Francis Matthews

Dracula Prince of Darkness

Christopher_Lee_Dracula

The first Hammer film I ever saw was She, in which Ursula Andress dons some extravagant headgear to play the immortal Queen Ayesha — “She who must be obeyed”. I’m guessing the star of Dracula Prince of Darkness, Christopher Lee, won’t need to sip rejuvenating pints of blood when he celebrates his 90th birthday in May. His co-stars also seem to have discovered the secret of longevity, as several of them join him on the commentary track for this restored DVD release. Lee’s voluble contribution more than compensates for the fact that Dracula (famously) doesn’t speak in the movie.

Dracula Prince of Darkness sees Lee (“Chris” to his fellow thespians) belatedly return to the role he first played in 1958’s Dracula. It’s his masterful presence alongside Scream Queen Barbara Shelley that elevates what would otherwise be a pretty routine vampire flick. Hammer historian Marcus Hearn calls this “quintessential Hammer horror”, which is a fair reflection of a plot in which some clueless English tourists spend the night at Dracula’s Gothic castle and live to regret it. Well, not all of them actually live.

Terence Fisher’s film begins with a stirring pre-credits sequence, reminding us how the infamous Count was turned into a heap of ashes by Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. Ten years later, his former neighbours are still wracked by fear and superstition. But they — and we — have to wait another 40 minutes to discover the secret ingredient needed to reconstitute those ashes into something with a lot more sex appeal.

Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer play winsome young couple Charles and Diana (Kent, not Windsor), with Shelley as the uptight sister-in-law, married to Alan (Charles Tingwell). Their mildly entertaining familial banter has more of an edge to it once they’re at the mercy of the Count’s lugubrious manservant Klove (played by Philip Latham). In the film’s most memorable scene, he lovingly prepares the sarcophagus from which his master will soon rise again. All that’s needed is a bucket of “claret”, courtesy of the freshly butchered Alan.

Beautifully lit and shot, this chilling ritual also features some pretty impressive special effects by the standards of a low-budget, mid-60s horror movie. That’s something the cast note with approval on the commentary, with Lee “That is my left hand!” apparently surprised at the way he emerges from the smoke-filled tomb.

At times they’re a bit hazy on the names of some other cast members (clearly no one had a smart phone handy to check IMDb). But Lee, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer and Barbara Shelley obviously have fond memories of Hammer and director Fisher, so the anecdotes come thick and fast. Shelley losing a “fang” during her climactic staking scene is, perhaps, old news. But I didn’t know that she’d met Humphrey Bogart while working as an extra on The Barefoot Contessa. Cue several Bogart impersonations.

Dracula Prince of Darkness is the first title from the Hammer back catalogue to get a full makeover and restoration on DVD and Blu-ray. They’ve even gone to the bother of putting “Associated British Productions Limited” back onto the title sequence. The enhanced picture quality does wonders for Dracula’s glowing red eyes, as he fixes the ladies with his “come hither” stare. The fake gore, though, now looks even more like fruit cocktail.

The extras package here is good, with a new half-hour documentary featuring cast members as well as experts Marcus Hearn, Mark Gatiss and author Jonathan Rigby. But my favourite moment on this DVD comes during an episode from The World of Hammer series. It’s basically a Christopher Lee Greatest Hits package, with Oliver Reed offering a few comments, but not much in the way of analysis. In To the Devil a Daughter (1976) Lee’s Satanist ex-priest is attempting to lure away a young girl played by Nastassja Kinski (who was 15 at the time). “Not a bad idea” intones the lecherous Ollie. Nicely put.