The creatures of the night…
When Universal announced their Classic Monster Collection, I was totally jazzed. I have watched and loved these films since childhood. Saturday mornings were largely spent in front of the tube tuned to the local UHF channel 32 here in Chicago for monster-fest each afternoon. While this disc reminds me of those days, it fails to improve the memory, as it were.
The first talkie horror movie of all time, Universal's 1931 version of Dracula holds a special place in history. It set the tone and pace for every subsequent horror/monster film ever produced. It is the definitive great American monster movie. The first of its time. The Alpha, if not the Omega.
I shouldn't have to re-tread the story here. But I will for the sake of the review. Count Dracula is a vampire (gasp!) who wants to buy a piece of land in England and re-locate from his home turf in Transylvania. Why, I don't know. Maybe he has overfarmed the local compliment and is having trouble finding good food locally. We're never really told.
He sends for a British real estate agent to come to his castle abroad and secure Carfax Abbey for a London town house of sorts. Our boy Renfield shows up bearing some paperwork and the Count shows him a good time—converting him into a semi-vampire of sorts. The poor soul (Renfield that is) craves the blood of insects and rodents and is under the power of Dracula throughout the duration of the film.
The Count relocates to London by shipping some of that home turf overseas (he has to sleep in it for some reason). While in London, he falls for one of the locals named Mina, who just happens to be the daughter of the local Psychiatrist who is now treating old Renfield for various psychiatric disorders, because after all the sod is wacky as a cuckoo.
Enter Professor Van Helsing, the preeminent doctor who spots Mina's infirmity immediately and suspects a vampire as the source of Mina's problems. After suspecting and then dismissing Renfield as the possible vampire, the group tracks down the good Count as the source of evil and the rest of the flick is spent with them hunting him down in a race for time to save Mina from the clutches of evil and certain death.
Bela Lugosi is fabulous in the title role, and the supporting cast does a fine job as well. The interesting part of this entry in universal's Classic Monster Collection is, indeed, the many extras included on the disc. The disc includes both the original score AND a brand new score composed by Philip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. It is a fascinating work that gives the film a completely different feel. Some may argue against the inclusion of this fine work, but as long as it is an extra and not a replacement, I have no real problem with it. More power to universal for including it.
Also on the disc is the Spanish language version of the film, which is a completely different film. This film was shot at the same time as the original and utilizes the exact same sets as well. It is terribly interesting to see two different director's interpretation of this script, as there are many differences between the two. For one thing, the Spanish version runs considerably longer than the English version. Also included on the disc are an original documentary called "The Road to Dracula" produced by David J. Skal, a theatrical trailer, production notes, a poster and photo montage and, most importantly, a feature length commentary by Skal. The commentary is remarkably in-depth and gives us so much important information it is indispensable to the film. Skal is a film historian and his comments are very detailed, giving information on the shooting of the film, the principals involved, the differences between the film and novel and may more anecdotes of import.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have a few issues with this disc, some minor and one major. Let's handle them in order of importance.
Now, Dracula is a 1931 film, so I certainly didn't expect much when putting this disc in my player's tray, and that's exactly what I got—not much. The black and white image looks very flat and two-dimensional. There is quite a bit of grain evident and the source material was far less than stellar. The image was filled with scratches, nicks, lines and more aging problems. They were almost too many to describe. Now this is certainly far from the worst transfer I have ever seen, but it is definitely not the best either.
I think the big sticking point for me is I watched Dracula immediately after sitting down with Grand Illusion from Criterion. Grand Illusion looked spectacular (which you'll be seeing in another review in the not too distant future) and is a film dating from 1937. Why the big difference? It could be that the Dracula source material was that much worse than that of Grand Illusion. This is certainly possible as Dracula has been a much more popular film and was never "lost" for many years. The only other possible answer for the differences between these two DVDs is lack of effort. I certainly DO NOT want to believe this about Universal. I mean they ARE doing wonders with their library of Hitchcock beauties. Vertigo was splendid, as was Psycho. And Universal is in the process of completely restoring Rear Window and a few other Hitchcock gems and I can't wait to get my hands on them.
My problem is that this disc's case clearly states on the back cover that this is the "restored version" of the film. Which begs the question "Restored by whom? And when?" If only this film had been put through the same process as Grand Illusion, I believe we would have a better-looking transfer. I did try to reach Universal for comment on this issue, but a return call did not come in yesterday. I will try again to get some clarification on exactly what was done to restore this classic and I'll report any findings on the main page.
My other major gripe with this disc has to do with navigation and ease of use. To access the Philip Glass score, or the David J. Skal commentary track, one must re-enter the menu system and select it. Why? Why not activate the audio button on my remote so one can switch back and forth between scores or commentary track on the fly? Well, apparently the design team at universal treated this feature as a "special feature" rather than an "audio option." Still, it would have been really nice to have the ability to flip back and forth with the audio button. Bummer.
One last issue I have with this disc is that you must choose which version of the film to see (English or Spanish versions) after inserting the disc. There is then no way to return to that menu without re-inserting the disc. Overall, I'd say the layout of this menu system and some of the choices associated with that could have been more user-friendly.
This disc had the potential to be my prized possession. With all the cool extras, this really had the chance to be something special. It's not. I'm still glad I have it, and my collection would surely not be complete without it, but it is not a disc I want to bring out for guests to show off what DVD can do. It's sad because this could have been that disc. Still, this disc belongs in every collection. It is LOADED with cool extras, even if they are hard to use, and it will remind you of Saturday mornings in front of the tube too. Trust me, it will.
Universal is sentenced to six months' probation for not enabling the audio button for both the alternate score and commentary track. I will reserve judgment on the full penalty phase pending resolution of the "mystery restoration" issue.
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Scales of Justice
• The Road to Dracula an Original Documentary by David J.Skal
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