Hammer Studios is responsible for some of the greatest horror films ever made but many critics wouldn’t consider the acting in them noteworthy and that’s a shame. Believe me when I say that you can find plenty of impressive performances in many Hammer productions if you go looking for them and one of my favorites is Barbara Shelley’s incredible turn as Helen in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).
Dracula: Prince of Darkness was Terence Fisher’s wonderfully creepy and effective sequel to Hammer’s Dracula (a.k.a. The Horror of Dracula, 1958). It begins when a group of British travelers find themselves lost in the Carpathian Alps and eventually end up staying at an eerie castle that is home to Dracula. One of these travelers is the prim and proper Helen as played by the lovely Barbara Shelley. Helen has embarked on a trip to Romania in order to experience the world and discover new things but she’s much too worried about keeping up appearances to relax and enjoy her trip.
Helen senses something isn’t right the minute she sets foot on Romanian soil and when she finally meets her fate in the arms of Christopher Lee it’s not too surprising. What is impressive about Barbara Shelley’s noteworthy performance is the way she transforms from the uptight and conservative-minded Helen into a sexy and lustful member of the undead. Shelley is one of the greatest female vampires in horror cinema and she delivers a screen-stealing performance in Dracula: Prince of Darkness that leaves the rest of the cast in the dust.
Her female vampire has no scruples and doesn’t hesitate to try and seduce Diana (Suzan Farmer), the other female in the group who she seems to be harboring secret feelings for, much to Count Dracula’s distress. When Helen is not trying to bite another woman on the neck she’s busy going after the woman’s husband, her brother-in-law Charles (Francis Matthews), in some of the creepiest bloodsucking scenes ever conjured up by Hammer.
I first saw Dracula: Prince of Darkness when I was only about 10 or 11-years-old and I’ve never forgotten Barbara Shelley’s incredible performance. Her first onscreen entrance after being turned into a vampire continues to give me chills and I still have nightmares from watching Helen beg Diana to open her bedroom window so she can feast on her innocent neck (a scene that Tobe Hooper borrowed for his excellent 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot). And who can forget Shelley’s death scene? It takes a small army of monks to constrain the writhing vampire and her final screams of agony can still send chills down my spine.
Watching Dracula: Prince of Darkness when I was a kid was an extremely memorable experience because the movie scared me silly and Barbara Shelley made me realize that it’s important to pay attention to the lesser credited actors in any production. They might secretly be the real stars of the film. I still consider Shelley’s performance as Helen to be one of the greatest moments in the history of Hammer horror. Before I saw her unforgettable turn as Helen I had assumed that no one could upstage the iconic Christopher Lee but I was wrong. Shelley not only upstages Lee but she literally wipes the set with the entire cast.
Barbara Shelley has appeared in many good films including Cat Girl (1957), Village of the Damned (1960), The Gorgon (1964) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967). She’s undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest “Scream Queens” and will always be one of my favorite actresses thanks to her amazing performance as Helen in Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
In an issue of the much missed magazine Hammer Horror there is an excellent article about the making of Dracula: Prince of Darkness with this terrific anecdote about the great Barbara Shelley:
“3rd May 1965 was spent shooting Ludwig’s cell on stage 4, where Barbara Shelley’s vampirised Helen would be staked on the table. In the middle of one take, Shelley struggled so violently that she managed to swallow one of her stuck-on fangs. There was no replacement available. Not wishing to hold up shooting for a day, Shelley swallowed salt water until she regurgitated the offending canine.”
That is the act of a truly dedicated performer! This is my contribution to The Performance That Changed Your Life Blog-a-thon.