Every Friday night this month, cable channel Turner Classic Movies has been running three or four Hammer horror films. Thanks to this gift of programming, I’ve been able to catch up on a lot of stuff from the venerable British studio’s catalog that I haven’t seen before, including several of its Dracula flicks and some stand-alone stuff like The Gorgon. I was closing out this past weekend with a look at Dracula: Prince of Darkness when I began to think that something about it was feeling very familiar, but for all the wrong reasons. I knew I hadn’t seen the movie before, and it was playing out differently from the other Hammer Dracula flicks I’d seen. It wasn’t until a half-hour or so into the movie that I nailed it, a revelation that continued to strengthen as the rest of the movie unspooled.
I was watching a slasher film.
It was one particular scene that really brought it home for me, but afterwards I could see that the movie’s very set-up was straight out of Slasher 101. Two couples are vacationing together, travelling the world in order to “broaden their minds” when they find themselves stranded in a remote location near a castle that the locals won’t even acknowledge exists. Cirsumstances lead them right through the front doors of the castle, where they find no people but an otherwise welcoming atmosphere, complete with lit candles and a table set for four. As they stand around debating what to do, one of the men decides to head upstairs – alone- to check things out. And that, as we all know, is a big no-no.
Actually, the guy gets away with it, mainly because his friend promptly joins him in his search. They are soon joined by a hulking man-servant who offers a half-hearted explanation for the mysterious welcome they’ve received, and the four take to it willingly enough, sitting down to enjoy a fine meal before heading off to bed. There’s one suspicious voice among them, a shrewish gal who’s been complaining the whole movie (and, according to another characer, the whole trip), but her concerns fall on deaf ears.
That night, the shrew’s husband repeats Slasher Movie No-No #1, wandering into the strange house alone to investigate some noise or other, actually folllowing the noise into the basement, and this time he pays for it via what appears to be an ice pick in the back. If that ain’t slasher, I don’t know what is.
This turn of events eventually leads to Dracula’s resurrection, something I figured would bring a halt to the slasher movie formula, but the similiarities continue to pile up. Most surprising is that Dracula is portrayed this go-round as a mute killer. Christopher Lee doesn’t utter a word as the Count, instead doing his best Jason Voorhees/Michael Myers impersonation, popping up out of dark places with savage suddenness before disappearing into the shadows again.
The ending comes straight out of slasher lore, too, as our heroes (including the one character who knows all the villain’s secrets, a’ la Dr. Loomis) confront Dracula. There’s a battle, and at the end of the battle the heroes walk away triumphantly, convinced that they’ve vanquished the evil – so convinced, in fact, that they don’t bother to check the body. Hmmm….now where have we seen that before, and how did it work out?
I don’t know if any of the filmmakers behind early slasher classics like Black Christmas or Halloween have seen Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but if so I think they may have been influenced by it. And yes, many of the things mentioned here are staples of all horror, not just slasher films, but the beats here play out so much in tune with so many slasher movies it’s a hard comparison to avoid. The choices made – especially that of removing all the seductive charm of the Count, who I fully expected to have a field day wooing the two lovely ladies n his castle – make for a very different Dracula movie than most.
I’m telling you – if you could have thrown a hockey mask on Christopher Lee, put a machete in his hand, and upped the body count into the teens, you’d have a fine entry in the Friday the 13th series here. As it is, it’s a curious but thoroughly entertaining bit of Hammer history. Thans, TCM, for giving me a chance to see it.
Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the trailer: