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Hammer Definition: Dracula Prince of Darkness

It’s safe to say that the Hammer faithful (myself included) were all around thrilled when Quatermass and the Pit arrived on Blu-ray from Optimum as one of the best catalog releases of recent memory, and those same faithful were no doubt hoping for more of the same from the re-branded Studio Canal’s double-play issue of Terrance Fischer’s Dracula Prince of Darkness – released last week in Region B and readily available through (NOTE: Amazon UK appear to have pulled their listing  entirely for the time being, while the British Video Association currently lists the release as “Pulled from Schedule”. I assume the disc has been recalled due to the widely reported audio problems). Unfortunately it was not to be. That’s not to say Dracula Prince of Darkness is a total disaster, but it’s certainly a major disappointment.

On the positive side of things Dracula Prince of Darkness underwent considerable restoration at Pinewood Studios in advance of its high definition home video debut, a process that began with a fresh 2k scan from the original 2-perf Techniscope negative. No end of physical damage, from minor dirt and specks to ungainly vertical scratches and splice marks, has been cleared from the image, and though some minor marks remain scattered throughout the ravages of time (nearly 50 years) have effectively been erased.

Color reproduction has likewise been improved from the faded original elements, and while it never reaches the depth of saturation of a vintage Technicolor release print it certainly doesn’t look bad either. Exteriors, frequently filtered as day-for-night, fare the worst, appearing overly cool and presenting with a notable green tinge. Interior photography can appear quite lush by contrast, with warmer flesh tones all around, and that quintessential Kensington gore is remarkably vivid. While I’d have preferred more of a boost in contrast the black levels here look quite accurate with one notable exception – a brief snippet beginning at 01:16:20 in which the image fades strangely flat, even in the letterboxing, for a few seconds (just for the duration of that one shot). I’ve included a sample below, and the difference should be obvious when compared to the other screenshots provided.

In addition to improving upon the color and contrast and restoring a great share of the damage the materials had accrued over four-and-a-half decades, Pinewood have regrettably opted to soften the substantial grain of the 2-perf Techniscope photography through an excessive application of digital noise reduction. It’s the film’s pre-credits sequence, footage from Fischer’s earlier Horror of Dracula framed in billowing fog, that shows this manipulation the most, having been scrubbed of any hint of finer detail or palpable film texture. While the rest of the film improves markedly from there, the over-application of DNR remains readily apparent. Grain is still evident in the background, though its well-defined edges have been softened away to no good end. Detail, particularly at the level of flesh or material texture, suffers as a result, though remains at more refined levels than SD video could support.

Though the numbers appear to show an acceptable technical backing for the feature I found them rather misleading, as the VC-1 video encode (at a perfectly sound average bitrate of 29.4 Mbps) just doesn’t support the visuals to the degree it should. The trouble here is artifacting, pure and simple, and while the image looks acceptable in motion a cursory examination reveals any number of ugly digital blemishes tinkering about in the background. Skies and interior walls prove particularly bothersome – take a look at the room behind vampire Shelley in screenshot number 013 for a prime example – and the acceptability of their rendering will depend directly on just how large a scale you intend to view the film.

Otherwise, the image is properly framed at 2.36:1 and presented in a universally accessible 1080p. While it never looks like film it does have some stronger moments on all fronts (like the close-up on Count Dracula’s bloodshot eyes), as the included screenshots should relate. Whether or not it is good enough for your personal taste will be a matter of just that, but it’s worth noting that this is likely as good as Dracula Prince of Darkness will look for some time.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution 1920×1080 .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the Image Magick command line tool.

Comparison DVD screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in VLC Media Player, and compressed to .jpg using the same technique as above. In the case of the upscaled samples, DVD screenshots were upscaled to 1920×1080 resolution in GIMP, saved to .png at the highest quality settings, then compressed to .jpg using the method previously described.

The below three sets of screenshots directly compare the Blu-ray and DVD editions included in this double-play package. Both are sourced from the same high definition restoration, though the superiority of the high def iteration (particularly with regards to detail and breadth of color) should be obvious. DVD screenshots have been included both at native and upscaled 1920×1080 resolution for sake of comparison. DVD images (native, then upscaled) appear first, followed by the Blu-ray. Frame matches are exact.

Additional Blu-ray Screenshots:

Initial pressings of Dracula Prince of Darkness – both DVD and Blu-ray – present with a few notable audio synchronization errors, beginning with the pre-credits montage of Peter Cushing doing battle with Christopher Lee. I would make more of this, but Studio Canal has already announced a replacement program that should effectively settle the issue. I’ve already put in for my replacement discs, and will update this review when they arrive.

Other than that, there is nothing to complain about with regards to Dracula Prince of Darkness‘ audio presentation. The original monophonic mix is reproduced by way of a lossless 16-bit LPCM 2.0 track that sounded very good to these ears, with the late great James Bernard’s classic Dracula theme (rehashed from his work on the earlier Horror of Dracula) coming through loud and clear. There is some reasonable depth at times, particularly during a late film horse chase, but don’t set expectations for this near-50 year old mix too high. It sound crisp, clear, and intelligible throughout, with a few robust moments in between, and I can’t ask for more than that. The feature is accompanied by a nice set of optional English SDH subtitles.

Though the feature presentation is problematic the supplemental package (duplicated across both the Blu-ray and DVD, albeit all in PAL SD for the latter) is quite strong, and dominated by a new half-hour documentary in HD – Back to Black: The Making of Dracula Prince of Darkness, which includes interviews with stars Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews, various Hammer historians, and the esteemed Mark Gatiss (of The League of Gentlemen fame). Otherwise the majority of what’s here is old stuff, though its inclusion is certainly appreciated. In addition to a feature commentary with Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, and Barbara Shelley, the release offers a The World of Hammer episode on star Christopher Lee (24 minutes, PAL SD), behind the scenes 8mm footage with commentary from Lee, Farmer, Shelley, and Matthews (8 minutes, PAL SD), the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes, HD), a double bill trailer for Dracula Prince of Darkness and Frankenstein Created Woman (36 seconds, HD), the original US and UK opening titles* (only the opening company logos, HD), and a brief restoration demonstration (4 minutes, HD).

A robust slate of supplemental content and one of the best cover designs I’ve ever seen (I was amused to no end to find one of the censor stamps placed dead-center of Barbara Shelley’s cleavage) can’t hide the fact that the Dracula Prince of Darkness Blu-ray / DVD double-play offers a seriously flawed feature presentation. That said, it’s still the best the film has ever looked on video, though its level of acceptability will be up to the personal preferences of the fans. For me it does the job, if only just (and I think even that’s giving it more leeway than I honestly should). Here’s hoping that the restorations of The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies are handled more responsibly.

*For the feature the UK opening company titles were digitally recreated (and quite well). The supplements feature the original UK opening company titles as sourced from a very rough 35mm theatrical print.

Dracula Prince of Darkness-star Christopher Lee, with producer Anthony Nelson Keys. Taken from the on-disc documentary Back to Black.

One thought on “Hammer Definition: Dracula Prince of Darkness

  1. ZOMG! I’ve never seen that still before… and it may well be the creepiest Lee has ever looked as Dracula.

    That grin. **shudders**

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