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Dracula: Prince of Darkness

I’m sure you’re all expecting a review of Jurassic World right now, and don’t get me wrong, one is coming. But current events have intervened and we now have other business to address first.

I do not mourn for Sir Christopher Lee. I mourn that we will never see anyone like him again on this Earth. Lee lived for 93 incredible years. He was a WWII veteran (his service records are sealed, so we may never know how many Nazis he really did kill), decorated for battlefield bravery by the Czech, Yugoslavian, English, and Polish governments. He spoke at least six languages and he set the record for the oldest person to ever record lead vocals for his own heavy metal album. He was married to a former model for 53 years. He racked up 278 credits on IMDB, more than just about anyone else in history. He was a world-champion fencer who did all of his own stunts and had more on-screen sword fights than anyone else in history.

Our parents knew him as Sherlock Holmes, Scaramanga, and Lord Summerisle. Our kids know him as Saruman and Count Dooku. Our grandkids will know who he is. Hell, just the mere sight of his towering presence and the sound of his booming voice are enough to capture the imagination and never let go.

Christopher Lee didn’t die, he merely finished living. He’s not getting lowered into the ground, he’s graduating to take his rightful place in Valhalla. He always seemed more like a legend, beyond what any mere mortal could be, and now that’s exactly what he is. We were so incredibly lucky to have him for almost a century, and we’re luckier still that he left behind such a vast body of iconic work for future generations to cherish.

Like I said: The man didn’t die. He will never die.

Naturally, I decided that this was the best time to acquaint myself with one of Lee’s most fabled roles. In fact, this seemed like the best time to see my first Hammer Horror film, and I could write a whole ‘nother blog entry on that subject. Suffice to say that Lee regularly appeared in the prolific British company called Hammer Pictures. In particular, his portrayal of Count Dracula for Hammer is widely considered one of Lee’s most iconic roles and one of the character’s most definitive film portrayals.

I went down to good old Movie Madness to see if they had any of Lee’s Dracula films available, and there was Dracula: Prince of Darkness, made in 1966.

It’s worth noting that this film is actually the second of the Hammer films to star Lee as Dracula. I haven’t seen the first, but that’s okay: The film opens by showing us the closing minutes of the first film with a voice-over narration. Yes, this movie pads out the runtime with a full sequence taken directly from another movie entirely. This is a depressingly common tactic with no-budget cinema, especially among the most desperate and/or inept.

It also bears mentioning that this movie may not necessarily have been the best showcase of Lee’s talent. He’s barely in the movie and Dracula never speaks once throughout the entire running time. Lee himself once claimed that he never spoke onscreen because he flat-out refused to say dialogue so atrocious. Indeed, Lee was extremely reluctant to appear in any Dracula sequels, yet the producers at Hammer were somehow able to guilt-trip him into helping everyone make a paycheck for a total of seven goddamn films.

With all of that said, it’s still clear why Lee’s portrayal of Dracula has endured so well. Even without the use of that legendary voice, Lee makes it obvious that this Dracula is a true force of darkness. He looks perfectly like a fine upstanding gentleman to be respected and trusted, but that’s only a paper-thin facade. Merely scrape the surface and he turns into a full-on demon. The fangs come out and the eyes turn bloodshot and OH SHIT RUN FOR YOUR FUCKING LIVES.

This isn’t like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, who was much more patient and sociable with his guests. Lugosi’s portrayal took more time to play with his food and let his hypnotized slaves do most of the dirty work. Compare that to Lee’s Dracula, who’s a much more primal and aggressive beast. He may use his servants as much as he has to, but he still wants that blood for himself and he’s going to take it as quickly as possible by any means necessary.

Getting back to the script, writer Jimmy Sangster claims that he never wrote any dialogue for Dracula, on the grounds that a bloodsucking hellbeast wouldn’t be very chatty. Who to believe? I could go either way. Though the script certainly isn’t Shakespeare, it’s okay for what it is. No one says anything too quotable and the characters’ intelligence seems to turn on and off as the plot requires, but that’s par for the course. The dialogue and character development are no better than Romero’s work in Night of the Living Dead two years later, I can tell you that much.

As for the plot, it’s almost laughably pedestrian. Ten years after Dracula’s death in the previous film, four stupid travelers visit the vampire’s old castle in spite of all the explicit warnings not to do so. Dracula wakes up, people die, the survivors take on Dracula, they defeat him, roll credits. And that’s not even counting the extended prologue I talked about earlier. I’ll say this for the film: At least they didn’t try and overstuff the brief 90-minute runtime with a surfeit of characters and storylines. Though if they had the budget to try, who knows?

I also found it very interesting that the two dumbest travelers turned out to be the ones who survived to try and defeat Dracula. That was a refreshing change of pace from the more modern horror attitude of giving the characters what’s coming to them. It provided some semblance of a more interesting character arc as well. Even so, it’s tough for any of these actors or characters to leave an impression when they’re sharing a film with Christopher freaking Lee. There’s also the unfortunate matter of Father Sandor (Hammer regular Andrew Keir), who plays this movie’s resident vampire hunter. This after the last movie (and this movie’s prologue, I’ll remind you) featured Dr. Abraham Van Helsing as played by Peter Cushing. With all respect to Keir, that is not an upgrade.

And what about the visuals? Ah, there’s what made Hammer Horror such an iconic name among cinephiles. The gothic set design is absolutely gorgeous, made even more so by the thick, dynamic shadows and shot layouts. The atmosphere is so effective, with ingenious use of fog and darkness, that it does a lot to hide the cheap effects work. It also helps that the movie was shot with old and cheap film stock, lending the visuals a kind of dusty and antique quality lost in this crisp digital age. The scares may be few and barely effective, but who even cares about the payoff when the setup is this exquisite?

That said, it’s very clear that the Hammer Horror style was specifically designed for indoor action. The film takes a notable nose-dive in quality when the plot moves outdoors, with pathetic day-for-night shots and laughable camera tricks to try and make the action more exciting. And of course, it doesn’t help that day turns into night and vice versa at the most improbably convenient times.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (along with most Hammer Horror films, I’d wager) is like a modern-day penny dreadful. It’s cheap, fast, brainless, disposable fun that’s short on characters and plot yet long on atmosphere and chills. Christopher Lee makes a huge impression with very little screen time and the visuals are undeniably gorgeous. It may look a little dated, but that’s only because the Hammer Horror style has been such a huge influence on several decades’ worth of filmmakers, and for good reason.

The film may not be a masterpiece, but it serves as a fine introduction to the Hammer Horror films, which is definitely a subject that any cinephile should be at least somewhat familiar with. As for Christopher Lee, this film serves as an incredible showcase for how the man could do so much with so little. He will be missed.

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