Sunday, September 25, 2011

He Can Be Destroyed, But Not Killed

Dracula, Prince Of Darkness(1965)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews

Christopher Lee returns as the Count in this 1965 sequel to the 1958 classic, Horror of Dracula. The last film in the series to be directed by Terence Fisher, is probably also the final one to be considered a classic. Lee has no dialouge in this film, not that his Dracula was ever much of a conversationlist, but he is effective and worthy of the title, "Prince of Darkness."

The film opens with the ending of the original picture, with Van Helsing defeating Dracula in the sunlight. Ten years later, the local populace are still fearful of the castle and it's master. Father Sandor(Andrew Keir) is disgusted by their fear, especially when they attempt to stake a recently deceased young woman in front of her screaming mother. Keir is an impressive force in this picture, proving a worthy foe for Lee's Count and an excellent replacement for the much missed, Peter Cushing.
The gun-packing(!) Father goes to a local inne and discovers two sets of couples on their way to Carlstad, which the Father attempts to dissuade them from going and because this is a horror movie, they don't listen. The four english vacationers are stranded at a crossroads by a frightened coach driver and are met by another coach that takes them to Dracula's castle. There they are met by Dracula's servant, Klove(Philip Latham) who says they have been expected. The most conservative of the group, Helen(Barbara Shelley) protests and demands that they leave, but her complaints are not taken to heart(including an unintentionally hilarious scene where Klove visits her and her husband, Alan(Charles Tingwell) and asks them if anything is needed and as soon as she leaves, she flips out and says "everything about this house is evil!" For whatever reason, everything about this segment makes me laugh.)
Klove lures Alan away and kills him and hangs up his body to provide the lifeforce to ressurect Dracula. The Count awakes and proceeds to victimize Helen, and thus a new reign of terror has begun.

Meanwhile, Alan's brother, Charles(Francis Matthews) and his wife, Diana(Suzan Farmer) are talking about Diana's old flame, Horace Peabody, one of the great nerd names of all time. The following day, Charles and Diana can't find the other couple, so they leave, but Charles can't leave his brother. Klove returns to the crossroads and picks up Diana and tries to bring her to Dracula. Charles has discovered his brother's corpse and fights Dracula, which proves foolish, as he is tossed aside and strangled. Luckliy, Diana has a crucifix and discovers that it affects them, as the cross has burned the flesh of the newly vampirized(and very sexy) Helen, who is decked out in a nightgown with lots of cleavage. In a really creative bit, Charles takes a broken sword, which he had previously used to try and strike Dracula(should have run him through) and uses it as a makeshift cross. Making their escape, the couple are found by Father Sandor, who takes them to his parrish, where he explains the truths of vampirism. Dracula has tracked them there and uses a resident Renfield-stand in, Ludwig(Thorley Walters) to carry out his deeds. Diana is forced to drink Dracula's blood and is infected, but Helen is staked and destroyed, in a scene that has to be one of the more disturbing staking scenes in a horror film.
Dracula takes Diana and they escape by carriage. Sandor and Charles go in pursuit and are able to race Dracula back to the castle, where Klove is shot by Charles and Diana is rescued. Charles takes a hammer and stake to finish off the Count, whose coffin fell off the carriage onto a frozen stream outside his castle. The sun sets and Dracula attacks and fights Charles. Diana, fearing for her husband, shoots and misses, causing the ice to break and water to come forth. Running water is deadly to the vampire and Father Sandor fires at the ice, causing it to break and the Count to sink beneath the icy waters to his death.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a very fun Hammer horror, and sadly, one of the last, true gothics the company was to produce before the scripts became too contemporary and silly. Fisher delivers a fast-paced picture that continues to add several little bits from the Dracula legend, including some novel ideas on how to defeat a vampire. The atmosphere is well handled and it almost feels like the bare concept(stranded travellers fall prey to a monster) would serve many a future horror film.
Keir is excellent as the vampire hunter and it's a pity that he did not return again to do battle with other creatures of the night. His authoritative presence and sly bits of humor and warmth are what make his character likeable and memorable. Little moments, like joking about his excuses that he gives the priest about his game meat that he shot, or the joys of warming one's posterior, add immeasurably to the development of his character.
Francis Matthews is very good as Charles, providing a relateable and easy going hero that was often absent from so many gothic classics. With a vocal similarity to Cary Grant(!) and some last reel determination, he makes for a solid horror hero. Barbara Shelley is liekwise fine as the distressed Helen, who goes from chief and proper complainer to hot vampire mama with a high libido. She's one of cinema's sexiest and most memorable bloodsuckers, her voice bringing a dark sensuality to her character that makes one wish she had portrayed more such femme fatales. Shelley was a fine actress and carries this role fare beyond the standard sex symbol angle that Hammer was all about.
The rest of the cast perform well enough, Thorley Walters always a delight in practically everything he has appeared in, making a real interesting turn as Renfield, er, I mean, Ludwig. His "fly tea" is both grotesque and comic and he believably straddles that line between madness and sympathy. Philip Latham is very chilling as Klove, a mysterious and frightful character that only a guy like Dracula would hang with.

Lee is silent but very menacing in the role that he made his own. Where Lugosi was mystical and mysterious, with his odd(and quotable) phrasings, Lee brings just an athletic and animalistic quality to his Dracula. He just has to hiss and you know it's game over for the intended victim. Lee is a very physical Dracula and combines an imposing stature with sex appeal that would influence scores of others to follow. I remember reading in Bob Madison's Dracula: The First 100 Years, that Lee had very little impact on the part, and the author proceeded to attack the actor mercilessly throughout what was, a very bizarre book. He was completely wrong. With all the super athletic vampires of today and all the added sex, which has all but replaced the horror, it can be safely said that Lee did indeed influence scores of cinema Draculas. It was the very physical presence that made the character more human and as a result, more dangerous. This is certainly not a knock on Lugosi, but it was a different and effective turn for the character, as this film illustrates.

I've always been very fond of this title since I discovered it as a child and would probably rank this among the ten best of the Hammer horror classics. It's alot of fun and creepy enough to please fans of the genre and the character. Of course, it's not as good as the original, or as brilliantly gothic as Brides of Dracula(1960), but it's an entertaining and frightening film with several memorable vignettes that stay with the viewer far longer than most films dealing with the king of vampires. Even with no lines, Christopher Lee owns as Count Dracula.

P.S. I decided to add the double feature trailer, because I just love the narrator in this. Listen to how he says, "Dracula, Prince of Darkness!" It's just great.

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