Dracula, Prince of Darkness / Revenge of Dracula / Disciple of Dracula / Bloody Scream of Dracula / Dracula 3 (1966) ***½
You know, there may be some merit in the old saying which has it that the third time is the charm. It certainly seems to have been the case with Hammer’s Dracula series. After the muddled and incoherent Horror of Dracula/Dracula, and the rather better but disappointingly Dracula-less The Brides of Dracula, our old friends across the Atlantic managed to pull together a Dracula flick that really works. Dracula, Prince of Darkness is not a movie for everyone-- it tries to get by on atmosphere alone for close to half its running time-- but when the action begins, it does so with genuine gusto.
We begin, after a brief recap of the vampire’s death-scene from Horror of Dracula (hey, it was eight years ago-- there were no such things as VCRs in 1966 you know!), with a funeral. As the procession carrying the dead girl winds its way through the woods, it becomes apparent that something out of the ordinary is going on. And because this is a movie with the name “Dracula” in the title, it isn’t exactly hard to guess what that something might be. Yes, the officiating priest believes the girl to have been slain by a vampire, and her body is being taken to unhallowed ground to be buried with a stake in its heart, over the anguished protests of the dead girl’s mother. Moments before the priest can drive in the stake, however, the funeral is interrupted by a rifle shot, fired over the heads of the procession by a mounted monk, whom we will soon come to know as Father Sandor (Andrew Keir, of Five Million Years to Earth and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb). Sandor dismounts, strides confidently up to the bier, has a quick look at the girl’s neck, and lays into the flustered priest. “You’re an idiot!” Sandor sneers, “Worse than an idiot-- you’re a frightened, superstitious idiot, and a disgrace to the cloth you wear!” Apparently His Assholiness never thought to look for bite-marks before jumping to conclusions and deciding the deceased was a vampire in the making. Sandor then orders the procession back to town to give the girl a proper burial, “and see to it I don’t have to ride this way again!”
Meanwhile, four young Brits are on their way across the countryside on a tour of Eastern Europe. The two men are brothers, Charles and Alan Kent (Francis Matthews and Charles “Bud” Tingwell, both of whom would go on to lend their voices to a “Thunderbirds” knock-off called “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”); the women are their respective wives, Diana (Suzan Farmer, from Die, Monster, Die! and Rasputin the Mad Monk) and Helen (Barbara Shelley, of The Gorgon and the original Village of the Damned). When we first meet this lot, they’re hanging out in a rustic tavern, and Charles has just bought a third round of drinks for the entire house, earning (not for the first time, one suspects) the disdain of his dour sister-in-law. The nascent family feud is stopped in its tracks, however, by the arrival of Father Sandor, who announces his presence with authority once again. Not three paces over the threshold, the grizzled old monk yanks a string of garlic cloves down from the pub’s ceiling, and berates the patrons for their backwardness in terms that suggest that their superstitions may once have been well-founded-- “Garlic to keep out the Bogeyman... It’s over, don’t you understand? It’s been over these ten years!” Then Sandor marches past the Kents’ table, and unabashedly hikes up his habit to warm his ass before the fire. I tell you, I like this Sandor guy a little more every time I see him.
Sandor and the travelers strike up a conversation, wherein they explain what brings them to this forgotten corner of the Carpathians, and he invites them to stay a few days at his monastery in Kleinburg. Helen won’t have it, though-- they have an itinerary, you see. Somehow, you just knew Helen would be a stickler for itineraries, didn’t you? Anyway, it turns out that this sacred itinerary is to take the travelers through a little town called Karlsbad, and when Sandor hears that, he becomes visibly agitated. (I don’t know why-- Dracula lived in Klausenburg, not Karlsbad...) He’d like to talk the four Englishmen out of going there at all, but as that proves impossible, he merely warns them to stay away from the castle. Nevermind that there’s no mention on Alan’s map of any castle-- it’s there, and if the Kents know what’s good for them, they’ll stay the hell away from it.
Of course, if they’d taken Sandor’s advice, this would have been an awfully short, awfully boring movie, so such a thing is clearly out of the question. The next day, the coachman they’d hired to take them into Karlsbad abruptly stops the carriage more than a mile outside of town, and refuses to go any further. Nightfall is coming, you see, and the man refuses, under any circumstances, to be out and about at night in the environs of the town. He forces the Kents out of the carriage at knife-point, tosses their luggage to them, and tells them he’ll be back two hours after dawn the next day, and that he’ll take them into town if they’re still waiting by then. While the Kents bicker among themselves over what to do about the fix they’ve gotten themselves into, another coach comes racing down the road toward them. It has no driver, which is more than a little weird, but as Charles says, “never look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when there are two of them and they’re pulling a carriage.” The problem is that the horses seem to have an agenda of their own. They won’t respond to Charles’s commands, and instead of going into town, the team takes the Kents straight to that castle Father Sandor warned them about.
So what do they do? Well, obviously they try the front door, and when it proves to be unlocked, the four travelers go inside, despite Helen’s strenuous objections. (Sure, Helen’s a stick in the mud, but sticks in the mud have been known to be right on occasion, and something gives me the feeling that this may be one of those occasions.) Then, as though to make sure they don’t change their minds, the horses suddenly bolt away down the track leading around the castle, taking the coach and the Kents’ luggage with them. The travelers find more weirdness along the lines of the mystery carriage within. The dining room table is laid with place-settings for four, and when Charles and Alan go upstairs to see if anyone is at home, they find Alan and Helen’s bags in one room and Charles and Diana’s in another. While the two brothers are trying to puzzle out how such a thing could have happened, Helen suddenly screams from downstairs. Charles and Alan rush down to find that the castle isn’t quite deserted after all. Its sole occupant is a man named Klove, who explains that the castle belonged to his master, Count Dracula, and that the count left orders for him to keep the place perpetually ready to receive visitors when he died some ten years before. In what must surely be the movie’s most dryly funny exchange of dialogue, Charles asks who holds the count’s title now, to which Klove replies, “He died without issue... in the accepted sense of the term.” Klove serves the Kents their dinner and then shows them to their rooms.
Explanation or no explanation, Helen is still creeped out by the whole business, and with good reason, as it happens. That night, she awakens from uneasy dreams to hear Klove dragging a small trunk down the hall outside her and Alan’s room. She rouses her husband, and the man goes to check things out-- against Helen’s better judgement, of course. Alan eventually tracks Klove to a hidden chamber in the castle’s basement, where Klove stabs the unfortunate traveler in the back. The murderous butler then strings Alan up over the chamber’s sole furnishing-- a large, empty stone sarcophagus-- pours out the contents of a box full of ashes into the coffin, and slits Alan’s throat. A remarkable thing happens when Alan’s blood hits the ashes. The sludgy mixture begins to take on form and substance, ultimately coalescing into the body of a resurrected Count Dracula (Christopher Lee, reprising his role from Horror of Dracula)! The count then wastes no time in vampirizing Helen, who was foolish enough to overcome her trepidation and follow Alan downstairs.
Charles and Diana-- the woman particularly-- are most alarmed the next morning, when they wake to find Alan, Helen, and all their baggage missing from the castle. Diana convinces Charles to leave the accursed place, but she is unable to stop him returning once they have found something like a safe place for her to hide out, a small woodsman’s hut by the side of the road. Some time after Charles’s departure, Klove pulls up to the hut in a small carriage, claiming that Charles sent him to collect Diana and bring her back to the castle, and that Charles will explain everything to her when she arrives. Apparently Diana needs some remedial training in how to recognize liars, because she goes along without even a moment’s thought. Back at the castle, Diana finds her husband doing his level best to evade the fangs of the two vampires. His level best isn’t very good, and neither for that matter is Diana’s, but the woman has something in her favor that her husband lacks-- a big silver cross on a chain around her neck. She catches on quickly once she sees what a second’s accidental contact with her pendant does to Helen’s arm, and the couple are able to escape to Sandor’s monastery, which seems like as good a place as any for a showdown with the titular Prince of Darkness.
Ah, the wonders of a script that makes sense. A lot of people I’ve heard from seem to regard Dracula, Prince of Darkness as the beginning of the end for Hammer’s Dracula series, but I don’t see it. What I see when I watch this movie is a fairly straightforward combination of the strengths of the previous two films, with only a few of the weaknesses of either. Like Horror of Dracula, we have here the always-charismatic Christopher Lee as the main vampire, squaring off against an able, worthy adversary. Father Sandor is perhaps no Dr. Van Helsing, and Andrew Keir is perhaps no Peter Cushing, but both the character and the actor are good enough in the role of Dracula’s foe to satisfy me. Like The Brides of Dracula, this movie features an imaginative end for the vampire, and a well thought-out story with none of the unexplained foolishness that plagued the first film. I particularly like the interactions between the Kents, whose interplay of personalities makes their behavior in the face of supernatural evil far more believable than is generally the case in horror movies. Charles seems to have the luck of the Devil, while Helen (who, let us not forget, is right about the dangers they face at the castle) obviously has a track record of crying wolf (“If we’d listened to you, we’d have never left England,” Charles retorts to her at one point). Add in Alan and Diana’s manifest lack of independent willpower, and it makes perfect sense for the four travelers to do what they do. I was also impressed by the way the script weaves in elements of Stoker’s novel that were left unused in Horror of Dracula. There is a Renfield-like madman (Thorley Walters, of Frankenstein Created Woman and Vampire Circus) living at Sandor’s monastery, whom Dracula uses to gain access to the building, and there is a scene where the count confronts Diana in her room there that strongly echoes the one from the novel in which Dracula takes partial control of Mina.
Lastly, before I take my leave of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, I’d like to say a few words about Lee’s second performance as the count. I think he’s much better here than he was the first time out, which leaves me with a bit of explaining to do. In my review of Horror of Dracula, I complained about the screenwriter’s inexplicable decision to give an actor of Lee’s caliber only a single line of intelligible dialogue. If anything, you’d think that would go double for this movie, in which Lee never utters even one word, but that’s strangely not the case. I think what we’re looking at here is a matter of consistency. It’s easier to accept a Count Dracula who never says anything at all than it is to accept one who is perfectly articulate when he’s talking about the terms of his new librarian’s employment, but who suddenly clams up the moment his true nature is revealed. In Horror of Dracula, we know the count is perfectly capable of normal speech, so his later devolution into a pre-verbal beast-man rings false. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, the count’s complete lack of dialogue allows you to assume that that’s just the way he is-- maybe he can’t talk, or maybe he figures the rest of the characters are so far beneath him that there’s no point in trying to talk to them. The funny thing is that this is not the way the character was originally written. Jimmy Sangster’s script had plenty of dialogue for the count, but Christopher Lee thought that dialogue was so amazingly stupid that he outright refused to utter a word of it! Given that the silent, feral approach would later come to be seen as Lee’s signature take on Count Dracula, I think it awfully amusing that it came about solely because of the actor’s disgust at the crappy lines he was given to deliver in his second appearance in the role. That Lee was actually able to force the producers to accept his refusal to say his lines is even funnier.