Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dracula: 75th Anniversary Edition (1931)

To say Tod Browning's 1931 version of "Dracula" is a classic
movie is still an understatement. The word to put this movie
in its historic context has yet to be created. For 75 years now
the images and sounds of this particular movie have haunted
our dreams and inspired our imagination. Our collective
conscience has embraced this film and the images and themes
presented within, like no other movie since. Most fascinating,
no one involved in the production at the time had the slightest
idea the lasting impact the movie would have on Western

"Dracula" tells the story of the vampire count (Bela Lugosi) from
Transylvania who is buying an estate in London to live in. Shortly
after his arrival overseas, strange deaths and cases of bloodloss
occur in the British suburbs, until one man realizes that only a
vampire could cause these deaths and make his victims rise
again from the grave. Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is
finally able to put his accumulated knowledge about vampires
to the test when he is forced to square off against Count Dracula,
in order to defeat him and the evil he spreads.

The story of this particular movie is only loosely based on Bram
Stoker's acclaimed novel of the same name. It is much more
related to the theater play "Dracula" by Hamilton Deane that was
highly successful in London and New York at the time. It used
themes from the novel but made the locations more compact to
accommodate the physical limitations and dramatic needs of a
theater production. This stage play has then been worked over
for the movie adaptation by John Balderston, who would soon
become one of Hollywood's most sought-after horror scribes
of the 1930s.

Bela Lugosi's portrayal of the vampiric Count Dracula in this
movie was the most remembered part he ever played.
Remembered so much in fact that it almost became a curse
for the actor, as he was hardly offered a diversity of roles after
his appearance in this film. He was type-cast and stuck in his
role until the end of his career, despite his many attempts to
break away from the horror genre and the personification of
vampires. The same unfortunately happened to actor Dwight
Frye, who is playing Renfield in this movie, a real estate agent
who turns into a madman after he's been touched upon by
Dracula's blood curse. His manic portrayal was so good that
for the rest of his career, the truly multi-facetted actor would
be stuck in the parts of madmen.

At the time when "Dracula" was produced, horror was not a
legitimate movie genre, at least not in the eyes of Hollywood's
major studios. Carl Laemmle Jr., the son of Universal's studio
owner Carl Laemmle, was fascinated with horror however and
convinced his father that a horror film could indeed be a
lucrative business. Not knowing how lucrative, he
single-handedly spawned an entire movie genre and the
post-silent era success story of the Universal Studios.

Universal Home Entertainment is re-releasing the film now in
a 2-disc Special Edition to celebrate its 75th Anniversary and
finally the studio has given the movie long-deserved treatment.
While in previous releases of the film the print has always been
extremely dark, here now, finally, we have a version that properly
restores the movie's look. Upon doing a side-by-side comparison
of the "Classic Monster Collection" version of the movie and this
new transfer it is simply stunning what details are suddenly
revealing themselves in the picture. All of a sudden you see water
trickling down the stairs in the catacombs where Dracula and his
brides first rise, something that was never evident before and
shrouded in blackness. The matte paintings now have a much
finer quality with nicer shades of gray and overall, the print is
exhibiting much less grain than ever before. Add to that a print
that is noticeably cleaner – though still filled with speckles – and
you have the best presentation of "Dracula" you will have ever
witnessed, finally putting it in league with the look of
"Frankenstein", which has always looked significantly better by

The audio of the movie has also been cleaned up and comes as the
original mono track, free if distracting hiss or distortion. This time
around we also have two commentary tracks to supplement the
feature film. The first one is the marvelous track by David J. Skal
that was part of previous releases. Skal is, of course, a Tod
Browning specialist as well as the world's renown expert on all
things "Dracula." His commentary is highly valuable and insightful,
offering a lot of information about the myth of "Dracula", the
transition form the novel to the stage and finally to the screen. He
also extensively covers the cast & crew careers and always maintains
a good pace with his explanations, yet making sure to leave enough
time so viewers can enjoy some of the most memorable key scenes
of the movie.

The second commentary track is by Steve Haberman, a writer of
books on the subject of classic horror movies, as well as the
screenwriter of the Mel Brooks comedy "Dracula: Dead And Loving I
t." Haberman is also very knowledgeable on the subject matter and
offers additional insight into the movie, its history and legacy.

To complement these tracks the disc also contains a "Monster
Track," a pop-up subtitle track that reveals many aspects of the
making and history of the film in text form as you view the

Also included is Philip Glass' controversial score on a separate
language track. It has been performed by the Kronos Quartet, but
sadly the nasal frequency response of a chamber orchestra
instrumentation does not do justice to the movie at all. On top of it,
the composition lacks the dramaturgy of the movie and interferes
with the images more often than it actually supports them. The lack
of a true set of motives to complement the actions and characters
of the film gives the score an erratic and agitated feel that is sadly
counterproductive to the movie.

This first disc also contains David Skal's "Road To Dracula"
documentary that was part of the previous releases. Hosted by
Carla Laemmle, it is a skillful documentation of the relevance the
movie has played in movie history, and how the phenomenon
"Dracula" has permeated our culture since the time Bela Lugosi
first graced the screen. Also included is a new 35-minute
documentary called "Lugosi: The Dark Prince" shedding additional
light on Bela Lugosi's career and the effect "Dracula" had on his
future endeavors. It also discusses quite nicely why Lugosi was
so perfect for the part and that it was no accident that his
portrayal becomes so iconic that even 75 years later every
child and adult will immediately see his likeness in their mind's
eye when they think of the vampire count.

On the second disc of the release we find once again the Spanish
version of "Dracula," that was shot at exactly the same time on
the same sets as the American production. "Dracula" was produced
during a time when 'talkies' were still in their infancy, and as a
result language dubbing did not exist. To solve the language
problem, studios at the time decided to re-shoot entire movies
with a native cast, in this case starring Carlos Villarias as Dracula.
The film also used the exact same shooting script as Browning's
version, and yet, the differences are remarkable. Especially on this
DVD where you can actually compare the two films side by side, it
is astonishing how similar yet dissimilar these movies are. It is
obvious that the Spanish crew has had access to the footage the
Americans shot during the day and based their own approach on
these dailies, avoiding certain pitfalls Tod Browning could not
foresee - or didn't want to. As such, the Spanish version feels
much livelier and almost modern due to its more dramatic use
of the camera, but on the other hand has the problem that
Villarias just didn't make a great Dracula and was nowhere near
the caliber of a Bela Lugosi. It is also notable that this version
of the film runs about 30 minutes longer than the English version,
already indicating that much time is spend to establish mood and
atmosphere - almost too much at times.

In the past the Spanish version used to look much better than
Tod Browning's film, but no longer so. While the quality of the
Spanish version is still the same, the presentation of the English
version has finally elevated above that level of quality and detail.
Only one reel of the Spanish film shows some significant defects.
It is the reel David J. Skal discovered at the "Cinemateca de Cuba"
in 1989 that was taken from a worn dupe show print from the
50s. Unfortunately this is the only reel in existence since
universal's original negative had already fallen into nitrate
decomposition by the time the negative was rediscovered in
the 1970s.

This version of the film is introduced by Lupita Tovar, the female
star of the Spanish version, and she nicely points out the major
differences and the history of this version of the movie.

As another new feature the disc contains the 1998
feature-length documentary "Universal Horror" which traces the
history of Universal's classic monsters. It offers many interview
clips with historians, actors, family members and others related
to these films, trying to give a good overview over the magic that
these films wove over their audiences and how they became
lasting landmarks in cinema history.

The disc is nicely completed by a poster gallery that shows some
exciting and fabulously preserved images as well as the movie's

All in all, the verdict is very easy. This 75th Anniversary Edition of
"Dracula" is the release fans have been waiting for. The fact that
Universal decided to put everything that is related to the movie on
this disc, beginning with the newly done score and exhaustive
commentary tracks, all the way to the full Spanish version and the
lengthy documentaries on the film's subject, is more than laudable.
This disc is a perfect example how DVD can make film lovers'
dreams come true, making all the material accessible to anyone
with the single push of a button on your remote control. In fact,
because this DVD improves dramatically on an already stellar
previous release and is so impressive in its completeness and
presentation that it deserves to be honored with our "Gold Seal
Of Excellence". Everything you ever wanted to know can be found
on this DVD - and then quite some more!

Fonts: DVD Review

1 comment:

Derek Tatum said...

I give Steve Haberman a lot of credit. I wasn't aware of his genre work aside from "Dracula: Dead And Loving It," and I thought that Universal was scraping the bottom of the barrel if he was the best they could do. But his commentary was excellent. I had been one of those people who thought the Spanish version was better, but Haberman's passionate defense of Browning's "Dracula" changed my mind. I've been wanting to re-evaluate "Dracula: Dead And Loving It" ever since.

Agreed on your review - a great DVD, essential part of any Dracula fan's shelf.