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22 September, 2007

DVD Review: DRACULA 75th Anniversary Edition

THE MOVIE
On February 14th, 1931, the Golden Age of Horror began, with the premiere of Tod Browning’s DRACULA. Starring a 49-year old Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, this groundbreaking film was the first legitimate American Horror Film, the first to offer a truly supernatural explanation for the villain's existence. Prior to this point, every vampire, ghost, or creature had been revealed as a man in disguise, or a freak of nature. There were no such red herrings here; Dracula was exactly what he was supposed to be—an undead drinker of blood.

Based on the John L. Balderston / Hamilton Deane stage play, and directed rather stiffly by Tod Browning, DRACULA put the finishing touches on the blueprint for the success of the Horror genre that had first been sketched twelve years before by Robert Wiene’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Many architects had left their impressions on those designs, but Browning was the latest, and Universal was the contractor. In November, James Whale would make a few changes, all for the better, but for all intents and purposes, Universal became the original “House that Horror Built…” on that Valentine’s Day.

Also included is the Spanish-language version of DRACULA, filmed simultaneously with the Browning version, on the same sets, with the same props, only at night after Browning and the A-Team had finished for the day. The Spanish version was directed by George Melford, with far more grace and style than Browning commanded for his production.



THE DISC

This two-disc set is one of the prettiest jobs of packaging I’ve seen from any distributor in quite some time. Universal does know how to market to the fans, and this is a prime example of that. The Digipak case is standard for Universal’s special releases, and this one is simply beautiful, with tremendously powerful photographs of Lugosi on both the front and back.

There is one point I do want to address here regarding the quality of the prints used for both films in this set. There is a tendency among Universal fans to bemoan and deride the quality of the prints used in producing the various DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN DVD’s that have been released recently. This has manifested itself across the internet, in complaints ranging from the justifiable, such as the fact that there are some scenes in both films that appear far too dark and muddy; to the ridiculous, such as how many blows you can hear being struck on the stake as Dracula meets his off-screen demise. To these somewhat obsessive videophiles, I just want to say… please get a life! Seriously, we are talking about a seventy-five year old film. A film that was released when Herbert Hoover was President, and most of your parents not yet born. Are there flaws in the existing print of the film? Yes, there are. Could Universal do more to restore the original source material? Of course they could… but they won’t.

Universal is seldom charitable when it comes to the Monsters, and thorough restoration of the Classic Horrors would be a monumental act of charity on Universal’s part. Be happy that we have these movies in as good a state as they are; I grew up watching the Shock Theater package of Uni-Horrors on late night monster movies… it could be much worse.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

If you thought, as I did, that the Legacy sets were weighted down with bonuses, then wait’ll you get a load of this. This set comes fully loaded—two feature films; one feature-length documentary (UNIVERSAL HORRORS…); one 36-minute documentary on Lugosi (LUGOSI: THE DARK PRINCE…); another short documentary on the making of the film (THE ROAD TO DRACULA, which was also included on the DRACULA Legacy set…); two commentary tracks; subtitles; an interview with Lupita Tovar Kohner, Eva from the Spanish DRACULA; even a Pop-Up Video style feature called Monster Tracks.

Other than the movies themselves, my favorite feature of this set (also found on the FRANKENSTEIN 75th Anniversary Edition…) is the documentary UNIVERSAL HORRORS. Basically a video love-letter to our beloved monsters, it features interviews with people connected with, or influenced by, the classic horror of Universal Studios, people as diverse as Carla Laemmle, niece of Studio founder Carl Laemmle, to James Karen, who fondly recalls watching FRANKENSTEIN on the big screen as a child.

LUGOSI: THE DARK PRINCE is also excellent, though I do take issue with a couple of minor points in the documentary. One, I feel that the commentators are unduly harsh on both Ed Wood and his movies. Yes, it is fair to say that Wood was not a good director. But he did give Bela work when no one else would, and he was there for Bela when no one else was. No, he wasn’t a great filmmaker… but let’s be honest: Bela wasn’t a great actor.

He was a great Dracula, perhaps the greatest; but he was only a good actor, one who was capable of the occasional great performance. But those days were long gone by the time of his association with Wood, which brings me to my second bone of contention.

I don’t believe I’m spilling any secrets by stating that Bela Lugosi was a morphine addict. Knowing that helps one to understand some of the choices that he made, in both his career and his life. To ignore that, or to gloss it over, is a disservice to Bela. This documentary does that disservice in failing to explore both the valleys of its subject, as well as his peaks.

The third documentary on the disc is THE ROAD TO DRACULA, detailing the film’s development and history. As it was included on the Legacy set, I won’t spend much time discussing it here, other than to say that it’s definitely worth a watch. Likewise, the David J. Skal commentary track is reused, as is the material on the Spanish DRACULA, featuring Lupita Tovar Kohner. The second commentary track, by Steve Haberman, the screenwriter for DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, is decent, though it is a mystery why he was chosen to deliver what is essentially a repetitive and unnecessary commentary.

One comment on the aforementioned Monster Tracks feature… generally speaking, I love things like this, the little bits of trivia that give the viewer insight on the film. The Zomb-o-Meter feature on the excellent SHAUN OF THE DEAD disc is a prime example. Unfortunately, the Monster Tracks feature is poorly designed. The gray color of the captioning doesn’t contrast well enough with the monochromatic background of the film, and the captions, some fairly long, don’t stay on-screen long enough. They seem well written and informative, they’re just too hard to make out.



IN CONCLUSION

Those who purchased the DRACULA Legacy set two years ago might be wondering why they should throw another handful of cash at Universal, and I can understand that attitude. In fact, if you already own the Legacy, and aren’t someone who typically watches all the Special Features, or aren’t a hardcore DRACULA or Universal fan, I’d say pass on it… You already have the movies, which is what you’re after.

But if you, like me, look to absorb every fact and historical tidbit about Universal and it’s Horror Films, then this set was made for you. The $26.95 list price isn’t cheap, but it’s well worth it, and you can find it cheaper. But this isn’t a set you should pinch pennies on. You won’t regret it.

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