Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Dracula: Prince Of Darkness

Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews

It’s easy to be cynical when you see a studio --not necessarily Disney in this hypothetical example, could be anyone-- grinding out completely unnecessary sequels even in the painfully obvious absence of anywhere for the story to go, which, again, not necessarily STAR WARS, could be anything, I could be talking about Hammer studios in the late 1960s for example. Which as luck would have it, I am. Both you and I know that Hammer Productions’ two-decade-long death march of sequels to their era-defining 1958 HORROR OF DRACULA was not exactly inspired by the uncontrollable creative urge, and both you and I know that it ended very, very poorly. But give them credit for this: they managed to hold off six long years since the previous sequel, 1960’s BRIDES OF DRACULA, before finally caving into the obvious opportunity to cash in on a sure-thing franchise installation. Can you imagine Marvel waiting six years between franchise sequels because they didn’t really have a good idea? Hell no. So credit Hammer for that, at least.

That’s probably the most surprising and the most artistically laudable aspect of 1966’s DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but the movie’s also more respectable than I had feared going in. It’s pretty well made, confident, and focused on delivering the goods; it’s just that those goods are of a distinctly familiar tenor. The good and bad thing about D:PoD is that it’s basically a lightly re-skinned remake of HORROR OF DRACULA. Not a lot of new ground covered here. But if we must trek through thoroughly familiar and well-mapped territory, at least the scenery is nice.

We begin with two British couples -- Charles (Francis Matthews, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD) and his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer, DIE MONSTER DIE), and Alan (Bud Tingwell, THE DISH) and his wife Helen (Barbara Shelley, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED)-- on a nice vacation in Germany. Or, actually, we begin slightly before we meet this charming quartet: we begin in the German countryside, where superstitious peasants are interrupting a funeral because they want to stake the corpse through the heart, just in case. In rides action monk Father Sandor (Andrew Keir, who assumed the role of Quatermass in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, rather less memorably than cranky drunk Brian Donlevy did in the first two films) to chide them for their actions and tell them that as a genuine expert on vampirism, they should take his word for it and leave the poor dead girl alone. But also vampires are real. Just not this particular one. He seems pretty crazy, but he speaks with such authority that he seems to win them over, although I notice he doesn’t stick around to make sure the mob doesn’t get jittery again before they get the unfortunate corpse in the ground.

Keir was something of a Hammer staple (you remember him from BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB), but his boisterous, eccentric performance in this role is almost certainly his most memorable for the studio, creating a character who --dare I say it-- is actually a more fun and charismatic foil for Dracula than Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing ever was. I love Cushing, of course,* but Hammer never really figured out anything interesting for the character to do, and in fact now that I’m thinking about it, the problem may just be the character itself. Seriously, every Dracula adaptation knows to cast a real classy actor as Van Helsing --Cushing, Anthony Hopkins, Herbert Lom, Laurence Olivier, Rutger Hauer, Christopher Plummer, Peter Fonda, Hugh Jackman, Mel Brooks-- but think back, in all those adaptations, does the character ever actually seem all that interesting? BRIDES OF DRACULA actually puts something of a test to this hypothesis by leaving Dracula out altogether and focusing on the continuing exploits of Van Helsing. It’s a pretty fun romp, but is it because the character is just so classic we can’t resist him? I’ll give you a hint: the only other movie I can think of that foregrounds him is VAN HELSING. That didn’t go so well in my opinion. Somebody should consider giving Father Sandor another chance.

Anyway, Sandor shows up at the Unwelcoming Superstitious Village Inn (which, judging from these Hammer films, must be a hugely successful chain) where our oblivious English duet of couples is staying. While cheerfully warming his ass by the fire, he explains to them that yes, vampires are real, and also, on a related note, don’t go to Karlsbad, and if you absolutely must, at least don’t spend the night at the mysterious and obviously sinister castle along the way, where all the villagers are afraid to go, anyway, well, good to meet you all. So naturally, guess what our heroes end up doing almost immediately.

They’re morons, of course, but they’re a surprisingly charming group to spend time with, if we absolutely had to do it. It must be said: Hammer just does so much better with adult actors (like these four) than the usual pretty bland kids; while we might reasonably question the wisdom of taking a sinister driverless carriage up to an obviously evil castle which they had just been admonished to avoid, and then deciding what the heck, why not spend the night? We can still enjoy their cheerful British obliviousness, particularly because the script sets up a pretty funny dynamic between them. You see, Helen is already established as a gigantic stick-in-the-mud, one of those Karl Pilkington characters who really never wanted to leave England in the first place and is constantly fretting and complaining about anywhere which is not her particular neighborhood in London. Now, she happens to be extremely justified in her concern about the evil castle they’re staying in currently, but since she’s been whining the whole trip you can totally understand why everyone else ignores her. Obviously in real life I’m 100% on the pro let’s-stay-in-this-haunted-castle side of this debate. But we also know this movie is called DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, so there’s some reasonable cause for caution. Helen’s been wrong about everything so far… but she does happen to be right about this. Shelley --something of a Scream Queen of the period-- works hard to make Helen kind of likable despite being such a whiny wet blanket, and settles on the right Cassandra tone here to provide some fun tension about if she’ll be able to warn everyone in time (spoiler: no). She gets rewarded for her efforts in the second half of the film, where she gets to indulge in a very different kind of performance.

Our heroes have barely settled in before they encounter an evil butler (Philip Latham, FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE) with a plan to resurrect… well, I shan't spoil it, except to say that this movie is called DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. And actually that still might not completely ruin it, because the last one was called BRIDES OF DRACULA and if you’ll recall, it delivered neither brides nor Dracula. But everyone is having a fun, charming time until HOLY SHIT DID THEY JUST SLIT THAT GUY’S THROAT AND DRAIN HIS BLOOD? Shit went fuckin’ HOSTEL here. This movie may be a bit predictable, but it’s definitely playing for keeps. A very wet murder scene, a gruesome discovery of a body, and a woman-on-woman vampire sequence so absolutely dripping with lesbian subtext that it might as well just call itself text -- are shocking enough to retain a little edge even today, and in 1966 must have been absolutely brain-melting.  And once Drac finally shows up, Lee plays him with even more animalistic intensity than before (with no dialogue, to the movie’s benefit), escalating his focus on making the character a malevolent, physically imposing predator. There’s something startlingly inhuman and demonic about Lee’s portrayal --and particularly this version of the Count-- which just isn’t present in the majority of Drac adaptations where the title character is more of a gentlemanly romantic. Kinski’s turn in NOSFERATU might be the only one in the same ballpark, but I doubt even he would slice his chest open and force a hypnotized woman to drink his blood.** That shit’s intense. It’s potent enough that even when our heroes escape the Count’s castle and retreat to civilization, his predacious presence continues to haunt the film. He really seems like a force which is impossible to escape from.

Now, what you may be noticing here is that while none of this is specifically the plot of Dracula, it turns out to be functionally identical. Again, we have protagonists who arrive at Drac’s castle unaware of the danger their mysterious host poses, and again, for the second half Drac goes on the offensive, traveling to a new location to pursue the young wife of our hero, and they must eventually chase him back to his lair with the help of a seasoned vampire hunter. We have another uncomfortable dinner scene at the castle, we have another Vampiric bride, we even get a Renfield (thinly disguised under the pseudonym “Ludwig” and portrayed by the redoubtably broad Thorley Walters of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED). All of that is as by-the-book for Dracula adaptations at they come; in fact, despite all the cosmetic changes this is probably still a more faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel than many a screen version.

That seems to be a sticking point for some people, but it didn’t bother me. There’s enough spice here to make it at least a welcome comfort, if not exactly a revelation. But if you are the sort of person who would be bothered by a thinly veiled remake made for purely monetary reasons by many of the same people less than a decade later, I would not recommend this movie. I would usually recommend that instead you read my THE FORCE AWAKENS review, except in this case it would just reveal what a gigantic hypocrite I am for giving Hammer a pass here. At least PRINCE OF DARKNESS has the dignity to be ashamed of being a hacky remake and not draw attention to it with a bunch of lame references.

The film has some other issues too, the biggest being that even given an opportunity to re-write the anticlimactic ending of Stoker’s novel which has hobbled so many other adaptations, the makers of D:PoD somehow manage to find an even lamer way to dispatch the Count. Man, for all the talk of being indestructible unstoppable supernatural forces, it turns out fucking everything kills vampires. As Father Sandor explains with some degree of unintentional comedy, there’s no way to kill these undead fiends. Well, except fire. Or drowning, that would do it. Or cutting off the head. Or stabbing through the heart, or anything made of silver, or garlic, or crosses, or anything which even superficially resembles a cross, or holy water, or sunlight. So, basically everything which would kill a normal human, plus a few other things. But other than those things and a few others, fucking unkillable. The final chase is exciting anyway, though, because at least the Count isn’t fleeing, he’s trying to beat them back to his place to win himself a new honey. That gives it a little more tension than Stoker’s version, where Dracula is already in full retreat by the time he’s dispatched. But there’s no way around it, the actual dispatching is pretty bogus.

That having been said, most of the movie is pretty legit, particularly for a third sequel to a film which probably didn’t need any sequels. Compared to the third FRANKENSTEIN sequel (the abysmal EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) it’s positively terrific, sporting a typically excellent Gothic Horror atmosphere (indeed, it’s one of the few Hammer films which is not distractingly overlit), well-paced direction (by Hammer staple Terence Fisher), a strong score (by series regular composer James Bernard), solid performances, and a perfectly workable --if not exactly poetic-- script by go-to Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster.

This last part is a matter of some dispute, and perhaps the thing the film is most known for. Lee, who almost immediately seems to have resented the role that made him a star, is on record claiming that his lack of dialogue in this film is because he refused to speak the lines he was given. Sangster, for his part, has disputed this, claiming that he never wrote any lines for the vampire in the first place. Both claims seem pretty suspect -- unless his lines were vastly worse than anything else in the finished movie, I know for a fact that Lee has obediently spoken much, much dumber dialogue than is on display here, and if fact would do so only two years later in the sequel to this very movie. Plus he already had two Fu Manchu movies under his belt by this time, and would finish out the decade with two more Fu Manchu movies directed by Jesus Franco, which is just about as dire a pitch as you can find in the annals of cinema. For fuck’s sake, he was in a goddam POLICE ACADEMY sequel, and not even an early one. So his case that the silent Count was the result of his unflinching artistic integrity is a bit suspect, to say the least. But then again, Sangster wrote the first two Dracula films, which definitely feature an antagonist who, if not exactly chatty, certainly speaks. It would be pretty weird for him to suddenly imagine the character as a mute, out of the blue, in his third screen appearance. So I’m honestly not sure who’s telling the truth here. But whoever had the idea, it was a good one; a silent Dracula is one which foregrounds his inhuman side, and it works to make the movie more intense and frightening, as well as somewhat unique among the many, many cinematic takes on the character.

Granted, it’s one of the only things to make it unique. But I guess that’s not such a crime when the fundamentals are as strong as this. As the series continued, we’d get progressively stranger premises in order to keep things fresh, and look where that got us. It got us goddam DRACULA: AD 1972, that’s where it got us. So maybe sticking to what you’re good at was not as bad a plan for Hammer as it might appear. DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS doesn’t offer anything essential, but it’s a pretty solid helping of more of the same. Its brisk and eventful 90 minutes give you exactly what you’d expect --in some of its strongest iterations-- though admittedly it offers very little else. But of course, what else do you really need?   

*Although I saw him recently in a big budget studio movie which was bold enough to cast him some 22 years after his death, and I decided that zombiefication isn’t his best look.

** Although fair's fair -- that scene, shocking as it is, is adapted pretty directly from the original 1897 novel. It's one of several bits in PRINCE OF DARKNESS where the movie seems to imagine itself something of a repository for sequences from the novel which weren't included in HORROR OF DRACULA, the other notable examples being the film's final chase sequence, which is far more faithful to the book than the original ending to HORROR, and the inclusion of a very Renfield-like character (shockingly omitted from the 1958 version).



(see also: Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN series)

Good Kill Hunting

The World’s Most Evil Vampire Lives Again! And various derivations therof.
Dracula is definitely in this one, though I have no idea what a “Prince of Darkness” is
Based very loosely on one character created by Bram Stoker.
Third sequel in Hammer’s nine-movie cycle.
There’s a 2013 film called DRACULA: THE DARK PRINCE, but it doesn’t seem to be related. Also seems to have nothing to do with John Carpenter's perpetually underrated PRINCE OF DARKNESS.
Vampire, Dracula
Lee, probably Andrew Keir too. And of course, Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster, and a bunch of the Hammer regulars here.
As always, there’s something sexual about the Count’s interest in women, but it’s not explicit.
No animals, not even a bat transformation or anything. Some asshole horses who are totally working for the count, though.
Again, Drac uses his Mind Whammy, and we also learn a little more explicitly that “For reasons we cannot yet understand” there are certain humans who are doomed to be the vampire’s loyal servants.
No dolls
There is again a passing mention of Dracula being the head of a “cult” of vampires, but again we see no evidence of this
Thorley Walters as the Renfield stand-in  “Ludwig”
Dracula turns from ashes to full human form, and then, subtly, from older to younger as he drinks blood.
When someone tells you, “hey, vampires are real, but you’ll totally be OK if you go literally anywhere except this one specific castle in this one specific town,” why not just be extra-careful and adjust your vacation plans accordingly?

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