Monday, May 6, 2013

DRACULA (1931)

Tod Browning, 1931
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan

Dracula is one of those films that has always hovered on the edge of my consciousness. I grew up watching the original Lugosi film, eating Count Chockula (even though I hate chocolate and am mildly allergic to it, I persisted), collecting various Dracula paraphernalia, and around age 9, first reading Bram Stoker’s novel. I’m not really sure how to write critically about the original film version of Dracula, because I have always accepted it as a filmic milestone, the granddaddy of Western horror films. 

The film is not directly based on Bram Stoker’s novel; instead it is an adaptation of Hamilton Deane’s play, which was the first successful, authorized dramatic adaptation of the novel. (Murnau’s earlier Nosferatu, an unlicensed, loose adaptation, was nearly destroyed because Stoker’s widow Florence had an iron grip on her husband’s work and legacy and was notoriously hard to deal with.) The plot of Dracula is similar to the novel, but with some notable changes. Renfield travels to Romania to do business with Count Dracula. He is placed under the Count’s evil thrall and returns with Dracula via sea voyage. Dracula introduces himself to London society as a mysterious yet well-mannered foreign noble. He soon attraction attention from Lucy Weston and begins a series of nocturnal visits, where he drains her blood. When Lucy dies, her friend Mina Seward becomes Dracula’s newest interest. Her father, Dr. Seward, and her fiancé, John Harker, enlist the aid of Dr. Van Helsing to try and save her from a cold-blooded, demonic fate.

The film deviates from the novel in a variety of ways, mostly in character and set. The basic plot is the same, but like Deane’s play, the film has more of a drawing room pot-boiler feel than the action packed novel. Due to set and budget constraints, the scenes where Dracula and Renfield travel via ship are used from stock footage and the dramatic  concluding chase through Eastern Europe is completely omitted. This is really the only problem with Dracula. It is wonderfully atmospheric, creepy and suggestive, but unfortunately is a bit slow due to the heavy emphasis on dialogue over action. And then there are the fake rubber bats.

Directed by the great Tod Browning with cinematography from the arguably greater Karl Freund (who is rumored to have directed some scenes), Dracula injected fresh blood and a boatload of cash back into Universal Studios. The ailing studio had a small budget for the film, which meant that producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. had to trim down the production, skimping mainly on action and lavish Transylvanian sets. Bela Lugosi, whom modern audiences still think of as the quintessential Dracula, was really an affordable last resort. Though Lugosi starred successfully in the stage production, Laemmle and Browning allegedly intended Dracula to be a Lon Chaney vehicle. Chaney and Browning had a successful 10 film partnership with some truly demented films like The Unknown, but the great actor unfortunately died of cancer before shooting. Lugosi was eventually offered the role because the price was right and joined the cast at the last minute, along with David Manners (Harker) and a number of others. But it is undoubtedly Lugosi that made Dracula the success that it was. His captivating performance alone makes the film well worth watching, even if it is not quite the energetic, thrillfest a modern audience might hope for. 

Dracula: The Legacy Collection is a must have for any horror junkie. It also contains the Spanish version of Drácula, filmed on the same set at night with a different cast, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula. The film can be viewed with its original score, which is a montage of popular classical music (Tchaikovsky, Wagner, etc), or with a new score composed by Phillip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. There is also an excellent commentary track from film historian David J. Skal, who is also co-editor of the Norton Critical edition of the novel and wrote The Monster Show, a book about the genesis of Universal horror and its later influence on American horror. There is an original documentary, The Road to Dracula, which is narrated by Carla Laemmle, niece of the great producer. It discusses the original film and the Spanish version. 

There are, unfortunately, some draw backs. This is supposedly a restored edition of Dracula, but there is little evidence of this. It looks pretty much on par with the first DVD release from ‘99. The disc navigation is pretty asinine and some people have had trouble with the packaging (though I haven’t experienced it myself) and occasional disc problems. An annoying detail, and in my opinion, the biggest drawback, is that these films were released together (at least, in part) to promote Stephen Sommers’ film Van Helsing. Dracula, sadly, has disc space wasted on an interview with Sommers on the set of Van Helsing with his lead actors all discussing (ok, reading from cue cards about) Dracula.

As a side note, I also have to compare this to the 75th Anniversary edition release. As the third Dracula released in only a few years, I can’t help but feel that this is just a cash ploy. It does, hands down, have the best visual and audio transfers, but it doesn’t really look cleaned up enough to be considered the ultimate transfer. It comes with the Spanish Drácula and the extras are a mix of things available in the Legacy Collection, along with some new features. There is a new documentary called Lugosi: The Dark Prince, a feature called Monster Tracks that has weird and interesting pop-up facts during the film, and an additional commentary track by Steve Haberman. In my opinion the only real benefit to this disc is a 95 minute documentary, Universal Horror, narrated by Kenneth Branagh with clips of rare films and a lot of interesting interviews. Like I said, I think it’s a money waster. The Legacy Collection is only $10 more, has most of the special features and includes three additional films, including House of Dracula, which cannot currently be found anywhere else on DVD. 

To confuse the issue further, there is also a newly released Blu-ray, which so far is the finest visual transfer. This is part of Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection, which includes Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Obviously this is an essential set, but as someone who already knowns multiple releases of all these films, it’s a hard sell. The video quality is absolutely amazing and this is the best visual release of Dracula to date. It includes all the special features from both previous Dracula editions (both Legacy and 75th anniversary) and the Spanish Drácula. The only drawback is that the three sequels are missing, which means that you need to own both the Legacy and Blu-ray editions if you want the complete Dracula experience. 

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