Prior to DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (henceforth RISEN for short), Freddie Francis had directed about a half-dozen horror films, and he directed more afterward. However, RISEN was Francis' only contribution to the Hammer Dracula saga, though he had worked with Christopher Lee earlier and would work with Lee on other, non-Dracula projects in future.
In contrast, producer Anthony Hinds, who wrote the film under the alias John Elder, had also written the previous entry in the series (DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS) and wrote the next two in the Drac series. Arguably he occupied a more central position in creating the pop-mythology of Hammer's King-Vampire-- and yet, RISEN has a stronger story than Elder's other contributions, including 1970's TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, which I reviewed favorably here.
Characterization seems to be the main difference here. The majority of Dracula-films-- and possibly the majority of Hammer horror-films generally-- largely use one-dimensional characters. There's nothing wrong with this practice: some stories are designed to be plot-focused and wouldn't benefit from heavy characterization (particularly the barnstorming 1958 film that opens the Dracula series).
In comparison with PRINCE OF DARKNESS, though, RISEN does take particular care to layer some of the major characters. The vampire-lord himself naturally remains an icon of evil, but Dracula's two main opponents in RISEN-- aging Catholic Monsignor Mueller and young atheist Paul -- play off one another in dynamic fashion.
The audience meets the monsignor first. In the months following the destruction of Dracula in PRINCE, Mueller rides to the town neighboring Dracula's castle and is appalled to learn that no one in town attends the church. The townsfolk claim that they feel that the shadow of the castle literally lies across the church, suggesting that the dead vampire's power can still menace them. In response the Monsignor temporarily ejects the weak-willed local priest (for whom no proper name is cited) and performs an exorcism to re-sanctify the church. For good measure, the monsignor places a huge metal cross against the doors to keep away vampiric spawn.
However, the priest-- though not overtly resentful of his treatment-- takes an action that leads to the renascence of evil. Walking along a frozen mountain-pass, he stumbles and cuts himself above an ice-floe-- wherein the body of Dracula has been frozen (a plot-device perhaps borrowed from Universal's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN). The blood revivifies the vampire, who promptly makes the priest his new Renfield (i.e., enslaving but not vampirizing him).
The monsignor returns to his home in his own town, where he lives with the wife of his late brother and his marrying-aged niece Maria. Francis and Hinds give the few scenes depicting the family a warmth unusual for a Hammer film, but there's a disturbance on the horizon, long before the vampire makes the scene. Maria wants to marry Paul, a young man apprenticing in a bakery while he completes his academic studies. In contrast to the monsignor, who takes a role akin to that of a titled aristocrat, Paul is a man born in a low class but aspiring to rise higher in the bourgeoise pattern. He's also an atheist, as he's obliged to reveal at dinner with Mueller's family when the priest starts probing into Paul's religious background. Mueller's hypocrisy-- claiming that he values honesty, and then being offended by Paul's apostacy-- is presented in such a way as to render him human without damaging his essential goodness.
Paul, too, is better-rendered than most young Hammer swains. Angry at getting ejected from dinner, he gets drunk at the local pub. He makes a drunken pass at barmaid Zena, who clearly would like to take advantage of his inebritated condition. Fortunately for Paul, Maria shows up and prevents her future husband from going down that road. A clearer dichotomy between the "Good Girl" and "Bad Girl" of the Hammer Dracula series would be hard to find.
Soon enough, Dracula shows up, angry that the monsignor re-sanctified the church. He decides to vampirize the monsignor's niece and uses the priest as his instrument to learn of her movements. This is apparently the reason Drac shows up at the pub and vamps Zena, so that he can use her to trap Maria. Only a timely intervention by Paul prevents the vampire for taking Maria as well. In frustation Dracula kills Zena for failing him (though it seems more his failure than hers) and commands the priest to dispose of the body.
Soon Mueller and Paul are forced to put aside their differences to protect Maria from the undead fiend. Mueller is killed by the priest, but Paul captures the traitor, who with some persuasion leads Paul to Dracula's crypt.
Many horror-fans objected to the following scene. While Dracula is still helpless in his coffin-- though possibly close to night's falling-- Paul succeeds in impaling the vampire with a big stake. However, even as Dracula lurches up, grabbing at the stake in his torso, the priest yells that the staking won't work unless someone prays at the same time-- essentially conflating the vampire-staking with an exorcism. Paul the atheist can't pray, and neither can the disgraced priest-- so Dracula pulls the stake out of his body. Paul and the priest just manage to escape with their lives, while Dracula promptly takes possession of Maria once again. He takes some of her blood but still doesn't vampirize her, attempting to take her back to his own territory.
Paul and the priest follow. Paul is momentarily held back by some of the townspeople, who take an appeasing approach to evil, but he escapes and follows Dracula's trail. The vampire seeks out not his own castle (probably so that Hammer could avoid using another set) but rather proceeds to the church. He uses Maria to hurl away the cross holding the doors shut, but in the climactic battle with Paul, Dracula falls and is impaled on the cross. The priest manages to find enough faith to exorcise the writhing vampire this time. Dracula dies (for a while). Paul, though not officially converted to the faith by his experiences, does grant the Catholic God his due by crossing himself before he and Maria embrace in time for closing credits.
To return briefly to the problem of the stake--
Francis and Hinds almost certainly made up this idea of concurrent staking and exorcising out of whole cloth. Clearly, most vampire stories, including Stoker's, don't insist on the extra ritual, not least because in most situations it slows down the narrative action. HOWEVER, in RISEN the notion of this extra ritual does serve a fair thematic point. Paul's atheism isn't simply a mistaken choice on his part; he's never shown to be foolish for not being a believer, and it's implied that his attempt to make his own destiny is a good thing. But if religious belief may show some negative aspects, as seen in Mueller's bull-headedness, the film at least depicts belief as a double-edged sword. Thus the idea that the staking is only effective when backed with belief reinforces the film's overall theme: that religion can be used to dispel real evil. Thus I think that though RISEN does break the usual rules of vampire-killing, it does so with a good end in mind.