Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965) – Retrospective Review

This is Hammer Films’ first sequel to 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA to feature the return of Christopher Lee as the Count (who was notably absent from 1960’s THE BRIDES OF DRACULA). It is also the last Dracula film helmed by their top in-house director, Terence Fisher, who was the man behind the camera for most of their classic films in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Made at a time when Hammer was searching for new ideas to keep their horror franchise alive, it is part of a second wave that briefly reinvigorated the studio before it gradually descended into rehashing its familiar fiends. The productions values and the performances are as strong as ever, and the script does an imaginative job of resurrecting Dracula, but the film is not quite up to the level of its predecessor, the latter half turning into a bit of a mechanical thriller (albeit still an exciting one).
After a prologue that features the Count’s demise from HORROR OF DRACULA (reflected in the misty surface of a mirror, to help cover the fact that the old footage is in standard format while the new footage is widescreen), the story picks up with a pair of English couples vacationing in Transylvania. Mishaps lead them to Castle Dracula, where the Count’s servant Klove (a deadpan ghoulish Philip Latham) kills one of the men to use his blood to revive the vampire. Dracula then vampirizes the dead man’s wife, while the other couple manages to escape to a monastery presided over by Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), who helps them defeat Dracula, fending him off when he invades the monastery and tracking him back to his castle, where he sinks into the running waters of his moat.
The new film makes excellent use of widescreen photography to show off the beautiful sets. The format seems perfect for director Terence Fisher, who often avoided fancy camera moves and montage in favor of letting his actors move about the frame, performing separate actions in the foreground, background, left, or right. In one of the film’s moody highlights, Fisher even manages to suggest the unseen spirit of the departed Dracula with a few simple tracking shots down empty hallways, brilliantly foreshadowing the Count’s eventual return.
The first half of the story has a built-in hook: how will the film bring back Dracula (who was turned to dust at the end of HORROR OF DRACULA). The answer is fairly ingenious, with Klove killing one innocent victim and stringing up his body over the Count’s coffin with all the solemnity of a religious sacrifice. The scene of blood dripping onto the ashes turned a few stomachs in its day, and the special effects that follow are nicely done in a subtle way (a layer of mist obscures details of the body’s reformation). In a nice touch of — shall we call it realism? — Dracula is not reborn fully clothed; instead, his servant has a new suit waiting for him (this also explains any change in the Count’s attire from the first film to this one).
There are some nice thematic ideas underlining the action. The sacrificial victim and his wife are an uptight, repressed couple, which apparently makes them more vulnerable to Dracula’s allure. In a sense (as David Pirie points out in A Heritage of Horror), they are reborn as Dracula and his vampire bride — their bloodlust a dark inversion of their former prudery.
Unfortunately, once the resurrection of Dracula has been achieved, the film does not know what to do with him, except have him pursue the film’s other female lead back to the monastery. Despite the “Prince of Darkness” phrase used in the film’s title, the Count is never seen engaged in any major metaphysical evil; he acts mostly like a snarling if seductive animal. In fact, Dracula speaks not a word of dialogue, leaving all the talking to his servant and to Barbara Shelley as the victim-turned-vampire. Even without words, Christopher Lee manages to give a powerful performance, commanding and imposing. Andrew Keir as Father Sandor is a strong substitute for Doctor Van Helsing. Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer are appealing as the young couple. But the real standouts are Latham and Shelly.
Despite the weaknesses in the story, the second half of the film includes numerous memorable scenes. In one lifted from the book, Dracula opens a vein in his chest and tries to force Farmer’s young ingénue to drink his bodily fluids. Filmed in close-ups that hide the relative position of her head to Lee’s body, the scene is loaded with suggestions or forced oral sex (which is quite amusing when seen on afternoon television).
Even better is the staking of Shelley’s she-vampire, which takes place in the monastery, presided over by Sandor. The remarkable element of the action is that it takes place at night, with the vampire fully conscious and struggling on a table, while four monks hold her limbs down. Although the dialogue tells us that Sandor and his monks are performing a service to save the woman from the vampire’s curse and set her spirit free, the action plays out like a gang rape, with the helpless woman brutalized by a group of heartless men.
The ending is slightly less spectacular than that of HORROR OF DRACULA, with the Count slipping through broken ice to be swallowed up by the running waters of the moat around his castle, but the idea is at least loosely derived from Stoker’s novel (in which vampires can cross running water only at high and low tide). The imagery is actually fairly powerful, and it is one of the few moments that live up to the satanic implications of the film’s title. As Dracula tries to save himself, his fingers grasp the edge of the ice harder, which dooms him to sink faster as the ice melts beneath his grip. The scene seems intentionally reminiscent of the ending of Dante’s Inferno, which shows Satan trapped in the ice in the lower pit of hell, his wings flapping in a vain effort to pull him free, their icy breeze only freezing the ice that holds him more firmly, ensuring that he will never escape.
Whatever the flaws that prevent it from fully achieving classic status, DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS is probably Hammer’s last great Dracula film — a solid, sometimes imaginative effort that remains exciting and entertaining even after its best ideas have run out. Although it is easy to imagine a better film (one that gives Dracula more opportunity to live up to the sobriquet “Prince of Darkness”), the film as it exists now is one of the best cinematic vampire efforts and probably deserves to rank above BRIDES OF DRACULA (in spite of critical consensus to the contrary).

TRIVIA

In a belated nod to Bram Stoker’s novel, the film introduces us to Ludwig, a lunatic loosely inspired by Renfield. Although well played by Thorley Walters, the character fails to live up to his inspiration. Mostly he serves as a plot device: as in the book, vampires cannot cross a threshold unless invited inside; Ludwig is the one responsible for inviting Dracula into the monastery.
The screenplay is credited to “John Samson,” a pseudonym for Jimmy Sangster (who previously scripted HORROR OF DRACULA). Sangster was reportedly unhappy with changes made to his script and therefore removed his name from the final credits.
Christopher Lee has said that Dracula remains mute because the actor refused to speak the dialogue in the script. Some people have theorized that this may be the reason for Sangster’s objection to the finished film. However, no one has ever found a draft of the screenplay with dialogue for Dracula; today, the consensus is that the Count was always intended to remain mute, as he did throughout the later portions of HORROR OF DRACULA.
Although the interior of Dracula’s castle looks similar in its decor to that seen in HORORR OF DRACULA, the layout is clearly different.
DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS was shot back-to-back with RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK. Much of the cast reappears (including Christopher Lee in the title role), and many of the sets were re-used. In fact, RASPUTING plays fairly fast and loose with historical authenticity, portraying the monk as someone with hypnotic powers similar to Dracula’s.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by “John Samson” (Jimmy Sangster), from a story by John Elder (Anthony Hinds). Cast:  Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles Tingwell, Thorley Walters, Philip Latham

The Gorgon (1964) – Horror Film Review

This is the last Hammer horror film to feature the studio’s essential triumvirate of director Terence Fisher and stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Made when the studio was looking for new ideas, but before it had begun its later decline, THE GORGON is an interesting addition to the company’s pantheon of classic monster movies – a sort of tragic love story told as a Gothic fairy tale. It features the company’s glossy production values, including colorful sets and beautiful photography, spiced with usual horrific chills (most memorably the petrified bodies of the Gorgon’s victims). Although never likely to rank alongside the seminal CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the film is a fine example of the form that deserves a place with Hammer’s other classics, such as CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).
The story follows Paul (Richard Pasco), a young man who comes to an isolated village where the residents have been dying under mysterious circumstances, their bodies literally petrified. After a close encounter and a fleeting glimpse of a horrifying figure in the shadows, Paul is stricken, though not fatally. His university professor, Karl Meister (Christopher Lee) shows up to lend assistance and soon deduces that Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing) is concealing the identity of the Gorgon. Unfortunately for Paul, the monster turns out to be Namaroff’s assistant, Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley, previously seen in 1957’s  CAT GIRL), with whom Paul has fallen in love. Although normal during daylight hours, Carla is possessed by an ancient spirit that, werewolf-like, turns her into a monster during the full moon. The next time the moon rises, Paul, Professor Meister, and Dr. Namaroff converge on the abandoned castle, where the Gorgon is known to lurk, for a final, fatal confrontation…


Scripted by John Gilling (who would go on to write and/or direct THE REPTILE and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES), THE GORGON is an imaginative attempt to take the famous creature from Greek mythology and turn it into a viable movie monster by lifting bits and pieces of lore from other creatures of the night, most notably the werewolf. Consequently, the film has an almost achingly fatalistic tone, with an innocent individual cursed to do evil against her will, whose only hope for salvation lies in her own death.
This sets THE GORGON apart from Hammer’s earlier Frankenstein and Dracula titles, which often evinced the aesthetic of robust action film: colorful, dynamic, exciting. THE GORGON is more stately and sad. The narrative is in no hurry to string shock scenes together, and the suspense is minimal, restricted to a few key points. Instead, the film’s goal is, clearly, to work on an emotional level by emphasizing the doomed romance. The result may not jerk quite as many tears as the ending of TITANIC, but it works on its own level quite well.
As one would expect from a Hammer production, the sets, costumes, and photography all combine to create a wonderfully atmospheric version of a haunted European landscape, which belongs more properly to the realm of imagination that reality. The period detail may or may not be correct, but it does not matter: the film takes place in that same self-contained universe that is home to all Hammer horrors.
Horror stars Lee and Cushing also do expert work. As was usually the case, their combined efforts create a wonderful sort of chemistry that is more than the sum of its parts, making them the greatest duo in the history of the horror genre. The script even contrives to play a little game with audience expectations, delaying the inevitable confrontation between the two stars until viewers have just about given up hope — and then springing it on them after it seemed that it would not be happening after all.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, seen in a composite image

Cushing delivers another variation on his Frankenstein persona, a doctor who runs an asylum and serves as a cornoer, but his villainy is more ambiguous. Clearly, he is covering up the truth, but he appears to be doing out of concern, even love, for Carla. For all his cold-heared precision, he ultimately succumbs to his emotions, risking his life to confront Carla in her Gorgon form – and failing because he cannot resist the urge to gaze upon her face.
Lee gets a rare opportunity to shine in a heroic role as the gruff, sarcastic Meister, taking the attributes he usually used to invoke fear (e.g., his imposing stature) and turning them to the side of the angels. The actor has a wonderful moment when Meister warns the local constable (Patrick Troughton) that the townsfolk had better not try to run him out of town (as they did his predecessor). Coming from anyone else, the line would sound like an empty threat (is Meister saying he will take on an entire mob, single-handed?), but Lee’s delivery imbues the words with conviction. (You’re almost sorry he never gets to make good on his threat.)
Barbara Shelly is excellent in the title role. Although not as glamorous as some of Hammer’s other leading ladies, she was perhaps the finest actress, and it is sad that she never became a bigger star in the genre despite her many good performances in a variety of roles ranging from RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK to QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (a.k.a. FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH). Here, as in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and CAT GIRL, she deftly handles a schizoid role, half love interest and half monster.
Prudence Hyman as the title characterThe briefly glimpsed Gorgon makeup is quite good in terms of its frightening look, especially when Fisher keeps it in shadows. Unfortunately, the special effects component, which brings the serpents to life, is slightly disappointing: the movements of the snakes writhing in the Gorgon’s hair have a mechanical quality that undermines the effect. Although Barbara Shelley wanted to play the character beneath the makeup, the producers were afraid that audiences would recognize her early on, giving away the surprise that Carla is the Gorgon; consequently, actress Prudence Hyman played the title character.
As a pure horror film, THE GORGON may be a disappointment. The fear-factor is not up to the levels of Hammer’s highest efforts, and the scares tend to be low-key, lacking the action-packed punch of, for example, HORROR OF DRACULA. Instead of a bloodthirsty Count leaping over a table and hurling his vampire mistress to the floor, you get a snake-headed woman lurking the shadows and staring at her victims — a sort of static tableau that does not necessarily set adrenalin coursing through the veins.
But then, Terence Fisher was never a pure horror director. In the definitive career interview he gave to Cinefantastique magazine in the early 1970s, he expressed less interest in the mechanics of suspense, as exemplified by Alfred Hitchcock, than in the melodramatics of Frank Borzage. Fisher always wanted to make a love story, and here he gets his chance — albeit a doomed love story. The emotional underpinnings raise THE GORGON to the level of a genre gem, even if you are more likely to cry than scream.
THE GORGON (1964). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by John Gilling, story by J. Llewellyn Devine. Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Richard Pasco, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Troughton, Jack Watson.
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Cat Girl (1957) – A Retrospective Review

Despite the poster, the film's onscreen title is only CAT GIRLThe little, low-budget opus belatedly attempts to cash in on CAT PEOPLE, but it has little of the subtlety and none of the style of the 1942 Val Lewton production. In a strange way, CAT GIRL seems more old-fashioned than its model: the limited production values, melodramatic tone, and outdated attempts at spooky atmosphere suggest a cheap British rip-off of Universal’s 1930s horror classics. (Ernest Milton, as the demented Uncle Edmund, comes across like a poor man’s version of Ernest Thesiger – the actor who camped up James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.) Released a few months after CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN – Hammer’s bold color reinvention of the horror genre – CAT GIRL must have seemed like a dated relic in its own time. Decades later, it earns some points for effort, but its most significant claim to importance lies in the casting of Barbara Shelley – a fine actress who would give strong performances in several Hammer horror films (such as THE GORGON). Read More