Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Hammer Rewatch: Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

            A look at Hammer’s Dracula series, Part 3…

            When an element of popular culture attains a certain amount of fame and recognition, and it keeps going in spite of itself, it’s only a matter of time before it dissolves into self-parody. Such is the case with the Hammer Horror brand: a series of films that redefined what horror was when they burst on the scene in the late fifties, but soon after fell prey to falling back on the same tropes again and again to milk out whatever success was left within their films. By the time 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness came out, Hammer wasn’t quite at the self-parody stage, but watching the actors bare their cheap fangs amongst the Bray Studios sets dressed with the same fog and atmosphere as before, and you can certainly begin to feel parody creeping in at the edges of the frame. 

            The story concerns a pair of brothers who are traveling across Transylvania with their wives, who through a series of unfortunate events, find themselves the unwilling guests at Castle Dracula. The mad servant Klove utilizes them in an arcane ritual to bring the Count back to life, who then proceeds to wreak untold havoc in his wake. Once again the film utilizes the rather wonky structure of many of Hammer’s offerings to great effect - almost as if the filmmakers had several short films they stringed together into a feature. The story itself offers not much in the way of originality, but there are nice touches throughout, such as the gruesome way the Count is resurrected or bizarre side characters like Ludwig, the closest the series got to having a proper representation of Renfield. 

            Christopher Lee makes his return to his most iconic role, and famously utters not a single line of dialogue for the entire runtime (Lee always said it was because he thought the dialogue as written was too atrocious to be spoken aloud, but others have since claimed there never was any dialogue for Dracula). As a result, Dracula in the film is little more than a mindless, hissing monster - not terribly different from Lee’s original portrayal, but missing the sort of gentlemen mystique he carried previously. The film is also hurt somewhat by losing Peter Cushing as the ever-reliable Dr. Van Helsing, although the film does provide an adequate vampire slayer in Father Sandor, played with relish by Andrew Keir. Out of the four main characters, the only one to make an impression is Barbara Shelley as Helen, who herself becomes a vampire by Dracula’s hand. Watching the uptight Helen finally let loose and run wild as a vampire is possibly the film’s greatest delight, and Shelley plays each moment for all they’re worth.

            In the end, there’s nothing terribly wrong with the film - all the touches of Hammer Horror are in full effect and rarely utilized better. But by the same token, things were starting to feel a little stale, and it’s not hard to see how Roman Polanski was able to perfectly satirize the genre like he did not one year later with the release of his The Fearless Vampire Killers: Hammer had already done most of the job for him.        

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