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Blu-ray Review: DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS

Scream Factory re-releases the classic Terrence Fisher vampire film on Blu-ray

There’s a vibrancy, urgency and sense of danger about the early Hammer Gothics, especially the ones helmed by the great Terrence Fisher. The studio laid out their stylistic, thematic mission statement with Fisher’s full-color, full-blooded revisits of the Universal monster warhorses – 1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA, respectively – and kept that momentum up, offering more violent, sexually aware, sophisticated and lurid horror movies, a majority of them blasted onto screens in astonishing color. The look and feel of these films (and naturally, the chord they struck with audiences) birthed the later Roger Corman Poe Gothics and the early Italian Gothics of the 1960s, but there’s really nothing quite like those startling, bouncy, signature Hammer romps…

By the time HORROR OF DRACULA’s Christopher Lee returned to the cape with Fisher at the helm in 1966’s DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the worm was already turning with both Hammer and the world of horror cinema in general and thus the picture has perpetually felt a bit late-from-the-gate, a bit trapped between worlds. Fisher had already proved he could make a Dracula picture without Lee (and without Dracula for that matter) with 1960’s thundering BRIDES OF DRACULA (still this writer’s fave of the Hammer Dracula cycle) but revisiting the franchise with the actor, who by now was an international horror movie superstar, was enough of an event that DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS was a huge hit for the studio and kept Lee in costume for the next 7 years. And while DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS pales in comparison to HORROR (and suffers from the lack of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing save for an opening flashback of HORROR’s spastic ending), it’s still an atmospheric, stylish affair and sees Fisher directing with vigor. And Lee, despite playing the part totally mute (according to him because he hated the dialogue, though others have insisted the part was written as such), reminds us why he’s the screen’s definitive Count Dracula.

The film has an effective opening, one that echoes Don Sharp’s 1963  “almost a Dracula film” KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, with a cabal of superstitious villagers carting the corpse of a beautiful dead girl to a pyre where she is to be staked and burned, while her mother screams in protest. Still reeling from the reign of a now-dead Dracula a decade prior, the residents of Karlsbad are simply taking preemptive measures, just in case she might have the dreaded parasitic vampire curse. Their ritual is ripped-down by a one Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), who spits on their small-time terror and reminds them that Dracula is long-gone and insists that the girl passed away  naturally. Keir is the anchor of the film, plowing through the film with energy, humor and charisma and while he doesn’t make you forget Cushing, he’s an effective soon-to-be challenger of Dracula and is a pure joy to watch.

Elsewhere, a quartet of tourists are on a cross-country trip and end up in Karlsbad and more specifically, in Castle Dracula. There Drac’s loyal slave Klove (Phillip Latham) feeds them and puts them up for the night. Of course, it’s all a ruse and soon one of the poor blokes is stabbed, hung upside down and has his throat slashed, where he’s left to bleed out like a butchered pig, his bright tempra-paint gore soaking the ashes of Dracula in his coffin. Almost immediately Drac’s dust congeals like bloody oatmeal and fog seeps out everywhere while slowly, surely the vampire Count is reborn (in a refreshing dose of “reality” in a film that trades in fantasy, Dracula emerges unclothed from his crypt). The victim’s wife is then vampirized and the remaining couple (Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews) run for their lives, scurrying back into the gregarious Sandor who joins forces with them to put an end to Dracula once and for all (at least until Hammer’s next round, 1968’s DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE).

Scream Factory’s domestic Blu-ray release is packed with pleasure, much of it ported over from previous UK releases of the film. Most importantly, the disc includes a lush 4K interpositive scan of the slightly different US cut and a beautiful HD transfer of the original UK version. A classic commentary with Lee, Shelley, Matthews and Suzan Farmer is thrown in as well as new one with author and horror movie scholar Troy Howarth. There’s also an episode of the British series THE WORLD OF HAMMER, a new doc, trailers and stills.  It’s a fantastic package for Hammer freaks and new members of the fan club and it supports an underrated entry in the canon that serves as the bridge between the “first wave” Hammer Studios and the more explicit incarnation that would soon rear its head at the end of the decade.

 

 

 

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