Monday, 14 October 2013

Count down: Part three: The Dark Knight Returns

Sir Christopher Lee finally resurrects the Count, 8 years after making the role famous

Dracula Prince of Darkness is the second sequel to the 1958 Dracula, but this time detailing the further exploits of the title character, rather than his nemesis Van Helsing, as Brides of Dracula did.
Although almost a decade had passed, every effort was made to dovetail with the first film, including a pre-titles reprise of its climax and a vivid demonstration of how to reconstitute ‘evil personified’ with the remaining dust and the corpuscles of an unfortunate tourist.

Dracula Prince of Darkness
This is a lovely looking film: as the novelty of Eastman colour faded so have some of the excesses of the original film’s colour palette.  But there are still some startling chromatic splashes, including bright red spots illuminating nooks and crannies of Castle Dracula’s decor which somehow seem right.

With Van Helsing sadly absent, the sensible decision is made not to try and emulate Cushing’s performance in a new protagonist, but go for a complete contrast instead.  So we have the booming-voiced, rifle-totting Father Sandor, one-time Quatermass Andrew Keir gruffly combining a priest’s vestments with an altogether more blue collar attitude to vampire slaying.

Another Hammer stalwart, the lovely Barbara Shelley, is the most compelling character.  Initially frosty and aloof as Helen, one of an unfortunate band of travellers unwisely choosing the Carpathians as a holiday destination, her conversion to the ranks of the undead transforms her into a sensual, snarling she-beast. It’s a credit to Shelley’s performance that not only is this contrast shocking, but we even feel sorry for poor Helen as she meets her final end at the hands of Sandor and his Brothers.

The first Hammer resurrection of the Count is still a marvellous piece of classic movie magic.  Obviously done with gradual fades between the gradually coagulating figures in the sarcophagus, it’s a scene which absolutely rivets your attention despite its sedate, almost lyrical depiction.

It feels a long time in coming, but once Lee is up and about the film is instantly his again.
It might be argued that the ten years since his ‘death’ have meant that Dracula returns in a more demonic and animalistically instinctual form; violent, thirsty and stripped of the icy formality we briefly saw in the first film.  Perhaps the process of death and resurrection pushes the Count further away from his own original humanity each time? The fact that Lee has no lines whatsoever adds to this impression, and we can only marvel at the way his performance achieves so much by doing so little (although being 6’6” no doubt helps).  Either way, the die is cast here for Lee’s Count to forevermore appear as a raw force of (un)nature which cannot be reasoned with.

Elements from Stoker’s original novel find their way into the story, including a fly-munching Renfield-inspired character and the Count compelling the heroine to drink from a self-inflicted cut in his own chest.
Had this film not done so well at the box office, the careers of Christopher Lee, and Hammer films might have been quite different.  But it seems that as the end credits roll over the Count’s body gradually submerging beneath the ice of his castle moat, the only person who doubted his return was Lee himself.  More on this next time…

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