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Non-Review Review: Dracula – Prince of Darkness

It’s interesting that Hammer chose to package Dracula: Prince of Darkness in the “best of” collection I picked up for my gran over Christmas. It isn’t that it’s hardly the strongest entry in Hammer’s canon, but it’s also not the strongest instalment in their Dracula franchise. It’s the third release in the series chronologically (and, arguably, in terms of quality), following The Horror of Dracula and The Brides of Dracula). It’s not a bad film, if you’re a fan of these sorts of sixties gothic horrors, but it’s not necessarily a good one either. It’s functional, if not efficient, and never really finds anything particularly compelling about any of its characters or its set up.

You can Count on me!

Dracula is one of those iconic roles, one that has been passed from actor to actor for what seems like generations at this stage. As with any other such character – Holmes or James Bond or Frankenstein’s monster – I suspect that everybody inherits their own particular “version” of a character at a young age, drawing from the sources around them. To many people, Bela Legosi will be the defining on-screen Dracula, renowned for his work on the Universal Horror Films during the thirties. However, perhaps because of my youth and the fact that I live in Ireland, I can’t help but associate the role of the nefarious count with Christopher Lee.

The biggest draw of Prince of Darkness is the return of Lee to the role that made him famous. He had appeared opposite Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in Hammer’s original Draculafilm (renamed The Horror of Dracula in the States), but had bowed out of the sequel. This led to the somewhat ironic case that The Brides of Dracula ultimately failed to feature the man himself. Prince of Darkness sees Lee return to the role, resurrecting the fiendish blood-sucker to feed on a bevy of British tourists ill-prepared for the dangers of the mysterious Eastern Europe.

Hard to pin down...

Even with its many flaws, which we’ll come to momentary, Lee is still a commanding presence as Dracula. It’s more than just his height, it’s the grace with which he moves. Though the Hammer films were notoriously shoddy, Lee ensures that his wary Count Dracula always has a certain elegance to him, creating an additional layer of pathos for the audience. It almost makes us pity the monster that he’s doomed to appear in films as straight-forward and as cold and as functional as this – Lee’s Dracula somehow feels above all this.

This impression is helped by the fact that Dracula here is a silent presence, making him seem at once more otherworldly and yet more primal than we remember. Christopher Lee would claim that Dracula’s silence was a statement on the part of the actor, refusing to let the film’s cringeworthy dialogue pass his lips. Writer Jimmy Sangster disputes this claim, suggesting he wrote Dracula as silent. Who deserves credit for the decision is a matter that will likely go unresolved, but it does add to the characters surreal and gothic grace.

Don't cross her...

Sadly, the film around Dracula is not so skilfully constructed. Hammer had emerged in the late fifties as a breath of fresh air, with a series of films that (for the time) didn’t seem to pull any punches. They were raw and visceral – grotesque, yet compelling. However, nearly a decade later, the charm was beginning to wear off. What was once avant-garde was now passé. The youth of the day didn’t unnerve as easily as they used to, and there’s a sense that Hammer is trying to make up for lost time.

Though modern audiences wouldn’t blink at the violence on-screen, there’s quite a lot of it for a British film produced in the sixties. Dracula’s creepy manservant Klove kills a poor tourist, slitting his throat and draining him like a pig over Dracula’s open casket. There are still hints of modesty, though. When Dracula feeds, for example, he still raises his cape to conceal the act – as if affording his poor victim some minor modesty through the assault, and sparing the audience. Of course, Hammer’s aware of the creepy sexual subtext to the Count’s “feeding” habits, and we’re still treated to the scene of him tempting a young lady to “suckle”him, so to speak.

Quite a draining experience...

Still, there’s also a somewhat distracting sophomoric humour to be found, particularly in the earlier part of the film. Indeed, it’s forty-five minutes before Dracula rises, and the opening scenes of the movie seem like a spiritual predecessor to today’s “doomed student tourist” films, an illustrious horror subgenre which has always felt particularly exploitive. Of course, these tourists are not American college students on a road trip or a journey to tropical paradise. Instead, they are two upper-class British tourists trekking across the continent. This doesn’t make too much difference – after all, we’re still introduced to them drinking a yard of beer, and their introductory scene does wax lyrical about the virtues of a “warmed posterior.” It all feels rather juvenile.

The rest of the film is remarkably straight-forward and by-the-numbers. I’m not sure why Hammer couldn’t bring back Cushing as Van Helsing, as we’re given a surrogate in the form of a local priest played by Andrew Keir. It’s a shame that Lee’s return to the iconic role isn’t a more stately affair, as he has a commanding presence. That said, I do respect the film’s decision to execute Dracula using something a bit more creative than the traditional stake-through-the-heart or sunlight sort of method.

Fangs for the memories...

This isn’t to say it’s a bad film. If you’re a fan of this sort of exploitational sixties horror, it’s quite passable. However, it isn’t exceptional. Even those looking to catch a glimpse of Lee as Dracula would be better served to put the original film in their player.

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