Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray)
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Review of "Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray)"
This is currently £30 on amazon and in HMV. It will come down in price in a couple of months, though.This is a blu-ray collection of Universal’s classic Dracula movies from the 30s and 40s, one of several classic horror collections they’ve released in the last few months.
Dracula was more-or-less the first supernatural horror movie made in the US. In silent horror films (before the phrase ‘horror films’ had even been invented), seemingly magical/ghostly events always turned out to be the work of humans, as in Phantom of the Opera or The Cat and the Canary. Dracula was a bit of a gamble, as no one knew if an American audience would take to an actual, honest-to-goodness vampire.Universal acquired Dracula as a vehicle for their silent horror legend Lon Chaney. Unfortunately, he died. So the studio hired Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian star of a successful stage version of the story. Tod Browning, the top American director of sort-of horror movies in the silent era, was loaned from M-G-M. Ultimately, Dracula was so successful it spawned an entire cycle of early-talkie horror movies at Universal and other studios. It is, in many ways, the first true American horror film, so has a special place in my heart.
The film itself is a disappointingly mixed bag. It follows aspects of the novel, although it swaps some of the characters around. The first 20 minutes – when Renfield the estate agent visits Castle Dracula – are very good. There’s an uncanny stillness, and the set is excellent. It’s very slow, and the lack of incidental music adds an eerie ambience. (It also, for some reason, features armadillos, which are probably not found in Transylvania.)Unfortunately, when the story arrives in England, it becomes very boring. It feels like a play, with lengthy scenes in which characters stand around in drawing rooms talking. Aside from a terrible rubber bat, there are no special effects, and the cockney comic relief is rather grating. Some of the early horror movies – especially the ones directed by James Whale – have a surprisingly modern sensibility. Dracula most emphatically does not – it feels like a museum piece.
Dracula has a lot of elements that later became clichés, like fearful peasants, wolves howling and the vampire invading the heroine’s bedroom (although nothing indecorous is shown). But the emphasis feels slightly wrong, and things happen far too quickly to make an impact – we’re trained to expect certain story beats in horror movies of this type, and they aren’t really there yet. The ending is a terrible anti-climax.It made a huge star of Bela Lugosi, although sadly he never quite capitalised on it. His performance is remarkable – he supposedly couldn’t speak English, so had to learn his lines phonetically. This might account for the oddly distracted quality of his dialogue, which includes some of the most famous lines in the whole horror genre (‘Listen to them, children of the night…’, ‘I never drink… wine’ ‘To be really dead, that must be glorious’ etc). I suspect the exoticness of his accent would have been quite a shock to audiences in the early sound era, and without his peculiar pronunciations the film would be very tedious.
Aside from Lugosi, it’s worth seeing for Dwight Frye, playing the hapless madman Renfield. He goes hugely over the top in a role (‘vampire’s mind-controlled servant’) that also became part of the stock horror repertoire. In spite of his occasional silliness, he does have one or two sublimely creepy moments, the only times the film feels like it could ever have been scary. Frye appeared in lots of early Universal films, usually in subservient hunchback type roles. Edward van Sloan, as a sly van Helsing, was also a frequent Universal supporting actor. Helen Chandler as Mina is pretty good when she’s possessed, but the rest of the cast are negligible.
Drácula (Spanish version, 1931)At the same time as Universal were making the famous version of Dracula, they were also shooting a Spanish-language version, starring Mexican actors. This is something that seems to have happened quite a lot in the early sound era. It tells the same story, on the same sets, but with different stars speaking a different language.
The received wisdom about this version is that it’s much better than its English-language counterpart, apart from Carlos Villarías’s rather underwhelming Dracula. And there’s a grain of truth in that – the camera moves a lot more, and the director, George Melford, consistently finds more interesting places to shoot from than Browning. But the Spanish Drac is somehow half an hour longer than the English, and it seriously drags where the more famous version is snappy and faster-moving.And yes, Villarías is terrible. He generally looks smug and slightly avuncular, and pulls some hilarious sulky faces when frustrated. The rest of the cast are OK, with Lupita Tovar as the Mina character (here called Eva) probably the best. But while it’s nice to have the Spanish version, I prefer the original, for all its faults.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
In the tradition of Bride of Frankenstein, the series continues by forefronting a female relative of the title character. Countess Marya Zaleska is a vampire, just like her dad (it’s not clear if she was his biological daughter or someone he converted to vampirism). She tries to find a cure for her condition, turning to a dishy psychiatrist for help.This was originally meant to be a big-budget movie directed by James Whale and starring Lugosi, but Universal scaled back their horror output in the mid-30s due to concerns from censors. What we get is a much smaller, cheaper film. It’s a direct sequel – it begins, amusingly, with van Helsing being arrested for the murder of Dracula – but Edward van Sloan is the only cast member who returns.
It has a few film vampire firsts – we get the first reluctant vampire, the first attempt to cure vampirism using modern science, and the first lesbian vampire scene. (Well, kind of – Marya’s attack on a young woman is presented as a seduction, but the film is obviously far too prim and proper to even show the two women in the same shot when it happens. And it fades to black before things get interesting).It also has the first time a vampire’s servant wants to become a vampire himself (he’s a grumpy old beggar called Sandor). Gloria Holden as Marya is pretty good, in a slightly vacant, somnambulistic way, but Otto Kruger as the notional hero is just pompous and irritating (he’s much better as the villain in Hitchcock’s Saboteur).
The film ends up back in Transylvania – the first two Frankenstein films had given us villages of bucolic but suspicious peasants, and Dracula’s Daughter gives more of the same. In fact this is the first film to fall back on what you might call the default Universal signifiers, with a dark castle and a village of dancing yokels who react to visitors with superstitious dread. This becomes a lazy shorthand in the later Universal horrors, which start to resemble a theme park rather than a series of horror movies. The film itself is a bit too talky to quite work, with a few unsuccessful stabs at being funny, but it’s interesting that moody, unwilling vampires appear on screen so early in the genre.
Son of Dracula (1943)No son of Dracula appears in this film, so not sure where the title comes from. Dracula is somehow alive (or undead) again, and has moved to Louisiana, where he quickly puts the bite on the more-than-willing daughter of a local plantation owner. But she has ulterior motives…
This is pretty poor stuff. It’s the only Universal horror set in contemporary America (apart from some of the terrible Mummy sequels), and while it has a certain amount of Southern Gothic atmosphere, it doesn’t have much affinity with the rest of the series. Lugosi was washed up by this point, so Drac is played by Lon Chaney Jr. This is a staggering piece of miscasting that sinks the film – Chaney was just about OK as the Wolfman, but Universal shoehorned him into every horror role they could think of, with drab results. He doesn’t even try to do a foreign accent as the allegedly Transylvanian count. He looks at best mildly peeved, at worst like he doesn’t even know he’s being filmed.The rest of the cast are fine (they include Evelyn Ankers, a frequent Universal-horror leading lady), but they can’t save the film. And it’s a shame, because there’s a pretty good idea here, of the ancient European horror coming over to sup on the fresh, vital blood of the younger nation (an idea with extra resonance in the early 40s, when real-life European monsters were obsessing over the purity of blood…). The small town invaded by a vampire would be revisited, to much greater effect, by Stephen King in Salem’s Lot.
But the real legacy of the film is that it seems to be the first time a vampire tries to disguise himself by spelling his name backwards (‘Count Alucard’). Many smart-arsed authors have picked up on the silliness of that idea when writing self-aware vampire stories down the years, notably Kim Newman and Terry Pratchett.
House of Frankenstein (1944)By this point, Universal were aiming their monster movies at a much lower age group than previously. Their last few monster movies shoved their three premium franchises together in a series of awkward, patchwork, kid-friendly movies.
I’ve reviewed this film at length on this site already, but it features the Wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, along with a mad scientist and a hunchbacked servant. Boris Karloff is the scientist, and Lon Chaney is the Wolfman. Lugosi was out of favour by this point, so Dracula is played by the uncharismatic John Carradine. The Frankenstein Monster is played by hulking Glenn Strange, an even worse actor than Chaney.The pity of the film is that Dracula doesn’t get to meet the other two monsters, and is somehow enslaved by Karloff. The film is probably the most entertaining of the 40s Universal horrors, but it’s not very Dractastic. If that’s even a word.
House of Dracula (1945)
You might expect this to be more Drac-centric from the title, but in fact it’s the same as the previous film – all three monsters are present, but again, Dracula doesn’t get to mix it up with the rest of them.He arrives at the clinic of Dr Edelmann, hoping he can cure his vampirism. Larry Talbot, the unfortunate Wolfman, also turns up, hoping he too can be cured. And the Frankenstein Monster is found in some caves nearby, just waiting to be revived. This time, the hunchback is female. I liked the idea of a doctor catering to the needs of supernatural monsters, which must be a pretty niche area of medical science, but that side of things is abandoned when it’s time for the monsters to run amok.
The best thing in the film is Onslow Stevens as Edelmann, starting out as a kindly doctor but eventually going full-on bonkers. Chaney, Strange and Carradine reprise their roles, none of them very well (and Chaney’s moustache does him no favours – he looks like a gone-to-seed Rhett Butler). Dracula gets a bit more to do this time, but Carradine lacks any of the force Lugosi had, and the ease with which the human characters brush off his attacks diminishes him terribly.The public’s patience with the Universal monsters was clearly wearing thin by this point, and so was mine. The monsters were dragged out of their coffins for one last runaround, this time as stooges to one of Hollywood’s most vexatious comedy acts:
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Abbott and Costello play Chick and Wilbur, two guys working in a parcel office. They get involved with Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman, who have all arrived in America. Wilbur’s mad scientist girlfriend wants to transplant his brain into the monster’s head.How much you’ll enjoy this depends on your tolerance for Abbott and Costello and their brand of simple-minded humour. The jokes are terrible, but I find something at least slightly endearing about this kind of comedy. I laughed maybe twice, not a bad hit rate for something this old. I don’t really find myself warming to the stars, though. Too many jokes revolve around the short, fat, dumb one (Costello) having seen the monsters, and the tall, thin, nasty one (Abbott) not believing him, which is infuriating. Also, Abbott looks a lot like Jeremy Hunt, the criminally incompetent bit of rhyming slang who is currently Health Secretary.
The monsters are dragged out of their coffins for the last time here. Chaney now looks kind of gaunt, and his Wolfman makeup isn’t as good as usual; he plays it entirely straight, though, and comes away with a little more dignity than usual. Glenn Strange is still lumpen as the monster, but his bulk makes him look good, at least (interesting that he’s the headline monster given that he gets the least to do).Bela Lugosi returns as Dracula – this is the only time he played the role on screen after the original movie. It’s nice to have him back, even though he’s visibly older. Lugosi’s career plumbed the depths in the late 40s and 50s, but he was never less than committed to any part he played. He’s not bad at the comedy here, although it’s annoying that he can be seen in a mirror at one point. It’s not a bad send-off for these characters, since they’d pretty much descended into parody anyway.
With seven films, things vary a bit, but the quality is pretty high considering their ages. The first Dracula looks the best; I guess it had the most spent on restoring it, as it’s more famous. You can pretty much count the pores on Lugosi’s face, should you choose. There’s some variation in quality between scenes, but that always seems to be the way with movies of its vintage. The other films look good too, although to my eye Son of Dracula and maybe Abbott and Costello looked a bit less pristine. There’s surprisingly little damage to any of the films, though the Spanish Dracula does have a few sections with some fairly heavy scratching.Dracula and Abbott and Costello have had standalone releases already, and they’re the only disks to have extras. The best is probably a documentary about Lugosi, which includes clips from lots of his movies. There’s also a documentary about the making of the first film, which looks kind of cheap and dated (they really go overboard on the crappy video effects in the title sequence). And there’s a documentary about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is a bit too reverent for my taste.
Universal have released four ‘monster legacy’ sets in the last few months – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and The Mummy. Annoyingly, there’s a lot of overlap. The last three films appear in the Drac, Frankenstein, and Wolfman boxsets, meaning completists have to spend a lot of extra money for replicated disks if they want to get everything. This is especially annoying since they’ll probably just release a big everything-in-one-place boxset eventually, with a few other film series thrown in. Well, I guess I didn’t have to buy them all…
Product Information : Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray)
Manufacturer's product description
Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Lugosi, Bela
Director(s): Tod Browning
DVD Region: Blu-ray
Classification: 12 years and over
Production Year: 1931
Listed on Ciao since: 25/05/2017