DRACULA  [aka HORROR OF DRACULA]

Director:  Terence Fisher

Starring:  Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, John Van Eyssen, Michael Gough

The original Ė and best Ė of the Dracula films that Hammer Studios made during the fifties, sixties and seventies, 1958ís Dracula is only loosely based on Stokerís famous novel, although that still makes it one of the most faithful adaptations committed to celluloid.

Like all Hammer films, Dracula was created by a team of craftsmen, many of who spent their entire working life at the studio. Hammer had dabbled a little with science fiction and horror themes before Dracula (most notably with the filmís immediate predecessor, The Curse of Frankenstein), but to look at the film youíd think that theyíd been specialising in gothic romance for decades. The film is imbued with rich olde world ambience, thanks to the outstanding work of production designer Bernard Robinson. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would become genre icons, of course, but you can also see the seeds of Hammerís stock repertory company of accomplished character actors, like Charles Lloyd Pack and George Woodbridge, who also appear here. The film also features two actors who would rarely appear for Hammer, but who would nevertheless gain a solid reputation among fans of the genre: Geoffrey Bayldon and Michael Gough.

Director Terence Fisher manages to keep the film flowing smoothly with some surprisingly sophisticated camera set-ups and flourishes, all beautifully captured by Jack Asherís mournful Technicolor cinematography. Although they made dozens of similar films over the next couple of decades, Hammer never really recaptured the ethereal look of Dracula, (despite recycling many of the filmís set elements, props and costumes!)

No previous home video version of Dracula has been entirely satisfactory. The most recent UK VHS versions presented the filmís opening titles in letterbox format, but the rest of the film full-frame. (Like the DVD, the VHS versions carried the filmís Horror of Dracula title). The American NTSC laserdisc was better, but still dull and lifeless. The DVD transfer is remarkably good, especially considering the problems that Technicolor source materials often present. The DVD is presented in a widescreen ratio of 1.78:1, shaving a few percent from the top of the image, but adding considerable picture information to the sides, compared to the VHS and US laserdisc versions. The compositions are sometimes a little tight at the top of the frame, but generally the presentation is substantially improved. 

The higher resolution offered by DVD also helps greatly, picking out nuances and details that were simply fuzzy blurs on earlier copies. The greatest improvements have been made to the filmís colour. The VHS and laserdisc copies both favoured a drab autumnal colour balance. The new transfer takes the best qualities of the earlier versions, but adds much more blue to the mix (Jonathan Harkerís jacket is almost grey on the VHS version, whereas on the DVD itís a starling peacock blue). This boost adds considerably to the filmís atmosphere Ė in many shots thereís a hazy blue mist hanging in the air, which is practically invisible on the VHS versions. There are improvements, too, to the flesh-tones, and even surprising splashes of vibrant colour (the stained glass windows in Harkerís room, and the flags draped along the wall beside Draculaís staircase, for example). The new disc faithfully reproduces the best theatrical prints that have been shown in public over the last decade or so (the BFIís Century of Cinema version, and the fine BBC print shown at the Barbicanís Hammer season, for example).

If youíre familiar with the existing home video versions, youíll be amazed at the lack of print artefacts. The print isnít pristine, but the constant shower of dirt that is present throughout lengthy passages of the VHS version (the scene where Harker wakes up after being attacked by the Count, for example) has been almost entirely eliminated on the disc. Also missing are a couple of familiar moments of obvious print damage. The film appears to be uncut (certainly the shot of blood welling up as Van Helsingís stake penetrates one of his victims, missing from some versions of the film, is present here, as it has been for the most recent couple of UK VHS releases).

The mono audio (at 192kbps) is adequate, allowing James Bernardís monumental score room to permeate. There is some minor distortion, but no more than might reasonably be expected from a film of this era and provenance.

Warner Home Video has performed a minor miracle in restoring this film to something approaching perfection, for which we should be very grateful indeed, but the disc only has a battered theatrical trailer to support it, which borders on the criminal for a film of this importance. Even a simple presentation of the filmís original Dracula British title sequence would have been appreciated. There is no doubt that a licensee like Anchor Bay or Blue Underground would have moved heaven and earth to include a commentary track from the usually accommodating Christopher Lee, or some of the other surviving participants.

The film is available in the UK as part of the Hammer Horror Originals box set that also contains The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy, but can be purchased individually in the US. Itís unlikely, though, that the NTSC disc will capture the precise colour balance of the movie as well as the PAL transfer does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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