|Dracula: Classic Monster Collection (1931)
Dracula (The Restored Version):
Dracula Featuring New Music by Philip Glass:
Original Spanish Version of Dracula:
|Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston
|Standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.0 & Digital Mono, Spanish Digital Mono; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single side - dual layered; 16 chapters; rated NR; 75 min.; $29.98; street date 12/21/99.
|"The Road to Dracula" - An Original Documentary; Feature Commentary with Film Historian David J. Skal; New Score by Philip Glass Performed by the Kronos Quartet; >Poster and Photo Montage; Production Notes; Cast and Filmmakers; Theatrical Trailer; Universal Web Link.
|DVD | Classic Monster Collection | Novel - Bram Stoker | Score soundtrack - Philip Glass
Picture/Sound: Original Version D/D | Glass Score Version D/C+ | Spanish Version C+/C+ | Extras: A
Right off that bat I'll warn you: this is going to be a slightly oddly-constructed review. That's because Universal's DVD release of 1931's Dracula is a very unusual disc, and my reaction to its contents compels me to address it in an atypical manner.
Normally I'd start my review with a discussion of my reactions to the film itself, and that indeed is what I will do, but the movie I'll describe may not be the one you expect. This DVD includes two full-length versions of Dracula (actually, three, but more about that later). One of these is the famous Bela Lugosi picture directed by Tod Browning, which is the movie most people think of when they hear the name "Dracula".
However, another version of Dracula also appeared in 1931, and it bears an awful lot of similarities to the better-known edition. Cheap rip-off? On the contrary - it's actually a companion piece made by Universal as well. Back before dubbing into foreign tongues was typical, studios would sometimes make entirely different versions of films that would be shot in another language. This second Dracula used the same sets and essentially the same script, except it featured a different cast and crew and is entirely in Spanish. The English film shot during the day and the Spanish crew took over at night.
Normally one might regard this alternate version of Dracula as nothing more than bizarre curiosity, a cheap thrill that can't compare to the English edition, especially since the latter is considered such a classic. However, one would be way off base if one thought that way. Not only is the Spanish Dracula a competent piece of film, I think it's vastly superior to its more famous brother.
Almost everything about the Spanish film tops the English one. The movie runs for almost an extra half of an hour, and director George Melford makes good use of that time. While none of the scenes added to the Spanish edition seem crucial, they nicely flesh out the piece and make it feel more complete. Even before I watched this version I felt that the English Dracula appeared choppy and rushed; seeing a more full film made the pacing of the English edition even more problematic.
Ironically, although the Spanish version is almost 40 percent longer, it seems to go by much more quickly than the English film and actually felt like a shorter movie. I occasionally grew impatient or bored during the English Dracula; as it plodded along, I kept waiting for something to happen that would spark some suspense or excitement, but those instances were pretty rare.
Not the case in the Spanish version, which may feature mostly the same scenarios and sets but seems much better executed. Take two early examples to see what I mean. First, compare our introductions to the Count himself. The English edition abruptly jettisons him from his coffin; we start to see him emerge and there he is! In the Spanish film, however, Drac's appearance comes about more slowly and eerily; a much greater air of mystery and suspense is maintained.
Even more glaring is the difference in the scene that takes place during Dracula's boat voyage to England. Both feature carnage, but the English film simply depicts Drac's release from his coffin (by Renfield) and the aftermath. In the Spanish edition, the scene remains similar except one wonderful touch is added: we watch Renfield and his maniacal laughter as he witnesses the violence. It may not sound like much, but it makes the entire scene much scarier and more compelling.
In the Spanish Dracula, little touches abound that add to the film's atmosphere. Sound effects are used more skillfully. For example, doors creak open ominously, while they just open in the English film. The list of differences is long, and virtually all of them favor the Spanish edition.
For the most part, the Spanish cast offers much better acting than the English performers. Of the five main performers, I think two of the Spanish actors are much better, one's a little superior, another's a draw, and only one is inferior. That latter role is Dracula himself. Bela Lugosi remains the definitive Count not just because he was first (which he wasn't) - he was the best. His combination of menace, charm and creepiness made him perfect for the role.
His Spanish counterpart, Carlos Villarias, does a decent job as Dracula but he doesn't approach Lugosi. Villarias' Count has the charm down pretty well, but he can't muster much terror. Whenever Villarias - who bears a certain resemblance to Nicolas Cage - tried to look scary, I thought he just looked goofy and semi-psychotic; there's a disturbed look in his eyes that seems more appropriate to Renfield.
Speaking of whom, Renfield is one of the two roles that I definitely prefer in the Spanish film. English-speaker Dwight Frye was a solid actor who made his Renfield (and other spooky parts) memorable, but he was pretty hammy as well, and I thought he made the character seem too cartoonish; that silly laugh of his was unusual but it didn't work for me.
On the other hand, Pablo Alvarez Rubio turns Renfield into a much more believable person. With Frye, you get the impression he was always like that, but Rubio creates a more effective transition in the character. Renfield spends much of the movie battling his urges and wishes to regain his humanity - he knows what he does is wrong but he's too weak to stop himself. That sense of pain comes through much more clearly in Rubio's performance, and he gives Renfield's more lucid moments greater heft and reality.
Also superior to her English counterpart is Lupita Tovar as Eva, who completely outdoes the milquetoast Helen Chandler's Mina. (Most of the characters in the spanish version either retained their English names or altered them slightly - as for "Juan" Harker or "Lucia" - but this name has been completely changed for some unknown reason.) Chandler is so dull that you think zombies beat the Count to her; she barely registers in all of her screen time, and I couldn't help but wonder why Drac was so drawn to such a dud.
In the Spanish film, we get a better idea of the attraction. Tovar provides a full-blooded and well-rounded portrayal of Eva. She's believable at all times, whether as proper young lady or as lusty vampire-to-be. The differences between the two actresses comes out most clearly in those latter instances. Chandler can handle acting like a priss; she just has no idea how to display other emotions. Tovar made Eva come to life, and we really see the changes through which she's gone during the scene with Harker in which it becomes most clear that she's on her way to undead status. Never for a second did I buy Chandler's "transformation", but Tovar makes it convincingly real.
Speaking of Harker, Argentinean Barry Norton slightly tops the work done by David Manners in the English version. Harker remains a terribly flat and dull character - I don't think any Dracula has made him seem otherwise - but at least Norton creates a bit more passion in the part; I found his love for Eva more convincing and true. The only drawback to Norton is that the guy looked like he was about twelve-years-old (he was actually 25).
The one part I find to be a toss-up is that of Professor Van Helsing. Overall I think Eduardo Arozamena to be a more natural and honest actor, but Edward Van Sloan scores points just because he looks better in the role; he seems a lot closer to my idea of Van Helsing, unlike the kind of tubby and unimposing Arozamena. Both men are good actors, though, so both work well.
While I clearly prefer the Spanish version of Dracula to its English counterpart, as I noted earlier, there's actually a third version of the film on this DVD. That would be the English version with a new score written by Phillip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. (During the period, most movies didn't feature actual scores.) Although the Glass work is not terrific, I must admit that I prefer the version with its music to the score-less edition. I just don't find Browning's Dracula to be a very effective film, and the music at least adds a layer of tension and atmosphere to the experience. For the Spanish version, I wouldn't have wanted any changes, but the much less compelling English film needs the help.
Dracula appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although there are limits with what can be done with such an old film, I must admit I found the picture of Dracula to be a rather large disappointment.
Sharpness seems very inconsistent. At times, the image looks fairly crisp and well-defined, but much of the movie appears excessively soft and vague. No signs of moiré effects or jagged edges were detected. The print used for the transfer is in simply terrible shape. It's consistently grainy, and scratches, speckles, marks, spots and other defects mar the picture from start to finish; even for a nearly 70-year-old movie, the print appears especially poor.
Black levels are generally fairly good, but I found shadow detail to appear rather weak. Much of the movie seemed overly dark and I often had trouble discerning what was happening. I can't say that the weakness of the image is a complete surprise, but I still felt it didn't live up to the level it could have displayed.
Dracula's original soundtrack also shows many faults. I expect little from an ancient monaural mix, but this one seems especially weak. It's one of the noisest films I've yet seen. Crackles, pops and hiss consistently appear, and there's a great amount of interference when anyone speaks. The dialogue itself sounds rough but not bad except for that noise that accompanies speech; it makes the lines much harder to comprehend. Effects sound acceptable for the period but that's about it. The original soundtrack features almost no music; films of the day generally didn't offer scores, so we only hear music to accompany the opening credits and also in a theater scene. The music sounds flat and thin but surprisingly good compared to the rest of the mix. Despite that, the soundtrack seems weak even for the era.
As noted earlier, Dracula also includes an alternate soundtrack that features a score written by Philip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. Its presence compensates for a lot of the flaws of the original mix. The music sounds consistently warm and vibrant, and although a lot of the flaws still come through, the smoothness of the score helps make it a more listenable experience. Glass's score appears as a Dolby Digital 5.0 track, and though the music sticks mainly to the front channels, it spreads out nicely across all five and sounds quite good.
Remarkably, the Spanish version of Dracula offers a much nicer picture. One would think it'd look terrible, since I'd expect much more money and effort to go behind keeping the famous edition in better shape, but that's not the case; I guess all those years of obscurity preserved it well.
The Spanish edition of Dracula also appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. When the DVD starts, you can choose it from a menu that requires you pick it or the other version.
Sharpness seems consistently quite good, with a little softness at times but generally an image that appears well-defined and accurate. No problems with moiré effects or jagged edges occurred. Black levels are deep and rich, and shadow detail usually seemed clean; a few scenes were overly opaque - particularly exterior shots - but these were exceptions.
As with most films of its vintage, print flaws are the main problem with the picture of the Spanish version of Dracula. They're not as omnipresent as those on some other movies, but they're a great distraction. Mainly, white spots and speckles dominate the faulty parts of the image, but other problems arise as well. There are various scratches and marks, and the picture wobbles a bit from time to time. The third reel of the film - which goes from about 19:30 to 29:30 - displays by far the most concerns; apparently it had to be taken from a different source than the rest of the transfer, which accounts for its general disrepair. Despite that one reel, the movie itself looks quite good and far surpasses the weak quality of the English edition.
The monaural audio for the Spanish version also sounds better. The track displays far less background noise, clicks and pops and seems more natural. Dialogue appears a bit dull and slightly distorted at times, but it the lack of audio interference makes it seem much more realistic than the English track. Unlike the original English release, the Spanish one actually features some very occasional uses of a score; the music seems flat but listenable. It's not a special mix, but it seems decent for the era.
Even with no supplements, this DVD would be a special package, since one should consider the Glass score and the Spanish film to be extras in their own right. However, the package doesn't stop there and we find some other nice features.
First up is a decent audio commentary from David J. Skal. I found this piece helpful but not tremendously compelling. Skal covers the basics well and gives us a nice overview of the film's creation and history, but it simply wasn't as interesting as the much better commentaries from the two Frankenstein films and The Wolf Man. Still, it's worth a listen. I just wish we'd gotten an additional commentary for the Spanish film.
We next find a 35-minute documentary about the movie called "The Road to Dracula". As with all of the other Universal horror DVDs, this one follows a pretty rudimentary format in which we hear from a variety of film historians, movie makers (such as Clive Barker and make-up artist Rick Baker) and relatives like the sons of Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi while we see either them or stills and footage from the production. The Skal-produced program is hosted by Carla Laemmle, niece of producer and Universal founder Carl Laemmle (and actress - she appears in one of Dracula's opening scenes) and it makes for an interesting discussion of the film's history, though it's a fairly undistinguished piece. (The documentary does indicate there actually is a fourth version of Dracula from 1931: since at that stage, many theaters were not yet wired for sound, an alternate English edition intercut title cards for all the dialogue. The program does not mention if a Spanish release did the same.)
The "Poster and Photo Montage" offers the usual conglomeration of film posters, lobby cards, and both production and publicity photos but it does so in an unusual manner. Normally these would appear as still frames, but in this case, the entire program runs as a video, with pans in and out from different images, and all accompanied by music. I like this presentation; it may ultimately be a little more awkward than the usual frame-by-frame access, but it shouldn't be a problem so one can easily fast-forward through the show, and I think the addition of the audio makes it a more dynamic and involving process. The total running time goes for a little more than nine minutes.
Surprisingly good biographies appear for four actors (Lugosi, Frye, Manners and Chandler) and director Browning. These present what seem to be complete filmographies plus fairly extensive notes about the participants.
Even better are the production notes on the DVD. Since these consist mainly of quotes from the actual cast and crew, they offer information we didn't hear elsewhere and they're quite interesting. Surprisingly, the DVD's booklet contains no production notes; it would have been nice to have them duplicated on paper, but it's no big deal.
The Spanish edition tosses in a few extras as well. We find an interesting four minute and 15 second introduction from Lupita Tovar, who appears to be the only significant participant still with us. We also get some additional production notes that relate to that version and tell us a lot of information about it, plus cool tidbits like the fact that the brothers who produced and directed 1999's American Pie are Tovar's grandkids!
Despite its status as a classic, I have to admit that I'm not wild about Dracula. However, I did really enjoy the Spanish version of the film made simultaneously; it offers a very satisfyingly creepy and exciting rendition of the story. Picture and sound for the English edition are disappointing but seem fairly good for the Spanish film. Add in a documentary, an audio commentary, an alternate score for the English movie plus a few other supplements and you have a killer DVD - this is a "must own" package for film fans.