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DRACULA (1931)

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Both the American and the Spanish versions of the film are reviewed here.

Released by:  Universal Studios, as part of the “Classic Monster Collection”.

Running times:
American version:  1:14:17
Spanish version:  1:43:09
Chapter stops:  18 (both versions)
Aspect ratio:  1.33:1 (both versions)
Enhancement:  None
Sound:  Dolby Digital Mono (both English and Spanish languages); the Philip Glass score is available in 5.0 Dolby Surround
Languages:
American version:  in English, with English (captioned) and French subtitles
Spanish version:  in Spanish, with English and French subtitles
Layering:  Dual-layered, single-sided
Region coding/format:  Region 1; NTSC
Picture:  Given the emphasis on the fact that this is a “restored” version, the picture quality of Dracula is a little disappointing, with white flecks and some lining all the way through the print. It also lacks contrast, making the details of the set design difficult to see. That said, I’ve never seen the film looking better; it is an infinite improvement over the washed-out and scratchy television and video prints I’ve been putting up with for years.

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The Spanish version of Dracula is a revelation – most of the time. The third reel of the print (from Dracula and Renfield talking in Renfield’s room at the castle, through Dracula’s encounter with the protagonists at the concert in London) was damaged beyond use, and was replaced with a reel from a print found in South America. This section of the film is washed-out, scratched, and full of nitrate damage. BUT – the rest of the print is simply gorgeous. There is some white flecking from time to time, but overall the quality and sharpness of the print is remarkable, particularly considering the age and rarity of the film.

This version of the film features an introduction by Lupita Tovar Kohner, who discusses the making of the film, her memories of her fellow cast members, and the sense of rivalry the Spanish cast and crew felt towards their American counterparts. This feature runs just over four minutes, and is separate from the actual film.

Sound:  Both films have had work done on their soundtracks. There is that slightly tinny quality common in films of this era, but the dialogue is clear and audible. (I don’t speak Spanish, so I guess I can’t swear to the quality of that soundtrack; but it sounds steady enough.) There is a bad start, with a distinctly sour note sounding during the excerpt of “Swan Lake” that plays over the credits; but this proves to be a one-off. Mercifully, most of the hissing and crackling that has plagued Dracula for decades has been cleaned away, revealing Tod Browning’s early experiments with sound effects.

Menus:  This DVD is annoyingly arranged. You cannot move between the two versions of Dracula without reloading the disc; nor can you access the bonus features without starting one of the films (meaning that you have to sit through the FBI warning and the Universal promo over and over and over). The print with the Philip Glass score (see below) is regarded as a “bonus feature” for the American version; you cannot toggle between the scored and the unscored prints. However, once the features have been accessed, navigation is simple enough. 

Special features:
Along with the American and Spanish versions of Dracula, there is a third version of the film included on this DVD: the American version featuring a score composed by Philip Glass, and recorded in 1999. This is an interesting extra. After being so used to Dracula without a score, the effect is actually a little jarring; but in time, the music adds a different dimension to the story – and hides a few of its flaws. Of course, it is definitely a “Philip Glass score”, so how people will feel about it will be a very individual thing. Personally, once I’d gotten used to it, I enjoyed it.

The American Dracula features a commentary track from David J. Skal, author of “Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web Of “Dracula” From Novel To Stage To Screen”. The commentary opens poorly, with Skal saying three times running, “We’ll return to that later”, then changing the subject; however, he does return later, so eventually it works out. Skal’s contribution is interesting, covering various aspects of the film’s production, commenting on the stage versions that preceded it, and revealing the fates of those involved, including those of some of the minor players. He also includes excerpts from the novel which, given the lack of similarity between the book and the film, is fairly pointless. Perhaps the one thing Skal really should not have done, though, is to draw the viewer’s attention to the big piece of cardboard that is attached to the lamp in Mina’s bedroom – presumably by one of the crew, as a light shield. Given that the focus of the bedroom scenes is never upon the lamp, the presence of the cardboard can actually be overlooked, or it might be mistaken for an odd kind of shadow. But, alas! – once noticed, it can never again be un-noticed! Overall, a fairly easy, anecdotal commentary to listen to.

Skal also produced a documentary, “The Road To Dracula”, for this release. This is interesting, but a bit all over the place, featuring brief interviews with everyone from historians (film and otherwise) to psychologists, and from writer Clive Barker to makeup specialist Rick Baker to producer Richard Gordon, a friend of Lugosi’s. More pertinently, it features Dwight Frye Jr and Bela Lugosi Jr, who speak of their memories of their fathers. One of the real highlights of this documentary is the presence of its “hostess”, Carla Laemmle, who was the niece of Universal president Carl Laemmle Sr, and who had the great honour of speaking the first lines of dialogue in the American Dracula, playing a bit role as one of Renfield’s fellow travellers. Also featured is a clip from yet another version of Dracula, the silent one that was prepared with intertitles at the same time that Tod Browning was making his talkie, for cinemas that had not made the transition to sound. Best of all, though, the documentary ends just how Dracula itself once did: with Edward Van Sloan’s admonition to the audience to remember that “after all, there are such things!”

A montage of poster images and publicity stills is included. This runs just over nine minutes, and moves rather too quickly for my liking, necessitating frequent use of the pause button. However, the images themselves are priceless (and of much greater clarity than the film itself), and include the famous publicity shot of Helen Chandler wrapped in Dracula’s cape, ready for the fangs, and two off-set shots of Lugosi, one in which he is applying his makeup, and one of the man enjoying a smoke between shots.

The theatrical trailer is a re-release one, and assumes that everyone has seen the film before. The picture is quite battered and washed-out, but the voiceover is clear (“So evil!…So fantastic!…So degrading!”).

The production notes will tell fans of Dracula nothing that they do not already know, but they are worthwhile for the quotes from Lugosi and David Manners. The notes play over stills from the film, processed in tones of red. Bios and filmographies for Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye and David Manners are included.

Verdict:  Strongly recommended!