To this day it’s one of my favourite Hammer Horror films.
I was eight years old, maybe nine, the first time that I saw it. That would make it 1985 or ‘86. My dad taped a couple of Hammer movies off the TV late one night for me.
Why? I suspect because I’d already shown an interest in ghosts and monsters (thank you Usbourne and your books about the Supernatural), and I loved fantastic cinema, new and old (thank you dad for showing me so much Harryhausen). But I was a nervous child. I was drawn to horror, but there was stuff I couldn’t take, even if the other kids I knew were talking all about it.
I’d tried An American Werewolf in London (1981), and had to duck out by the time we reached the dream sequence. I saw some of The Shining (1980), and the elevator blood freaked me out, but I was still with it, until Jack dropped his first F bomb and my mother turned it off.
Understand, that I loved Jaws (1975), and though parts of it scared me, I enjoyed Gremlins (1984) too. And I think, maybe I’d made it through Poltergeist (1982) by then, but I can’t be certain; it might well have come later. What we were discovering was that I could handle movies up to about a 15 rating, beyond that was getting dicey.
The very idea of Freddy Kruger gave me nightmares back then. So, I was interested, but with certain limits. Maybe my dad taped those first two movies in an attempt to help me face some fears. I was having nightmares because of An American Werewolf in London, but I clearly still had a taste for the macabre, the supernatural etc… so maybe it was a way to help me get a grip on it. I don’t know for sure. But he taped The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula Prince Of Darkness (1966). I remember my mother being unsure about them/the idea (i got a hint of her being scared by them as a child herself), and my reassuring her with ‘they’re Hammer movies’ even though I’m quite sure that I didn’t know jack shit about them at the time. Probably I was parroting my dad, but what I did know for certain was that they were old movies. And old movies weren’t scary. They were safe, even when they were creepy. The clear delineation in style, period, mannerisms etc their comparative reticence to be explicit, fit. These were story styles and shapes that I could handle. More than that, that I could love. There was nothing in these movies that was really any more visceral/explicit than the melting Nazi’s of Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) (although, to be fair, I’d often do as Indy said when he instructed Marion not to look).
I remember clearly the room I was sitting in when all this happened. The front room of the terraced house in Cavendish Gardens, with the woodchip wallpaper, and the elaborately patterned carpet.
I remember that the TV that I watched it on was colour, but it wasn’t that long since we’d moved on from the portable B&W. I still remember the dial on that old portable, and the cream coloured plastic surround.
I also remember clearly that, while I liked Frankenstein well enough, I fucking loved Dracula Prince Of Darkness.
It is, I believe, ground zero for my love of/fascination with genre. The place I began to understand tropes and story shapes, and how we play with them. The importance and validity of recognisable symbols, shapes and structures in story. Their malleability, their almost talismanic significance and efficacy. Not surprisingly, it’s also ground zero for my almost fetishistic love of Gothic Victoriana (thank you Bernard Robinson, and thank you Barbara Shelley).
It’s also the place I learned the ritual aspect of genre, especially Horror movies (since they engage specifically with the sacred and profane), and how close the Gothic is to fairy tale.
It’s a common criticism of horror that the characters are ‘thin’ or ‘shallow’, the situations and tropes ‘repetitive’ or ‘familiar’. And yet, those same things are a fundamental and celebrated part of classical fairy tales, in both oral and written form. Whether collected as folklore, or embellished and embraced in literary fiction and films that more clearly identify as ‘Art Film’ (often all it takes is for a film to be in a different language and we’ll somehow accept it as such). In this context it is somehow acceptable to work with stock characters and situations, encouraged, even required in order that we can identify the work itself as fairy tale, as a story working with and in a tradition which connects not only our adult lives directly to our childhood and our first engagements with story/narrative, but also overtly identifying and connecting itself to a lineage of storytelling that begins in the earliest days of humankind.
In fairy tales, not only are the tropes and characters accepted as repetitive and reflective of one another, they are catalogued as such, studied as such. They are required. Why then the dismissal of the same in genre (at least in certain spheres)?
It’s a particularly pertinent question here, when thinking about Dracula Prince Of Darkness. I don’t think I knew it intellectually at the time, but something, somewhere in me got it, on an instinctive level.
Quite apart from Terence Fisher’s long held claim that he was making ‘fairy tales for adults’ in his films for Hammer, just take a look…
Innocents abroad, taken into the forest and abandoned? A house (okay Castle) that seems to be their sanctuary, but whose inhabitant will be their deaths?
That’s Hansel and Gretel…
And the hidden room, and the punishments that will be meted out for venturing within, isn’t there more than a hint of Bluebeard in that?
What is father Shandor but Woodcutter, Wiseman, and Knight all rolled into one (he may be an amalgam of all three but at different points in the narrative one of the aspects will come to the fore).
The tropes and characters of fairy tale are types, symbols, arranged and rearranged to tell new stories, strike new chords, and find new resonance, while being always universal. There’s a reason why the categorisation of fairy tales/fairy tale elements can be applied to tales from anywhere in the world, any culture. It’s because at their core they are fundamental; universal. They are the loci of human truths and experience, core fears and emotions. As such they are not only valid, but important. The best of them are eternal, because – no matter what, or where they’re from – they access fundamental symbolic truths/fears. So too does great horror.
The repetition of elements, the deployment of archetypal figures in horror, as in fairy fale is essential. There is a ritualistic, almost sacred aspect to the way we observe essential tropes and imbue those tropes with meaning. The way we are lead toward, and ultimately delivered (or not delivered) from danger.
Dracula Prince Of Darkness is (for at least two thirds of of running time) the ne plus ultra of the horror as fairy tale structure. A sublime demonstration of the ritual pleasure to be found in both. Story as sacred rite.
The narrative flows like a benediction… There are those with knowledge, and those without. Those with some, and those with little. Those who wield their knowledge like a weapon or a tool and might be called wise, those who do not know how to wield their knowledge, and are therefore fools.
We must learn that there are vampires, that there are things of which we should be afraid. We must learn that knowledge is power and must not let fear dictate our actions.
We must be told that we should not go up to the castle… and we must find ourselves with no option but to go there anyway.
We must know that we should leave this place as soon as possible, but not all of us will get out alive.
We must learn that evil never dies. And we must fight it anyway…
Everything in Dracula Prince Of Darkness is exactly where it should be in the story. Every trope and character is in its place. Perfectly, sublimely, placed within a narrative of fairy tale simplicity. The first two thirds of this film are genre perfection. Every step of Fisher’s direction builds dread, and James Bernard’s score follows suit. And the resurrection scene is the film in microcosm.
At the heart of the film is, fittingly, a ritual. The resurrection of Dracula, Prince Of Darkness. Son of Satan then? The dark mirror of Christ, and this, a blasphemous inversion of Christ’s rise from the grave?
And that’s what we’re waiting for.
We know it’s coming, it’s right there on the poster. We saw him crumble into dust to at the end of the first movie. So the first two thirds of the film is about teasing the reveal. Making us wait. Denying us that which we want and which we know is coming, because it’s been promised: Dracula, that suave, sexy, dangerous creature who appeals to our ‘darker’ desires, our decadent inner selves, who will set us free of inhibition and bleed us of our fear.
Technically speaking, the scene in question begins when Alan (played by Bud Tingwell) goes down into the crypt. That would be the scene break in the script. But dramatically, the scene/sequence begins when Clove (played by Philip Latham) snuffs out the lights.
Our innocent Brits abroad have found themselves at Castle Dracula for the night, with only Clove, the sole remaining servant, for company. As they settle down to sleep, Clove makes the rounds extinguishing the candles, one by one, until night claims the castle.
Fisher plays this slowly, with deliberation, much the way Clove moves. The refusal to rush or more with greater urgency is unsettling. Along with Clove’s deathly pallor and black suit there’s something funereal about it. Every slow, deliberate step, builds tension.
We are here. We’re close now. We’re in his lair. And yet, still… we are denied.
It is a sequence of sustained suspense, and exquisitely built dread.
Fisher’s camera prowls empty hallways, approaching and retreating from doors and windows (symbolic signifiers of thresholds and transgression). A shadow appears, but we don’t know whose it is… likely it’s Clove. We’ve already mistaken his approaching shadow and initial appearance as the coming of Dracula, but perhaps that was a feint, and this is him now…
Fisher with-holds. Instead letting the prowling camera, the innocents prone in their beds, and James Bernards score continue to build tension.
Until Alan and Helen (Barabara Shelley) are woken by sounds, and on investigating see Clove dragging a large trunk, almost the size of a coffin, down some stairs and out of sight.
There’s a sudden splash of red in the shadowy blue and white night time colours, that heightens our dread here.
It’s getting closer.
Alan follows to find out what’s happening… the fool.
Thunder rolls as he leaves his wife alone in her room.
He ventures down the hall. Looking in on his brother and sister in law, they are deeply asleep, oblivious.
He discovers that a tapestry hides an archway and stairs. He goes down them, entering a cellar of sorts.
The shot of the light through barred windows here will surely remind us of how Jonathan Harker died in exactly such a place in the first film.
There’s so little diegetic sound here. The film is silent but for the held, trembling notes of Bernard’s score building a shivery, almost sexual anticipation as Alan explores the tomb, when suddenly…
Clove is behind him. There is the plunge of a dagger and Alan falls down dead.
But it’s not over. The slow beats continue, purposeful, deliberate. The way Clove moves, the way Fisher moves his camera. This was all meant to be. Preordained.
Clove drags the body across the room. He places the feet inside a noose and pulls it tight, then moves over to a winch, begins, with effort, to turn the handle.
Bernard’s score has fallen away through this. A held breath as we wonder what is coming. The clanking of the handle and the clink of the chains is like the turning of the screw here, rising in pitch and tension as the body rises from the floor to hang above an open stone coffin.
Clove takes a moment here to steady the body, then produces the knife.
Look at the way he carefully, deliberately (that word again!) Lays the knife down with such care as he takes hold the body and makes sure it is in place.
Clove approaches the body with ceremonial reverence, holds the body by the hair, so the body is facing him (and thus away from us). He is calm, almost emotionless, which is somehow more chilling.
Then he takes up the blade and slices the throat.
The blood when it comes, is the climax to our anticipation and sense of building dread, if not quite the peak of orgasm. More properly we might compare it to the end of foreplay and the moment of penetration. There may be no fangs, but the opening of a wound is an apt, if vulgar, metaphor. Is this perhaps then, a symbolic vulgarising of the upper class here? ‘Opening them up’ to decadence, sensuality and sexuality, to let their suppressed/repressed desires free?
The blood flows, loud and long. And when it stops, smoke begins, and builds… there is heat then. And ever more of it as more and more smoke appears.
Once again the trembling notes of Bernard’s score return, climbing higher and higher…
Yes! Yes! Yes!
It’s almost the exact reverse of his original disintegration: from dust and the spilling of life’s essence, the body rebuilds, in a scene that long predates the resurrection of Frank Cotton in Hellraiser. The final moments are hidden in smoke, as we and Clove watch and wait…
We let go the tension and our held breath with a gasp, as Dracula reaches out from the smoke to clutch at the side of his tomb.
Here the film take a post coital breath, as Barbara Shelley stirs and wakes and goes in search of her husband.
She finds him limp, dangling, drained of blood, and is confronted by Dracula, now literally engorged. He smiles. Approaches slowly. Raising his cape to hide them as she cowers on her knees before him.
Fade to black.
Fade in on sunlight coming through stained glass. Morning. Pan across to Dracula, asleep in the shadows, sated.
The sexuality and eroticism of the scene cannot be ignored or undersold. This was my formative connection with the Gothic, the Romantic, the sublime, the Fantastique in horror. It is only now, in writing this that I’ve come to understand that the Rosetta stone of my understanding of horror/the genre is essentially erotic in nature.
But what a delightful surprise. And it’s nothing whatsoever to do with naked flesh onscreen. Indeed, Hammer would later show an actual ritual onscreen in The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1973), featuring a great deal of nudity, which leaves me cold. It’s nothing to do with nudity then, or sex on screen, but the structural shape of the drama: suspense, tension; tease and deny; give then withhold, building to a release/payoff. The form here is waiting for that which we know is coming. And that we want. The thrill of Dracula himself. It’s nothing about the overt or explicit, and everything about the sex/death connection that underlies it all. Danger, risk, etc etc… but also liberation and decadence, and our/the characters giving in to it.
Is this what so appalled the uptight censors about Hammer at the time? Is this what drew Rollin, Freda, and Bava to the films?
Who knew that fear itself could be so sexy?
Well, Fisher did. And Jack Asher did (or in this case Michael Reed). And so did James Bernard.
So too did David Pirie in that other critical foundation stone A Heritage Of Horror. He saw the links between the Gothic and Romantic in arts and literature that came before these films and that provide the Ur-text for the genre; the sublime and the decadent that formed the books and tales on which they are based and which we so associate with their period settings.
As much as Byron, Coleridge, Wollstonecraft and Shelley et al, Hammer were a part of the psyche of Britain and of the genre. Submerged, repressed, ravenous.
Sensuous, carnal, libidinous: this is how I lost my virginity to horror.
And yet… the film then tries to shame me. Punish that initial transgression.
There’s no doubt that the last third or so of the film is less effective, less satisfying, than the first two. So what goes wrong? Well, to be clear, the plot takes a bit of a dive. It’s not as well written, but thematically it seems to me that it’s less satisfying but it is at odds with the instincts that drove the first two thirds. It turns on us. It gives us what we want, then tells us we were wrong for wanting and enjoying it. It is, in every way, terribly British, terribly Victorian then, and terribly interesting, for all that it’s an upsetting and frankly hurtful thing to do.
There’s a case to be made that the lacklustre writing in the final third, is itself a punishment. But the thematic shift is there as well. The action is a repudiation of the very pleasures that the film and the film makers delivered prior to it. It punishes Dracula (who we’ve waited for with baited breath), Helen (who we’ve watched move from buttoned down prig to flowing, sensuous beauty reaching out to embrace us), and therefore us for enjoying that frisson in the first place. By playing to the tradition that the antagonist must be stopped, the film therefore attacks us, via Helen especially.
Barbara Shelley is amazing in this film. I fell in love with her on the spot. And she, more than anyone in the film I think, represents us the audience. Afraid of what’s, and yet empowered be her encounter with what comes.
The punishment/shaming begins, for the audience, with the appearance of Dracula himself, so disappointing once revived. Hissing, then cowering almost comically, from a crucifix smaller than my thumb. But it peaks with the staking of Helen. Held down by a gang bang of monks, she bucks and writhes beneath them, screaming to be free until they hammer a stake through her. The resumption of order? Patriarchal or otherwise, the monks represent a class above, a literal ‘Order’ in this case, pinning down a woman liberated of her fear, liberated from the repressive norms that have bound her (hair pinned tight, body literally bound in a corset – where now her hair flows freely, her dress/gown is loose and gossamer light).
The scene hurts. It may be the single most shocking scene in the film. It hurts doubly because of the attack it makes on a woman that represents us as the audience, having given into what Dracula offers, feeling pleasure in the fear, in our relationship with him/the film/the genre… and because it is headed by our nominal hero, Father Shandor who, as played by Andrew Kier is immensely likeable and charming. Indeed, perhaps more so as a character than Van Helsing ever was. And yet here he, like the film, turns on us.
That being the case narratively and thematically, we reject it because it rejects sexual freedom and sensuality in favour of order and stasis… as depicted by the frozen lake. It rejects our pleasure in the transgressive in favour of order, the status quo of Victorian (and by extension upper class British) society. But only by taking away the possibility of progression via transgression. Instead the film offers social, personal, ideological, and sexual paralysis.
Given its year of production, it is hard not to see it as a kind of refutation of the social change that was just being born. Of ‘traditional values’ and older generations, stamping on the foolishness of youth (a dichotomy more directly explored in the later Taste The Blood Of Dracula (1970) ). The ice that it ends on, is also the direct opposite of the heat we saw generated in Dracula’s birth/rebirth (as seen in hot blood and the smoke in the coffin). Given the erotic high point that represented, to be plunged into cold water at the end seems an especially cruel and pointed climax, if you will… it is rather an anti-climax in the erotic sense. And a chilling note to end on.