Two of the better sequels in Hammer’s most successful horror franchises—Frankenstein and Dracula—originally released to DVD by Anchor Bay over a decade ago, recently made their respective Blu-ray debuts in the Millennium label (in partnership with Exclusive Media).
Terence Fisher, Hammer’s top director and one of the essential horror filmmakers of the sixties, directs both Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Millennium, Blu-ray) starring Christopher Lee and Frankenstein Created Woman (Millennium, Blu-ray) with Peter Cushing, both stars reprising their most famous Hammer roles. Millennium previously released the two films in a triple feature DVD (along with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) and have plans for more Hammer Blu-ray releases. These editions are identical to the earlier Studio Canal releases in Britain, I’m told, and on the strength of these releases, which are loaded with supplements not on the bargain DVD triple feature, I can’t wait to see what’s coming down the pike.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) was Hammer’s fourth Dracula film but only Lee’s appearance in the role. He shied away from the character, afraid of getting typecast, and though he’s top-billed here, his screen time is limited, making his entrance more than half-way through the film. It’s a direct sequel to Lee’s first Dracula film, with a quartet of British tourists lured to his castle and sacrificed for his resurrection, but it reworks many details from the classic novel and Hammer’s adaptation on a smaller scale, with Francis Matthews (speaking with a Cary Grant lilt) in the Jonathan Harker role and Suzan Farmer doing Mina duty as the innocent targeted by Dracula to be his next bride. Andrew Keir take over the vampire-hunter duties here as a worldly monk with plenty of experience with the undead and there’s even a stand-in for Renfield played by Thorley Walters as a doddering, fly-gobbling old tinker.
Lee never speaks a word as Dracula, merely hissing and spitting and using his piercing eyes mesmerize and silently command his prey, more like a demonic beast in dress clothes than the ancient, cultured Count Dracula, and the script is routine, but there are some stand-out sequences and the resurrection scene is one of the great moments in Hammer horror history. The Count is literally a pile ashes (the prologue replays the final moments of the original Horror of Dracula where Dracula is burned to ash by the sun) and his loyal servant Klove (a suitably unnerving Philip Latham) bringing him back to human form by feeding him a gush of human blood from a corpse strung up over the Count’s underground coffin. As the blood and ash bubble up into primordial life, the vaguely humanoid flesh grows in front of our eyes, slowly taking human form from the inside out as a pool of fog fills the crypt. His entrance, however, is saved for a more formal reintroduction in full dress: Lee with an ashen, corpse-like pallor, animal red eyes, and a heartless smile that pulls back to reveal his fangs before sinking them into his first victim. It’s scenes like this that make Hammer horrors so much fun and reminds us why Fisher is their top director
Hammer’s take on the “Frankenstein” franchise made the Baron the central figure and the undeniable villain of the series, and Peter Cushing defined him as a ruthlessly ambitious man of science, a pitiless rationalist ready to sacrifice human life for his experiments. Frankenstein Created Woman (Millennium, Blu-ray), Hammer’s fourth Frankenstein film, is a loose sequel that skips over the 1964 The Evil of Frankenstein (which confuses the chronology) to find the Baron’s continuing experiments moving beyond surgical patchwork bodies reanimated with electricity to preserving the soul of the recently deceased and transferring it to a new host.
Like Dracula: Prince of Darkness, this is a budget-minded production made at Bray Studios, limited to just a few sets and a haunting location: a bare hill with guillotine that casts the entire film in the shadow of death. A boy witnesses the execution of his father in the prologue and fate seems determined to send him up the hill when, as a young man, he is framed for a murder committed by a trio of rich young blades. That just makes him raw material for the Baron (Cushing) and his assistant Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), an old, amiably befuddled old apple-cheeked country doctor who serves as the crippled Baron’s hands. They drop his soul into the drowned corpse of a scarred young woman (Susan Denberg), repaired and brought back to life by the doctors. Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is as arrogant as ever, with no time for the superstitious villagers and barely civil when called to give testimony in court, and his lack of empathy for his own patient causes him to miss the schizophrenic war of wills within the amnesiac girl. It plays less like a classic Frankenstein tale than a ghost story or possession horror, with the dead driving the living to carrying out his vengeance. While it never really explores the potential of the internal conflict there is something a little perverse in Denberg’s transformation from innocent maiden to seductive beauty to possessed killer with the voice of a dead man.
Note that the images used on both the front and back of the case, with the very fit looking Susan Denberg in a kind of bandage-wrap bikini, are from a series of titillating publicity stills and nowhere to be seen in the film.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness features the same restored and remastered transfer created by Studio Canal for the British Blu-ray release. This a full 2.35:1 widescreen film and the disc offers strong colors in a subdued palette and fine (if not muscular) 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtrack. The heavy DNR (digital noise reduction) remarked upon in previous reviews is apparent and tends to smooth over the grain but it’s still a good-looking image and a significant improvement in clarity and detail from previous DVD releases.
New to the disc is the 30-minute documentary Back to Black: The Making of Dracula: Prince of Darkness, which includes new interviews with actors Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews and film historians Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, among others. Carried over from earlier Anchor Bay DVD release is commentary by stars Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer, which was recorded more than a decade ago, and the disc is filled out with an episode of the 1994 House of Hammer series, “Hammer Stars: Christopher Lee,” a restoration comparison, a restored version of the original trailers, and a gallery of stills.
Frankenstein Created Woman was edited to 86 minutes in Britain but 92 minutes long in the U.S. This edition features the longer cut. The case lists the aspect ratio at 2.35:1 but in fact the film was produced to show at the more modest 1.66:1 (protected for 1.85:1 in the U.S.) and the disc takes the standard 1.77:1 compromise of modern 16×9 widescreen TVs and looks right. Less apparent DNR here. The color is muted by design and the print is fine.
Features new commentary by co-stars Derek Fowlds and Robert Morris (who remake that they may be the last living members of the cast) and film historian Jonathan Rigby, who plays host and provides all the historical detail and background while the stars fill in with their stories and remembrances (Morris tells us that Susan Denberg’s accent was so heavy that she was dubbed on post-production). Also new to this edition is the 45-minute documentary “Hammer Glamour,” featuring new interviews with Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, Madeline Smith, Vera Day and Jenny Hanley and clips from dozens of Hammer films that show the increasing sexuality of Hammer films, from cheesecake to nudity. The disc is filled out with two episodes of the 1994 House of Hammer series (“The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Hammer Stars: Peter Cushing,” both narrated by Oliver Reed), gallery of stills and original trailer.