Sunday, September 15, 2013

Blu-ray Review: DRACULA - PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965)

Hammer Collector's Edition Blu-ray 

Label: Millennium Entertainment

Region Code: A
Duration: 90 Minutes
Rating: Unrated
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with Optional English SDH and Spanish Subtitles
Video: 1080p widescreen (2.35:1)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Kier, Francis Mathews, Suzan Farmer, Charles Tingwell, Thorley Walters

Terrence Fisher's Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1966) starts of quite effectively recapping the final moments of Hammer's Horror of Dracula (1958) featuring vamp hunter Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) ending the the fearsome blood-sucker Dracula (Christopher Lee) who crumbles to dust when exposed to the deadly rays of the sun. Ten years later two vacationing English couples en route to the Carpathian Mountains for adventure and fun are abandoned by their coachmen, who fearing local legends of creepy castle refuses to travel onward, leaving them stranded miles from their destination and in view of the dreaded castle. 

Our two vacationing couples are the argumentative Alan (Charles Tingwell) and Helen
(Barbara Shelley) and Alan's younger brother Charles (Francis Mathews) and his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer), the red-headed Helen is quite the complainer, she doesn't seem to enjoy much, and is the most upset by the stranding in the forest. Not wanting to believe in local lore or spend the night roughing it in the spooky forest the foursome accept a ride in a driver less carriage to the castle, bad idea. Once inside they meet a creepy man servant named named Klove (Philip Latham) who oddly seems to have expected them, he offers them dinner and lodging for the night at the behest of his deceased master, the Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), who was renowned for his generosity.

As night sets in Helen becomes increasingly frightened, sure, she's the sour-puss of the bunch but in this instance her companions might later have wished they'd given credence to her unease as things turn quite sinister in this creepy castle. That night while wandering the Castle Alan in incapacitated by Klove and taken to a basement crypt where he's ritually slaughtered, his throat slashed over an open sarcophagus, the Kensington gore flows heavily and as his blood mixes with Dracula's ashes the vamp is resurrected, his hand emerging from the mist to great effect, it's probably the best scene in the entire film and alone is worth the price of admission, fantastic stuff. 

Now it's game on as the remaining guests unaware of the impending danger fall prey to the Count's unnatural charm and lust for blood. Noticeably absent from the story is Peter Cushing's iconic Van Helsing who is only glimpsed in the film's prologue, in his place is an unorthodox, rifle-toting friar named Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), he does quite nicely as the defacto vampire-hunter, bit its no Van Helsing. This is a classic Hammer Horror but overall I just didn't find the characters overly compelling, nor the women quite as captivating as some other Hammer horrors, it was a bit tame for my tastes, preferring the more lurid Hammer entries that came later with Vampire Circus (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971), that said I did enjoy my viewing and fully understand the beloved nature of the film, my preferences just runs a bit more weird. 

A confession, I do not find Christopher Lee's portrayal of Dracula here all that enthralling, a primal, speechless beast with blood-shot eyes who elicits only a few hisses for the duration of the film, there's just not a lot more beyond that for me. The film receives praise in terms of it's Gothic setting and creepy atmosphere but again I found the characters rather weak, it was difficult to throw myself into their plight. Early on I did enjoy the chemistry of our four characters, naysayer Helen particularly, I rather liked the introduction of Klove and the bloody resurrection of Dracula is fantastic, the addition of Father Sandor is welcome but in the end it's just not one of my preferred Hammer entries. The memorable finale recouped much of my waning vigor for the film with the cold, watery death of Count Dracula, it's top notch, but the film itself is a bit too measured to endear itself to me. 

Blu-ray: Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1965) comes to Bluy-ray for the first time in North America with a 1080p MPEG4-AVC encode in it's original Techniscope (2.35:1) aspect ratio with a it's grain structure nicely intact, not a lot of digital scrubbing here, leaving with it some modest fine detail in textures and facial expressions but not much in the way of depth, it's a rather flt 1080p presentation, but quite a step up from my region 2 Optimum DVD. Colors are strong, greens and red pop nicely, noticeably there's a prevalent green hue to the film, not sure if this is indicative of the theatrical experience but I did not find it distracting, but it's there. The print source is nice, there are still minor scratches and white specs from time to time but they are very minor and not ruinous to the viewing experience. While not the best of the recent Hammer 1080 transfers we've seen of late, notably from Synapse and Shout! Factory imprint Scream Factory, it's a pleasing 1080p upgrade for a beloved Hammer horror classic. 

Oddly, the film does not receive a lossless audio option and Millennium Entertainment have chosen to include only an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track with optional Spanish and English SDH subtitles. Dialogue  score and effects are nicely balanced but are not the crispest one could hope for from the hi-def format. A DTS-HD Master Audio option surely would have benefited Hammer regular James Bernard's atmospheric score with more depth and oomph, definitely a missed opportunity.

Onto the extras we begin with a group commentary from stars Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Mathews and Barbara Shelley, it gets a bit quiet at times but it's an open and honest account of the film and makes for a decent listen for fans of the film and of Hammer Horror. 

The next extra is an episode of World of Hammer titled 'Hammer Stars: Christopher Lee' (24:58)  and is a career-spanning retrospective of the Hammer films of Christopher Lee narrated by legendary Brit-drunk and actor Oliver Reed (Burnt Offerings). It's loaded with some great clips from his Hammer Films output  it's lite-fare but quite entertaining. 

Be sure to check out the documentary Back to Black (30:33) which covers the making-of the film with interviews from various authors, film historians and actors and actresses, it's a delight to watch for any fan of Hammer Horror. 

Finishing up the special features are a neat Restoration Comparison (3:56) featuring before and after sequences, a very impressive restoration even if the final image is not exactly flawless. There's a fun restored trailer (0:36), a double bill which played alongside Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), an image gallery featuring stills, behind-the-scenes pics, lobby cards and theatrical posters for the film accompanied by James Bernard's score plus five postcard sized collectible cards featuring images from the film, plus a slipcover for the Blu-ray case replicating the artwork. 

Special Features:

- Audio Commentary featuring Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Mathews and Barbara Shelley
- World of Hammer episode 11 "Hammer Stars: Christopher Lee' (24:58) 
- Documentary: Back to Black (30:33) 
- Restoration Comparison (3:56) 
- Restored Double Bill Trailer Dracula - Prince of Darkness / Frankenstein Created Woman (0:36) 
- Stills Gallery (5:45) 
- Exclusive Collectible Cards 

Verdict: It's wonderful to see another beloved Hammer horror find it's way to Blu-ray and with a nice selection of extras, I would encourage any Hammer horror fan to pick this edition up sight unseen, it's good Gothic fun and a damn decent watch, even if it's not a top tier Hammer entry in my opinion it deserves a place  in your movie collection. Definitely looking forward to more Hammer Films on Blu-ray with Quartermass and the Pit, The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Devil Rides Out (1968) all coming later this year from Millennium Entertainment! 3.5 Outta 5