The Brides of Dracula Blu-ray Review
“Have you heard of the cult of the undead?”
Picture“Cor Blimey, Mister H! How many crosses do you want this time?We ain’t got no bladdy silver left! How about using some windmill sails, eh? They’d make a nice big cross.”
Well, let’s get one thing clear from the start. Brides, one of Hammer’s most beautifully lit and photographed productions, is yet another of the Studio’s films to hit hi-def in a transfer that will cause angst and annoyance amongst aficionados.
Previously seen on DVD – and a very fine one, at that – in a 1.66:1 presentation, this now appears to be much wider and coming in at 2.00:1 or thereabouts. That, in itself, is enough to put many purists off, but this still shouldn’t be the enough to warrant a total boycott. During this period, Hammer were regularly presenting their films at 1.66:1 – The Curse of the Werewolf, Dracula, The Mummy, The Mummy’s Shroud, The Gorgon, The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies, The Devil Rides Out and more – with both DOP Jack Asher and then Arthur Grant and Douglas Slocombe working wonders with the frame and providing incredible depth and lighting effects to give the image life and vibrancy despite often highly restricted sets and locations. The 2.00:1 composition had been used for Captain Clegg (aka Night Creatures) and The Phantom of the Opera, and lent something of a wider, richer and possibly more cinematic presentation. This 2.00:1 ratio is inexplicable. I can find no record of it ever being shown this way before. If it was, could it possibly have been a way of competing with Roger Corman’s sumptuously widescreen 2.35:1 Poe pictures, with both strands of the gothic spectrum offering full-blown and scintillating colour palettes that yawned across theatre screens?
Well, it is pure conjecture on my part because I cannot find any hard evidence as to why this has happened. Hammer, themselves, had nothing to do with this transfer and release, and nor did StudioCanal who have delivered some fine presentations for them, so they are not to blame. This is down to Universal and Final Cut.
Now, as you probably already know, this alteration for Brides has naturally caused some justified consternation.
When I first played the film, only watching a few select scenes and expecting the worst, I was surprised at how well the frame looked at this aspect. It added nothing silly at the extreme left and right of the image, the depth appeared the same – well, better, actually – the head-space and eye-lines and focal points all appeared to be correctly placed and maintaining a nicely cinematic spatiality. But then I hadn’t watched the entire film, and I certainly hadn’t had the opportunity to compare it to the original Universal DVD from the excellent Hammer Horror Franchise Collection.
But when you do compare the two images, there are inevitably a great many examples that reveal this different aspect just does not work. Some of the more crowded scenes, such as in the tavern, at the wake and in the school, can seem out of whack. Van Helsing’s first pursuit of the Baron through the great hall loses out because of the bottom edge lacking the vitality of the charging feet providing distance and impetus. One or two portrait shots of characters are oddly dropped from the central plane – chins vanishing from the frame etc. The coach coming into the town and the menfolk passing by are lower down in the image, making it seem uncomfortable.
Accouterments upon tables – such as glasses, decanters, bowls of soup – are either lost or rendered visually obsolete with the lower plane shifted. But, as far as I am concerned, these instances, whilst unmistakably obvious, are still not enough to become too detrimental to the overall viewing experience (at least to me) as some other people might find them to be. Maybe I am trying to make the most out of a bad situation, but certain scenes actually even looked better to me with this composition – and whether or not you agree, I will stand by such claims with what can only be taken as being a personal preference. Gina drawing the drapes really now shrinks her down when seen against them, making her all the more vulnerable. When the blaze starts up in the mill, the depth and width of the spread of the fire is more intense and more visually exciting. There is a shot of Van Helsing and Marianne in their coach framed by a huge over-arching and crooked tree – this is visually more impressive in the wider frame, more cramped in the 1.66:1, even if the full height and roots of the tree can be seen. Some of the baronial scenes, showing Marianne or Van Helsing wandering about those ornate corridors also seem to benefit from the framing that allows better visual appreciation of the sculptures and the set design that now elaborate upon the width of the place, as well as the depth that were accustomed to. Now, as I have already stated, I am attempting to make the best out of this. I would far rather that the original 1.66:1 had been retained … and can really see no reason why it hasn’t been.
Obviously, if Final Cut, or whoever it was that decided upon this aspect, had elected to put both ratios in the package, then we would have the choice and we’d all be a whole lot happier.
Another thing that bothered me was the increased grain – the very thing that I should be applauding most of all. In fact, it took me some time to get used to it. Thick, coarse and strongly resolved, it stipples the image like a layer of granite-dust, much more apparent than that seen on the DVD, which is positively smooth by comparison. It is genuine and one can only assume accurate, meaning that there hasn’t been any wrecking-spree DNR applied here. And then there are the super-enhanced haloes around certain characters and objects. WOW – these are lit up like nuclear force-fields and, once again, I found these to be very distracting whenever they occurred.
Yes, they are there in the original presentation too … the result of the lighting for the most part, though I wouldn’t rule out some sharpening, either … but they are exaggerated here to the point where characters, especially Van Helsing, positively seem to glow. But, to be fair, these instances are not too frequent, though I did find them glaring.
Now, there are plenty of plus points to all of this too.
The print used is in very reasonable shape. There are little pops and nicks dotted about, but nothing severe.
The colours are superbly rendered. The use of purples, lilacs and greens – something that Asher was particularly fond of decorating his set-ups with – are splendidly saturated and look either more spectral or just plain more inviting here. Have they been touched-up a little from their previous incarnation? Well, yes, I think they have been … but, once again, this is not problematic. They are deliberately unrealistic and stem from illogical sources and directions. This, of course, is all part of the dreamy style that Fisher and Asher were after, in film after film, but especially so here. Skin-tones are very definitely warmer than they appeared in the DVD, positively ruddy in some cases. And the pale visage of the vampirised Gina is distinctly more apparent now, with the delineation between the makeup and the more normal flesh much clearer. But this isn’t a problem either. Brides is supposed to be very colourful, garish in places and extremely picturesque. The palette presented here does that all right. Blacks, browns and greys are rendered with depth and fine enough separation to ensure that darker scenes do not just become murky. The muddy road, the inky, skeletal forest and the splashes of greenery amidst the cold and bleak exterior location work at Black Wood all look suitably earthy and moist. Shadow deployment is satisfying, and contrast, which is boosted slightly, copes well with the many transitions and lighting differentials. Midnight blues, another of Asher’s specialties, are suitably cool and lush. Look behind figures in open doorways that reveal the painted backdrop skies – lovely supernatural blues and purples, the image bruised with odd shadows and shades.
Thankfully, detail is not obscured by all this grain. There is much to discover in the tavern, and in the baronial estate, especially, from bottles and far-off tankards to object d’art, from wood, crumbling plaster and stone textures to the weave in clothing and upholstery. We can now see a little better, the wobbling bit of rubber wood at the end of the corpse-shaped tree trunk that Michael Ripper drags out of the way of his coach. Broaches, clasps, jewelry and medallions are also clearer. Optical shots look grainier and more obvious – but the matte-paintings and models actually fare pretty well. Our first glimpse of Castle Meinster is quite impressively staged – it is actually a more credible design than many of the medieval domains that Hammer would depict sitting atop mountains. Depth and dimensionality are also good. Considering the level of grain, which could have mired the instances of three-dimensionality, this aspect is well reflected. Close-ups of the Baron’s eyes are excellent, too. All red-ringed and stricken with livid red veins – not as insanely feral as Lee’s blazing contacts, but still very effective and nicely rendered here. They were in the DVD too, but this definitely has the edge.
So, at the end of the day, Hammer’s once immaculate look for Brides is not as ravishing as it should have been. There is much to commend in detail and fidelity, however aggrieved we may feel at losing some information from the lower portion of the frame. The positioning is certainly “off” but possibly not near as much as you might think, especially if you are coming to this film without much prior knowledge of how it should appear. But it is definitely off for some very noticeable moments and setups.
Another frustration for Hammer-fans to put up with. But, weighing it all up, I’m going with a 6.5 on this one. I would say it is better than the DVD in some major ways –colour and detail - but it is still a looming disappointment for devotees.
Sound“This is the Baron Meinster.”
“No, no… it's pronounced Meinster.”
The original mono is presented via 2-channel LPCM.
You know what to expect from a Hammer from this era. Thundering carriages, shrieking music – although the studio’s most renowned composer, James Bernard, was not in-attendance for this production – mildewed dialogue, the heavens roaring and a singular lack of subtlety.
There are no major problems with the audio track here. There have been some reports of synch-errors, but I experienced nothing worthy of mention. Speech can sound a tad artificial at times, owing to the looping and the lack of prominence in the mix, but everyone can be heard and understood. Hubbub in the tavern and during the wake is certainly okay, with the former of the subdued, almost subliminal level that does not interfere with the main speakers, and the latter, as I reported earlier, comically louder than you would have expected, given that only a curtain separated it from the quiet and empty bar-room we were in a second earlier. I thought that dialogue actually dipped a little bit lower than normal when VH and Marianne first arrive at the Lang Academy, but this doesn’t last for long.
Those thundering hooves and carriages are steadfastly raucous and have no problems instilling in you the sense of speed. There is no directionality, of course, but the effect is fine enough. When Van Helsing hammers a stake in, there is an appreciably weighty impact and a nice wooden clack. You know that Fisher was looking forward to delivering the goods in this department as he knew that audiences were salivating at the prospect of some good gory violence. The clanking of chains is also decently conveyed, and I like the little thud of the casket padlocks hitting the floor. There is actual thunder heard on occasion too, but this is deeper in the sound design and not as aggressively mounted as it is in other Hammer titles. I like the crashing of the windows as the Baron, off-screen, storms Marianne’s boudoir.
The score from Malcolm Williamson is actually a very good one. His style is very different from Bernard which, for once in a while, can be a blessed relief. There are still plenty of moments of shrill brass and slicing strings, but this is not a score that threatens to have the Devil coming round to tell you to keep it down. Which is precisely what happens with James Bernard! He delivers some shivering cymbal sustains though, and a wonderful organ motif of religious purging when Van Helsing drives a stake home and releases a vampire to eternal rest, and then purifies himself with Holy Water.
Can’t complain about the vintage audio. The lossless mix does its job.
ExtrasThis is a Double Play package featuring the film on BD and DVD. No booklet, but nice take on the original poster artwork, although re-coloured.
Final Cut don’t supply a commentary, which is a real shame, but they offer us a Stills Gallery, a Trailer, with a hugely abrupt ending, and one of the most bizarrely titled featurettes that I’ve come across.
Entitled Introduction and Making of The Brides of Dracula, this is not an introduction to the film itself which would have been a separate little piece in its own right, but is actually a specially filmed prologue featuring two graverobbers who stumble onto Dracula’s tomb. Hmmm. Nice idea. Bad execution and really just a silly little filler that is bolted onto the making-of. And the fact that they didn’t do something similar for their simultaneous release of Evil of Frankenstein only makes this segment even odder.
Now the retro behind-the-scenes is actually pretty decent. We’ve all seen this sort of thing on almost all the Hammer BDs so far – a half-hour look-back featuring contributions from historians and critics and the remaining cast and crew who could be obtained. Sadly, we don’t have the likes of Jonathan Rigby or Marcus Hearn here, but there is Hammer collector and know-it-all, Wayne Kinsey, another Hammer historian, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, star Yvonne Monlaur and a couple of others involved with the production and with anecdotes to tell, including Art Director Don Mingaye, sporting some lovely Wolverine muttonchops. Well, there is some good stuff here, as you would expect. Sangster is frank about the opinions regarding his scripts. Assistant Director Hugh Harlowe offers an amusing story about actress Martita Hunt and her untimely, semi-nude trance. Kinsey shows us the remains of that goofy bat again. We’ve seen it before in another one of these featurettes.
Nice, but would have liked more. A chat-track would have been much-appreciated. Or something about the transfer that may have given us some clues as to the aspect ratio.
VerdictFinal Cut deliver a classic Hammer horror in a compromised version that will have purists baring their fangs in fury.
But is it so totally the mangling that some people declare?
Ah, yes and no … quite frankly. I know that I can live with it and would certainly watch this edition again, but I also know that there are those will never take to it. There are definite issues with the aspect, but only relatively few shots that genuinely seem to be drastically affected by it. The wider image actually adds material and, in some elaborate instances, and to my own personal way of thinking, I must stress, bolsters the onscreen action. But there will always be the knowledge that elements are missing most overtly from the bottom edge of the frame, and that some images just don’t sit right as a result. I didn’t have a problem with the audio, and the making-of is decent, though the extras are not nearly as extensive as a film of this a caliber and fan-base deserve.
The film itself is a beauty, although I have to admit that, rather unexpectedly, I found the film’s missteps a little more jarring and obvious than I have ever found them to be previously. And this wasn’t just down to the disappointment over the aspect ratio. But the look and the style of the brooding mystery is still a winning combination of the English and the Italian gothic, combined into one dynamic and bloody broth. And it certainly deserved more respectful handling than it got from Final Cut.
But, at the end of the day, another Hammer Film has clawed its way on to Blu-ray, and we can always hope that it will, one day, receive better treatment and a finer release.
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