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Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
Studio Canal
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Terrence Fisher
Christopher Lee
Barbara Shelley
Andrew Keir
Francis Matthews
Suzan Farmer
Bottom Line: 
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Following the release last year of a superb HD Blu-ray edition of “Quatermass and the Pit” by Studio Canal, Hammer fans are set to be made very happy indeed over the coming months as, in partnership with major rights holders such as Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox, the label sets about restoring many of the most highly regarded titles in the Hammer cannon to pristine condition. HD masters are being scanned as I write, ready for a planned series of future Blu-ray releases, some of which, it is hoped, will make their appearance later in the year. But the first fruit of this exciting development takes the worthy form of Terence Fisher’s ‘sequel’ to Hammer’s original 1957 version of “Dracula” (known as “The Horror of Dracula” in the US), namely “Dracula Prince of Darkness”.

It’s an uneven work in many ways, but one that also packs in some of the most striking and powerful moments, and dazzling set-pieces, to be found amongst the entire series of Dracula films -- thanks in no small part to its playing host to some of Fisher’s most graceful and consummately stylish directorial work, sealing the Hammer brand he largely helped define. The additional advantage that comes of the film being shot in the 2.35:1 Techniscope aspect ratio soon makes itself felt and undoubtedly helps by enabling the always exemplary production design and art direction of Bernard Robinson and Don Mingaye to have its full ravishing effect upon the eye -- particularly with the revamped set of the interiors for Castle Dracula, seen in the first half of the film, which now look particularly stunning in HD – all adding immeasurably to the ennobled atmosphere of the Hammer film which saw Christopher Lee finally returning  to the role which had made him a star, confident that he had sufficiently defined himself outside of the part not to have to worry anymore about being typecast by it.

Hammer’s previous attempt to provide eager audiences with some kind of follow-up to the hugely successful “Dracula” is also Terrence Fisher’s masterpiece in the genre: the gorgeous dark fairy tale that is “The Brides of Dracula”. Forced to improvise due to Christopher Lee’s unwillingness to return to the Dracula role so quickly, the Hammer ‘team’ came up instead with a rich, perverse and vividly realised variation on the middle European vampire mythos that was to become perhaps in many ways the definitive Hammer film in terms of both its sheer colourful visual exuberance and the suggestive undertones which accrue with repeat viewings to the impeccably Gothic subject matter at its heart. In retrospect David Peel’s Baron Meinster provided a most memorable variation on the decadent aristocratic vampire theme, very different in tone to Christopher Lee’s suave and sexualised incarnation of the Count a few years before. Perhaps “Dracula Prince of Darkness” suffers rather in comparison to this illustrious forebear; indeed, the film’s repute has never been very high, while at the same time Hammer fans can always be relied upon to quote a scene or two from it if asked to come up with a list of their most memorable Hammer Horror moments. The fact that Lee was back in the role once more after almost a decade was bound to raise expectations to levels that the film itself would most likely be unable to satisfy, particularly as it came at the start of the company’s cost-cutting attempts in the mid-sixties to save money on the running of Bray Studios by making several films back-to-back using the same casts and with the same sets redressed. “Dracula Prince of Darkness” was made in tandem with “Rasputin the Mad Monk”  and although it comes off well in comparison with this ‘sister’ film it’s become a commonplace to hear words like ‘drab’ and cheap-looking’ liberally tossed around in its vicinity ever since. Also, while Lee was indeed back again as the Count, it feels like he’s not actually in the film that much; and even screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (working from a story idea by Anthony Hinds) was worrying about being typecast by this point: still stuck with the label ‘Gothic Writer’ during a period when he was trying to remould himself as a crafter of Hitchcockian psychological thrillers instead, Sangster opted to hide his bushel behind the pen name John Sansom in the credits for this film!

Yet there is much to appreciate and savour in the cut-price artistry woven throughout what is ultimately an impeccably crafted 80 minute stroll through the classic Hammer formula: there is bags of the studio’s most sumptuous trademark Gothic ambience on display here, conjured despite recourse to the same old patch of artfully dressed Black Park location that’s seen in almost every other film, and sets whose absurd detail belies the speed with which Robinson and Mingaye were required to deliver them; we’re given some of the production house’s greatest ever performances courtesy of Andrew Kier, Barbara Shelley and, yes, even Lee himself; and the film plays host to what is still one of the most shockingly savage moments in all Hammer’s crimson-drenched filmography.

Before we get to any of that though, we have to relive several minutes of the original 1957 film in a lengthy recap of its climactic moments, accompanied by swirls of smoke at the corners of the screen to hide the fact that the original wasn’t shot in the same expansive aspect ratio. Not only does this device bulk up the running time to the required 80 minutes (the original reason for its inclusion) it also provides a subtle way of connecting the present film to the original “Dracula”, with Christopher Lee as the Count and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, rather than its original follow-up “The Brides of Dracula” (in which Cushing resumed his previous Van Helsing role without the presence of Lee) or, indeed, “The Kiss of the Vampire” – another fine Hammer vampire film from around the same period --  which featured neither of them. At the same time, it hands the baton on, so to speak, to Andrew Keir, who is now to take up the role of the knowledgeable vampire expert from Cushing’s missing-in-action Van Helsing, in the capacity of the top monk at a nearby monastery, Father Sandor; it’s Keir’s voice we hear providing that authoritative sounding voice-over which plays over Cushing and Lee’s final battle, building up Count Dracula’s centuries-spanning reputation as the undead king of ‘an obscene cult of vampirism’, and reminding us that, as the film starts, he is apparently vanquished -- turned to dust when exposed to daylight in the dying moments of the original movie.

Having set the scene admirably, Sangster’s screenplay then resorts to a traditional recipe of ripe Gothic tropes, seemingly taken straight from some well-thumbed pages belonging to the hack ghost story writer’s favourite handbook of clichés, but all of which work extremely well, though, at creating an appropriate sense of anticipatory foreboding. We’re introduced to two English, mid-Victorian married couples on a climbing holiday tour of the Carpathian Mountains, and can guess already that it’s not destined to be a happy environment for them since, though it’s now ten years since a nasty plague of vampirism last swept the area, the locals still impale their recently dead with stakes just to be on the safe side!

The unfortunately named Charles and Diana Kent (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer) are young, happy-go-lucky newly-weds, heedless of the superstitious locals surrounding them; they’re accompanied by Charles’s prim & proper stick-in-the-mud sister Helen (Barbara Shelley) and her slightly more stuffy but good-natured husband Alan (Charles Tingwell). All four are initially warned off their plan of visiting the region of Karlsbad by a kindly monk (Andrew Keir) whom they fall into conversation with whilst they rest up at a nearby inn. He turns serious suddenly the moment their destination is mooted, and begs them not to go anywhere near the region’s abandoned castle. But Charles can find no mention of any such castle in his walking guide, and the troupe consequently pays little heed to the eccentric clergyman’s dire admonitions.

From here things get weird fast, but only Helen seems ‘attuned’ to the evil vibes surrounding the benighted region of Karlsbad. First, their coach driver won’t travel after dark and abandons the holidaymakers in a deserted region of forest; a driverless coach and horses mysteriously appears and seems to possess an uncanny sense of direction, transporting the group straight to the unlocked door of Castle Dracula before promptly disappearing again. Meanwhile, the food-loaded table in the castle’s baronial interior is already laid out for four -- as though the travellers had been expected all along; stranger still, unseen hands have unpacked their luggage in two specially prepared bedchambers. Eventually, a sepulchral looking retainer appears by the name of Klove (Philip Latham) explaining that his master died having left instructions that the castle should always be kept in preparation to accept weary travellers for the night as guests. Yet creepiness abounds even still: Helen looks distinctly more nervous by the second; a preternatural wind stirs about the rafter and flaps the drapes, making the table candles flutter as a factitious Charles proposes a toast to their long dead benefactor – Count Dracula!

It’s all leading to a memorable resurrection scene, more shocking for the fact that the elaborate and time consuming rite is performed with all the reverential, stately solemnity of a ceremonial religious ritual by Klove, the vampire’s devoted human disciple. The well-meaning Charles is effectively made into a blood sacrifice, here -- murdered by Klove then strung up like a pig above Dracula’s crypt (now playing host to the Count’s ashes and signet ring) whereupon his throat is cut -- his life force left to mingle with the dust of Dracula and reconstituting the vampire lord’s body once more. It’s a stunningly realised scene, superbly stage by Fisher; the sloshes of vivid bright red Kensington Gore shown gushing into the crypt sizzle off the screen, the billowing clouds which attend Les Bowie’s surprisingly effective image-dissolve effects discreetly veil skeletal remains apparently attaining meat-raw flesh – and then Christopher Lee’s groping, clawed hand finally emerging from the inside edge of the crypt and announcing the arrival at last of the Prince of Darkness a full 40-odd minutes into proceedings! 

But with Dracula’s arrival, Fisher rightly ups the pace somewhat. The Count we’re presented with here in brief fitful bursts of hysterical action, is a much less disciplined creature than the calculatingly debonair force of evil that developed complex cunning plots to corrupt the wives of good Victorian Englishmen in the 1957 film: this one wastes no time in making Barbara Shelley his vampire slave, and when it’s Charles and Diana’s time to encounter him in the balconied antechamber of Castle Dracula, he’s a snarling, hissing animal, lashing out with unruly abandon, bounding down a staircase and snatching Diana from the grasp of the newly vampirised Helen (whose previous starchiness has by now evaporated to be replaced by a wanton, silky seductiveness, and who is clearly now also freely harbouring uncorseted lesbian designs on her sister-in-law!), leaving no sense of the sophisticated aristocrat that Christopher Lee’s imposing presence and debonair costume implicitly impart to the role.

The dissonance of this violent characterisation makes for a memorable outing in the role from Lee, despite the fact that he has not one line of dialogue in the whole movie. Lee has often claimed that the reason for this was that he simply refused to say the dreadful lines Sangster wrote for him. The anecdote may well derive from Sangster’s perceived weakness as a writer of dialogue, but it seems likely that he, as Sangster himself claims, never actually wrote any dialogue for the character in this film in the first place; the Count appears to have been deliberately characterised by the writer as a much more animalistic incarnation than in the other Dracula movies. Speaking much later about how little regard Peter Cushing had for his dialogue writing skills, the late Sangster is quoted in Wayne Kinsey’s “Hammer Films The Unsung Heroes” recounting how Christopher Lee rang up Cushing after discovering that he had no dialogue in “Dracula Prince of Darkness” to complain about the fact, only for Cushing to tell him that he should think himself lucky!

Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact that Dracula doesn’t speak here only emphasises his venality, his ferociousness and unbridled carnality, while at the same time it makes him seem that much more other-worldly and mysterious. The downside of the Count’s reckless headlong pursuit, no matter what, of the rather bland Diana, when he’d be much better off playing a more calculated long game, ultimately means that after previously lasting for centuries before being finally laid to rest by Van Helsing, he’s not actually destined to be around for very long, here, before being promptly dispatched once again – only a matter of hours in actual fact!  He’s, as Mark Gatiss so poetically puts it on the disc’s accompanying Making Of documentary, ‘up and down like a bride’s nightie.’

Dracula’s recklessness in pursuit of his pretty blonde quarry leads him to take some very unusual decisions during the course of the second half of the movie. Considering he’s a vampire and so obviously abhors the sight of the crucifix -- even when that symbol is simply constructed as a simulacrum using two pieces of a broken sword – the action of breaking into a monastery (where one can presumably count on there being ruddy loads of the things lying about the place) would appear to be a most grievous folly! It highlights again the almost complete lack of motivation afforded the Count in this movie: he’s painstakingly revived thanks to the patience and commitment of his servant Klove over ten long years of waiting for just the right moment to occur in order to bring this event about, and the minute he’s back in action he simply must have both of the women fate has delivered into his clutches, no matter how pointless or dangerous his pursuit of them becomes.

We can overlook all this though because Lee really delivers the goods in the few minutes he’s actually on the screen: as well as his queasy, red-hypnotic-eyed claiming of Barbara Shelley’s Helen as a subservient vampire slave and his dynamic, scowling, masculine dominance of Charles when the beleaguered newly-wed is forced to battle to save himself and his young wife, Dracula’s scene in the monastery with Suzan Farmer’s Diana, where, having gained entrance to the one place that the couple might presume would provide them with a safe harbour under the protection and supervision of the doughty Father Sandor (a convincing performance from Andrew Keir, who also manages to make you overlook his pronounced Carpathian-Scottish burr!), Dracula tricks Diana with the help of another of his human slaves, the Renfield stand-in Ludwig (played by the affable Thorley Walters, who also provides the film with its brief comic turn), into submitting to his hypnotic powers, and is just on the verge of succeeding in forcing her to lick blood from a self-inflicted wound, scratched with a sharpened nail into his own chest, when her husband’s voice calling her breaks the spell and forces the Count to flee the scene.

Although Fisher, Sangster and Hinds can’t seem to bring themselves to go all the way through with it, this sequence presents one of the most perverse, erotically charged spectacles in Hammer’s entire cannon of vampire films, highlighting Dracula’s charismatic sexual allure and the threat he poses to the innocence (bounded by stuffy Victorian morals) of the surviving couple. A scene earlier in the film, added so late to the screenplay that the actors Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer had to learn and rehearse it in the morning and then shoot it in the afternoon, in which Diana and Charles talk and laugh about a former suitor of hers (the unlikely named Horace Peabody) has already sowed a neurotic seed in her husband’s mind that the Victorian lady just might potentially have something rather more going on under her crinoline than she’d be prepared to admit, but Dracula clearly poses a greater threat to the moral norms of Terrence Fisher’s straight-laced sexual world than the laughable Horace Peabody obviously ever could. But the necessity of the need for taming and suppression of unacceptable sexual urges, and yet also the potential allure of abandonment to them, a theme which often seems to constitute the backbone of Fisher-directed narratives, is a dialectic that’s no better personified than in Barbara Shelley’s performance as Helen.

Her journey over the course of the movie provides the film with a compelling thematic urgency it would otherwise lack completely, and sees it made into a very much more potent piece of work for her presence. Shelley mentions on the disc’s commentary track that she envisioned the character’s initially prim persona as being a social cover for Helen’s innate awareness of her own hidden, pre-existing ‘evil’ desires, which also explains her almost clairvoyant sense of foreboding at Castle Dracula: she’s aware that the evil that surrounds the place is sure to soon envelope her, unleashing her own perverse (to late-Victorian society) desires in the process. This is an approach to the character that Shelley and Terrence Fisher apparently both discussed and agreed on beforehand. Once her evil vampire side takes over, Helen quickly lets those pent up desires out of the bag. Once again they involve unacceptable manifestations of sexuality, this time of an unspoken Sapphic kind (‘You don’t need Charles,’ purrs Helen, opening her arms to vampirically embrace Diana in the hall of the castle as her sister-in-law calls out for her missing husband); later, Helen appears again to Diana as a Brontë-esque siren, tapping forlornly on the window of the room in the nearby monastery in which she is recuperating, and even persuading the clearly susceptible newly-wed to open it to her; having done so, Diana is promptly bitten on the wrist, and has to have the infection burned out of her with the tip of a scolding-hot lamp. If this cure for vampirism looks suspiciously like a medieval torture, inflicted for a minor impropriety and perhaps an inherent susceptibility to the siren call of evil, then Helen herself is to feel the full force of such practices: the showpiece staking of Helen couldn’t be more loaded with dubious phallic associations, obviously; and the staging of the sequence, which takes on the disturbing symbolic significance of a gang rape (by a group of monks and the subject’s brother!) is made all the more powerful by the contrast in the pre-staked Helen’s wanton wild cat squirming and struggling on the trestle table in the monastery as she’s prepared for the act, and her serene calmness afterwards  – all chaotic, transgressive sexuality having now been eradicated, quieted and returned to order – when Shelley is transformed into an angelic image of female perfection, and lit to perfection too by cinematographer Michael Reed to that purpose, a state only attainable to her finally, it seems, in death.

Although this film does have something of a reputation for hosting a rather drabber look than had been the norm during the Hammer heyday of the late-fifties and early-sixties, you’d be hard pushed to think so after witnessing the largely splendid job done on it by the restoration team, here. Previous DVD editions have always seemed quite soft and muddy to my eye, but here at last colours are vivid, contrast excellent and extra detail leaps off the screen in the exterior Black Park sequences and in the lengthy section of the film which takes place in Dracula’s castle: Bernard Robertson’s genius has never been so adroitly demonstrated in a home viewing format before. The LPCM mono audio is fine but there is an unfortunate problem with the track drifting out of synch on my test copy during the scene when the travellers first arrive at Castle Dracula. One can only hope this has been corrected on the finished copies since it proves rather distracting, although, thankfully, it later corrects itself.

Extras wise, the disc is missing the Lumiere documentary, “The Many Faces of Christopher Lee”, which appeared on the previous Optimum DVD version of the film, so one might want to hang on to that disc if you own it, unless the doc turns up on one of Studio Canal’s future Hammer Blu-ray releases that is.

We do get some fine extras which are all new to the UK, although most of them have appeared before on previous US releases. There’s a cheery commentary, recorded in 1997, featuring stars Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer and Francis Matthews, who reel off plenty of amusing anecdotes between them such as how Barbara Shelley swallowed one of her vampire fangs and Christopher Lee got salt in his eye when one of his red contact lenses fell on the ground during the shooting of Dracula’s death scene on the ice at the end. It’s also revealed that all of Shelley’s screams had to be dubbed by Suzan Farmer, because her own didn’t cut the mustard. Christopher Lee rather dominates the first 40 minutes, but eventually the track settles down into an interesting four-way discussion. At one point, during Dracula’s resurrection scene, as blood is seen pouring into the crypt from Alan’s slashed throat, the talk drifts on to discussion of how vile and depraved modern horror films such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” are in comparison to the classic Hammer formula, with only Suzan Farmer baldly dissenting and acknowledging TCM as ‘a masterpiece’. It could also have been truthfully mentioned that there’s actually far less on-screen gore in it than there is in “Dracula Prince of Darkness”!

The four also provide commentary for some 8mm home movie footage shot at Bray by Francis Matthews’ brother Paul Shelley during the shooting of the climax of the movie. This is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes with many backstage names such as costume designer Rosemary Burroughs making brief unwitting appearances. Wonderful!

A couple of trailers are included: Christopher Lee provides the voice-over spiel for the original theatrical trailer, and there’s also a fairly dull one included for an American double-bill screening of the film paired with “And Frankenstein Created Woman”. There’s a restoration comparison featurette, and a version of the US opening titles which includes the Seven-Arts co-production credit at the start. This used to be the standard opening title seen on all DVD prints, but this Blu-ray now sports the original British opening credits after a battered copy of them was found at Pinewood Studios, bearing the original Associated British Productions Limited credit. This was used to reconstruct the original titles and you can see just what an amazing job they’ve done by comparing the HD version at the start of the film with the battered, faded and scratched original version dug up by chance in the Pinewood vaults and included as an extra here.

New and exclusive to this release is a brand new documentary directed by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn (writer of the recent “Hammer Vault”), who also appears on screen to talk about the production background to this film and Hammer’s financial difficulties at the time as they struggled to hang on to the family Bray Studios operation. Mark Gatiss and others share their love for the film and place it in context among the Hammer Dracula series, while surviving stars Francis Matthews, Suzan farmer and Barbara Shelley appear again, this time on screen, to talk about the wonderful time they had at Hammer and their memories of making the film. There’s also a chance to revisit Robert Sidaway’s The World of Hammer television clips series narrated with the fruity tones of Oliver Reed. The episode included here takes a look at Christopher Lee’s Hammer output, with plenty of clips of the actor’s films linked by Reed’s lead-ins.

Brief problems with audio syncing aside, this is a wonderful release of a film that, despite its weak and nondescript plot, is still probably overall one of the strongest in Hammer’s Dracula series, with Lee never again  getting the chance to mix his hypnotic menace with a capacity for feral wildness as convincingly as he did in this particular portrayal of the Count. Definitely a must for the Hammer nut’s soon-to-be-expanding Blu-ray collection.

Read More from Black Gloves at his blog; Nothing But the Night!

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