Hammer fans are certainly in for a treat this year as StudioCanal unveil the results of their restoration project with the studio. A total of 30 films are currently being given the love and attention they have long craved for in a joint effort to restore Hammer's back catalogue being coordinated between StudioCanal and major studios such as Warner, Columbia and Fox. Dracula Prince of Darkness is the first fruit of this labour to see release on dual format Blu-ray and DVD, following on from StudioCanal's splendid high-definition release of Quatermass and the Pit last year.
Released in January 1966, on a double-bill with another highly regarded Hammer classic Plague of the Zombies, it was one of a package of films that Hammer produced in association with 20th Century Fox, Associated British and Seven-Arts and their recently signed combined contract ensured that Hammer remained in production throughout 1965 and 1966. Fox would release the films in the American market while the deal with Associated British would see Hammer product released through their ABC chain of cinemas. In the summer of 1965, four films squeezed into the modest stages of Bray Studios, keeping the facility busy at a time when it was becoming increasingly expensive to run and because, at the time, Elstree was unavailable. Producer Anthony Nelson Keys wisely saw the economic sense of making Dracula Prince of Darkness back to back with Rasputin - The Mad Monk, using the same sets and a repertory company of actors in both films.
These films were followed into production by two lower budget films, with Plague of the Zombies sharing resources (the same sets again redressed) and several actors with The Reptile. Hammer had experimented with double-bills for some time and had made profitable use of standing sets for a number of productions. The box office success, in 1964, of their last double-bill The Gorgon and The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb indicated that the approach could still pay dividends while saving money.
Christopher Lee, who had last played the Count in Dracula (1958), was persuaded to return to the role after seven years for a number of related reasons. His three year tax-exile in Switzerland hadn't proved quite as lucrative as he'd thought and despite completing a number of European productions and making the journey back to Hammer to occasionally co-star in the likes of The Pirates of Blood River (1962), The Gorgon (1964) and She (1965), he decided to return to England on a permanent basis in 1965. As Jonathan Rigby elaborates in Christopher Lee - The Authorised Screen History, Lee had commented at the time about his Swiss dalliance, "it appeared that what little I had gained was being thrown away by the restrictions on my freedom to work. I was going through a form of nervous breakdown."
Hammer also promised him a substantial star vehicle as recompense for agreeing to risk further typecasting as the Count and that opportunity eventually materialised as the offer to take the eponymous role in Rasputin - The Mad Monk when he arrived at Bray in April 1965 to start shooting. The script for Dracula Prince of Darkness had its origins in writer Jimmy Sangster's original sequel The Revenge of Dracula, written shortly after the success of his adaptation of Dracula in 1958 but then shelved either because of economic reasons or as a result of Lee's continuing reluctance to play the part again.
A sequel of sorts, co-written by Peter Bryan, Edward Percy, Sangster, an uncredited Anthony Hinds and allegedly with input from actor Peter Cushing, emerged as Brides of Dracula in 1960 but this had not featured Lee and had only briefly mentioned the Dracula character. The screenplay for Dracula Prince of Darkness is credited to John Sansom (Sangster using his pen name while returning to Gothic horror after a period of writing psychological thrillers for Hammer) and John Elder, the pseudonym of producer-writer Anthony Hinds, and various stories circulate as to why Dracula, and therefore Lee, has no dialogue throughout the entire film.
Lee maintains that the dialogue was so bad that he refused to perform it and it was removed from the script entirely, whereas Sangster, in his Inside Hammer memoirs states that "I didn't write him any dialogue. Chris Lee has claimed that he refused to speak the lines he was given. Or you can take my word for it. I didn't write any." However, according to the BFI's Screenonline, internal memos reveal Lee had agreed to record a television trailer and it was blessed with such a poor script that director Terence Fisher then decided that the part would be best played without dialogue in the film.
... the cost of a new roof for the CushingsAs per the usual process, Hammer were required to submit their script to the BBFC prior to shooting. Their relationship with the censor had soured considerably during the making of The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and Hammer had struggled to get the film accepted by the Board and awarded an X rating. The censors demanded heavy cuts to the film's violence and gore and the film remained in a trimmed version until these sequences were eventually restored for a 1994 BBC television broadcast.
When Nelson Keys sent the script of Dracula Prince of Darkness for approval, BBFC reader Frank Crofts dismissed it as, "a silly piece of cack." Secretary of the Board John Trevelyan made his objections clear in March 1965 that the studio would need to take great care about a number of scenes in the film. He wrote to Hammer with his concerns about the film's much vaunted ritual murder (a decapitation in the original script was eventually dropped) that revives Dracula; the use of screams and excessive blood; Dracula's throttling of one of the other male characters; a character eating live flies (Ludwig played by Thorley Walters) and the staking of Helen, played by Barbara Shelley.
Budgeted at £220,000, Dracula Prince of Darkness commenced a six week shoot at Bray on 26 April 1965 with director Terence Fisher shooting on four stages for the interiors and on the backlot, where production designer Bernard Robinson erected the front of Castle Dracula and the connecting bridge. Filming certainly had its fair share of hazards. During a pivotal scene where Helen is staked through the heart, Barbara Shelley swallowed one of her fangs and was forced to recover it by drinking salt water because it was the only set of fangs the make-up department had for her. While completing the filming of the Count's demise on the ice covered moat of Castle Dracula, Lee lost one of his red contact lenses on the salt covered set only for make up man Roy Ashton to retrieve it, refit it to the actor and inadvertently end up getting salt into his eye. Lee's stunt double Eddie Powell almost drowned during the making of the sequence when, as Dracula, he disappeared under the fake ice into ten feet of water and couldn't find the air bottle he needed to allow him to breathe underwater during the take.
The film opens with a recap of Dracula's death in the 1958 classic, lent a voice over from Andrew Keir who had been cast as the 'vampire expert' Father Sandor in the new film. As the documentary Back to Black reveals, the footage, shot in a completely different ratio to the Techniscope that Fisher was using on Dracula Prince of Darkness, had to be masked with smoke effects to disguise its origins. Payments were also made to Peter Cushing for the reuse of his appearance in the flashback and, according to Wayne Kinsey in Hammer Films, The Bray Studio Years, this covered the cost of a new roof for the Cushings. Incidentally, the end result suggests to the viewer that we have entered a waking dream, a rather fitting opening to what is in effect an adult fairy tale of a film.
After an introductory scene for Keir's Sandor in which he establishes his credentials as the Van Helsing savant figure by rescuing an innocent young woman from the superstitious rituals of the local villagers, the film seems to settle into a formula, one identified by both Marcus Hearn and Mark Gatiss in the documentary, which essentially involves a group of English travellers, the couples Charles (Francis Matthews) and Diana (Suzan Farmer), Helen and Alan (Charles Tingwell), who find themselves abandoned at Castle Dracula. The film then goes on to establish the first of many often convoluted methods of reviving the Count and devising ingenious ways of despatching him by the closing reel, after having ruffled the feathers of the repressed tourists visiting his castle or, in the case of Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), revealing the hypocrisies of Victorian society itself.
As Peter Hutchings observes in his monograph Terence Fisher, "this is a minimal, stripped down version of the Hammer formula" and one that would inspire the standard structure that Hammer would apply to most of its Dracula cycle from here on in where Lee would simply appear, in a series of diminishing returns, as a brooding evil figure with little or no dialogue. Yet, this figure could be seen closer in relation to the more animalistic qualities of Bram Stoker's original character.
However, Fisher at least inaugurates this cycle with a great deal of style and panache. His camera glides around the beautifully lit interiors of Castle Dracula, generating a great deal of tension as the English couples spend a very disturbed night under the Count's roof. There's some understated humour too. When Dracula's manservant Klove (a suitably sinister turn from Philip Latham) makes his presence felt and serves the travellers their dinner, Charles asks the whereabouts of his master and is reliably informed that he is dead and that "my master died without issue, sir... In the accepted sense of the term."
He's without issue for at least 50 minutes of the film until, in a moment of delicious Grand Guignol that caused something of an outrage on release, Klove murders Alan, hangs him upside down (symbolising the inverted cross) over the scattered ashes of his master and then slits his throat. Fisher builds the tension through a precise and methodical approach, appeases the censor and still manages to make the scene one of the grisliest in a Hammer film, and brings it all to a climax with the Count's hand scrabbling up out of a mist-enshrouded sarcophagus. An interesting reading of this ritual and its aftermath is offered by David Pirie in Heritage of Horror: "Alan becomes Dracula; the mild, pompous Victorian is transformed into the wildly sensual voracious anti-hero who immediately claims Alan's wife Helen as his first victim."
"... a lack of clarity about Dracula"The film is dotted with many powerful scenes. The fight between Dracula and Charles and the appearance of the undead Helen is brief but well choreographed on Bernard Robinson's elaborate sets and is beautifully lit and shot by cinematographer Michael Reed. Barbara Shelley certainly shines in the film, and Paul Leggett, in Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth and Religion, notes her ability in the role as "Helen's prim repressed former self is changed into demonic sexuality." Leggett notes that Helen is the most interesting of the central characters in the film, encapsulating Fisher's exploration of repression and how "Dracula has unlocked the buried forces already inside her." This reaches its apotheosis in the contentious but powerful scene at Sandor's monastery when Helen, now a vampire, is captured by the monks and Sandor stakes her. Father Sandor is also an interesting figure. A determined religious man who sets out to demonstrate to Charles the nature of pure evil, he epitomises Fisher's fascination with ritual and how adhering to it can often have its own inherent dangers. Gregory Waller sees Sandor "demonstrating how ritual can become the murderous tool of superstitious ignorance or the means of resurrecting evil."
Shelley is superbly feral in the sequence, physically very strong, but the scene has evoked some critical views from Nina Auerbach and S.S. Prawer that Helen's staking is tantamount to a depiction of gang-rape. Both Hutchings and Leggett suggest this as an acceptance of the scene's figurative meaning rather than its literal meaning. Hutchings sees the vampire Helen's struggle as a symbol of female resistance to the male authority figure, a challenge to male characters such as Sandor and his ilk, and as a counter to the passivity of female vampires in Fisher's Dracula (1958). Leggett observes: "The writhing, screeching figure at the end bears no resemblance to the original Helen. Her staking, for Fisher, is her purification, her release."
There are also some borrowings from Bram Stoker present in the film. Ludwig is Sangster's version of the Renfield figure manifested here but a key scene is Dracula's seduction of Diana, an analogue to the Count's similar entrapment of Mina Harker in the original novel. Here, the Count bares his chest, slits open a vein and entreats Diana to suckle at his breast. A powerful scene, sexually very symbolic, it caused the censors no end of consternation back in 1965 and Nelson Keys had to reassure them that they would only show Dracula's invitation to Diana to lick his blood and not the more sexually provocative act of licking itself.
It isn't as energetic a film as Fisher's Dracula and it unfolds at a very sedate pace, taking its time and using the wider Techniscope canvas to create mood and atmosphere. As Peter Hutchings remarks in Terence Fisher, this is a less innovative film than the first Hammer Dracula and more of an exercise for Fisher to expand and build upon the mythology and imagery he created in the original film. Strikingly, the film encounters a problem in reviving Dracula and then not providing him with any motivation. Hutchings observes that the film, "reveals all too clearly a lack of clarity about Dracula and in so doing anticipates the increasingly marginal nature of the character in Hammer's later Dracula films."
Dracula has been revived but the intellectual dimensions of the man have been left behind in 1958's adaptation. Here, Lee is simply a snarling, hissing symbol of evil but he is at least providing it in one of Hammer's best looking films, a visual symbol among many others that Fisher marshals to his romantic cause. He's supported by a superb performance from Barbara Shelley and very capable character sketches from Keir, Matthews and Tingwell. James Bernard underscores with a thoughtful reinterpretation of themes from Dracula, combining evocative melodies with some theatrically inclined percussion, both providing pace and mood in equal measure.
There has been some concern about picture quality of the transfer and about the use of DVNR to eliminate film grain during the restoration. Hammer's restoration blog has responded and offered that "DNR used on the restoration was very light indeed, only on a handful of scenes, and only when absolutely necessary. We can also state that there were no blanket noise-reduction filters used at any point during restoration." However, some questions about the image quality linger and I can see both the positive benefits and the distractions regarding this restoration.
I thought that overall, this 2.35:1 1080p transfer, one scanned at 2k from the original camera negative, looked good in motion, with colour and contrast particularly strong. Primary colours such as reds, yellows, blues and greens are very well represented. The interiors of Castle Dracula are vibrant with moody lighting and the Black Park locations now look very lush and verdant. Michael Reed's Techniscope cinematography is given vivid life and fresh detail can be found in the set dressing and props that decorate designer Bernard Robinson's magnificent sets. Improved contrast, shadow and colour are the assets of this transfer and there is a definite scale to the film that is unique among the films in the Hammer Dracula cycle and that's down to how the set design, lighting and Scope photography come across here. The soundtrack is also of a much higher quality and the mono audio copes well with the bombast and subtleties of James Bernard's score while also ensuring dialogue is crisp and clear. A sturdy, often quite rich, and clean audio presentation.
Depth and detail in the image is modestly achieved compared to the superb image quality on Quatermass and the Pit. Many scenes look reasonably sharp while others look a little soft and lacking in detail. The concerns about a 'posterising' effect and the loss of highlighting grain, even as a result of Hammer's modest application of DVNR filters, may well remain valid for some. This is unlikely to please everyone.
For sure, this is bound to be compared with the work carried out on Pit and it does not meet those expectations. It doesn't have the levels of highlight, detail and depth demonstrated there and that inconsistency is something of a disappointment. However, these factors could partly be a result of restoring a film in Techniscope (and Pit wasn't shot using this format). This was a widescreen format that took the standard 35mm frame and halved it to achieve its 2.35:1 ratio and some commentators I've read feel that even under good conditions the picture achieved with this format can be softer, excessively grainy and less detailed.
Overall, this has to be balanced with the splendid colour, gamma and contrast that has been revealed and the elimination of the scratches, dust and damage that plagued previous editions. The film has never looked better and, despite the contentious issue of how the transfer has been filtered, is a vast improvement on previous DVD editions.
The restored film also has the original Associated British UK titles reinstated at the beginning and the end. The work undertaken to include these and the restoration process is also covered in the Back to Black documentary.
Back to Black: The Making of Dracula Prince of Darkness (29:34)
Marcus Hearn looks back at the making of the film and is joined by Mark Gatiss and Jonathan Rigby to comment on the film's production and reception. There are also interviews with Barbara Shelley (she tells the lost fang story) and Francis Matthews who both extol the virtues of director Terence Fisher. One of the more fascinating moments in the documentary is David Huckvale discussing the James Bernard score. There's also a look at the restoration process with technical manager Jon Mann at Pinewood, the problems of working with Hammer's Techniscope format and the reinstatement of the original UK opening and end credits.
World of Hammer: Christopher Lee (24:48 and 4:3) Another episode of the Ashley and Robert Sidaway anthology clips series exploring Hammer's production history. This time it's Lee's work for the company covered by the rumbling tones of Oliver Reed. Don't go looking for any serious analysis of Lee's career, just enjoy the clips.
Super 8mm Footage (4:39 and 4:3)
Smashing home movie footage, shot by Francis Matthew's brother Paul Shelley, of the climax to the film, Dracula's demise, being made on the Bray back lot. Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer provide a commentary to the footage. Originally on the Anchor Bay DVD release, this is a lovely little time capsule.
Restoration Comparison (3:57)
A selection of sequences that compare the state of the original camera negative with the fully restored version presented on the disc.
The original trailer. Presumably the US one as this has a 'released by 20th Century Fox' credit on it.
Double bill trailer (0:36)
For a UK re-release, Dracula Prince of Darkness was coupled with Frankenstein Created Woman.
Dracula Prince of Darkness
Hammer / Associated British Productions / Seven-Arts / 20th Century Fox
StudioCanal Double Play Blu-Ray & DVD Special Edition / Cert: 15 / Catalogue No: OPTBD0634 / Released 5 March 2012
Blu-ray tech specs: Region B / Total Running Time: 90 mins approx / Feature Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 / Colour PAL / Video Codec: VC1 1080p / Audio Codec: LPCM / Feature Audio: LPCM / English Language
DVD Tech specs: Region 2 / Feature Running Time: 87 mins approx / Feature Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 / Colour PAL / Audio: Mono 2.0 / English languag
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