Dracula: The Legacy Collection (DVD)

Released by Universal Home Video

With Universal’s release of Van Helsing fast approaching, they figured what better way to build the hype about a new movie with old monsters than to focus on the old monsters? The three Legacy Collection releases came out on April 27th, and are basically just repackagings of The Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein as they were in the Universal box set that came out a few years back, but with some additional features.

So even though it’s technically more of the same, this is still a set for the collector’s whose love for the classics overcomes any issues with “double dipping”.

Dracula (1931) – Vampires. This whole trend of making pretty goth boys and girls into creatures of the night began with one movie back in 1931; Dracula. So knowing how I feel about vampire movies, would you think I blame Dracula for the insurgence of moronic blood-sucking tales? Hell no. This movie is a classic, kids.

The story is simple and has been told before, but what’s one more time, huh? The infamous Count Dracula brings a man to his castle in Transylvania for some real estate purposes, and ends up transforming him into his hapless servant, forcing him to eat bugs and just generally act creepy while keeping an eye on Drac during the day. They travel to England, where Drac takes up residence at the infamous Carfax Abbey for the sole purpose of finding some new veins to tap. Horror ensues.

Tod Browning finally got the chance to bring the incredibly well-received stage play made onto screens by his own hands in 1931, and couldn’t have cast it any better if he had tried, which apparently he had. Bela Lugosi is the one true Dracula and always will be, despite whatever kind of “updates” he may be given by modern culture. His thick accent and hypnotizing gaze have scared moviegoers for 70+ years, and even though the movie is considered incredibly tame by today’s standards, the impact Dracula has had on horror throughout the world is undeniable.

A brilliant performance by Dwight Frye as Renfield as well as the first Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan, rounds out the cast so well that it’s hard to imagine anyone would want to try and update the movie throughout the years. They have, with varying degrees of success, but it all comes back to the original Dracula every time, and for good reason; it’s a classic horror film that will really never fade away with time. Thanks to Universal’s excellent treatment of it on DVD, that statement will ring true for generations to come.

You have the option to watch the film with the original soundtrack, which features almost no music whatsoever (that’s in 2.0 Mono), or to watch it with Phillips Glass’ new score as performed by the Kronos Quartet. You want to talk about night and day?

It was re-released in theaters with the Kronos score a few years back, and I can only imagine how the fans went nuts over it. It really sounds like two different movies if you switch back and forth, and Glass’ score actually makes it seem a lot more modern. Amazing what music can do. The only issue I had with it is that it tends to be overbearing on the eardrums. There is almost literally not a frame of film without music in it, and it can be very distracting at times. Despite that I would highly recommend giving it a listen with the score, it really is like watching to for the first time.

The picture is clear, though the original print shows some minimal damage. I guess there’s only so much you can do with a film this old, and Universal definitely went above and beyond to make sure this looked as good as humanly possible.

The Spanish Version of Dracula (1931) – Filmed at night after the cast and crew of the American Dracula went home, this version actually uses the shooting script it it’s entirety (whereas Browning’s version seemed to take out bits here and there), and a lot more of the story is told. The cinematography is also top-notch, and far less static than it is in the American version. The real issue I had with it, and the reason I just can’t see it as better than the one we all know and love, is their choice of Dracula, Carlos Villarias. The man is just a big goof, plain and simple. Instead of subtle face movement and glaring stares like Bela Lugosi would use to incite dread, Villarias tried to make the vampire look more savage by making animal faces when he got angry, but it just comes off as comical most of the time. The fact that the Spanish Van Helsing looks almost exactly like Eugene Levy didn’t help me enjoy it anymore, either.

The sound on this is about the same as the American, though there’s no option to watch it with Glass’ score over it. It also looks about as good as Browning’s, except for at about the third reel (roughly 16 minutes into the film) there was some irreparable damage done to the print that just could not be fixed. It’s distracting, and it’s a very harsh change over from the clarity of the beginning, but it’s gone after about another 8 minutes, so it’s not like it ruins the entire film.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) – This is the kind of sequel I really like. It picks up literally seconds after the original Drac ended, with the body of Dracula being taken under police custody and Van Helsing being considered a murderer. He brings in the only man he thinks can help him, fellow doctor and former student Jeffrey Garth, who is taken away form a much-needed holiday to assist.

Soon the titular offspring shows up and starts causing all sorts of problems, and it’s up to Van Helsing and Garth to stop her before she kills again.

Honestly I could remember almost zilch about this movie since it’s been so many years since I’d seen it, and I’m really glad I got the chance to watch it again. This is a damn good sequel to Dracula, despite the absence of Bela Lugosi as the caped bloodsucker. The back and forth between Garth and his lovely assistant Janet is hilarious at times and gives the film a lighter mood (though sometimes too light) than the first one’s dark and brooding tone. My only real issue was the choice of Gloria Holden as Drac’s kid, her performance is a bit on the wooden side and she’s pretty unlikable from the get go. Other than that, good stuff.

The sound and picture are just fine, again a 2.0 mono and full frame presentation, respectively. This film seems to have been kept under better conditions than the first movie, as it shows virtually no print damage at all.

Son of Dracula (1943) – Now here was a bad idea. Just because Lon Chaney, Jr. did good as a werewolf does not mean he could pull off a vampire just as easily.

He’s probably the worst Count Dracula (or Count Alucard as he’s called for most of the beginning of the film…just spell it backwards and you’ll get it) I’ve ever seen. He carries over the whinny persona he had in the original Wolf Man, indeed in most of his films, and never comes across as scary or imposing at all.

This time the action is inexplicably moved to the U.S., where Count Alucard shows up to be the guest of honor at some rich people’s homes, the daughter of which has invited him because she knows he’s a vampire. You see, she’s a bit on the morbid side (as they point out from time to time in the movie) and wants to live forever. She gets a nice love triangle going between herself, her fiancée, and Alucard and soon all kinds of hell break loose. They make no effort to connect this tale in anyway to the first two Drac movies, but that’s the least of its problems.

One thing I will give it, though, the effects are pretty impressive for their time. They had finally gotten the bat-changing-into-vamp thing down, and most of the time Drac would travel as a mist that could creep under doorways and such. The smoke effects still look great, so kudos to the effects man on that film. I only hope he got jobs on better movies afterwards…

Picture and sound are great, almost no issues on either end.

House of Dracula (1945) – Much like the lackluster House of Frankenstein, this attempt to bring the classic monsters together is a very sloppy movie from start to finish.

First, a new Dracula shows up at the home of Dr. Edelman, famed for being able to cure strange diseases. Seems Drac is sick of being a vampire, though after his initial consultation he shows no other sign of it, still seducing women and drinking blood. Shortly after a distraught Larry Talbot shows up, despite having been killed a few times already, and he wants to be free of his lycanthropy. During one of his more desperate moments he jumps off a cliff, only for the doctor to repel down and find him in one of the underground caves. And who else should be down there? Why Frankenstein’s monster, of course!

After that is just gets more and more silly until it reaches the end and just…stops. That’s it. No follow up, no happy morning after…it’s just over. What an unceremonious way to end three horror franchises in one fell swoop. Luckily Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein came along a mere three years later.

Once again, no complaints on the sound or the picture, although I have to say the editing was questionable at times. But it looks and sounds great, even if it is a big monster turd.

So let’s take a look at the extras, shall we? Again on this disc we have Van Hesling director Stephen Sommers discussing the influences Dracula had on him when he was growing up and how he tried to incorporate more of the books’ vampire into the film as opposed to Lugosi’s version. Incidentally, if you watch the “Van Helsing Lowdown” special on the Sci Fi Channel, you’ll have seen the same thing as if you watch all three of Sommers discussions of the monsters (on this, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein), plus a little more. And I’m still not excited for the movie.

Luckily we then have “The Road To Dracula“, a documentary directed and written by David Skal about the making of the film. It’s very insightful and intelligent, just what you’d expect from the man who knows a bit of everything about Universal’s monsters. Hosted by Carla Laemmle, niece of Carl Laemmle, Jr., the producer of the original Dracula, it focuses on everything from the art exhibit done with the writings of Bram Stoker, to the differences between the English and Spanish versions of the film. People like Clive Barker and Skal himself show up from time to time to give their views on things, and overall it’s just a really well done look at one of the most popular horror movies of all time.

Feature wise there are just some trailers (oddly enough for all the re-issues of the films, not their original runs) and a poster art with Glass’ interpretation of the famous Dracula theme over it. That one clocks in at about 20 minutes and is actually pretty soothing to sit through.

Finally we have the commentary track by David J. Skal. Like the commentaries on the other two Legacy discs, this one is highly academic and very obviously scripted. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, with a film like this you want to make sure you don’t miss pointing anything of importance out, but it does make things move along a bit slower, despite Skal’s upbeat pacing.

But it’s informative and sometimes pretty funny, especially when he’s pointing out some obvious issues with Browning’s direction, or lack thereof. He’s also quick to tell you when there are scenes missing that were show in the Spanish version of the film, as well, and always has one interesting story or another to tell about the cast members.

Again, I have to reassert my love for the work Universal put forth in making these look (at least on the outside) as good as possible. The hard clamshell case that the two DVDs come in (yes, one’s a flipper) slides nicely inside the cardboard case, completing the scene you see on the front. Very stylish and classy.

Overalll this is a good collection of films, if nothing else for the first three in the set. Son and House are throwaways as far as I’m concerned, though completists will be happy to finally be able to add House to their collection. I would never not recommend someone get these films, they are classics not only in our beloved genre but in film as a whole, and should be seen by everyone that has anything even approaching a passion for both.

3 ½ out of 5

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Johnny Butane

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