AKA Disciple of Dracula, Dracula 3, Revenge of Dracula,The Bloody Scream of Dracula Directed by Terrence Fisher Starring Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews 90 Minutes United Kingdom
Dracula: Prince of Darkness is the third entry in Hammer’s Dracula series. The original entry, from 1958, reintroduced the count to a new generation of movie goers in the guise of the late, legendary Christopher Lee, updating the precedent set by Universal and James Whale with vivid Technicolor, vivid blood, and a more explicit focus on the sexual aspects of the story than before. A bone-fide Horror classic from Hammer’s go to Gothic auteur Terrence Fisher, it was followed two years later by The Brides of Dracula. Fisher was again in the director’s chair, however, Christopher Lee’s Dracula was nowhere to be seen in the film, with Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing this time going up against David Peel’s Baron Meinster, described in the film as a ‘disciple’ of Dracula. Though an entertaining film in it’s own right and a worthy entry in the series, it sticks out like a sore thumb due to it’s absence of the titular Count. Christopher Lee was reluctant to reprise the role due to fear of typecasting, which had cursed previous Dracula, Bela Lugosi, to roles primarily in the ‘exotic villain’ mold. Finally, six years later, Hammer convinced Lee to return in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. This time, it’s Cushing’s Van Helsing who is the absent party, and though he’s a loss, the film makes up for it with it’s tight Gothic atmosphere courtesy of Fisher, and some interesting additions to the vampire mythology which help keep the story feel fresh.
The plot this time involves a group of British tourists traveling in the Transylvanian mountains, where Dracula has been considered dead for the past ten years. When holed up in a tavern they meet the emphatic Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) who warns them not to travel to Karlsbad. Naturally, they ignore his advice, and as night approaches find themselves thrown to the side of the road by their coach driver who refuses to travel any further. A coach without a driver then appears in front of them, and upon boarding it they are taken to a castle, wherein they find the dining table already set out and ready for them. Seemingly the only occupant of the castle is Klove (Philip Latham), who explains that his deceased master Count Dracula left orders that any weary travelers be put up in his abode. Later that night, one of the travelers hears a noise from somewhere within the dwelling and goes to investigate, only to be lead to Dracula’s crypt by Klove, who then proceeds to kill him and mix his blood with the ashes of Count Dracula, resurrecting the count and leading him on hungry rampage, picking off the holiday makers one by one.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness comes at an interesting time in Hammer’s history. They had already rebooted and revitalized many of the famous Horror icons in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and their subsequent success led to the revival of the Horror genre and arise of many usurpers to Hammer’s throne. Over in America, Roger Corman had began his extremely successful series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, which added a distinctly psychedelic flavor to the Gothic sensibility of the Hammer pictures. In Italy, directors like Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda were imbuing the Gothic Horror genre with a distinctly Italian operatic style, and more liberal approach to graphic violence and sexual perversity. Clearly the cinematic landscape was already a darker and bloodier place, and Hammer needed to up the ante in order to stay relevant. You certainly get a sense watching Dracula: Prince of Darkness that Terrence Fisher was aware of this. Dracula’s resurrection scene in particular, with it’s graphic bloodlet and vivid metamorphosis of Dracula’s remains, is one of the more grisly scenes of Hammer’s cannon up to this time.
In addition, the film adds some new elements to the Vampire Mythology which help keep the age old Count interesting. The whole business with the driver-less carriage, the tourists arriving at the castle with the table already set out and the lone servant, feel more like something out of a Grimm fairy tale than anything Stoker ever wrote. Almost a Dracula version of Hansel and Gretel. In addition, the fact the focus is on a group of initially happy go lucky, young tourists whose fates vary from bad to worse, seems to be an omen of the Slasher film format which would emerge over the coming decades. Then there is the fact that Dracula is a completely silent character in this version. Depending on who you believe, this is either a result of Christopher Lee’s refusal to speak dialogue which he thought terrible, or a genuine creative decision on the part of writer Jimmy Sangster. What is does in effect, is move Dracula even further away from the charismatic portrayal of Bela Lugosi, and more into animal, predatory territory. More reminiscent of Max Schreck’s work in the classic Nosferatu while retaining Lugosi’s sexuality. There’s also the addition of water as a new addition to the list of a vampire’s weaknesses. This comes seemingly out of nowhere, and is little more than a set up to the way that Dracula is dispatched in the film’s climax. I feel the climax could have worked just as effectively without the need for them to bring a new vampire weakness which makes little sense.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness is quintessential Hammer Horror. Though not the best of these films, it’s iconography of Lee in the Dracula role and the tight confidence of Fisher’s direction make it both essential viewing for fans of the genre and a perfect starting point for those looking to get into it.