Terence Fisher is rarely counted among the great horror auteurs, yet he certainly defines our ideal of contemporary horror far more than the ethereal Tod Browning, the old world Brit James Whale or the sublime Val Lewton stalwart Jacques Tourneur. For many years, Fishers’ Horror of Dracula (1958) was ranked by many critics and genre fans as the greatest horror film.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) is the finale of Fishers’ vampire trilogy and is generally considered the weakest. While it lacks the imaginative touch of Brides of Dracula (1960), Prince is an underrated, worthy conclusion to the trilogy, vigorously characteristic of Fishers’ penchant for fervent religious drama.
The film belongs primarily to Barbara Shelley, who was easily Hammer’s best actress and, consequently, was repeatedly used by the studio; a rarity for a studio who tended towards a new glamour girl for each film.
Shelley is Helen; an ever constipated, repressed Victorian type on vacation with her husband and in-laws. The foursome meet Fr. Shandor, a charismatic and provocative monk, at a local inn. Andrew Keir invests personality into his role of the priest, who warns the couples to stay clear of the castle. Fisher expertly builds tension in the first quarter of the film. Even though Dracula has been dead for a decade, the local villagers refuse to acknowledge his castle and still attempt to stake dead young maidens, hence Shandor’s natural contempt for his flock.
Predictably, the couples wind up spending the night at castle Dracula, despite the warnings. Philip Latham’s remarkably menacing Klove is Dracula’s disciple, awaiting the opportunity to resurrect his master, which has now been given to him. Helen’s husband, played with apt blandness by Charles Tingwell, will not heed his wife’s impassioned pleas to leave. In typical Fisher fashion, the seemingly prim and proper heroine proves to be one who is right after all, by nature of her virtuous caution. Helen falls victim to the recklessness of her husband and in-laws. The scene of Tingwell being sacrificed was, at the time, somewhat controversial and considered blasphemous. It is a highly effective scene, made more so by Helen’s discovery of the deed. Helen recoils in sensuous horror on a evocatively lit stairwell as Dracula approaches.
Christopher Lee has claimed that he requested the removal of his dialogue, which makes little sense. Dracula is merely presented as a seductive, feeding animal, and speech was unnecessary. The much discussed, wordless, hyper erotic scene in which Dracula slices his own chest for Farmer to feed on, is consistent with Fishers’ vision for the character. Fishers’ development of that character in the first film, where Dracula said nothing more after his initial greeting to Jonathan Harker, gives way to a depiction of evil as both attractive and shallow. The transformed, voluptuous Helen joins her master and attempts to seduce her in-laws, played by Suzan Farmer and Frances Matthews, neither of whom can match her performance.
Regular Hammer character actor Thorley Walters plays an under-developed Renfield type named Ludwig, whom Walters still manages to give a charming personality. The staking of Helen is nail-biting, exciting, dreadful, arousing, and unbearably tense. Metaphorically, the scene conveys the result of Victorian sexual repression and two-folded liberation. Helen, once comfortable only in her caution, was stifled by pious mores. Due to her fun-loving brother in-law, she has lost the life she knew in exchange for brief, but hollow liberation. Once bitten, Helen insists, to her sister in-law, that the men are not needed. Yet, Helen also attempts to seduce the man who put her in this predicament to begin with. Even Helen’s new master, Dracula, rejects her after she yearningly reaches for him. Helen attempts to bond with Farmer, but it is Dracula and the monks who put a stop to her. The staking is something akin to a gang rape by inquisition-like priests, and it is only in her final death that Helen is aglow in saintly peace and true liberation, which her previous two lives denied her. Helen’s liberation from the pains of life is noticed and subtly celebrated by Fr. Shandor.
Klove is dispatched, but not by Fr. Shandor, who, keeping his priestly vows, refuses to take a human life. Dracula’s demise, on ice, is awash with religious symbolism (watery baptism). The build up is tense and kinetic, let down a bit by obviously limited budgetary restraints. Dracula, Prince of Darkness is the last Dracula Hammer with genuine style via Fisher’s red-blooded type of poetic horror. The sequels became increasingly clumsy, repetitive and pale in comparison; meanwhile, Fisher found more of interest in the Frankenstein series and elsewhere.