MARCH 19, 2013
I picked up a few Hammer films on VHS back in 1998 or 1999 in an attempt to educate myself on the studio, only to not really love the first I watched and forget about the rest, which included Dracula: Prince Of Darkness. Well, the time has finally come: I dug it out of my VHS collection and spent a few minutes trying to remember what inputs on my TV and receiver that were used for the VCR, then adjusting the tracking per the tape's suggestion (!), and settled in for some good ol' fashioned Hammer horror for the first time in quite a while (last summer's Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell).
And it had been even longer since I had watched a Dracula entry; I actually thought I only had this one left, but I still haven't seen Scars of Dracula (or Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, if that counts), so I gotta get on that soon while I still remember anything about the others. I actually DID remember that he was found in the ice in one of them, so it was nice to see how that all came to be - it's actually one of the more exciting finales in the series, I think. There's a carriage chase, a fight, and then a guy shooting at the ice around Drac until it breaks through and causes him to drown. And even then, Christopher Lee doesn't talk; this was his return to the role after the original (this is part 3; he wasn't in the 2nd one - Brides of Dracula), and somewhere in between he apparently lost his ability to speak, offering up only a few hisses, which sound ridiculous from a charismatic man who is about to drown. There are two stories going around to explain the lack of dialogue: Lee says his lines were rubbish and refused to say them, the writer says he never had any in there to begin with. Either way it's kind of silly.
The rest of it is pretty much status quo; some folks are warned about the castle, go there anyway, Dracula's assistant kills one of them and uses the blood to bring his master back to life, Drac turns a girl, etc. I knew I hadn't seen this one specifically, but at the same time I kind of felt like I had watched it already; I even made a similar mental note to make a point that I then found I had made in my review of Dracula Has Risen From The Grave. In that one, I felt that they weren't doing enough with one of its new concepts (the cross in front of his castle) in favor of the same old stuff, and the same thing happens here - there's a monastery with anti-vampire monks (including a Renfield-y kind of guy that seems to be under Drac's influence), but we barely ever see it. Far more time is spent on the sort of thing you've seen before, including a staking scene where the hero needs the importance explained to him, and ominous "No one goes there!" statements from frightened townsfolk.
I did quite enjoy how they handled the obligatory "would-be bride" subplot, by making the woman (Helen, the sister-in-law to our hero) such an unlikable shrew. In her first scene, she's chastising hero Charles (no Paul in this one!) for buying some guys at the tavern a round of drinks, and she's always the one complaining about going to this or that place, why the castle isn't suitable, etc. In short, it's no real loss when she is turned into an undead, but it's interesting because she was so conservative and afraid to live, and now that she's dead she's actually doing something with her life. Sure, it's just dressing in more revealing wardrobe and baring her teeth as she tries to drain folks of blood, but still. And she's far more memorable than the main love interest, who just goes through the motions, though she DOES get bit and has the wound cauterized without turning, which I'm not sure has been done in the others. It may not create much suspense (it's not like a zombie thing where you might still turn), but it's better than the usual deal, where she'd be turned and then someone would come along and explain that if you kill the master his victims will return to being human and oh shit maybe I should have brought this up before we staked all those other folks.
Also, since it had been a while, I enjoyed going back to the world of Hammer - they might all kind of fit into a template but it's a GOOD template, and since most of my "retro" viewing lately has been the Rollin stuff, it was nice to see something a little more traditional and fun. Plus, VHS is now, of course, a nostalgia-driven format perfectly suited for such material, and since this was a remastered/wide-screen version of the film I couldn't really complain (I've bought DVDs with way worse images, let's put it that way), instead I was merely charmed by its simpleness - no menus to navigate or fear of a scratch causing a restart. Plus, it's not a big effects movie - I'd weep at trying to watch Armageddon or something on the format, but this is just castles and stuffy British dudes and lovely ladies (OK the latter I'd like to have better resolution), so it was fine.
Oddly, it actually had bonus features! Once the movie ends, you are treated to a brief behind the scenes montage that shot by the director's brother (or something like that) during production, and Lee, Barbara Shelley (Helen), and someone else who I am sadly blanking on right now all offer their comments from 1997, having not seen it for years. It's pretty charming, as is the trailer for the film that follows, which advertises the film on a double bill with Plague of the Zombies (which, incidentally, was the one I watched but didn't like much at 18; I will revisit it and find it much more to my liking now, I suspect) and hawks vampire teeth (for the boys!) and zombie eyes (for the girls!) to everyone at the theater. Yeah, back in the day they'd give you two movies AND some toys. Now you get one movie and a bunch of assholes on their cell phones, for like 10x the money. You can see why I'm nostalgic.
What say you?