With Van Helsing out this Spring Universal Studios has released a box set celebrating their groundbreaking monster movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. My overview of the series (currently being updated as I get the chance to watch these films again) may be found here, and my Bureau review of Frankenstein may be read here. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished the Dracula DVDs.
Cast, Crew, and Other Info:
Universal bleeds Bram Stoker’s influential Victorian potboiler into an equally influential series of films.
Dracula (1931): The first authorized film adaptation, it features Bela Lugosi’s character-defining performance. It is very melodramatic, and not terribly frightening by today’s standards, but it works as a movie of its era, and remains important to students of film and fans of the vampire genre.
Dracula (Spanish version) (1931): Foreign audiences craved Hollywood-quality productions in their own language, but dubbing was in its infancy. Consequently, a handful of early 1930s productions received Spanish-language versions, filmed simultaneously. This Dracula uses the same sets and a translation of the same script; the cast filmed at night. Lupita Tovar does well as Eva, the equivalent to Mina. The camera moves more frequently.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936): A stylish fusion of genres, this film ranks among the better films in the series. It could actually be a little less understated; then again, today’s horror movies would benefit from a more moderate approach.
Son of Dracula (1943): Lon Chaney, Jr. plays either the original Count or his son in a film which may or may not be part of the official Universal Monster Cycle chronology. It begins slowly, but improves somewhat. The vampire slayers, meanwhile, display a languid southern style ill-suited to their task. They loiter in a swamp at one point, engaging in heavy exposition while at least one life is in jeopardy; they linger in a burning building staring at the flames.
House of Dracula (1945): Slightly better than House of Frankenstein, this film fails to realize the potential of having Universal’s most famous monsters together. John Carradine does an adequate job as the Count; Glenn Strange receives a better stomping scene than he did in the previous House picture, but he’s a long way from Karloff’s sensitive portrayal. Buffy fans will note a handling of the Wolf Man that likely influenced Seth Green’s character, fifty years later.
Special features include commentary and an alternate score for Dracula, Van Helsing director Stephen Sommers on Dracula, The Road to Dracula documentary, Dracula Poster and still montage, an introduction to the Spanish Dracula featuring Lupita Tovar, theatrical trailers for all films save House of Dracula, and a Dracula mini-bust.
Dracula’s Daughter This remains one of the least-seen of the old Universal horror movies, but in some respects it works better than its predecessor. Renfield aside, it boasts a more interesting supporting cast, even if Otto Kruger and Margueritte Churchill frequently behave as though they’ve wandered out of a period romantic comedy. It’s not exactly scary, but it has a moody, understated approach that works well, and it features several elements that became prominent in undead lore: a redemption-seeking vampire, a hypnotic ring, a vaguely lesbian scene, and other sexual/emotional subtexts. It holds more potential than we see onscreen.
Listing every film save Dracula as a “Bonus Film,” as if we paid the big bucks thinking that we were only getting that movie, and will be delighted when we learn that they’ve slipped on four others as a special favour.
The bust of Dracula is not as good as those of Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.
Originality: 4/6 .These films may look clichéd now, but they helped create those clichés.
Effects: 4/6. These vary wildly. By today’s standards, the bat effects are laughable. Armadillos wander around Castle Dracula in the original film; possibly, they are supposed to be rats.
Story: 4/6: Good in the early films; poor in House, though it’s an improvement over House of Frankenstein, the film which precedes it in the series.
Emotional Response: 4/6
This scoring system doesn’t quite do an eclectic DVD set justice, so I’m adding a +2 bonus for some strong extras and inherent coolness.
In total, The Monster Legacy Collection: Dracula receives 30/42.
Although entirely identified with the role, Lugosi played Dracula in only two features: the 1931 film and 1948′s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein which (as I noted in a previous review) has not been included in this collection. Lugosi’s other screen appearance as the Count occurs in “Hollywood on Parade #8″ (1933), a short film best known for Drac’s campy attempt to bite Betty Boop. Given that the lame “Boo!” appears on the Frankenstein DVD, I wish they could have included this goofy short here. Alas, I believe Paramount owns the rights to “Hollywood on Parade.”
If you should ever meet a Universal Studios vampire, don’t call it a vampire. “Don’t say that word,” says the other bloodsucker in Son of Dracula. “We don’t like it. Say rather that we are… Undead.”