Hammer: Dracula Prince of Darkness at 50 – Dead and just not putting up with it

Hammer Dracula Dead and not putting up with it

Of the minor things worth celebrating in what’s been a rather terrible week is the 50th anniversary of the US release of Dracula Prince of Darkness. Jokerside breaks the gloom with a look at the glorious world where resurrection is FACT.

WE’RE NEAR THE END OF A WEEK THAT’S PILED ON SOME TERRIBLE LOSSES. AND 2015 WAS PRETTY BAD. Over the last 12 months we’ve lost two British icons whose careers seemed to defy any idea of death. Sir Christopher Lee and David Bowie. Bowie played a vampire of course, in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Lee’s illustrious career would take in everything from Gremlins to Jabberwockies and heavy metal, but he will be long remembered as a definitive vision of Stoker’s legendary vampire.

Of course, this horrid week also saw the loss of Alan Rickman, most famous to millions of Harry Potter fans for his glorious portrayal role of the vampiric Severus Snape. And just yesterday, Roberts Bank Stewart, the legendary British screenwriter, father of Bergerac, was also lost. Among his many achievements was the creation of Doctor Who’s premier shapeshifters the Zygons. Ah Dracula, one of literature’s great shapeshifters.

So from the depths of gloom, where better to look that at the glorious fall, rise, fall, rise and so on of Lee’s Count Dracula. As this bloody week ends, let’s celebrate utterly ridiculous over the top and glorious concept of resurrection.

Dracula Prince of Darkness was the second of Hammer’s films to feature Lee as the eponymous Count. Of course, it wasn’t the second of Hammer’s Dracula films, but 1960’s The Brides of Dracula can be dismissed along with 1977’s The Legend of the Golden Vampires. While both starred Peter Cushing as (a) Van Helsing, neither featured Christopher Lee. The latter even attempted to replace him, painfully. If you’re after the modes of vampire slaying therein: the shadow of a giant cross and a spear through the heart.

Dracula Prince of Darkness signalled the glorious return of Christopher Lee as the Count, eight years after his first appearance and sparking off the Hammer Dracula franchise proper. And as the first true sequel, it kick-started the Count’s ability to return. And of course, despite the wonderful recap of Dracula’s death almost a decade before, it rendered the whole final act killing of a vampire utterly pointless. The franchise didn’t care a jot for that however, and so began one of the earliest examples of a series where every successive film practically wiped out its predecessor. Don’t pursue that logic too heavily though. You’ll end up with The Satanic Rites of Dracula sat shivering and alone in the corner.

There’s more to Dracula Prince of Darkness – as well as bearing quite probably the best title of any Dracula film, it also kick-started double-bill horror. Released 50 years ago this week in the US it was accompanied rather oddly by The Plague of the Zombies. Some were luck to receive plastic vampire fangs and zombie eye glasses on attendance.

The film’s script features a very handy reminder of the many weaknesses of a vampire. Just as a refresher:

“He can be traced to his resting place during the daylight hours and there, a stake through the heart. He can be exposed to the direct rays of the sun. Running water will drown him. The cross will burn him. He is not invulnerable.”

But who needs to be invulnerable when you can constantly be reanimated, even a century later? And so, let’s have a good old and tongue-in-cheek rummage through the many resurrections of Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula.

Dracula (1958)

“I am Dracula and I welcome you to my house”

By no means a direct adaptation, it was still hammer’s most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s original novel. Jonathan Harker duly turns up to meet the Count, this time at the Castle Dracula outside Klausenburg, but the real reason for rapid departures was the lock-tight contract Universal Studios had cunningly taken out with the Stoker estate two decades before. Universal’s take, with Bela Lugosi apparently defining the role, looked to have the eminently adaptable story sewn up  (Stoker after all was business manager of the Lyceum Theatre for 27 years).

But months of wrangling yielded Hammer the rights to make the film while Universal were set to distribute what would become known as The Horror of Dracula in the United States. The Count would emerge a far more feral creature in Lee’s imposing hands, although not the mute and angry force of nature he would soon develop into. The supernatural abilities were pared back as Dracula became a highly physical foe, pared against Peter Cushing’s equally action-oriented Van Helsing. For all the stereotyping that came from Hammer’s prolific success, Dracula exemplifies. Stunning shooting, shocks and gore and Lee at him imperious best. Director Terrence Fisher reportedly suffered nightmares during the production. In every way this was intended to be the stuff that bad dreams are made of.

Copyright would release Dracula to the public domain in 1962. How fortunate it was that no one could wait four years.

How to reanimate a Vampire: No need!

Even under the confusing chronology of the conflicting Hammer films, we can accept that the Count has no need to be resurrected. Although off camera, it fell to the dark art of lawyers.

How to slay a vampire: Sunlight (Vitamin D).

In a splintering chase, Abraham Van Helsing pursues Dracula as he races back to his castle lair high in the Carpathian Mountains before the sun rises. After saving Mina from Dracula’s vicious attack a breakneck chase around the castle interior ends when a quick-thinking Van Helsing sprints down a table and leaps onto the castle’s tapestry curtains like a cat. Caught by the sunlight, Dracula is forced into the rays when Van Helsing pushes him back with a cross of candlesticks. Dracula is slowly reduced to a pile of dust which blows away to reveal a ring.

Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966)

“My master died without issue, sir… In the accepted sense of the term.”

One of cinema’s great reboots. One that spawned the other great Hammer cycle, tied Christopher Lee’s name even more extricably to the role and was another key nail in the coffin that would later unleash immortal slashers on the world. Unlike the Baron Frankenstein who was well on his way to his fourth cinematic outing, here was the monster that could reanimate itself 9with a little help). Although never stepping into the difficult area of antihero. Legendarily causing cold sweats at the BBFC, Prince of Darkness has a quite extraordinary build-up. The hapless four travellers, three of them barely able to get a word in with the wonderfully irritating Charles in their party, are warned away from a trip to Carlsbad, but end up guided by fate, superstition and a riderless horse drawn carriage to Castle Dracula where the Counts regeneration awaits. Lee, ever brilliant, remains silent throughout (writer Jimmy Sangster and the actor disagreed on whose decision that was). With a much enhanced budget, Prince of Darkness puts the emphasis on appearance and succeeds through a swagger that overcomes the rather light and, shudder, dull plot. The Count is now a totem of utter feral, seductive evil. All hissing, scarpering, cloak trailing and peerless reaction shots. But at the risk of repetition, the Count was in dire need of a Van Helsing.

How to reanimate a vampire: Lure a dolt, cosh him, drain him.

The wonderfully loyal Klove runs a whole castle by himself 10 years on from Dracula’s destruction and, no doubt compelled by one of the travellers Charles’ taunting that both he and his abode are dusty, realises his purpose with the use of a fine banquet and supernaturally compelled horses. On the first night he takes out Charles’ older brother Alan with an off-screen throat slit (despite the BBFC saving him from decapitation) yielding just the blood (masala) to reanimate Dracula’s ashes in a ridiculously ornate reanimation chamber. Ritual was very in. Very slowly in. One of many story’s that hinge on the need for a slave to condemn themselves to perpetual bondage.

How to slay a vampire: Ice, ice, slay me…

Another rip roaring chase, this time following Dracula’s coffin on horseback. A neat inverse of the first film, here is a race against the failing light, ending as Dracula’s tomb slides across the frozen ice around Castle Dracula. While Charles proves most ineffectual at scrapping on the ice his wife’s desperate gunshot gives a priest a marvellous idea and his swift fire power promptly submerges the count in the icy water. It all looks wonderful, a superbly filmed finale up until the abrupt ending. Although running water… Really?

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)

“Now my revenge is complete”

The Carpathian ball was rolling, not least thanks to this film’s sensationalist title (at least it wasn’t exploitationist – more of that later, in the ‘70s). Risen carries some of the series most distinctive scenes thanks to its opening and closing on the rocky trails up to Castle Dracula. In-between, its all overt eroticism as Dracula is forced to compel young women to do his bidding, the poor love. Oh, and there’s a drunk priest. This film was a bit of a tipping point for Hammer let alone their Dracula series. Lee, already unsettled by the series lack of authenticity to the source novel was persuaded back to the role by the Hammer owners only to be over-ruled, quite incorrectly, over the ridiculous scene where Dracula pulls a stake from his chest amid spurting blood. Vivid it may be, but it’s almost as if the makers read this post and hoped to mock it. I mean, stakes that require devout belief behind the force? Elsewhere, Hammer was less interested in ramping up the visual than Veronica Carlson as Dracula’s ongoing victim.

How to reanimate a vampire: Have a reputation that drives a priest to drink and bloody mistakes.

It’s 1906. Mildly less ridiculous than the English gallivanters of the previous entry, a strident priest and a drunk one head up to Castle Dracula from the terrified village that sits in its shadow. Having barred the doors with a huge cross, the drunken priest proves an inevitable liability when running from a storm and foolishly smashing his head on some rocks. The blood seeps onto the ice that’s kept the Count chilled out. Yes, that’s right. Encased in the running water that caused his defeat in the previous film.

How to slay a vampire: Holy impalement and prayer.

Proving once again, that most accidents happen at home, the Count returns at long last from the village with a girl he compels to debar his castle… Before a battlement scrap with her boyfriend causes him to fall onto, you guessed it, the very same cross that barred his door before. The earlier drunken priest who’s not only been through the ringer of a headache but also under the Count’s control for much of the film redeems himself by reducing the vampire to dust with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He doesn’t even have time to check his mail.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

“They have destroyed my servant. They will be destroyed…”

Taste may break into the 1970s and push Hammer poster boy Ralph Bates to the fore, but it’s also somehow the best Dracula film since 1958. No disrespect to Carpathia, but part of the reason is its relocation to a wonderfully atmospheric Victorian London. It’s also great to see good old Peter Sallis get up to some immorality as the depths of he and his friends’ secret lives lead to the Counts reanimation. You would hardly know that Ralph Bates was lined up to reanimate himself as the new Count before Lee cloaked up once more to sink his teeth into revenge.

Its strength is not only the relocation, but the strong sub-plot of three family men being dragged down by the fear of their crime and insidious double lives. The worst part is Dracula’s immediate quest for to avenge the death of his young servant. The travel obviously affected him greatly. And the script did have to contend with Lee’s ever increasing reluctance. Oh that the budget had stretched to include Vincent Price as one of the three Gentlemen objects of Dracula’s revenge. then it might have been THE classic.

How to reanimate a vampire: Devout followers happy to put their bodies on the line.

On the road to hell, the last thing three morally corrupt Victorian gents need is to be seduced to the dark arts by charismatic disgraced Lord Courtley. Black mass is too much for them, but in beating the Lord to death in panic they inadvertently reanimate the Dark Lord thanks to a phial of his powdered blood, carried from the East (which Courtley had earlier drunk). Oh, and in case Revenue and Customs are reading, they’d carried Dracula’s broach over too.

How to slay a vampire: Throw the church sink.

Swapping his castle for an atmospheric London chapel, Dracula gets to tear around once more, before being decimated by the light of a stain glass window, the recanting of the Lord’s Prayer in a quickly re-sanctifying church and finally a fall to the alter cross below. He returns to dust once more, a state that was quickly becoming his natural one. Talk about overloading defeat.

Scars of Dracula (1970)

“You fools! You think you can destroy my Master? The flames will never reach him.”

Made as a rapid follow-up, Scars starts in dazzling fashion before quickly collapsing. Back in Carpathia there’s no hanging around this time as the villagers of Kleinenburg assault Castle Dracula after discovering a girl’s corpse with unmistakable puncture wounds. Villagers, even villagers with pitchforks, prove to be no match for a fleet of revenge bats who massacre the wives and children holed up in the village church below. It’s horribly gruesome and only really let down by the bat effects. But this random break with continuity after the franchise’s previous glorious trek to London was just the tip of the changeberg. Not only did distribution fell to EMI, but Scars also has the horrific distinction of being the first R-rated Hammer film. It’s unclear if that’s entirely down to Dennis Waterman taking the role of hero.

Perhaps the real writing was on the castle wall with contemporary comparisons between the scenes of bat attack and Hitchcock’s The Birds. If a deliberate reference to that classic, it was seven years out. And Dracula was already two films into a decade that would bring exorcists and slashers. Next time he had no choice but to get fully up to date.

How to reanimate a vampire: Be kind to your pets.

In a prologue breaking the logic of the previous film, Dracula’s remains are somewhat extraordinarily assembled on a plinth in a room high up in his castle tower, accessible only through a window. Of course the real reason is to have the Count scarper down the walls later on, a reference to the Stoker novel and one that undoubtedly pleased a far more active Lee. He would even get to string some sentences together in this film. And that’s not the only sign of increased superpowers. Having persisted far too long with human help, he now relies on a large bat to fly in and vomit onto his remains the sweet, regurgitated blood of rejuvenation. Presumably it was bats that repatriated his remains in the first place. Just as well, Klove, returning from Prince of Darkness has not only morphed into Patrick Troughton but finally turns on his master…

How to slay a vampire: Impale, burn and plummet.  

Taking to the battlements of Castle Dracula once again as a storm bears down on them, Dennis Waterman’s bold attempt to impale Dracula with an iron spike goes awry when he hits the wrong side of the chest. This rookie error, something we’ve come to expect in the continuing absence of Van Helsing, is rectified when the Count, attempting to return the favour finds that giant iron spikes make irresistible lightning rods. Engulfed in flames, the Count falls from the battlements edge to end up burning on the ground far below.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

“Look on me Dracula look on me and remember”

For all the gimmick of the 1972 reboot, Hammer knew how to get a few things right. One is the glorious (re)appearance of not one but three Van Helsings. The second is the glorious opening where Van Helsing number one (oddly, Lawrence van Helsing) grapples with the Count on the roof of an out of control horse drawn carriage in 1872. Rescued and resuscitated from his certain demise 100 years later, the rest of the film was always going to be odd, and can’t help but looks like a trailing attempt to update the Hammer brand in the wake of modern horror.

Broad brush stroke decisions, such as the round 100 year update – and so placing the opening sequence a good decade before the 1880s set original Hammer Dracula – ram those nails in. Still, it’s not the worst film in the franchise, mainly thanks to the sheer class of pitching Cushing and Lee against each other once again. 1972 packs in a police procedural, the domesticity of the Van Helsing sitting room and keeps Dracula lodged in the decrepit church he was reborn in As an unimpressed Lee said, “all I get to do is stand around on unhallowed ground, sweep down corridors and make the odd pounce or two”. But all is virtually forgiven when the excellent opening is balanced by the final stand-off between the two adversaries, where the circling Lee even gets to utter some Stoker dialogue (albeit, missing the context somewhat): “You would play your brains against mine. Against me who has commanded nations?”

How to reanimate a vampire: Wait a hundred years and invoke a blood ritual.

His ashes interred alongside his nemesis’ grave, it takes the coercion of the subtly monikered Johnny Alucard (fond of the old jazz spectacular) for a group of teens, including the latest in the Van Helsing line Jessica, to invoke a black magic ritual to resurrect Dracula in the derelict St Bartolph’s church at the far too early expense of Carol Lombard. Dracula lands his best bit of prime London real estate yet.

How to slay a vampire: Take your pick. An improvised stake through the heart or a bear-pitfull of stakes with a splash of holy water.

It’s an affecting but rather unfortunate run of events that leads Dracula to kick Van Helsing from a galloping carriage only to emerge from the ensuing crash to find the spokes of a wheel in his chest. Van Helsing’s wits are enough about him to push home the point. Wonderful, vulnerable, snarling, lurching acting from Lee from which a thousand slashers were cloned.

In the 20th century, the need for Van Helsing and Dracula to circle each other doesn’t prevent the bizarrely named Lorrimer (that’s ‘harness maker’ in Latin – an obtuse metaphor) Van Helsing being far more prepared than his ancestors. Rescuing his granddaughter, Van Helsing realises that holy water has been under-utilised in the franchise and by applying that liberally to the count he forces him into a pre-prepared pit of stakes. That should do it.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

“Oh, just a quiet bit of mind blowing”

Comes the end, not a moment too soon. The film once supposedly titled Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London famously inspired Lee to 20 adjectives. One of them was “fatuous” – the rest are unrecorded. The actor’s ongoing struggle to retain even a shred of elements from Stoker’s original reached a new level in a plot that pits the Count as a Bond villain, intent on unleashing a new strain of bubonic plague on the Earth on 23 November, the Sabbath of the Dead. Ridiculous scenes include the Mafiosa style interview where Van Helsing visits the pseudonym who couldn’t be any more obviously Dracula, on the offices built on the graveyard of St Botolph’s from the previous film… And can’t make him out thanks to the judicious use of an angle-poise lamp. But, it certainly draws out the dialogue, a fresh step away from the feral Count who dominated the series. Minimal debate rages over whether this is superior to Dracula 1972 AD. It isn’t. Two years later, the Dracula films behind him, Lee would become a real Bond villain.

How to reanimate a vampire: Who knows? It’s 1973, man.

Beats me, for all the references to the previous film, silver bullets and inability of CCTV’s to capture the image of vampires, , his reappearance and the retention of his wealth is unexplained. Although the finger can really be pointed at what was hopefully a satirical comment on inner-city redevelopment. Often, that digs up things better left buried.

How to slay a vampire: Emphatically Christian use of a Hawthorn bush, and fundamentally superstitious.

The silver bullet assassination attempt fails halfway through, although that always seemed a long shot. Come the end, the plague plan destroyed by fire, it’s down to just Van Helsing and Dracula once again. The eminent scientist lures the vampire into a wood where the Count is snared by a Hawthorn bush. The Religious symbolism of Christ’s crown of thorns paralyses the Count while the always quick thinking Van Helsing makes good use of a fence post to stake him to dust with a fence post.

And so did Lee’s Dracula films conclude. Hammer would persevere, and only a superstitious drunken fool would count against him making an appearance in a film marked Hammer sometime in the future. Resurrection’s all part of the deal, fortunately.

Since 1973, Dracula’s featured in approximately 75,000,000 further films and shows no sign of retiring. Which is quite probably why humans invent these creatures in the first place.

Next year, the flip-side of the Hammer coin: Welcome the Baron.

 

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2 thoughts on “Hammer: Dracula Prince of Darkness at 50 – Dead and just not putting up with it”

  1. Saw Dracula Prince of Darkness and The Plague of the Zombies in a double-feature at the no longer there Custer Theater on Charleston’s (W.Va.) West Side. My best friend, Mikey Christ and I, talked my dad out of bringing us with Mikey’s sister, Christina, and my brothers, Bob and Jim, to the Kearse Theater on Summers St. in Charleston for the re-release of “Bambi” – yes, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing triumph over Walt Disney. The Zombies movie is forgettable but Prince of Darkness in the balcony of the Custer was scary as hell, as has remained one of my favorite movies and memories. We lost Mike about a decade or more ago, and lost my brother Bob last year, but on West 2nd Street in Charleston in the 1960s, Horror Movies ruled our world!

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