To say Tod Browning’s 1930 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 almost 70 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 what lasting impact the movie would leave 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 typed 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. No knowing how lucrative, he single-handedly spawned an entire movie genre and the post-silent era success story of the Universal Studios.
Universal is now presenting "Dracula" as part of their "Classic Monster Collection" in which they have already brought us some magnificent releases of classic horror films. But no matter which one you take, "Dracula" beats them all. This is the most spectacular Special Edition any fan of the movie could have hoped for. Not only is it very complete and once again well produced, it also offers additional material that fans wouldn’t have dreamed of in their most daring dreams. But let’s take it one step at a time.
This release of "Dracula" contains two films on one disc. The first is Tod Browning’s famous version that is presented in a fullframe presentation on this disc. Sadly time has taken its toll on the film, and despite the efforts to save and fully restore the movie to its original beauty, defects in the print are noticeable and numerous. From scratches, tears and speckles, to registration problems and broken splices, the film exhibits many problems that come with films of this age. Nevertheless I immediately felt at home with the movie and quickly stopped noticing these defects, truly re-exploring the film. The contrast on this presentation is very good and very well balanced. No overexposure is evident and blacks are deep and solid. The film’s soundtrack comes as a 2-channel monaural track. It contains some audible noise but remains very understandable and atmospheric with a faithful reproduction of the film’s original ambience. This version of the film also contains a commentary track, and I was very excited to see that David J. Skal, the world’s renown specialist in all things "Dracula", actually did this commentary track himself. It is as expected 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 movie on the disc is the Spanish version of "Dracula", 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 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 compare the two films almost side by side, it is astonishing how similar yet dissimilar the 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 Dracula 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.
The DVD also contains a separate audio track that features the movie boasting the newly done music score by Philip Glass. It has been performed by the Kronos Quartet, but sadly the nasal frequency response of a chamber 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.
What is most notable about the Spanish version is the quality of the presentation on this DVD. For the most part the movie looks very clean without speckles or scratches. This by itself is astonishing given the fact that the movie is also 70 years old, but since it never had the wear and tear of Browning’s version, it is understandable. Only one reel of the 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, before the presentation starts.
Like the other releases in the "Classic Monster Collection", this disc also contains a documentary by David J. Skal. It is once again 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. The disc is nicely complemented by a poster and still gallery that shows some exciting and fabulously preserved images.
All in all, the verdict is very easy. This DVD Special Edition of "Dracula" is the most complete release of the movie that has ever been released.
The fact that Universal decided to put everything that is related to the movie on this disc, beginning with the newly done score and an exhaustive commentary track, all the way to the full Spanish version and a 30-minute documentary, is more than laudable. This disc is a perfect example how DVD can make film lovers’ dreams come true, making all the material accessible on a single disc with the single push of a button on your remote control. In fact, this DVD 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!