Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dracula- Prince of Darkness

Dracula- Prince of Darkness

Producer: Anthony Nelson-Keys
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster (as John Samson) and Anthony Hinds

Dracula- Christopher Lee
Helen Kent- Barbara Shelley
Father Sandor- Andrew Keir
Charles Kent- Francis Matthews
Diana Kent- Suzan Farmer
Alan Kent- Charles Tingwell
Klove- Philip Latham
Ludwig- Thorley Walters

"Count Dracula died without issue ... in the accepted sense of the term."

The meeting must have been a doozy, or at least it unfolds nicely in my imagination: it's 1964, and after a self-imposed flight from the part, Christopher Lee has agreed to return to the role he last played in 1958's Dracula. Except, of course, that the testy, six-four thespian has a problem: he will play Dracula again, but he simply refuses to speak the lines. And so rather than lose him or keep rewriting to please him, you agree, and off you go.

Christopher Lee, who possesses one of the deepest, richest voices in film history, utters not a single word in Dracula- Prince of Darkness. Lee claims that the screenplay called for him to deliver lines he thought beneath his character (and his voice, I suppose.) And here is the truth: only Christopher Lee's mammoth screen presence manages to keep the muteness of Dracula from seeming ridiculous- Lee's Dracula looks powerful enough that one presumes he is not speaking because he long ago gave up on the crudities of speech, preferring to communicate with his mind instead. Or something. The trick is, Lee's so good you really want it to make sense.

The plot of the film is simple enough: we open in Hammerscape: Transylvania, that strange eurobrit territory where the vampires creep and cockney innkeepers use German pronouns. Dracula has been dead for ten years, as evidenced by the opening credits, which replay the well-worth-reusing final battle from (Horror of) Dracula. Along come four crisply English travelers: two brothers, one a young gallant, the other older and mellow, and their wives, one a smiling, pleasantly vacant sex-kitten type, the other a chilly, high-collared woman who thinks that the whole world fails for being unlike London. They meet Father Sandor, a delightfully sensuous and wise rifle-bearing monk from a nearby monastery, who tells them to stay the Hell away from the castle. No-one knows the castle to which he refers, it's not on any map, etc. Suffice it to say that the four end up at the castle ("Hey- isn't that the castle everyone either warned us about or pretends doesn't exist? Maybe they'll put us up for the night!") Very soon they're beset by Dracula, who sort of picks them off, one by one, until Father Sandor comes along and saves the day. A blow-by-blow would serve little; that's the basic idea.

There are two especially memorable bits here:

# The first is the revival of Dracula by a gruesome bloodletting and a fine effect of a corpse putting itself back together.
# Second is the appearance of Dracula upstairs while Barbara Shelley tries to seduce her former sister-in-law. Dracula hisses and pounces down the staircase like an animal. This is a vibrant, lusty Dracula, reminiscent of the scene in Stoker in which the always-possessive Count cries, "Back! This man belongs to me!"
# Finally is the very, very erotic scene in which Dracula, never uttering a word, calms a panicked Suzan Farmer. Next he opens his shirt, slitting his skin with his fingernail, and pulls her lips toward the trail of blood running down his chest. The heroes manage to interrupt this scene, and boy, is Dracula annoyed.

Bruce Wright's Nightwalkers, in all respects a wonderful discussion of Gothic Horror Films, heartily slams this movie, citing some pretty formidable flaws, among them Lee's unfortunate silence throughout, and the curious way in which the characters manage to do everything they can to worsen their situation. Wright tallies the good and the bad parts and finds the whole wanting; personally, Prince of Darkness works for me. What Wright finds to be flaws are often, in my humble estimation, part of the charm.

In fact, many of my favorite Hammer themes are present in this movie, so I'll just list them, addressed to the characters of this and just abut every Hammer movie.

The Rules of the Hammer Road: In the Hammerscape, there are a few rules to live by. Most likely if you're traveling there, you're probably English, so you're out of your own territory. Nevertheless it will behoove you to act as if everyone around you really should act more like you, and less like the numbskulled superstitious locals you perceive them to be. In fact, go ahead and treat them like mildly amusing children. If they warn you about something, laugh. Hell, you're from London.

Transylvanian Mind-clouding: It's not really your fault that you're acting so stupidly, of course. The moment you stepped into the Hammerscape a clouding spell fell across your terribly proper British brain. From here on out some dastardly presence, probably the one wanting your blood to bring it back to life, has wrapped itself around your brain and blocked out all possibility of sizing up your situation adequately. You will be tempted to do the correct thing, and somehow you will fail, time and again, moving blithely along like a lamb to the slaughter.

Special Vision for the Pure: There are those seers, however, who dot the Hammerscape and will be of tremendous help to you. These men and women are generally clergy or grief-forged, learned warriors who are immune to the clouding spell. The seers remember what they are supposed to, including the obvious things, because the clouding works on the locals, too, when it comes to normally large and easily-detected items like gigantic bite-marks on a victim's neck. The clouding spell works to remove all evidence of the evil from the local mind, but the Seers will inevitably appear in time to point out the obvious ("I say! There's a vampire about!") and remind the other befuddled fools of how to dispatch the evil. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing's recurrent role, sadly missing from Dracula- Prince of Darkness) was the greatest of these. Keep in mind, though, if you're inclined to be a seer, Dracula will find you extremely attractive prey.

Vampire Mind Tricks: In the Hammerscape, anybody on the side of the evil possesses the ability to wave a hand and get a person to believe the most ridiculous of suggestions. ("No, you really should come back to Dracula's castle. You don't want to be out here where it's safe... move along... move along.")

Expectations of nobility: Nobles exist for no other reason than to entertain English guests. Accept their hospitality unquestioningly and pooh-pooh any less clouded compatriot who thinks it likely that you're being led into a trap. Take it for granted that rich nobles want to put you up for the night because you're so delightfully charming, even if, in the case of Count Dracula, the noble happens to be dead.

Victorian Feminine Upheaval: There you are, you heavily wrapped upper-class London girl, with your high collar and Victorian meekness. The evil smelled you the moment you entered the Hammerscape, and you're done for now- but it's a freedom he offers. Dracula will set you free, dispatch your asexual, lumpy husband, and render you a flushed and panting predator like himself. And worst of all, you'll like it. Isn't that just horrible? Oh, sure, the movie will have you destroyed for your transgressions, but make no mistake: the dowdy Victorian men you brought with you aren't horrified by you because you're a vampire. They're horrified because you're turned on. And that's way worse than death.

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