By the start of 1965, the production line at Hammer Film Productions was a well-oiled machine. From their studio at Bray in Berkshire the company had been turning out an average of seven features a year for the past decade and had already experimented with shooting two films back to back to save money on sets and costumes (1958’s Dracula/The Revenge of Frankenstein and 1961’s The Terror of the Tongs/Visa to Canton shared their resources).
In late 1964, producer Anthony Nelson Keys hit on the idea of shooting four back-to-back productions, this time to make a pair of custom-made double bills. Economically, the idea made sense – sets, props and costumes could be shared and savings could be made on the wages bill by employing cast and crew for a single 12-week period and sharing them among the various productions.
In January 1965 the company announced its plans – Dracula Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk would be the ‘A’ films, both starring one of Hammer’s most bankable stars, Christopher Lee, while The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, both directed by John Gilling, would be the ‘B’ pictures.
The films were made in quick succession, Dracula taking to the studio floor under the direction of Terence Fisher on 26 April 1965, followed by Don Sharp’s Rasputin on 8 June (four days after Dracula wrapped), The Plague of the Zombies on 20 July (the same day that Rasputin was finished) and finally The Reptile on 6 September, offering little respite to Gilling as The Plague of the Zombies finished production that very same day.
The first double bill to reach the screen was Dracula Prince of Darkness backed with The Plague of the Zombies, which opened on the ABC circuit on 9 January 1966. They were the first gothic horrors Hammer had released for some 18 months.
Though the money and star were lavished on the respective ‘A’ pictures, in both cases the ‘B’ film was the more fun. Dracula Prince of Darkness had the appeal of seeing Lee back in cape and fangs as the count (he’d been absent from the first Dracula sequel, 1960’s The Brides of Dracula) but is a rather stodgy and sedate affair and began the process of giving Dracula increasingly less to do in his own franchise. A pre-titles recap of the finale of Dracula does it few favours, just reminding us how inferior it is to the original.
Lee’s return proves to be an anti-climax – with not a word of dialogue and his on-screen return delayed until 46 minutes into the film (following an impressive resurrection scene), he no longer cuts the dashing but sinister image that we knew from the first film. He’s disposed of with indecent haste by Andrew Keir’s disarmingly bluff vampire-slaying priest Father Sandor, though his final moments – disappearing into the freezing waters of the moat surrounding his castle when Sandor shoots through the ice he’s walking on – provide one of his more memorable demises.
Much more enjoyable is Gilling’s The Plague of the Zombies which, like its production companion, The Reptile, takes Victorian Cornwall as its setting. André Morell stars as Sir James Forbes, a London doctor who travels with his daughter Sylvia to a small village where the dead are on the prowl, resurrected by the local squire (John Carson) as slave labour for his newly reopened tin mine.
Where Dracula Prince of Darkness was a tad lumbering and uninvolving, The Plague of the Zombie is brisk, no-nonsense and chock-full of memorable moments. Indeed it contains two of Hammer’s best and most fondly remembered scares. In the first, Forbes’ daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare), fleeing the clutches of the squire and his cronies, stumbles across the (temporarily) lifeless body of childhood friend Alice (Jacqueline Pearce, who also appeared in The Reptile) being disposed of by a screeching zombie at the tin mine. The second is the much-loved dream sequence in which a green-faced Alice emerges from her grave along with a pack of equally festering zombies to harass her grieving doctor husband (Brook Williams).
The double bill proved a hit with the public, no doubt tempted to cinemas by the promise of Lee’s return to the role that had made him famous and a vigorous publicity campaign from Hammer. It took £10,190 on its opening day, double the norm for ABC. In the States, it opened on 12 January 1966 (“These are the overlords of death!” promised the enticing trailer) and young customers were treated to a set of plastic Dracula fangs for the boys and “zombie eyes” for the girls. Perhaps understandably, it was just as popular as it was back home.
The second double bill of Rasputin the Mad Monk and The Reptile followed on 6 March 1966 and was another hit, though Hammer never repeated this experiment again.