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Dracula: Prince of Darkness (US Blu-Ray Review)

Shout Factory’s new 4k restoration of Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness looks markedly different from Studio Canal’s 2k restoration, from some years ago. 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.

Shout Factory
Studio Canal

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 satisfying 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.

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 four 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 which eventually comes true. 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.

Shout Factory
Studio Canal

For this release, Shout Factory has done a new 4k scan from 20th Century Fox’s interpositive of the US version of the film. In direct comparison to the older Studio Canal restoration, this new restoration looks quite a bit more filmic than the old one. Colors don’t pop out at you like before, but the overall effect is less artificial looking. Grain looks natural, and is considerably more pronounced than on Studio Canal’s DNR-laden restoration which gave faces a slightly waxy appearance. To be honest, the new restoration gives the impression that it was scanned from a source that’s an extra generation removed from the negative, compared to Studio Canal’s source, though I have no way of confirming that. The new restoration is also darker looking, especially in the shadowy interiors, which may take some getting used to by some viewers.

Shout Factory
Studio Canal

Both the stereo and the DTS-HD mono tracks sound excellent in every way. Dialog is clear and the sometimes thunderous music score is allowed to expand without peaking.

Shout Factory
Studio Canal

The extras in this release are almost identical to Studio Canal’s UK release, but with two extra commentary tracks.

The first audio commentary is by Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, and Barbara Shelley. This is the same commentary that appears on the old 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.

The second commentary is by filmmaker Constantine Nasr And writer/producer Steve Haberman, and they really dig deep into the technical aspects, history and context surrounding the production. It’s an interesting listen, with the two commentators respectively imparting a filmmaker’s and writer’s perspectives.

The third commentary is by horror historian, Troy Howarth, who goes over much of the same terrain, if with greater emphasis on facts and figures of the production, and less on contextualization and analysis.

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. This is ported over directly from the Studio Canal release.

Also included is a 25-minute “World of Hammer” episode, narrated by Oliver Reed, as well as the ubiquitous stills gallery and trailers.

Note: in addition to Shout Factory’s new scan of the US version, this release also includes the full original Studio Canal UK version, with the British titles. So you’re getting two versions in one release.

Shout Factory
Studio Canal

Dracula: Prince of Darkness occupies a special place in Hammer’s history as 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 good Gothic horror yarn, Dracula: Prince of Darkness suits well, and Shout Factory has done a wonderful job in giving us, not only a new restoration of the US version, but also includes the UK version from Studio Canal. Highly recommended.

About Dima Ballin

Dima is the founder and publisher of Diabolique Magazine and the co-founder of the Boston Underground Film Festival. He is currently working on several screenplays and trying to attain enlightenment through Buddhism.

One comment

  1. Are the Studio Canal pictures in this review taken from the UK version that is part of Scream Factory’s new release? If not, could you offer some pictures from the UK Scream version? Thank you!

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