One aspect Universal Studios is best remembered and remains highly regarded for is their collection of monster features. Their immense impact and influence in the horror film genre is virtually irrefutable. More than any other movie production company, the studio has left an indelible mark in the cinema of horror, pretty much becoming synonymous with the genre and creating some of the most iconic figures in all the history of film. Who can deny the faces of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster or his Bride are not permanently etched into our collective memories when thinking of a scary movie or every year Halloween season rolls around. Even if you've never watched a single one of these films, you're already familiar with the names of the characters, their haunting images or the actors who portrayed them.
Universal's legacy dates are far back as the silent era when Carl Laemmle first founded the company, initially producing a variety of melodramas, westerns and serials. Thanks to the amazing work done by character actor Lon Chaney, the studio starting making a name for itself with horror hits 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925). Three years later, Carl passed the business down to his son Carl Laemmle Jr. on his 21st birthday, who quickly went to work on converting future production to include sound. He proved himself to nervous shareholders when the massively expensive war epic 'All Quiet on the Western Front' went on to become an Academy Award winner. It's during these years that company produced many prominent motion pictures which continue to be admired and are affectionately known as Universal Horror.
This review is part of our extensive coverage of 'Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection.'
This review is part of our extensive coverage of 'Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection.'
Based mostly on the 1927 Broadway play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, Tod Browning's 'Dracula' is a landmark motion picture in the cinema of horror, igniting moviegoers' love affair with a genre that remains highly-profitable. Largely responsible for turning Universal Studios into the vanguard production house of monsters and suspenseful chillers, the film also made producers aware of the effect of sensational publicity on box-office returns when rumors circulated of women in the audience fainting at the sight of Dracula's hypnotizing stare. Cherished as an icon of horror, especially with Bela Lugosi's performance now one of the most celebrated figures in movie history, its success during the Great Depression proved that audiences could enjoy, and perhaps even wanted, supernatural thrillers with themes on the occult and folklore.
The film's effect on American cinema is undeniable, not only for catapulting the horror genre from pulp fantasy to mainstream acceptability but also for changing the face of the vampire forever. Lugosi's Dracula is the first portrayal of a romanticized version of the mythical bloodsucker with suave, handsome appeal. Some of this is thanks to the filmmaking techniques of the silent era, which is where Browning's career largely spans. Lugosi's unique take on the character is of course important, but so is Browning's expeditious direction like the several memorable close-ups of Lugosi's sinister eyes. The movie also shows some sloppy editing and awkward continuity issues, which is said to come from a troubled production and Browning's own lack of interest. But whatever the case may be, 'Dracula' lives on as one of the granddaddies of horror cinema.
During the time of its production, sound in film ("talkies") was still a relatively new concept, and the idea of dubbing the dialogue into other languages did not become a reality until much later. So, it became common practice to shoot Spanish-language versions of the same film, using the same set and equipment. At night, when the English production ended their shift, a Mexican crew came in to film their take of the one of the most influential horror stories ever. Today, many of these alternate versions are assumed forever lost, but 'Drácula' has miraculously survived the ravages of time, believed to have been cared for by the producers because they preferred it over Browning's original. Over the decades, fans would come to agree with that sentiment, electing this version as stylistically superior with a better, darker atmosphere. And they would be correct.
Compared to its 75-minute English counterpart, the 104-minute Spanish production comes with a much-improved pace, smoother editing cuts and better-flowing, more coherent continuity. The cast & crew had the distinct pleasure of watching and reviewing the dailies from Browning's team, and set out each night to improve on their work, which they did with incredibly brilliance. The actors perfected the portrayals of their characters, except perhaps for Carlos Villarias who was strongly encouraged to imitate Lugosi rather than develop his own. Lupita Tovar's performance is the most apparent and dissimilar to Helen Chandler's Mina, particularly in the scene with Juan on the terrace. But the one area in which the film is superior is director George Melford's style and patience, using wider shots of the set pieces, displaying more creativity with the camera and simply taking longer shots overall. But in either case, both films are definite classics in their own right and make wonderful companion pieces.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings the 'Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection' to Blu-ray in an attractive and elegantly sturdy eight-disc box set. The package is a familiar one which opens much like a book with each shiny page showing poster artwork, a brief entry on the film and disc contents. Those same pages also serve as sleeves for each disc which slide out by placing some slight pressure to the top and bottom, widening the mouth only a little. The inside is smooth and glossy to prevent the discs from scratching.
All eight films are contained on separate Region Free, BD50 discs and found inside one of the pages, respective of the order in which they were theatrically released. The package comes with a 46-page book that features a lengthy essay by Universal Horrors author Tom Weaver, entitled "A Legacy in Horror." The rest is a collection of photos and artwork with interesting blurbs and trivia on each film, the filmmakers, the actors, and on the special effects and make-up work. The side-sliding slipcover is made of a hard cardboard material with beautiful artwork and lightly embossed. At startup, each disc goes straight to a main menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
Carefully and meticulously restored from the original nitrate camera negatives, Todd Browning's atmospheric classic arrives to Blu-ray with a stunningly beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. A fine layer of grain is faithfully preserved and consistent, giving the high-def presentation a film-like beauty devoted fans will appreciate. It's often shocking to see the amount of visible definition still available throughout, exposing wrinkles and pores on the faces of actors like Lugosi, Helen Chandler and Edward Van Sloan. With pitch-perfect and stable contrast, the image reveals every ghoulish detail of Dracula's castle, the ornate design of the Seward's interior and the textural fabric of the costumes. Black levels are lavishly rich with remarkable gradations in the grayscale, making shadows particularly deep and eerie.
The Spanish version received a similar renovation, and for the most part, the video presentation is on par with its English-speaking counterpart. Viewers can take in the sharp detailing in the hair, clothing and faces with Lupita Tovar looking especially lovely and glamorous. Contrast and brightness are balanced with immaculate precision while film grain remains intact throughout. On both films, softness is prevalent because it's likely inherent to the source, a result of the photography and period. But in the Spanish version, there is about ten to fifteen minutes early on where the picture suddenly loses its stunning beauty, and resolution takes a serious nosedive, filled with scratches and exposing lots of damage. This is the result of poorly-aged elements and is possibly the best that could be done in bringing this brilliant film back to its former glory. In either case, both presentations are absolutely lovely.
Like the video, the audio designs for both versions of the film were meticulously restored and remastered for this DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. According to interview footage found in the supplements of this disc, the mono tracks proved a difficult challenge and were carefully worked on without losing the integrity of the original design. On the whole, the results are brilliant although a bit of hissing and noise remains audible. Still, dialogue reproduction is superb and precise, taking excellent command and presence of the screen. The music and background atmospherics come in clear, providing the lossless mix a full-bodied and spacious imaging. Dynamic and acoustics are sharply-rendered with detailed highs and a shockingly impactful yet appropriate low-end. Whatever your preference of the two distinctly different versions, the hugely influential film sounds spectacular on Blu-ray.
Universal Studios' impact and influence in the cinema of horror is virtually irrefutable, responsible for popularizing the genre and for creating some of the most iconic figures in film history. Their indelible mark is fairly obvious and most felt every year around the Halloween season, and the faces of these monsters are permanently etched into our collective cultural memories when thinking of horror. They are a part of our lives, yet many have probably never even seen these classics all the way through. Now, they can be enjoyed on Blu-ray for the first time in this elegant eight-disc box set, featuring the main creatures often associated with Universal Horror. Each comes with excellent audio and video presentations, bringing these icons of the genre as close as possible to their former glory. And they have never looked as beautiful as they do here. Many of the supplements from previous special edition DVDs are preserved here as well, making this an exhaustive must-own for horror fans and cinephiles everywhere.
You can read more about the complete set and order it here!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.