Sometimes the path of a franchise is never a straight line and in the world of crafting a worthy sequel, telling a continuing story is rarely an exact science. Take the hyperactive tonal shifts of the Child’s Play or Thor movies; the fact that the second Nightmare On Elm Street fuzzed around with the original’s rules before concreting them in Part 3; or, most relevently, the constant switching of lead characters in the early days of the Fast And Furious franchise. In fact it’s the revolving door of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker that curiously spring to mind when you cast an eye over Hammer’s third Dracula film as the previous installment was a noticably Chris Lee free zone after his titular vampire had literally gone down for the count in the closing moments. The fact, that back then, if a horror character died in a movie he was considered actually dead is nothing short of adorable in this time of reboots, reimaginings and multiverses, but in 1964 it was decreed that Dracula would be brought back to reclaim his old franchise once again; but despite carrying the Drac-less The Brides Of Dracula on his dashing shoulders, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing would be nowhere to be seen…
Ten years after Count Dracula had been reduced to a clump of Ash without the use of an Infinity Gauntlet, the surrounding villages has tried to forget the nightmarish reign of terror the vampire had inflicted on them, going as far to deny the very existence of his castle and even scrubbing its name of any maps. But unbeknownst to them, there’s still a sinister intent lurking in the deserted halls in the form of grave-faced butler, Klove who has been going above and beyond the call of duty by tending to the place for an entire decade, waiting for the right time to strike (the dude’s overtime claim is gonna be crazy).
Into town comes a quartet of related English tourists – Diana, her husband Charles, his brother Alan and his wife Helen – who find themselves stranded in Karlsbad after their superstitious coach driver slings his hook in a terrified panic. However, they are mysteriously greeted by a driverless carriage and being English tourists, they having absolutely no qualms about hopping in and being brought unknowingly to castle Dracula where places and rooms have already been set out for them.
While only the naturally timid Helen has any worries about this dodgy string of good fortune, everyone else seems perfectly happy – until Klove finally launches his master plan. Fatally tabbing a wandering Alan an hanging him up so his blood pours into the coffin that contains Dracula’s ashes, the brooding Count is revived once more to stalk his clueless prey and starts with Helen, turning her from a slightly xenophobic worried into a busty, ravenous vamp in every sense of the word. Finally clued on to what’s occuring, Charles and Diana flee the castle, but both Dracula and Helen seemingly have fixed both their Bloodshot eyes and pointy dental work on turning the young wife into one of the undead.
So while there’s a few issues that work to preclude Dracula: Prince Of Darkness from technically being the ultimate Hammer Dracula film, this third movie (second for Lee) is still some prime vampire action that ranks among the toothy terror’s best. The secret is the tension created by the fact that when the movie starts, we the audience are streets ahead of the characters; while we know details about Dracula’s history, his castle and the fact we know that at some point the nefarious Count is going to be resurrected, the hapless group of tourists have absolutely no idea that Dracula has even ever existed let alone know enough to keep their guards up. It’s this anticipation that fuels the first half of the film and frequent Hammer director Terence Fisher knows enough by now to tease things just to just the right level without overloading the boat with gibbering villagers or overblown hyperbole, knowing that our lead’s stunning lack of knowledge combined with the fact that we’re clued in to everything is more than enough to get those nerves fraying.
It’s quietly gruesome too, with the scowling Kloves (as sour-faced as Angus Scrimm from the Phantasm movies) reviving his employer by slashing the throat of a victim as he dangles over Dracula’s remains reminiscent a cow’s carcass in a slaughter house – a comparison that’s neatly on point considering the Count’s primary source of nourishment.
And then the great man reappears and its immediately apparent that Lee’s portrayal hasn’t lost any potency during his cinematic hibernation that started in 1958. Looming over everyone, bearing his fangs and being a slightly more vicious, animalistic version seen in his debut, the movie curiously opts to not give him any dialogue, but despite the debate that ensued (writer Jimmy Sangster claims no dialogue was written while Lee counters there was, but he refused to say them on account that they were shit), you’d think that the denial of the actor’s distinctive, baritone tones would turn out to be something of a negative. However, a mute Count actually succeeds in making the villain a credible, physical threat while having his snarling face still visible avoids having him fall into the same kind of lumbering heavy role he did when he played Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy. It also helps that Fisher also shoots the bloodsucker in an appropriately iconic fashion, a looming mass in black, black lit and silhouetted to make maximum impact whenever he melodramtically breezes in stage left.
However, another thing the movie nails is how it treats the poor saps who succumb to his deadly gnashers, namely the pitch perfect transformation of Barbara Shelley’s initially timid Hannah into a hissing predator in a flowing white gown. Not only does Shelley sell her overly cautious human incarnation to a memorable amount but her transition into a card carrying creature of the night brings out a primal sexuality and possible latent lesbianism – Hammer loved hinting at that kind of thing – that makes her a rare, memorable victim who even gets possibly one of the stand out slayings in vampire history as she’s held down by numerous monks while the Van Helsing stand-in, Father Sandor, stakes her good and proper. In fact, Shelley would win best death of the movie hands down if it wasn’t for the awesomely stylish vanquishing of Dracula himself. Trapped on a frozen lake as Diana and then Sandor start shooting up the ice with rifle fire, Dracula gets his testicle shrinking comeuppance as the ice finally gives way and he slides into the lake thrashing and gasping as he goes. As far as Dracula takedowns go, it’s one of the very best due to the original nature of it all as it avoids the usual method of stakes, crucifixes and sunlight (although there’s plenty of that leading up to it) and delivers something fresh to the Count’s stagnant crypt.
In fact the only two things that holds a cross up to its face and stops it just short of greatness is the lack of Peter Cushing (logical, I guess, as Helsing would have no knowledge of Dracula reviving) and the that it’s merely a fairly basic vampire adventure despite the fact that it’s magnificently told.
God knows how many times the titular Count has actually come back from the dead during an on-screen career that dates back almost to the birth of cinema, but Dracula: Prince Of Darkness stakes its claim as one of the best.