Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Blu-ray)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Distributed by Millenium Entertainment
Max Schreck. Bela Lugosi. John Carradine. Jack Palance. Udo Kier. Klaus Kinski. George Hamilton. Frank Langella. Duncan Regehr. Gary Oldman. Gerard Butler. That big muscle-y guy from Blade: Trinity.
Throughout the history of cinema, a great many actors have taken on the role of Bram Stoker’s most enduring creation, the immortal vampire Count Dracula, and several even managed to make an indelible mark with their takes on the character. But for this writer’s money, the greatest of all the thesps to have donned the cloak of fiction’s most famous bloodsucker was English actor Christopher Lee. Lee, with his intimidating height and baritone voice, was a great fit for the vampiric nobleman, and played the role in numerous Hammer horror productions throughout his impressive career, beginning with 1958’s Horror of Dracula. Lee sat out that film’s initial sequel, the wonderful Brides of Dracula, but returned to what would become his signature role a decade later in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, now out on Blu-ray from Millenium Entertainment.
Picking up ten years after Dracula’s defeat at the hands of Doctor Van Helsing (Cushing, sadly appearing in only the film’s opening flashback), Prince introduces us to a four young Londoners (the Kents) who have made the grave mistake of vacationing throughout the Carpathian mountains. These two couples venture toward the village of Karlsbad against the warnings of their coach driver, who ejects them from his carriage when their trail nears the looming Castle Dracula. They are eventually picked up by a driverless coach and delivered to the castle, where they discover the home’s sole inhabitant – a man named Klove (Latham), a servant to the late Count who continues to keep house and greet visitors to honor his master’s wishes.
The couples receive food and boarding, and quickly retire for the evening. Of course, Klove is not the kindly caretaker he seems. He eventually murders one of our heroes, using their blood to soak Dracula’s ashes and bring him back to life (death? …un-life?). Dracula then takes up his old habits, turning one of the remaining three into a vampire, while pursuing the others all the way to the doorstep of Father Sandor (Keir, standing in for Cushing’s Van Helsing), a gruff monk who gives them sanctuary in his monastery. Of course, Dracula has pursued them, and uses his servants and one of the monastery’s patients (Ludwig, a Renfield substitute) to attack from within the abbey’s walls. It all leads up to a chase and a climax atop an icy lake, where…well, while I don’t feel it entirely necessary to shout “spoiler alert!” for a forty-seven year old film, I’ll refrain from discussing the finale for those who aren’t caught up on their Hammer horrors (shame!).
While the movie bears most of the hallmarks of Hammer’s heyday, Prince is sadly one of the weaker entries in their line of horror films. The film’s pace is quite slow, Dracula doesn’t appear until well over halfway through, and the climactic scenes cannot manage to thrill in the way that we expect from these movies. Worse still, Lee seems almost entirely uninterested with his role here. This is sadly the worst performance from the best Dracula, as Lee doesn’t speak a word (he reportedly refused to recite any of Dracula’s scripted dialogue), and reduces his considerable abilities to mere face-pulling and large gestures. It’s a strange, hammy performance from an actor who was capable of far more, even under worse circumstances.
Still, there’s a lot to love here as well. The bulk of the cast do a fine job throughout (the standout being Latham, who provides more genuine menace in the film than Lee), the sets are marvelous, and the photography is as beautiful as one would hope from a 60s Hammer flick (to say nothing of Hammer regular James Bernard’s wonderful score). For all of its faults, Prince’s virtues make it a must-see for fans of Hammer and classic horror cinema.
Millenium Entertainment has done a bang-up job with bringing this film to Blu-ray. The image is just gorgeous, sharp and boasting beautiful color. It shames the previous DVD release (which itself was a big improvement over previous releases of the film). And while I’ve read some grousing about the DNR used in the film’s restoration, this is easily the best the film has ever looked. The audio, too, is perfectly solid if not incredibly dynamic (as befitting a movie produced so many decades ago).
The disc’s pretty impressive bonus features package includes: a package of fun, postcard-sized collectible cards; an audio commentary with stars Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, and Barbara Shelley; a vintage 1990 “World of Hammer” episode focusing on Lee’s career with the company; a restoration comparison detailing the process used to polish up the film’s damaged print; a fun, text-only trailer for a double feature of Prince and Frankenstein Created Woman; and a slideshow which includes looks at posters, lobby cards, and behind-the-scenes stills, all set to the film’s score. Topping all this off is a new, thirty minute documentary titled Back to Black, which looks back at the film’s making and its place within the Hammer legacy. All in all, a damned good release for a flawed if essential part of Hammer history.
Ultimately, you need this Blu-ray if you call yourself a Hammer fan. And for everyone else – I’d still recommend giving this title a look one day. While it isn’t the first Hammer I would show to the uninitiated (or the second, or the third), it should still be considered required viewing for those with even a passing interest in classic horror of the capes ‘n castles variety.
2 1/2 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5