Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1965)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley
Extras: Commentary Track, “Behind-The-Scenes” Footage, Trailers, Documentary
"Dracula: Prince of Darkness" is commonly held in pretty low-esteem by fans of the classic Hammer series starring Christopher Lee. Watching it again on this pristine reissue by Anchor Bay makes it clear that this is a wholly unfair judgement.
Hammer Studios completely redefined horror films in the 50s and 60s with their unique combination of high style, literacy, elegance, and violence, replacing the moody gothic of Universal’s horror films and the camp of the low-budget indies. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the werewolf, and all the other horror staples were revamped and energized by Hammer, but none so completely as Dracula. In the first film, "Horror of Dracula" (1958) Christopher Lee shattered the anemic, prissy image of Lugosi’s count with a mixture of ferocity and sensuality lacking from any Dracula before or, arguably, since. About 6’4" tall, Lee is a large man with a formidable gaze and mesmerizing presence. He made the role irrevocably his with "Horror of Dracula".
Maybe "Prince of Darkness’" radical change of pace is what causes many to treat as a lesser entry. But in a line that yielded "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave" (1968), "Taste the Blood of Dracula" (1970), "Dracula AD 1972" (1972), "Satanic Rites of Dracula" (1973), along with a number of non-series vampire flicks, it stands out for a number of reasons.Unlike its predecessor, this Dracula doesn’t co-star the unredoubtable Peter Cushing as the vampire’s nemesis. Lee has less screen time and doesn’t utter a single word throughout the entire movie. It has a more measured pace, with a very gradual build to its shocks. In other words, it’s a very different film from the first.
"Prince of Darkness" begins with a recap of the incredible ending of the first: the classic scene of Peter Cushing improvising a crucifix from two silver candlesticks and then tearing the drapes down to let in the sunlight, reducing the Count to dust.
The action then picks up ten years later, as a sturdy priest, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), prevents a group of Carpathian villagers from staking a dead girl for fear of her return as a vampire. In a local tavern, the Father then runs into four British travelers: Charles (Francis Matthews), his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer), his brother Alan (Charles Tingwell), and his brother’s wife Helen (Barbara Shelley). Sandor warns them away from a nearby castle, so of course that’s precisely where they wind up when a superstitious coachman refuses to take them further. A strange carriage whisks them to the castle, where dinner is set for them, presided over by a brooding manservant bent on reviving his dead master: Dracula.
The first third of the movie is a rather leisurely, low-key build up, but the atmosphere never relents. It’s a Hammer trademark: color-saturated photography that still manages to look stark and foreboding. The little moments are genuinely creepy: the solemn procession of the villagers carrying the dead girl, the driverless coach that picks up the travelers, the dense forbidding woods, the imposing castle sets (left over from "Rasputan the Mad Monk"). It all works, quietly, to build tensions, culminating in the thunderous, bloody rebirth of Dracula from his ashes and his brief but bloody reign of terror.
Hammer productions rarely betrayed their small budgets. The sets and costumes in "Prince of Darkness" are lavish and evocative. The dialog, from a script by John Sansom, is sharp and literate, giving the first-rate ensemble plenty to work with and flesh out their performances, with Lee’s silent terror as the ultimate highlight. Michael Reed’s cinematography is an effective combination of chilly greys and vibrant colors. And, of course, master Hammer director Terence Fisher weaves it all together, building small, eerie moments into a classic and memorable finale. Anchor Bay’s release of "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" as part of their "Hammer Collection" should do one thing: convince Hammer fans to invest in DVD. The entire film, in its <$PS,widescreen> only presentation, is on one side of the disk. The flip side carries an impressive and essential array of supplemental items. I’ve been watching and writing about Hammer films for years, and most prints are notoriously shoddy. The print used here, however, is stunning. There are very few scratches, the colors are outstanding, and the transfer is largely solid due to a great digital restoration job. Some slight <$pixelation,pixelation> was noticeable, however, in a few shots. I also found a digital glitch in opening moments, but have been unable to tell if it’s in the master or on the surface of the disk. It lasted only a second and was only in one place, and while it’s there on my Panasonic machine every time, it didn’t show on the DVD Review Toshiba reference player. If there is a minor failing on the technical side of the DVD production, it’s in Anchor Bay’s continued and inexplicable inability to integrate timecode into their mastering process. That, coupled with my inability to get chapter stops to display on either the drop down menu or the machine display, are the only real irritants.
As exciting for fans are the plethora of extras Anchor Bay has piled onto side two of the disk. A short 8mm movie, shot by Francis Matthews’s brother, shows delightful "home movies" of cast and crew shooting the final scene on the ice. Though the footage is silent, Anchor Bay has added a <$commentary,commentary track> by Lee, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, and Barbara Shelley. The experience is akin to sitting down in the living room and watching old home movies as people comment on them, with the notable exception that the people commenting on this home movie were all key players in the film. These same four principles provide similar running banter on a separate <$commentary,commentary track> throughout the entire movie, as they reminisce about making the movie and working for Hammer in particular. It’s all great fun.
An original trailer for the film, along with a dual trailer coupling "Dracula" with another Hammer production, "Plague of the Zombies", show the campy method of shilling a flick in the 60s. The plea for "boys to get their vampire fangs" and "girls to get their zombie eyes" is a priceless reminder of how much more fun movie-going was 20-plus years ago.
Rounding out the already fulsome package is a 30-minute episode of the hard-to-find documentary series "World of Hammer." This one deals with Hammer’s vampire movies via extensive clips and a narration by Oliver Reed (Hammer’s werewolf star).
"Prince of Darkness" comes fully dubbed in English and French, but unfortunately the disc does not contan any subtitles. Though the sound transfer is noise-free <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono, sound was never one of Hammer’s strong suits. While their music was traditionally masterfully arranged and very robust, with sinuous strings building to pounding, old fashioned dramatic cues, the mono prints we’ve seen lately have had rather thin, unimpressive sound reproduction. In the version on this DVD, the scoring and sound effects are more pristine and somewhat fuller, but there still isn’t a very impressive dynamic range. Effects are largely crisp, but the lack of good lows really shows in the music.
Anchor Bay has created an essential disk for any true fan of horror. It’s too much to hope they could give this treatment to whole Hammer line, and if they can’t then the "Plague of the Zombies" trailer was a cruel tease. But if Anchor could hit the highlights, it would convert many horror holdouts to the joys of digital.