Dracula: Prince of Darkness Blu-ray Review
What with The Woman in Black doing the rounds at the cinema at the time of writing, the great Hammer revival continues!
And it bites into the home market with this BD release of a freshly restored, newly 2K scanned edition of one of the more cherished of the studio’s gothic chillers for the fanged Count, Dracula Prince Of Darkness. Devotees have no doubt been following the coverage that this and other great titles from the studio, most notably the original 1958 classic Horror of Dracula, with its previously cut and presumed “lost” footage now reinstated, have been getting. But, tempering the excitement that I, myself, along with a great many Hammer-fans felt at the prospect of this cavalcade of Kensington-gore and evocative Bray studio set-dressing, the arrival of some pre-release screengrabs from this title caused concern over the use of DNR during this process. With a restoration comparison helpfully found in the extras that splits the screen with wipes to show us how the image looked before and after, it is clear from the timing, the contrast and the colour, that this looks pretty much akin to the previous Optimum release, the one found in the lavish UK 21-disc boxset. In fact, I’ve never seen the film look as washed-out, pale and anaemic as it does in the “before” elements that we must presume hail from the original camera negative that was residing in the vault at Pinewood.
Print damage is hardly to be seen. Obviously there is some slight wavering of contrast and some minute frame wobbles, but such fluctuations are only natural in material of this vintage. Wear and tear has been quite impressively taken care of. There is a small vertical line on show in the right hand side of the frame as Charles makes his investigative foray upstairs in Castle Dracula, and this does stay for a moment or two. But there is very little else of age-related damage to report upon, meaning that this is a very clean picture.
Well …let’s peer a little deeper into the digital crypt. I am viewing a PR copy of the disc, but I cannot believe that the full release Region B-locked version available from March 5th will look any different.
Encoded via VC-1, the 2.35:1 Techniscope image, transferred from the original camera negative, is opulently bright and garish with beautifully saturated Technicolor. I looked for smearing and banding in the livid reds, the swirling misty greys and the flamboyant greens and found nothing of the sort. The palette is still a little dusty and faded, ever so slightly hazy – this was never going to be an image that would literally “pop” from the screen – but the colours are clean and warm and tremendously evocative. Just as they should be. Blood is extremely bright red and overtly theatrical, but this was the calling card of the studio, and its avant-garde presentation during poor Alan’s throat-Niagara and the brazen staking looks just right to me. Skin tones aren’t natural at all. Again, they never were. The makeup was pasted on and the cast were lit in an otherworldly, painterly fashion. The image provides this aesthetic impeccably. There is a touch more realism afforded the costumes, the interiors and the set design, what with their beautiful stained-glass windows and glowing flames and candles. Foliage looks natural and untouched-up. Browns have an appropriately earthy sheen.
In view of what has been said at the official Hammer site regarding this transfer, I thought that I wouldn’t have had to actively look for evidence of the original film-grain. I had wanted to believe what they said about the waxen appearance of those pre-release images not being indicative of the movie when seen in full motion, but sadly there’s no denying that what little grain we do see does not look authentically film-like at all. It is light and it is also inconsistent. Some scenes have undoubtedly had the noise-removal tool applied for a little longer than others, but the refutation made about any “blanket filtering” having been applied is being, at best, quite economical with the truth. Check back with the DVD and the grain is there, and it is consistent. Here, it is not. What we can be thankful for is the fact that the image certainly doesn’t ever come to resemble the frozen mires that can be seen with Italian titles issued from Arrow Video and Blue Underground. In this respect, the picture does appear much more natural in texture than it could have done. There is some “clumping” going on – just look at the paintings hanging on the castle walls which seem to undulate - but it is not overt and, on the flipside, there is little aberrant noise flitting about in the darker portions of the picture. Faces tend to look a little fuzzy round the gills and are also prone to this digital undulation, indicative of the filtering not being able to distinguish detail from grain, and it is here were the transfer struggles to properly resolve that celluloid texture. This is not a patch on the restoration of Quatermass and the Pit, even if the two films, which were shot very differently, could never actually share the same outstanding quality.
That’s the downside of this transfer, folks, and for some it may be damning. The rest is good news.
As I’ve said, the colours and the lighting scheme from DOP Michael Reed and Production Designer Bernard Robinson are brought to life with vigour. Prince of Darkness was never the most vivid of the Hammer Draculas – that award should probably go to the previous entry, The Brides of Dracula – but the image has been injected with a beauty that ignites its watercolour cast. It is doubtful that those incredibly beatific shots of Helen-at-peace have looked this good since they were first projected theatrically. Now, although we have lost a layer of fine detail thanks to the noise removal, there is no question about this image being a distinct improvement over what we have seen before. Embroidery in the costumes, the patterns on wall-coverings and drapes, the workings on the coat of arms, the parts of Father Sandor’s rifle, and the set-dressings in the castle, the inn and the monastery are all much better etched. The leaves and the trees are bestowed a finer definition, though they will never appear totally distinct. Eyes and hair, and we’re looking at Fang-Face here, primarily, although Shelley is an amazing sight, herself, all gain extra clarity. The cracks made in the ice are more strongly defined, as is the golden binding on the book that Ludwig is so enamoured with. The blood dripping down from Alan’s body is now more apparent in the long-shot too. So, despite the filtering, this is still an image that provides more detail than we’ve seen before.
As befits the title, the black levels are good and strong. The shadows have some degree of depth, as does the cape swirling about the Count’s shoulders. When he learns down, bat-like, to prey on Helen, his cape fills the image with dread blackness very well. Contrast is pretty meticulously handled. There is none of the excessive blooming of the whites that was prevalent on the DVD, the shift from light to dark is smooth and the separation of the colours and the shades, whether indoor or out, is both subtle and stark where necessary.
There is nothing to worry about from the edge enhancement that sharpened earlier editions, objectivity and delineation is smooth and natural. I didn’t detect any aliasing either. The billowing clouds of grey misty vapour does not succumb to any banding, and there was no shimmering or drag during panning shots.
Well, there are going to be complaints about this to be sure, but there is always the chance that the rest of the releases will not be subjected to so rigorous a scrubbing. There is even the possibility that this actually the result of the scanning techniques employed and not just a product of DNR. And even with the unwanted evidence of noise removal, this hi-def makeover for Dracula Prince of Darkness still looks far better than any other home video version that the film has had.
6.5 out of 10 from me.
This part of the review has been amended since it was first published.
After reports of an audio-sync problem with this release, I went back to look at (and listen to) it again, and discovered that there is, indeed, a glitch that affects early portions of the film. During the prolouge sequence which reminds us of how the Count met his fate at the hands of Van Helsing in the climax of the first film, the slamming of a trapdoor is out by a full second. The lip-sync for our main protagonists is also out for the duration of a good couple of scenes surrounding their arrival at the castle. Now, I am astonished that I didn't notice this until it was brought to my attention, and although I, personally, could live with this, I'm sure that many people will be put off by it. Most of the film is unnaffected, and when I checked back with Optimum's earlier release, I found that the same dialogue sequences also suffered with a slight dislocation. In both cases, it seems to be poor Francis Matthews who comes off worst. The glitch is definitely more pronounced on the Blu-ray, however. And once you've spotted it, I'm afraid you won't be able to ignore it.
Beyond this unfortunate anomaly, I have no complaints about the audio track. We hear this boisterous gothic chiller via an LPCM 2.0 mix that delivers the old Hammer magic with style and power.
We know that we are in good hands when James Bernard’s brutish score immediately shrieks and roars at us with that tempestuous Dracula theme. His raucous leit-motifs have appreciable vigour and strength throughout, and the more mysterious elements of his score such as the ethereal choral passage, glass percussion, vibraphone, the gently lilting harp-play and delightfully unnerving woodwinds come across cleanly and with clear range to explore. The barraging headlong rush of furious percussion and brass for the various speeding carriages and the moments when Dracula leaps into the fray are also full of depth and solidity.
The quieter moments have whistling wind that moans eerily and authentically from the speakers, really adding to the atmosphere. They carry across the banquet hall, and gently ululate from behind menacing drapes. The first night of terror is also punctuated by that classic four-crack thunder effect that is very nicely reproduced here with purely quintessential alacrity. You know the one I mean, that old library track that goes … altogether now … Crrrrash-Bang!! Chee-Chee!!!
Clipped English dialogue comes through with absolute refinement, lip-sync issues aside. Matthews and his Cary Grant vocals, Klove’s sinister slate-chewing voice, and Andrew Keir’s wiry brogue vying with Shelley’s simmering pre-vampiric discontent and wild, lip-tripping fang-speech is always clear and crisp, and never swallowed-up by hysterics or music. Christopher Lee gets to snarl and hiss with bestial ferocity too. His great response to seeing Helen making moves on his intended bride literally sizzles out from the mix. And there are some wild screaming sessions too, most notably from Barbara Shelley who works wonders with her tonsils, enough to challenge Fay Wray, Janet Leigh and her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis.
I like the gunshots too - snappy little vintage cracks that are even capped-off with the wonderful splitting of the ice in the finale. What I like about these effects is that there is clarity and detail to them when they could so easily have sounded muffled or indistinct. The rhythmic clicking of the chain and winch that Klove hoists poor Alan up with makes a great impression, as do the hurtling hooves of the horses as they rampage through the woodland. The carriage crash in which Charles and Diana (!) are flipped up and sent flying over the debris has presence and weight.
Sadly, Studiocanal haven't done as a fine job with the audio as I first thought. It’s limited in scope, but it’s got a little bit of vintage power and clarity, but the early audio glitch may prove off-putting to some. Let's just hope they get their act together with future restorations ... but, to be honest, this has taken the shine off things still further.
There might be all that much, but there is great stuff here, Hammer-fans!
For a kick-off, we get a commentary track from four of the film’s stars who are able wax lyrical about their time, what must seem like a lifetime-ago, during the shoot of the film. But just look at the line-up! There’s the awesome Barbara Shelley, there’s Francis Matthews, there’s Suzan Farmer and, get this, we’ve only got the Count, himself, in the stalwart Christopher Lee. Hey, at least, here he gets the chance to speak aloud during the film, in which his iconic character utters not one word. This is pretty good stuff. Lee, as usual, has that air of arrogance and also, as usual, gets a bit muddled up over the legendary lack of dialogue for the Count. He still clings to the belief that it was he who axed Dracula’s dialogue because it was so awful … but there a few who refute this allegation and claim that there never was any. Lee cites some lines – “I am the apocalypse” etc - as being the reason why he vetoed speech, but these lines are from the scripts for The Satanic Rites of Dracula and the earlier and less successful Dracula AD 1972. There is much anecdote and a few revelations. The banter isn’t the sort of warp-speed fun and chaos of a Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell and Co, affair, but, given the pedigree of the participants, this is gold.
There is the World of Hammer episode – Hammer Stars: Christopher Lee which, naturally, takes a now-dated look at the career of Horror Titan.
New to us, though, is Back to Black is a half-hour retrospective that allows us to hear from Marcus Hearn, Mike Gatiss, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews and Jonathon Rigby as they discuss the place that Prince of Darkness holds in the Hammer pantheon, as well as personal recollections from the production and a slew of anecdotes, trivia and opinion, both enthusiastic and frank. Matthews curses his acting abilities, Shelley recounts swallowing that wretched fang and whilst Hearn provides the fact and figures, both Gatiss and Rigby kick back and have fun with a film they both clearly adore, although Gatiss is frustratingly unfocussed. An interesting segment is devoted to the music of James Bernard, with author/musician David Huckvale sitting at a piano and providing us with musical illustrations of how the composer went about resurrecting and developing his older material from 1958 to create what would become the signature themes for a Hammer Dracula picture. There is even a little look at the restoration the film has undergone, with particular attention paid to the reinstalling of the original UK opening titles from very damaged material located in the vault at Pinewood.
Personally, I wish that this had gone on for much longer, and that Lee, himself, had been able to contribute, but this is still the sort of fond retrospective that fans will be enthralled by.
The restoration comparison is made up of several scenes in a montage that shows us the before and after imagery via wipes that split the screen. Some contextual detail would have been appreciated though. If, as Studiocanal state, they restored the OCN, are we then to assume that the washed-out and horribly anaemic appearance of the unrestored footage hails from that source? Certainly, the “After” footage has the look and timing of every version that I can remember seeing of the film.
Francis Matthews’ brother, Paul, visited the set during the shooting of the final skirmish with Dracula, and he made some 8mm home movies of the trip. We get to see them in Super 8mm behind the scenes footage, which shows the cast and crew languishing on the banks of the frozen moat, and then some rehearsals taking place of the demise of the Count. In a nice touch, we get to hear from Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer and Christopher Lee in a commentary over the top of it.
We get the film’s Trailer, as well as a rather naff Double-Bill Trailer for Prince and Frankenstein Created Woman, which was a later pairing on reissue.
And finally we can see the Original UK Print Titles and the US Titles as separate snippets.
Well, someone’s got to say it … fangs for the memories, Hammer!
Dracula Prince Of Darkness, the first official sequel to the classic Dracula from 1957, was released eight years later and, under the tight direction of the ever-reliable Terence Fisher, rose above the dubious honour of having to follow such a widespread, and highly regarded hit, by suffusing the somewhat slight story with huge doses of atmosphere, some memorable set-pieces and a dash of iconic casting. Coming across as a kind of period template for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in that it chronicles the misfortunes of a group of trendy travellers who have strayed far from the beaten path - in this case two stuffy upper-class English couples visiting the Carpathians - Darkness features a style of hospitality that sees one character hoisted upside down over Dracula's remains so that the blood pouring from his slashed throat can resurrect the Count. Although this occurs quite far into the film, the shock of this act happening to someone that we have come to care about is a real eye-opener and, visually, it is one of the studio's most powerful moments. Dracula, himself, is actually hardly in the film and this is an element that would wreck many of the later sequels although, here, with Christopher Lee’s gurning, speechless performance it works quite well as we are allowed to concentrate upon the other cast members, who include a wrath 'n' thunder warrior-monk called Father Sandor (played with agreeable relish by the excellent Andrew Keir - who went on to portray the best screen incarnation of Prof. Quatermass), the dashing fop of Charles (Francis Matthews who, among other things, would go on to voice the original Captain Scarlet with his distinctly Cary Grant-ish tones), the tight-lipped shrew Helen (a wonderful, show-stealing turn from popular Hammer vixen Barbara Shelley, fresh from The Gorgon), the adorable but bland Diana (Suzan Farmer) and the human blood-tap Alan (Charles Tingwell).
No doubt about it, StudioCanal have tried to deliver the goods with a classy release of Hammer’s Dracula Prince of Darkness on BD. But even as many fans will applaud the vibrant new transfer from the original camera negative, there will be many who will decry the filtering that has taken place. After the outstanding restoration of Quartermass and the Pit we naturally expect similar quality every time. Prince of Darkness would never be able to look as good as that film, but there is no doubt in my mind that it should have looked better than this. Still, the colours are terrific, the image is alive and there is certainly more detail on offer. Plus, if you can get past the audio-glitch during the early section of the film, the LPCM track can be fun, with that classic James Bernard score shining bright with satanic intensity. And the extras definitely sweeten the deal.
After this, we have the enjoyable Rasputin the Mad Monk, the awesome Plague of the Zombies and the supreme creep-out of The Reptile to come.
From Bray to Blu-ray, it’s Hammer-time! Dracula Prince of Darkness is a very welcome addition to hi-def and certainly comes recommended … but please cut down on the filtering next time, eh?
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £22.99
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