Hammer films female vampires made heady stuff for audiences brought up on rather timid black and white vampire films in which Dracula always wore a coat and tails - and sometimes a top hat - and his female victims wore evening gowns that revealed very little. Hammer's next film, appropriately, was The Brides of Dracula, and the Count was noticeably absent - but his victims, in the bountiful personages of Marie Deveraux, Andre Melly and Yvonne Monlaur - dominated the proceedings.
The first 'official' sequel to the 1958 version, was Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965). The Count's two lovely victims in this one, also directed by Fisher, are Suzan Farmer and Barbara Shelley. It is the latter who makes the greater impression, because she is the one who ultimately becomes a vampire. Shelley, a former model, had also done highly impressive work in the horror genre in such films as Cat Girl (1957), Blood of the Vampire (1958), Village of the Damned (1960), Shadow of the Cat (1961) - and had starred in Fisher's The Gorgon (1964). The tall, red-haired beauty could act, and Fisher got a terrific performance from her in Dracula Prince of Darkness - one so iconic, in fact, that she is remembered as one of the greatest of all Hammer vampires.
Shelley's character, Helen, undergoes a transformation during the course of the film from shrewish, carping wife to wanton night creature. There seems to be something going on between Dracula and Helen even before the Count is resurrected: she thinks she hears someone calling her name in a dream. Is it the spirit of Dracula, waiting to be reborn? When they do finally come face to face in the crypts of Castle Dracula, Helen seems quite prepared to step into his enveloping cloak; perhaps she is so eager to loosen the shackles of Victorian repression that it only takes one nuzzle from Dracula to turn her into a full-fledged vampire.
Shelley recalls how she played Helen as a vampire: 'Terry (Fisher) pointed out that when one becomes a vampire, one's proclivities are no longer heterosexual. I did, in fact, do a lot of preparation for this particular role because I wondered how one could play a vampire as the epitome of evil and decadence. So, I went back to my old days when I used to study the old Greek dramas and studied the use of that sort of feeling with the Furies.'
The vampiric Diana is positively demonic. The flames of Hell dance in her eyes when she is captured by monks in a scene that perfectly illustrates the age-old conflict between paganism and Christianity. As she is held down by several monks, Father Sandor (Andrew Kier) hammers home the phallic stake in a sequence that has symbolised, to more than one critic, a kind of fatal gang-rape. It's one of the most powerful scenes that Fisher ever directed, and one of Shelley's greatest moments in a horror film. The fact that it takes four or five men to hold down one woman is a testament to the vampire woman's power, and her hissing, hellish fury is unforgettable. Her 'lust' is cast out from her by driving a stake into her breast. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to read the subtext.
Farmer is very effective in a scene that was taken directly from Stoker's novel when Dracula slices open his own chest to get Diana to drink his blood. He advances on Diana, places his hands on her shoulders, and attempts to force her head down upon his wound; it is a scene that has unmistakable connotations of oral sex, and both Lee and Farmer underplay it brilliantly. In Fisher's world of vampires, Dracula is a dream of desire who helps Victorian women out of their nighties and into a world of untold sexual 'delights.'
COMING SOON PART THREE: CARLSON AND EWING 'RISE' TO THE CHALLENGE...