Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

75 Years Young: Dracula

Universal is about to release new special editions of their seminal horror films, Dracula and Frankenstein, labeled as part of their "Legacy Collection" (as were the last versions they released three years ago to tie-in with that Van Helsing abomination).

These new editions feature the same sepia-toned "hardback" packaging of the studio's recent Double Indemnity set, plus a pretty fair collection of extra features. In fact, at first glance, these sets seem very impressive.

Until you realize that most of the "new" features are, in fact, old and recycled.

Let's take a look at the Dracula disc. Now, Dracula has been released twice by Universal before on DVD. The first edition featured the original 1931 Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi classic as well as the Spanish-language version shot at the same time. It also included an alternate musical score by Phillip Glass, a commentary track by David Skal, and a documentary, The Road to Dracula.

The second DVD edition of the movie, released as a Van Helsing tie-in, included all of the above, and was additionally packaged with several of the film's sequels and spin-offs: Dracula's Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula (which is actually part of the Frankenstein series, but let's not quibble).

This latest version includes all the above extras, but not the sequels. It also includes two additional documentaries (Lugosi: The Dark Prince and Universal Horrors), a new commentary track by Steve Haberman (whose credential is that he wrote the Mel Brooks spoof, Dracula: Dead and Loving It), and new "Monster Tracks" trivia subtitles (a feature I rather enjoy, actually).

Here's the thing, though: aside from the new commentary and trivia subtitles, everything else is recycled. Even the two "new" documentaries are old. The Dark Prince Lugosi biography has aired on A&E for the last several Halloweens, and has even been released on DVD before, as part of the Heroes of Horror set from Image Entertainment. The Universal Horrors doc is nearly ten years old and originally aired on TCM, where it has also reappeared every October.

The "digitally remastered" (a phrase that really doesn't mean anything – everything on DVD is "digitally remastered") transfer does not look noticeably improved over the previous editions, (and in the case of Frankenstein, the new disc actually looks darker and murkier than the earlier releases), and the sound is still hissy and shrill; it does not appear to have been cleaned up at all.

Apparently, a restoration effort on the scale of Warner's King Kong SE was too ambitious (expensive?) for Universal. And while the overall package isn't bad, the heavy recycling does strike me as a lazy way to assemble a Special Edition ("Hey, we should do an Anniversary disc! What can we get cheap?"). Still, if you don't own the previous editions of these movies, or the Heroes of Horror biography set, it might be worth picking up these new versions. The boxes are nice.

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