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May 10, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #175 - Dracula: Prince of Darkness

Considering what I know now, it's a little bit hard for me to recommend Dracula: Prince of Darkness to people. The first sequel to Horror of Dracula that brought Christopher Lee back to the franchise is slightly infamous due to Lee's attitude toward the production. But I still kind of love the movie, and I don't really feel bad about that. I suppose I could use the term guilty pleasure, but I feel no guilt for disagreeing with one of my favorite actors on this one. Instead, I find that Dracula: Prince of Darkness works as something of a case study into how a film can succeed despite all of the troubling things that happen along its journey through production. 
(RANDOM TANGENT: By the way, I'd never use the term "guilty pleasure" anyway. It's one of those things I wish we could disinvent. There is no reason you should feel guilt over liking a movie. If you take things so seriously that you have guilt....you probably have some personal problems and you might wanna talk to somebody. Life's too short, be happy about movies.)
It's widely documented - I posted an interview in which Lee confirms it just last week - that the star was so disappointed by the film's script that he refused to speak any dialogue in this film. The result is that there are some moments where we briefly forget that this is a Dracula movie, because the film is forced to spend a lot of time on other characters who vary from the very bland to the interesting-only-as-a-caricature. 
One of my favorite theories about sequels that a friend and I once came up with - and this is gonna veer in a non-horror direction, so stay with me - is that you often find sequels scrambling to replace one or two major parts of the first film's success with a larger number of smaller parts. If you saw Moneyball you can think of it as the same thing Brad Pitt did in that movie, but apply it to movies. For example, The Fast and The Furious had Vin Diesel as a criminal/cohort of Paul Walker who was undercover. Vin left and Walker became the criminal, so they had to add Tyrese as a cohort, Cole Hauser as a criminal, and Eva Mendes undercover. Simple math dictates that they needed three people to make up for the loss of Vin Diesel and for the change in Paul Walker's character's profession.
The same thing happened with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, which meant that Hammer Films' stable of writers and director Terence Fisher - who, by the way, does not get enough credit for holding together some standard horror productions and making them better than the sum of the parts (He might have been the Billy Beane of horror movies!) - had to think of new ways to make the movie go. Without Peter Cushing or the Van Helsing character (because you don't just replace Cushing!) and without Dracula as more than a silent force, Fisher and company added some unique characters to the mix and took a step even further away from Bram Stoker's novel.  (That last step might be a negative to some people - Lee particularly - but for the rest of this article I'm going to accept it. Again, life's too short.)
My favorite development in this sequel is the focus on what most vampire mythology refers to as "familiars" - the humans who serve Count Dracula for reasons unknown to most men.  At the front of this development is Klove, played by Philip Latham, a pale and grey-haired servant who maintains Dracula's castle and is responsible for the ritual that allows the previously perished Count to return and terrorize the family that wanders into his home. Klove fascinates me thanks to Latham's quiet and assured performance, and the sequence in which he carries out the blood ritual that resurrects Lee is one of the highlights of the franchise. There's a methodical, religious aspect to the character - watch how the actor pauses and slightly bows before the altar which holds Dracula's ashes - that builds up Dracula's power over the week. If nothing else, Dracula: Prince of Darkness does a really good job of making us recognize the power that Dracula can have over the weak.  (Klove would randomly return two sequels later in Scars of Dracula, but in this version the character is more desperate and pitiful while being played by The Omen's Patrick Troughton.)
Aside from the few familiars involved, this sequel offers a couple of other notable additions to the cast. Barbara Shelley does double duty, spending the first half of the film as an uptight and skeptical member of the group that enters the castle before becoming Dracula's female companion after a mid film bite.  She does a good job of selling both aspects of the character, cementing the fact that this movies is going to spend its time showing Dracula's impact on others. This is also hammered home by co-star Andrew Keir, whose addition to the film as a monk that knows all about Dracula and vampirism is clearly covering for some of the things we'd expect to hear from Van Helsing. It's a one-note character, but Keir's strong presence helps give the film a little more weight.
I probably shouldn't find Dracula: Prince of Darkness to be as interesting as it is, especially when I look at some of the obvious flaws in the production, the biggest of which is being a Dracula movie that doesn't have much Dracula in it. And yet, the way the movie has been put together and the amount of effort that appears to have been expended is somewhat infectious. I gain a lot of respect for everyone involved - even Lee, despite his objections - when I watch this movie because it's such a large challenge to replicate what Horror of Dracula did eight years earlier. Yet you can still see the wheels churning and no one seems to be resting on the name value of the film, and the final result is a vampire tale that is far from perfect but still good looking and a bit charming.

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