Dracula (UK - DVD R2 | BD RB)
Chris takes an early look at the Blu-ray release of this classic Hammer feature
Dr. Van Helsing, investigating the death of his friend Jonathan Harker, concludes that Harker was the victim of a vampire. When
Harker's fiancée, Lucy, becomes affected by the terrifying force and hypnotic power of Count Dracula, Van Helsing releases her
tortured soul by driving a stake through her heart. But Dracula seeks revenge, targeting Lucy's beautiful sister-in-law, Mina. Van
Helsing, now aided by Mina’s husband Arthur, swears to exorcise this evil forever by confronting the vile and depraved Count
himself. (Taken from the PR.)
I'll go on record as saying that I'm not the world's biggest Hammer fan, but I do have fairly vivid memories of watching a number of their films on television with my grandparents as a child. I can clearly remember Christopher Lee's portrayal of the Dracula (and the busty maidens he seduced), along with Peter Cushing's Van Helsing (although I recognised him as the man from Star Wars). Those are fond memories, but I wouldn't say I was terribly scared by the film even back then so I certainly wasn't expecting to be chilled to the bone on this viewing. I wasn't, but even though the film takes numerous liberties with the source material I enjoyed the trip down memory lane more than I expected.
This release of Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) actually includes footage not seen in any previous home release of the film, or indeed seen in any form for decades. This so-called 'Japanese' footage was thought lost forever, but quite recently a Hammer enthusiast living and working in Japan managed to unearth the surviving film (reels one to five were destroyed in a fire) and this enabled the reinsertion of a couple of key sequences. This necessitated some slight audio changes that could annoy the purists, but the Blu-ray offers a choice between the new 2012 Hammer version and the 2007 BFI restoration so there's really no reason for anyone to get bent out of shape.
Dracula arrives on Blu-ray Disc in restored form and presented at 1.66:1 (1080/24p AVC). As I understand it there was a lot of controversy surrounding Hammer's previous release, The Curse of Frankenstein, specifically relating to the aspect ratio. Without getting into too much detail, Hammer decided that the film should be presented at 1.66:1, many people disagreed, and it all got a bit nasty. I don't think there will be any such issues with this presentation, as evidence exists to point to the intended aspect ratio being 1.66:1 and the film looks perfectly fine at this ratio.
As for the image itself, well it's not going to be winning any awards for best visuals, but from what I have gleaned from the accompanying bonus material it looks as though a reasonable job has been done given the age, limitations and overall condition of the source elements. There are some stabilisation issues, and detail isn't quite as good as I might have liked in some areas, but to be fair this is something that's as likely owing to the source as it is any technical deficiencies. The image is very clean though, which is all the more impressive when you watch the accompanying restoration featurette and realise just how many visual anomalies had to be repaired. It's not all rosy though - I mentioned earlier that aspect ratio shouldn't be the subject of controversy, but if the comments of numerous hardcore Hammer fans on various forums are anything to go by the same cannot be said of the colour palette.
As previously stated I'm not familiar with the film's theatrical run or its previous home incarnations, but neither am I one of those people who claims to remember exactly what a film looked like when I saw it theatrically a few weeks ago, never mind fifty years ago (after all, memory is notoriously unreliable). However, the colour grading of this release is undoubtedly different from previous DVD releases, and from footage of the film found in the supplemental features section of the disc. It's much colder, with plenty of blues in the night-time sequences, not to mention a darker overall appearance and flatter contrast. Now SD DVD is hardly known for its accurate colour reproduction, particularly for older releases, but even so it would appear that there is a certain degree of revisionism at play here. Taken on its own I still think the palette looks perfectly fine, but I can see how it might annoy people who remember things differently.
It's also worth mentioning that, despite the best efforts of the restoration team, the 'Japanese' footage is a of noticeably inferior quality to the rest of the picture. It's not terrible, but the level of detail and vibrancy of the colours just isn't on a par with the footage that surrounds it.
Don't go expecting a multi-channel surround mix here; the film is presented with its original mono soundtrack (encoded as LPCM 2.0 mono). Truth be told the film sounds every bit of its fifty plus years: dynamic range is limited, there's no low end to speak of, there is noise on the track, and dialogue sounds hollow. Of course all of these things are entirely consistent with a low-budget film of this era and as such I don't intend the previous sentence as a criticism, more an observation. I'd rather have a track that is faithful to the original audio than some reworked nightmare, even if the original audio is somewhat harsh. Caveats aside the track delivers clear dialogue that is well-balanced with James Bernard's atmospheric score and the other elements, which is all one can reasonably ask for.
As a Double Play release the set includes three discs, one Blu-ray containing the film and extras, and two DVDs with the feature and supplements spread across them. Here's what you can expect to find.
- Audio Commentary with Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby : This is a new commentary by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and author/critic Jonathan Rigby. Both participants speak with authority on the subject of the film and for someone like me, who is relatively unfamiliar with Hammer features, it proved to be very enlightening.
- Dracula Reborn: The Making of a Hammer Classic: This featurette concentrates on the film’s creation and history, and includes interviews with Jimmy Sangster, Jonathan Rigby, Marcus Hearn, Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss, and Janina Faye.
- Resurrecting Dracula: A very interesting featurette about the film’s restoration, incorporating the 2007 BFI restoration and the integration of the previously lost footage. It's quite technical and includes interviews with key restoration staff, along with footage from the world premiere screening with accompanying interviews with fans.
- The Demon Lover: Frayling on Dracula: This is a rather interesting featurette in which academic Frayling talks about the character's history, and how this film in particular changed people's perceptions of Dracula. He touches on the sexual undertones, which seem tame today but were positively racy in 1958.
- Censoring Dracula: This short featurette serves as a reminder that the BBFC weren't always as sensible as they are now by highlighting some of the original cuts ordered by Board. It's amazing what constituted 'obscene' fifty-odd years ago.
- Unrestored Japanese Reels 6-9: if you want to watch forty minutes of terribly scarred footage this should be your first port of call. Facetiousness aside, this is actually quite interesting from a historical standpoint, and also as a comparison with the cleaned-up footage.
- The World of Hammer Episode: Dracula and the Undead: This featurette, narrated by notorious booze-hound Oliver Reed, is basically a montage of clips from numerous Hammer vampire flicks.
- Janina Faye Reads Stoker: The actress read a passage from Stoker's original novel to an assembled audience.
- Gallery: A comprehensive stills gallery set to music and dialogue from the feature.
- Original Shooting Script (PDF)
- Booklet by Hammer archivist Robert J. E. Simpson (PDF)
The character of Dracula is a horror icon and this film is a genre classic, but rather than getting swept away by the narrative I found myself viewing it with a detached, almost chin-stroking appreciation. The problem is most certainly that I've grown up watching far more explicit horror films, and as a child of the seventies I don't really have a great deal of affinity for the rather stiff, buttoned-up delivery found in films of this era. Of course fans probably aren't concerned with my opinion of their beloved film, and simply want to know is whether the set is worthy of their money. Well in my opinion it is. Changes to the visuals aside, the film has never previously looked or sounded as good as this on a home format, and the assembled collection of bonus material is genuinely interesting. I know there will be some who find the cooler, darker look unacceptable on principal - and I'll defend their right to hold that opinion - but I still think the release has something to offer even the most indignant of fans.
* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Below are a couple of comparison images that illustrate the differences between the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film found in this set (unfortunately I did not have access to an older DVD release for comparison purposes). As you can see they aren't as obvious as some titles, but the Blu-ray does a much better job of resolving detail (look at the grain structure) and also of more accurately rendering colours. You really need to view at the images at full size to fully appreciate the differences.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 18th March 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: LPCM 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Featurettes, Japanese Reels, Gallery, DVD-Rom Content
Easter Egg: No
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen, Janina Faye
Length: 82 minutes
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