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Dracula: Prince Of Darkness – Collector’s Edition (Blu-ray Review)

Scream Factory has announced they’ll be diving deep into the Hammer Horror archives in 2019. We are getting a taste for it here at year’s end with the Collector’s Edition release of Christopher Lee’s second turn as the famed Count in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. You’ll remember Millennium previously released the film, but Scream Factory looks to be making a serious upgrade on that edition. Scream Factory is no stranger to the Hammer catalog, but this is their first foray into the production company’s work since The Vampire Lovers back in 2013. I’m very excited to see them kicking off with my personal favorite of the Christopher Lee Dracula films, complete with a brand new 4K scan. You can pre-order from the Amazon link below to receive it by the December 18th release date, just in time for the gift-giving holidays!

Film 

Originally published as a part of the Naptown Nerd Hammer Dracula Retrospective (October 2014)

Four English travellers arrive at a tiny hamlet in the Carpathian Mountains and ignore warnings from the locals not to travel to Carlsbad, the domain of Count Dracula. A dark, driverless carriage arrives to take them to the sinister castle, but they discover too late that they have been lured there to provide the blood which will allow Dracula to rise from the grave once more.

Hammer’s Dracula series lie dormant for six years following Brides.  Hammer as a studio was also starting to ween on a decline during this time as well.  The returns and acclaim were dwindling and there wasn’t much else to be done.  Except, take a stab at bringing back the Dracula series with another sequel to see if it could jump start and refuel the studio.  And in order to make it a big deal, they’d get Christopher Lee to return to reprise the role that made him and Hammer famous some eight year prior.  They also planned to do four films (the other three not Dracula ones) back-to-back in order to have some output ready to go if Dracula 3 succeeded or some material to phase out had Dracula 3not resuscitated the studio’s horror fare.

Dracula: Prince Of Darkness did indeed fuel the Hammer studios again, being one of its most acclaimed works.  Not only that, but it also kick-started a run of  Dracula sequels that would take the series into the following decade.  As I mentioned before, Dracula became pretty much the Friday The 13th franchise of the 60s/70s before that series even existed.  One after another they would be turned out.  Interestingly, it really wasn’t the first film in the series that spawned all the sequels to make it such a high sequel count franchise.  It was this third film that really should get all the credit for that.  With this being another direct sequel to the first film, there’s an 8 year gap between the two and only one other film in the franchise that was produced during that gap.  From Prince Of Darkness to the end, there would be seven films in eight years.

I particularly enjoy this one quite a bit, although, I’m sure there could be a lot of people who find it boring for the first forty minutes.  Yes, its true, Dracula doesn’t show up until the movie about half over.  Leading up til then, I sort of enjoy the buildup.  You know he’s coming back, but when and how are intriguing enough questions that I’m waiting to see unfold.  I also really love the “false” appearance of Dracula in our introduction to Klove.  You’re like “oh snap, there he is!” and then it winds up being some other hulking old Brit.  Speaking of Friday The 13th again (and even moreso Cabin In The Woods now), this film has that sort of “teens go out to the dangerous woods and the urban legendish killer kills them” motif.  Except, we have adults wandering into Dracula’s castle.

This “wait” is well worth it once Dracula returns.  His resurrection is totally awesome.  There’s plenty of blood and goop and you’re excited to see Lee open up his bloodshot eyes and lift his lips to show those sharp chompers.  Dracula is once again the ferocious monster he was after the first few scenes in Horror.  This Dracula is essentially a piece of the archetype for a silent killing slasher villain that would strike all over the 80s.  Like those guys, these movies come down to “how” they do away with him in the end.  All other vampires are pretty much staked, but that’s too weak to end Dracula.  He’s got to go out in some creative dramatic fashion.  The first time he withered away to ash in sunlight, this time he gets trapped under a frozen pond.  You’ll find your model for the 80s horror villain starting right here in the Hammer Dracula films.

Part of what takes Dracula so long to get there and why he has no lines is that they had to do whatever they could to get Christopher Lee back.  What that meant was the shortest shooting schedule possible.  And to assist things get done faster, Dracula just becomes a ferocious monster with no lines.  Lee has famously stated there were lines for him in the script, but they were terrible so he opted to go silent.  However, the screenwriter said he never wrote any, that the vampire shouldn’t talk and would be more creepy and convincing in his seduction if he didn’t speak a word.  Believe who you will, the end result is still the same.  And its pretty effective.  Lee just has this imposing presence and sells it so well.  The scene where he tries to seduce Diana is absolutely terrific and has inspired many scenes like it throughout horror and film history.

One aspect that peaks my enjoyment in this film is its cinematography.  Dracula: Prince Of Darkness is a gorgeous looking film.  The sets and costumes are popping and making every frame absolutely luscious.  The blood and gore is done in such a way that its both shocking (for its time, and I argue the throat slitting moment and Dracula’s resurrection are up there with a lot of today’s work) and somehow a work of art.  The colors used to tell the film are also quite strong and effective in their suggestiveness.  The previous two films both looked great, had the sets and costumes too, but there’s something about this one that stands out.  Maybe its because its shot in the epic 2.36:1 framing that tends to make a lot of things look epic.  I dunno, but whatever it was, my eyes enjoyed pretty much every moment shot for this one.  Its also why I had so much fun in the long buildup to the Prince Of Darkness returning.

I can’t finish out without mentioning that this is the Hammer Dracula film that also happens to have Barbara Shelley grace the screen.  Shelley was the top leading lady in the Hammer hay day and subsequently dubbed “The First Leading Lady Of British Horror”.  Here she gets the fun role of being the character we get to see go from to normal to being transformed into a vampire.  Shelley has plenty of fun camping it up and her character once again gets to have some suggestive lesbianism later on in the film.  Not only does Lee get to bring on the dark charm, Shelley gets to play a seductress.  While she’s not the “lead” female character and does get staked before the credits role, she absolutely gets the more fun and meaty part than that of the “damsel in distress” one of Diana, who is pretty plain Jane.

If you’re a fan of horror movies that take their time, establish characters, build suspense and have big payoffs, then Dracula: Prince Of Darkness is right up your alley.  Its been called the “quintessential Hammer film” and its easy to see why.  Many of the actors, tropes and things found to enjoy the films are all culminated into Prince Of Darkness.  Its great to see Christopher Lee return and crush it as the Count again and this one perfectly blends the period horror with gore, camp and suspense.  When you watch it, you can easily see how this is widely considered one of the best Hammer Dracula films that they made.  Its also just in general one of the better extensions of the Dracula story that goes beyond Bram Stoker’s novel. One of the cool things about this sequel is that you really could watch it out of context without having seen any of the others and be just fine and enjoy the movie on its own, proving its worth as a film itself and as a sequel.

Video

US Version 

UK Version 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: Scream Factory’s release of Dracula: Prince of Darkness boasts a 4K scan of US version of the interpositive from the 20th Century Fox vaults. A note on the “Special Thanks” portion of the bonus features says the intention was to do the scan on the original camera negative, but it was too damaged to use. Please note that these are two completely separate images for the US and UK editions.  The UK version, I believe is closer in appearance to the previous release. It has a little bit of a yellow hue to it at times, as I think seems to be the intention of the photography. The characters also feel a little bigger in the image and its overall much more sharp, crisp and clean. There are moments in the US edition looks like the source was in a bit rougher condition. The image is much darker than the UK image (In some ways welcoming, others not), and definitely has the look of an older film print that has been transferred and treated with a very hands off approach. It leans on being more grainy and features a little flicker to it in some areas. Overall, the look is soft. There are some scenes (Or probably more likely reels) where the frame kind of slightly bounces up and down that I wasn’t fond of either. The US does include a couple instances of some print distortion/damage (The UK as well, but not very noticeable). Overall, a great move to include both versions here, just hopefully people will know that just choosing between cuts isn’t a branching thing, its a full on transfer/image on its own. I’m having a hard time deciding which one I preferred as they both have stronger merits. Early on, I instantly wanted to say the UK version, but as the US version gets further into the film it improves and carries a much more haunting, dirty and sinister look to it at times, versus a more elegant, brighter, cleaner look that the UK offers. You be the judge on this one, folks. In short, one looks and feels like you’re watching a remastered and restored Blu-ray with some work done to it to look sort of pristine, fresh and new (The UK version). The other feels more like its preserving the purity of the original film elements and has the feeling and look of that of watching a pretty good, albeit a bit aged (Adding some character) original print (The US version) that hasn’t seen any sort of tampering or adjustments in post coming Blu-ray. Whatever your eyes like better, you’re right. I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear from a reviewer, but this can be subjective at times and this may be one of them. Plus, I have a reputation as being a terrible reviewer, so I need to keep that intact.

Depth:  Depth is pretty solid in both images, with a nice and natural push-back for the depth of field. Movements are smooth and cinematic with no unbearable motion issues to report.

Black Levels: Good black work on the UK edition in terms of working with shadows and retaining details on clothing and surfaces. The US versions loses lots of information and gets very grainy to the point of seeming lighter gray at times. Its countered with a lot of the film looking pretty haunting and getting the mood just right at times. There are other times, like when the group is entering the castle where the darkness is grainy enough to almost look like a light gray as I mentioned before. However, in the finale, the UK version actually looks more like nighttime is beginning to fall during the frozen moat battle more than the US version. In the US the sky and lighting have one constant look. Perhaps there were some timing alterations when it came to the UK version.

Color Reproduction: Colors are actually strong and rich in both versions beautiful touches on reds be it a filter or a curtain. Blues remain strong and well saturated as well. Clothing, curtains, rugs, chairs…any kind of luscious looking piece of costume or set decoration that is some natural brown, black or gray color really jumps out, especially in more darker corners, making them more apparent. Greens, when it comes to nature things like leaves or grass are a little bit more subdued and washed looking, but it actually works in terms of creating the haunt.

Flesh Tones: Skin tones on the UK edition have a bit of a slightly yellow feel to them and overall look more solid and full, while the US has a much more thin appearance with natural coloring (When comparing it can come across as paler) on the skin of the characters. Details area  little smoother with the UK, facial features showing up decently in medium shots and very strong in close ups. Where the UK looks smoother, the US can tend to be grainy enough to pull th same information, albeit maybe more natural.

Noise/Artifacts: No real issues to report.

Audio

US Version 

UK Version 

Audio Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: The audio tracks for each version of the movie are different as well. We get a good, well balanced mono track that does sound its age in a few spots, but overall has some solid clarity and nice touches. The US version, like the image, tends to be a bit rougher itself with a more vinyl hiss present and muffled sound overall. The UK edition clearly has the better audio, still feeling some of the analog, vinyl record sounding source, but in a much more masked, crisp and clear fashion.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear and discernible in any given moment. As mentioned before, the US version carries a  much more prevalent ambient hiss and tends to have a bit more of a muffled sound overall.

Extras 

Dracula: Prince of Darkness – Collector’s Edition comes with a reversible cover featuring original theatrical poster artwork. This release comes with the ability to watch both the UK or the US versions of the film.

Audio Commentary

  • With author Troy Howarth
  • With filmmaker Constantine Nasr and writer/producer Steve Haberman
  • With cast members Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley

Back to Black: The Making of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (HD, 30:34) – This is the same documentary with historians, journalists, Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews discussing the history of the film and its legacy.

World of Hammer Episode: “Dracula and the Undead” (SD, 24:53) – An episode of the vintage television program focusing on the dark prince.

Super 8mm Behind-the-Scenes Footage (HD, 4:38) – Shot on 8mm film with commentary from select cast members including Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley.

Theatrical Trailers (HD, 6:10)

Still Gallery (HD, 7:05)

Poster Gallery (HD, 4:50)

Special Thanks (HD, 1:25) – Specifies the scan.

Summary 

Dracula: Prince of Darkness is my favorite Hammer Dracula tales as it also works as a haunted house movie in a way with terrific atmosphere and slow burn terror coupled with some of the series’ best lighting and cinematography. Scream Factory has put together an upgraded release that features a US version of the film sourced from an interpositive that should yield and interesting response from both sides of the collector spectrum. On one hand, it feels quite pure and true to its source, while the other one looks really fresh and newly restored in comparison. If hearing things on the US version makes you hesitant, hold on to your Millennium release as I think the transfers are a little similar (UK version). Overall, this is an upgrade and now the definitive release of the film, at least stateside.

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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