Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dracula (Import)

DraculaThis DVD is the "Jewel in the Crown" of the classic Universal horror films released in that format. It includes a quality print of the Bella Lugosi DRACULA, with options to play the film with Philip Glass' recent soundtrack; the so-called "Spanish" DRACULA starring Carlos Villarias; and a fascinating documentary hosted by Carla Laemmle, who has a bit role in the Lugosi DRACULA and who was niece to Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. There is also an audio track by David J. Skal, production notes, and the like.

The Lugosi DRACULA is somewhat problematic. DRACULA had been previously (and illegally) filmed as the silent NOSFERATU, and a later stage adaptation proved a staple of the British theatre. When the stage play at last arrived in New York, the title role fell to Bela Lugosi. Although Universal optioned the material, studio head Carl Laemmle was not enthusiastic about it; although European films were comfortable with the supernatural, American films were not, and Laemmle did not believe the public would accept such an irrational story. Nor was Laemmle interested in Lugosi; if DRACULA was to be filmed, it would be filmed with Lon Chaney.

When Chaney died the screen role went to Lugosi by default, but there were further issues. Originally planned as a big-budget production, the deeping Great Depression made the film's box office possibilities seem even slighter than before and its budget was cut to the bone. And Todd Browning, who had been such a successful director of the macabre in the silent era, proved clumsy with sound. The resulting film was more than a little clunky--but it had two things going for it: a superior first thirty minutes and Lugosi. Although Lugosi's performance may seem excessively mannered by today's standards, audiences of the 1930s found it terrifying--and even today, when the character of Dracula comes to mind, we are more likely to think of Lugosi than other actor that later played the role.

For a brief time after the advent of sound, several studios made foreign language versions of their productions. The "Spanish" DRACULA was one such film, and when the English language company wrapped for the day the Spanish speaking cast arrived and filmed through the night using the same sets. This gave the Spanish company the benefit of hindsight: they were perfectly aware of what the English language company was doing, and they deliberately set out to best it. The result is a somewhat longer, more cohesive film with some of the most arresting visuals and camera work of the early sound era. But unfortunately, star Carlos Villarias was no Bella Lugosi: although much of his performance was more subtle than Lugosi's, it was also less intimidating, and where today Lugosi seems mannered, Villarias seems unfortunately comic. In a perfect world, we would be able to insert the Lugosi performance into the "Spanish" Dracula. As it is, we are left with two deeply flawed but nonetheless fascinating films.

In their own ways, both films proved incredibly influential, and it is difficult to imagine the evolution of the classic-style horror film without reference to both the Lugosi and the "Spanish" DRACULA. The Lugosi film is not perfectly restored, but the print is very, very good, easily the best I have seen. The "Spanish" DRACULA has more problematic elements, partly due the fact that the film borrowed some scenic footage from the Lugosi version and snips of footage from earlier films (there even appears to be a brief clip of the ballet from the silent PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in the film); the film is sometimes dark, sometimes very spotted, but short of a cgi restoration this is probably as good as it gets.

The Philip Glass soundtrack, which is optional, tends to divide viewers. The Lugosi DRACULA had virtually nothing in the way of soundtrack; the "Spanish" DRACULA used music to a greater degree, but even so that degree is comparative. The Glass score is often quite interesting, but it is also as often intrusive as it is effective. Some feel it adds quite a bit to the film; others find it distracts. Whatever one's reaction to the film, either English or Spanish language, or with or without the Glass score, this is a remarkable DVD package, and fans of classic horror will find it an almost inexhaustible pleasure. I cannot recommend it too strongly.

Gary Taylor (gft)

Soooo fellow geek classic monster collectors, tell me, does this sound familiar? You are perusing various sites and store DVD racks and you stumble across these 75th Anniversary editions of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN and your geek heart starts palpitating at the thought of digitally restored version of these films and you get all excited and you start deciding which comic books you'll give up this month to buy these instead.......but then you remember you've bought the last TWO previously released DVD versions of these films and now you wonder if these are worth it? OK....well...maybe this is kind of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean. I bowed to temptation because, well....Universal has me with their monster releases from way back....period. it is obligatory when one has bought three releases of the same d@mn film, I sat down with them all and ran them through to decide which was the best of them. It is without question IMO, that the DRACULA 75th DVD is the best transfer when compared to the 90's (poster art), and the first LEGACY (green box art) releases. Picture-wise, the amount of speckles, noise and whatnot has been reduce quite a bit. This is most apparent in the darker scenes. So on a good note, seeing less snowy junk pop up is nice. Some of the scenes also look less jittery. For example, in the previous releases, the scene when Frye first comes into Drac's home and Lugosi is descending the staircase behind him, the film image is really watching a bad bootleg. In this 75th release it looks stable and doesn't have that funky aliasing look. The overall picture quality just feels cleaner in this release. But there is still a good amount of junk throughout the film that this cannot possibly be considered the definitive restoration. Only some making the leap from VHS to DVD will get their socks knocked of with this release. If you bought the other two, then you might be happy, but probably underwhelmed despite the good points. Like the FRANKENSTEIN release, this still feels like a money making thing than an anniversary homage to this film especially after the promise of something new from a third dip. Some people may say that we can't expect much because the film is so old. But sorry, after THREE RELEASES, and most especially since this one is clearly the supposed icing-on-the-cake release so far, well, I think Universal could have done even better than this, MUCH BETTER. Technology as it stands nowadays is very forgiving when cleaning up old films.....but companies need to be willing to put the money into using said technololgy. I would think that even if the buying public of an older film such as this is limited and Universal wasn't going to pour a ton of cash into it, well, being the third time releasing the same d@mn movie, would it be outrageous to assume they'd have enough saved in the piggy bank to do a definitve restoration instead of this continued fleecing, but hey, guess that's business. I think if they DID do much better and THEY knew it, we would have gotten NEW SPECIAL FEATURES and none of the stuff that was already on the other two releases save for the one Lugos bit that is new here.

Sound-wise, I have to agree with other reviews that I have read that mention that the 90's release had better sound. It did seem a bit crisper. But like the FRANKENSTEIN releases, picking the better sound with DRACULA is like picking the lesser o two you want Niagra Falls somewhere in the background or do you want gentle rapids? To me, all of the background hissing and popping and rustling sounds funky on all of the releases, but they eventually just become part of the film. I don't really have much of a preference as none have ever been so clean that I could make myself care THAT much.

VALUE: Hmmmmmm........if you have the money, this is the best DRACULA to get in terms of picture and such. But one has to ask themselves how much they care about this film to fork over the cash for just one film. If you are only marginally interested in this DRACULA, but still want a copy, I'd go for the LEGACY set as that comes with other films and is the better value overall. This release is truly for the purists and gluttons for finacial punishment such as myself. Even though I have now three copies of this film, I have still only managed to watch it less than ten times since the first 90's release since, even though a classic, I find DRACULA mostly a boring affair when watched repeatedly so I hafta take it in like wine....slow...and over time. So my point is, one has to ask themselves, how much do you care to drop the cash for yet another copy of this if you already have it?

PACKAGING: For the most part, identical to the green LEGACY sets. That is, the faux hardback book case that opens up to reveal two DVD's. Only here, there is NO open window slipcover to protect the case. This seems kinda cheap since the case is a cool, leather-ish 'grained' cover printed in matte sepia, which is nice. But it will succumb to scuffs and such much faster than the better protected LEGACY set.

OVERALL: Like the FRANKENSTEIN 75th....this is cool if you got the money to upgrade. But for what it's touted as, this still is gets 50/50 from me. Just keep in mind that the 'definitve' HD/BLUE RAY versions will come at some point ........or at least the first versions of -thosedefinitve we ain't outta the woods yet.

Buy Dracula (Import) Now

I love all of the old Universal Monster Movies and I love all the DVD versions that Universal has issued. They have done it right, giving us deluxe editions of The Wolf Man and The Mummy with all the bells and whistles. Of all of these, my favorite is Todd Browning's Dracula. Dracula may not be considered the best of the Universal films (that title usually goes to Bride of Frankenstein) but it certainly is the best DVD.

EVERYTHING is on this DVD. There is a wonderful DOCUMENTARY, The Road to Dracula. Amazingly, this is hosted by Carla Laemmle the niece of the producer who actually ACTED in the movie. (She is the girl in the stagecoach who had the first line of dialogue in the film indeed, in any sound horror film.) Clive Barker also adds valuable commentary. Although Barker is at the cutting edge (pun not intended) of hard-core horror, he still has great appreciation and insight about the classics.

FEATURE COMMENTARY: This is provided by David J. Skal, the noted Dracula/Vampire expert. Along with the documentary, this should tell you everything you ever wanted to learn about Dracula.

SPANISH LANGUAGE VERSION: It is now a famous story that, after Browning and his crew finished work for the day, a Spanish cast and crew would come in at night to film the same movie for the Spanish-speaking markets. The Spanish crew was very competitive and many critics say that the Spanish version is actually better. I do not agree with this. True, there are more interesting camera moves, but most of what we come to Dracula for is the Bela Lugosi performance not to mention Dwight Frye as Renfeild with his inimitable laugh. The Spanish version is also great because it is a more accurate realization of the shooting script.

NEW SCORE: The old Universal movies did not yet have scored music. A few years ago, Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet were commissioned to write a full score. It is excellent and it is also included on the disc. You can watch it with or without. I usually prefer without I'll always think of the opening set to Swan Lake.

Read Best Reviews of Dracula (Import) Here

This is the third time that Universal has released the original Dracula on DVD. The first and second releases had problems. Both prior releases had unsatisfactory, murky and dark picture quality. There was no fine detail and objects got lost in the murkiness of the image. Also the shots of the newspaper clippings following the landing of the Vesta were off-center and cut off. The first release had a clean sounding, almost hissless soundtrack but was missing music at the end of the scene in the opera house following the line, "There are far worse things awaiting man...than death." The second release restored that music but cut out the screams of Renfield and the dying groans of Dracula at the end of the film. The second release also had hiss issues with the sound quality.

This third release, the 75th Anniversary release (which also coincides with the 50th anniversary of Bela Lugosi's death on August 16, 1956), has vastly improved picture quality. The image is now bright and full of detail. It looks like a new movie! The murkiness is gone. There are numerous shades of grey instead of the prior high contrast image. The image is almost as clean and clear as that of the Spanish language version which is also included on disc 2. Also, the shots of the newspaper clippings are now perfectly centered and fully legible for the first time on DVD! My one complaint with the picture is that if you compare this release to the prior releases it appears that the edges of the image are now slightly cropped on all four sides of the frame. This is almost unnoticeable except for the initial shot of Dracula's coffin. In the prior 2 releases, when the camera dollies into the coffin and you first see Dracula's hand emerge from the coffin, you see the pillar or base of the arch to the left of the coffin for most of the shot. In this third release, for some unknown reason, the left side of this shot has been severely cropped; the pillar is almost entirely missing from the shot leaving the composition totally off balance. This is the only time where the cropping is excessive and disruptive to the image. In all the other shots in the film, the cropping of the edges of the image is minor and actually appears to center the image better than the prior 2 releases. Unless you have seen this movie numerous times, you will not even notice it.

The third release completely restores all of the missing sound elements music, screams and groans, but the hiss has returned and the sound is not as clean as the first version.

If you already own the first 2 releases, it is worth buying this version for the improved picture quality alone! I highly recommend this version as the one to buy!

Bela Lugosi lives!

Want Dracula (Import) Discount?

This disc is both a wonder (primarily) and a disappointment (secondarily).

Since the disappointments are minor, I'll get them over with. These all have to do with the original English-language version of the film (there are several versions on this disc).

First, the video's fine, with the tolerable allowances one must make for a film of this vintage, putting up with the speckles, particles, and other artifacts. But the audio bothered me. It's not terrible, but the problem is that computer "noise reduction" was employed on this film to eliminate most of the extraneous sounds. This works fine when no one is speaking, and since the film has almost no music, it isn't a problem for most of the non-dialogue portions. HOWEVER, there's also a lot of speech in the film, and because noise-reduction could not be used on the dialogue without compromising the sound, the result is that when anyone talks the background noise rises, falling away sharply after the speech ends. Perhaps this won't bother many people, but it bothered me, and I'd really have preferred it if they'd let the sound alone (as Universal did, for the most part, on the DVD of "Frankenstein").

Another problem with the noise-reduction is that, intentionally or not, the process actually deleted a couple audio elements of the film. Again, these are somewhat minor, but they miffed me (in a way, even more than the former phenomenon).

The first deletion occurs during the London theatrical sequence, where four of the characters are on a balcony enjoying a show. No need to bore with details, but there's music during this sequence, and toward the end of it, just after Bela Lugosi intones "There are worse things awaiting man ... than ... death," you're supposed to hear a saturnine snippet of Schubert's "8th Symphony." But you don't, and it's very obvious that the noise-reduction eliminated it as if it were a "defect." That's carrying technology too far, and it's especially irksome here because the music has a message: it's supposed to serve as a "coda" to Lugosi's ominous words, as well as a lead-in to the sinister events that follow.

The second erasure occurs later in the film, where Van Helsing is trying to diagnose Mina Harker's weird dream. She's sitting on a couch, with Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing) leaning toward her from a chair. At one point Jonathan Harker steps up to intervene, and Van Helsing chides him, saying "Please, please, Mr. Harker." At least, that's what he's supposed to say. But only the first syllable of the name comes through, so it becomes "Mr. Hark." Again, not a large glitch, but enough to bug anyone who's seen this film many times.

Apart from the above faults, I have nothing but praise for this disk, and that's Praise with a capital P. David J. Skal, who wrote and directed the 35-minute documentary, "The Road to Dracula," offers us many tidbits on the original Stoker novel, the various stage and screen adaptations preceding the Lugosi version, and even some comments on the producer (Carl Laemmle, Jr.), director (Tod Browning), and cinematographer (German émigré, Karl Freund). Skal is not only a first-rate scholar in the horror genre (which anyone who's read his book "Hollywood Gothic" already knows), but has an excellent speaking delivery and manages to capture our attention in a scholarly, but never dry, manner. This comes through on his play-by-play commentary on the film, as well as on "Road."

Then there's the newly-scored version of "Dracula," the new music from none other than Philip Glass (whose scoring credits include the cult documentary "Koyaanisquatsi," among others). I had misgivings about this before I heard it, and still have reservations, but I nevertheless believe Glass did a fine job, using an all-string accompaniment with many minor-key elements. The score has the good sense to be "emotional" in a rather atavistic way, but rarely calls much attention to itself. Admittedly, if you've grown up watching a film for years with almost no music, it's a bit jarring to hear a version like this, but I strongly suspect that the more I listen to it, the more I'll like it. I especially admired a couple sequences (such as the storm scene on the ship "Demeter"), where Glass uses pizzicato strings in a manner almost reminiscent of Marius Constant's "Twilight Zone" theme --it's great stuff, but you have to experience it firsthand for the full essence.

Finally, there's the almost-pristine Spanish version of "Dracula," filmed at the same time, and on the same sets, as the Browning/Lugosi version. A special treat here is the introduction by Lupita Tovar, who played Mina more than a half-century before this version was made, and who gives us some firsthand info on the making of the film. To me, it's always fascinating to see a "survivor" from cinema's early period, who can give us an inside scoop on what film-making was like in those days. And the film itself is fascinating. Virtually scene-by-scene, it replicates the Browning version, but what's interesting are the ways in which it is both superior and inferior to the "original." As Skal notes, Carlos Villarias is no equal for Lugosi in the title role, but by contrast, the cinematography is far more fluid and lends the film a poetic pace that the Browning version lacks. One might be tempted to say that Karl Freund was to blame for the pedestrian quality of the original, except that Freund was one of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived, and was a mainstay of German Expressionism before moving to America. No, the problem was with Browning, who was simply "uncomfortable" directing talkies after handling numerous films in the silent era.

Finally, a few words about Lugosi himself may be in order (to return once more to the Englishlanguage version). Whatever one could say about the hamminess of much of his acting, it still meshes well with the overall Victorianism of Stoker's tableau. Besides, the more you study his performance, the more appropriate the studied gestures and "calculated" movements seem to be (we are, after all, supposed to be viewing a walking corpse). What a shame that Lugosi, like his contemporary, Peter Lorre, rarely had much chance to expand beyond his "horror" persona.

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