Almost a chamber piece rather than grand guignol. Highly atmospheric and psychologically-charged rather than plot-driven and nary a bosom in sight. Even taking account that he’s dead, Dracula (Christopher Lee) with his mesmeric bloodshot eyes takes a good while to put in an appearance and this time round regular nemesis Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is nowhere to be seen although there is a version of fly-eating acolyte Renfield.
For much of the time it’s an intimate six-hander, Dracula almost a mute deus ex machina, given little to do until it’s time for murder, so we’re spared any self-pitying exposition, but like a modern MCU/DC villain appears to have supernatural powers, enough at least while dead to draw people against their will to his castle.
Victims this time are four travellers, Charles (Francis Mathews) and wife Helen (Barbara Shelley) and his younger brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) and partner Diana (Suzan Farmer), who ignore the warnings of local priest Sandor (Andrew Keir) not to visit Karlsbad, a place now so feared it has been removed from any map. With little in the way of sense, the foursome board a driverless carriage and find themselves inside a castle with a table set for dinner and their rooms made up by malevolent servant Klove (Philip Latham).
Alan is the first to die, his blood reviving the Count. Helen is next, but isn’t killed, instead becoming his blood-sucking accomplice and handy as a lure for her unsuspecting sister-in-law. Eventually, Charles and Diana escape to the abbey where the rifle-toting stake-wielding Sandor offers protection, although not enough to deter the internal traitor Ludwig (Thorley Walters), the aforementioned insect-eater. So it’s back to the castle for an unexpected climax.
Hammer upped the budget to include color. The shades of rich red add an opulence to the proceedings, and do not detract from the atmosphere, especially effective when it comes to the blood-letting. In general, the biting is masked, Dracula using his cloak so as not to offend audience sensitivities, but particularly effective in one sequence where he draws a sharp nail down his bare chest to offer a stream of blood for Helen to lick, her enslavement more like a seduction.
Females remain largely innocent here unlike the gender-twisting vampire quartet a few years later of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Countess Dracula (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971) which not only doubled down on the blood quotient but ramped up the nudity. Helen cannot resist the compelling force of Dracula’s eyes rather then willingly embracing evil.
But this remains a prime example of Hammer at its peak, the wordless Christopher Lee (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966) never more terrifying, with pounding hooves and an unusually busy action-driven score by Don Banks to heighten the dramatic effect. This was the third in the series directed by Terence Fisher (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) and together with Lee they pare down the effects and build up the suspense.
Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the supporting cast, transforming from timid soul to conniving blood-thirsty bride, at times challenging her master for first dibs at the victims. Francis Mathews (Crossplot, 1969) essays the dapper suave screen character that would be put to better use in the Paul Temple television series (1969-1971). Charles Tingwell (The Secret of Blood Island, 1965) and Suzan Farmer (Rasputin: The Mad Monk, 1966) make up the numbers. But Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) is a worthy adversary.
I was lucky enough to catch this on the big screen at the Widescreen Weekend in Bradford a couple of weeks back, slotted into the festival I guess due to timing, and was taken aback by its power, the color palette and the thundering score. But also seeing Lee at his magnificent best, towering over his victims, the close-up of the eyes, the supervillain to top all supervillains.