This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
A trend is beginning to come into focus in 1966—it isn’t a weaker year, per se, if you’re judging purely by the volume of horror fare being released, but you’re not really seeing films you’d describe as having grand artistic aspirations or novel approaches. The giallo genre has become well established, and Hammer has been at its monster remakes for a good while. All in all, the horror cinema of this stretch, from roughly 1965-1967, is just beginning to feel slightly more stale. It’s a bit more like an era of potboilers, as established genres continue their successes, and the rest of the industry waits for the next evolution in horror, which would arrive on a few fronts in 1968.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some fascinating films. Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby … Kill! deserves credit for turning away from giallo and in the direction of supernatural suspense and horror, just as the giallo genre was heating up. It’s another film with Bava’s hallucinatory visual style and vivid colors, although they’re not quite as striking in their contrasts here as they are in Blood and Black Lace. So, too, does it invert the typical iconography of the genre, using a weathered old witch as one of its primary protagonists, whereas evil is symbolized by the spirit of a sweet-looking young girl, who compels those she curses to kill themselves in grisly ways. The film certainly has its prominent fans, Martin Scorsese and Dario Argento among them.
Meanwhile, Hammer releases a film with oft-overlooked importance to the zombie genre, The Plague of the Zombies. The “walking dead” of its title are still zombies in the Haitain voodoo sense, as seen in films such as I Walked With a Zombie, but their visual design seems highly influential upon the “reanimated corpse” style of zombies seen in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead two years later. In fact, the bulging eyes and broken teeth of these zombies is in some ways a more visually striking image than Romero’s ghouls, though their menace is slightly undercut by the fact that these particular undead have been enslaved by an immoral industrialist to labor in his tin mines. Still, one wonders if The Plague of the Zombies might be a more cherished entry in the Hammer library if it could have boasted the presence of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. It’s hard to say, but we’ll go out on a limb and say that these are some of the scariest-looking “zombies” of the pre-Romero era.
1966 Honorable Mentions:
Kill, Baby … Kill!, The Plague of the Zombies, The Diabolical Dr. Z, Daimajin, Island of Terror
The Film: Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Director: Terence Fisher
Hammer’s second sequel to Horror of Dracula was director Terence Fisher’s last time helming an entry in the iconic vampire series, and with this opportunity he delivers a good old-fashioned, no-frills gothic chiller. It’s easily the least complicated of the sequels featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula, and arguably the most effective as a result.
There’s nothing superfluous in this film—it’s a basic, antiquated setup and somewhat dated aesthetic, but it feels as if this was all by design; a conscious return to the roots of the character. You can sum it all up in one sentence: A group of four English travelers is lost in the hinterlands, where they make the phenomenally bad choice to take shelter in Dracula’s seemingly abandoned castle, reawakening the vampire in the process. There’s a bit more to it than that—Dracula has a servant who aids in his resurrection, for instance—but ultimately this is an entry in the “trapped overnight in a haunted house” genre, almost like a revival of The Cat and the Canary or James Whale’s The Old Dark House. Like the best Old Dark House films, then, it benefits greatly from its impressive and intricately decorated sets, which rank among the best in Hammer’s monster revival series.
Visually and tonally, the film maintains a serious, spooky edge. We play through all the classic vampire tropes, from Dracula’s animal magnetism with the ladies to his weakness when confronted with holy symbols, but there’s a sense throughout that for all these helpless modern travelers, it’s only a matter of time before the vampire picks them all off. In that sense, Dracula: Prince of Darkness seems almost exactly like what someone who had never seen a Dracula movie would probably EXPECT to see in one—a sort of greatest hits reel for the entire vampire genre.
Christopher Lee, it must be said, is at his best despite limited screen time—he looks regal and commanding, but more than a little crazed. He has a grand total of zero lines of dialog in Prince of Darkness, instead behaving more like a barely restrained animal, although the cause for this lack of dialog has since passed into horror genre legend. Lee always maintained that he simply refused to read the lines that were written for him, feeling embarrassed by the poor dialog, while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster later defended himself by claiming that his script never contained any dialog for Dracula in the first place. It’s hard to know exactly who to believe, but it hardly tarnishes the old-school delights of seeing Dracula prey on the unwary in Prince of Darkness. It’s the vampire genre’s equivalent of simple comfort food.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.