Judge Dan Mancini prefers an aged, bespectacled Van Helsing to the sinewy, trench-coated, crossbow-wielding variety any day.
There are far worse things awaiting man than death.—Count Dracula
Director Tod Browning's horror classic returns to DVD in a two-disc set that retains all the supplements from the 1999 single-disc release and adds three sequels, including the new-to-DVD House of Dracula.
Facts of the Case
Dracula—A British real estate agent named Renfield (Dwight Frye, Frankenstein) travels to the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania to arrange the sale of London's Carfax Abbey to the mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi, The Body Snatcher, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). Once inside the count's creepy and decrepit castle, Renfield is accosted by the vampire's three brides, and falls under Dracula's spell, devolving into a bug-eating loon.
After a ship ride back to London during which Dracula murders the entire crew, Renfield is committed to an asylum run by Dr. Seward. The asylum happens to be next door to Carfax Abbey, giving Dracula the opportunity to meet Seward and become infatuated with his daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler, A House Divided), and her friend, Lucy (Frances Dade, Seed). The count makes short work of Lucy, but as he sets his sights on Mina, the girl's fiancé, Jonathan Harker (David Manners, The Mummy, The Black Cat), and the brilliant Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, Frankenstein) discover the villain's true nature and set out to destroy him and save the girl.
Dracula's Daughter—In the bowels of Carfax Abbey, two constables arrest Professor Von Helsing (no longer Van Helsing, but played again by Edward Van Sloan), who freely admits to staking Count Dracula. Von Helsing is placed under the care of a psychiatrist named Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger, Saboteur, Murder, My Sweet) while the authorities debate whether he should be tried or tossed into an asylum (Von Helsing's insistent his killing Dracula wasn't murder since the count had already been dead for 500 years).
Meanwhile, the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden, The Life of Emile Zola) arrives in London with her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel, director of Destination Moon). One of the count's vampire spawn, Zaleska is at first hopeful Dracula's death has released her from the undead curse. But when night falls, the urge to feed on human blood is irresistible.
Zaleska becomes infatuated with Garth, believing he may be able to lift her curse. When hope of such release fails, she determines to make Garth a vampire so they can spend eternity together. In order to trap him, she kidnaps his fiancée, Janet (Marguerite Churchill, The Big Trail, Charlie Chan Carries On), and flees back to her castle in Transylvania. Garth takes the bait, following the vampiress into the Carpathian Mountains, with Von Helsing—who knows the doctor is walking into a trap—in hot pursuit.
Son of Dracula—Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton, The Egg and I), a Southern Belle obsessed with death, invites a mysterious count named Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr., The Wolf Man)—whom she met on a trip to Budapest—for a visit to her home town of Dark Oaks. We know there's going to be trouble when Queen Zimba, an old seer Katherine brought with her from Budapest, predicts our heroine will be "married to a corpse; living in a grave."
Sure enough, Alucard is Dracula (get it?), and soon he's seducing Katherine to become his undead bride. But Frank Stanley (Robert Paige, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars), Katherine's childhood sweetheart and current fiancé, is none too pleased with the count's advances. He teams with local GP, Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven, Our Town) and a Hungarian expert on Dracula and vampirism named Professor Laszlo (J. Edward Bromberg, I Shot Jesse James) to defeat the count and try to save Katherine from her own dark urges.
House of Dracula—Baron Latos, AKA Count Dracula (John Carradine, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath), wants release from his undead curse and seeks the help of Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens, Them!). The scientist—with the help of his assistants, the buxom Miliza (Martha O'Driscoll, Li'l Abner), and Nina (Jane Adams, Angels in Disguise, Master Minds), the requisite hunchback—links the count's vampirism to a malicious blood parasite. Transfusing the undead prince with his own blood might provide a cure.
Before Edelman and Dracula can proceed, however, the story is interrupted by the arrival of ol' Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.)—protagonist of The Wolf Man—still seeking a cure for his lycanthropy. Edelman's got a nice little paranormal medical practice going until he's unable to cure Talbot in advance of the full moon. Distressed by his transformation, Talbot throws himself off a cliff and into the ocean, presumably to his death. Edelman climbs down to investigate, however, and finds the man still alive and hiding in a cave.
By chance, the two discover Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange), washed into the cave after having been consumed by quicksand at the end of House of Frankenstein (they also find the cleanly bleached skeleton of Karloff's Dr. Neimann, who'd been dragged to his death by the monster). Like all mad doctors in Frankenstein movies, Edelman drags the comatose creation to his lab where he struggles with the ethics of taking the life granted by his fellow scientist, then makes the odd logical leap that it might be a good idea to whip out jumper cables and send some juice into the contacts on the monster's neck.
Turning his attention back to Dracula (who's developed a thing for Miliza and is trying to make an undead bride of her), Edelman begins the transfusions but is double-crossed by the count, who sends his diseased blood into the doctor. Events press toward a predictable conclusion as Edelman's newfound hunger for human blood gets him in trouble with Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill, Son of Frankenstein) as well as local villagers eager to light up torches and mob a castle.
More an adaptation of producer Hamilton Deane's stage play than Bram Stoker's epistolary novel, Dracula is the big daddy of Universal's monster films. Its massive popularity led Universal-founder Carl Laemmle to give his son, Carl Jr., the green light for a film adaptation of Deane's other gothic play, Frankenstein. A highly successful franchise was born.
As with the previous DVD release of Dracula, Browning's film is paired here with the Spanish-language version produced at the same time and directed by George Melford (The Sheik). Dracula was made early in the sound era (only four years after The Jazz Singer), and the Spanish version was an early experiment by Universal to deal with the new complications of producing films for foreign-language markets (with silents, they only had to replace the intertitles). Rather than dubbing, they produced an entirely separate version with a Spanish-speaking cast, based on the same script, using the same sets, and shot after hours when Browning's production had wrapped for the day.
If nothing else, the contrast between the two productions provides remarkable insight into just how powerful Lugosi's performance in Browning's film is. Melford's Dracula has far more visual flair than Browning's, and its narrative rhythms feel decidedly more modern. Browning was primarily a director of silents and, in many ways, his Dracula feels like a silent with words tacked on. The script has been whittled away to just this side of coherent, so that forward narrative progress is sometimes choppy and elliptical, typical of silents which often rely on the visceral impact of images far more than traditional narrative logic. Running nearly 30 minutes longer than Browning's version, scenes in Melford's film unfold at a far more satisfying pace (for modern tastes, anyway), and add dialogue that makes the story and characters feel more fully formed. Melford's film comes off as more cinematically literate, too, as it offers a couple explicit visual references to F.W. Murnau's classic of German Expressionism, Nosferatu. Although it's technically and aesthetically superior to Browning's version in nearly every way, Melford's picture suffers enormously from the absence of Lugosi. Carlos Villarías isn't a bad vampire, but Lugosi's performance is so indelible it carries the day. Despite Melford's technical precision and crystal clear storytelling, Browning's version is, in my mind, superior by virtue of its star.
The first two sequels to Dracula—1936's Dracula's Daughter and 1943's Son of Dracula—were originally released on DVD as a double feature. They're decent entries in the Universal horror library, and a welcome addition to the Legacy Collection. Dracula's Daughter sports a fun performance by Gloria Holden, who succeeds in evoking Lugosi with the creepy use of her eyes. Her manservant, Sandor, looks like the hellspawn of Pee-Wee Herman and Benicio Del Toro; he's a delightful, weirdo addition to the rogues gallery of creeps and monsters and hunchbacks that populate Universal's monster flicks. The lovingly combative relationship between Garth and his fiancé, Janet, is reminiscent of screwball comedies of the period, adding an enjoyable comic texture to the proceedings. And the presence of Edward Van Sloan provides a welcome connection to Browning's film.
One must credit Daughter's producers for not pursuing some cop-out storyline that allowed Dracula to escape the death he clearly suffered in the original. Replacing Lugosi must have seemed a daunting task. Holden's Countess Zaleska is good enough to carry the picture, and is notable because she's the sort of reluctant, tormented vampire upon which Anne Rice built her literary empire 40 years later. The picture also offers an atmospheric set piece in which Zaleska mesmerizes and victimizes a figure model played by Nan Grey. The scene is loaded with the lesbian subtext that would become de rigueur in female vampire pictures in the decades that followed.
Son of Dracula was directed by Robert Siodmak, who would go on to helm The Killers (1946). Not surprisingly, there's something vaguely noirish about his entry in Universal's vampire franchise. Louise Allbritton's heroine is a dark and calculating dame. It begins to feel like we've stepped into Double Indemnity when, after having secured what she wants from Count Alucard (immortality), she tries to convince her longtime beau to off the bloodsucker so the two lovebirds can live happily ever after (literally). The film's biggest flaw is probably Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula. In addition to his typically wooden acting, he's just too big and beefy to make a convincing walking cadaver. He pales in comparison to John Carradine, let alone Lugosi. The picture's other problem is that its supposedly Southern milieu feels like generic Hollywood. The characters' dark motivations and the name of the town itself (Dark Oaks) beg for a twisted, surreal setting like the "Gone With the Wind on mescaline" of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Still, Son's script is reasonably tight for a studio programmer (sure, there are some howlers, as when Frank shoots Alucard with little provocation before he knows the count is a vampire—a forgivable fudge in the context of the genre since we, the audience, know), and Siodmak capably delivers gothic atmosphere, as well as some good-looking effects of Dracula's transformations to and from fog and bat.
House of Dracula is probably the most hotly-anticipated title in this Legacy Collection since it has never before been available on DVD, but it's only going to be a treat for those with fond memories of watching it as children either in the theater or on television late shows. The film breaks continuity with the other Dracula films, and is essentially the last entry in a monster cross-over trilogy that began with 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (itself a sort of sequel to The Ghost of Frankenstein) and continued with House of Frankenstein the following year. None of these films are good by any reasonable standard because the storytelling is atrocious, and they don't even manage to deliver on the thrilling, if hokey, premise of uniting Universal's three main monsters in a horror extravaganza. House of Dracula feels like a patchwork of plots. The Dracula story is begun, then halted for a long stretch in favor of the Wolf Man story; the monsters almost never share the screen; and the Frankenstein monster spends all but the last 30 seconds or so of the running time strapped on a table and snoozing. Moreover, the flick might be a landmark had Lugosi and Karloff been on hand to play Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, but the entire affair rings hollow with only Lon Chaney Jr. reprising the role that made him famous.
While technically two discs, Dracula: The Legacy Collection is functionally a three-disc set. Disc One is a DVD-9 (single-sided, dual-layered) that contains Browning's film plus the extras from its original DVD release. The highlight of the supplements is a highly informative commentary track by David J. Skal, author of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning: Hollywood's Master of the Macabre. Skal provides an incredible amount of detail on the film's production; the evolution of Stoker's story from novel to stage to screen; and analysis of the differences between Browning's and Melford's films, and how each interprets Universal's shooting script. Moreover, his delivery is lively and enthusiastic. The short documentary, The Road to Dracula, feels like a footnote to Skal's commentary but is still an enjoyable overview of the film. An alternate score by Philip Glass (more on that later), theatrical trailer, and a gallery of production photos and posters round out the original offering of extras. New to this set is a featurette in which director Stephen Sommers discusses Universal's Dracula films in order to shill his movie, Van Helsing. It's fluff.
Disc Two is a DVD-18 (dual-sided, dual-layered) with Melford's Dracula, Dracula's Daughter, and a smattering of extras on side one. Son of Dracula and House of Dracula are housed on side two. Extras on side one include a five-minute introduction to the Spanish Dracula by its star, Lupita Tovar (this was an extra on the original DVD release, too), and trailers for Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula.
Video quality on Browning's Dracula is fairly weak. The image is often too dark, detail is lacking, and minor source damage is prevalent. In light of the absence of major flaws and damage, as well as the stability of the image in the gate, I'm guessing available sources are limited and this is the best Universal could do with what they had. This is probably as good as Dracula will ever look unless a well-preserved print is discovered or advances in digital technology allow more sophisticated restoration.
The original mono audio track, mixed to two channels, sports plenty of hiss and pop, but dialogue is always discernable. There is one anomaly purists will likely find bothersome. Skal mentions in his audio commentary that the vampire's death groans were long lost, cut by censors during the film's original theatrical run. They're restored on the track that accompanies his commentary, but absent on the track used for the main audio. I have no idea if this was the case with the 1999 DVD release, also.
Dracula was made so early in the talking era of films that it doesn't have an original score, but opens and closes with selections by Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, while offering no musical accompaniment to the narrative proper. The 1999 DVD release offered an optional score composed by Philip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. That option is preserved on this set, and presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. I prefer the original mono soundtrack, but Glass's score is excellent, a perfect counterpoint to Browning's images.
Melford's film fares a bit better in the video department. As detailed by Skal in his commentary track, the transfer comes from a high-quality nitrate print, much better preserved than any of the sources for Browning's film. The print was missing its third reel, however, and that portion of the film had to be sourced from grossly deteriorated show prints. As a result, 20 minutes into the film, image quality takes a nose-dive. The picture is warped and blurred, inferior to the worst moments in Browning's film. Since we're talking about one bum reel, the image quality rights itself at about the 30-minute mark, and it's clear sailing for the rest of the show.
What a difference five years can make. 1936's Dracula's Daughter feels entirely like a standard studio picture. Source damage is so minor it doesn't distract from a black-and-white image with beautiful contrast and minimal grain. Audio is clean and the action is accompanied by a feature-length score by Heinz Roemheld.
The technical quality of Son of Dracula and House of Dracula is in keeping with Dracula's Daughter's, even offering a slight improvement over the older film.
Browning's and Melford's films, plus the extras that illuminate them, are worth Dracula: The Legacy Collection's $26.98 list price. The fact Universal graces us with two solid sequels, and the never-before-available House of Dracula (campy fun for those so inclined), makes the set a steal for anyone who doesn't own the previous releases.
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• The Road to Dracula Documentary
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• Introduction by Actress Lupita Tovar
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