To say Tod Browning's 1930 version of "Dracula" is a classic movie is still an understatement. It is a landmark, or rather, the word to put this movie in its historic context has yet to be created. For over 80 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. Available now in a brand new and fully restored high definition transfer as part of Universal's Classic Monster Collection, "Dracula" was the first film in the set I popped into the player, eager to find out how it turned out.
"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 blood loss occur in the London 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 by 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 consolidated characters and 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 became 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 thing 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 by Dracula powers. 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.
At long last, Universal is now presenting "Dracula" in high definition, as one of the films in the incredible "Universal Classic Monsters" collection, featuring more of these incredible classics. For this release, "Dracula" has once again be restored meticulously, in order to make for a solid high definition presentation. Unlike the DVD version, finally, we get to see a version that is in good condition and mostly without major flaws. Naturally, age wears on a movie, such as this, and despite the studio's best efforts, there are certain shortcomings in the presentation. Nonetheless, the film exhibits an incredible level of detail at last, and for the most part, contrast has been adjusted to give the black and white image not only depth, but also a wonderful gray fall-off that runs a wide gamut. Film stock in those days was not like today's, capable of reproducing even the finest of nuances. Many times, reproduction was limited to extreme contrasts with little detail in-between. With this restoration, however, the studio made sure that the nuances that are there are properly leveled and the entire image is balanced for maximum contrast. The result is staggering at times, as you now have rock solid close-ups of Bela Lugosi, revealing details and definition that was all but invisible before.
The film has also been stabilized, making sure the image is not jumping the way it did on the DVD version. That alone, gives the presentation a much better quality. While there are still issues in certain shots where the density is constantly wavering, the overall presentation is marvelous, to say the least, and speckles and dirt have been thoroughly removed also.
The movies comes with its original mono audio track and thanks to the wonders of digital technologies, the track has been cleaned up and is free of hiss or other defects. It has been nicely cleaned up and remixed, giving it more body, while also minimizing the level of distortion heard before. It is an absolutely solid presentation, befitting the movie.
The film is supplemented by 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 from 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.
There is also a second commentary track on the disc, featuring Steve Haberman, the screenwriter of the Mel Brooks persiflage "Dracula: Dead And Loving It." Knowledgable - as he had to be in order to properly poke fun at the story the way he did - Haberman is full of tidbits and insights that add to the understanding of the entire vampire and Dracula culture.
The release also contains a separate audio track that features the movie boasting the re-imagined 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.
"Monster Track" is a trivia track feature that is also included on the disc, covering a wide array of tidbits and nuggets surrounding the film, its production and cast members. I found it fun to watch and learn more and more little gems about the film a and the people involved.
Like the previous DVD version, this release also contains the Spanish version of "Dracula," shot at exactly the same time, parallel with the American production on the same sets. "Dracula" was produced during a time when Ãƒï¿½Ã¯Â¿Â½Ã¯Â¿Â½talkies' 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 a release such as this 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 acknowledge. 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, it 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 a lot time is spend to establish mood and atmosphere - almost too much at times.
What is most notable about the Spanish version is the quality of the presentation. 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 over 80 years old. But since it never had the wear and tear of Browning's version, it is understandable that it comes across as cleaner. 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.
Naturally, the release also contains a set of featurettes, starting with a closer look at the restoration of "Dracula." Nicely showing off the process and the difficulties for audiences to understand, the featurette also discusses why it is so difficult to get a movie like "Dracula" back into shape. With nitrate film stock being highly hazardous and regulated these days because of its flammability, working on this movie was no easy matter.
In addition you will find a variety of featurettes on the subject of the movie, its history and legacy, and a look at Bela Lugosi and his illustrious career.
All in all, the verdict is very easy. This new high definition version of "Dracula" is simply spectacular and the most complete release of the movie that has ever been released. It is only one out of eight movies that make up the "Universal Classic Monsters" collection, but as you will see in reviews for other films from the set, this is a truly impressive effort by Universal hat truly deserves your attention.