The Lady is a Vamp!

Hammer Studios created 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 of Hammer’s horror films if you go looking for them and one of my favorites is Barbara Shelley’s performance as Helen in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).

Dracula: Prince of Darkness was Terence Fisher’s incredibly 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 end up at an eerie castle that is home to Dracula. One of these travelers is the extremely 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’s impressive about Barbara Shelley’s noteworthy performance is the way she transforms from the uptight Helen into a sexy and lustful member of the undead. Shelley is one of the greatest female vampires to ever appear on screen 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 harbouring secret feelings for, much to Count Dracula’s distress. When Helen’s 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 as Helen. 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. And who can forget Barbara Shelley’s death scene? It takes a small army of monks to constrain her and Barbara Shelley’s final screams of agony are still unnerving today.

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 Barbara’s 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, 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 she will always be one of my favorite actresses thanks to her amazing performance as Helen in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, which also happens to be one of the finest sequels ever made.

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.

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22 thoughts on “The Lady is a Vamp!

  1. Anna says:

    Fun post – I’m a fan of vampire lore. It’s hard to act in such movies – it requires a particular style of performance that ain’t easy and is often not given its due. Haven’t seen this particular movie, alas, but it sounds like I should track it down.

  2. Keith says:

    I’m a huge fan of Christoper Lee, but I do have to agree with you on this. Barbara Shelley owned this film. I remember seeing this movie as a kid. I never could forget her. I loved the transformation from this prim and proper lady to this sexy and diabolical vampire. Hammer made a lot of great movies, with a lot of great actors and actresses. Barbara gave one of the best performances of either a woman or a man. Great post! I’ll have to watch this again soon. I just got finished watching “Horror of Dracula” again.

  3. Peter Nellhaus says:

    I’ll have to check this one out, Kimberly. I love Quatermass and the Pit. By the way, I finally got my new Denver Public Library card, and found out that they have downloadable films from, among other people, Jack Hill and Al Adamson!

  4. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for all the nice comments!

    Anna – So true! Actors in horror films have never really gotten their due. To scare an audience, you often have to make unbelievable characters such as vampires believeable and that’s hard work.

    StinkyLulu – Nifty! I’m off to check out your Blacula post next. I love that film!

    Keith – Glad we agree! Shelley is terrific in this film and she’s a lovely and talented actress who’s never really gotten the kinds of props that she deserves in my opinion.

    Peter – If you enjoy Hammer films, Dracula Prince of Darkness is really worth a look! I personally think it’s one of Hammer’s best vampire movies but for some reason a lot of people & critics don’t seem to care for it all that much and I’ve never understood why. Last but not least, why isn’t my library as cool as yours? 😕

  5. Jeremy says:

    Sorry about the delay in responding to this one. Excellent post, I am always so happy to see genre performances honored as they are often overlooked. I agree totally on Shelley, she was really extraordinary.
    Hammer has an overflow of great unheralded performances by actresses ranging from Martine Beswick in “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde” to Suzanna Leigh in “Lust For A Vampire”…thanks for highlighting one of the best.

  6. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment Jeremy! I think it’ a shame that genre films (in particular horror) are so often overlooked, as well as the talented people who make them. Martine Beswick is one of my favorite actresses and Suzanna Leigh is really good too!

    This was a fun piece to write and I was happy to recall my fond memories of seeing Barbara Shelley’s performance in this for the first time.

  7. martin s says:

    Thanks for reminding me of a great performance, Kimberly. Dracula, Prince of Darkness was my first intro to Hammer at the age of five. I forced my Dad to go out and get me a boook on horror movies, which I then used as a colouring book.

  8. Tanner says:

    Your post definitely makes me want to re-watch Dracula: Prince of Darkness. I adore pretty much all Hammer movies, the great ones and the… not as great… alike. (I admit that the much-derided Dracula AD 1972 is one of my most frequently played DVDs!) Dracula: Prince of Darkness has never been one of my very favorites, though, mainly because it’s overshadowed for me by that other sequel to Horror of Dracula, the fantastic Brides of Dracula. But you’ve inspired me to revisit it. Shelley is a fantastic actress. My favorite role of hers is in The Gorgon, one of the best Hammer movies still not on DVD! (Rumors are it might be soon, though.)

  9. cinebeats says:

    Thanks Martin & Tanner!

    I hope you’ll give Dracula Prince of Darkness another look Tanner. I think it’s worth it for Shelley alone, but I do agree that Brides of Dracula is a better film and I also love Dracula A.D. 1972 too, as well as lots of other Hammer vamp flicks.

    I hope you’re right about The Gorgon getting a DVD release soon! It’s one of my favorite Hammer films and it’s a shame it’s not on DVD yet. There are a ton of great Hammer movies that really should get released. The world needs more Hammer DVDs!

  10. Page says:

    I enjoyed your excellent blog and production photo stills of Barbara Shelley in “Dracula-Prince of Darkness.”

    I was 12 when “Dracula-Prince of Darkness” was released (a double feature with Hammer’s “The Plague of the Zombies”), and I remember being mesmerized as you were with Ms. Shelley’s performance as the vampire Helen. She’s truly one of the BEST actresses of Hammer Films!

    Hammer’s “Horror of Dracula,” is my very favorite Dracula film ever! Followed with “Dracula-Prince of Darkness,” “Kiss of the Vampire,” and “Brides of Dracula.”

    Other favorite vampire films include “The Return of the Vampire,” “The Return of Dracula,” “Salem’s Lot,” and “Fright Night.”

  11. Roderick Verden says:

    I agree. I love Barbara Shelley. Is married Barabra? Does she sons? Sorry my bad english.
    Cheers

  12. Roderick Verden says:

    Thank you for answer. It’s strange Barbara Shelley haven’t married. Barbara is a beautiful woman. She’s a great actress. Dracula, Prince of Darkeness is my favorite vampire film. I love terror films: Hammer and Amicus with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and mainly AIF, Roger Corman Productins with Vincent Price, my favorite actor.
    Cheers

  13. Will E. says:

    I didn’t see Prince of Darkness until the mid-’90s, when a bunch of Hammer movies were re-released on VHS (just before the DVD explosion). It definitely impressed me, and made me seek out all the old Hammer horrors I’d either missed or hadn’t seen since being growing up in the ’70s. I’m not sure the DVD is still in print, alas…

  14. Kris says:

    I’m trying to i.d. a Hammer film still. It’s Peter Cushing in period dress standing by a coffin, holding a severed head. Ring a bell?

  15. cinebeats says:

    Well, if you had showed me the picture last week when you asked me, I would have been able to help you.

    We are talking Hammer horror here and Peter Cushing has done lots of scenes with severed heads. Otherwise, I’m just going off memory and there is a scene in the Vampire Lovers when he’s holding Pitt’s head.

  16. Scott says:

    Tremendous blog. Thank you so much for your thorough and thoughtful entries!

    D:PoD is indeed rare, I’ve come to find. Netflix doesn’t have it, and ebay only had a single copy on DVD. So I bought it. My apologies to anyone who was also looking.

    So Barbara never married nor had kids, eh? No wonder her portrayal was so convincing. ;^)

  17. hoip chiggs says:

    I wish Barbara had more screen time or “scream time” in that movie. She definitely left a mark (two marks) on me!

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