Christopher Lee makes his second appearance as the immortal Count Dracula in Hammer’s DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, now available in the United States on Blu-ray disc courtesy of Millennium Entertainment.
In the Carpathian Mountains, fear and various superstitions about vampirism still run rampant in the years following Count Dracula’s demise. Two English couples — Charles Kent (Francis Matthews, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and wife Diana (Suzan Farmer, DIE MONSTER DIE!) and Charles' brother Alan Kent (Charles Tingwell, A CRY IN THE DARK) and wife Helen (Barbara Shelley, RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK) — are vacationing in the vicinity. After he disrupts a blasphemous funeral procession in the forest, boisterous priest Father Sandor (Andrew Kier, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) meets the traveling quartet in a tavern and warns them not to go near Carlsbad or its castle (which isn’t even on their map). Despite his demand, various circumstances have them ending up at the castle where a rather sinister servant named Klove (Philip Latham, THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES) serves them up a meal and rooms in spite of his absent master (the “late” Count Dracula).
During the quartet’s nightly stay, Alan is assaulted by Klove, who hangs his body over the ashes of Dracula (Christopher Lee), slitting his throat to revive the vampire king. When he calls Helen to her husband, she is bitten by Dracula and instantly becomes his vampire bride. Charles and Diana manage to escape from the vampiric duo and are saved by Father Sandor, taking refuge at his monastery. As the priest is very knowledgeable in the ways of shielding oneself from a vampire, he is able to offer proper protection, but an oddball resident named Ludwig (Thorley Walters, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED) easily influenced by Dracula, lets them inside and Diana is abducted. With Sandor’s helpful assistance, Charles must rescue his wife before she faces the same dreadful fate as Helen.
Although Hammer made an immediate sequel to their enormously successful DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA) with 1960’s BRIDES OF DRACULA, DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS marks Lee’s long-awaited return to the role which made him a star and the film is a trademark example of why Hammer was so prosperous during the 1960s (the film actually commences with the climax to HORROR OF DRACULA, where Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing destroys Drac for the first time). With the usual impressive sets (by Bernard Robinson) and the expected gothic atmosphere (this was the final Hammer Dracula shot at Bray Studios, and the film also makes ample use of the imposing Black Park), James Bernard’s impressive score (which recycled the main theme from the first DRACULA) and an excellent cast, DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a worthy entry in a series which would see Lee play the Lord of the Undead five more times. The film displays Hammer’s increasing penchant for blood (Kensington Gore as they call it), with the film being the first where the Count has to be revived on screen, where the red stuff flows like a burst water main. Terence Fisher’s direction is also superb, maintaining more than a few memorably chilling scenes, and also injecting bits from the original Stoker novel (including when Dracula hypnotizes Diana and pulls her head forward to kiss a line of blood on his chest). As usual, Fisher handles the limited budget very nicely, and the film is sort of a comeback of sorts as he had just done a handful of horrors for Hammer which were not financially lucrative (this would be the second and last Dracula entry he would direct, though he would get to helm a few more Frankenstein films, the series he’s best known for).
Although Dracula’s screen time would continually decrease as the series went on (and he doesn’t exactly have a lot here), DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS is unique in that Lee is speaks no dialogue. The storyline was conceived years earlier by frequent Hammer producer Anthony Hinds (aka John Elder), and the final script was furnished by none other than Jimmy Sangster, and credited to his pseudonym, John Sansom. Although Dracula has no words to speak (he does hiss a lot), the rest of the dialogue is pretty meaty, and the fine cast executes it well. Acting honors go to Kier (a more than fine substitute for Cushing’s Van Helsing) as the rifle-toting holy man vampire killer and Shelley, whose seductive vampiress help set the standard for all the sexy Hammer vamps to come. Hammer’s comedic character actor Walters (supposedly a drinking buddy of the director) plays a Renfield-like character (further establishing one foot in the Stoker novel) who happens to munch on small insects.
After being on both letterboxed VHS and laserdisc, DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS was first released on DVD through Anchor Bay Entertainment over a decade ago in a non-anamorphic transfer which left a lot to be desired. When Millennium Entertainment recently acquired a number of Hammer titles for U.S. home video consumption, they quickly released a DVD set featuring this film, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN and LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, with promises that Blu-ray releases would follow. This Blu-ray is the first of these, preserving the film in its original 2.35:1 Scope aspect ratio in a 1080p HD transfer. It’s a vast improvement over the Anchor Bay DVD (as well as Millennium's recent standard DVD which used the same HD source) with colors being mostly succulent and detail extremely sharp. Although the picture displays some minor grain in spots and at times the hues appear a little off, the presentation is quite pleasurable on a whole. The English audio comes in a 2.0 Dolby Surround track, and is well balanced enough that dialog is clear and Bernard’s rousing score also sounds appropriately robust. English SDH subtitles are also included.
As this is the first Hammer “Collector’s Edition” presented by Millennium and Exclusive Media Group in the U.S., there’s a decent amount of supplements on hand. The audio commentary by the cast (Lee, Shelley, Matthews and Farmer) was originally recorded back in the late 1990s for the laserdisc release, and then ported over to Anchor Bay’s early DVD. It’s still quite an entertaining listen worth revisiting, as a lot of great stories are shared and it’s obvious that there’s camaraderie among the four. “Back in Black” is a 30-minute retrospective documentary recently shot for the British StudioCanal Blu-ray, and it’s quite well done and is a very worthy companion piece to the film. It includes interviews with Hammer archivist Marcus Hearne, actors Shelley and Matthews, Hammer fan Mark Gatiss, authors David Huckvale and Jonathan Rigby, and Technical Restoration Manager Jon Mann. The scholars here shed some worthwhile light on the production and the era in which the film was made, but it’s just great to see Shelley and Matthews still reminiscing about this Hammer classic and sharing their best remembered anecdotes. A 1990s “World of Hammer” episode (like all of them, it’s narrated by Oliver Reed) focuses on Lee’s film work with Hammer, but the program is quite humdrum these days with all the clips and films being so easily accessible (it's presented in standard definition).
Sadly missing from this Blu-ray are the behind-the-scenes 8mm home movies (shot on the set by Matthews’ brother) which were on the Anchor Bay DVD. The 30-second restored theatrical trailer is also a disappointment, as it's a Brit trailer which has the film on a double bill with FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN — no scenes from either film are shown. So missing here are the great U.S. trailer and TV spots which pair DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS with PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. Rounding out the extras is an extensive photo gallery, and the disc’s packaging includes some nice mini collector’s cards (color lobby card reproductions). All in all, Millennium have done a nice job with their first Blu-ray release of a Hammer title (and a wise choice at that) and we look forward to many more! (George R. Reis)
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