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Dracula (1931): Classic Monster Collection

Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula has become one of the most iconic films of the 20th century, but when given another viewing at the dawn of a new century, it's a mixed bag, arriving between several cinematic crossroads and failing to reach the firm footing that James Whale's Frankenstein found just a few months later. Browning had built his reputation in silent films, most notably with several Lon Chaney thrillers, but Dracula, his first talkie, often plays like a silent flick, with many quiet stretches that tend to squander whatever tension has been built. Bela Lugosi, in the title role, is effectively sinister, and Dwight Frye, as Renfield, is deliciously maniacal, but the remainder of the performances are undeniably flat and melodramatic. After all, in 1931 actors had yet to really perfect the technique of performing for a camera rather than a live audience. Furthermore, Dracula is not based directly on Bram Stoker's 1897 novel but instead on a severely abridged stage-play that kept the film's running-time at the standard 75 minutes. Only Lugosi, with his subtle mannerisms and rolling accent, seemed to understand how to work in front of a lens (which is genuinely ironic, given that this was his first film and that he had pioneered the role of Dracula on the American stage). Besides Lugosi, the chief joy of viewing Dracula comes from legendary cinematographer Karl Freund's camerawork, which is full of the expressionist touches that made the Germans the most innovative filmmakers of the previous decade. Freund's initial tracking sequence — which takes the viewer into the depths of Dracula's castle as the vampire and his minions rise from their coffins — is spellbinding, and his many closeups of Lugosi create a marvelous pastiche of domination and fear. Fortunately, even though Dracula does not rank amongst the best of Universal's classic horror films, their "Classic Monster Collection" DVD is loaded with enough extra material to make it worth a spin. The entire original film is on board, and while it suffers from some damage and ambient noise, it's very watchable. For those of you who may find the many silent stretches off-putting, a new score by Philip Glass is included (although this writer found it to be more of an intrusion than an embellishment). Even more fascinating is the complete Spanish-language version of Dracula, also included here (directed by Paul Kohner and starring Carlos Villarias and Lupita Tovar). Shot at the same time and on the same sets, many folks contend that the Spanish version is slightly superior to the English-language film (you'll have to decide for yourself — at least the source print is better). Other extras on the disc include a commentary track by film historian David J. Skal, the 35-minute documentary "The Road to Dracula," an introduction to the Spanish version with actress Tovar, a photo montage, production notes, cast and crew notes, the original theatrical trailer, and Web links.
—JJB



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