Re-released this week in a corrected Blu-ray (there were audio synch problems with the initial batch), Dracula Prince Of Darkness is pretty much the definitive Hammer horror film. Released in 1966, it’s a belated sequel to Hammer’s 1958 hit Dracula (or Horror of Dracula in the USA), a film that cleverly adapted Bram Stoker’s classic into a slick, pacy horror romp. Footage of the finale of Dracula is shown in a pre-title sequence to refresh viewers of a film released eight years before. It must be remembered that this was in a world with no VHS/DVD etc, so public consciousness of a film released eight years before could not be taken for granted as it would be today (or, indeed, as it will be when Avatar 2 gets released several years from now).
I don’t know what the current general consensus is about these Hammer films, whether they are well-regarded now as classics or dismissed as low-budget, camp British b-movies, and to be honest I don’t care. I guess it really depends on how old you are. As a kid growing up in England in the fairly grim 1970s I watched Hammer films on tv’s Friday night horror seasons, thrilled and horrified and, yes, often titillated, by them all. Gothic locations, rich colour palettes, low budgets, thrilling scores, beautiful ladies, Hammer films had a style of horror pretty much all their own. A program of restorations and definitive Blu-ray releases has recently commenced, and to have them restored in HD is wonderful. In the case of this edition of DPOD, compared to the superlative Quatermass & The Pit Blu-ray of several months ago, expectations have to be lowered a little due to technical issues. DPOD was shot in Techniscope, a process that produced a 2.35:1 picture by using only half of the standard 35mm frame. This obviously limits picture quality somewhat, but nevertheless the film looks better here than it ever has.
And it remains a very effective horror film. The sequence in which Helen (another wonderfully nuanced performance by the great Barbara Shelley) wanders into Dracula’s crypt to find her dead husband hanging from the ceiling, drained of blood above the vampires tomb is genuinely shocking, as is the shot a little while later when Charles enters the crypt and he sees the deathly-pale arm of Helen hanging out of a trunk as if casually dumped there. I don’t know why, but both scenes actually disturbed me and do still when thinking about it. This may well be due to Terence Fisher’s sedate direction, and the films slow but eerily effective pace as the horrors gently ramp up. Compared to the tight cutting and frenzied rush typical of most modern horror films, this is refreshing indeed and a reminder of how good old horror movies are despite their often low budgets, and limited fx quality. Matte paintings look like matte painting, dodgy sets often look, well, like dodgy sets and the blood often looks, well, like rich red paint, but it’s all part of a disarming charm. There is, indeed, something irresistible about having a flimisly-clad mature woman (by which I mean a woman in her thirties as opposed to some teenage pouting girl) standing by a gothic window from beyond which thunder rolls intolling certain doom, or everyday-looking heroes that aren’t muscle-bound and gorgeous and very, very young. There is a reality about it, and yet also a dreamlike aspect to the gothic feel. Scenes of Alan exploring the nighttime Castle, the camera prowling with him, recalled the scenes of Brett in Alien as he searched the Nostromo’s engineering deck for the cat. This is old-fashioned, nervy horror, all expectation and dread, knowing something bad is sure to happen, but when, and how? Compare it to modern horror which is pretty much all shocks and little anticipation. Maybe modern audiences are to impatient, and too sanguine about Hammer-levels of gore. Their loss I think.
Dracula Prince of Darkness is a great horror movie, and I’m looking forward to settling down in the fine company of Lee, Shelley, Matthews and Farmer with their cast commentary that is one of a number of extras on the disc. Another very fine catalogue title on Blu-ray.