Director: Terence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer
Words: Oliver Innocent
Hammer’s first sequel to their immensely popular take on Dracula took eight long years to materialise but, at first glance, it appeared not very much had changed at all; Castle Dracula still stood tall as an ominous beacon guiding visitors out of the dark woods and into its eerie glow, the locals were still superstitious, and lashings of Hammer’s patented bright red blood still flowed freely.
What had changed in the intervening years is that Hammer had developed an in-house style informed by the success of their first two Gothic horror projects, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), both of which were directed by Terence Fisher and featured Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Hammer’s brand of Gothic horror, or Hammer Horror as it became known, was typified by period settings, garishly vivid colour cinematography, a recurring cast of actors and filmmakers, a very British feel, and a mischievous desire to shock audiences and critics alike with an unprecedented amount of on-screen sex and violence.
Although Terence Fisher’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) is invariably steeped in the same Gothic miasma as its predecessor – all the usual Hammer Horror trappings audiences had become accustomed to are present and correct – when compared with Hammer’s first Dracula it reveals itself to be a very different beast indeed.
One of the most blatant alterations which differentiates the film from its predecessor is Lee’s much more animalistic portrayal of the Count. In Dracula he portrayed the Count as a kind of extreme schizophrenic who, on the surface, appeared to be a polite aristocratic gentleman, but at the sight of blood could explode into a maelstrom of raging bloodlust. In the sequel Lee strips the Count of his human qualities, coming across as more beast than man. Lee’s intention to make the Count less human can clearly be seen in his refusal to speak, instead communicating with snake-like hisses and demonic growls. It is as if being brought back from the dead a second time round has caused the Count to lose even more of his humanity.
Perhaps the most significant difference, however, is that Cushing does not return to reprise his role as Van Helsing. Considering that Cushing’s Van Helsing acted as both wise mentor to the uninitiated and the Count’s action hero nemesis in the first film, it was a given that his absence would necessitate something of a change of direction for the belated sequel. While the film does boast a Van Helsing-like figure in the form of Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor, he is by no means the film’s central protagonist as Cushing was in the previous film. His appearances work more like bookends, introducing the topic of vampirism when all around him are afraid to do so, and aiding in bringing about the destruction of the Count at the film’s close. Lacking the vampire fighter and the vampire, the midsection acquires a whole new set of dynamics as the film becomes less interested in a battle between good and evil, and more concerned with exploring how naïve innocence can be corrupted by unseen forces of malevolence.
The change of focus, from a simple tale of good versus evil to a more subtle examination of the tainting, all encompassing power of evil, makes for a far different viewing experience.
Whereas the first film revelled in bombarding unsuspecting viewers with an extremely visceral, action-centric experience, the second Dracula forgoes this route, instead opting for a much more atmospheric tone. Indeed, it is telling that while in the first film Dracula makes his debut appearance a mere few minutes into the film’s runtime, the sequel makes the viewer wait until nearly half way through the film until they even get a peek at the titular character. Although this refusal to show Dracula until the middle of the film was undoubtedly a disappointment to many of the Count’s most ardent fans, it actually works in the film’s favour. Instead of a simple rehash of the first film, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is given its own identity. Free to blossom as a separate entity rather than a pale imitation of the previous instalment, it emerges as a much more effective film than its status as a horror sequel would seem to suggest.
Unlike most sequels which tend to jump straight back into the action, Dracula: Prince of Darkness deliberately takes its time to build an atmosphere of dread before the more familiar vampire action ensues. The eschewing of the action-oriented set-pieces of the first film (at least in the first half) allows the second film to establish an uneasy aura perpetuated by the tension of not knowing when the Count will make his appearance. The Count’s absence helps conjure a great sense of foreboding as if his spirit permeates the film’s settings as an unseen, intangible force forever threatening to manifest itself in its red eyed, sharp fanged form.
This is most apparent in the scene where the English tourists arrive at an eerily deserted Castle Dracula, a place so associated with the image of the Count. In the Count’s absence the Castle acts as a kind of stand-in, conveying the Count’s elegant style with its Gothic architecture, his sinister unknowable mind with its dark hallways, and his unquenchable bloodlust with its brutal medieval weaponry. In fact, with its Castle imbued with a malevolent personality, the first half of Dracula: Prince of Darkness feels more akin to an Old Dark House film than a vampire film.
The film can also be seen to foreshadow the slasher films of the 1980s as the tourists begin wandering off on their own in the Castle at night, investigating strange noises before being killed off one-by-one.
Despite its apparent similarity to other horror films, Dracula: Prince of Darkness still manages to maintain its own unique identity, mostly as a result of its interweaving of an ominous, tense atmosphere with the familiar vampire folklore. Unfortunately, once the surviving tourists flee Castle Dracula much of the film’s atmosphere is lost, abandoned in favour of a more conventional action approach reminiscent of the preceding Dracula’s finale. However, one can easily forgive this mid-section lull as the action returns to Castle Dracula for one of Hammer’s most unforgettable endings. In a thrilling turn of events the Count becomes trapped on the Castle’s frozen moat as the heroes shoot the ice. Of course, being vulnerable to flowing water, the Count’s reign of terror is brought to an abrupt end as he plunges into the icy depths. The film then closes on the haunting image of the Count’s monstrous visage floating just beneath the frozen surface, threatening an imminent return.
As well as being a remarkably inventive way to put an end to the Count’s evil, this ending perfectly encapsulates the film’s vastly different approach to Hammer’s first stab at the Dracula legend. In contrast with the first film’s finale, Dracula: Prince of Darkness does not end with a physical battle. Instead, the Count is dispatched from a distance as the ice protecting him from a watery demise is simply shot away. When compared with Lee and Cushing’s brutal, immensely physical brawl at the end of Dracula, this ending seems astonishingly ethereal as no real battle has taken place, and the Count’s fate possesses a disquieting ambiguity not found in the first film’s seemingly definitive disintegration sequence. It, like much of Dracula: Prince of Darkness, has an overarching otherworldly atmosphere which, despite the return to a more conventional approach towards the end of the film, marks it as one of the strongest, most unique entries in the Hammer canon.