Dir: Terence Fisher
Gen: Looking at Women
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher) is somewhat of a cult classic horror film, which was released in the UK in 1966. This decade saw the emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the introduction of the contraceptive pill (1961) and, as a result, a country wide sexual revolution lead by the younger generation. Women’s sexuality was on the agenda, the traditional nuclear family was being upturned and women were beginning to lobby, march and protest against male dominated governments. Society was changing and it was being documented by cultural products such as the horror film which, as feminist film theorist Barbara Creed states, “consistently place[d] the monster in conflict with the family, the couple and the institutions of patriarchal capitalism” (Creed 1992, p.61). Social anxieties were leaking onto the screen, and it is this that we see in Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
To understand this change, and the fears that it posed to “institutions of patriarchal capitalism”, it is interesting to examine Barbara Shelley’s character Helen. The viewer is first introduced to Helen as she chides her brother in law for his hedonistic lifestyle and frivolous relationship to money; this is a pious approach to life that she also applies to her comportment and clothing, evinced by her stiff posture and stern expression, firmly bound hair and dour green two-piece. She is certainly not the life of the party; rather, she reflects one, matronly, half of the ideal Victorian woman. Bram Stoker originally published Dracula in 1897 and it is to this era that the film draws reference.
On the other hand Diana, Helen’s sister in law, represents the virginal, pure and uncorrupted image of woman. She is consistently dressed in baby pink throughout the film, has comparatively soft, even angelic facial features in comparison to Helen and retires into the arms of almost every man with whom she comes into contact throughout the film. She is the epitome of the femme-enfant.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Barbara Shelley’s character becomes the monster in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Whilst Diana supports the masculine roles of the men in the film, namely the man as saviour, Helen often criticises their judgement and is, accordingly, finally punished by Dracula’s toothy embrace.
However, there is also a sexual subtext to this transformation, which is most evident in the bedroom sequence. The setting, already allusive of sexual activity, is used to juxtapose Helen’s frigidity with Diana’s flirtatious and playful nature, an attribute reflective of the sexual revolution embraced by the younger generation in the 1960s; whilst Helen fastens a night cape around her neck to shelter her shoulders and breasts, Diana is shown in a provocative night dress, which is cut low enough to reveal her cleavage and naked back. The comparison between the two sisters infers that Helen’s tight laced personality extends to a certain sexual frigidity of an older generation, whilst Diana’s attire highlights the paradoxical expectation that the femme-enfant be simultaneously sexually inviting and childishly innocent.
Lacking the feminine attributes embodied by Diana, Helen’s feisty character morphs perfectly into “the female Dracula”, who is typically “masculinised” by the Count’s bite, thus transforming her into “an active, predatory seducer” (Creed 1992, p.63). In doing so, Helen crosses the boundary between “active/male” and “passive/female” that Laura Mulvey underlines in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, becoming a threat to traditional gender roles, as represented by the “couple” (Mulvey 1975, p.16). This masculinisation acts as a form of “abjection” (which will be discussed in full with regard to Dead of Night), causing Helen to blur the social boundaries between man and woman (Creed 1992, p.8).
Consequently, Helen as vampire threatens, or indeed usurps, the role of man in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. As Creed states, “it is possible to interpret the vampire myth as a story about defloration”, in which the fanged woman penetrates the virgin skin of her victim just as the male would traditionally use his penis to penetrate, and thus ‘sexually awaken’, the virgin body of woman (Creed 1992, p.66). Though psychoanalytic in approach, this opposes Freud’s theory of penis envy because the female vampire supplants woman’s sexual need for man; she lacks nothing and therefore debunks Freud’s idea that woman has a primal need for man (i.e., a penis).
In the context of the 1960s (although when has this not been an anxiety), the autonomy of the female vampire presents an interesting parallel to the lesbian relationship, both of which can be viewed as “the monster in conflict with the [normative] family”. Despite growing support for the Women’s Movement, many men and women were still afraid of the effects that exploring one’s sexuality, let alone the prospect of a life long lesbian relationship, could have on the patriarchal institution of the family.
Creed elaborates on this idea by underlining the “doubly dangerous” qualities of the lesbian vampire to the established order, for she is both “female, and-like Count Dracula-a seducer par excellence. As well as transforming her victims into blood-sucking creatures of the night, she also threatens to seduce their daughters of patriarchy away from their proper gender roles” (Creed 1992, p.61). Not only does the lesbian vampire reverse the submissive role that she is expected to play towards man, she also exposes the fragility of the future of the very system that works to keep this gender inequality in place. In doing so, the lesbian vampire proposes a destabilisation of the power relations that keep men in authority and women in the kitchen.
However, what Creed’s observation also reveals is the blatant sexual objectification, and thus submission, of the female body to male desire in vampire films, a tendency that is particularly noticeable in Helen’s transformation in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Following Helen’s symbolic (‘sexual’) awakening by Dracula, her appearance and comportment are transformed; her once up tight locks and shoulders are released, her modest cape is removed and her lips are alluringly tinted red. Helen is sexualised and thus humanised by Dracula’s embrace.
But her ‘sexual’ awakening also has a darker side: Helen’s lust for another’s body is “monstrous” and her carnal desire is transgressive to the point of violence. Uncontrolled, Helen’s “voracious sexual desire” destroys her relationships with all to whom she is closest and, eventually, leads to her untimely death (Creed 1992, p.59). She is lustful, she sins, she gives in to temptation: the only man who can save her now is God. Helen simply moves from the controlling hand of one patriarchal institution to another: from marriage to the Church.
Featuring series curator, Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Neon Eye's Calum Mowatt and Caitlin Deery.
Where to watch
The full version of Dracula: Prince of Darkness is available online or in stores across the UK.
Creed, B. (1992) The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
Mulvey, L. (1975) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16: 6-18.
Grant, B. K (2015) The Dread of Difference. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Powell, A (2005) “From Psychoanalysis to Schizoanalysis: An Intensive Voyage” in Deleuze and Horror Film. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathryn is a fourth year student of a joint degree in History of Art and Art Practice at The University of Edinburgh. Her interest in feminist cinema comes from her belief in political, cultural and social equity, a set of values that she says have often felt uncomfortable alongside popular feminist movements such as "fourth wave" or Taylor Swift "girl gang" feminisms. Kathryn has found that by understanding the roots of female "types", consolidated through literature, cinema and art, she has been able to understand how they are constructed and how her own sense of femininity and womanhood differ.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.