Dracula: Prince Of Darkness Blu-ray Review

Released on DVD and Blu-ray are a cluster of archetypal Hammer films including Dracula, Prince of Darkness made in 1965 and released theatrically in January 1966. This film was made back to back with three other Hammer films at £100,000 apiece. Two of the other three films, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies are also released as dual format packages in conjunction with this film. This was quite a daring cost saving venture for Hammer studios who had been having financial difficulties. As a result Dracula, Prince of Darkness was shot back to back with a similar cast in Rasputin, the Mad Monk. This for many is the archetypal Hammer film: vampires, stranded Victorian English travelers in a central European country, Boreham Wood locations standing in for Central Europe, blood, hints of lesbianism, villagers in taverns and of course Christopher Lee in his second outing as Dracula.

It takes until halfway through the film for Dracula to make an appearance. Meanwhile, the opening of the film casts the audience back eight years to the climax of the original film with a foggy edged flashback (looking like the close-up of an eye) in which we see the finale dual between Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing and Dracula until the Count is finally immolated by sunrise turning him into dust. The story then turns to a tavern with an Englishman in a party of four ingratiating himself with the locals by partaking in a yard of ale drinking competition. A rather bombastic Father Shandor (Andrew Keir) enters warning the travelers (having already stopped superstitious villagers from putting a stake through a dead girl as a precaution) not to make their way to Karlsbad by night. The travelers take this to be superstitious nonsense, but when the coachman (sounding more like London cabby) refuses to take them any further a mysterious riderless carriage pulls up and takes the party up to the nearby Castle Dracula. They are eventually greeted by a manservant called Klove (Philip Latham) who tells them that his master is dead but continues to serve. The following morning one of the group has been taken by Klove and in a memorable and for the time shocking sequence he is suspended over an empty sarcophagus and his throat is cut in a sacrificial manner bringing the Count back to life. Dracula then vampirizes the dead man’s wife (played by another Hammer favourite Barbara Shelley). The surviving pair then just manages to escape and search the help of Father Shandor.

The film does take a little too long to get to the action and is a little too talky in places, but it is made in typical Hammer style and is beautifully handled by the genteel Terence Fisher in the director’s seat and with the aid of typical Hammer lighting and cinematography, not to mention a return to James Bernard’s score he used to similar effect in the original Dracula (1958). The audience is left waiting for Lee’s appearance as Dracula to the point of almost wanting to give up. But when he does finally arrive Lee is bereft of dialogue and has none of the intelligent gentlemanly monster characteristics he has in the first part of the original film (for the second part of that film he does not speak) and is instead just a monster. Why this is has never been clear (see below Lee’s own comments as to why not). Matthews is a little hammy as one of the party, Keir dominates the scenes he is in, but it is Barbara Shelley as the worrisome Helen who provides the best performance as she transforms from a wary and conservative lady into a sexy lesbian lusting vampire. She snarls and hisses and acts superbly when taken by Father Shandor and the monks to be staked on a table. The next shot shows her with a peaceful face, no longer inflicted as a vampire and can finally rest in peace. The blood is unrealistic but is in typical bright garish colours using Hammer’s Techniscope process, particularly in the scene of the neck slitting to revive Dracula in one of the most fascinating scenes in the film which has a hypnotic dreamlike quality to the way it is filmed. Some of these examples are clear why as to why Fisher is so venerated among horror fans creating the classic look to Hammer horror.

The package presented here is beautifully put together with many accompanying extras including an old and now dated eighties documentary narrated by the late Oliver Reed about the story of Hammer; this episode focusing on Christopher Lee. But more interesting than this is a new documentary centred not so much on the studio or Dracula but rather on the making of the film and Dracula, Prince of Darkness in the context of other Hammer films at the time. The film has new interviews with stars Francis Matthews and Barbara Shelley (but sadly not Lee), goes into Bernard’s scoring of the film and the background making, with comments from horror fan Mark Gatiss as well as some very insightful and interesting observations by the author of an authoritative book on British horror films, Jonathan Rigby who wrote ‘English Gothic’. Rigby sets the record straight with Lee often having been quoted as saying that the reason Dracula never speaks throughout the film is because he thought Jimmy Sangster’s dialogue was awful with Lee often being quoted as having to say such dialogue as Dracula calling himself the “prince of darkness” being expunged. Rigby observes that Lee actually said these words in later Hammer Dracula films. This is a truly entertaining documentary for any fan of Hammer horror films. But this is not all that is included. Aside from the usual trailers, the different opening to the US release and examples of the clean up process in restoring the films there is also a short piece of 8mm film of the climax on the ice being shot. This piece of home filming was shot by Paul Shelley, brother of the actress Barbara and an actor himself with commentary on the filming by the four leading cast members including this time Lee who are clearly nostalgic about this piece of history and the personnel involved in the making. For me too it was nostalgic to re-visit this film again as I spent much of my childhood enjoying the old Hammer films and continue to do so even if some of them such as this film are not the best of them.

Chris Hick

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