Every year as Halloween approaches I dig out my copies of the classic Universal Horror films and toss them in the DVD player. Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein and, of course, Dracula. It is sort of like visiting with old friends. In fact I have seen those films so many times and know them SO well that, over the last decade or so I have barely paid attention to them when making my annual visit. They were more like background noise than films I was actually invested in watching.
That is until THIS year! Universal has invested in a massive restoration project in celebration of their 100th anniversary and the Universal Horror Films have gotten a complete work over and a release in an eight disk BluRay package.
Naturally, being the model of fiscal restraint that I am, I bought it immediately despite the fact that I already own every release of these films since VHS! This package is not just a reissue of the recent DVD collections scanned for High Def. Each film was given a complete restoration beginning with an emulsion bath that repaired scratches and other visual artifacts. The films were scanned a frame at a time and corrected for contrast, film grain properly adjusted, sound cleaned up and editing restored to as close to original as possible. The result are films that are in fact better looking than when first released. Universal took great pains to preserve the creative intent of the directors and have succeeded admirably. In addition to the eight iconic films there are over twelve hours of extras, including several previously unreleased documentaries. Add in a very slick booklet that is a rather long essay on the Universal Horror years and we get a must own package for any serious film buff.
The collection kicks off with the 1931 version of Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring (of course) Bela Lugosi. The restoration process has removed all of the distractions, such as sound hiss, choppy camera cuts and muddy frames and allows the viewer to actually WATCH the movie. And what a wonderful movie it is. Actually what a wonderful PERFORMANCE it is. Dracula as a film is a pretty static restaging of the Broadway play, and as such is not nearly as much of a visual treat as the subsequent Universal hit, “Frankenstein”.
But you can’t take your eyes off of Lugosi. The legendary Hungarian actor established every important trope of the film vampire in that one 85 minute film. It was Lugosi, who made the Vampire a seductive, sexual figure.
Stoker wrote him as a soldier in the novel. Morneau presented the Vampire as a rat like parasite in Nosferatu. Chaney played a faux vampire with a row of shark like teeth in the lost “London After Midnight”.
In fact Vampires were anything BUT romantic. Lugosi changed that for all time with his portrayal of an urbane, well dressed and sexually charged predator. Look at the women he seduces. After he bites them, they look awfully happy about it! This portrayal of the Vampire as seducer persists to this day in shows like Angel, Buffy, and True Blood.
Decades of familiarity and satire have rendered Lugosi’s performance revered and at the same time over looked. He is STILL the image most people see when they hear the word Dracula. Ask anyone to talk like Dracula and they invariably imitate Bela , even if they have never seen the movie. This was a mixed blessing for the wonderful character actor as it closed far more doors than it opened. Unlike Karloff who enjoyed a long career filled with starring roles, Lugosi’s star began to wane at the very moment of his greatest triumph. That is because he was SO recognizable as the Count that studios did not believe audiences would accept him in any other role BUT Dracula. Karloff had the makeup of the monster to save him from that fate. Lugosi was completely recognizable as Dracula.
The sad thing was that audiences were perfectly willing to accept Lugosi in other roles. It was Universal and other studios that were short sighted. Critics lauded his turns in Black Cat, as Igor in Son Of Frankenstein, the lawgiver in island of Lost Souls and even the smallish role of Bela the Fortuneteller in The Wolfman. And anyone who has ever seen White Zombie has the image of Lugosi as “Murder” Legrande forever burned into their memory. Lugosi was a wonderful actor who always gave his all to any role, no matter how demeaning to him as an actor, because he felt that he owed that to his audience.
And he DID give us many wonderful performances. But even if all he gave us was his performance as Dracula, it would have been more than enough.
Check out Universal Classic Monsters the Essential Collection on BluRay if you get a chance. It’s well worth your time. I for one am looking forward to reacquainting myself with Karloff’s Monster tonight!