Hammer goes for the HD jugular….
After the initial success of resurrecting Universal’s monsters, Hammer needed to balance the studio’s books when further successes were outstripped by the costs of making them. With a new distribution deal for the USA and a cunning plan to shoot four films back to back, re-using cast, crew and sets, the cashflow improved. Chiefly, the studio relied upon the draw of Christopher Lee returning to the cape that had made women swoon and men reach for their fangs.Lee’s reappearance is teased throughout the opening 40 minutes of Prince of Darkness. Dark, crow-like characters are revealed in silhouette and the whole enterprise begins with a reprise of the finale of the original entry in Hammer’s toothsome terrors. And when Lee re-emerges the macabre death that precedes it and the splendid resurrection he is given, courtesy of Les Bowie, ensures an impact which sadly exceeds the quality of the remainder of the film.
Jimmy Sangster’s uninspired script follows two holidaying British couples as they literally blunder into the dining room of the Count and lead to his re-birth. As the misadventuring tourists, the luminous Barbara Shelley is given a terrible time as a moaning naysayer, and Francis Matthews is just one of the arrogant men whose nonsensical and stupid decisions ensure Dracula won’t remain too dead for too long.Lee is silent once he appears and here the lack of a Van Helsing is managed by having a boisterous turn from Andrew Keir as a vampire slaying monk. These deficits are compounded by cliches, limited sets and erratic pacing, in fact the film only really comes alive once the action moves to the monastery and the heaving bosoms, charming lunacy and bloodsucking begin.
Still, there are some strong positives which raise the film above the dreck Hammer purveyed in the seventies. The appearance of Philip Latham as the faithful servant Clove, the demented charm of Thorley Walters as a kind of Renfield clone in the final act and that gloriously ornate resurrection ensure that the limitations of budget or schedule don’t overwhelm the film.Better sequels were to come, and viewed alongside the first two entries in the series this is an inferior if entertaining product. Prince of Darkness ensured that other Hammer films got made with the box office it generated, sadly though the film itself is limited and perfunctorily produced.
The film has been restored and mastered upon a BD50 region B locked disc. Previous home video releases of this film have not been impressive with problems with the original film stock limiting what could be achieved. Whilst the restoration here boasts some impressive results, the state of the darkest sequences is not going to warm your heart I am afraid.The lack of grading in the shades, the absence of decent shadow detail and an excessive encompassing darkness means that some sequences are a disappointment. Similarly, the opening sequence in the woods has been cleaned up but this has led to a kind of cut out effect with trees seeming like bad mattes rather than integrated into the picture. Overall, this VC1 encode is lacking detail, occasionally excessive when colours bleed and very unlike film at times. After the excellent Quatermass BD last year, this transfer is a let down.
An LPCM mono track is welcome. Bernard’s excellent score benefits from some extra definition and the clarity of the dialogue enables the film to be followed satisfactorily. English subtitles are also available during the feature.
There’s quite a good set of extras included here. The audio commentary features the leading cast from the main feature with Lee taking charge. He is quite long-winded and does try to command the conversation throughout, even when Shelley and Matthews have their own anecdotes to contribute. His recollection of Sangster’s script is a little faulty and his preference is to talk about his non horror career. Generally, his companions know their place and join in saying nice things about Fisher, Nelson Keys and the like.
Marcus Hearn and the frankly marvellous Mark Gatiss contribute to a retrospective documentary on the film. Hearn sets the background and Gatiss offers his personal feelings on the film, and Matthews and Shelley pop up as talking heads as well. Matthews’ brother is responsible for 8mm footage from the shooting of the film included here as a short extra with a commentary from leading cast.
A short restoration comparison shows some of the work on key scenes with the film, whilst American and original title sequences are offered in 1080P along with some glorious trailers. My particular favourite here is the double bill trailer for Prince of Darkness and Frankenstein Created Woman which shows nearly nothing of either film!
Happily included is a World of Hammer episode on Lee narrated by the late great Oliver Reed which celebrates the tall one’s monsters and his more dramatic roles.
Despite restoration efforts, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is not an exceptional transfer even if it does improve on previous treatments. A good set of extras goes some way in compensating for higher expectations with the visual quality.
Readers have brought it to our attention that there is a replication error on the initial batch of retail discs resulting in an audio sync problem in certain scenes. Studiocanal and Hammer are aware of this and will be offering replacement discs to those effected.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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