Dracula: Prince of Darkness March 1, 2017
I like Christopher Lee’s Dracula more than Béla Lugosi’s simply because he takes himself so seriously when in the antagonist’s shoes. While Lugosi always seemed to be overcome by the need to smirk at his own cartoonish ghoulishness, hamming it up when the stealing of a scene is necessary, Lee refuses to see the humor in his characterization. Brooding and sly, he owns up to the title of Price of Darkness. He is one with the night and with the shadows, and a being as evil as him is more realistically frightening when he’s slinky, not campy.
1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the formula-driven sequel to 1958’s exquisite Horror of Dracula (also directed by Terence Fisher), doesn’t tread on any new ground. Consider it to be more a crowdpleaser that knows what its crowd wants rather than a mover and a shaker bent on outdoing its predecessor.
But since Fisher and company are so effective when it comes to delivering the goods expected from a film of its sort, the movie is something of an escapist wonder. It feels like a summation of Lee’s exceptional work as the titular fiend and an encapsulation of the artistic magnificence consistently put forth by the movie’s production company, Hammer Film Productions.
Taking place 10 years after the events seen in the aforementioned Dracula lark, Prince of Darkness circles around the Kent family, an English clan passing through Karlsbad, the small town sitting dangerously near Count Dracula’s castle. Though the villain and his minions were destroyed by Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), a legendary scholar of vampirism, a decade earlier, locals still fear the beast’s inevitable return.
Anticipating trouble, the region’s most respected religious authority, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), warns the family of the potential dangers awaiting them and suggests avoiding Karlsbad altogether. But his pleas are ignored, and soon enough are the Kents drawn to the crumbling manor after their circumstances become dire.
As expected, Prince of Darkness sits by idly as at least two of the Kents succumb to the evils of Dracula’s demonic powers. But Fisher and his band of actors dedicate themselves to the material so ferociously that we forget to be pessimistic about its familiarity. Since it sets itself apart from the original Dracula story ever so slightly (the screenplay is an entirely original creation by Jimmy Sangster), enough freshness is embedded in the predictability to make Prince of Darkness seem distinct throughout our viewing. It isn’t until the credits begin to roll that we come to realize that it does nothing new.
But here, that’s excusable. Fisher is skilled when it comes to deriving dread from even the most mundane of a moment, and Lee, 6’5” and beady-eyed, is genuinely frightening: the very idea of him walking into a room sends chills down the spine. The set design, sumptuous without losing sight of the film’s period setting, is as capable of capturing the eyes as it is housing unspeakable terrors conclusively.
Prince of Darkness satisfies, and, of course, is inviting of sequels, since it proves that Dracula can never really be destroyed no matter how hard one tries. If so many movies didn’t walk down the same streets it explores for the entirety of its running time, maybe it’d be a masterpiece. But in contrast to all preceding it, it’s mostly a minor (but fulfilling) undertaking worthy of a look. B