***/**** Image C Sound C|A (with Glass score) Extras A+
starring Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye
screenplay by Garrett Fort, based on the novel by Bram Stoker and on the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston
directed by Tod Browning
***/**** Image C+ Sound B-
starring Carlos Villarias, Lupita Taylor, Pablo Alvarez Rubio, Barry Norton
screenplay by Garrett Fort, based on the novel by Bram Stoker and on the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston; adapted in Spanish by B. Fernandez Cue
directed by George Melford
DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936)
***½/**** Image B Sound B
starring Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden, Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan
screenplay by Garrett Fort, based on the story "Dracula's Guest" by Bram Stoker
directed by Lambert Hillyer
SON OF DRACULA (1943)
*/**** Image B Sound B
starring Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers
screenplay by Eric Taylor
directed by Robert Siodmak
HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)
½*/**** Image B Sound B
starring Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Martha O'Driscoll, Lionel Atwill
screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr.
directed by Erle C. Kenton
by Walter Chaw Tod Browning's Dracula finds its way to the DVD format for the second time as part of a handsome "Legacy Collection" heralding the theatrical bow of the studio's lead balloon Van Helsing, possibly denoting the first time that a cynically-timed archival video release was announced with pride and fanfare instead of slipped surreptitiously into the marketplace. Never mind that a purchase of the Legacy collection whole (essaying Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein) proves to be far better for the soul than shelling out a few bones to catch Stephen Sommers's latest assault on sense and cinema, even if doing so feels a little like letting Universal have its cake and eat it, too: There are worse things in the world than a mainstream shipwreck inspiring a vital resurrection.
In "The Road to Dracula", a definitive 34-minute documentary about the Dracula mythology on board the DVD, one historian notes that the attractiveness of the vampire lifestyle has to do with becoming nocturnal and hanging out with beautiful women. (The tagline for Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys is, accordingly, "Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire.") I'd add to that the idea that what being a vampire represents is being a rock star with muscle--a fantasy of bully comeuppance paired with an easy seduction of women who offer neither threat nor, really, conversation. X-ray glasses and hypnotist's pocket watches found a lot of pubescent buyers on the backs of Golden Age comic books, and the vampire mythos offers both popularity elixirs with a little bit of the old Charles Atlas savagery mixed in. Add to that the romance of addiction (blood for alcohol), the rebellion against tradition (especially religion), Byronic loneliness, and the promise of immortality to either replicate the invulnerability of youth or deny the fear of decrepitude. The only way to insure not dying as a virgin is not dying at all.
So aside from the most media friendly Universal monster, Dracula is also the sexiest: rich, handsome, foreign, a junkie, a bad boy, and a member of royalty. Browning, an eccentric director who earned his chops with D.W. Griffith and as a carnie with traveling circuses and sideshows, was gravely wounded in a car accident in 1915 (rumour has it that he was castrated, but I can't find evidence to support it), spending a year in convalescence. Once recovered, Browning began making films that reflected his obsessions and, very possibly, his dysfunctions, marking his films (in particular Puppets, the great Freaks, and three of his eleven collaborations with Lon Chaney: The Unknown, the lost London After Midnight (an earlier flirtation with vampire folklore), and The Unholy Three) as transparent to a psychoanalytic approach while doing little to elevate the technical craft on display in his pictures from the level of earnest, flat, hackwork. The only thing I can detect as distinct in Browning's technique is a certain fondness for natural lighting, though I'd offer that this predilection isn't a stylistic choice beyond just not having the imagination to galvanize the medium. No James Whale or Jacques Tourneur, Browning left a legacy born of being twisted enough to point a camera at the right projects at the right time.
Dracula, released in 1931 after a popular and widely staged play kept Bram Stoker's sexual animus at the front of the popular consciousness, is the first major studio talkie to address the supernatural as supernatural and not some Scooby-Doo flimflammery. Poorly shot and poorly acted in the lead role by a stagy, badly dated Bela Lugosi, the picture was enough the sensation (and Lugosi perhaps limited enough an actor) that Lugosi was never again able to transcend the role and went on to parody himself and this performance for the bulk of his career. In truth, after Lugosi, all vampire performances are doomed to be compared against him as either homage or departure. Cast perfectly as the vampy, campy Count Dracula, however, Lugosi tapped a true vein: a character that would transmogrify his theatre-bound gesticulations into one of the most enduring icons in the history of cinema. In the film, Renfield (Dwight Frye), not Harker (as in the novel and most of its subsequent screen adaptations), journeys to the Count's Transylvanian castle, where he encounters the eccentric lord of the manor expounding at length about his drinking habits and the sweet music of the children of the night. Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 updating, the picture's first third is fabulously rich with mood and oppressive atmosphere that gives way to a plodding dreariness. Yet despite the pedestrian quality of the narrative, Dracula's set design and, particularly, its camerawork (courtesy of German Expressionist brat Karl Freund), represent a watershed moment in American film where the sensibilities of European horror began to seep into the popular consciousness.
Genre expert David J. Skal headlines for a feature-length commentary for Browning's Dracula that is the sort of academic track that reminds of why the practice seemed like such a good idea in the first place, way back when yakkers were made possible by LaserDisc technology. Dracula's theatrical trailer rounds out the supplements for the main film, whose neatest special feature by far may be the ability to watch the film with Philip Glass's new score, recorded with Kronos Quartet in a booming 5.1 audio mix. Glass's music, especially the stuff he does for Errol Morris, has been described as wallpaper, but when it's applied to a horror film (as in Candyman), it has the potential to be lulling in the best, most seductively unwise sense of the term. Dracula's standard two-channel mono mix is scratchy and unremarkable, and its video transfer is a little soft in certain areas while demonstrating a level of grain consistent with the age of the negative. (Note: All of the films are in black-and-white and unilaterally presented at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtracks.)
The advent of the talkie spelled financial disaster for studios' overseas distribution: Where before, title cards in a different language would suffice, before subtitling and dubbing were viable options, the riddle of providing spoken language to a foreign market was solved by mounting simultaneous productions that either used the same cast members repeating their translated dialogue phonetically or, in the case of Dracula, with a different cast and director shooting on the same sets after the A-team (as it were) wrapped for the day. The Spanish version of Dracula, directed by George Melford and Enrique Tovar Ávalos and starring Carlos Villarías in the titular role, exceeds Browning's version in terms of narrative clarity and general performance, but misses that Freund touch. (Freund's influence on Dracula is said to have been substantial, with some surviving cast members having trouble remembering ever seeing Browning behind the camera.) Though Villarías's Count comes off as more arch and bemused than Lugosi's Romanian smarm and, hence, with considerably less camp value more than seven decades later (and hence another argument for some for this version's superiority), what really inspires about Browning's picture has never been its rather flimsy story, but its look and atmosphere. It's told that the Spanish crew would watch Browning's dailies and endeavour to exceed them in terms of impact, and arguably, they succeeded. But while Villarías's Dracula is a better picture in a quantitative way (more lively, more vibrant), it's only ever a footnote to Browning/Freund's. There's justice to that canonical ranking insomuch as it speaks at a critical juncture of film history to the visual power of the cinema. Compare Dracula's first emergence from his coffin in both versions: the one is all of the poetry of the symphony of the night; the other is really well lit and choreographed.
The Spanish version of Dracula seems to have fared a little better, its video transfer sharper and its audio mix boasting less obvious defects. Some hissing now and again doesn't really detract from the piece and, in fact, may actually add to its historical value--a phenomenon explored in the work of Guy Maddin. Starlet Lupita Tovar Kohner provides a 4-minute introduction to the Spanish version, basically describing the process again of morning/evening shifts.
Five years after Browning's film came the first Universal sequel, 1936's Dracula's Daughter, from Lambert Hillyer, a veteran of westerns. (Hillyer would work with Lugosi and Boris Karloff that same year on the sci-fi thriller The Invisible Ray.) On a large budget and high hopes, Dracula's Daughter exceeds expectations with its methodical pacing and oppressive, melancholic tone. Edward Van Sloan returns as Professor Von (sic) Helsing, vampire hunter and academic, who turns himself in to Scotland Yard after he's discovered over the freshly-staked body of one Count Dracula. As Von Helsing struggles to stay his execution, mysterious, titular Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) uses her mesmeric talents to bedazzle a parade of hapless victims and secret away the body of her dead father. Her seduction of suicidal street girl Lili (Nan Grey), lured into her loft to be a painter's model and convinced to strip to the waist, is risqué to say the least and surprisingly titillating.
What works best about the film is Holden's performance as a creature of bad blood, so to speak, wanting desperately to walk the straight and narrow. She falls for Von Helsing's protégé, psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), and knowing no other way to express her affection, conspires to enlist him in the undead army on her arm. There are potential volumes to be written on a late fort/da game in which an inappropriate mate choice is used to substitute for the lack of a paternal presence, and there's meat in the mentor relationship between Von Helsing and Garth, unfolding as it does from behind bars in what is a prototype for any number of modern thriller conventions. More, the relationship between Garth and his assistant, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), recalls hardboiled conventions of the strained platonic machinations of "girl Fridays" to their deadeye dicks. Dracula's Daughter's relative squeamishness, even by 1930s standards, owes to the pressure of conservative groups demanding that Universal tone down the grue--the irony of that and most teetotaller crusades being, of course, that from the rubble of bad thinking and political correctness rises one of the more disturbing--and effective--entries in the classic horror pantheon. The subtext is full to bursting because the mobs of ignorant peasants have forced the monsters underground.
A shame, then, that when Universal next revisits their Dracula franchise, it's in the form of the listless, ridiculous Son of Dracula, which, save for the stray effect or two, has nothing to offer the modern audience. The casting of a horror brand name--puffy, doughy Lon Chaney, Jr. (whose father was set to play the original Dracula but died months before production began)--its first mistake (who knew that Hungarian royalty spoke with a palooka accent?), the picture concerns a mysterious Count Alucard, who descends upon a southern belle (Louise Allbritton) on her southern plantation and conspires, again, to be a wealthy landowner. With no mystery, a few embarrassing pickaninny stereotypes, and dialogue that could fairly be described as excrescent, the only thing of interest to really discuss in regards to Son of Dracula is the fact that it was written by Curt Siodmak, who would script Jacques Tourneur's incomparable I Walked with a Zombie that same year. The similarities between the two films are obvious, from an opening in which a clairvoyant is consulted in the middle of a swamp to women in trances, to repeated scenes where characters flee to or from locations in and around a will-o-the-wisp bayou. Brother Robert Siodmak behind the camera tries out some of the noir source lighting he'd use to better effect in The Killers, and the whole thing stinks of fatigue and opportunism.
But not so much as House of Dracula. The prototype in every aspect that matters to Sommers's dreadful Van Helsing, it's widely regarded as the last of the Universal monster flicks and, as such, it provides a curtain call for Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein. Its story is a mess of expediency and idiocy, something to do with Dracula (John Carradine, who took over the role in House of Frankenstein) coming to mad Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens) for help to cure his habit, then the Wolf Man Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) arriving to do the same, and then Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange) washing up in a cave to be given a jump start for no good reason. Soon the good doctor gets a well-meant transfusion that turns him into a cross between a vampire, a werewolf, and Dr. Jekyll, I guess. Drac and Wolfie fight over a hot nurse (Martha O'Driscoll), and it all ends in flames about an hour after it starts, just when the plotlines are starting to look around impatiently for clarification. House of Dracula is a money grab, pure and simple, intent on cramming story into a hole-ridden container and setting it out to sea in the hopes that it'll catch a big box office before anyone catches on that it's a venal, opportunistic, piece of garbage. The more things change...
Sporting the sharpest transfers, no doubt to their relative recency, Dracula's Daughter, Son of Dracula and House of Dracula are of near-identical image quality: they're less fuzzy than either Dracula, free of artifacts, and free, surprisingly, of many lines or imperfections. They look great (and sound fine, too, if occasionally tinny), probably not a big shock, as it wouldn't terribly amaze me to learn that their sources haven't seen the light of day as often as the granddaddy of the franchise.
THE DVD - Bonus material
Universal does a fantastic job with its Legacy series--buy the trio at once and get little plaster busts of each monster that you'll really regret having held onto the next time you move. The bulk of the bonus material graces the first disc of this two-platter set (the second double-sided/dual-layered, both encapsulated in a handsome, sturdy duo-fold container that slips into a cardboard keepcase with die-cut cover), including a 7-minute featurette in which Stephen Sommers and the cast of Van Helsing shill their substandard product over clips from the classics that they stride upon with a plugger's grace. The revelation that Hugh Jackman makes about Sommers being full of ideas regarding how to improve all the old Universal baddies speaks poorly of both men and the project they're embroiled in. I'm far from advocating a hands-off approach to classic films--improve as necessary, or better yet, re-imagine to fit the time (thinking now of the three Body Snatchers films and their importance to the sociological temperature of their eras). But when a cover project that appears to lack even a basic understanding of why the original held any allure rears its ugly head, the desire to pick it off, Sergeant York-style, is almost unbearable.
"The Road to Dracula" features numerous genre experts and film archivists (Skal, Clive Barker, Bela Lugosi Jr. and producer Carl Laemmle Jr.'s daughter Carla, who hosts) who trace Stoker's indelible creation from literature to stage to film, examine its place in history and enduring influence, and offer wonderful insight into the making of the Spanish-language version. The Spanish version and Dracula's Daughter cohabit side one of the second disc, while Son of Dracula and House of Dracula are located on side two along with their respective trailers. A "Poster Montage" running at just over nine-minutes (scored by selections from "Swan Lake") and including numerous production stills and lobby cards caps off the set. All in all, an invaluable treasury of classic horror for the student, fanboy, and neophyte as well, thanks to the wealth of information provided in plain language on Disc 1. It bears mentioning that a coupon for a free Van Helsing ticket is tucked inside the package, as it bears mentioning that said coupon produces an interesting blue flame (and long ash) when burned. Originally published: May 27, 2004.