SEPTEMBER 13, 2013
Thanks, I assume, to various licensing issues, we've seen very few Hammer movies given proper blu-ray presentation here in the States - and even the ones that were announced took quite a while to get here. For example, Dracula: Prince Of Darkness was announced early in 2012 and released in the UK, with the original plan being to have it out in the US a few months after, but it's just hitting now - and the other titles they announced (such as Plague Of The Zombies, the first Hammer film I ever watched) are still without US release dates. Thankfully, if this set is any indication, it will indeed be worth the wait - and nothing greases the wheels like money, so I'm happy to say this is worth adding to your collection.
It's a bit odd to start what will hopefully be a series of releases with what is essentially part 3 of a franchise, but as explained on one of its bonus features, this Dracula is sort of the quintessential Hammer film, and thus it makes perfect sense. And lest anyone thinks they shouldn't start in the middle of the series, it starts off with a recap of how Drac got "killed" at the end of the first Dracula (he sat out part 2, Brides of Dracula), and I don't even think it's necessary - even in 1965 I'm sure audiences knew how these movies worked and thus wouldn't be confused as to where he was for the first 20-30 minutes.
Plus it's a pretty fun entry; as I mentioned in my review of the film, they might be working from a template of sorts, but if ain't broke why fix it? It's got the folks getting warned from going to the place that they're going to go anyway, the big castle, the horse-drawn carriage chase, the race to stop Dracula before the sun goes down... everything you'd want, plus Hammer's lavish sets and well-dressed ladies. But they do put some wrinkles into the formula; of course there are two potential "Brides", but since they're new characters (instead of Mina and Lucy) there's some suspense as to which one will become stake fodder and which one will be rescued in the finale. Also, there are TWO Renfield types to create a threat for when Drac's not around, and a team of monks instead of the usual investigators.
Also, there's no Van Helsing. Future Quatermass Andrew Keir fills in that role as Father Sandor, the head of the monks who assists hero Charles as they follow the path of their Dracula movie hero predecessors. But even though the change is minor, it's enough to give it some flavor; I only wish they spent more time with these folks instead of the more traditional elements, but as it had been 7-8 years since their first film, I can see why they wouldn't want to go too far off the beaten path with Lee's comeback to the role. It's a shame that they had to basically con Lee into appearing in the sequels (they'd pull on his heartstrings, basically, telling him that if he didn't do it he'd be putting a bunch of his hard-working friends out of a job), but anyone who puts in those painful red contact lenses sort of has the right to bitch about whatever he wants after the job has been done.
Speaking of the contacts, the shot where he has the red eyes and gnashes his teeth at the two girls is just one of many that kind of blew me away on this new transfer. Having only seen the film on a VHS tape, I spent most of my watching time just sort of fixating on details: the texture of a suit, the hairs in a beard, wallpaper... anything that would have just been a solid mush color on my previous viewing. There might be a touch more DNR than I'd like, and sometimes the color appears to be intensified a bit much making the actors look like George Hamilton, but nothing too problematic, and if you're watching a Hammer film you want vivid colors anyway, so whatever. It's a terrific looking picture, with a solid 2.0 audio mix to accompany it.
For bonus features, we get a brand new retrospective doc featuring a few of the surviving players (no Lee, sadly) and some Hammer historians to provide the backstory for the project, its place in the studio's history, etc. It kind of jumps from topic to topic, but considering that most of its makers are now dead I was surprised how thorough it was for a new piece, and it even includes a bit about the restoration process, which included a faithful recreation of the title cards. A separate piece offers some before/after comparisons of select shots from the movie, occasionally staying in split screen (old on the left, new on the right) so you can see how much better the film looks than it did on previous releases.
The other extras are ported over from other editions or older material; there's a 25 minute episode of a British TV show that honored certain icons - the episode devoted to Lee is presented here. Narrated by Oliver Reed, it's pretty short on biographical information, and despite being produced in 1990 it only includes films up to 1976's To The Devil A Daughter, so it's kind of pointless unless this is the first of his films you've ever seen. Then there's a commentary (recorded for the 1997 release) with Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, and Barbara Shelley, where the group (recorded together! Such a relief) enjoys revisiting the film, telling set stories and other anecdotes. It's a bit hard to tell the two women apart, and Matthews doesn't offer much, but it's a lot of fun to listen to them carry on, correct each others' faulty memories, and marvel at their youth. A trailer and some stills round things out, and if you're a good person and buying the disc instead of renting it, you'll get 5 collectible cards that resemble (smaller) lobby cards. Good deal.
I'd take out a small loan to have a boxed set of all the "A" Hammer titles (that is, their Dracula and Frankenstein series, and pretty much anything else with Cushing or Lee, plus the Quatermass films, Plague of the Zombies, etc.), but that's probably never going to happen. Hopefully whatever issues have caused the delays in getting the other titles released here will be smoothed out, and whoever owns the rights to the other titles either give them up to Studio Canal or does their best to match their efforts here for their own releases. At this time of year, these are the sort of movies I look forward to curling up on the couch with (now that I'm "free" of new entries to watch/write up), and I would very much like to have them presented as wonderfully as this.
What say you?