How to shake up a mid-sixties slump at Hammer Films? It’s back to basics time, with Christopher Lee returning in a most unusual way: there wasn’t much left of Dracula at the finish of his first outing as the number one supernatural public enemy. Terence Fisher is also back, enlivening the third film in the series with some surprisingly excessive gore. Barbara Shelley’s superb performance makes her Hammer’s most self-possessed heroine.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 85 min. / Street Date December 18, 2018 / 34.93
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Kier, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles Tingwell, Thorley Walters, Philip Latham, George Woodbridge.
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Film Editor: Chris Barnes
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Anthony Nelson Keyes
Directed by Terence Fisher
Third in Hammer’s Dracula series but only the second to star Christopher Lee, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is an effective haunted house thriller that was just what the studio needed: a big horror hit that didn’t require enormous sets or a large cast. After several seasons splitting himself between England and the continent, Chris Lee came back in his signature part for the studio that had given him his breakthrough — but in a rather narrow genre. With Terence Fisher at the helm and much of the same crew that had launched Technicolor Hammer eight years before, Prince of Darkness was the most prestigious and successful of the cluster of 1966 horrors that Hammer turned out to fulfill a new contract with 20th Fox.
The film does not have a strong story. The conclusion of the eight-year-old Horror of Dracula plays out as a prologue, reminding viewers that a return for the nefarious Count won’t be easy — he was reduced to dust, which was blown away on a heaven-sent breeze. But the story proper starts from scratch. Carefree vacationers try to breeze through the Carpathians, but run into the expected tragedy that replays episodes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula not covered in the first movie. Two couples are stranded by a rude coachman, and then picked up by a riderless coach. Undisturbed, they accept the hospitality of a castle even though the only person they see is a curious servant named Klove (Philip Latham). The rather thoughtless overnight guests thus become easy prey when it comes time for a classic vampire resurrection scene … for which they supply the human ‘life force.’ Of the four Englishmen that enter, only two will emerge.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness shrinks the scale of Hammer filmdom even smaller, restricting itself to one castle and several village settings. Although several set piece scenes definitely stand out as quality Hammer material, the pace is not well managed. A full forty-five minutes of preamble, scene & character setup grind out before the title fiend makes his first appearance. The Hammer formula became creaky fairly early on, trying to stay within familiar gothic guidelines. Horror fans that had seen an old Universal thriller or two didn’t need to be reacquainted with the basics of Vampires 101, yet the films start at square one time and again. When all the story elements are finally in position, only 25 minutes or so are left to move on to fresh material. As this is one of the better Hammers, exciting new elements are indeed introduced. But the pacing of the last act is such that the movie seems intent on rushing to a finish and getting it over with. What that means is by the third viewing, those first 45 minutes seem intolerable. We’re way ahead of the vacationing foursome (Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles Tingwell) and they just aren’t that interesting. The wearisome haunted house tropes pile up when the clueless visitors go off one by one with the strange butler Klove.
But the promise of Christopher Lee in full Dracula mode would entice us to sit through any number of movies (like The Magic Christian, for one), and Chris Lee does indeed deliver. Keeping his appearances brief and sharp was a good call. Lee didn’t have that much screen time back in Horror of Dracula, but the film was built around his appearances, every one of which was a serious shock moment.
Prince of Darkness’es three original scenes indeed push the edge of the envelope of vampire cinema. Klove resurrects Dracula via an extended ritual: he hangs a victim over a crypt, slashes his throat and soaks the vampire’s ashes in shimmering crimson hemoglobin. We don’t ask how the hell he could possibly have collected the ashes in the first place, but as we find out in a later sequel, a single vial of powdered Chris Lee is enough to pull off the deed. Does this mean that multiple Draculas could be cloned? That’s not a good idea. Les Bowie’s superimpositions show the vampire re-integrating nicely. The whole scene is a rousingly unhealthy success, especially for horror fans surprised by the eager display of fountains of gore splashing downward in the crypt.
Actress Barbara Shelley earns top marks as a sexually-enhanced vampire bride. Come the rating system and the possibilities of R-rated nudity and perversion, any looker willing to soak herself in Max Factor blood could become a shockingly erotic vamp vixen. Like Carol Marsh, Andree Melly and Marie Devereaux before her, Shelley implies wanton promiscuous bloodsucking lust with just a low-cut gown, hungry fangs and a liberated, gleeful smile. She also maintains her balance between poise and feral rage when she’s laid out for a staking, the old-fashioned way. Several monks must hold her down as if she were a cat, scratching and kicking. Shelley’s always a welcome contributor, in all of her movies; she’s made quite a few horror and sci-fi pictures.
The third startling scene involves Christopher Lee directly. Taken from the book, it’s another moment that one would think would raise censor objections — Stoker’s vampire makes a woman his bride by cutting his own chest, and having her drink blood from the wound. The movie doesn’t end up with a bloody-faced Suzan Farmer, but the implication of a perverse sex act with the Devil is pretty clear — it’s another rather rough scene in a 1966 movie casually marketed to kids. Lee really goes with this scene — his expression is neither that of a feral attack nor a lustful seduction — he’s offering an invitation. Lee’s performances yield subtleties that Hammer never properly recognized. When censorship eased, the company chose to sex-up their horrors with nudity, because it was the cheapest way to add commercial value.
The series would reuse the ashes ‘n’ blood revival method for Dracula. With a gory or inventive death scene now a requirement of the series, subsequent entries became more predictable than the jack-in-the-box demise/resurrection of classic monsters back at Universal of the 1940s. Remember the clever trick of pulling a wooden stake out of a skeleton to revive John Carradine? To understand the method used to kill Dracula in this show, one has to go back to Bram Stoker’s book, which rattled off scores of things that repelled the Undead, and added a laundry list of things that would kill him outright. I thought a Vampire simply couldn’t cross clean running water, but when Chris Lee is dunked in this show, he might as well be Superman lowered into a river of Kryptonite. We don’t know if that’ll keep him sparkling fresh for the next movie, or if he’ll simply show up soaking wet and surly, wringing water out of his cape. Actually, for originality Prince of Darkness deserves high marks.
Terence Fisher sticks with his traditional style of direction, which serves the picture well. Eye-lines in his cutting scheme are always very clear. Cutaways to reactions always illuminate a character’s surprise. The resurrection ritual is very creepy the first time through, as we watch Klove go through the entire process of suspending a body by a rope. The scene was completely ‘spoiled’ in an issue of Famous Monsters, but I know that if I had seen the movie fresh, I’d have been thinking, ‘surely they’re not going to show that.‘ And then Terence Fisher proceeds to the bloodletting without as much as blinking.
Michael Reed’s camerawork blends well with Fisher’s style. He throws Jack Asher-like unmotivated colors about now and then, just for atmosphere, but it’s nicely restrained. Dracula’s face and makeup inside the castle seem slightly older, a little more devilish; outdoors he hasn’t aged a bit. Andrew Kier is a formidable vampire hunter, but I like my Van Helsing surrogate to be a little less self-righteous — I’d hate to see Father Sandor unleashed on accused witches in Salem. Some fans are really big on actor Philip Latham, who indeed is a fine enabler-slave of the undead king.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Dracula: Prince of Darkness is a quality product, although not as well appointed with extras as some discs from Arrow and Powerhouse Indicator. The disc carries two different versions of the movie, from different transfers. The American cut is just a few seconds longer than the English. The only difference appears to be the companies credited in the opening titles, plus the 20th-Fox logo on the Yankee cut. If the content differs otherwise I couldn’t tell.
Old TV prints of Prince of Darkness were uniformly miserable, and the weak DVD encoding was not widescreen enhanced. Three years ago CineSavant put together a round-up article listing what Hammers were available called CineSavant’s Guide to the New Wave of Classic Hammer Blu-rays. At that time the best HD version of Prince was from the ‘new’ Hammer company, and my expert’s verdict was that “it is one of the least watchable Hammer BDs.”
It’s worth noting that this is the first time I’ve seen the movie actually looking good on disc, even if the two encodings are noticeably different. Prince screened last Halloween on Turner Classic Movie, and looked very good. One of the encodings on this disc may be the same as what was shown on TCM, although I don’t know which. The U.K. version, apparently mastered earlier, has softer color and slightly less contrast. The American version is noted as a new 4K job; it has sharper color but more contrast and isn’t quite as sharp. I strongly note that each transfer is pleasing in its own way. The two discs of Horror of Dracula out there look very different, yet each alone is perfectly pleasing. Putting both of these Prince of Darkness transfers on one disc may encourage hair-splitters to not be satisfied with either.
Various matte paintings pop up during the show. To my eye they aren’t terrific work. More than one commentary spokesperson says that they’re all repeats from earlier pictures. We’re told that most of the shooting locations are the usual redressed Bray Studio nooks and crannies, which was part of a purposeful plan to make a quick series of films on a streamlined budget. I don’t know if the handsome castle exterior is a standing set.
The featurette Back to Black is repeated from earlier discs, but it was fresh to me and I liked it. Producer-director Marcus Hearn is joined by two or three other critic- experts. I especially liked the input of an expert informed about the Techniscope process, which I got to see first-hand in 2002 when a company here called Triage remastered a couple of Sergio Leone Techniscope films, directly from a two-perf negative. I knew that the films became 4-perf anamorphic 35mm in the optical blow-up process; what I didn’t know is that the 2-perf negative wasn’t cut in synch with the work print. A frame was added to each cut point, and the optical printer was programmed (in Italy, at least) to start printing on the second frame, so that the wide overlap of the hot splice wouldn’t affect the first and last frame of each cut. I now feel qualified to editorially engineer a film finish in another format that’s been extinct for decades.
The disc carries three separate commentaries. One is the twenty year-old track from the Elite Laserdisc and the first Anchor Bay DVD. Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews and Barbara Shelley casually comment on the film as it unspools. It’s an excellent ‘living room’ experience; we wish Christopher were a tad more relaxed. (I worked on a show with him, and can report that even 13 years later, he behaved as if a set were a very serious place to work.) Also from the old Anchor Bay disc, accompanied by the same group, is a set of 8mm home movies several minutes long, showing the filming of the ice-cracking scene. The actors excitedly point out the career assistant director Bert Batt, whose long list of credits included providing the original story for Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.
The two new commentaries aren’t redundant but they do cover much the same material in almost the same order. I sampled each at various main scenes and couldn’t pick a winner, as they are both good. Troy Howarth has a track to himself, while Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman take charge of the second.
Two advertising galleries, a selection of trailers (some pairing Prince with Plague of the Zombies) and one of those old ‘World of Hammer’ TV shows round out the extras package.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Movie: Very Good / Excellent
Supplements: 2 new audio commentariesL with Troy Howarth, and with Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman; archive commentary with Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews and Barbara Shelley; World Of Hammer Episode Dracula And The Undead; Featurette Back To Black, The Making Of Dracula: Prince Of Darkness; Super 8mm Behind-The-Scenes Footage (with commentary); Trailers, still galleries.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 23, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson