Thursday, September 25, 2014

Hammer Dracula: Dracula - Prince Of Darkness (1966)

Dracula: Prince Of Darkness
Director: Terence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Andrew Keir
Rated:  Unrated

You're an idiot, Father.  Worse than that:  you're a superstitious, frightened idiot.
             ~Father Sandor

Hammer's Dracula series lie dormant for six years following Brides.  Hammer as a studio was also starting to ween on a decline during this time as well.  The returns and acclaim were dwindling and there wasn't much else to be done.  Except, take a stab at bringing back the Dracula series with another sequel to see if it could jump start and refuel the studio.  And in order to make it a big deal, they'd get Christopher Lee to return to reprise the role that made him and Hammer famous some eight year prior.  They also planned to do four films (the other three not Dracula ones) back-to-back in order to have some output ready to go if Dracula 3 succeeded or some material to phase out had Dracula 3 not resuscitated the studio's horror fare.
Dracula: Prince Of Darkness did indeed fuel the Hammer studios again, being one of its most acclaimed works.  Not only that, but it also kick-started a run of  Dracula sequels that would take the series into the following decade.  As I mentioned before, Dracula became pretty much the Friday The 13th franchise of the 60s/70s before that series even existed.  One after another they would be turned out.  Interestingly, it really wasn't the first film in the series that spawned all the sequels to make it such a high sequel count franchise.  It was this third film that really should get all the credit for that.  With this being another direct sequel to the first film, there's an 8 year gap between the two and only one other film in the franchise that was produced during that gap.  From Prince Of Darkness to the end, there would be seven films in eight years.
I particularly enjoy this one quite a bit, although, I'm sure there could be a lot of people who find it boring for the first forty minutes.  Yes, its true, Dracula doesn't show up until the movie about half over.  Leading up til then, I sort of enjoy the buildup.  You know he's coming back, but when and how are intriguing enough questions that I'm waiting to see unfold.  I also really love the "false" appearance of Dracula in our introduction to Klove.  You're like "oh snap, there he is!" and then it winds up being some other hulking old Brit.  Speaking of Friday The 13th again (and even moreso Cabin In The Woods now), this film has that sort of "teens go out to the dangerous woods and the urban legendish killer kills them" motif.  Except, we have adults wandering into Dracula's castle.   
This "wait" is well worth it once Dracula returns.  His resurrection is totally awesome.  There's plenty of blood and goop and you're excited to see Lee open up his bloodshot eyes and lift his lips to show those sharp chompers.  Dracula is once again the ferocious monster he was after the first few scenes in Horror.  This Dracula is essentially a piece of the archetype for a silent killing slasher villain that would strike all over the 80s.  Like those guys, these movies come down to "how" they do away with him in the end.  All other vampires are pretty much staked, but that's too weak to end Dracula.  He's got to go out in some creative dramatic fashion.  The first time he withered away to ash in sunlight, this time he gets trapped under a frozen pond.  You'll find your model for the 80s horror villain starting right here in the Hammer Dracula films.
Part of what takes Dracula so long to get there and why he has no lines is that they had to do whatever they could to get Christopher Lee back.  What that meant was the shortest shooting schedule possible.  And to assist things get done faster, Dracula just becomes a ferocious monster with no lines.  Lee has famously stated there were lines for him in the script, but they were terrible so he opted to go silent.  However, the screenwriter said he never wrote any, that the vampire shouldn't talk and would be more creepy and convincing in his seduction if he didn't speak a word.  Believe who you will, the end result is still the same.  And its pretty effective.  Lee just has this imposing presence and sells it so well.  The scene where he tries to seduce Diana is absolutely terrific and has inspired many scenes like it throughout horror and film history.
One aspect that peaks my enjoyment in this film is its cinematography.  Dracula: Prince Of Darkness is a gorgeous looking film.  The sets and costumes are popping and making every frame absolutely luscious.  The blood and gore is done in such a way that its both shocking (for its time, and I argue the throat slitting moment and Dracula's resurrection are up there with a lot of today's work) and somehow a work of art.  The colors used to tell the film are also quite strong and effective in their suggestiveness.  The previous two films both looked great, had the sets and costumes too, but there's something about this one that stands out.  Maybe its because its shot in the epic 2.36:1 framing that tends to make a lot of things look epic.  I dunno, but whatever it was, my eyes enjoyed pretty much every moment shot for this one.  Its also why I had so much fun in the long buildup to the Prince Of Darkness returning.
I can't finish out without mentioning that this is the Hammer Dracula film that also happens to have Barbara Shelley grace the screen.  Shelley was the top leading lady in the Hammer hay day and subsequently dubbed "The First Leading Lady Of British Horror".  Here she gets the fun role of being the character we get to see go from to normal to being transformed into a vampire.  Shelley has plenty of fun camping it up and her character once again gets to have some suggestive lesbianism later on in the film.  Not only does Lee get to bring on the dark charm, Shelley gets to play a seductress.  While she's not the "lead" female character and does get staked before the credits role, she absolutely gets the more fun and meaty part than that of the "damsel in distress" one of Diana, who is pretty plain Jane.
If you're a fan of horror movies that take their time, establish characters, build suspense and have big payoffs, then Dracula: Prince Of Darkness is right up your alley.  Its been called the "quintessential Hammer film" and its easy to see why.  Many of the actors, tropes and things found to enjoy the films are all culminated into Prince Of Darkness.  Its great to see Christopher Lee return and crush it as the Count again and this one perfectly blends the period horror with gore, camp and suspense.  When you watch it, you can easily see how this is widely considered one of the best Hammer Dracula films that they made.  Its also just in general one of the better extensions of the Dracula story that goes beyond Bram Stoker's novel.  I must mention that the Blu-ray Millenium put out a while back looks absolutely wonderful too.  One of the cool things about this sequel is that you really could watch it out of context without having seen any of the others and be just fine and enjoy the movie on its own, proving its worth as a film itself and as a sequel.

Next Time;  "Obviously" Dracula will rise from his icy grave.

No comments:

Post a Comment