Dracula Blu-ray Review
Dracula is presented accurately in its original 1.66:1 ratio – for the first time on home video – and comes via an AVC encode. Over on their own site, the Hammer Blog carries a wealth of information about the transfer. They were clearly keen to satisfy fans who were less than enthralled by the look of their previous Curse of Frankenstein disc – although, to be honest, I was still quite pleased with the results. But they needed have worried because they have knocked it clear out of the graveyard for the Count with an image that, whilst hardly challenging newer titles or prestige prints like those for Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia, is still refreshingly detailed, beautifully composed and richly redolent and a glorious testament to a lot of celluloid sleuthing and respectful hard work.
Grain is present, although you have to understand that a fair amount of digital manipulation has been done in order to restore the image and remove the nicks and tears and pops of time, and the almost apocalyptic damage that blighted the Japanese footage, so don’t go assuming that the transfer should have been left unmolested. Yet despite all the work undertaken, the image itself retains an authentic texture that appears never less than cinematic and faithful, with grain finely resolved and consistent. The image is still quite flat in terms of depth, but some shots now appear more striking than ever. The opening glide by Dracula’s stone eagle; the cross thrust into Lucy’s face; Arthur moving through the mist beside the crypt and, later, being startled by the owl and branches wafting before him … and, best of all, Dracula’s bloody snarl looming in and filling the screen.
The most beautiful gothic horror film that Hammer ever released was 1960’s The Brides of Dracula. That has been promised a release on Blu later this year (alongside the silly but fun Evil of Frankenstein), and it will be the greatest test of the studio’s transfers (with The Curse of The Werewolf running a close second), but Fisher’s first fanged foray looks tremendous. Filmed in Eastman Colour and processed by Technicolor, the vibrancy of the film is now far more lavish than I have ever seen it appear previously. Some whingers may bemoan the fact that the restoration team had to fall back upon an element of guesswork to re-time the transfer with just the benefit of a check-print from the OCR, but I cannot truly believe that anybody could find anything to fault with the palette served-up here. And it is well worth considering that if you are basing your opinion as to how the film should look upon the way it appears on previous home video editions, then you are barking up the wrong tree – because those versions were not correct by a very wide margin. The attempt with this release was to go back as faithfully as possible to how Fisher and Asher shot their movie. Nothing is over-saturated and there is no leaning towards any particular end of the spectrum. The reds, as you would expect, are splendidly bright and the midnight blues and purples and green sperfectly displaying Jack Asher’s typically decorative frame composition and Bernard Robinson’s sublime art direction. Browns are earthier than before, which effortlessly lifts the picture from the wan and overcast murk it has so long occupied. Skin-tones are nicely balanced and totally reflective of the period in which they were filmed, as well as the various “looks” that characters have to possess – living and undead, rosy-cheeked with health or partially drained of blood. You can easily see the yellow stain of nicotine upon Cushing’s demonstrative index finger. The stained-glass windows are beautiful, and the variety of shades in the tavern, in Jonathan Harker’s room in the castle and in the Holmwood household, itself, make for some striking moments of screen splendour.
I’ve heard comments about a “blue tint” having been applied. Nope. There hasn’t. What you are seeing are the carefully colour-coded shots that have been created with lighting gels on the set. As a result, Lee is illuminated differently than we are used to seeing, giving him a colder, more ethereal cast, but this is still part of the original intention and not the interpretations of Warner’s US DVD or the TV broadcast versions, say.
There is much value and emphasis on shadows, and the black levels are consistently strong in this regard. They are not the deepest, nor the most luxurious – but they certainly do the job much better than previously, in which they have appeared sickly and lackluster, watering-down the atmospherics. Contrast is pretty much spot-on too. Watch for the little slivers of key-light photography that bolster eyes and faces and characters during certain sequences. They are captured and presented wisely, as are the flicking candles in the background, which now have more vitality and realism, and not so blurred as before.
The restoration grandly reinstates the original UK title of Dracula as opposed to Horror of Dracula, and the decorative red lettering looks suitably delicious.
Detail is as exacting and as precise as I had hoped. You can see more in the elaborate set-design – woodgrain, finer edges, more specific clarity on objects like paintings, clocks, lamps and books – and the deeper shots reveal more visual nuance in buildings, trees and landscape, and even the mist-enshrouded scene in which Arthur Holmwood investigates Lucy’s crypt. Close-ups are keen and sharp, particularly so when it comes to Phil Leakey’s and Roy Ashton’s little stick-on neck-nibbles, dripping fangs and blazing eyes. We can easily see the wonky lower front teeth on Lee. Naturally, the infamous face-ripping shot, as great as it is to see it, can appear a touch goofy. The flesh-shorn countenance always reminds me of the ghastly shot of Freddy Krueger when his face comes off in Nancy’s hand in the first and far superior Nightmare on Elm Street. And who doesn’t love those little yellow eyes fading out – now much clearer and more cleanly rendered in this transfer.
There are some people who have claimed that you cannot spot the seams between the old footage and the reinstated material from the Japanese Reels. That’s a rose-tinted view if ever there was one. Of course you can spot them. It would be pretty inconceivable to believe that you couldn’t. The damage to those elements was alarming, and the work that has been done to restore the frames must have been endlessly frustrating and exhausting even after the main process had eradicated the majority of the more overt problems. Dracula’s extended seduction of Mina shows a distinct change in contrast, clarity and detail, becoming brighter, softer and somewhat less distinct. But it is hardly a cause for concern. On the contrary, I think it adds a certain frisson of hidden delight. Then again, I am someone who scoured car boots sales and video library stock-rooms for banned and uncertified material during the Video Nasty era, and am extremely well used to seeing juicy snippets of forbidden fruit in all manner of decay.
There is no banding, no distracting noise and no edge enhancement. The image is smooth and the transfer, considering the age, pedigree and source material, is excellent.
This is a job well done.
You expect lots of banging and crashing and surging musical bombast from a Hammer film, and Lionsgate’s LPCM 2.0 mono track is certainly up to the task of reproducing the tempestuous hullabaloo that became a trademark of the studio and its Dracula series especially.
As I said earlier about the outstanding score from James Bernard, those dramatic tri-tones hit home with a powerful, nerve-jangling impact that has since become as iconic as the image of Christopher Lee’s feral, blood-dripping snarl. For my money, Bernard’s music for the Count peaked with his monumental and wonderfully lyrical score for Taste The Blood of Dracula, but he started the undead ballad right here for Hammer’s first vampire outing. Cannily, he kept the main motif for the bloodsucker right the way through all the films in the series that he worked on, even as far as The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires in which John Forbes-Robertson assumes the role in the bizarre prologue.His style is immediately recognisable and utterly compelling. Brass bellows and slides and his glorious strings whisper and slash, and it all sounds wonderful, if understandably dated. The score is the film’s, and the audio track’s most demonstrative element.
Subtleties aren’t exactly the order of the day. But the music-box jingle heard in the tavern is reproduced with crisp innocence, Miles Malleson’s undertaker playfully tapping on the lid of a coffin and the strangely pleasant sound of wooden stakes jostling together are nicely delicate touches that the mix does not impede. The opening and closing of diaries and the clicking of clasps on cases are also keenly observed. And that favourite of mine – the clacking of shoes upon tiled floors – is fully present and correct.
The hammering of stakes into hearts is strong and vivid, each pounding hammer-strike a heartstopper. Screams are another stock-in-trade for Hammer, and there are some fine ones here, most notably from Lucy Harker as Van Helsing rams his vengeful point home. The hooting of the owl that startles Arthur is also nicely projected. Thundering carriages roar out a weltering clatter of hooves and the terrific shearing of the border-barrier comes across with detailed vigour. When Lucy knocks a vase of garlic flowers to the floor of the bedroom, it shatters with a fine and loud report.
Dialogue is perfectly clear and clean-sounding, though undeniably muted in comparison with more modern sound designs. You’ve got Cushing’s clipped and portentous delivery – cold and soothing at the same time. There’s the noble brogue of Lee, with that curiously brittle quality that underpins it clearly audible in his few lines on this track. The effete and fey vocals of Michael Gough and John Van Eyssen are wince-worthy, but perfectly well presented. And little Janina Faye tugs at the heartstrings with her distressed explanation that she got lost whilst out walking with (dead) Aunt Lucy!
I noticed no sign of the audio being out-of-synch – an error that plagued the initial run of StudioCanal’s Dracula Prince of Darkness discs. There is some noise on the track, but this is part and parcel of the production’s vintage.
This is not a film that utilizes much in the way of ambience, so don’t expect the sound design to do anything clever or inspired. It is direct and forceful, and highly dependent upon the score to smack you about the head. Which is precisely how a rambunctious classic Hammer film should sound.
This is a fabulous package that Lionsgate have put together for Dracula. They delivered the goods for The Curse of Frankenstein and they have certainly equaled that in terms of quality.
We have the two versions of the film on BD, with most of the extras, and we have these two prints also to be found on their own DVD, with another SD disc housing the same extras plus text booklets in PDF. So all bases are covered.
The Commentary Track is another stellar effort from the winning double-act of Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby. I could listen to these two chattering away all day long and never get bored. In fact, I did just that on a recent Strike Day. I listened to them talk over Dracula, Frankenstein and the otherwise lousy Blood Beast Terror – they even made that lump of tedium entertaining – and I relished every minute of their informative, amusing and highly engrossing exchanges. Typically, here, they hit the ground running and, full of cheer and good humour, proceed to discuss every element that went into making this groundbreaking film. Their obsessive knowledge is a constant joy, but it is the way in which they are able to laugh at, as well as with the production that remains so enjoyable and inspiring. Poor Michael Gough gets some flack, as does the comedy shtick from the border official, but this is a wonderful exchange that I could listen to over and over.
Dracula Reborn is another sterling retrospective documentary that takes a highly detailed look at the making of the film and the era it sprang from, as well as how it considerably changed the face of Horror. The usual suspects all appear. We have Marcus Hearn, Jonathan Rigby, Mark Gatiss, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, composer and writer David Huckvale, Kim Newman and Janina Faye, who played Lucy’s potential supper in the movie. Anecdote, trivia and opinion all conspire to make you itch to watch not only the film again … but the half hour doc as well! I always think that Marcus Hearn looks very uncomfortable when the camera is on him, his speech becoming very monotone and guarded, unlike his commentaries. Being such a fan of film scores, I love the fact that we always get a special section devoted to the music in each of these Hammer films, but it always amuses me that whenever Huckvale plays an appropriate piece on his piano to illustrate the point he is making it sounds virtually nothing like the cue that Bernard used in the film.
Resurrecting Dracula allows us to see how the film was restored for its 2007 BFI revamp, with lots of technical information provided and a look at the processes utilised and the respect that was lavished upon the endeavour by all those involved. We also get to hear about the amazing quest that sought out and found the lost reels over in Japan, and how they were then reintegrated into the film for its Hammer 2012 restoration as seamlessly as possible. And then we see how the finished movie, in its now much more complete version, played to an audience at a special screening in 2012 at the Vault Festival, and hear some of the enthusiastic comments from those lucky enough to attend. Fabulous stuff, folks.
Censoring Dracula brings in Dennis Meikle to talk us through the trials and tribulations that Dracula received at the nervous hands of the BBFC. What they didn’t like the sound of at script stage, what they advised Fisher and Sangster and Carreras to do in order to lessen the damaging effect, and what they ultimately rejected once they had seen the film for themselves. Of particular note is the story about how one of the Board members’ wives overheard somebody in the hairdresser’s remarking upon how composer James Bernard had been instructed to make his music powerfully sexy and orgasmic for certain vampish seduction scenes … and how this throwaway incident came to have terrible consequences for the relationship between Hammer and the censors over the years to come. More fabulous stuff, folks.
The Demon Lover is yet more nectar for fans. Here, we have the ever-wonderful Sir Christopher Frayling giving us the benefit of his considerable opinion about the power and the importance of Dracula to British Cinema and the cinema of the fantastic in general. He talks us through the film and its themes with that typically keen sense of the fun-but-scholarly approach that we have witnessed in many other movie contributions he has made over the years. His conclusions are, as always, marvelously put across and utterly beguiling. This is another feature that many will watch and watch again.
All four surviving “Japanese Reels (6-9)" can be viewed in their unrestored form. Scratchy and worn, this is still a slice of authentic film history and covers a 34-minute stretch of the movie, almost all of the second half. Interestingly, the staking of Lucy is a horribly cut down version.
The World of Hammer: Dracula and the Undead is the worst feature on offer. To be blunt, I cannot stand this series of dull promotional guff, but I totally understand why they keep on appearing as extras on Hammer discs. And, for the sake of completeness, it is good that it is here. But … it is terrible.
Janina Faye returns to the vampiric fold and we get to see and hear her read a chapter from Bram Stoker’s novel to a rapt audience at the Vault Festival. This is nice and appropriately creepy. Watch with Mother was never like this.
We also get a fantastic Stills Gallery of 100 fully restored and rare images from the production, as well as the original Shooting Script and a booklet by Hammer Archivist Robert J.E. Simpson as PDF files found on the DVD Disc 2.
All of this is excellent and really worth your time and effort. The commentary, the mini-docs and the Frayling dissection are simply outstanding. As far as I am concerned, this selection is pretty much perfect. So … it gets a 10 out of 10!
Falling just short of a genre masterpiece, Dracula remains one of Hammer’s most shining gems and a perfect example of how the studio could provide a wonderfully streamlined adaptation of classic literature with outstanding production values, barnstorming performances, a ripe and powerful score, instinctive direction and a true willingness to push boundaries and spill new blood upon a theme that many had thought long-dead. British Gothic was born and baptised in Kensington Gore, and the world would never be the same again.
The inclusion now of the long-thought-lost footage from the Japanese Reels enables Terence Fisher’s classic chiller to regain its original dramatic impact and the story gains a greater momentum and becomes all the more disturbing and thrilling as a result. The restoration is simply glorious, and the transfer from Lionsgate is bound to impress. The icing on the bloody cake is to be found in the lavish roster of supplements that, together, really go the distance and provide sumptuous information and entertainment that really does strengthen your enjoyment of the film and the studio that brought it to life. Two versions of the film –although I suspect that we will all be sticking with the 2012 restoration – and the entire run of the surviving Japanese reels give us all angles on this unique undertaking.
Cushing and Lee excel, of course, but the ladies all acquit themselves with considerable style and gusto, especially Valerie Gaunt and Carol Marsh, who are both seductively sinister and memorable as the genre’s first actually fanged vixens.
Hammer created icons and became justifiably legendary. There are still many more dark treasures to be awoken from their tombs and awarded a new hi-def lease of life. But, for now, revel in one of their most influential and most highly cherished.
A true classic gets the Blu-ray it deserved and that fans hoped for. Very highly recommended.
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