Perhaps I am an old fuddy-duddy, which is surprising since I am only forty, but I generally like my films to be pretty simple and straight forward. I am not a fan of films that are overly gory but I do like them to show some real effort. As I get older and see the films that come out now, I am saddened by the overly saturated CGI-fest that we are forced to see. I have never seen any of the Transformer movies because the design is so complicated it doesn’t even look like any of the characters I grew up loving.
Please don’t get me wrong, I do not mean any disrespect to you I am only speaking for myself. Anyone who is reading and loves these films, then that is great. Obviously they are insanely popular as they keep making new ones. I just prefer things a little more grounded.
If anyone has read any of my work before either on this site or my own site, From the Archive, you will know I have a lot of fondness for the older British television series. I love the whole telefantasy genre and from there we get such series as Blake’s 7, Quatermass, Doomwatch, The Tripods, and obviously Doctor Who, to name just a few. In these series, there has been a real attempt to create effects and atmosphere often in the confines of a studio and usually without a budget of any kind. I really appreciate them and the people who were breaking new ground every week using practical effects to create the illusion of something happening. It didn’t always work but they tried, and I love these programs. For me, there is a film series that falls in with this spirit and type of experimentation, and that would be Hammer.
As we are in the month October which is known for being the Halloween month it seems only fitting that I would write about something scary such as Dracula, and since I often write about British television, it seems fitting that I would expand my horizons about British film and focus on a Hammer film. The film I chose to write about is Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness was released to the public in the UK on January 9th 1966. Little did I realise early on that this is my favourite Hammer film. I remember getting a bunch of PAL VHS tapes of Hammer films back in the late 1990s and I randomly pulled one out and started to watch it. I was mesmerized for a number of reasons that I will get to in a bit, but this is a wonderful film.
This is a sequel to Dracula from 1958, with The Brides of Dracula released between the two in 1960. Dracula: Prince of Darkness was the second film to feature Christopher Lee as Dracula. A role that he would make iconic and challenge the popularity of Bela Legosi.
In fact, the film starts off with a short recap of how Dracula was killed off in the first film which included footage of the lovely Peter Cushing. This sets the stage so we know what to expect in this new film. Unfortunately, we do not get the privilege of seeing Cushing and Lee in this film together as there is no Dr. Van Helsing. This role would be taken up by a character named Father Sandor played by the impeccable Andrew Keir. The Father is not your usual man of the cloth. He is rotund and looks more like a hunter than a priest. He is not afraid to speak his mind nor does he hide his contempt for fools or people who still believe in vampires.
It has been 10 years since the death of Dracula yet the surrounding villages have not shaken off the superstition of the vampire. Father Sandor is travelling back to his monastery when he runs into 4 travelers from London. They are traveling to broaden their minds. Its two brothers, Charles and Alan Kent, and their wives Diana and Helen. Everyone is up for the spirit of adventure except for Helen who either disapproves of other’s activities or is just afraid of trying something new.
The Father starts his journey back and the 4 travelers head off to their next destination via horse and carriage. There is a delay and the carriage driver refuses to go any further because it is getting dark. He wants the travelers out of his carriage to the point where he gets violent and pulls a knife on them. He means business. He leaves them by a castle. Once again, the old superstitious ways get to these villagers, as Charles asks him about the castle, the driver simply responds “what castle?” and refuses to look at it. He leaves them to fend for themselves.
What should be a horrible time for the travelers turns out well….for the time being. A different horse and carriage, with no driver, comes to their rescue. It was a conscious decision by all of them not to go to the castle, especially now since the horse has shown up. They are able to continue on with their journey, or so they think. The horses have other ideas, which means Charles has no control over them, and so the four travelers are taken…..to the castle.
Once inside things seem quite cozy. It’s actually kind of interesting since they are all apprehensive of it, especially Helen. Yet the inside of the castle is actually quite nice. It’s well lit and actually looks inviting. Make no mistake, it’s the inside of a castle but the place is presented as the castle. What I mean by that is that the production designer, Bernard Robinson, did not have to go crazy over-designing the set. I use the term over-design. It’s very much a personal opinion of mine that production design now-a-days needs to be done to a higher level than ever before. If it should be scary, it tends to be ridiculously scary. If we need CG, we get overly CG. Like I said, I am a fan of simple and those days are gone, but I still believe that simple goes a long way, unfortunately the studios that put these films together do not have the time to test it out. The competition from other companies is so strong that they have to go over the top or risk losing fans, viewers and money.
So, I’ve decided the castle isn’t creepy, at least in the common areas, but what is about to happen is quite creepy. The four travelers are introduced to the butler of the house, Klove. He is a lean tall man who is a servant to the castle and his master. Unfortunately, his master has been dead for some time. Klove was instructed to keep the house open on the off-chance that visitors, such as the four who have now arrived, would be able to find shelter and a hot meal if they are stranded on their journey. This especially puts Charles, Diana, and Alan at ease, but not Helen. She is as terrified as ever.
This is the interesting thing about this movie. We, the viewer, totally knows what is going to happen. We know who Klove is, although we have never seen Klove before. Because we know his master, we know what is in store for the travelers. Klove does show up again in the 1970 Scars of Dracula, this time played by Patrick Troughton. In this film however, Klove is played by Philip Latham, he exudes a silent menace which is eerie to watch. It is enjoyable to see what kind of camera angles are employed, especially when we are first introduced to him. It’s unsettling; Klove is unsettling.
After dinner is where things get bad. What was really strange was that all of their luggage was already brought up to their rooms before they knew they were staying. They decide to stay the night and each couple go to their bedrooms. It’s a shame no one listened to Helen. During the night she hears an odd sound outside their room and she asks Alan to see what it is, so he gets up and looks out of their room. He sees Klove moving around a trunk, and stupidly, Alan decides to follow him to see what is going on. It’s the last thing he will ever do. Alan is fileted by Klove. Luckily Alan didn’t go to waste. The way he was killed was important. His blood was responsible for mixing in with the ashes of Dracula and re-creating him. Dracula has returned, and his first victim upon returning will be Helen.
It’s sad really because Helen is the one who was so scared and she just knew bad things were going to happen but no one would listen to her. Sure, she was a nag but she didn’t deserve to die. Unfortunately, she had a fate worse than death, she became one of the undead...a vampire. The next morning, Charles and Diana awake to being the only ones in the castle. They soon realize the horror of what happened.
Diana meets Helen again as Helen tries to seduce Diana to feed off her blood. This is why Barbara Shelley is one of the best actresses to ever be in a Hammer film (or anything as I am concerned) because of the way she plays Helen. The character starts off as such a prude, she comes across as no fun, but it is only because she is so scared. The reason for their journey is to travel and explore Europe, which is not what Helen wanted to do. Once she becomes a vampire, she is a cruel person who will use other people’s feelings of what they remember about Helen when she was alive against them. It is beautiful acting from a very beautiful woman. I love Barbara Shelly.
After a battle at the castle between Dracula and Helen against Charles and Diana, Charles understands the power of the crucifix and uses it against them to escape. They get on the horse and carriage to leave, and while things seem to be going well, it doesn’t last long. The carriage overturns ejecting both Charles and Diana from it. Diana is knocked out, and things could get pretty bad, but they are rescued by Father Sandor who takes them back to the monastery.
Right away at the monastery, Charles is talking about going back to the castle to destroy Dracula since he feels responsible for this resurrection. Father Sandor wants to go with him, but they decide to leave Diana behind. As long as Dracula lives Diana will never be safe, especially as Dracula sees her as his property now. Charles is worried that Dracula may come to the monastery, but Father Sandor assures him that will not be the case.
Meanwhile outside the monastery, a carriage pulls up driven by Klove and has coffins of Dracula and Helen on board. Father Sandor says that even if they were around, they would have to be invited into the monastery by someone who knows Dracula to truly get in. Sadly, one of Dracula’s old servants, Ludwig, lives in the place now and allows them in. Ludwig is wonderfully eccentric and means no one any harm. He is a little crazy and is forced to do Dracula’s will.
Helen is allowed into the room by Diana, who is led to believe that Helen has recovered and is back to her own self. Obviously she isn’t and is captured by other priests. In a sad scene, Helen is staked through the heart. Charles sees she is dead but Father Sandor notes that she had been dead for some time. In a really calming moment, we get one more shot of Helen after she was staked. She is peaceful, almost happy looking. It’s a bittersweet end to an amazing character.
Meanwhile, Dracula is with Diana. She is hypnotized as he cuts open his own chest so she can drink his blood. Just as Father Sandor and Charles get to them, Dracula takes Diana. Klove is taking them back to the castle. Father Sandor and Charles follow. There is one more altercation between the two men and Klove, which ends with Klove being shot in the chest and killed. After all, he is a human being too.
The ending, as with many Hammer films, get a bit rushed. They get back to the castle, grab back Diana and basically drown Dracula. Running water apparently kills him, which is a new one on me. The last shot of the film is Dracula’s motionless body underwater.
As I mentioned above this is easily the favorite of the Dracula Hammer films. This is Gothic Horror. If you have ever seen Doctor Who historian Jeremy Bentham talk about what he loved about that show, he would always talk about the Gothic horror element, just like in the Hammer films. It’s amazing that this one studio had a big hold over the horror genre for so long. These aren’t gory films, but they have gore to them. For example, in the scene where Alan is killed so his blood can help recreate Dracula there is a lot of blood that splashes onto Dracula's ashes, but I would say that it is applied gore. What I mean by that is we all know it is blood, it has a very vibrant red colour to it, yet we really don’t see it ooze to much out of Alan’s body. It is inferred and I appreciate that.
Dracula is played by Christopher Lee. I am about to make a lot of people angry, but based oh his portrayal, if I had never seen him in a different role in another film I would have thought he was atrocious. To many he is the ultimate version of Dracula, but I always found his stares and gazes a little too ridiculous, at least in this film. It doesn’t help that here he was given no lines of dialogue. Christopher Lee has one of the deepest and richest voices ever and they don’t give him anything to say. It boggles the mind. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster said about Dracula’s dialogue:
"Vampires don't chat. So I didn't write him any dialogue. Chris Lee has claimed that he refused to speak the lines he was given ... So you can take your pick as to why Christopher Lee didn't have any dialogue in the picture. Or you can take my word for it. I didn't write any."Andrew Keir plays Father Sandor. I have only seen him in a couple of films but when I see him, I know I am going to get a good performance, he's a joy to watch. What I will always remember him in is the Hammer adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit. The two characters of Father Sandor and Quatermass share some traits but are really far apart. We see him and Barbara Shelly a few years later in the Quatermass film, but we do get them both here as Keir is the one who actually stakes Shelley’s character, Helen. I need to also point out how enjoyable Ludwig was played by Thorley Waters though at first I thought he was played by Rip Taylor! It must have been the hair!
The film was directed by Terence Fisher. Fisher started his career as an editor in 1936 and moved into the Director’s chair in 1948. His first Hammer film was The Curse of Frankenstein. I am not a huge Hammer aficionado although I love the series, but I never put it together that there was a Frankenstein film before there was a Dracula film. I must be taking a page from the Universal Monster film book and just assumed that iconic monster movies must begin with a Dracula film. Speaking of which Fisher also directed the first Hammer Dracula film, with this one being a sequel of sorts.
Although the production is directed well, I think there are two things that really stand out in it. The first, as I mentioned above, is the lighting. It really helps to dictate what we should be feeling. It is expertly done and really good. I mention the lighting of Klove and the castle is beautiful. For me it is a highlight. The second piece is the sound design. I do not mean the music but I mean sounds such as the horses galloping, or the soup ladle when it is pouring soup into the bowl, or the sound of a body being dragged across a floor. It’s done in an unassuming and smart way. These are everyday sounds that sell the film to me.
I watched this film from the 13 disc Region B Blu-ray set. It includes 12 films and a DVD with the World of Hammer documentary. Seeing the film in HD was a real treat for me. I have been meaning to open up this set and start delving into the contents for some time, and this was a perfect reason to do it. All of the screengrabs included in this article come from the Blu-ray. It doesn’t look too bad, does it?
The one thing I find interesting is that there is a restoration feature on the film showing some before and after shots. As someone who works with film and understands color grading, it is clear to me that the “before” shots are strictly the film taken out of storage with absolutely no colour grading done at all (which is why it is so washed out), but the after shot is weird and not indicative of the work done on this release. In fact, I think this was an extra from a previous release of the movie and as you can see from the still frame, the blacks are not black at all but mostly grey.
As we get closer to Halloween, I am fine with people who want to watch “scary” films where characters are routinely butchered, where people are tortured in all kinds of in-human manner with blood dripping out of every orifice of their bodies. But for me, I like my type of Halloween movie to be a little more escapism, with the gothic horror themes of castles in foreign countries and Christopher Lee playing Dracula. This film served that purpose admirably.
Let us know if you want me to do more reviews of the Hammer films in this set. Also, if you are into the spooky, check out my paranormal podcast that features real evidence of spirits which I have picked up. You can find it at www.audible-print.com and click on the MN GhostBox button to check out some of the creepy things I have recorded.
Greg Bakun is a seasoned connoisseur and reviewer of British television. You can read more of his articles and reviews on his site From the Archive: A British Television Blog or listen to him drink wine on the Doctor Who podcast The Others. Oh, you can follow him on Twitter too.