Saturday, March 5, 2016

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

Despite the dire warnings of the rather not superstitious and pretty worldly abbot Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) to keep away from the place, a quartet of British travellers – Helen (Barbara Shelley as the stick in the mud one who just might be right this time around), her husband Alan (Charles Tingwell), his brother Charles (Francis Matthews) and his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) - on an educational jaunt through the Continent decide to make their way towards the village of Karlsbad.

Curiously enough, their hired local coach driver leaves them by the side of the road quite a bit away from the village as well as from the castle dominating the area. The good man seems to rather prefer not to stay in the area after dark. Things become even more peculiar from there on out: a driver-less horse carriage appears, but when the travellers attempt to drive it to the village, it races them straight to the castle. Let’s call it “Castle Dracula”, why don’t we? There, the strangeness still doesn’t end – having delivered our protagonists, the carriage races away again, with the traveller’s luggage still on board. At least the front door of the castle is open.

Despite Helen’s protests, the party enters, only to find a place that seems empty, yet also set for four visitors. Even more disturbing, the travellers’ luggage has somehow made its way into bedrooms in the castle.
After a bit, a decidedly creepy man named Klove (Philip Latham) appears and explains he’s keeping the place always ready for guests to continue the tradition of hospitality established by his late master, the always welcoming Count Dracula (Christopher Lee). That doesn’t explain even half of the weirdness going on, of course, but what’s a weary traveller to do?

Not surprisingly, Klove’s idea of hospitality is to murder the travellers to revive his late master with their blood, so, “running” would have been a good answer to that one, I believe. As it goes, only half of our protagonists will survive the night to flee to Father Sandor’s abbey, only to learn that the revived Dracula is not the kind of guy who keeps away from holy places once he’s set his fangs on a female neck.

The things I find most impressive about Hammer’s third Dracula film in ten years (marking the beginning of the films as a regular series, for better or worse, and given the quality of the films up to Scars, really for better), and only the second one to feature Christopher Lee’s count is how little happens in the first half of the movie, and how small the scale of its plot actually is. Or rather, how much trust Jimmy Sangster’s script has in director Terence Fisher’s ability to get by on sheer atmosphere alone, and how good the script itself is at making the small scale feel huge and eventful.

Both men are on top of their respective game here. Sangster manages to use strong brush strokes to create surprisingly multi-dimensional characters whose fates feel actually horrifying because they are so undeserved, fates they could have done little to avoid. For these characters act plausible enough to a weird situation. Even the romantic couple of the film doesn’t so much feel bland and a bit stupid but like people confronted with a situation they couldn’t have been prepared for without the knowledge they are in a horror movie; and that kind of meta lies far in the future. The script escalates wonderfully too, the slow first half making room for a second one that’s basically a thrill a minute, Lee’s this time around wildly animalistic Dracula (whose lack of dialogue may or may not have been caused by Lee hating Sangster’s dialogue, or by Sangster not writing any dialogue for Lee because he was sick of Lee’s complaining about is writing, or just by Sangster knowing his job quite well, depending on which story you prefer to believe) staying a believably horrific threat throughout.

Fisher for his part indeed does get by on an ability to build an atmosphere of fine, gothically inclined dread for the first half of the movie, turning out many a moment that still has a certain nightmarish quality all these decades later. I’m particularly fond of Dracula’s resurrection scene, a scene I couldn’t imagine being done any better by anyone, my beloved Italians included. And once it’s time for the more outwardly exciting second half of the film, the director rises to that occasion too. Judged by the number of memorable scenes alone, it’s difficult to call Prince of Darkness anything other than one of Hammer’s masterpieces.

Add to that Sangster’s script, a generally good cast (with Shelley and Keir the not surprising stand-outs to me), Christopher Lee doing his snarling best where he too often seemed to phone his performances in once he decided a film was under his dignity (but not enough under his dignity to not take the money), a Van Helsing replacement in Sandor who works particularly well because he isn’t like Van Helsing at all, and the film’s certainly not becoming worse.

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