Dracula: 75th Anniversary Edition

Dracula: 75th Anniversary Edition (1931)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Helen Chandler
Extras: Full Spanish Version, Commentary Tracks, Monster Track, Documentaries, Poster Gallery, Trailer

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 cultures.

"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 comparison.

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 It." 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 feature.

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 trailer.

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!