Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles Tingwell
Length: 90 min
Rating: BBFC: 15
Label: Millennium Entertainment
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Audio: English: LPCM 2.0 Dolby Stereo
Subtitles: English SDH/Spanish
Studio Canal’s 2k restoration of Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness finally arrives on US shores on a Region A blu-ray from Millennium Entertainment. Originally released in 1966, Terence Fisher’s sequel to his own groundbreaking Horror of Dracula (1958) was shot back to back with Hammer’s Rasputin—the Mad Monk, using the same sets and with largely the same cast, but released on a double-bill with Plague of the Zombies. The film also marked the long-awaited return of Christopher Lee to his most famous role, after an eight year absence.
Like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, Dracula is a character who inspires endless exploitation by film producers, and Hammer was naturally keen on resurrecting their most financially, (if not artistically), successful franchise as soon as studio boss and Christopher Lee’s personal friend Sir James Carreras could talk the reluctant actor into reprising the title role.
As sequels go, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is more atmospheric than its predecessor. The plot centers around four English travelers, exploring the backwoods of Transylvania, who are lured into the mysterious Castle Dracula and inadvertently provide the life blood for the Count’s resurrection. I always felt that one of the failings of Horror of Dracula is the almost total lack of buildup before we meet the titular villain. It takes Harker all of 45 seconds to arrive at the castle, and another 4 minutes to meet Dracula face to face. Prince of Darkness, by contrast, is a slower burn. Terence Fisher delays our gratification in seeing Dracula by almost 45 minutes, which allows him to build much anticipation. And yet, the vampire’s malignant presence is felt throughout this buildup—whether in the long tracking shots though the castle, (as though the master of the house is stalking the corridors), or a sudden breeze that disturbs the fragile candle flames when Dracula’s name is mentioned.Though the big confrontation scenes are not nearly as ferocious here as between Lee and Cushing in Horror of Dracula, Lee still manages to exude a satisfyingly tigerishness. Director Fisher seems less than comfortable shooting in Cinemascope—frequently failing to make full use of the wider frame—and no doubt this lessens the dynamism of the action scenes and diffuses tension overall. Yet Fisher is a steady and patient guide who knows how to hold one’s attention on the story and distills great atmosphere in the process. In this he is helped enormously by cinematographer Michael Reed’s multi-hued Gothic lighting which is vividly brought out in the digital transfer.
Andrew Keir as Father Sandor is a fair substitute for Peter Cushing’s charismatic Van Helsing and makes a suitably powerful adversary for Dracula, even if he never gets to confront the Count up-close and personal. As a character, Father Sandor stands in a long line of Churchillian no-nonsense protagonists that populated Hammer’s productions, starting with Prof. Quatermass in their two early sci-fi films.
The quite accomplished script is, once again, by Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster (as John Sansom), who does a particularly admirable job at immediately establishing the differences in personalities of the protagonists and how they play off each other. Barbara Shelley’s character is particularly noteworthy as the group’s soul neurotic with a terrible premonition. Over the years, rumors had circulated that Sangster’s dialog for Dracula was so bad, Christopher Lee simply refused to utter it. This has been refuted by Sangster, and being in possession of his original shooting script, dated March 4th, 1965, I can assure readers that no dialog was ever written for Dracula, who remains mute throughout the film.
Mention must be made of Jemes Bernard’s ever-grandiloquent score—somewhat less bombastic here than in Horror of Dracula, but just as effective in a more mysterious way. Indeed, Bernard’s music has defined the sound of Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein films to such an extent, it’s impossible to imagine them without it.
For the record, this is the exact same transfer that Studio Canal released in the UK last year. In fact, their logo appears at the start of the film. Let me say off the bat that this is the best that Dracula: Prince of Darkness has ever looked on any home video release and represents a substantial upgrade. Colors are much more vibrant than they were on the old Anchor Bay DVD, though still not totally stable. This always seemed like a problem film to transfer to digital media, but Studio Canal has done a pretty good job overall. The biggest drawback is the slight presence of DNR filtering which reduces the film grain, but also creates a slightly waxy texture, particularly noticeable on faces.
The LPCM 2.0 Dolby Stereo track sounds excellent in every way. Dialog is clear and the sometimes thunderous music score is allowed to expand without peaking. It is also pleasantly full and vivid across all registers.
The extras in this package are almost identical to Studio Canal’s UK release. First up is a fascinating audio commentary by Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, and Barbara Shelley. This is the same commentary that appears on the Anchor Bay DVD and the Studio Canal blu-ray. It’s wonderful to hear these veteran actors all sitting in the same room, reminiscing about the film shoot. It is interesting to note that in his later years, and indeed in this commentary, Lee has praised Terence Fisher’s directorial skills. But, when one turns to some of the letters he wrote to his fan club at the time of the film’s release in 1966, he criticizes Fisher’s style as being pedestrian at best. No doubt the passage of time has altered the actor’s point of view.
Next is an excellent, 30-minute ‘making-of’ documentary, “Back to Black,” which features film historians and writers, Marcus Hearn, Mark Gatiss, Jonathan Rigby, David Huckvale, and others. Next is a 4-minute restoration comparison which demonstrates just how faded the original film print was. Also included is a 25-minute “World of Hammer” episode, narrated by Oliver Reed, as well as the ubiquitous stills gallery and trailers. As a bonus, Millennium Entertainment has also included a set of exclusive collectible cards.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness occupies a special place in Hammer’s history as being the sequel that resurrected the Dracula franchise proper, after languishing for eight years. Stylistically it represents the kind of stately and patient storytelling that was Hammer’s hallmark, and which is almost nonexistent in today’s horror cinema. This is not a knee-slapping crowd-pleaser in the manner of The ABCs of Death, but if you want to settle in for the evening with a hot cup of chocolate and a good Gothic horror yarn, Dracula: Prince of Darkness suits well. Even though the video transfer is not perfect, Millennium Entertainment and Studio Canal are to be thanked for bringing this film to us on blu-ray, and any Hammer fan who has needed a Region A version should snap this up right away.
~ By Dima Ballin