Blu-Ray Review: Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966).

Directed by Terence Fisher
Produced by Anthony Nelson Keys
Screenplay by John Sansom (Jimmy Sangster)
From an idea from John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Film Editor: Chris Barnes
Music by James Bernard

Cast: Christopher Lee (Dracula), Barbara Shelley (Helen Kent), Andrew Keir (Father Sandor), Francis Matthews (Charles Kent), Suzan Farmer (Diana Kent), Charles Tingwell (Alan Kent), Thorley Walters (Ludwig), Philip Latham (Klove)

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Hammer Films’ approach to sequels has always fascinated me. It was smart, it was different. Their Frankenstein pictures followed the doctor, not the monster. Each film saw the good doctor hiding out someplace new, working on his latest experiment. Brides Of Dracula (1960), Hammer’s followup to their Dracula (1958, known in the US as Horror Of Dracula), went in the same direction. Since Count Dracula had been reduced to a nasty pile of dust, they kept their focus on Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Makes sense.

But I guess a Dracula movie isn’t a Dracula movie if Dracula’s not in it. So Hammer worked to bring Christopher Lee back. It would be eight years before Lee donned the cape, fangs and bloodshot contacts for Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966). Whether it was worth the wait is something Hammer fans tend to debate quite a bit.

Dracula – Prince Of Darkness was one of the first Hammer films I saw (it might’ve been the first), and it made a huge impression on me, particularly the resurrection sequence. The movie’s deliberate pacing and grim tone seems to explode once Klove gets out his knife. And as a kid, that scene pulled the cinematic rug out from under me — after that, anything could happen — and I watched the rest of the film with an odd combination of joy, distrust and absolute dread.

Bringing Lee back in Prince Of Darkness sent the series down a path of killing Dracula off in one picture, then bringing him back in the next. But they never got it better than this one. With Van Helsing (and Peter Cushing) missing, we get the vampire hunter Father Sandor (Andrew Keir). He’s terrific, but Cushing is missed — his mixture of obsession and morality makes a good backbone for a picture like this. One of Dracula’s victims is Barbara Shelley, whose performance — going from repressed rich lady to sexed-up vampiress — is really something.

Dracula was a model of efficiency — it looks like it cost much more than it did, its pacing is perfectly tight, and it works wonders with a very small cast. For Dracula – Prince Of Darkness, Terence Fisher and his team spread things out a bit in terms of both pace and space — this is one of the few Hammer horror films in ‘Scope, Techniscope, to be exact.

That Techniscope is one of the things that makes the new Blu-Ray from Scream Factory so important. Techniscope used far less frame space than an anamorphic process like CinemaScope or Panavision, so sharpness and graininess become an issue. But they’re not a problem here, and we get two different versions of the picture to choose from. The British cut is a bit shorter, and its color leans toward green — but it’s sharper. The US version is longer by about 12 seconds, its color is much better, but it’s a bit softer and the blacks are very dense. Of course, Hammer horror films are all about their color. Scream Factory was wise to give it to us this way. Combining the two wouldn’t have worked (the mismatched color would have driven us all nuts), and there would’ve been complaints about one vs. the other. (Personally, I prefer the US version.) The sound is terrific, giving James Bernard’s score the power it deserves.

There’s a coffin-full or great extras, from a short documentary to some behind the scenes home movie footage. All in all, this is an outstanding package — and a terrific opportunity to rediscover a film that has spent way too much time under the shadow of its predecessor. It’s time for its own resurrection. Highly, highly recommended.

Dracula – Prince Of Darkness played theaters paired with John Dilling’s The Plague Of The Zombies (1966), a smaller picture that’s a real knockout. It’s available from Scream Factory, too, and it’s essential.

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Filed under 1966, Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hammer Films, Shout/Scream Factory, Terence Fisher

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