|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 December 1999|
Compare, for example, the scene in which Dr. Van Helsing shows the unsuspecting vampire a simple box that contains a mirror (in which Dracula cannot be seen, and so reveals his supernatural nature). Villarias slowly, unwillingly, turns his eyes toward the box; there's a shot of the mirror without his reflection; he smashes the box with his cane, glaring at the other people in the room. Although Lugosi had repeatedly played Dracula onstage by the time he made the movie, the mirror scene was not the same. His reaction has a kind of fresh, startling originality which still makes audiences jump today. When his Van Helsing opens the box, Lugosi looks at it immediately -- and in a flash smashes the box and steps back. It's a much more intense and spontaneous reaction than that of Villarias, and that much more valid.
Lugosi is excellent, still the definitive Dracula, despite all the competition. If the movie around him is a little creaky, that's not surprising -- it was made in 1931, after all -- but he's at the center, giving one of the most impressive performances in horror movie history. He was so good, in fact, that he basically typed himself, and was never able to escape the Dracula image, even though he played the Count on screen only once more. He was even buried in a spare Dracula cape. Much has been made of his typecasting, but just how much of a career would he have had if he hadn't made "Dracula"? He probably would have ended up a utility character actor, hauled out whenever a Hungarian accent was necessary. As a horror icon, at least he played the leads in many movies, which probably satisfied his ego at the time.
Nonetheless, having both these versions on one disc is terrific, and old-movie buffs and fans of horror movies have probably already bought this DVD.
As with the other "Classic Monsters" DVDs, this includes a documentary, "The Road to Dracula." One of the best of these little films, all produced and directed by David J. Skal, this is hosted by Carla Laemmle, whose uncle Carl ran Universal Studios in the 1920s and early 30s, and whose cousin Carl Jr. produced "Dracula" and the other early-30s Universal horror classics. But more importantly, Carla herself, now a spunky old lady, is in "Dracula;" she even has the first line in the film, riding on the coach with the doomed Renfield (Dwight Frye), who's bound for Castle Dracula.
The documentary includes brief interviews with a large number of horror movie experts and others, including Bela G. Lugosi, the son of Count Dracula himself. Also, the late Ivan Butler, who appeared in stage productions of "Dracula" even before the movie was made, Dwight D. Frye, son of Renfield, John Balderston, son of the screenwriter, and Richard Gordon, a close friend of Lugosi in his last days. Others include Rick Baker, Scott MacQueen, Gary Don Rhodes and Lupita Tovar, costar of the Spanish "Dracula."
Much of the documentary, and almost all of the alternate-track narration (by Skal) that accompanies the movie, recapitulates Skal's excellent book, Hollywood Gothic, focussing as much on how Stoker's novel slowly wound its way to the screen as on the making of the film itself. But there is plenty of the latter material, making this documentary and narration very much worthwhile. The only flaws, and they are slight, is that there is too much music underscoring the documentary, and that as a narrator, Skal sounds rather too much like an announcer for television commercials. It's hardly his fault, it's just that he has a delivery that's a shade too polished and professional.
The print of "Dracula" -- the Lugosi version -- is outstanding. While it hasn't quite been restored, the very best elements were found and digitally mastered for release on this exemplary disc. Even better is most of the Spanish "Dracula," since a nearly-pristine nitrate negative was found in the Universal vaults. One reel had been lost, but it was recovered by the intrepid Skal, who ventured into Cuba to retrieve the best version of the reel available. (Which, unfortunately, is none too good.)
Some of his conclusions are a bit shaky; others may find it difficulty spotting the anti-Semitism Skal claims is underlying Dracula's portrayal in Stoker's novel, or that the women represent prostitutes. Also, his (on-screen) claim that Count Dracula is most "media-friendly personality" in the history of fiction is very questionable (and obscure), with candidates like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Superman and Snoopy to contend with.
But those are just the legitimate sort of disagreements anyone can have with a researcher. The work itself is what counts, and Skal's work is always of a high order.
So is this DVD. If you've never seen "Dracula," this is the perfect opportunity. It isn't a great movie, it's dusty with age and the technique tends to creak much of the time. But it enshrines Lugosi's masterful performance, the print itself is outstanding, and it is genuinely a part of movie history.