Written by: Anthony Hinds (story) and Jimmy Sangster (screenplay)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, and Andrew Keir
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Kove, isn't your master joining us for dinner?"
"No sir, I'm afraid not."
"Is he indisposed?"
"No sir, I'm afraid not."
"Is he indisposed?"
After their initial Dracula film was a hit, Hammer Studios followed in the footsteps of Universal Studios by delivering a Dracula-less sequel in the form of The Brides of Dracula. While that film is an excellent one in its own right, the Hammer brass eventually came to their senses and delivered the return of Christopher Lee in his most famous role in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the first of six sequels featuring Lee. Also back in tow behind the scenes were Horror of Dracula vets Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster, each respectively resuming their duties and director and writer. Would Hammer strike gold again in this second sequel?
It has been ten years since Dracula's demise at the hands of Van Helsing; however, the surrounding villagers aren't convinced, as evidenced by an abundance of superstitions. Four English travellers (two brothers and their wives) have made their way to the Count's former stomping grounds and eventually even find themselves stranded outside of his castle after their guide is too spooked to continue. Conveniently, the current housekeeper takes in the stranded travellers due to his former master's wish to always take in guests. Of course, this former master ends up being the deceased Count Dracula, who is soon resurrected with the sacrificed blood of one of the travellers.
Prince of Darkness was the first Hammer Dracula sequel that I ever saw, as I skipped Brides of Dracula for whatever reason. As such, the film holds an extremely nostalgic value for me, as I can recall many late nights spent watching and delighting in Dracula's triumphantly gory resurrection. However, taking away these rose-tinted glasses does reveal quite a few flaws in the film, particularly the script, which lacks any sort of compelling plot other than an almost slasher-esque "Dracula is back and is going to wreak havoc." Seriously, that's pretty much it, as the group of four are basically the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Growing out of the weak plot is the absence of a worthy Van Helsing-like adversary to go up against the title character. Andrew Keir plays Father Sandor, who happens to be both a monk and a vampire hunter, and the character is generally the best (human) character in the story. Still, he's no Cushing, nor are the other leads particularly interesting. Business does pick up a bit once the action shifts to Sandor's monastery, as the presence of an eccentric Renfield-like character brings some interest to the proceedings. Still, most of the story in Prince of Darkness is quite slow and lacking much action; in fact, it takes quite a while for Dracula himself to show up, and when he does, he never speaks a word due to Lee's refusal to read the supposedly atrocious lines written for him!
However, if there's one thing that can usually be said about Hammer, it's that their style often covered up their lack of substance. Sadly, this isn't the case for Prince of Darkness, which might be the most drab looking film the studio ever produced. Gone is Hammer legend Jack Asher's lush, vivid cinematography, as it is instead replaced with a mundane, washed-out look. This is too bad, as Fisher's direction is still sharp, and the film contains a variety of interesting images and atmospheric locations that should pop off of the screen. A high point is no doubt Dracula's resurrection itself, which is quite bloody for its era and serves as a sort of visual effects centerpiece for the film. The film also features a somewhat famous and surprising method of dispatching Dracula, the first of many times Lee's character would himself seem surprised by his fate.
If anything, Lee's Dracula is still solid, even if the story isn't. Even though I love the film for sentimental reasons, there's no doubt it's among the weakest in the Hammer series. The film was released by Anchor Bay way, way back in 1998 and features a washed out, non-anamorphic transfer that doesn't help an already drab looking picture. The disc's audio does fare a bit better and it's packed with extras. Among them are behind-the-scenes footage of the film's production, a commentary track with the principal actors, and an episode of "World of Hammer," an ongoing documentary series. This episode in particular details Hammer's other vampire films and is quite a treat. Rounding out the extras is a dual trailer for Prince of Darkness and its double feature companion Plague of the Zombies. This disc was later repackaged in a Hammer two-pack along with The Satanic Rites of Dracula, itself also out of print, but a bit easier to find. Hammer enthusiasts no doubt snagged either release long ago; for everyone else, this one's worth one view. Rent it!
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