Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

DraculaprinceofdarknessDirector: Terence Fisher

Dracula: Christopher Lee

Oh Hammer how you vex us. The studio’s best director, Terence Fisher, takes on another story of good and evil, of God and Satan, of art and budgeting. Unable to afford both Lee and Cushing, Hammer recruited Andrew Keir (the future definitive Professor Quatermass) and Jimmy Sangster wrote him an almost Van-Helsing-level part in Father Sandor, an earthy abbot who fights both superstition and the Un-Dead. Then, just to make sure the movie wouldn’t quite work, Hammer cut Lee’s part down to less than ten minutes, all of it non-speaking! (Lee claims he wouldn’t speak Sangster’s lines; Sangster claims he didn’t write any — again, one assumes, to save expensive filming-Lee time.) Lee makes the best of what he gets, with his most savage, animalistic portrayal of Dracula, all hissing and snarling. He even snaps a sword blade in half, nearly quivering with ravenous fury. Critics (both cultural and thespian) are right to single out Barbara Shelley’s performance as the straitlaced Helen turned sexually voracious vampiress — only to be held down by a squad of monks (!) and staked by Father Sandor. Someone had been reading their Gothics, and I suspect it was Jimmy Sangster.

Sangster’s both lurid and knowing screenplay, by the way, is why I believe Hammer’s budget not Lee’s sensibilities dictated a wordless Dracula. The script amazingly manages to sustain momentum in the nearly 45 minutes before Dracula’s wonderfully gruesome resurrection, and the four innocents sojourning in Castle Dracula bicker and posture believably but not (quite) annoyingly. The castle’s attempts to draw in travelers are creepy enough even before we meet the vermicious Klove (Philip Latham). And what a line this is: “He has seen and touched her — he considers her his.” The “final Brits” go back to the Castle a little too readily, but the final chase is another doozy. The finale, featuring Father Sandor and Diana (Suzan Farmer) blazing away with rifles not at Dracula but at the frozen river under his feet, is the best one in the Hammer cycle.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Reconstituted with prig’s blood (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order enigmatically non-speaking hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!