Through an exclusive licensing agreement with Studio Canal, Millennium Entertainment plans to release a number of Hammer horror classics on DVD and Blu-ray. Their two-disc, three-film HAMMER HORROR COLLECTION – released at a steal of a price to test the waters – is a bit of mixed blessing.
Having been vanquished by Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), Christopher Lee’s count rises from the ashes (literally) in 1965’s DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Warned away from visiting the village of Karlsbad (actually Black Park) by monk Father Sandor (Andrew Kier, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT), four young English travelers – the Kent brothers Alan (Charles Tingwell, SUMMERFIELD) and Charles (Francis Matthews, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and their respective wives Helen (Barbara Shelley, GHOST STORY) and Diana (Suzan Farmer, DIE MONSTER, DIE!) – end up stranded there by their superstitious coachman as night falls. A driverless coach comes along and, of its own volition (cue more rollicking James Bernard music), takes them up to a lonely old castle (a Les Bowie matte painting and Bernard Robinson set) where creepy housekeeper Klove (Philip Latham, THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES) comes along to inform them that it was the wish of his later master Count Dracula that the castle always be ready to receive visitors and sets them up for the night. Alan makes the gothic horror error of investigating strange goings on in the night and his blood is used by Klove to resurrect Dracula (another Les Bowie effect) who makes Helen his first victim. Charles and Helen manage to escape the castle and are given shelter by Father Sandor, but Renfield-esque caretaker Ludwig (Thorley Walters, VAMPIRE CIRCUS) may provide a means for Dracula to infiltrate the monastery.
Although there was a lull between the first and second Lee/Dracula entries (Cushing only figured in the first and the last two entries), Hammer did attempt to shake things up with BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) and KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1962). For the longest time DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS was one of the most difficult titles in the Hammer Dracula series to see for American viewers since distributor Fox seemed to have no interest in exploiting it on tape, disc, or television before the rights reverted to Hammer (long before the tape and later disc releases, the Dracula titles held by Warner – along with THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA – were late night TV staples while HORROR OF DRACULA had been out on tape from the beginning of the format). After years of reading about DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS in horror movie and vampire cinema tomes and seeing stills (particularly the one of Barbara Shelley about to be staked, which does turn out to be an intense sequence), one can’t help but be somewhat underwhelmed when the film finally became available on tape and laserdisc in the late 1990s. Although it has certainly improved with subsequent viewings, I still find the first section of the film more atmospheric than the busier second half of the film. Shelley’s formerly repressed wife turned fanged seductress is more interesting than Lee’s snarling count, but Fisher’s recreation of a scene from Stoker’s novel with Lee opening a vein in his chest for Farmer to feed on is more daring than anything in Hammer’s later Karnstein trilogy (even if Christopher Lee looks like he’s “thinking of England”).
When Elite Entertainment wanted to release DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS on laserdisc, they found the elements in a sad state of decay. William Lustig (who had acquired fourteen Hammer titles and sublicensed DRACULA to Elite) found that the original Techniscope 2-perf negative had faded to different degrees on the same frames requiring a telecine adjusted to make different corrections on the same frame. The resulting 2.35:1 transfer garnered some criticism for not being particularly vibrant for a Technicolor movie and being a little dark (a compromise for the film’s mix of day-for-night and night-for-night shots in single sequences) but it was uncut unlike the UK letterboxed tape release which had a BBFC-mandated cut during the scene in which Lee slits his chest to feed Farmer (a recreation of an event described in the Stoker novel). While other films in the Hammer package were remastered and anamorphically-enhanced for Anchor Bay’s DVD issues a couple years later, the company must have decided that redoing all of the color correction for a new anamorphic transfer of DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS would be cost-prohibitive and utilized the non-anamorphic laserdisc master for their DVD (later reissued in the same transfer in a double bill with RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK which also featured Lee, Shelley, Farmer, and Matthews).
Studio Canal’s HD restoration – released on Blu-ray in the UK – was undertaken at Pinewood Studios from a 2K scan of the negative and has already received bad reviews for its application of DVNR, and it appears that the same master has been used here unless Studio Canal’s previous anamorphic SD PAL master had the same framing and coloring. Millenium’s single-layer disc is still a significant upgrade for those of us who have contended with the Anchor Bay release and did not seek out any of the import DVDs and are region-locked for Blu-ray. Although an early insert of Castle Dracula is cropped on both sides compared to the Anchor Bay transfer, the newer transfer often reveals slivers more picture info on the left, right, and top of the image. The brighter image sometimes looks flatter than the darker Anchor Bay transfer (although night scenes looked noisier on the older transfer), but the colors are more vibrant (hellish in the case of the red gels lighting the great hall of Dracula’s castle) making Michael Reed a somewhat worthy successor of Jack Asher. Sadly missing from the Millennium release is the great commentary track with Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer and Francis Matthews that made the Anchor Bay DVD worth keeping (as well as some silent home movies on set shot by Matthews’ brother that also featured additional commentary by the actors). The disc includes optional English subtitles.
Disc two is a flipper pairing Roy Ward Baker’s LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES and Terence Fisher’s FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. After killing Dracula enough times that Christopher Lee got sick of it, Hammer shook things up by adding kung-fu to the formula with the Sir Run Run Shaw co-produced LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES. Kah (Chan Sen, CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD) travels all the way from China to Transylvania to implore Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson, LIFEFORCE) to resurrect the Seven Golden Vampires in order to restore his power. Dracula, tired of his castle and needing a disguise to move amongst human beings, decides to possess Kah’s body and returns to China where he utilizes the Seven Golden Vampires to raid the nearby villages and bring him back victims. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, who had returned to Hammer’s Dracula series for its last two modern-day entries) just happens to be lecturing on the supernatural in Chungking where he is approached by Hsi Ching (David Chiang, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II) about combating the Seven Golden Vampires. Together with Van Helsing’s son Leyland (Robin Stewart, THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR) and young widow Vanessa Beren (Julie Ege, RENTADICK) who funds the expedition, Van Helsing and Hsi Ching journey to Kah’s pagoda lair with the protection of Hsi Ching’s martial artist sister Mei Kwei (Szu Shih, WU TENG CLAN) and her six brothers, unaware of the true identity of their vampiric foe.
Although it failed to revive Hammer’s vampire films or horror films in general (their next horror film TO THE DEVIL—A DAUGHTER would be their last genre feature before moving onto 1980s television with HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR and HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE until recently with WAKE WOOD, LET ME IN and THE WOMAN IN BLACK), LEGEND OF THE VAMPIRES is certainly entertaining and novel. Forbes-Robertson’s Dracula is more theatrical than Lee’s feral vamp, but it probably should be viewed on its own terms than as part of the previous series (Dracula possesses Kah in 1804 but the story proper is set in 1904 so I doubt he assumed his original form, popped back over to Europe at intervals to terrorize the protagonists of the series films, get killed, and resurrected several times before heading back to China). The Seven Golden Vampires seemed patterned after Amando De Ossorio’s Knights Templar (particularly their resurrection scenes) and the effects range from neat and quaint to poor. Van Helsing has little to do during the fight scenes, mainly yelling out tips to the martial artists to aim for the heart (just as well since Van Helsing the younger has little luck throwing himself into the fray) and John Wilcox’s otherwise attractive Panavision cinematography is atmospheric with the horror elements but not particularly dynamic during the fights. It’s better enjoyed as a supernaturally tinged kung-fu pic than a Hammer horror.
While Millennium gives LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES a long-needed anamorphic upgrade (for stateside viewers that is), the transfer has been mastered from a PAL-source without speed correction of the framerate and audio. While other conversions are usually an interlaced mess of mismatched fields, Millennium’s transfer appears to be progressive encoded at 29.97 frames-per-second from the 25 fps source. There are none of the blended fields one sees on other transfers done this way (for instance, Severin’s THE ABC OF LOVE AND SEX and AUSTRALIA AFTER DARK), but the sped-up movements and jerky pans look distractingly unnatural. The colors are not as dialed back as they are on Anchor Bay’s earlier non-anamorphic transfer, so the gel lighting is more striking and otherworldly; however the anamorphic image sometimes looks softer than the original transfer. The subtitles during the prologue are in a different (less attractive) font than the ones on the Anchor Bay release, but they also appear to be vintage rather than a new addition (optional subtitles are included for the English dialogue). The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is clean but also subject to PAL speedup. Unfortunately, the 1979 American recut THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA – or, as it is amusingly called in the trailer “The Seven Brothers and Their One Sister Meet Dracula” – has not been included as it was on the flipside of the Roan Group laserdisc and the Anchor Bay DVD (presumably because this was an addition sourced by the US laserdisc producers and not supplied by the rights holders). Roughly fifteen minutes shorter (even shorter since some footage is shown flipped in the opening credits and repeated again later), the US recut is pretty terrible but it was a nice inclusion nonetheless.
In FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, Frankenstein (Cushing) has been working with Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters again) on suspended animation experiments. Their assistant Hans (Robert Morris, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) is in love with the innkeeper’s lame daughter Cristina (Playboy centerfold Susan Denberg). When her father is murdered, suspicion falls on Hans because his own father (Duncan Lamont, the TV serial version of THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT) went to the guillotine for murder and Hans is executed by the townspeople. A devastated Cristina drowns herself, creating the perfect receptacle for Frankenstein to transfer Hans’ spirit which he has been able to trap. Frankenstein doesn’t realize however that he has created a creature even more lethal than his previous efforts: a beautiful woman with a soul bent on revenge against those responsible for his death and that of Cristina’s father. Her primary targets are three young wealthy men (YES, MINISTER’s Derek Fowlds, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE’s Barry Warren, and A CHALLENGE TO ROBIN HOOD’s Peter Blythe) with whom Hans had had an altercation when they refused to pay Cristina’s father and taunted the girl.
Although the title is a humorous reference to Roger Vadim’s AND GOD CREATED WOMAN, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN draws more from THE BRIDE WORE BLACK and also somewhat anticipates the storyline of Mel Welles’ Italian-shot LADY FRANKENSTEIN as well as Hammer’s own later HANDS OF THE RIPPER than it does the more obvious DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. Denberg shows considerably less skin than in her much-published bandage bikini pose beside Cushing, but gives a better performance than the usual dubbed Hammer starlets (although her final scene is somewhat let down by her line readings and an obvious stuntman in a dress in the reverse angle). The seduce-and-destroy scenes are sold as more by Arthur Grant’s framing and lighting of Denberg and her victims, as well as the performances of the said victims (particularly Fowlds who earns the right to be the final victim with his increasing jitteriness) than Denberg’s transition from flirtation to rage. Although the revenge part of the scenario takes up a chunk of the film including the climax, Cushing isn’t exactly on the back burner as he and Walters deflect suspicion about the murders and come to the realization of who is doing them. The storyline is less conventional, if fairly predictable, than the other entries – although I haven’t seen the series closer FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL – and some may find it the pleasant surprise of this set.
Millennium’s FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN is a progressive, single-layer transfer framed at 1.78:1 as opposed to the 1.66:1 of the out-of-print Anchor Bay release. The wider framing of the Millennium release trims a hair off the top of the frame and more off the bottom. The film would have been projected at 1.85:1 in the U.S. theatrically (like DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, this Frankenstein entry was distributed domestically by Twentieth-Century-Fox rather than Warner Bros., so the rights reverted back to Hammer in 1995 going by the renewed Hammer copyright on the AB disc), but the 1.66:1 framing of the older transfer certainly gives the compositions the appropriate breathing room (particularly in medium shots of Denberg where the top of her pompadour gets clipped). What is more objectionable is the green tinge that pervades the Millennium version (presumably this is Studio Canal’s previous SD master since a) it really doesn’t look like an HD master, and b) there are a couple European DVD releases of the film sporting this ratio while others are 1.66:1 like the AB disc). The murder of Karl also seems to have been patched up partially from an inferior source as the image becomes coarser in the last four shots (there was a slight image degradation in this same sequence on the Anchor Bay transfer but it is nowhere near as bad as in the newer master which seems to have been a different restoration); that said, the Studio Canal transfer is sharper and sometimes more detailed. The mono audio is fine, and English SDH subtitles are included as on the other films in the set.
Despite the package’s flaws, I’m not recommending viewers steer clear of the set. It does offer anamorphic upgrades of DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS and LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (while AB’s disc of the Frankenstein film is still recommended, it is out of print and pricey), and it can be had very cheaply (it’s $6.99 before shipping at Amazon.com right now). Purchasing it also lets Millennium know that there is interest in the Hammer library, and hopefully they might upgrade all three titles for future release (hopefully with extras including the DRACULA commentary). (Eric Cotenas)
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