Having taken a break for the sequel to 1958’s Dracula, the Count returned to Hammer after having left all the hard work to Baron Meinster in 1960’s Brides of Dracula. 1966’s Dracula Prince of Darkness is missing only one element that would allow it to become the strongest in Hammer’s canon. Christopher Lee returns as the count but sadly missing from the film is Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing who would no doubt elevate this film to sheer perfection. Dracula Prince of Darkness concerns itself with the fate of two couples travelling through the Carpathian Mountains.
These two couples gradually reverse roles throughout the film with character traits switching as the scenarios, deaths and the infection of vampirism change them. Having been stranded in the middle of nowhere, a mysterious, driverless coach collects them from their misfortune and takes them to a nearby castle feared by the locals.
The film is stocked full with Hammer clichés but is all the better for it. As previously stated, the only element missing is Peter Cushing but Andrew Keir’s Vampire fighting Monk is a worthy and entertaining substitute. Unfriendly locals, day shots with night filters on, a wonderfully overblown score by James Bernard and religious overtones all add to the check list of Hammer clichés yet they seem to fit here far better than any other.
Christopher Lee’s resurrection is perhaps the most disturbing of the series and Barbara Shelley makes this so with a stunning performance, highlighted in her reaction to finding her husband hanging in the dungeon with his throat cut. In fact, it would be an understatement to say that she’s one of Hammer’s most enigmatic actors.
Her transformation from distressed wife to powerful, almost rabid vampire out does Lee, Peel and numerous other portrayals of vampirism. If proof were needed simply viewing her final scene with the transformation back to a mere deceased woman is a defining moment in Hammer Horror. That’s not to say Christopher Lee doesn’t pull his weight either. His slick but menacing presence is all that is required to amp up the tension.
Like in many of the Dracula films, his desire to have the woman attached to the main protagonist results in much of the drama in the latter half of the film. Enlisting the help of a madman looked after in Father Sandor’s monastery, he spreads his evil further in his desire for the Charles Kent’s wife, Diana. The film ends with another of Hammer’s wonderful eccentricities; the horse and coach chase. No other film company quite manages to quite capture the sound and the thrill of a coach and horse and it is never bettered in the sequels than here.
The film’s only weak point is the dispatch of Dracula himself which seems a bit unimaginative when compared to Meinster’s inventive dispatch in Brides of Dracula. However this is a mere blip in an otherwise brilliant film in the Dracula series and is without doubt the strongest and most dramatic entry. Absolute quintessential Hammer.