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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Svengali
Svengali
Roan Group
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Chris Hughes | posted May 17, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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Features: Full Screen 1.66:1. Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono.) Production notes.

The Movie:
Some situations and characters in movies and literature speak to such universal themes that they instantly become part of the popular lexicon. Such is the case with director Archie Mayo's 1932 film Svengali. Based on George du Maurier's popular novel Trilby, the story concerns an eccentric old Parisian (John Barrymore in the title role) who has the uncanny ability to place people under this powerful thrall through the use of hypnotism. At the outset Svengali seems a rather comic figure, bumbling about, asking his friends for money etc. but when he meets a beautiful young singer (Marion Marsh as Trilby) he takes a turn for the sinister. Svengali uses his power to capture the girl's mind and bend her talent to his evil purposes. Before too long Trilby, through Svengali's manipulations, becomes a huge singing star but her fame comes at the cost of relinquishing her free will and her fortunes go right into Svengali's pockets. Will young Trilby be able to break Svengali's spell or will she go mad trying?

The story should sound familiar to you. 1932's Svengali was actually the second big screen adaptation of du Maurier's book and it was followed by two remakes. In addition Svengali was the inspiration for no less than three versions of A Star is Born and the name Svengali itself has become popular shorthand to describe relationships like the one between John Derek and his lovely impresario Bo. Clearly the Svengali concept withstands the test of time and I'd wager that we haven't seen the last of it on film and television.

The 1932 version of Svengali is perhaps the most famous of the group. It's a spooky, atmospheric film that features a superb performance by John Barrymore. If you've ever seen Jon Lovitz doing his Master Thespian character you'll have a good idea of Barrymore's tone. To accuse him of overacting would be an understatement but within the context of this eerie film it works wonderfully. Complementing Barrymore is Marion Marsh who delivers an enchantingly innocent portrayal of Trilby. This was Marsh's first major role. Supporting these fine performances is a wonderful combination of direction, set design and cinematography. Svengali is an expressionist film in the German tradition and uses its sets as outward manifestations of the character's psychology. The backgrounds jut up at crazy angles like craggy mountains and the result is a dreamlike world that seems to come right out of Svengali's mind. The cinematography and direction are both exceedingly innovative with liberal use of daring camera angles and interesting special effects. One scene in particular in which the camera pans slowly back from a close-up on Barrymore's face, through a window and out over the rooftops of Paris is particularly evocative of the work of Orson Wells.

To some modern eyes Svengali may seem hopelessly dated but if you're a fan of the classic Universal horror films you're sure to enjoy this film. Svengali stands alongside Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy as a milestone in the horror genre and for me this disc is a welcome addition to the collection.

The Picture:
Truth be told, I wasn't expecting much from this disc in terms of video quality. Svengali is over sixty years old so I was braced for viewing a battered and scratched print. Much to my surprise the film is in very good condition. The transfer is taken from what seems to be a well preserved print that shows only the slightest hints of scratching, pin holes, fading and other flaws. The black and white images are perfectly balanced with rich grays in-between. The shadow detail is exemplary and whites never flare up. The only problem I experienced was a little video breakup (the entire screen pixilated for a few moments around the 5th chapter stop) but this may be a fluke caused by my DVD player as I was unable to reproduce the problem on subsequent viewings.

The Sound:
The soundtrack for Svengali isn't as impressive as the video elements but it surprised me none the less. There is a good amount of hiss on the track and you'll hear a pop or two from time to time but the overall dynamic range is surprisingly deep. Voices and music are crystal clear from beginning to end and even the atmospheric sound effects come across well. I don't know where Troma found this fantastic print (the film is released by the Roan Group, a division of Troma Films) but they should be commended for doing so. Short of a full-blown restoration Svengali couldn't look or sound better.

The Extras:
This is a very low budget release (the disc doesn't even include a printed insert) so there aren't any significant extras included. The only ancillary content is a set of about five text screens that give a little historical background on the film and the artists who created it.

Conclusion:
Svengali is a classic that many film fans are aware of but have never seen. If you're a horror aficionado you'll be delighted with this release based on the audio and video quality alone. If you've never seen the film you're in for a real treat. If the disc had included a wider range of extras I would have given it a Collector's Series rating. As a movie only disc the best I can give it is: Highly Recommended.



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