“I am… Dracula.” Bela Lugosi’s iconic first, accent-driven lines in Universal’s initial talkie horror film set a tone for what the studio would be known for to this day. The Universal Monsters, their images, and their flair adorn all number of products. Audiences wouldn’t know the Frankenstein monster without Boris Karloff, and they wouldn’t know Dracula without Bela Lugosi.
Dracula – arguably – isn’t a classic. Ted Browning’s direction is flat, the camera often static during dry dialogue, and convenient pans will avoid anything technical as Dracula transforms. Scenes of mystery carry little to no intrigue, credited either to Lugosi’s steely stares or the scripting that leaves little off the lens.
Instead, Dracula is an icon. Universal’s interpretation lived on like all great monsters, this despite a sharp stake to the heart. Dracula was brooding, uneasy, and slithering about the screen as he stalks his prey. Mina (Helen Chandler) can only stare in awe under his power.
His minion, a radical Renfield (Dwight Frye) plays both sides, that of a cautious observer as a real estate salesman, and madman after he is bitten. Dracula’s overall plan isn’t inherently clear; he pokes Renfield, signs deeds for a new rundown home, and sets off for London. He probably liked the atmosphere, which is infectious via set design and extended sets crafted with stunning matte paintings.
London plays host to a knowledgeable Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), a stern man willing to stand up to the vampire master and his scheme. Much of the film is spent inside an psychiatric hospital as Renfield thirsts for any blood, and Van Helsing deciphers his need for insects. Intertwined is a clean romance, played to type for the 1930s with Chandler and monster player David Manners. The emotional connection feeds Lugosi’s Dracula, treating Mina as a pawn to lure in her fiance.
Dracula isn’t an elegant film. That is why the almost identical Spanish language side project has, over the years, taken the lead as a superior piece. The English edition does not take any risks, while the opposing piece has daring, with panning cameras and lurid wardrobe. What the Spanish film lacks though is Lugosi’s devilish charms. No matter the make-up effects and CG tossed onto the screen, the slithering, purposeful motion of the Hungarian-born star can never be topped.
Universal restores Dracula as part of their centennial anniversary, the film receiving clean-up and high resolution scan from a negative close to the original camera materials. Results are immediately stunning. Dracula’s opening credits carry a waving design to the bat logo behind the text, a small detail that was lost in previous home video incarnations. Sharpness, from the lettering to the contrast is spectacular.
Into the material, generous definition reveals a stout grain structure that dissolves naturally when sucked in by the encode. Nothing here appears questionable. Grain spikes can be fierce, especially with fog, but rarely does the image carry digital indicators. Only at the absolute peak are there any concerns of compression creeping into the frame.
For its age, the detail is nothing less than remarkable. Damage is meager, held to a few specks that slip in unnoticed within the grain structure. You’ll need to be seeking imperfections to find them. That leaves only the texture to appreciate, from Lugosi’s close-ups to the texture of clothing. Castle walls carry a distinctly damp quality, with cobwebs strung about and visible no matter camera distance.
In question is contrast, which tends to clip the darkest elements of the frame. With his cape covering him, Dracula carries little shadow detail. It’s lost to the depth. Opening shots during the day as Renfield enters the town have an especially dense contrast, brighter than before at home. Studio lights do a number on this one, although not to any glaring fault.
Focal issues will come and go. Actors faces will be blurred and a lens effect can circle backgrounds if you’re becoming comfortable with the level of definition on display. This is not an effect that’s hidden or caused by manipulation, but part of the source. It doesn’t detract and simply reflects an aged style of film making. Thankfully, Universal preserved that.
Restored to wonderful quality, the immediate impact with the video is shared with the audio. Themes bellow with highs and lows carrying little distortion. What remains is the type of age that cannot be compensated for further without losing fidelity.
Pure mono will drive this ancient mix, a DTS-HD presentation that captures all of the spooky sound effects. A mild hiss will be evident during the downtime (there is a lot of it), less so than prior releases. Clean up has brought out the dialogue while lessening the age artifacts. The impression it leaves is undoubtedly vintage (what else would you expect?), but natural. The arid dialogue stands out and carries over any other elements naturally. Great work.
Historian David J. Skal is on hand for commentary duties, a factual presentation that layers on the information within this Universal Monsters Essential Collection. Die-hards will know it all, newcomers will love it. If that’s not enough information, you can also turn on a pop-up fact track.
The Road to Dracula is an older piece from 1999 hosted by Carla Laemmle. It has a nice, TV-level quality to it. Lugosi: The Dark Prince focuses on the actor and his memorable appearances. Combined, those two features run about an hour.
Dracula: The Restoration shows Universal’s process as they brought the film to Blu-ray. Archives host all sorts of art, posters, and more. An alternate score by Phillip Glass fills in much of the dead air, but arguably dims the mood. Some trailers (SD) and the restored Spanish version are also on the disc.
Note: This review is based on the UK version of the disc. Contents (video, audio, extras) aside from the menus, are identical to the US release.