Another good 'un. "In some respects as good as the original," says a misguided reviewer on the Internet Movie Database, seemingly unaware that it's actually far superior. It's nearly as good as Brides of Dracula (1960), that's how good it is. That sequel starred Peter Cushing but not Christopher Lee, but here it's the other way around.
There's a fair bit to say about the cast, actually. Christopher Lee is of course the film's big star. He gets no dialogue, but that's because he thought his lines were so terrible that he refused to say them. He walks beautifully though and is as imposing as ever. I still prefer Lugosi, but here we have a Dracula who can not only do fight scenes but can overwhelm bare-handed a man who's armed with a sword. You don't even believe his opponent stands a chance. Awesome.
Andrew Keir is playing the Cushing role, although by some blessed miracle he's not trying to copy Cushing's performance. Instead his Father Sandor is a big gruff abbot, wise in the ways of the vampire and full of forcefulness. He makes quite an impression on his first appearance, which is lucky since he then vanishes from the film for an hour. He's the chief ally of our four main characters, a bunch of English tourists who've taken it upon themselves to go a-wandering in the Carpathians. This lot were all better than you'd expect, especially since one of them is Barbara Shelley. Father Sandor is merely a mentor figure. The film's heroes are those tourists... although not all of them, heh heh.
Dracula also gets a couple of thralls, Philip Latham and Hammer stalwart Thorley Walters. They're fun, although Latham reminded me of a taller, grimmer Peter Butterworth. We'd get another Klove a few films later in Scars of Dracula, played by Patrick Troughton.
My favourite thing about this movie is for many people a problem. We wait ages to meet Christopher Lee. Strangely enough, I feel that after a fashion this film conforms to a formula... but in a good way. Comparing it with Brides of Dracula would lead us to expect all Hammer's Dracula sequels to spend a big chunk of the film dragging our sympathetic heroes to a sinister castle in the mountains and even then taking a geological age to unleash the vampire. These two films' structures are very similar, although not their character dynamics. I can acknowledge all that, but it works. It's a sufficiently loose template that you can do all kinds of things within it and this is a very different film to its predecessor. What's more, I love that long wait. It really builds us up for the character's big entrance. That anticipation is almost the scariest part of the movie! After all, one doesn't watch a film called Dracula: Prince of Darkness under the illusion that it won't end in blood.
Curiously enough, though, both Hammer and Universal cut back on that build-up in their original adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel. They didn't want to have their audiences sitting there for half an hour waiting for the characters to catch up. I can follow the reasoning, but it leads me to wonder if Dracula might not work better these days in original sequels rather than adaptations.
No, the film's real structural problem involves its two thralls. Latham's Klove is working to resurrect Dracula from his castle (the idiot), while Walters lives in the monastery. In his first scene he eats a fly, in a nice little homage to Stoker. They're both good, but it seems unfortunate that their screen time is so rigidly divided. Latham is Dracula's only sidekick until Carlsbad, whereupon he completely disappears from the plot and Walters takes over. It would have seemed to make sense to combine the characters, which would admittedly have lost the nod to Renfield but would have been much more frightening. The monks don't trust Latham, so he'd have had to do something fairly extreme to get inside to be of service to his master.
Of course this is also the film that established the idea that fresh blood will resurrect even a vampire who's been turned to dust. Universal never went there. (The special effects for that scene are better than you'd think, incidentally.) Of all the bizarre oddities in the patchwork quilt that is vampire lore, that idea has always been rather spooky and one that not only makes intuitive sense but helps make them less silly even after cowering in terror from anything vaguely cross-shaped. I was delighted to see that Dracula's downfall in this film involved neither sunlight or crucifixes, incidentally, which always tend to seem daft to me. Death by sunlight just makes me wonder why none of these losers can keep track of the time. This also works in reverse, with the phenomenon of people always wandering into Dracula's crypt when there's at most thirty seconds left until nightfall.
Two strange bits of vampire lore are carried over from the last film. Again they talk about the "cult of vampirism", which is so bizarre as to make you wonder what kind of 1960s social influences were causing that kind of reinterpretation. There's a slight difference between Count Dracula and the Mormons. There's also another outing for the similarly counter-intuitive idea that you can treat a fresh vampire bite by burning it. Next time I get bitten by a rattlesnake, I'll hold my hand over a cigarette lighter, then.
One thing I liked about the characters was that they weren't stupid. Normally you'd expect to be screaming insults at the screen as four gormless tourists go ambling into Dracula's castle and wake him up, but in fact all their decisions are reasonable. Barbara Shelley hates the place on sight and badgers the others to leave. Similarly later when Latham turns up at Father Sandor's monastery with a cart containing vampires in coffins, does the guy on the door let him in? Sorry, mate, orders are orders. He's polite about it, though.
There's another take on the sexy vampire thing, which is so blatant as to make you wonder if they were going to smoke a cigarette afterwards. Has Dracula ever in any movie been interested in male victims? Also why had he wanted her to drink his blood? It makes for a highly disturbing scene but Hammer lore says that just being killed by a vampire is enough to turn you into one, so I don't see what it had been going to achieve. Making another thrall, perhaps? It's also noticeable that as usual, the first thing women will do on becoming a vampire is to put on a nightgown. I'm not complaining, mind you.
The oddest thing I know about this movie is that Father Sandor got his own comic strip in Hammer House of Horror, Halls of Horror, Warrior Magazine and the A1 True Life Bikini Confidential (Atomeka Press). He ended up as Father Shandor, Demon Stalker. I've heard this film described variously as boring and as the best of the series, but I thought it was thoroughly Hammerish in all the best ways. If you like their style, you'll like this.
"My master died without issue... in the accepted sense of the word."