Hammer classic Dracula Prince of Darkness was recently released on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK. Andy Boxall revisits the film that terrified audiences on its release in 1966.
Hammer may have entered the world of modern filmmaking again recently with the release of The Woman in Black, but for most people, the studio will always be associated with horror from the 50s and 60s. These people will have a clear picture of what to expect from a Hammer film too: A bit camp, a bit slow and quintessentially English. In all honesty, they’re treated as a bit of a joke, so what’s it like watching one of their best-known titles today?
Dracula: Prince of Darkness is set ten years after the original Dracula and sees four English tourists — the Kents — on holiday in the Carpathian mountains, where they meet Father Sandor, who explicitly tells them not to visit a place called Karlsbad, and definitely not to go to the castle located there.
It’s no surprise that they ignore the warnings, and are soon abandoned by their coach driver on the way to Karlsbad, then picked up by a driverless coach which takes them to the castle. The group then happily accepts the offer of food and shelter from a weird butler, and aren’t put off by him casually mentioning his master is dead. After night falls, bad things start to happen.
If one film perfectly encapsulates what Hammer is all about, it’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and from this comes both the pleasure and pain of watching it. Our hero is Francis Matthews’ Charles Kent, dashing and slightly caddish, accompanied by Suzan Farmer as his gorgeous wife Diana; both of whom relish the adventure they’re on.
Barbara Shelley is superb as the initially terrified Helen Kent, before transforming into a lusty servant of Dracula halfway through the film, but it’s Andrew Kier’s rollicking Father Sandor who makes the film come alive — over-shadowing even Christopher Lee, effortlessly reprising his most famous role here — it’s just a shame he’s only present at the beginning and the end.
So, the cast is great, and there’s something wonderful about seeing very well-to-do English people deal with the horror found in a Hammer film, and to my ears every other line began with “I say, old chap” or “come on, my dear, it’ll be quite a caper.”
But the plot is terribly plodding and perfunctory, and it takes nigh-on 50 minutes before Dracula turns up and we get some campy vampire nonsense, then he takes a rest and waits to get killed again. The famous resurrection sequence is still as brilliant as ever though, with lots of billowing smoke and pouring, bright red blood; and it puts the anti-climactic ending to shame.
The much-vaunted new Blu-ray transfer has attracted some negative reviews, but it’s a massive improvement over any edition I’ve seen before, and if the short comparison shots found in the extras are anything to go by; it’s an astounding restoration job. Back to Black, a new, 30-minute retrospective documentary, is the standout extra feature.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness is hurt by its slow pace, but it does still manage to be fun at times, and any film with Christopher Lee as Dracula can’t be all bad.
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley
Released: 1966 / Genre: Horror / Country: UK / IMDB
Buy on DVD:
Amazon.co.uk: DVD + Blu-ray Double Play