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Universal Studios has decided that a fantastic way to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of their 1931 Dracula would be to release a two-disc special edition as part of their Legacy Series. Previously, the beloved film was housed in the Dracula Legacy Collection, which annoyingly and disrespectfully crammed five films onto two discs with a decent but not impressive host of supplements. Don't let the use of the buzz-word Legacy for both release throw you off, the former was a blatant promotion for 2004's painful Van Helsing. The transfer for the original was the same as the edition that came before it, the initial release, which was at best, a let-down. It's time for redemption among your fans, Universal, what have you got to offer us?

Dracula
Feature
Honestly, how necessary is a plot rundown for this film? If you're unfamiliar with it enough to not know what it's about, I'd recommend seeing it and reading the novel because they're both top-notch works of celluloid and print. Rather than padding this review of plot synopsis and analysis which would probably be obvious for most, I'll simply pad it with endless praise—because that's all I have for Dracula.

This monumental classic is a film as important as it is well-made. It was an unforgettable beginning to a genre that has snowballed into what we know today as horror. I can think of no better way to gauge the film's success than to look around the vampire film and see its influence still at work today. The widow's peak, the hand gestures, the accent, the evil gaze—Lugosi defined this character and as an audience, we have yet to forget his definition.

The movie's success is surprising when you consider the odds it was up against during production. To start, the source material as remarkably well written by Bram Stoker was butchered near-unrecognizably for the stage play which was then further adapted into a movie script. The original lead for the Count, Lon Chaney, died during pre-production. The film itself had been rejected by the former studio head for years. Director Todd Browning chose for his film to have no musical score, something audiences coming out of the silent era came to expect with their motion pictures. Most interesting of all, it's been heavily rumored that lead Bela Lugosi had to learn his lines phonetically because he knew so little English. Despite all of this, audiences have and still embrace the film, an impressive feat.

Dracula
The single greatest asset the production had was of course Bela Lugosi in the title role. The lasting impression he left on the public consciousness is a testament to his powerful portrayal of Dracula. Despite some honourable attempts, I've yet to see a performance of the character that comes close to eclipsing Lugosi, his screen presence is a damn difficult one to match.

Visually, Dracula is sublime thanks to the masterful work of cinematographer Karl Freund. The German filmmaker had previously worked on influential silent films The Golem, The Last Laugh and Metropolis and would go on to direct Universal's The Mummy. Because the script for Dracula was derived from a play, it is staged in much the same way, leaving Freund will little room to work with visually. Still, he gets in enough tracking shots in the mostly static film to make a lasting impression. His frame composition is also worth mention, which frequently showed audiences the vast sets in all their epic glory. Dracula is arguably as much a success because of Lugosi as it is because of Freund.

Also included in this release is the Spanish version of Dracula, the existence of which is of peculiar interest. Rather than simply dubbing over English films, Universal Studios thought it a grand idea to have a Spanish crew make films at night on the same sets as their English counterparts. Technically included as a bonus feature, I respect the Spanish effort too much to have it reduced to a mere supplement.

Dracula
Mind-blowingly, the Spanish version manages to surpass its English counterpart in several areas. For one, the film has much better staging than the English version. These characters aren't bound by any sort of precedent set by the Spanish stage play as it doesn't exist, so they move around more than the English actors. Secondly, the cinematography is just as stunning as Freunds work, but in a much different way, it's a far more ambitious effort. Some of the attempted shots work very well and some of them don't, particularly when a crane is in use to scope out large set pieces. The technology just wasn't there to achieve some of the desired shots. More than just a novelty to English audiences, this is a very accomplished version of Dracula. Despite it's perks, it lacks Lugosi and therefore will always come in second to Browning's film in my eyes.

Video
Dracula is shown here in it's original fullscreen aspect ratio and sadly features a print dirtier than toilet water just as the previous edition did. This new remastered image does boast fewer film scratches and slightly better image clarity, but nothing worth the purchase price alone. The print is still chock-full of grain unfortunately. Perhaps I'm too hard on the video of Dracula? Some films just weren't meant to look pristine in shimmering digital quality as it would lessen if not destroy the intended effect and Dracula is probably one of those films. With a movie this dirty, the transfer really isn't that much of an improvement over its predecessor. Colour me disappointed. Strangely, the Spanish version looks considerably better than it's English counterpart. Go figure.

Audio
The feature has its original Mono soundtrack accompanying it. It sounds clean and conveys the film's audio adequately. As much as I respect Tod Browning's decision to make the film without music, I find the Phillip Glass score made several years back very enjoyable. If you choose to watch the film with the score, you'll still be able to hear the underlying dialogue just fine. The difference in audio qualities feels slightly odd at times, but one gets used to it quickly. It's my guess that Dracula isn't going to sound any better than this and that's okay. Job well done, Universal.

Dracula
Extras
The biggest attraction for me on this release was Universal Horror, a ninety-five minute salute to the early days of Universal's monster-ventures narrated by Kenneth Branagh (who interestingly played Victor Frankenstein in 1994). Starting with the pre-1931 film climate and ending with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, this is an absorbing look at a twenty-year span of Universal Studio's horror films. It features interviews with Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, Gloria Stuart and David Skal, Dracula expert. A first-rate supplement. Another supplement new to this release is 'Lugosi: The Dark Prince', an affectionate thirty-five minute look at the performers career and the role that he not only defined, but overshadowed his career until his death. A nicely produced supplement on all accounts.

The main feature comes with two commentaries, one that was included on the previous release by David Skal and a new track with Steve Haberman, screenwriter of Dracula: Dead and Loving It. I already knew the Skal commentary was golden, full of fun insight into the film, so I only listened to the Haberman track on this new release. Don't let his screenwriter title put you off, he's really quite personable and fun to listen to; he knows his stuff just as well as Skal. Two equally engaging commentaries.

Carried over from the previous edition is the thirty-five minute featurette 'The Road to Dracula', hosted by Carla Laemmle, who actually spoke the first words of the film. Featuring a host of interviews ranging from the knowledgeable David Skal to the always delightful Clive Barker, 'Road' is more about the source material as it was before Dracula than the film itself, which is okay as it's still a good watch.

The last supplement is a 'Monster Track' which plays factoids in creepy-font subtitles along with the movie. It's an entertaining feature full of fantastic information you won't find in the commentaries or documentaries. I do wish New Line would take a hint from Universal and try this approach with their Infinifilm tracks.

Dracula
Overall
If you've never gotten around to buying this landmark genre film, this is your time to do so. Wondering if it's worth the upgrade? I'm going to say probably not, as the only perks this edition has are the new supplements. The slightly improved technical presentation really doesn't warrant throwing out your old copy. Still, an enjoyable set that houses the film very nicely.


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