Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tod Browning's original Dracula, one of the very top titles in horror film history, is a curious mix of positive and negative elements. Bela Lugosi's Count represents the perfect vampire for an early talkie: He's handsome at rest and scary when he stretches his face into a bloodthirsty grimace. He's foreign in the good sense that in 1931 Europeans still represented glamour and exoticism; actors were still confecting phony continental names and Rudolf Valentino remained an attractive legend even in death. Lugosi is also foreign in the bad sense, in that Americans distrusted gentleman hand kissers with screwy accents and flowery speech. Dracula's halting, oddly inflected sentences could be the result of limited English skills, but they could also be a condescending smoke screen: "This is very old wine. I hope you will like it," intones Dracula with a smile. Is he sincere with his intended victim, or is he laughing up his Transylvanian sleeve?
Fans have forever argued the merits of Dracula as they never do for Karloff's Frankenstein. Many simply think that Dracula is a dull filmed stage play. Karloffphiles are always quick to brand Lugosi's broad acting as more suited to a bygone era. Made just a few months earlier, the Lugosi film also seems more burdened by Early Talkie Syndrome: Static, uninteresting direction dictated by the need to record audio.
With Bela Lugosi's characterization now a permanent part of world culture, Dracula's fame will never diminish. A growing audience for older films appreciates the fact that entertainment from 70 years ago can show signs of age without being automatically subjected to ridicule. Knowing that millions watched Dracula and Frankenstein while cowering in abject terror, our task in 2006 is to imagine the film-going experience of a time when movies must have seemed like magic.
Englishman Renfield (Dwight Frye) visits Count Dracula (Lugosi) in Transylvania and falls victim to his vampire brides. Dracula travels to London, arriving hidden in three crates of his native earth. While Renfield languishes in a sanitarium, raving about blood and obsessed with eating insects, Dracula dons evening wear and infiltrates the opera crowd, vampirizing Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) and menacing the beautiful Mina (Helen Chandler). Only the wise Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) can read the telltale clues that spell the truth: Dracula is a vampire, an undead ghoul who preys upon the living.
Devoid of a soundtrack save for the titles and a brief opera scene, Dracula makes the most of creepy silence to underline its horror content. As no neck-biting or blood appears in the movie, we make do with expressive close-ups of Lugosi's commanding eyes and intriguing tableaux of the vampire welcoming Lucy into his cape, or using it to cover the screen in inky black. It's easy to see what parts of the script simply follow the stage play: Everything in Transylvania is uniquely weird, while too many London scenes play out in boring, over-lit drawing-rooms. 1
And that's where we get to the contribution of Tod Browning, maker of some of the most perverse 1920s horror films. An awful lot of Dracula looks as if it were directed by someone bored with the material, who simply wants to get it all over with. Many incidental shots have camera movement or creepy touches; since most of these involve only one or no lead actors, we might think they were directed by the masterful cameraman Karl Freund. Back in the fancy mansion, actors go through the motions in predictable static setups. Although Dwight Frye's over-the-top speeches to the audience benefit from the stage blocking, plenty of scenes make the actors into a line of potted plants, watching the one or two leads who have lines to read.
The fruity performances stand out -- Frye, the jailer Martin (Charles K. Gerrard) -- while we hardly remember the other characters. Edward Van Sloan's deliberate movements mostly serve to slow the pace. Lucy (Frances Dade) is supposed to act as if hypnotized, but Mina's response to Dracula's influence is to assume a quasi-comatose state. She registers little of the supposed 'thrill' of Dracula's sinful advances. The big threat of Vampirism seems to be that it turns already sedate Victorian women into complete dullards.
But Bela Lugosi scores heavily. He may be a preening ham, but the film comes to life whenever he walks into a room. With weird foreign vocal cadence, Dracula is every bit the Eastern European aristocrat, his genteel and accommodating manners easily fooling the hoity-toity English elites. These are people incapable of making accusations against a man of obviously higher breeding and social standing, which is precisely how various real-life fake noblemen and mountebanks were able to so easily operate in Victorian England.
We see Dracula's oily compliments to Lucy and Mina, who initially seem to be impressed by any attention and then are 'hypnotized' into doing his bidding. Although the implication is that Dracula is this potent force that can penetrate any stately home and have his way with its women, it would be twenty-seven years before Hammer Films and Christopher Lee would make that idea explicit. Lugosi's Dracula just wants the blood and the hanky-panky is merely a means to an end. In the English-language Dracula, the women don't seem to get much of a thrill from the experience, outside of spending considerable screen time walking about in flowing nightgowns.
Although Lugosi's close-ups still register in our collective subconscious, Dracula's activities in London now seem rather tame. What we remember most fondly from the film are the expressive Transylvanian scenes, particularly Lugosi greeting Dwight Frye on the castle steps. Even if he is no longer frightening, Lugosi is undeniably weird and dreamlike in his menace.
The announcement of Universal's 2-disc Dracula 75th Anniversary Edition was greeted with suspicion by fans displeased with the original "Classic Monster Collection" edition of six or seven years ago. All of the classic 30s monster pictures were initially released singly or in double bills. Then only a couple of years ago Universal introduced the "Legacy Collections" that grouped monsters of a feather in multi-disc sets without significant improvement beyond a bargain price. This third dip adds extras, is attractively packaged, and does indeed improve the film's transfer.
The old "Classic Monster Collection" Dracula disappointed fans by not following in the footsteps of Frankenstein, which had a completely restored image and soundtrack. Dracula still looked dirty and unsteady, with generations of flaws built into its surviving film elements. 2 This new transfer (and it is a new transfer, as opposed to a digital clean-up of the older one) can't lose the printed-in flaws -- an occasional hair, density fluctuations, mottling -- but it does minimize them. A great deal of surface dirt (white dots) is completely eliminated. Finally, many previously jittery or unsteady scenes are more stable, an improvement that may have been achieved digitally. The main titles are so rock-solid that we wonder if they were built from frozen frames -- it's the first time we've noticed that Carl Laemmle Sr. is accidentally misspelled as Universal's presient.
The soundtrack on this edition restores previously missing audio: A bit of music heard at the end of the concert was absent from the "Classic Monster Collection" while Renfield's screams on the stairs and Dracula's moaning death agonies in the crypt were unaccountably omitted from the "Legacy Collection." This third attempt seems to have gotten it right.
Then new set retains the excellent David J. Skal docu produced for the original disc, an excellent historical study of Dracula from book to play to movie. Also repeating are Skal's exhaustively informed commentary track and the droning Philip Glass re-score performed by the Kronos Quartet.
The concurrently-filmed Spanish language version Drácula is back again. It's still a delightful mixed bag of a movie, sort of Dracula made in an alternate Universe. The uneven cast includes some good players and some terrible ones. Lupita Tovar's Eva (Mina) is a vast improvement on Helen Chandler, at least in viewer interest. She transforms from a properly restrained Señora into the 1931 equivalent of a wanton, even declaring that she feels a "hot flash" when El Conde Drácula enters the house. Director George Melford retains Browning's moments of quiet dread while punctuating the film with more dynamic acting 'business.' He's also less shy with the sexual content. Not only is Eva obviously captivated by El Conde's vampiric advances, other macabre scenes are allowed to 'progress' a bit further before fading to black. Carlos Villar (Carlos Villarías) does an animated imitation of Lugosi but doesn't really make the grade. Although he bares his teeth with a ferocity unseen in Lugosi's performance, Villar lacks Bela's commanding stage presence and frequently comes off as amusing, or worse.
The new extras start with a fast-paced but fragmented featurette on Lugosi's career that interviews some heavy hitters among a gallery of lesser authorities. The fault isn't in what they say (Lugosi's story is told well enough) but that the interview bites are so short. I mean, politicians wouldn't like to be cut down this tightly; an interview subject should be allowed to contribute something substantial. Also, the filmmakers goose every transition with focus pulls and flash frames, straining for a hip look that's going to date very quickly.
That problem never arises in the feature-length Kevin Brownlow docu Universal Horror, a typically masterful and comprehensive show that explains the rise of the studio and discusses its monsters from a number of fascinating angles, using a refreshingly broad selection of interview subjects. When Brownlow uses a clip, it's for a reason. Kenneth Branagh narrates and a new music score comes from James Bernard of Hammer film fame. Brownlow doesn't shove aside earlier wisdom; David J. Skal is his primary historical consultant.
A second commentary track features author and screenwriter Steve Haberman. He makes some good observations but insists on a doubtful quality comparison between the two versions of Dracula. The Browning version is obviously the classic, but even in the Transylvanian prologue most of George Melford's camera angles are more interesting, as if he actually cared where the camera was placed. The Spanish version is far more dynamic in the later stages of the movie, with better action and even more impassioned playing. Haberman argues that Browning's mood of quiet horror and dread is superior, but Melford's version has plenty of similarly creepy silent material. It lacks only the star presence of Lugosi. 3
Universal's attractive packaging is certainly sturdier than their clever "Legacy Collection" cases. Film fans without Dracula on their shelves will find the 75th Anniversary Edition a pleasing addition; those with the earlier copies will have to decide how much their lives will be improved by a better transfer and the missing audio. If Kevin Brownlow's docu is a major enticement, be advised that it is also an extra on the new Frankenstein disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Dracula 75th Anniversary Edition rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentaries by David J. Skal and Steve Haberman, featurette docu Lugosi: The Dark Prince, docus The Road to Dracula and Universal Horror, Alternate Philip Glass score by Kronos Quartet, 'Monster Tracks' subtitle trivia track, Spanish Version Drácula starring Lupita Tovar.
Packaging: 2 discs in "Little Golden Book" folding case
Reviewed: September 9, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. The hill that Renfield's coach descends to reach the Transylvanian inn would seem to be the same hill and almost the exact same camera setup for the gladiator school in Spartacus 29 years later.
2. Dracula and the other early Universal horror films were so popular that they remained in constant theatrical re-issue for over twenty years. The original negative was probably an early casualty of lab over-printing, and we're lucky to have the reasonably-intact dupe negative that survives.
3. Sepulchral moods are superb in Karl Freund's The Mummy. A feeling of uncanny death and decay seems to radiate from every image, especially views of Boris Karloff, some of which are still frames!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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