The Hammer Horror rendition of Dracula is one that evokes fond memories of a time when the definition of ‘vampire’ in the social consciousness didn’t involve fairy-tale teen romance or a Hollywood heartthrob going by the name of Robert Pattinson. Back in the day, it was the British actor Christopher Lee who stuck in peoples’ minds as what a vampire should look like. Slicked-back hair, a long black cape and a campy self-awareness that made him one of the icons of horror cinema. Our chance to revisit these glory days – on Blu-ray, no less – was warmly welcomed.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness is the third Dracula film in the Hammer Horror collection. It’s the same old story really. Although Dracula was killed and turned to ash in the previous film, his loyal follower Clove lures a group of four hapless visitors to his castle, slices one of them halal-style over Dracula’s ashes and resurrects the Prince of Darkness.
Prince of Darkness sees the welcome return of a few familiar faces. Andrew Keir – of Quatermass fame – plays Father Sandor, who is wise to Dracula’s tricks and helps the group combat him. Christopher Lee is of course present, and Barbara Shelley does what she does best by playing a helpless damsel in distress (got to love the casual misogyny of Hammer films).
Despite a decent roster of the campy and the kitsch, none of the actors are used to full effect. Lee barely utters a single line throughout the film, spending most of the film simply hissing at people, or even running away. What’s the point of having Lee in a film if you’re not going to use his legendary booming voice? Keir is criminally under-used, and the four main characters are non-entities lacking in the trademark eccentricity of Hammer characters. The most noteworthy character is Klove (Philip Latham) who is sufficiently Igor-ish and creepy to be enjoyable to watch, though the fact that he has more screen-time than Dracula just feels wrong.
The time that could’ve been spent on more tacky blood-filled scenes and Draculean one-liners is wasted on over-long transitional sequences showing the characters having dinner or getting in a horse-carriage. Director Terence Fischer (who gave us the original Dracula) really should’ve paced things better, knowing that people watch Hammer films for the instant campy thrills, not for some art-housey obsession with static shots.
Prince of Darkness does well to stick to the silly clichés of vampire myth. He hates crosses, sunlight burns him, and he’s got a particular taste for the blood of young women. But since when were vampires allergic to water? Holy water, yes, but just ‘water’ water? Really? The fact that this throwaway gimmick is thrown in there suddenly makes Dracula seem like a haplessly vulnerable and hydrophobic character. All the menace dissipates as you start thinking that, actually, this guy’s easier to kill than a human being. No wonder Lee spends most of the time on the run like a fox on Prince Philip’s estate.
There are moments of the right kind of tackiness in Prince of Darkness; there are a few scenes of blood-that’s-obviously-paint getting splashed around; Dracula’s pink eyes mean he wouldn’t look out of place in a Dutch coffee shop; and the men of the group are so campy that they could well be undercover lovers. But these joyous interludes are few and far between, and the film never really gets into the full Hammer groove, as seen in Plague of the Zombies or the original Dracula.
Of course, you don’t go into Hammer films expecting cinematic refinement. The crappiness is usually part of the fun, but there is ‘kitsch crap’ and there is ‘crap,’ and this sadly falls just on the latter side of that line. The raw character acting talents of Lee and Weir are ultimately wasted, and the far-too-easy defeat of Dracula leaves a strange taste in the mouth (SPOILER ALERT: it involves water).