Monday, October 17, 2005

Dracula D.V.D. 2005

Warner Home Video's new DVD of DRACULA A.D. 1972 ($19.98), along with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960, included in Universal's recent HAMMER HORROR SERIES set), completes the availability on DVD of Hammer Films' saga of Count Dracula, as portrayed by Christopher Lee, challenged by Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing, and filmed between 1958 and 1974.

Here's my critical overview of this beloved (and much debated) series, followed by some notes on Warner's DRACULA A.D. 1972 disc in particular:

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958): It's not exactly Stoker-by-the-book, yet it has retained its power as a valid reinterpretation of Stoker for close to half-a-century. Paired together once again after Hammer's successful CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Cushing and Lee were poised here to make film history, and under the careful guidance of returning director Terence Fisher. The bloody surprise at the end of the main titles, the library scene, Jonathan Harker's entrapment in the crypt, the seduction of Lucy, the capture and staking of Lucy, and the action-packed finale -- Stanley Kubrick once said that all a film needed to succeed were five "non-submersibles," and this one has this many and more. One of the finest vampire films ever produced; everything that follows in the series was an attempt to recapture the magic found here. Warner Home Video's anamorphic DVD crops the original 1.66:1 framing, and wasn't mastered from the original Eastmancolor negative, or one of the eye-popping IB Technicolor 35mm positives originally circulated, so the definitive release remains to be seen.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960): Lee sat this one out, but Cushing returned to brandish his Holy weaponry against Baron Meinster (David Peel), a spoilt, blonde, pretty-boy vampire who became one of the undead by walking on the Wilde side with some "decadent" friends. Without Dracula overshadowing everything, Jimmy Sangster's script is free to explore other facets of vampirism, some of them creepy and transgressive, always with interesting results. The heroine, Yvonne Monlaur, doesn't work for me but her friend, played by Andree Melly, conveys a wickedness not equalled by any other female presence in the series. Not the equal of the original, but the best parts are every bit as scary and possibly even more flamboyant. Haven't watched Universal's HAMMER HORROR SERIES transfer yet -- sorry! (In 1960, Monarch Books published a sexed-up novelization of BRIDES written by Dean Owen. The vampire pictured on the cover painting looks more like Reed Hadley than David Peel!)

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965): Lee returned, but refused to speak in this third and last of the series directed by founder Terence Fisher, while no role was provided for Cushing. I find this one entertaining, even engrossing for much of the time, but ultimately a mixed-bag. The second half is a trifle meandering (Thorley Walters pops up as someone named Ludwig, who is Renfield in every other way) and the finale is uninspired, but the first half -- I believe -- may offer the very best filmmaking Hammer ever gave us. Fisher reaches out, pinches us by the nose and walks us through an amazing succession of suspenseful events, as two English couples on holiday are tricked into position at Castle Dracula to revive its absent Master. Thank God for Anchor Bay's DVD, which allowed this Techniscope film to be seen in its correct screen ratio after more than 30 years of pan&scanned TV airings. This needs to be reissued as an anamorphic disc.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1967): Freddie Francis, one of Britain's greatest cinematographers and a hit-and-miss director for Amicus, took over the direction of this gaudy, overdone but nevertheless diverting direct sequel to the preceding film. Best remembered as the debut of the radiant Hammer star Veronica Carlson and for the scene where Dracula, staked by an atheist, is thereby empowered to rip the stake from his own chest. There's a very nice Warner Home Video DVD of this.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969): Some fans are extremely fond of this entry, directed by newcomer Peter Sasdy, which documents how three Victorian families are destroyed by Dracula when the sensation-seeking fathers of the respective houses are involved in the death of his disciple. I like it too, but the pre-credits scene with Roy Kinnear is atrocious ("Dracula's b-b-b-blood!"), and so is Dracula's running scorecard of his conquests ("The first!" "The second!" etc) and the weak finale. It scores extra cojones points for a scene in which a man is staked by his own vampire daughter. Also from Warner Home Video, and also nice.

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970): Before this film, directed by Roy Ward Baker (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER), fans always had to endure long waits between Hammer Dracula movies, but this one followed TASTE close on its heels. Surprisingly, it doesn't pick up where the other left off, and begins with Dracula's ashes (curiously strewn about in a tower room inaccessible to outsiders) being reanimated by a blood-barfing bat. Some call this a return to HORROR OF DRACULA territory, but it's more like a nastier, grimmer HAS RISEN with appallingly cheap production values. Hammer's great art director Bernard Robinson had died by this point, and it showed. This is the one of two films in the series to get novelized (this time by Angus Hall) and I recommend SCARS as a much better read than a view. Despite the movie's shortcomings, it was brought to DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in splendid form, with a brilliant anamorphic transfer and audio commentary by Christopher Lee and Roy Ward Baker. After decades of trashing it in the press, they end their session by muttering that it's not as bad as all that, after all.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972): The success of AIP's COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) showed Hammer the way to resurrect their waning Dracula series -- bring him into modern day London. The trouble is, once he's resurrected, he never leaves the ancient derelict church where he's been revivied, so as far as he's concerned, the movie might as well take place in 1872, where the film's rousing pre-credits battle (reuniting Cushing and Lee) takes place. The younger characters look well into their twenties and talk like much younger kids from a different place and era, and their hilariously misconceived, tutti fruitti banter has led some to draw comparisons with BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Russ Meyer would surely have approved of the casting of Stephanie Beacham, whose voluptuous form is poured into a skin-tight white gown that no red-blooded male who saw this film in his teen years is likely to ever forget. Cushing is the designated driver here, giving an admirably well-modulated performance as Van Helsing's descendant. Caroline Munro gives her d├ęcolletage a bloodbath, Christopher Neame extends the definition of "over the top" as Johnny Alucard, and Bay Area rock group Stoneground funks up a posh party with "Alligator Man." See critical comments about the disc below.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1974): A.D. 1972 director Alan Gibson returned with this more dynamic and interesting sequel, which brings Cushing and Lee together one last time. The story concerns Van Helsing's race to prevent Dracula from unleash bubonic plague on the world, evidence of the immortal vampire's death wish. Directed with a lot of verve, the film is thankfully more soberly written than its predecessor and also jacks up the levels of sex (nudity, anyway) and violence. Anchor Bay has released the best version of this (now out of print), but it has also surfaced on a number of public domain labels (Front Row Features, Gotham Distribution, etc) under titles like THE RITES OF DRACULA and COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE priced at five to seven dollars.

As I was about to say before this list occurred to me, Warner Home Video's presentation of DRACULA A.D. 1972 is very welcome indeed, and the online reviews I've read have been unqualified raves. I, however, see it as a bit of a disappointment. I saw the film theatrically more than once and still have vivid memories of how ravishing it looked on the big screen. (The cameraman, Dick Bush, was a favorite of Ken Russell and also shot TOMMY, CRIMES OF PASSION and LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM.) The DVD, while pretty, doesn't capture the original's richness of color, and there are other hair-splitting problems as well.

The gripes start at the very first frame, where Warner has superimposed their current logo over the preliminary James Bernard "Dracula" theme, rather than the WB logo that appeared on the original prints, as seen here:

(No, "WB" does not stand for WatchBlog.)

Then, with the fade-in, the gripes continue. My concerns were immediate when I noticed, very plainly, that during the opening 1872 coach battle between Dracula and Van Helsing, the first Dracula whose face we see first is not Christopher Lee but his stunt man, hanging on to the outside of the runaway coach. The reason the stuntman is plainly visible is because someone forgot to lay on the pre-dawn tinting that accompanied the scene on the big screen, and which gave the sequence an added sense of urgency. Oddly enough, when Dracula's flashbacks to this earlier contretemps occur later in the film, the footage is correctly tinted. I'd always wondered what this scene would look like with that aquamarine tint stripped away, and now that I know, I'd like it back, please.

Correct tinting from flashback:

Too bright tinting from start of film:

Fortunately, I have the correct rendering on a Japanese laserdisc released by Warner, which I reviewed back in VW #20. In reviewing that disc, I referred to Bush's cinematography as "luminous," which isn't a word that comes to mind while watching this DVD. The DVD colors are okay but they've been digitally cooled, giving the movie the pastel, tepid look of... well, an Amicus film. The colors in A.D. 1972 should be ripe and warm, as they are in the accompanying trailer. Compare the skintones and you'll see what I mean. And the neon colors inside the Cavern bar should burn hot, as they certainly don't here. I was motivated by curiosity to the extent of switching around some wires in my home entertainment set-up and fire up my old laserdisc player and spin the disc, which is now 12 years old. The original WB logo and pre-dawn tinting are in place, you can't clearly see the stunt man's face in the opening shot, and the colors are indeed bolder. Unfortunately, the laserdisc is hardly definitive because its unmatted standard ratio framing dilutes the intended impact of 1.85:1 framing, which is dead perfect on the DVD, and the picture is often occluded with Japanese subtitles. The LD is also often a tad too dark and the image resolution hasn't the pinpoint clarity available to DVD. It is, however, mastered from an actual positive print and is thus a somewhat more accurate reference as to how the film originally looked.

Japanese laserdisc grab:

From Warner Home Video's DVD:

There's really no contest between these two grabs, especially when viewed on a computer screen (where my A.D. 1972 DVD looks great), but on a large screen set, you do lose a sense of the warmth of human skin and the full advantage of the film's lighting and art direction.

Something else to add to the "Pro" column concerning Warner's DVD is that it offers a complete presentation of the movie -- which never happened in US theaters. Approximately 10 seconds of gore footage have been restored to Dracula's demise, as a stake point comes... what's the correct word?... gooshing further, further, and further out his back. (Dracula almost always gets staked, so I don't count this as a spoiler.)

One last, little gripe: Fans who saw the movie in theaters here in the States are also bound to miss the "HorroRitual" exploitation leader that was shipped out at the head of Warners' 35mm prints during the picture's first run. This 5-minute short featured Barry Atwater ("Janos Skorzeny" of the original THE NIGHT STALKER) in blue-face, sitting up in his coffin and reciting along with audiences the "HorroRitual," apparently a prerequisite to joining the late Donald A. Reed's Count Dracula Society. (I can't remember if the audience were provided with recitation cards at the boxoffice, or if the words of the ritual were spelled out onscreen -- probably the latter, because I'm sure I would have kept the card had there been one.) It would be fun to see this again, as one of the last gasps of major studio ballyhoo; I understand it can be found among the various public domain clips found in the HS documentary HORROR TALK (1989).

Personal note to you Hammer collectors: If anyone out there is interested in my Japanese LD of DRACULA A.D. 1972, I'm prepared to part with it now -- feel free to click the "Contact Tim" option and make me an offer. The same goes for my Japanese discs of HORROR OF DRACULA and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. They were all priced at $49.98 when new, and their uniform packaging is eye-catching and not at all like the domestic releases. All three are in near-mint condition, having been played only once or twice each, and they're still in their original plastic sleeves with OBI banners. I'll field offers through Friday and get back to the high bidder. I accept VISA, MasterCard and PayPal.

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