As I watched, I tried to put my finger on what it is about this one that I like so much. I forged my opinion of it in my mid-teens, so that it is difficult now to reassess it fairly through the weight of my own nostalgia, but I think in the end that my teenage judgement was fairly sound. A big factor is that the secondary (i.e. non-repeating, i.e. non-Dracula) characters are so great, and in particular that between them they convey an image of a rich, colourful, lively world which contrasts really nicely with the darkness that Dracula brings upon them. We get Michael Ripper as a cheerful inn-keeper trading jokes with his bakery-assistant and aspiring student Paul (Barry Andrews); and Barbara Ewing as Zena, the fun-loving bar-maid who enjoys the attention from her male customers, and gives as good as she gets. "Your dumplings are boiling over, Zena", one says, gesturing at her blouse. "Oh yeah? Well your flies are undone, but I didn't want to mention it", she laughs. In most of Hammer's Dracula films, the inn is full of surly bar-men and suspicious customers who glower at the outsiders. But in this one we get songs and drinking games, and Paul getting blind drunk on Schnapps with Zena after dinner with his girlfriend's family has gone incredibly badly.
There is also a well-defined dramatic conflict-and-resolution arc for these secondary characters to traverse that goes beyond merely dealing with Dracula's predation, and which I think for the third film in which he features is pretty important to keep the story interesting. It is a story of faith vs. atheism, which obviously springs from and is keyed into Dracula's good vs. evil story, but allows for a new angle on it. In the first two films, it was simply taken for granted that everyone other than Dracula would be a Christian, but in this one Paul, the student, is a self-defining atheist - a handicap which he has to overcome in order to defeat Dracula and become worthy of his girlfriend (the niece of the local Monsignor) at the end of the film. In other contexts, I'd prefer to see a resolution in favour of atheism, but this is a Hammer film - simple morality tales are what they do. So I am happy to accept it for what it is, and appreciate this plot anyway for what it does to strengthen the themes of the film.
Meanwhile, the dark Gothic atmosphere is ramped up to the max to make for a good contrast with the cheery inn scenes - yet manages not to slip into exaggerated self-parody. All of the scenes with Dracula in them were shot with a dark filter around the edges of the lens, so that we get an appropriate sense of shadows and menace every time he appears. There are some really effective settings, too - a treacherous wind-swept mountain path; a dripping cellar beneath the inn; and a landscape of rooftops and chimney-breasts which Paul and his girlfriend Maria creep across at night in order to visit one another in secret. And we get a slightly different angle on Dracula in this one to some of the other films, which I think is particularly effective (for which read 'irresistibly sexy').
In the first film, Dracula welcomed Harker to his castle with the polite ease of a well-brought-up gentleman, but was liable to burst into fiery violence and anger at any moment, while in the second (Prince of Darkness) he is constantly feral and animalistic to the point that he doesn't speak at all, and mainly just grabs people and flings them around instead. This one also omits the icy politeness (which is a pity), but it then concentrates on presenting a creepingly malicious Dracula rather than a raging animalistic one. We do see the fiery rage a couple of times, like when he finds a cross stuck on his castle door, or when Paul makes a botched attempt at staking him, which is all to the good. But for much of the film he actually gets other people (particularly a weak priest whom he has enslaved) to handle the dirty business of knocking people out, feeding them into furnaces or smashing up windows. Dracula himself instead mainly just smiles maliciously (see icon for details), controlling people with his mind and basically just standing there waiting for his prey (e.g. Zena) to fall straight into his arms. It makes for a deliciously malevolent presence within the film, and I think the fact that he barely needs to lift a finger to get what he wants actually makes him seem a lot more scary and powerful than all the leaping about hissing at people which he does in some of the other films.
In short, then, a great rediscovery, and I stick by my fondness for this particular sequel. But watching it did make me realise that I am going to have to up-grade some beloved but ancient possessions. See, I think of myself as already owning all eight of the Hammer Dracula films. Indeed, here they are:
(Obviously Carry on Cleo isn't part of the series - it was just recorded on the same tape as The Brides of Dracula). We recorded Dracula off the telly in about 1985 (I believe), following it up with some of the sequels as they too were broadcast. I got the box set for Christmas from my Dad in the year it came out, which copyright notices on the backs of the individual boxes tells me was 1988, meaning I would have been 12. Obviously, according to the certificates on the boxes I should not really have been watching these films at such a tender age, and nor should my Dad have been buying them for me, but I'd already seen the first one at 9 and been entranced rather than terrified, so I think he judged correctly that I would be fine with them. (It's perhaps worth adding that neither 12 nor 12A certificates existed at that time, and that some of these films have since been reclassified downwards.) I bought the other two commercial tapes soon afterwards with either Christmas or birthday money, and distinctly remember having to ask some random guy in HMV to purchase at least one of them for me, because I couldn't yet pass for 18.
In other words, I have owned this lot for at least 25 years, some of it longer. I've watched them all dozens of times, and they have been through multiple house-moves with me. But although I carefully bought a combi video-DVD player eight years ago, in order to ensure that my existing video collection would not become obsolete, the truth is that in practice I don't watch any of my old video cassettes very often these days, and in particular have barely done so since buying my wide-screen telly three years ago. And watching this film made me realise why not. Fuzzy picture-quality I can cope with, but having two blank rectangles on either side of the screen where the picture has been cut off to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio, when you know there could perfectly well be extra picture there instead is more than I can stand. So it's time to retire those old video-cassettes, and get some shiny new DVDs instead. That's my Christmas-list sorted, then.
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