by Paul Batters
During the classic era of cinema, it is indisputable that Universal was the master of the horror film. They would introduced to audiences iconic monsters that are known and loved and in Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney (Snr and Jnr) gave us wonderful actors who themselves became deserved icons of the silver screen. When the first cycle of horror films began in the early 1930s, high production values and story development were key with directors such as James Whale and Tod Browning, as well as the cinematography of the brilliant Karl Freund, shaping now classic films. By the 1940s, however, not only had production values changed but audiences had as well, and what were initially quality films became arguably less so, with more of an exploitive approach that sought to capitalise on ‘monster combinations’. The final nail in the coffin (excuse the pun) was the Universal pantheon of monsters becoming comedic foils for Abbott And Costello.
Sci-fi, aliens and giant bugs seemed to be the new order of things in horror cinema. It also seemed that the classic monsters had been put to rest, by audience demand and studio design rather than the powers of good over evil. And so it remained for around a decade.
Until Hammer films emerged.
If Universal in the 1930s and 1940s gave us dark fairy tales with haunting camera work in shades of silver, Hammer splashed the screen with vibrant colour, kept us on edge with dramatic action and titillated us with overt sexuality. Hammer would re-define the horror film and the familiar monsters that had become predictable would be given a make-over. Perhaps the classic monster that be re-identified best would be the Carpathian count and king of vampires – Dracula.
Hammer’s now classic Horror Of Dracula (1958) would bring Christopher Lee to the role of the Count. Unlike the hypnotic portrayal of Lugosi, Lee brought not only a regal and commanding presence to the role but a bestial creature baring fangs when taking his victims. Women swooned and there was no off-screen ending to cheat audiences of the vampire’s death. Instead, a battle to the end ensued between the formidable Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and the Count, with an unforgettable ending, which stunned audiences.
Despite the film becoming a huge success and launching Hammer into the stratosphere, it would be eight years before Lee would re-appear as the Count in Terence Fisher’s Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966). As David Pirie points out in his book The Vampire Cinema, it would be a far more explicit film than its’ 1958 predecessor.
The film begins with a flashback to the exciting and shockingly explicit demise of the Count from the 1958 film. The narrator speaks of Van Helsing’s triumph over ‘the obscene cult of vampirism’. But as we will soon discover, the triumph will not be permanent and even after years of Dracula turned to dust, the village and surrounding countryside are still living in the shadows of Dracula’s evil. Their fears come to the fore as the story proper begins, with the funeral of a young woman and her mother crying over the treatment of her dead daughter. The local priest wants her impaled but the tense moment is broken by a gunshot and Father Sandor appears, scolding the local priest and the others for their superstition and blasphemy. Fisher’s opening scene is nicely constructed, acting twofold as an introduction to the climate of fear in the village as well as the authority who will combat Dracula, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir).
The story then focuses on the Kents, two English gentlemen and their respective wives who are travelling and stop at the village. As they visit a local inn, they happen to meet Father Sandor, who warns them against visiting Karlsbad but of course they dismiss the warnings. After an argument with their carriage driver, which gets very heated indeed, they end up making their way to the castle in a driverless carriage. However, unlike the broken battlements of the 1931 film, the Kents find themselves in well-kept though seemingly lonely castle. The table is strangely set and they find their baggage has been taken to their ‘rooms’. Yet this doesn’t seem to unduly put them off, although Helen Kent (Barbara Shelley) continually feels that something is wrong and warns the others that they should leave. Yet her husband Alan (Bud Tingwell) and his brother Charles (Francis Matthews) wave away her concerns. Here, Fisher again builds the tension when a strange dark figure emerges from the shadows, to a scream from Helen, only to discover that is a servant named Klove (Phillip Latham).
Klove explains that his master stated that guests should always be made welcome, even though his master was dead. The Kents enjoy the dinner, though Helen less so, and they do remark at the lack of servants that would be expected to manage the running of such a castle. As they move around, the wind howls outside, heightening the loneliness of the place and perhaps suggestive of the death that will come. The Kents toasting Dracula at dinner and hoping ‘may he rest in peace’ is an equally ominous and ironic statement!
At nightfall, Alan makes the ill-fated decision to poke around and becomes a victim of Klove. Here, the Hammer touch makes its’ mark as Klove hangs Alan upside down and slashes his victim’s throat. Thick litres of ultra-red blood pours out to mix with Dracula’s ashes, reviving the Count who will begin to wreak havoc on the Kents. His first victim will be the prim and proper Helen, whose warnings were ignored. Her turn into a vampire is a proto-type for future vampirised female victims; hair flowing, almost sheer night-gown and breasts billowing. The moment is pure Hammer horror – over-the-top colour and gruesome to behold.
The surviving Kents almost become victims but manage to escape by chance when Diana (Suzan Farmer) discovers one of vampire lore’s most time-honoured tropes; the power of the crucifix. Dracula and the now- vampirised Helen can only look on, with Dracula throwing Helen aside in disgust and rage as the Kents escape. They finally make the way into the safe hands of Father Sandor at the monastery.
At this point, this review will leave the story for the reader to discover. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to mention some interesting turns in the story. Unlike previous vampire films, the audience is treated to the explicitness that would become staples in future Hammer movies. Lee’s Dracula bares his fangs, hissing at his victims and those who transgress his commands and Fisher was not averse to showing Lee use his fangs either! Additionally, a powerful scene straight from Stoker’s novel shows the Count opening a wound in his chest, enticing Diana to drink from him. It is interesting to see Stoker being mined for story points. Even the minor character of Ludwig, as a plot device for Klove to smuggle Dracula and Helen into the monastery is clearly the mad Renfield appropriated for the said purpose.
Christopher Lee plays a different vampire to his portrayal of eight years previous. The noblesse charm of the 1958 film gives way to a Dracula that no longer needs any pretence. Lee’s vampire leaps at his victims as well, cruel and inhuman in every way. His black cape is lined in red to amplify Dracula’s bloodlust but also as Lee quipped because Hammer like a lot of colour. Strangely enough, Lee’s screen time is fairly limited and there is no dialogue at all, save for some hissing and a yell at the end! There is some dispute over the lack of dialogue that has Lee and script-writer Jimmy Sangster in dispute. Nonetheless, Lee is a terrifying Dracula and despite some critics’ concerns (and Lee’s own reluctance to play the Count), Hearn and Barnes point out in their book ‘The Hammer Story’ that the Christopher Lee Fan Club were delighted. Lee’s portrayal is one of a supernatural creature, animal in every way, and dominates the screen whenever he appears. He menaces his victims with incredible strength and it is only the crucifix that mutes his powers.
The demise of Helen is perhaps one of Hammer’s films most publicised and famous images. As a group of monks hold Helen down, she writhes around before a large stake is placed over heart and plunged into her. The scene could be interpreted in a number of ways – and the sexual overtones of the scene are obvious and highly suggestive. The camera captures the entire moment in full view and it still shocks and stuns today. Helen’s vampirisation also suggests the sensual and sexual qualities of the vampire. Helen’s transformation from a gentile lady into sexual creature also suggests the repressive nature of Victorian gender roles, as well as the connection of sexual freedom with bestial desire. Hammer certainly exploited this factor in their films.
The film’s ending will not be given away here but it should be noted that it is not the ending audiences would expect and delves into a little known aspect of vampire lore, which is rarely if ever considered.
Today there are many mixed reviews regarding Dracula, Prince Of Darkness. Empire Magazine makes a fair criticism that ‘once Dracula is up and about, the script can’t find much for him to do’. Fisher’s direction becomes stilted and the story loses some of its’ earlier effectiveness once the surviving Kents escape. The cast, whilst solid in performances, is perhaps missing some firepower. Keir is admirable as the authoritative Father Sandor but he is no Peter Cushing, perhaps the best Van Helsing the screen has yet to see. The usually talented Phillip Latham is not impressive as Klove and Bud Tingwell is a far better actor who is underused and actually has very little to do.
Yet there is still plenty to enjoy and all the familiar tropes and iconography of both the vampire story and Hammer productions are ever present. It’s still a great deal of fun and any opportunity to see Christopher Lee as the evil Count Dracula, eyes blazing red as he is about to strike, should never be missed.
This article has been submitted for the 2018 Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, hosted by Gill at RealWidgieMidget and Barry from Cinematic Catharsis. Please click on the following links for access to more articles for this blogathon – http://cinematiccatharsis.blogspot.com/2018/06/the-great-hammer-amicus-blogathon-is_3.html?_sm_au_=iVVTjWN25qfkZ7QQ and https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2018/06/02/and-theres-more-in-hammer-amicus-blogathon-day-2/
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.