Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
Release date: September 17th, 2013
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
As I noted in my original review, Dracula: Prince of Darkness occupies a strange personal place: while it was the first Hammer Dracula I ever saw, itís also among the weakest of the bunch as a sort of stopgap sequel that the studio cranked out to reintroduce their seminal character. Since he let his brides take center stage in the first sequel, Christopher Leeís Dracula hadnít appeared on screen for nearly a decade, so it seems like Hammer was mostly interested in familiarizing audiences with the character in the most generic, unremarkable follow-up possible.
I hate to keep repeating my earlier review, but Prince of Darkness is reminiscent of later slasher films with its perfunctory set-up: itís been ten years since the count was last seen, yet the surrounding villages are still spooked. Four travelers are oblivious, however, and, despite several protests, they travel right into the heart of Dracula country. Even the guy driving their coach refuses to go near the countís old castle, so he stops right in the middle of the road and promptly kicks them all out before stranding them. Of course, they canít resist actually visiting the castle, especially once another mysterious horse-drawn carriage shows up to collect them.
Theyíre all playing an unwitting role in Draculaís byzantine resurrection plan, which apparently entailed sitting around as a pile of ash for a decade while his house-sitter found someone dumb enough to serve as dinner guests (it was pretty nice and convenient of Van Helsing to let the estate keep the remains). Anyway, thatís the story here: Draculaís back and this quartet is going to pay dearly for it.
The premise is ludicrously thin and made even less compelling by the bland set of characters, all of whom are practically interchangeable save for Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), the local monk/vampire expert subbing in for Van Helsing this time out. Heís a bright spot, if only because Keirís not just trying to ape Peter Cushingís iconic performance; instead, heís a bit more bawdy, burly, and brusque than the old professor. Itís too bad he doesnít actually get to do too much with Dracula himself.
Speaking of which, it seems like the Countís vocal cords arenít reconstituted along with the rest of his body during his gory resurrection. Historically, Lee has claimed this is due to his refusal to speak the dreadful lines provided for him, but screenwriter Jimmy Sangster has also claimed that he actually didnít write any lines in the first place. Regardless of who you believe, itís a pretty good indicator of Leeís sometimes contentious relationship with the studio, which constantly guilt-tripped him into returning as Dracula.
To his credit, it never showsóeven when heís not given much to do in Prince of Darkness, heís still a striking, feral presence. Dracula is of course already undead, but here, he seems to be even more of an animalistic husk here thatís attempting to recall some semblance of humanity. Heís reduced to a collection of hisses and primal grunts; where he at least had some hint of austerity to subtly mask his leering, sexual drive in Horror of Dracula, heís just one giant libidinal urge here.
That makes him less interesting, particularly because it doesnít allow Lee to bring any more distinctive qualities to the Count, and truly speaks to the filmís low ambitions. Hammer hadnít quite moved into complete schlock territory (they wouldnít really arrive there until the 70s), but Prince of Darkness serves as a precursor to the gory, low-rent frights the studio would serve up a few years later. Oddly enough, the rest of the Dracula series largely avoided this because later sequels would actually bother to be quite distinctive, even if Hammer had to resort to obvious gimmicks (like transplanting Dracula to the 70s) to get it done. Now that I think about it, I guess he was sort of like Hammerís Jason Voorhees, a reliable slasher they could conjure up and mold a movie around whenever the studio saw fit.
Prince of Darkness isnít without other meritóitís still brooding in that spooky, hole-in-the-wall, Eastern European atmosphere that Hammer perfected during the 70s, and a couple of sequences really stand out just enough to serve as signature moments. Perhaps fittingly, theyíre Draculaís resurrection and demise, with the latter taking advantage of a little-cited page in vampire lore that insists bloodsuckers are susceptible to running water.
For the most part, though, Prince of Darkness feels like a surprising misfire; despite reuniting Sangster with director Terrence Fisher, it feels like a perfunctory retread that never springs to life. To make another Friday the 13th comparison, itís (appropriately enough) sort of like the third entry in that series: not nearly the best, yet sort of the quintessential Hammer Dracula sequel. If you needed to show off one entry to give a newcomer the gist of the franchise, this one would serve well: itís got Dracula preying on busty babes inside of his big, dank castle and the countryside. No more, no less, which is probably why it's a tad forgettable.
One reason Prince of Darkness has failed to impress in the past has been its presentation; long consigned to a pretty lackluster VHS-era transfer here in the States, the film has finally been given a high definition makeover thanks to Millennium Entertainmentís new Blu-ray release, and James Reedís cinematography has never looked better. His style still isnít quite as garish and robust as Jack Asherís, but itís certainly more impressive looking than it has been in the past. Itís clear that heís mimicking the house style, so the film doesnít stray too far from the Hammer standard, even if itís not as striking as some of its better efforts. But, again, it looks great here, and itís accompanied by a lossy stereo track thatís still an improvement over the track on the old Anchor Bay disc.
Thereís really not much of a reason to keep that one around, either, as Millennium has ported over most of the supplements from that release, including the filmís trailer, some behind-the-scenes home footage, and the commentary featuring Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Mathews, and Suzan Farmer. Where Anchor Bay included a World of Hammer episode focused on Dracula and the Undead, Millennium has included one dedicated to Lee himself, which is appropriate. Millenniumís brand new supplements include a stills gallery, a restoration comparison, and ďBack to Black,Ē a 30 minute retrospective feature. Theyíve even thrown in five collectible lobby cards to round out what I hope is the first of many fine releases; Hammerís been keen on upgrading their library to HD for a few years now, so hereís hoping that Millennium can keep churning out quality releases. Dracula: Prince of Darkness is sort of an odd duck to be the first out of the gate, but hopefully this will spurn Warner Brothers into dusting off their own vault. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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