own to tend the castle. Later, we meet another of the vampire’s acolytes, this one played somewhat more lightheartedly by Thorley Walters. Ludwig, with his appetite for flies and his treachery towards the monks who’ve been providing him with his digs, is clearly another version of Bram Stoker’s Renfield.
My biggest quibble with Prince of Darkness is that the dialogue is somewhat uninspired and repetitive. There are multiple references to the little shack where the travellers look destined to spend the night until the Count’s riderless carriage shanghais them into staying at the castle. And Helen’s frightened quibbling, although ultimately well justified, becomes quite grating quite quickly. In fact she turns out to be a lot more engaging as a vampiress, whether attempting to seduce her sister-in-law, or squirming and snarling like a rabid swan. Her relationship with Dracula is great fun to watch, as they jealously compete with each other over dibs on angelic, but feisty, Diana.
The Best Scenes
Thankfully, the dialogue problem is of only limited consequence here, since the film’s real strength lies in its prolonged moments without any talking. The opening features a slow, solemn procession of villagers bringing a young female corpse to a funeral pyre in the woods. Later, once the four adventurers have gone to bed, the camera roams ominously along a corridor, then creeps chillingly up the length of Helen and Alan’s bed. And, of course, 39 minutes in, begins the absolute high point of the movie, which was also one of the high points of my own childhood. Alan leaves his terrified wife alone in the room in order – for some bizarre reason – to check out why Klove is dragging a heavy case around the halls in the middle of the night. There follows eight speechless minutes which includes the film’s most violent moment. It involves Alan suspended over a sarcophagus in which lie Dracula’s ashes. Seconds later, a horrifying swipe from Klove’s dagger causes a cascade of blood to reanimate the Count, whose taloned hand can be seen gripping the edge of the tomb. Aside from the eeriness of the Count’s reanimation among the blood-soaked ashes, we also have an impressive fog of dust almost filling the entire screen. Meanwhile, to heighten the moment, the soundtrack provides us with a delectable crescendo.
A Watery End
Aside from this masterful scene, the film’s climax provides the other great moment. We’ve already seen the Count disintegrate in sunlight, with Cushing’s improvised cross thrust in his face. Now, we get to see a markedly different demise. For the only time that I’m aware of, Dracula is destroyed by water, as the frozen mote around the castle is broken into a number of floes by Father Sandor’s seemingly endless supply of rifle shots. There’s a moment, just towards the end, when we witness Dracula trying to balance on a circular floe, just before being tipped over into the water, his face visible below the ice as the end credits roll.
Finally, I’ll say that, as an Irishman, it always gives me a thrill to acknowledge that all this was made possible by the initial imagination of Dubliner Bram Stoker. Maith an fear, Bram!