UK Blu-Ray Review: DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS

The blueprint for gothic horror that iconic British production house Hammer Films established in its golden age has been mocked, spoofed and satirised many, many times over the decades since. It can be bizarre, watching these movies in retrospect, and trying to decide whether there's actually anything good in there. Terence Fisher's Dracula, Prince of Darkness is now close to half a century old, and there are times when calling it 'the quintessential Hammer film' feels like making excuses for a laundry list of plot points that elicit nervous giggles, even outright derision. Idiot naifs wandering vampire country, check; trembling peasant folk warning them evil lurks in the deep woods, check; Dracula resurrected, screaming women, campy bloodletting, check, check and check. Nonetheless, the tone - somewhere between trembling stiff upper lip and eager am-dram theatre - the pragmatic sense of craftsmanship and the dedicated cast all still impress, not least the great Christopher Lee in the role that made him famous.

It bears noting Lee doesn't actually get that much to do, like most of Hammer's Dracula films to feature the star. He turned down the second film in the franchise, which some have put down to a fear of being typecast, but Lee then returned for six more sequels, of which Prince of Darkness is considered the first true follow-up to the 1958 original. The plot is about as spare as it gets; opening on the climax of the first film, we then skip ten years into the future, where Count Dracula is just a fearful memory, and the villagers of the Carpathians practice the old wards against evil more out of half-remembered tradition than any real belief vampires are out there waiting to pounce. A group of English travellers, the brothers Kent and their wives, dismiss the locals' fears as mere superstition. When the coachman they hire insists he'll travel no further down their chosen route and dumps them in the forest near Karlsbad with night falling fast, the four take shelter at a mysterious castle - but the reclusive manservant who welcomes them has far more menacing plans for them than a good night's rest.

Prince of Darkness is brisk, cheerfully unapologetic pulp that makes absolutely no bones about wanting its audience kept happy. Lee has claimed he was all but forced into agreeing on the third and subsequent Dracula sequels (he publicly rubbished the later attempts to move the character into the present day, which ultimately drove him to quit). Certainly after the huge success of the original it's not hard to believe Hammer would have been intent on setting up a production line for these things as fast as possible. It's not necessarily meant as a pejorative but there is unquestionably a workmanlike air to the plotting; from the moment things open on the climax to a film already seven years in the can you can sense the executive decisions behind every new development. During their heyday Hammer traded in an odd blend of camp excess and lean thinking, in that virtually every scene is very obvious fanservice, yet at the same time there's barely a word wasted. Not to mention everyone at this point was clearly in on the joke.

It's still far from great cinema, all the same. Hammer stalwart Francis Matthews is solid as Charles Kent, though fairly one-note, the epitome of the matinee English gentleman whose poise barely wavers even when the dead have risen from their graves right in front of him. Charles Tingwell as his brother Alan is amiable enough, but pretty forgettable; scream queen Barbara Shelley is charming, but in a predictably disposable role. Suzan Farmer as the other wife makes for oddly striking vampire bait - quieter and more restrained than some of the more famous Hammer femmes - but again, she's given little to do bar swoon at the Count's terrifying presence. The veteran Scots character actor Andrew Keir makes the best impression as the imposing priest who still remembers the Count's previous reign of terror - Keir tears into every speech he gets with eloquence and fervour, clearly relishing the purple prose and single-handedly bringing a great deal of the film to life.

But Prince of Darkness is unquestionably Lee's film. Again, the Count doesn't get a single word of dialogue - Lee has claimed the script was terrible and he refused to deliver his lines, though writer Jimmy Sangster insisted he never intended Lee to speak. The star's sheer physical presence is more than simply hyperbole, though. Hammer originally hired him for his height - in The Curse of Frankenstein he topped 6' 5" - but there's a magnetism about his performance regardless. His slow, deliberate movements, almost as economical as the script at times, suggest a menace that belies the daft cape, the red eyes, even the fangs. If Lee really was under any kind of duress he doesn't betray it for a moment on screen. Three films in and Dracula, too, is fanservice by this point - everything preceding his reappearance is effectively just foreplay and cast and crew are obviously well aware of it. But for all he's playing the bogeyman Lee brings a sense of danger to the role that counterbalances the air of pantomime pretty nicely.

Nonetheless, you still get the nagging feeling this is a film very much of a specific time and place, both of which have long since passed. Hammer made its mark on history, there's no denying that, and much of cinema today wouldn't be the same without them. But they were ripe for sending up when they were current, and they've only dated further since. Many of their films boasted real craftsmanship and dedication, true, with production values that outstripped modest budgets thanks to careful husbanding of resources (Prince of Darkness was filmed back to back with Rasputin, The Mad Monk, for example, and shared many of the same sets). But a unapologetic formula is still a formula, for all the effort that goes into it, all the more so if it's explicitly predicated on grindingly obvious jump scares, lurid melodrama and general playing to the bleachers. It's not hard to see why people wax lyrical about Dracula, Prince of Darkness and even the most committed cynic should find something here to enjoy. Still, it's anything but a timeless classic, and for anyone new to the studio's back catalogue merits a cautious recommendation at best.

THE DISC:

Studio Canal UK's BluRay release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness - available to buy now - gives the film a solid, if somewhat problematic release in high definition, though with an impressive line up of extra features which ought to appeal to hardcore genre fans as well as more casual viewers. The disc launches straight from the opening logos into the main menu, an appropriately kitschy collage of looping scenes, key imagery and score from the film that mirrors Hammer's original posters - it works fairly well, with the different sections clear and easy to navigate, though some of the scenes could potentially be moderate spoilers. The film has been divided into twelve chapter stops.

AUDIO:

The film comes with the original 2.0 mono audio, which is clear and distinct enough, if with some slight degree of hiss and crackle on the brassier passages of the score. Everyone enunciates clearly enough little if any of the dialogue should be a problem, though. Removable subtitles are clear, well-placed and easy to read, with few if any grammatical or spelling mistakes.

VIDEO:

The picture has its ups and downs - Studio Canal have clearly put some considerable effort in, going by the Before and After reel in the extras, cleaning up much of the dirt and minor print damage and tweaking the contrast to give the film much more impact. But the new version is plainly far from perfect; there's a great deal of grain and general flicker in many scenes, colours are soft and somewhat muddy and darker scenes lose a good deal of definition in the shadows. Some sections, like the opening flashback, look uncomfortably as if they've been run through a quick Photoshop filter. It's never less than watchable and is clearly greatly improved over the original negative in many respects, but it's hard to see this as demo material.

EXTRAS:

The real attraction is the extra features, though. Back to Black is a new Making Of produced specifically for the reissue, running about half an hour, that gathers Hammer historians, celebrity fans and surviving cast members to talk about the production. Though a little too amiable and informal - this is much more a convivial elegy than an objective dissection of what went on - the interviewees are uniformly eloquent and informative regardless of their age. Hammer expert Marcus Kear is particularly impressive for how he manages to make what is pretty much reading a textbook sound like a casual conversation.

A twenty-five minute episode of the studio's World of Hammer series focusing on Christopher Lee is included - this was largely promotional fluff, but it provides an entertaining overview of the breadth of the actor's roles, from his original appearances as the Mummy or Frankenstein's monster to his star turns and branching out into multiple genres - not something most people will return to that often, but worth a look. Behind the Scenes is five minutes of Super 8mm B-roll footage shot by Francis Matthews' brother, with commentary from Lee, Shelley, Farmer and Matthews recorded in 1997 - a quick watch, but an entertaining one.

A commentary track from the same four is included, which is pretty much the same easy-going chatter stretched to ninety minutes. These are obviously four people entirely comfortable with each other's company and going on the benefit of long working friendships, talking energetically over each other, reminiscing, name-dropping and leaving virtually no dead air. Lee wanders off topic and speechifies to some extent, and all repeat some of the material found in the Making Of but it's a fascinating, often hilarious listen. The only problem is the audio quality, which is shockingly poor - never so bad as to be unlistenable but distorted and fuzzy throughout.

Filling out the extras are the four-minute Restoration Comparison, and a collection of trailers from the original UK release, to the film's double bill with Frankenstein Created Woman and its American billing which range from hysterical kitsch to stony-faced portents of doom. All are worth a look for the amusement value, if nothing else, though some do give away many of the key moments in the film wholesale. Note that none of the extras have subtitles of any kind, other than brief intertitles on the B-roll footage explaining who's who.

Hammer films seem to be something of a sacred cow, when you consider them without the associated reverence for the glory days of the British cinema industry. It's not merely changing social mores that rob them of the power to shock - there were films produced decades before that were far more unsettling. Dracula, Prince of Darkness is in large part a pantomime, an elaborate farce designed to psyche up the audience before a jack-in-the-box leaps out of the shadows - yet at the same time the craftsmanship and dedication from cast and crew does still come through, not least Christopher Lee's star-making performance. Whatever regard you hold Hammer in, though, Studio Canal UK's BluRay of Prince of Darkness is an attractive package with some substantial and rewarding extras despite the limitations of the high-definition transfer, and comes definitely recommended.     
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