Blu-ray Review: Dracula Prince of Darkness - Quintessential Hammer

Obviously a must-buy for any Hammer fan and a good introduction to those new to the films, although it’s not among the studio’s absolute best.

rating: 3.5

Although he entered the literary world and, gradually, the public consciousness in the 19th century, Count Dracula is as important and iconic a 20th century character as almost any other. The Dracula story has been told so often in film and every other conceivable medium that seeing a new version is like hearing a cover of a familiar song; perhaps over-familiar, given the relative dearth of recent adaptations. That he is so easily mocked is further evidence of this; common points of reference are easy targets, a fact that took its toll, in some way, on both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Lugosi only actually played the character twice onscreen, but when he returned to the role on stage late in his career the once-terrified audiences rocked with laughter. Lee too seems to have had a love-hate relationship with his most famous role. As it is, stories vary as to why Lee returned to the role he had walked away from (he turned down the first Hammer sequel to Dracula, Brides of Dracula starring Peter Cushing), or why he has so little screen time and no dialogue (Lee claimed his dialogue was too bad for him to deliver; writer Jimmy Sangster responded that he didn€™t ever write any). But such limitations in the horror genre are often hidden advantages, and Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, which was made for less than £100,000 by Hammer legend Terence Fisher, laid the groundwork for many of Hammer€™s subsequent Dracula films. The character€™s iconic status allows the idea of Dracula to hang over the movie while Lee is off-screen. We see him in the flashback at the beginning, recapping the first movie€™s climax. We see his name (in bright red, obviously). We meet the worried, superstitious townsfolk. The longer he€™s kept off-screen, the more powerful his eventual presence has. The film is referred to as a quintessential Hammer, and it€™s easy to see why. Its story is a model of simplicity: Four British tourists, the Kents, find themselves in Carlsbad spending the night in Dracula€™s castle. Dracula, never dead for terribly long, is soon resurrected and takes a few people out before being destroyed. The set-up, resurrection and eventual demise was repeated throughout the series, with the Count being dispatched in a slightly new way each time. On top of this there are the handsome production values, the lush, near-lurid palate of Eastmancolor and melodramatic strains of music that immediately evoke Hammer. There is also the occasional undercurrent of eroticism and lesbian desire: €˜You don€™t need Charles,€™ Helen (Barbara Shelley) tells Diana (Suzan Farmer), as she leans in for a bite. While Dracula is kept in the wings the main antagonist is Klove (Philip Latham) who fills the role of the villain€™s unflaggingly loyal servant, while Father Sandor (a likeable performance from Andrew Keir, soon to play Quatermass for Hammer) essentially fills the Van Helsing part. The building anticipation is a big part of most of the best Hammer films, and it€™s rewarded by an unforgettable scene in which Dracula is resurrected from his ashes as they are mixed with freshly spilt blood (/gallons of bright red Kensington Gore) from the throat of an unsuspecting Kent. When Lee€™s Dracula is, finally, onscreen his silence gives him more of an immediate impact, as do the contact lenses that make his eyes look bloodshot. He doesn€™t speak; he hisses. At this stage he€™s a beast, a monster: an all-out force of evil. The downside of this is that if Dracula loses his human quality then he also loses his charm and much of what it is that appeals to us about him. Nevertheless though reduced to a snake, his sexual element remains intact. The familiar elements of the myth are in place. Sleeping vampires (usually the female ones) have stakes driven through them. The tourists, far from the comforts of home, neither heed the warnings nor sense that they are quite obviously in a horror movie, and are punished from their scepticism and lack of caution. If there€™s a problem with Prince of Darkness it may be the same as the reason it€™s also praised: it€™s €˜quintessential€™ because it doesn€™t stray from a common Hammer formula (which it played a part in creating) and can€™t match the plotting of the first Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein films, or the imagination and wit of Frankenstein Created Woman or The Devil Rides Out. The reason it is so often cited €“ it is more readily available and more often shown than the first, better, Dracula €“ may be in its demonstration of that studio€™s ability to take an incredibly simple, archetypal story and elevate it with craftsmanship, wit, Kensington Gore and sensuality. FILM: 3.5 out of 5 Although not among the very best of Hammer it remains popular among fans and deservedly so. Although Lee€™s screen time amounts to a matter of minutes, he makes more of an impact briefly and without dialogue than he would in some of the lesser Dracula films he made, and the supporting cast and Terence Fisher€™s direction give life €“ appropriately €“ to well-worn material. QUALITY: 3.5 out of 5 The restoration is on the whole very good, restoring the colours beautifully. Careful inspection shows some wear-and-tear has remained, with the occasional faint scratch visible and some film elements weaker than others (particularly the pre-title flashback). The LCPM 2.0 audio is decent and clear but there appears to be a slight synch issue at the very beginning. EXTRAS: 3.5 out of 5 An interesting half-hour doc about the film, along with a dated vintage TV episode about Christopher Lee€™s career (or rather clips of his most famous roles with narration by Oliver Reed), some 8mm footage shot onset, trailers and a rather endearing commentary by actors Lee, Shelley, Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer. PRESENTATION: 3 out of 5 A simple, easy to navigate menu. The case for the double-play edition is, however, pretty uninspired. OVERALL: 3.5 out of 5 Obviously a must-buy for any Hammer fan and a good introduction to those new to the films, although it€™s not among the studio€™s absolute best. Dracula: Prince Of Darkness is available now on Double-Play Blu-Ray.

I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.